It takes so long to get to Marfa, Texas, that you half expect a town crier and trumpeter to herald your arrival. Instead, all there is to stop you from driving straight through this town of 2,000 is a blinking yellow traffic light and the occasional tumbleweed on Highway 90.
But you'll notice right away that this isn't your typical desolate West Texas burg. (For starters, it's named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel). Sixty miles east of the Mexican border, Marfa is the coolest art town in America, with stellar restaurants, a world-class museum, art galleries, an independent bookstore, chic food trailers, funky accommodations, an NPR station and a bar that used to be a funeral home.
Surrounded by the rugged Davis Mountains, Marfa evokes Hollywood visions of the Old West -- you feel as if a covered wagon or a raucous stampede of cattle might appear at any moment on the sweeping grasslands with yucca, cactus and scrub brush dotted throughout. "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," and the upcoming Johnny Depp movie "The Lone Ranger" were all filmed near here.
HIGH ART IN THE HIGH DESERT
The contradiction of Marfa -- civilized, high art in the unforgiving high desert -- hasn't always been the case. Until minimalist sculptor Donald Judd rented a house here in 1971, the town's claim to fame was that the epic "Giant" (with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson) filmed here in 1955. Judd used Marfa as a working lab for his ideas about art, namely that the place in which a work of art is created is as crucial to the artwork's meaning as the actual piece of art is. Housed on 340 acres once belonging to Fort D.A. Russell, the Chinati Foundation is the biggest game in town, a contemporary art museum with 15 of Judd's outdoor concrete sculptures and 100 of his aluminum works housed in two converted artillery sheds. Spread throughout Chinati are sculptures and installations by 12 premier contemporary artists, their work housed in separate buildings across the property. Set aside at least half a day to visit all of them.
Marfa is a destination but also a launchpad. The McDonald Observatory, 35 miles to the west, features the world's fifth-largest telescope and is as far from man-made light as you are ever likely to be. The Observatory's Star Parties -- nighttime tours that include close-up views of the constellations -- are transcendent events.
Balmorhea State Park is 50 miles from Marfa and home to a nearly 2-acre spring-fed swimming pool that naturally remains at 72-76 degrees year round.
Take plenty of water and a compass to Big Bend National Park, which is larger than Rhode Island, hugs the border of Mexico and features more than 150 miles of trails.
Return to Marfa from any of these day trips, and you'll return to civilization, but a civilization decidedly unlike the one you live in.
If you go
El Paso and drive three hours southeast to Marfa, but if you land in Austin, the seven-hour drive west to Marfa takes you through the shifting, dramatic range of topography unique to the American West.
CHINATI Don't go on a Monday or Tuesday -- Chinati is closed, and so is the rest of the town. A guided tour of the full Chinati collection costs $25 for an adult; reserve in advance. 1 Cavalry Row, 432-729-4362, chinati.org
San Antonio St., 432-729-3300, cochinealmarfa.com
STAY El Cosmico, an 18-acre plot of land on the edge of town, has seven eclectically restored trailers, plus safari tents and teepees to rent by the night. Beyonce stayed here on a recent Marfa trek. The Trans-Pecos Gathering of Music + Love, a concert featuring Meshell Ndegeocello, takes place here Sept.27-30, 802 S. Highland Ave., 877- 822-1950, elcosmico.com
More traditional lodgings are found at the Hotel Paisano, headquarters for the cast and crew of "Giant." 207 Highland St., 866-729-3669, hotelpaisano.com