West Texas Travel Hype: Marfa is Overrated

They name the machines at Tumbleweed Laundry in Marfa TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

They name the machines at Tumbleweed Laundry in Marfa TX and Frama coffee shop next door has ice cream, so there’s that (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Marfa, Marfa, Marfa.

Like the frustrated Brady Bunch sister Jan who was tired of always hearing about her older sister Marcia, I am tired of hearing that this quirky far west Texas town is a must-see for travelers.

I truly enjoy any chance to soak in the cool, clear desert air and see blue sky and clouds arching over the Davis Mountains, but there are better places to do that than Marfa.

Whenever you read articles about West Texas in fancy travel publications, or blurbs about how celebrities like to escape to Marfa, they all pretty much say the same thing: “Ooooh, look, there is art and culture plus food trucks way out in the middle of nowhere. Ooooh.”

It’s quite snotty, really – these low expectations of U.S. “flyover country.”

From the InStyle link above, you’ll learn that many people go to Marfa for experiences like:

“….a weekend-only grilled cheese shack where diners sit surrounded by vintage TVs that display various forms of static.”

Um, sure, OK.

The modern art vibe is certainly there, anchored by the Chinati Foundation’s boxes of milled aluminum, various galleries, and an independent bookstore. You can listen to award-winning programming and news on Marfa Public Radio KRTS 93.5 FM, broadcasting from a converted gas station/car dealership. You can book yourself into funky lodgings (for more money than I care to spend,) and eat at some interesting funky places, assuming they’re open.

Beyond that, let’s tone down the hype machine, people. There’s just not that much there, there.

As a visitor, I want to go to a lively, vibrant place, and not a traveler’s Potemkin Village that seems to only wake up to cater to outsiders looking for buzz.

If you show up in Marfa on a random Tuesday afternoon, as I did recently with my daughter on our way to El Paso, you’ll most likely find a “neutron bomb town” – the buildings are all standing (including the new Hotel Saint George, an artsy-fartsy white minimalist box where rooms start at US$200+ a night) but there are no people, no particularly interesting shops to explore in the tiny downtown, and you’ll have a devil of a time finding someplace to eat lunch.

“After being open and working all weekend for visitors, most places close on Monday or Tuesday or both,” said the front desk person at the historic Hotel Paisano, when we asked where we could eat after everything on Yelp indicated “Closed,” AND the hotel’s restaurant was deserted. I was looking forward to eating again at tiny Squeeze Marfa, which I’d enjoyed on a previous visit, but nope, closed.

I totally understand small town hours, but when everyone’s hollering for years about what an amazing place you are, then be ready to deliver on visitor expectations.

People pour into Marfa for special events like the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, to experience the whole desert/wide-open spaces vibe on weekends, or because someone insisted that it was the greatest place EVAR, and then they leave.

Meanwhile, locals are being priced out of their homes as property taxes and real estate values soar from out-of-towners trying to buy a piece of remote hipster heaven, with sriracha sauce on the side.

It’s similar to what’s happening to Austin – everyone says a place is cool, and pretty soon the people who made it cool can’t afford to live there. If I want to see that sort of depressing development, I don’t have to go all the way out to western Texas to do so.

There is indeed a cluster of interesting smaller towns below the section of Interstate 10 bracketed by Fort Stockton and Van Horn, and north of Big Bend National Park, but Marfa is only one of those towns.

Instead, soak in the beauty and silence at the gorgeous Gage Hotel in Marathon. Spend time in Alpine, a bustling and fun college town. Go to a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory and don’t miss a chance to stay at the historic Indian Lodge in Fort Davis. Leap into the huge spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park. Decide if you really want to drive 30 minutes west of Marfa to Valentine to look at the Prada Marfa “art installation,” because there are plenty of other worthy places to go.

Take my friend Diann’s advice on things to see and do in this Texas Mountain Trail Region, and if you decide to go to Marfa, temper your expectations and plan your trip to coincide with some sort of performance or event, so you’ll see the town when it has a pulse.

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