The (Many Kinds of) Marfa Lights

Driving Southeast on State Road 90, I pass a storefront in the middle of nowhere.  It surprises me because I have seen nothing except telephone poles and border patrol trucks since entering Texas.  Then, suddenly, shoes and handbags whiz by out of the corner of my eye.  “My mom might like those,” I think to myself as I slow and turn the car around.  Alice, my GPS, screams, “Recalculating!”

Prada Marfa

Prada Marfa is not open for business, and the stilettos and leather clutches are not for sale, at least as far as I can tell.  The building is hermetically sealed and looks as though it was manufactured somewhere else and fell off the back of a truck here, just off the highway.  The emporium is, in fact, a whimsical art installation and just one of several strange sights I will encounter in West Texas.

Tony, the man in the Lure t-shirt I met in San Francisco, suggested I visit Marfa on my way through the Southwest: “It’s a cool little art town in the middle of nowhere that’s a great example of minimalist art.”  I have no idea what “minimalist art” is but am always up for an adventure.  From California to New Mexico, everyone I encounter who knows Marfa says great things.

Marfa Courthouse, in Trees

As the sun sinks low on the horizon, I arrive in downtown, a scant 30 or 40 buildings.  No reservations mean I am scrambling to find a bed for the night.  But the sunlight and buildings distract me.  I follow them in my camera lens to the town square, which is dominated by a large, beautiful courthouse.  The exterior is pink and white and reaches higher into the clear evening sky than any other in town.  The Fire Department building is also pink.

El Paisono, next to the courthouse, is the largest hotel in town and they offer me a room with one queen bed for $80/night.  Earlier, I was surprised by, and declined, the $175 per night fee at the Thunderbird, an updated Howard Johnson’s a few blocks from downtown.  This is the middle of bumfuck after all, even if Marfa is a great example of minimalist art.

Nandos: A Welcome Open Sign

Most of the restaurants and galleries are closed on Monday and Tuesday nights, an unfortunate accident of my timing.  I dine at a local dive called Nandos Mexican.  The locals are, um, colorful.   Good ol‘ boys in blue jeans with supersize belt buckles tip their oversized cowboy hats at each other with a “How y’all doin’ tonight?”  For the most part, they ignore the city slicker with the camera sitting at a booth all alone.

After dinner, I drive twelve miles east to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, a rest-stop-style facility the town has erected for this specific purpose.  Several people, including my massage therapist in T or C, tell me, “You HAVE to see the Marfa lights – no one knows what they are, even the Air Force can’t figure it out.”  Strange lights?  Sign me up!

There in the cool, err cold, desert night, I witness lights way off in the distance that dance just above the horizon.  It’s as if someone is holding a huge Zippo lighter for several seconds, then poof! the light ceases.  Moments pass, then another Zippo goes off to the left or right of the last one.  The highway is easily identifiable, so I see that the lights are not traffic, nor do they look like alien aircraft.

While the lights are interesting, the stars out here are amazing; they fill the sky and touch the horizon in every direction.  With no major towns nearby, they are visible for miles around.  I haven’t seen this many constellations since I was a child and they remind me how small,  and precious, we are in the universe.

THE Marfa Lights (left of red star, highway streak to right)

Driving back into town, the police are out in force.  I watch as blue and red strobes flash on from just beyond the darkness to pull one car over, then another.  I decide it prudent to drive within the posted limits, which is a challenge.   I make it, so far, without incident.

Then, instead of turning right at the only stoplight in town, I continue forward hell bent on a nightcap from Dairy Queen, which I noted on my early drive through town.  Suddenly, a large, imposing truck is on me like a dog in heat.  As I pull into the DQ and get ready to flip the MFer off, I see “County Police” stamped across the doors of the offending vehicle.  “Asshole!” I think to myself, then proceed into the frozen dessert store.

At the counter, a young, big-haired woman in blue overalls takes my order: a medium Oreo Blizzard.

I comment, “You certainly have some interesting police around here.”

“Yeah,” she replies. “Basically, if they haven’t seen your vehicle around here, they will pull you over.”

“I’m from New York,” I say.

“Good luck,” she says with a smile.

I take my ice cream treat “to go.”

What happens next pisses me off.  Back at the town’s stoplight, which really is just a flashing red light over a stop sign, I see the County Police truck has pulled someone else over.  In only the time it took to prepare a Blizzard, some poor schmuck has already been ticketed.  I stop at the stop sign, turn left and am a mere block-and-a-half from the Paisano, when flash! flash! red and blue strobes lighten my rear view mirror.  “What the fuck did I do?” I say out loud.

The officer, a short, fat white dude in a khaki police uniform, waddles up to my window.  Normally I’m peaches and cream with any officer of the law.  I’ve talked my way out of tickets before, but with this guy I’m direct: “What’s the problem, officer?”

“Ya almost rollllled through that there stop sign twiiice,” he says in the worse twang I’ve heard to date.

“I stopped,” I retort.

“Yeah, but not at the whyte liiiine,” he snaps back, sweating ever so slightly.

I look back and see that there is a faded white line about 20 feet before the stop sign and a solid white one at the sign.  He returns to his supersize truck, I assume to write a ticket.

After a short time, he returns and produces a pink warning slip, signed by Deputy Sheriff Dumbass (that’s obviously not his real name, but his signature is illegible.  I double-checked because I had planned to write a complaint to the City Council).

Back at the hotel, the man behind the front desk laughs when I bring up this horrendous incident, “Why did he pull you over: no blinker?  Changing lanes without signaling?  Going three miles over the limit?”

“Not stopping at the stop sign, which I stopped at,” I complain.

“You mean the one with two white lines?” he asks.

His response makes me angrier.  “I think I’ll write the town council!” I say.

“It’s not just the Sheriff, but the whole county,” he says.

I’m just about to make a speech about living in a police state when the front desk receives a call.  I wait around for thirty seconds, then decide my melting Oreo Blizzard is more important.  I retire to my room and gulp down the entire treat before bed.  It sends me into a slight sugar comma and a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, I wake before sunrise.  With just over 600 miles to drive today, I get an early start. I need to make it to the other side of Dallas for Thanksgiving with my Aunt Barb and Thom.  Heading north, which will give me access to Interstate 20, where I can clock a comfortable 80 mph, the sunrise is amazing – pink, orange, yellow and purple fill the horizon.

Sunrise, Marfa (notice white UFO in photo)

Then, off in the distance, I see a strange dot in the sky shining brightly in the morning sun.  At first I think it’s a plane, but it doesn’t move. It may be a water tower, but it’s too high.  When I get closer I see it’s some sort of silver or white balloon, about the size of a small blimp, maybe 400 feet in the sky.  No markings.  No signs indicating what it is.  Just one more odd sighting that disappears in my rear view – the perfect close to my West Texas adventure.

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