Make it to Marfa

IH-10 and on… and on…

Friday evening I wasted no time after work to go back home and load up my car for this trip I am calling Texas Odyssey III. I have been doing Texas road trips since 2015, one weekend day or holiday weekend. Odysseys are about more intense. I first made one in March 2015 with a simple digital camera and went to Corpus, and then the next day all the way down to the valley to Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville, South Padre, and then back to Corpus that evening before visiting Padre Island, Mustang Island, Rockport, Port Aransas and back to San Antonio Sunday night. A LOT of miles and places in little more then two days. I want to visit the coast again in a slower fashion in the near future.

The Second Odyssey was to Del Rio, while not as many miles and cities to see it was a full weekend and more photography was done, both along the dam/lake as well as my first real solo adventure out in Texas wilderness to Devil’s River Natural Area.

While I have done other multi-day trips in Texas, I only call them Odysseus as they were not the intense tone and single-mission focused on travel discovery or photography like these other trips are. In a perfect world, these trips would be like a week-long, crapping so much in two days is not ideal, but the only way I have at the moment to do my #TexasEdgeToEdge project. Future trips will include Dallas, Houston/Gulf Coast, Lubbock, etc.

Interstate Highway goes from Los Angeles, California to Jacksonville in Florida by way of all the lower states in between. I have taken “the 10” to Houston and even New Orleans, Louisiana, but this was the longest I was going to go West.

I REALLY want to visit El Paso, Texas, some of the nicest people I have ever met in Texas all say they hail from or have family back in El Paso, I need to see what is in the water to make all these amazing people.

For this trip, I did more planning beforehand. I planned to hit the western Big Bend area that I did not make it to when I went to the Del Rio area down Highway 90 a few years back.

The town of Marfa had hit my radar the last few years researching Texas landmarks, The Prada store, and the artsy-focused western town made it onto my places to see.

I drove late into the night for what seemed like an eternity (5+ hours), though I did make a stop in Junction, Texas to try to get some sunset pics with their steal bridge. The highway hotels in Fort Stockton seemed very inviting at midnight Friday, but I pushed on a bit more (30-40 mins) to my planned stop in Balmorhea. I chose Balmorhea as it is the junction between IH-10 and Hwy 17. Motels there did not seem to have night clerks so I just crashed out in my car at the highway gas station/truck stop. the humming of diesel trucks and refrigerator truck generators put me fast asleep.

I set my phone alarm for 6 am as I wanted to get the first light and use the sunrise in shots. If I check into a hotel and pay money for lodging it is too easy to sleep in, I want to take advantage of the free coffee and breakfast and subsequently miss the morning golden hour. Morning sunrises in the desert were ALL I wanted to do on this trip, free from buildings, powerlines, and obstacles found in my normal big city life photography.

Both sunrises on this trip did not disappoint! Well worth a few hours sleep in the passenger seat of my sedan.

State Highway 17 to Fort Davis

A few years ago I got to do a bucket list trip up the California coast highway 1 (and part of (101) in a convertible, one of the most known cool and visually stunning landscape trips in the world, especially around Big Sur. Highway 17 is the closest to that same stunning nature that I have seen to date in Texas. I was thankful that I did not try to get to Marfa in the dark the night before as I would have missed all this stunning landscape.

We had a glorious desert sunrise. I think I must have stopped and taken photos about every mile, every hill I went over was like a western storybook, and mountain ranges changed with new perspectives as I went around them and the morning light hit them from the east. This road is basically north/south so there was natural light hitting the western face of the mountains all morning.

Google’s geographical view shows the mountainous terrain of this route.

If there was one place you could be transported to experience Texas western postcard nature on a public road, to me it would have to be this 40 mile stretch of Highway 17 from Balmorhea to Fort Davis. Particularly amazing at sunrise!

Justin Wideman

At one point in my stopping to shoot some horses that were on an elevated cliff face came down to the road fence to see what I was doing, they were not “wild horses”, but we free-roaming on private land, as most land is here in Texas outside of state or national parks.

Ft. Davis Natural Park and Davis Mountain

To be honest I did not really research anything on Fort Davis like things to do and see ahead of this drive. I had seen the google topographic maps and know it was mountainous, but kind of focused on Marfa. Both the fort state park and the town were nice surprises. I just planned to take a few pics of Fort Davis Park but was in a groove and ended up walking all around and all the way up the hill like a jackrabbit taking 100’s of images.

The vista at the top of Mount Davis of the vast plains is worth the walk up. The trail is not for the weak or elderly, as it is not disabled-friendly in the least. A mix of primitive railings that look mostly like 1″ steel water pipes and chicken wire that might have been up to safety codes in the 1930s is installed on some very steep parts and as safety at the top observation deck. Some parts are very narrow and short, steep “goat trails” that were tough even for a big man like myself. The mountain range is very beautiful, rock faces are great and Texas vegetation and wildflowers made the hike up and down worth it. I am glad I did not try to bring a camera bag and a tripod though, just one camera/lens was all I took for this walkaround of the base and hike. I wanted to get down before the morning sun got fully hot on this August morning that was cloudless by this time. There are a number of trails along the ridge that other people were hiking.

I did the most direct one so I could take pics from the top and went down, my whirlwind walking, pics, and moving on is my way. Others with a family or motorhome would enjoy and see much more of this park or make a whole day of it. My mindset was I might never be here again so I want to see as much as I can and I would not want to think I did not get shots because I was lazy to go up a rocky trail. I got my exercise that morning!

Ft. Davis, Texas

The town was my first look at this type of western Texas town in this area. Lots of high-end trucks and SUV’s but nothing to spend or make money from, no retail or industry for hundreds of miles, perhaps ranching or mineral rights. One little local car fix shop and some old-style hotels. Being August 2020 and Texas high in COVID-era spread I walked into one shop (masked) that turned out to be converted into a diner and felt out of place so continued on my trip and make it to Marfa, then get lunch there.

I then continued to Marfa down hwy 17 with the landscape being much flatter than the first part of this drive. I got to Marfa and drove through it. I got lost a little trying to find the hwy 90 as I wanted to go to Valentine (PRADA) before high noon and harsh shadows on images of the famed Prada building. Valentine, Texas was the farthest west I planned to go so I wanted to do that first and then track back to Marfa for discovery, and lunch.

Little Reata (Giant film location)

I never really saw the 1956 film properly, but saw parts of it playing a while back when I was in New Orleans playing in the hotel lobby while I was in the cocktail lounge having drinks. It seemed to be going on forever (over 4 hours). This movie helped put Marfa on the map. They filmed for a month on two ranches near Marfa on an open set so people traveled from all over to see Hollywood in action in the middle of west Texas. The movie gained more acclaim when director George Stevens won the best director Oscar. It also happened to be James Dean’s last film, who died in a car accident a few days before the movie premier.

This ranch is outside is several miles outside Marfa along highway 90, and an LA artist installed these jumbo cutouts as a roadside attraction on the ranch that was used for the “little reata” ranch where James Dean’s character struck oil and became wealthy. The old well and steal items are still on-site, but like all land in Texas, it is all behind a fence so I was not able to climb up the oil tower. these outlines are like 20 feet tall and you can see them when you come out of Marfa and go over a hill. Quite an interesting idea. Go see them if you are in the area, they are plywood and I imagine the wind and sun of this wilderness area will not be kind to them over time.

There is another ranch a bit farther where they shot the main Reata ranch with the massive fake Victorian mansion that was a 3 sided prop, allegedly cost 1 million dollars to make. Apparently later the local ranch owner took it apart to make a shed, there is a Youtube video recently were someone found there were a few beams still standing as well as toured the hotel where the film crew stayed while making the movie.

Valentine, TX

Seems not much more than a bedroom community with a population sign reading 440 people. mostly simple homes on this rugged landscape, and some abandoned homes and big-rig equipment that is common in rural townships. Like the names on the map on the way to Valentine, Ryan, and Quebec that might have been at one time more incorporated towns, are hardly inhabited today.

Google map view of the valley that hwy 90 takes from Marfa towards Van Horn were Valentine is located.

Prada Marfa (Art Installation)

This is not in Marfa (35 mi east) or even really in Valentine, Texas. About a mile outside of Valentine’s “city” limits this little building resides.

I was not surprised how small it is, I have seen and read everything I could find on this novelty building before I got there, but how close it was to the road. The original artists wanted it to be a commentary of things we value just decaying. I thought it would be in the middle of nowhere, while it is, it is also right on the main road, not a few miles off where I am sure ANYTHING is left to decay, as it has since the beginning of time out there. On a road (and near towns where people have nothing to do), it is not surprising it has been vandalized a few times and needs a security camera on it.

The 2005 Prada collection seems to be in great shape and only going to be more “vintage” and valuable as time goes on, kind of reversing the original vision of the installation. A few letters were missing, at first I was bummed, but then realized my pics would be missing letters and many of the others online were not, making my memory capture true to this moment.

Not sure if it is out of fandom for Prada or because it is near a town called Valentine but people have been putting locks on the fence for some time, making almost a second art installation. Like the “love bridge” in Paris France, or really many bridges that have this type of fence wire. I guess the keys are thrown into the field behind? Not sure, there is no water anywhere to throw your keys into to signify “forever love”, but once one person did it I am sure everyone just followed.

Marfa, Texas

Stark is the first word that comes to mind about this town. Very minimalist 1930’s vibe buildings. It almost reminded me of when I visited a lot of former Yugoslavian towns in the early 2000s in Croatia whos downtowns were kind of like in a time capsule. The concrete buildings, a city hall in the park, and a block almost cubist St. George hotel. The building with TEXAS spelled out and the Spanish tiles on the Brite building remind you where you are. maybe it was the very blank sky, empty streets, but the downtown was very much a bunch of buildings like blocks with wide alleys that just made it feel stark and almost like an old military base. Randolf Airforce Base in Converse, Texas has a similar minimalist Hispanic art deco architecture-styled buildings on it.

Hotel Paisano had the old-timey era feel though. I did not go in as being COVID I just did not feel like touching lots of things or in contact with people. Apparently, they do have lots of artifacts from the Giant film as many of the cast and directors stayed their while filming the movie and viewing the film from the daily shoots in the Palace theater across the street. The hotel has kind of become a shrine for the film and its fans.

I heard there were 4,000 people in the town in the 1950’s (Like when they filmed the movie there) and only 2,000 people now.

With the main attractions being closed due to COVID, I was not able to visit the historic theater, Chinati Foundation, etc. I walked around the downtown for an hour or so, and drove around some of the neighborhoods to get the vibe, and had a great burger lunch outdoors at The Waterstop.

Yes, I do take food pictures! I contribute to Google places on my travels and help get word out for small business that might not have a social media team.

I will say it was not just my ferocious apatite from running around all morning, but the quality of produce and cook on this simple lunch was like something I would find back in a trendy food spot in San Antonio or Austin, this place and service was 5 stars! I wish I asked the sweet waitress where they get ingredients from, the nearest Walmart is in Fort Stockton almost 100 miles away! There is no Costco or Sysco where restaurants usually get produce from.

There really is NOTHING in these towns out west. No HEB, no Autozone, no Walgreens, no Firestone, or quick oil change places if I had simple car needs on this trip. I only saw and visited a Stripes gas station (a Texas chain owned by 7/11) that had basic food and household goods, no fresh produce, I just needed a refreshment. If they don’t have basic things, you think they have Amazon Prime? They might have internet but not be able to get anything delivered. I heard later there is a gated community with a golf course in Marfa, but no grocery store!!!

While I can say my first visit to this town was underwhelming photographically or culturally, I do plan to be back and I think it might be one of these places that grow on you and where less is more. It did have some hipster types and some of the people in the dining patio I sat at came from Austin (400 mi each way!!!) It seems like a lot of effort to get to just to sit around in the middle of nowhere for no reason.

Alpine, Texas

This cute little town seemed to have a bit more character and city-center feel than the more famous Marfa. while it is kinda in the mountains, it did not have an “alpine” feel. From someone who has spent time in alpine countries like Austria, Southern Germany, Northern Italy, and Slovenia, I find the naming really odd. Probably someone was missing their European ancestral birthplace and called some hills in Texas “Alpine”.

There were some Bend Bend art galleries, that I imagine in normal times are busier with tourists or perhaps hot August was not their busy season. There is also a small college, so it has a feel of a real city.

If the stark white buildings of Marfa are one side of the western Texas pendulum, Alpine is the welcome opposite with colors and mix of building styles and cultural flavors both from west Texas and Tex-Mex and still some European village charm.

Tiny Target (Art Installation)

I was talking with another admirer at the Prada installation and mentioned I was headed to the Tiny Target and he told me it had been knocked down a few years ago. I thought I had missed the chance to see this but planned to drive to Marathon anyways. I was pleasantly surprised to see it was still there as I got near Altuda. Less happy to see it in this state. The door is gone, some bricks missing, and lots of nasty graffiti, and it smelt like a porter potty after a rave concert weekend.

Some Asian tourist girls were taking pics of each other with the shopping cart for a while around it with a rental car that must have been doing a car tour of Texas. Like the missing letters on the Prada sign, I take pics that are honest to the time I was there. There was some rude writing on the walls, but history is history and I’ll leave it for the viewers to judge.

FYI: Whoever owns this art installation I will offer to go back there and help fix the blocks and get another door and paint it Target’s new red building color with a white logo. Contact me about this if you are interested, it is so odd it needs to be kept up and not just used as a roadside toilet.

UPDATE: In November 2020 this was demolished as the artist did not want to maintain it, so I might have been one of the last non-selfie photographers out to document this when I did in August.

Altuda, Texas

Like in Valentine, there is not much of anything in Altuda either. It kind of only exist because the maps say so, and the closest marker on the map to the tiny target.

Google maps view of part of Hwy 90 with Alpine and Altuda

Marathon, Texas

Also in Brewster County is Marathon, Texas seems to be the last bit of civilization before you take the 70 mi drive down to Big Bend National Park entrance.

There were a few boutique western-style hotels on the main drag of Hwy-90 with expensive trucks valeted, a gas station, and few simple homes across the rail tracks.

I felt I did not have enough time to go to the national park, I would probably need a whole week or long holiday weekend with more supplies and camping gear to give that park the photo and nature exploration justice it deserves.

Ranch outside of Marathon, Texas

By this time in the day, being late afternoon, I decided to head back up to IH-10 (70 miles) and Fort Stockton and see what options to do after that.

The next post follows the second leg of my trip and where I ended up the next day.

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