A History of Ghost Lights and Prada: Marfa, Texas

 Photo by Conner Hightower.

Photo by Conner Hightower.

"For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America."

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

It's as if it suddenly appeared one day. In all my recollections of the extensive Texas History courses I was required to take throughout Junior High, not once does the name Marfa come to mind. Yet somehow over the course of the last few years, Instagram and Beyoncé have popularized the desolate town to a curious extent. As a result, many an iPhone-wielding individual will trek through the rocky valleys of the Chinati Mountains in order to score the perfect "Prada Marfa" selfie. In a shameful admittance of this behavior, I am one such individual.

For a weekend of spontaneous exploration, I abandoned my summer school textbooks, rented an obnoxious blue Chevy, and drove across Texas to discover the truth about the "Marfa Ghost Lights" and just what the big deal was about the Insta-famous Prada Marfa storefront.

In the hopes of utilizing my time there for more than a series of aesthetically-pleasing photos, I have curated the most intriguing sights to see, as well as explained a few Marfa myths, for those contemplating a near-future road trip. Below is my Marfa guide, listing everything you need to know about the desert city from that infamous drive to the rustic hotels and all the remarkable pit-stops in between.

The History

Marfa is generally known as a city in the desert lands of the Trans-Pecos of West Texas, which is a mountainous, arid portion of the state named for its westward coordinates from the Pecos River. Established in 1883, it was originally founded on behalf of the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway as a water stop and freight train headquarters. It is the county seat of Presidio County and is situated between the Davis, née Limpia, Mountains and Big Bend National Park.

In the 1950s, intrigue for Marfa began to grow among travelers, in part due to the enigmatic draw of the "ghost lights," but largely due to the filming of James Dean's final movie "Giant," in which Elizabeth Taylor costarred. Twenty years later, the city developed into a renowned hub of Minimalist art after artist Donald Judd became a Marfa resident, seeking a countermeasure to the hustle of New York life. His work would bring many admirers to the region over the following decades, and in 1986, the non-profit Chinati Foundation opened in tribute to Judd.

Today, Marfa endures as an alluring destination for passersby state and nationwide, a phantom testament to classic Texas architecture and early settlement life.

The Drive

While there is a municipal airport three miles from Marfa and one in Alpine, which is 26 miles away, from wherever you begin your journey, the drive to Marfa is most certainly more scenic than a speedy flight. If you're coming from Houston or Austin, a stop through charming Fredericksburg is definitely a must. For an elegant lunch, wander into Vaudeville on Main St. for an organic salad or charcuterie board before hopping back on the road. No matter your starting place, be sure to break up the drive with quick pit-stops along the interstate, if only to take in the breathtaking views of the varying Texan mountain ranges.

The Hotels

Lodging options are a bit limited in Marfa, but the most popular accommodations are the Hotel Paisano, Hotel Saint George, Thunderbird Hotel, and El Cosmico. During my stay in Marfa, the Hotel Paisano was a definite choice, if only for its history as being the home base for many cast and crew during the filming of Giant. The Hotel Saint George is the newest and most upscale of the four, boasting two restaurants and the Marfa Book Company gift shop. Contrarily, the Thunderbird is an ode to bygone hospitality with a classic horseshoe design, interior courtyard, and pool. Lastly, El Cosmico serves as the most diverse option as a conglomeration of vintage trailers, safari tents, Sioux-style tepees, Mongolian yurts, and campsites. Wherever you choose to stay, Marfa's poignant history is evident.

The Eateries

When it comes to food in Marfa, it's important to be aware of the time. Restaurants, cafés, and popular food trucks alike operate at odd times for a an out-of-towner used to 24-hour dining. When I arrived in the downtown area at approximately 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the majority of sit-down establishments were not open for dinner until 6 p.m. That being said, some of the best dinner options are worth the wait, such as Cochineal, Maiya's, and the Grilled Cheese Parlour. For lunch, stop by the Beyoncé-famous Food Shark or Comida Futura. For early mornings, before beginning your exploration of the town's art scene, I recommend a European-style breakfast at Squeeze Marfa or breakfast tacos at Boyz 2 Men.

The Art

The Marfa art scene is made up of small museums and galleries housing the works of Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Carl Andre, to name a few, as well as regional artists in contemporary exhibitions about town. Even in the most modern of spaces, the Western feel of each studio is cohesive with its desert environment. Most galleries are open for viewing by appointment only, but artistic wanderers may note that many of the simplest street corners in Marfa make for enviable photo-ops.

The Ghost Lights

Since its establishment, when a cowhand first reported sighting flickering lights in the sky, the Marfa Lights have mystified generations. Presumed as anything from Apache campfires to passing headlights, falling stars, or even the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors, the lights have been described by eyewitnesses as floating orbs of white, blue, yellow, or red light approximately the size of basketballs.

They hover, flicker, and soar through the air, most commonly above Mitchell Flat, where most of the sightings have been reported. For those in search of a scientific explanation, theories about the "ghost lights" range from Fata Morgana, or a superior mirage which occurs when a layer of warm air rests above a layer of cooler air, to glowing gases such as phosphine and methane, which ignite when in contact with oxygen. However, researchers have yet to declare an official explanation for the lights. If you're lucky enough to witness them firsthand, the lights can be seen best from the Marfa Lights Viewing Center off Highway 90.

The Prada Marfa

Finally, I explain the meaning behind the puzzling storefront constructed in the middle of nowhere. To dispel any misconceptions, the Prada Marfa is not actually in Marfa, but in Valentine, approximately 35 miles northwest of Marfa. Upon first inspection, it is a lone building to the left of a dusty, paved road winding round the outskirts of civilization. If you're contemplating a shopping trip, be forewarned that Prada Marfa, despite its name, is not accessible for entry by any means...because it's not actually a store (and not actually Prada).

Installed in 2005, the Prada Marfa is a sculpture by Berlin-based artists Elmgreen and Dragset, an artistic work they described as a "pop architectural land art project" created as a criticism of consumerism, luxury brands, and gentrification. The door is nonfunctional and the products within, which are real pieces from Prada's 2005 collection, disguise a built-in security system made up of sensors that alert officials if the shoes or handbags are moved. While the building is a depiction of a Prada store, the artists claim it was not commissioned by Prada, and the structural art is simply that: art.

While I spent but a single weekend in the culturally-rich Marfa, Texas, I highly recommend the trek through that vast terrain for those in search of an oasis rooted in Western heritage. Beware the scorpions, edible grasshoppers, and lack of Starbucks, and enjoy a reprieve from whichever bustling city you hail from: it's an experience far more memorable than any Instagram photo may suggest.