Freddie and I were the first ones to see them. Our driver for our West Texas girls’ trip and self-proclaimed protector, Freddie, had given us a ride out to the eerie, but architecturally beautiful viewing area a few miles out of town with nothing around but arid, flat desert. ‘The Marfa Mystery Lights’ we’d all scoffed, swapping tales of UFOs over tequila cocktails and sumptuous sharing plates in female chef-run restaurant of the moment Cochineal in town. But out here, in the fresh air of the desert with its vast skies, those mystery lights started appearing near the blinking post way into the distance. Floating, multiplying, bouncing off each other, those lights had us swear in disbelief—then it entranced us. Breaking out of the spell, we all reached for our phones, but curiously, all the footage of that night is pitch black with only the sound of our nervous laughter calling out for Mulder and Scully…
We arrived from the UK into Lubbock in a lightning storm – a freaky way to start any road trip, the baggage handlers forbidden to go outside to claim our luggage due to the risk to human life – when we’d just landed in it, in a tin can with wings. Back home, everyone I spoke to (Americans included) laughed when I mentioned our starting point, unable to see past the obvious Texan attractions to a European audience. In truth, stood in the desolate baggage claim area of Lubbock airport, the sky being lit up every 30 seconds, clutching tourist board leaflets, I began to question it myself. However, the morning after, the storm had cleared enough that we could take in the city.
Lubbock is most commonly known as the birthplace of rock n’ roll legend Buddy Holly, and an Instagram shot next to his super-sized glasses by his bandmate’s childhood home and museum is a no brainer. It takes a little more research to get under the skin of the city itself. On paper, Lubbock is an industry town – the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world and that gives you all the traps of industrial success. What’s unexpected is the university Texas Tech’s beautiful campus sprinkled with outdoor public art and the burgeoning indie art scene in the Art District which hosts the First Friday Art Trail. Artist studios in containers are open to the public, and you can get your hands dirty in screen printing workshops. We visit the day after the event and the workshops floors are strewn with paper cuttings, and tables are laden with half-painted, awe-inspiring papier mâché heads. Next time.
Walking further into the Depot District of Lubbock we were met by an entrepreneurial couple who will from now on be my #couplegoals reference point; Kim and Sylvia McPherson. Between the two, they run McPherson Cellars, a winery and tasting room housed in a lovingly restored 1930’s Coca-Cola bottling plant and La Diosa Cellars, a fantastically opulent den of tapas and sangria created by Sylvia’s designer eye for detail. A few wines later, riled up by lively conversation and delicious small plates, all of us decamp next door to a rowdy college bar with Kim, who has been making wine since 1979, getting in the first round of shooters and Sylvia encouraging salsa dancing to Daddy Yankee. #CoupleGoals.
For a city that people laughed at, Lubbock had a lot to keep us entertained. And with the $154m Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences opening in 2020, expect to hear a lot more about the Hub City, but remember: you heard it here first.
From Lubbock, we drove out to Palo Duro Canyon Park , the second largest canyon in the USA after the Grand one. The park is magnificent, with deep red rocks, trails to explore and adorable stone-clad cabins you can book for the night to toast your marshmallows over a fire, and stargaze to your heart’s content. We arrived in the rain with the damp earth kicking off the delicious scent of undergrowth and wild leaves. As we hiked, the mist lifted with stunning views of the canyon’s iconic lighthouse formation. To get to Palo Duro from Lubbock, you have to take the way to Amarillo (not even joking) which saw us all leaping for our cameras whenever we went past signage – and you can also take in another fascinating local formation: Cadillac Ranch. A collaborative art installation from the late 70s, Cadillac Ranch is another worldly sight of 10 rusted, spray paint-covered Cadillacs, nose down in the dirt off the highway. Originally created by a local millionaire and a renegade art collective named The Ant Farm, the sculpture commemorates the Golden Age of the automobile and is forever changing and morphing, as bringing your own paint can to add a message or a splash of colour is actively encouraged.
From the big city, to the wide open skies of Big Bend Country; a five-hour drive takes us from Lubbock’s cotton fields, through the eerie plains of nodding oil donkeys and gas flares around Midland to the shocking blue skies of the high desert. A stop at Midland Park Mall doesn’t go unappreciated as we steel ourselves for the hipster climes of Marfa. A bottle of Elizabeth & James perfume would have to do to summon that Mary-Kate and Ashley-style bohemian glamour.
Arriving into Marfa, the Instagram honeytrap that it is, was curious and a little underwhelming. Prada Marfa, the poster child for the town, as seen on many people’s feed – not to mention Beyoncé’s – is in fact out of town in the adorably named Valentine. A little like my current hometown of Margate in the UK, Marfa is a weekender town, so arriving on a Monday is a little like creeping round your friend’s house when they had a heavy one last night, and you were just there for the snacks. The town is engulfed – and was perhaps put on the map – by artist Donald Judd who moved his work to the town in the 70s. The combination of the picturesque downtown and Judd’s multiple venue artworks such as The Block, which includes his vast library collection of 13,000 books, gives the town an odd feeling of being overly curated, as if you are in a perfectly styled film set just waiting for the main characters to arrive on the railroad train, which cuts the town in half.
In addition to Marfa’s artistic legacy, the silver screen made its mark here as well. A visit to the quirky and endearing Marfa and Presidio Country Museum is much more indicative of the town than the high-end art gallery boutiques…the kind which are closed on weekdays and the proprietors are probably miles away in their NYC or LA homes. I chatted to the museum’s manager who didn’t bat an eyelid at our tales of the Marfa Lights sighting, nodding sagely and explaining that she’s always seen them, and even had one instance where family visited and were escorted back out of town with the lights bouncing gently on the roof of their car. Bouncing. On. The. Roof. Of. Their. Car. The museum is tiny and full of curios including film posters and behind the scenes photography featuring everyone from Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood) to James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor (Giant).
Crossing the railroad and heading in the direction of the pastel pink, Wes Anderson perfection of the Presidio County Courthouse, we came across our home for the night: the charming retro-tinged, Trost-designed Hotel Paisano. Fittingly, this was also home to James and Elizabeth while filming. Ask the hotel manager nicely and she’ll give you a tour of their rooms, the ballroom where they would meet to watch dailies on a projector and also dispel the myth that neither of them could dive from their rooms directly into the pool. These were the rock n’ roll days of the 50s, but not that rock n’ roll.
More modern-day rock n’ roll is the bohemian tepee campsite and retro caravan wonderland that is El Cosmico. In essence, it’s a design-centric community lodging concept dreamt up by hotelier Liz Lambert, the creative mind behind the predominantly Texan-based Bunkhouse Hotel group. To know that they run an annual Trans Pecos Festival of Music & Love will give you a feel for the bright, friendly-side-of-super-hipster site. We took in a tour of the various lodging options from the most basic, tastefully-decorated safari tents to the real stars of the show: the retro caravans painted in rainbow brights with striped South American shawl design bedspreads, and patios facing the stars. The site now also boasts an architecturally stunning micro-home made in collaboration with Kasita, Dutch wood-fired hottubs you can hire for the night, a hammock grove and a premium souvenir shop. I’m still not sure how I managed to leave.
For a tiny desert town, Marfa is not short of exceptional places to spend your hard-earned city money, and that really is its appeal; an escape from the bustle of city lights, three hours away from a major airport with vast skies that envelope you and reignite that feeling of wonder. For a full shopping and eating guide to the town for all your crystals ; vending machine tarot cards and tacos with a side order of intentionally bad service, needs head to our guide here.
It’s a sad fact that many will take the pilgrimage to Marfa and Marfa alone when coming to this part of the world. And to have travelled all that distance and to miss out on Alpine and Marathon, which are located within an hour’s drive of that hipster haven, would be a crime. We first headed to the tiny artist enclave of Marathon, first stopping to marvel – and giggle – at the Target Marathon, which mysteriously appeared overnight, a painted up hovel of a railroad outhouse, as a middle finger to the more famous – but equally ridiculous – Prada Marfa.
We arrived in town, if in fact Marathon is big enough to be considered a town, to another stunning Trostian building: the independently run The Gage Hotel . Following not long behind the late, great Anthony Bourdain, we dine in the White Buffalo Saloon hearing tales of local characters like Texan folk artist Chicken George and nearby border ghost towns such as Terlingua, which has a beer drinking goat for a mayor and retro RV lodging. The hotel has rooms within the main building, more classic in décor, and the property leads out past an inviting, sparkling kidney shaped pool to a shaded courtyard of rooms with adobe-look clad walls, cow hides and iridescent blue-tiled rainfall showers. You could tell we were close to the Mexican Border, and also in the #1 rated hotel in Texas (according to Condé Nast readers).
Dawn was startling, transforming the pitch black desert floor with the sound of bird song and warming peachy light. I’m never an early bird, but dawn in Big Bend Country shook me from my slumber and begged me to step outside to discover a sleeping ghost town, desperate to be explored. Away from the historic glamour of The Gage Hotel, we got lost in the hand-built, colourful dream world of Eve’s Garden B&B. An organic B&B and ecological resource centre, with Mexico-inspired blue and orange adobe guest rooms and a rooftop reminiscent of Gaudi’s La Pedrera, they serve a mean family-style ricotta pancake breakfast, with syrup and fresh berries falling from each mouthful.
Reluctantly, we leave Marathon for our final destination, Alpine, which we’d skirted around on the drive down. Alpine is the largest of the three towns in Big Bend Country that we visited and home to Sul Ross State University. I was apprehensive as to the charm it would hold, and what a fool I was. Coming into town, one of the best places to start is a short hike behind the university to look out spot ‘The Desk’ on Hancock Hill. Back in the early 80s a group of students hauled a school desk up to this spot – it’s since become an icon and a spot to leave your thoughts. From here you can take in the town and read fine literature left in notebooks in the desk such as: I’m Back, Bitches – Bailey 2016. The university also houses the Museum of The Big Bend (museumofthebigbend.com) showcasing local history, including a stunning recreation of Native American Indian rock art – the original site is deep in the desert and kept a secret. In a curious twist of fate, we end up speaking with a woman involved in the discovery and preservation of that important piece, and she is casually working in a co-op art gallery downtown.
Downtown Alpine is liberally sprinkled with art galleries from local jewellers, modern pop art and more traditional Texan watercolours of landscapes and rugged cattle. This is a town driven by entrepreneurs who, against the odds of living in a far-flung space – or perhaps fuelled by it, have created an enclave of creativity. This is certainly true in the Boss Babes we come across in our wanders in this glorious town; from a paint-spattered boilersuit-wearing artist putting the finishing touches to hand lettering a new business shopfront a stone’s throw from a mural she completed recently, to Emily, founder of custom jeans business House of Pants from an outbuilding nestled behind the newly renovated Hotel Ritchey Wine Saloon and Beer Garden; lovingly brought back to life by another local female entrepreneur, Mattie Matthaei.
As night falls on our last night in West Texas, we enjoy sundowner wines brought on our road trip all the way from McPherson Winery in Lubbock on the rooftop patio of our room at historic The Holland Hotel . The sense of freedom and unbridled creativity, bordering on the absurd, can be tasted in the air out here in the high desert. A rescue dog just helped us check in at front desk (the hotel receptionists foster local dogs, helping them to find new homes, he didn’t work there, don’t worry) and the hotel is plastered with faux Harry Potter news clippings advertising an upcoming themed banquet. In town that evening, we chug red cups of local brews in delightfully divey Harry’s Tinaja and sing along to a karaoke soundtrack that swings from nu-metal to new country at infamous Rail Road Blues.
The sound of the railroad trains passing through town had now become a comforting sound in the dead of the desert night, and waking on the final morning, I wonder what passenger trains come through here. Turns out you can catch the Amtrak Texas Eagle all the way from Los Angeles out to these parts right through to Chicago. The full trip would take one day and 19 hours. Plenty of time to cook up a new creative business – or five – to run from West Texas.
To plan your adventure, go to www.traveltexas.com
The world’s largest airline, American Airlines, operates daily flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Lubbock (LBB) and Midland (MAF) via its hub in Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). Fly from £829 in Basic Economy, from £889 in the Main Cabin, from £1,218 in American’s new Premium Economy product and from £3,841 in Business Class, all prices are based on return flights, per person, and include taxes. americanairlines.co.uk
Before you set off on your adventure, enjoy a stylish departure from the No1 Lounge at Heathrow, T3 – offering an unrivalled range of services, including spa treatments and pod bedrooms, the award-winning No1 allows you to take control of your pre-flight experience. Entry is £32pp & when booked in advance at no1lounges.com.