My road trip to Marfa Texas is a trip I will never forget. My dear friend and colleague Lisa Colgin and I started talking about this adventure about six months beforehand. Lisa is born and raised in Dallas, Texas but had never visited the elusive and curious town of Marfa with it’s population of roughly 2,000+. On a work trip to Dallas to review some projects I’ve been building out with Lisa, we got to talking about this eclectic little town, the iconic Prada “store” art installation in the middle of nowhere Texas, which I had read about it in Vogue. It was on my photo bucket list for sure. Search #marfa on Instagram you will find nearly a quarter of a million social posts of images will make you feel like you fell down the jackrabbit hole of the desert and your eyes will feast on capture moments by fashion bloggers, artisans, art enthusiasts, tourists, and locals.
Secret number one: Lisa and I met at the El Paso airport, hopped in a rental and headed south, along the Mexican border for about three hours. You will go through border patrol despite the fact you aren’t crossing the border. Now it’s not like we were packing heat or drugs or anything weird (besides my Golden Girls and Snoop Dogg themed Mad Libs books and Sex & the City Road Trip trivia deck), but for some reason this really flipped me out. I hadn’t packed my passport and K9 dogs have always freaked me out. And I LOVE dogs! Just not the ones that are capable of chewing my leg off. Honestly, it was rather uneventful once we got through the long line, with the AC on full blast, admiring the handsome military men with their tan faces masked mostly by their reflective aviators. I do wish I had recorded a video of Lisa asking them if she could go, them saying no, and her driving forward anyway, repeatedly, inch by inch, over and over again until she finally heard them say NO over the loudest of our cackling giggles.
Secret number two is something both Lisa and I wish would we have known before we went and were shocked given all of the research we had both done, that this little tip hadn’t made it on our travel to-do list. Remember the “Love Locks” of Paris? (well, before they were taken down that is) There is a fence made of wires that surrounds the Prada Marfa art installation where you can lock your wishes away or lock up memories you no longer want to carry with you in the middle of nowhere Texas. (I might reference this phrase a few times in this post to really drive home the fact WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE TEXAS!) This was out first photo op stop and we couldn’t believe we didn’t know about the locks. We spent the rest of the trip looking for places to purchase a lock and find things to decorate it with. If we had known AHEAD OF TIME to bring a lock that we decorated at home, it would have been so much more meaningful. I for one would have spent hours painting a teeny tiny Space Needle on the biggest lock I could find. For about 5 minutes we discussed quitting our jobs and opening up a lock shop in Marfa that just sells a variety of locks with an area to decorate your own. You know, like one of those paint and sip places, but swap out painting with lock decorating. We would have called it “Get Locked”.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber #travelquotes
Secret number three: do research ahead of time and figure out what the best place is to stay that fits your personal needs (and personality). There were actually many options to choose from that provided a variety of different experiences. Have you always wanted to sleep in a Teepee, a yurt, or perhaps an old Airstream? Then El Cosmico is the place for you. This is the kind of place for you adventurous outdoorsy people that don’t require A/C or your own private (indoor) bathroom. I do still recommend swinging by and checking it out even if you don’t stay there. The gift shop has many interesting finds, including a smoking Jesus piece that I was fascinated by, and you can still get your instagram shots on their grounds without the commitment of glamping.
We looked at a few other spots as well. We really debated about splurging on Hotel Saint George, which seemed like the swankiest spot in town and offered a dazzling pool oasis. Hotel Paisano really had that old Hollywood Glam feel to it. The Thunderbird motel had a specific attitude on it’s website that spoke to my inner snarky-self. “We’re open when we’re open” and “Book now or don’t”. But then they lost me at “No TVs. Read a book.” Now I always have my nose in a book, but don’t threaten me with no TV. I may never turn it on the entire weekend, but I like to know it’s there. My friend Lisa really did most of the research and we finally settled on The Lincoln Boutique Hotel. It was rental love at first sight.
“It was rental love at first sight.”
105 WEST LINCOLN STREET originally started out as stables for the iconic Presidio County courthouse in the 1890s. THE LINCOLN is now a courtyard-compound consisting of long-term rentals and overnight suites (one of them a bomb shelter added in the 1950s). Each of the eclectic suites has been lovingly restored with respect to the history of the building and Marfa-inspired custom details. No two spaces (or experiences) on the property are alike. We loved every single thing about this place. The yellow pay phone played “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift every time you picked up the receiver. To be sure, I picked up the receiver every single time I walked passed it just to make sure. (I walked passed it many, many times over our four day stay)
Secret number four (that’s not so secret): The Marfa Lights—or Marfa Mystery Lights, as some call them—are a top reason to visit Marfa, drawing visitors from around the globe for a chance to see these unexplained phenomena. Accounts of the strange spectacle just east of Marfa began during the 19th century and continue to this day. Lisa and I were optimistic and determined that we were going to see the mystery lights, even if that meant sitting outside every night at the dedicated viewing location to see them. Tips are to head out at sunset and wear layers. It cools down quite a bit in the evening and the wind can really get going. If you have access to camping chairs or a big blanket, I’d recommend bringing that along. Prepare to be patient while eavesdropping on the other alien seeking visitors around you as they whisper stories they’ve heard or point out “Was that one?!” or “What was that?” Did we see them? We know we saw something a few different times. If I had to describe it, it was like Tinkerbell and her friends were throwing their own version of Coachella in the middle of the desert and we were watching it from miles away.
Secret number five: Try eating a cactus. Stellina Marfa is a small restaurant wine bar that is open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30pm until 9:30pm or until they run out of food. They don’t take reservations, as it’s first come first serve.
It’s not secret you are a lover of the arts if you are going to make the trek to Marfa. This little town is full of galleries that open and close when they feel like it. For a full list you’ll want to check out the Visit Marfa “Art in Marfa” section. On our to-do list was to visit The Chinati Foundation. Lisa had already booked our walking tour of the entire collection online. We were lathered up in sunscreen with full batteries on our camera phones and fresh bottles of water as we eagerly entered the property ready for our tour. Secret number six: They will not allow you to take photos on the walking tour of the full collection. Gasp! If we can’t photograph it, did it even really happen? Our faces fell as we looked at each other, um what? We did learn that there was a free, smaller self-guided walking tour that we could take pictures on. After scanning the gift shop, we decided that we might as well do that version since we were there before we hopped back into our air conditioned rental to continue our adventure.
Secret number seven: You can basically see everything in Marfa in one day. We started our Saturday morning at Do Your Thing, a coffee breakfast spot that is built on an old lumber yard. The avocado toast was divine and eclectic magazine collection proved worth of paging through while we sipped our iced coffees and thanked our lucky stars we got there just before the morning rush. I’ve never met a gift shop I didn’t like. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely true. Some of my favorite places that I think you won’t want to miss in Marfa include the Moonlight Gem Store, Marfa Brand Soap, the Marfa Book Company, The Gift Shop at Hotel Paisano, The Get Go, Freda, and the Wrong Store.
Secret number eight: Get out of town! Jump back into your rental, turn on your favorite road-trip playlist, load up on snacks from The Get Go and head towards Alpine, Texas. The saying goes “You’re in Far West Texas, but far from stranded.” This is the bustling town at the center of everything Big Bend. Alpine is an adorable little town in the desert where you’ll find the perfect spot for an afternoon coffee break, plenty of unique shopping spots, street art, and dining. Plus, if you plan on trying to find the “World’s Smallest Target” in Marathon, Texas, you’ll have to pass through Alpine anyway to get there. Make the stop, you’ll be glad you did. (PS one of the gift shops in this store sells locks as a fundraiser. YES! Now we can leave our lock on the way out of Marfa at the end of the trip.)
Secret number nine: Go to a star party!!!!! Enjoy night sky constellation tours and views of celestial objects through a number of telescopes in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evening at the McDonald Observatory. Their programs include daily tours of the large research telescopes, Star Parties under some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States, and Special Viewing Nights on some of the largest telescopes in the world routinely available for public observational programs. BUY YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE! This is a sell-out activity. Make sure to download the Star Walk 2 app before you go. Dress is layers and wear comfy shoes.
Secret number ten: Watch the movie Giant before you go. Back in the day, before all of the artisan hipsters and fashion bloggers showed up, Marfa was best known for the Marfa Lights and the film location for James Dean’s final picture, Giant, with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. You can read all about how this newly added art installation ended up in Marfa here.
Unfortunately, I got food poisoning on this trip (brussel sprouts pizza at the restaurant inside Hotel Saint George before the star party) and lost the entire third day of the trip. I’ll spare you the details of our ride home from the star party. Our plans for day three would have included checking out Balmorhea State Park which features one of the world’s largest spring-fed pools, with water so crystal clear you’ll want to bring your snorkeling gear to experience the underwater world below. Lisa had even gone to the store and loaded us up with pool noodles and beach towels while I tried to rally. We did learn you want to get there very early because once they hit the limit of allowed guests for the day, you can’t get in. Instead, we took an afternoon drive around Big Bend National Park. Lisa drove as I nibbled on saltines and slowly sipped my water. I’m a ride or die chick and I refused to let the food poisoning ruin our girls trip. I vaguely remember us stopping in Terlingua, a ghost town in the literal middle of nowhere of Big Bend National Park. I ended day three back at The Lincoln, wrapped up in a Pendleton blanket watching Netflix. (which is exactly why you should never stay at a hotel without a TV!)
As we packed up our bags on day four to head back to El Paso and catch our flights back to Dallas and Seattle, Lisa and I took time to decorate the locks we found in Alpine with stickers and metallic ink pens Lisa found at The Get Go. Over the weekend we talked about baggage we’d been carrying for years and our plans to leave some of our ghosts from our past locked on that wire fence around the Prada “store”. (naturally my ghosts appreciate high end brands like Prada)
In my mind, this was basically my Texas version of a Carrie Bradshaw moment as I locked my decorated “AB” locks to that rusty wired fence and released some heavy memories I no longer wanted to carry with me. Traveling is just one way I get in touch with my inner self. I find it easier to soul search when I’m in an environment I’ve never been in before. As we got back in our rental to head back to El Paso for our flights home, I knew that Marfa had changed me in a small way. (And I’m not just talking about the food poisoning) And while I don’t know if I’ll ever visit Marfa again, I am 100% glad that this one got checked off on the good old travel bucket list. That yellow pay phone outside of the Lincoln came with some very wise advice from Taylor Swift. Sometimes you do really just need to “Shake It Off”.
BONUS SECRET! If you find yourself back in El Paso with time to kill because your flight gets delayed and you appreciate good street art, there a some interesting pieces to hunt down via local blogs. Here are a few that we found.