A Pilgrimage West to Marfa Myths

Marfa_March_2015-8Bent against the flow of the entire universe descending upon Texas’ capital for the inception of the nation’s largest film and music festival, I drove my car head-on into the sun with two compadres along for the ride. Lukas, sunglasses hiding eyes below and a whirl of short, messy brown hair, reclined slightly in the passenger seat. Tiffany curled up in the back and stared out at roadside blurs. We stopped for coffee and tacos before we ever hit the county line, but once stocked with the necessary fuel for our bodies and vehicle, we careened recklessly toward the West Texas desert. A faction of indie rock heroes from record label Mexican Summer had already made their presence known there, and we had plans to convene with them for a celebration of music and art in that isolated oasis Marfa. The label teamed up with some local purveyors of art, gallery space Ballroom Marfa, to curate a weekend of good times. By teaming up with local entities, Mexican Summer proves their commitment to working with the established infrastructure in Marfa, building partnerships and relationships rather than simply stopping through once a year.

Marfa_March_2015-14With the stereo and conversation to while away the time, we tried chasing the sun down, until it disappeared completely behind the flat line of the horizon, forcing us to admit defeat. All the shapes turned soft and formless, became shadows as dark spread out over us along the highway and settled into the surrounding fields and gentle hills. We climbed slowly, almost imperceptibly into the high desert. The air cooled as we drove, and soon we headed away from the interstate highway, moving south toward Alpine and on to Marfa. Eventually the town’s single flashing light shone like a beacon up ahead in the night, marking our destination. Emerging from the car in the early morning hours of Saturday, we stood beneath the glow of uncountable stars, talking in hushed, conspiratorial voices as some dozens of other pilgrims slept nearby. We made our way across the grounds of El Cosmico to find a place to settle down. Low murmurs punctuated by sibilant sounds drifted to us from unseen places out in the darkness—the last bunch of drowsy travelers singing each other to sleep. Our tents were pitched within ten minutes, and we easily drifted into our waiting dreams, infused with dust and stars and cactus.

Marfa_March_2015-6In the quiet of the remote location and in the wake of a long week of work, we stayed in the warmth of our tents far longer than expected. We emerged sometime in the mid-morning to crisp air and glaring sunlight. After driving the short stretch of road into the center of Marfa, we purchased a big breakfast: yogurt, waffles, croissants, and fruit. Bellies full, we resolved to taking the lay of the land and set out walking the town’s sparsely populated streets. On our way to Marfa Book Company, we happened across a pack of familiar faces from back in Austin, other sojourners in town for the weekend’s festivities. We talked with them a few minutes, mingling casually among the nearby yucca.

Marfa_Myths_2015-1Across the street from us, we could see congregants around a storefront, the first musical foray of this Saturday in the form of an experimental set from Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. With friends on the corner and other festival-goers across the street it was clear: it’s hard to be in Marfa without finding your way to the happening of the day. Nearly drawn in by the allure of the mass of people, we managed to continue our course on to Marfa Book Company, making our way around Ballroom Marfa and along the sidewalk, lined with Mexican Feather Grass.

Inside the cool refuge of the bookstore, the three of us divided and began to survey the open layout of the building. I walked straightaway into a smaller, adjacent room and saw directly on the table before me a book of Zen poetry by Cold Mountain. The book had just been recommended by a trustworthy source a week or so before. As Marfa continued to reveal itself as a magical place of unavoidable destiny, I picked up the text and jammed it under my arm as I continued browsing. The highly curated collection impressed us. We met a fluffy white dog named Angel at the register, handed over a fistful of bills, and headed back out to the streets.

As we walked along highway 90, a tumbleweed bounced beside us, threatening to make a mockery of the whole afternoon, but we paid it no mind, and it soon rolled away into the dust and sunlight, disappearing wherever tumbleweeds go to disappear. We would have our own moments of aimless wandering through the landscapes of our subconsciouses in the near future.

Gregg_Kowalsky_Tape_Chants_at_Marfa_Myths_2015-3A short jaunt over to one of the Chinati Foundation’s numerous buildings brought us to a performance by Gregg Kowalksy. His “Tape Chants” consisted of a series of speakers connected to locally placed tape devices. Each tape possessed its own looping track of audio. Kowalksky sneaked about the room, hugging walls as he paced wooden floors from speaker to speaker, starting tapes, tweaking audio levels. Like some cassette wizard, Kowalksy cast a drowsy spell of swelling sound over the ever-filling room. Some bodies lay prostrate on the floor, others sat uprights, and still others stood at slack attention, perhaps hunching a little at the shoulders and neck.

Gregg_Kowalsky_Tape_Chants_at_Marfa_Myths_2015-9The rustling of clothing and feet mixed with the sounds of the tape chants. Some loose change fell out of a pocked and rattled against the floor. Little whispers spiraled like thin traces of smoke up into the stillness of the room and dissipated gently. We all became part of the performance, our sounds mixing with the sounds of the tapes, all breathing the same wavering, pulsing air. Changed now, we felt ourselves bound to these physical structures, this West Texas dirt, these cohorts in our weekend of artistic expression.

Marfa_March_2015-19A muted exodus filed out of the room when the sounds ceased reverberating. Afterward, the afternoon moved slower, the air felt cooler, the sunlight a little softer on our skin. We lounged around, unhurried, sitting on similarly unhurried chairs around an impatient table, and hunger soon announced itself. With most of the local haunts still basking in an afternoon nap, we turned to the apparently singular local dive for a meal and a beer. Some other friends showed up soon and told us about their planned jaunt out of Marfa to the nearby observatory later that night. With reluctance we exchanged glances but resolved to stay for the music as planned. After shooting a few games of pool and draining the final drops in our pint glasses, the sun had begun to retire, and it was time to head to the Capri for the featured evening of musical performances.

Marfa_March_2015-30We parked the car in the dirt beside a roughly paved road. Tiffany sprung out of the back seat and headed toward a man standing in his yard surrounded by a flurry of chickens. She told him she loved his chickens and the two struck up a conversation. Lukas followed me over with skepticism of bothering the man’s evening, but before long, Juan was telling us of his life without any hesitation. He told us he worked in a cemetery, maintaining the grounds, that he had a son at the high school who wants his truck now that he’s of age to drive. We wished him well and walked a few hundred feet to the Capri.

Marfa_Myths_2015-2Inside, an open garage space opened onto a large courtyard. Trails from the courtyard reached like tendrils among trees and bushes to little pavilions, each with a campfire. Soon, Weyes Blood began the evening with her haunting folky songs—something like traditional English folk mixed with a ghostly sense of American indie-pop. Steve Gunn gave us all the gift of an intricate and dexterous guitar performance, powerful and entrancing. Cloaked in shadows and smoke, Tamaryn generated a thick wash of floating noise. Dev Hynes and Connan Mockasin had been hanging around in Marfa for some days, making collaborative art, and the pair came out to do a set of beautiful soft rock songs full of understated guitars and sexy keys. Everybody dug it.

Iceage_at_Marfa_Myths_2015-11To end the night, polar performances by Grouper and Iceage drew the attention of only the pure of heart. Grouper’s set birthed two musical dimensions; the existence of individuals talking casually and loudly continued, but those avid fans of Grouper were enveloped completely in a wholly separate pocket of reality, drawn into an isolated world of pristine sounds impervious to the clatter of noises surrounding them. Liz Harris held her fans enrapt for an hour—songs and bodies inseperable. Iceage divided the crowd yet again, one faction committed to reckless chaos and brazen attitudes, while others confusedly made their way out of the garage structure.

Marfa_March_2015-43We stayed until the very end, the last stragglers out the door, thankful to Mexican Summer for an intimate night of sounds. More bands would play later on in the night, but our tents beckoned to us irresistibly from only a few hundred yards away. The night air was cool and piercing and once huddled into our sleeping bags, slumber was deep and immediate, filled with hazy desert dreams.

We woke eight hours later with an unbelievable hunger for tacos. We broke camp quickly and efficiently and migrated with mindless craving toward the curiously named Boyz 2 Men food trailer on Highway 90.

“Whaddaya want?” barked the restless guy inside the trailer.

“I know it says only two ingredients,” Tiffany began, “but can I…”

But the guy cut her off immediately. “No substitutions! No substitutions!” he yelled.

She relented and ordered tacos, and we did, too.

“What’s your name?” the guy barked.

“Lukas.”

“Ethan?” he queried sharply.

“Lukas.”

“Robert?” he asked.

“Ethan.”

Marfa_March_2015-67A long highway waited for us, and after one more stop for coffee and quick goodbyes with friends, we were putting asphalt behind us, leaving bristling yucca in our wake, angling homeward. We chased a train along for a while, stopped and stood near the tracks to feel its thundering power, and it eventually parted from the road and trailed off behind a cliff. We pulled to the side of the road now and then, taking our time as we gazed upward at towering hills and the soft curves and jagged outcrops of stubby mountains. We tried to capture them in our minds, record their shapes and contours in the endless rooms of our memories. In our hearts we built whole worlds of roads and undulating terrain and sprawling sky. I contemplated if one could make themselves as large inside as that which surrounds us. Can the mind ever contain the limitless depth of space and all its contents?

Marfa_March_2015-66Along highway 67, heading north toward the interstate, we were still seeking one last adventure, and I took a sharp right onto a dirt road, pursuing a barn on the horizon. The structure proved just some covered slab hanging around in isolation—nobody around to witness its slow decay. Our car ambled back toward the road unfulfilled like a kid kicking a rock home from a neighborhood baseball game on a Sunday evening, the threat of Monday morning already looming. We stopped just before reaching the highway and all got out to stretch, hanging around the car. I took a photograph of a lonely yucca. Without speaking, we reflected on the weekend of slow drifting between meditations and music. Mexican Summer had given us something profound and distinct that moved beyond music and touched community and love—a real experience free from tawdry branding or corporate product placement. The desert had moved us. On this weekend, we added to our mental geographies new lands, built up new myths in our visionary faith in music and art. Had we transcended, taken on a new form, become angelic? Had we died and been reborn as reincarnated spirits?

Marfa_March_2015-74Lukas pointed down at something pure white and gleaming in the brown earth. We crouched to see the unmistakable shape of teeth, still attached to a jawbone. Lukas looked stoic as the three of us contemplated their owner. Perhaps our feet pawed curiously at our own remains. If so, no matter now; there was no going back. We could not reclaim any past versions of ourselves. We climbed into the car and rattled unavoidably forward in time to some new and fearless future.

All photographs © Bryan C. Parker. Click any photo to open set in slideshow viewer.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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