Charlotte Burns: Texas trip, part two: Marfa

All you can see are oil fields as you descend into Midland-Odessa. I’ve never seen anything like it. They stretch for hundreds of miles, dividing the rust-coloured earth all the way to the horizon.

Flying over oil fields

We’re on our way to Marfa. I’ve wanted to visit the Chinati Foundation for more than ten years, so my expectations are high. We left Houston during a sunrise that softened the edges of the city and, after a two-hour flight, now have a three-hour drive to Marfa ahead of us. A heavy-set man in Wrangler jeans gives us the keys to the only car in the lot and advises us that the radio is set to a country station.

The car is Japanese and I fit perfectly. Much better.

The road to Chinati

The drive breaks down into three main stages: the long flat I-20, flanked by oil fields, the smell of which seeps into the car for 80 miles or so. Then onto the TX-17, a smaller road that will take us through wide, scrubby desert land and then through the winding inclines of wild and unheeded mountains. This part of Texas is big and beautiful and open, and the entrepreneurialism of the people here makes sense: there is freedom and potential in such vast, unfettered space.

We finally arrive in Marfa, which is quaint and looks like it might once have been the backdrop of a spaghetti Western. No time to take in the view as we drop off our bags and walk a mile or two to Chinati (which immediately marks us as strangers here since everybody else drives).

Chinati doesn’t disappoint. I feel a rush of emotion, euphoria and excitement as I stand in front of works by Judd and Flavin that I’ve seen in pictures a thousand times. In reality, the experience is more intimate and the landscape can’t adequately be described. I feel lovestruck, like a teenager standing face to face with her rockstar crush. Marfa concentrates the mind and I am entirely focused on what’s in front of me, which is unusual in a world full of distractions.

We dash around the rest of the cultural venues in town (more on those in our November issue) and have a free hour at the end of it all during which I finally dive into a Texan pool. I swim laps on a loop, enjoying the silence and repetition in unthinking homage to the series of Judd boxes at Chinati.

Goodbye, Marfa

The next morning, we wake up early and slip out of town during dark in order to make it to the mountains in time to watch the sun rise. The patchwork of blues, pinks and yellows is so spectacular and unworldly that you suspect it could turn an atheist devout.

It’s a dash back to Midland, interrupted by a pit-stop in Pecos to fix a flat tire that has picked up a rogue nail en route. Still, it’s good to stretch the legs.

Oil is unsurprisingly the top story of the local paper back in Midland, the Odessa America, which excitedly reports prices rising in “wild trading” spurred by the possible US military intervention in Syria. West Texas, which had an oil bust in the 1980s, is back in play and business is bigger than ever.

I’m gazing above those endless oilfields as I write. We’re cruising at 29,000ft on our third flight of the week in one of the smallest planes I've ever been on and above a landscape larger than anything I’ve ever seen. Marfa feels miles away from this industry, and from me.

Next stop, Dallas.

Published Thu, 29 Aug 2013 03:35:00 GMT

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