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The City and the Writer: In Marfa with David McDannald

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                       —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



Can you describe the mood of Marfa as you feel/see it?

We can’t speak of Marfa without pushing its borders out into the empty, arid tablelands of the Trans Pecos. A lack of water and resources has saved the region from development, if not from the hooves of cattle. What makes Marfa special is, in part, what makes all isolated places special: the mix of migrants who have traveled a great distance to live here, the locals who travel a great distance beyond town to work, and the ranchers living outside town who travel into it for food and supplies.

But Marfa is a different town on different days, sometimes a desert Mardi Gras with half a dozen musical acts playing on the same night to crowds swelled by travelers, sometimes a shadow of a town that the railroad used to stop in when there’s little more happening than two guys kicking a Hacky Sack in the gas station parking lot. But that we can ask these questions at all of Marfa, when it can be crossed on foot in a matter of minutes, speaks to the rare collision of the three cultures within it—Latino, ranching, and art.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Several years ago, I attended an art opening at Galleri Urbane. The front door was ajar, gallery goers spilling onto the sidewalk, sipping red wine. Several men wore dinner jackets. A Mercedes SUV was parked at the curb. It was the kind of fabulous gathering of itinerant art folks that journalists have described as Marfa. I left the gallery after I’d had my fill and turned up the street. An old Latino sat on the sidewalk, chin in hand, staring at his boots. He wore a white sisal cowboy hat and couldn’t have been more disconnected from the gallery scene had he lived in a different country—the inevitable division, as Plato called it. I was less concerned with whether he could afford a $5,000 wall-sized photograph than I was sad that he hadn’t felt comfortable enough to walk a few yards in to the opening and pour himself a glass a wine.

One day, I was getting a haircut on Highland from Mateo, whose barber chair was his father’s. I asked him about how Marfa has changed, about the old buildings reclaimed and decked out as art installations, about Prada Marfa, the faux storefront built on an empty stretch of highway with a display of designer shoes. Mateo said, “I just wish people would put in something we can actually use, like a pharmacy.” A retired Border Patrolman put it more bluntly, “All the change used to give me heartburn. But these art people saved this town. I just wish they would realize we’re not ready for some of the things we see in the street.” And cowboys find comedy in the clash of cultures. I was eating Mexican food at Mando’s with Larry Baldwin, who’s run cattle around Marfa for decades. And he said to another cowboy, “Zoll, you going to that poetry reading later or are you gonna help me brand some calves?”

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The shortest unit of time here is a season, I’d say, so the heart of Marfa is elusive for those who don’t stay long. When I moved to my great uncle’s ranch, J.W. Clifford, a thirty-year resident of Marfa, told me that if I met one person while I lived in West Texas it should be Ted Harper. He said, “The man has more stories than the rest of us combined.”

Ted was eighty-nine years old when I first called his house, his politeness merging with a desire not to be bothered. Old man Harper said, “I don’t have a story. I always just wanted to be a cowboy. I don’t have any wisdom and I don’t know anything. Don’t want to know another man’s wisdom because what I got is enough for how I live.”

The next time I called, offering to bring lunch out to his ranch, he said he couldn’t see me because the television had been knocked out in a lightning storm. The next time I called the water pump had gone down. The next time family was coming. I’d had this trouble before; old-timers could guard privacy like a secret; the mountain lion hunter from nearby Valentine made me wait a year and a half before we sat down together. My breakthrough with old man Harper finally came at Marfa’s Pueblo grocery store. So old was the man sitting in a car parked outside that I figured the odds were close to even it was Ted. When I introduced myself, he said, “Oh, I felt bad about the way I did you before. But I just don’t think I have anything to tell you.” I said, “From what I hear, there are a lot of people who believe otherwise.” Ted then fell into an effortless monologue about ranch life. When his wife, Francis, exited the store with groceries, he said, “David, now that I’ve seen your face, why don’t you come out to the house this weekend?” It had been a full year since my first phone call, and the speed at which the story was emerging was wholly fitting to the landscape.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Cormac McCarthy, of course, is a great voice of the southwest. He’s lived among the cowboys and brawlers he writes about. In Cities of the Plain, Billy Parham strikes an owl with his truck half an hour from Marfa on Highway 166. And McCarthy has a great ear for the local parlance. “You know how they used to slaughter beeves?” says the sheriff in No Country for Old Men. “Hit ‘em right there with a maul, truss ‘em up, slit their throats? Here ole’ Charlie’s got one all trussed up, all set to drain him, and the beef comes to, starts thrashing around. Six hundred pounds of very pissed off livestock, if you’ll excuse the…” McCarthy also knows the change West Texas has seen, from the Apache who were fully literate in reading the land; to settlers who knew how to let the land take care of them but who took too much; to ranchers who ran so many sheep and cattle that the ecosystem changed; to the generation of my family who had cattle but whose expertise was in machines, in using dozers to build roads and dirt tanks; to Midland oilmen who were rich enough to buy land as the price was bid up, whose tractors were toys but who got their boots dirty; now to heirs and magnates so busy they hardly have time to visit their ranches, which are empty of animals and only ranches in name; their use of the land is cosmetic. In The Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s characters end up in the no-man’s-land beyond a version of this narrative.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Town itself is the place I return to. Once a week I make the thirty-eight mile drive in from the ranch to get the mail—and imagine that the women at Jett’s Grill aren’t on vacation with their husbands. The ritual of shaving, putting on clean clothes, and driving in from the hinterlands, I see in context of people who have been going to town for generations, the push-pull of solitude and community, the conflict between urban and rural, and the way both can be nurturing.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Iconic but not quite literary: Shorthorns football games, Pinto Canyon Road, the Marfa Lights, and the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains that offers a view so sweeping as to seem planetary.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Some nights, you have to ask what’s going on to know that most of town didn’t go to sleep at 8 p.m. Many gatherings are little hidden cities, tucked into kitchens, in a field around open tailgates, at stock tanks turned into swimming holes.

Where does passion live here?

Marfa is tiny to the point of not being more than a few open stores. Town gives way to grassland as abruptly as a fence line. Even the coffee shop has to double as a laundromat. A miniscule fulltime population selects out the histrionic and pretentious for the almost continual absence of anyone to impress who stays beyond a weekend. There are amazing nights in town: Lannan readings at the Marfa Book Company, acts at the Crowley Theater, and music at Padres. Built in a derelict funeral home, Padres, a bar, books country, folk, and Tejano bands, and its mission since opening has seemed to be to unite Marfa’s disparate personalities. On days with big events, I think of how lucky we are to have a town of under two thousand people with the ambition of a decent sized capital to keep its people inspired.

What is the title of one of your works about Marfa and what inspired it exactly?

I’m nearly finished with a novel called The Wild Common People. It’s set on my great uncle’s ranch, which he bought in the seventies, and the plot slips in and out of Marfa. My beat as a writer has been at the fringes of society, in the same places I like to live, where people are still in context, where what they do to sustain themselves wasn’t invented last year, where folks like cowboys and hunters and stone masons are connected to the earth. The privilege of living here, on set, as it were, has given me what I hope is the authority to write about people who feel they belong to West Texas.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Marfa does an outside exist?”

On a September morning, I finally set out for the Harper’s ranch, south of Marfa, where the ground is so dry it looks as if it were meant for nothing beyond fending off the sun. The road to the ranch house rose so gradually that I was shocked when I stepped out of the car to find myself on a rise with views over canyon country stretching clear to Mexico. Old man Harper wore a brown nylon vest and blue jeans with the top button undone. Though he used a walker, he’d ridden his horse weekly until that January, when he fell with his horse in pasture, breaking five ribs, his collarbone, and puncturing a lung. He’d called his grandson Cleat on the cell phone in his pocket, and Cleat called Border Patrol. While lying on the ground, old man Harper directed in a Border Patrol helicopter that flew him to the hospital.

His wife, Francis, was ninety and still nimble. Her family reaches back nearly as far as anyone’s can in this country, to 1877. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that Victorio and Nana, hunted down by the U.S. military, were no longer leading free Apaches through the borderlands. Some of the ranch Francis grew up on was part of the ranch she and Ted still owned. She’d been off that land for just three of the ninety years she’d been alive. “When you’re born in a place you just belong there,” she said. “And you’ve got to be there.” Ted’s family had arrived in the area when he was in his twenties, seventy years prior, and he still called himself a newcomer.

Once Ted got comfortable having me in his living room, he made clear without trying that he was a gifted storyteller, as he rattled off tales of immigrants, horse trading, and life in Marfa. The narrative took him inevitably to the loss of their daughter Amy, which Francis called the calamity of their life. Amy had been hauling home two tons of feed in her pickup and had flipped it rounding a curve. Rolled several times. A man with the last name of Webb found her. Webb, himself, was later killed by immigrants, who took his money and his truck and crossed back into Mexico.

One of Amy’s sons, Sandy, was at the ranch with his own family on the day I visited. After the death of his mother, when he was just thirteen, he’d called and told Ted he wanted to move to the ranch. The old man had said, “You’re going to have to work. It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have to be with me and working.” And Sandy had said, “Grandpa, I already figured on that.” As I sat with three generations of Harpers, I felt a great power in their sense of place. Ted’s stories followed one after another, and I understood that the Harpers were free of the itch for movement. As Mari Sandoz wrote in Old Jules, they had “no need to escape living with themselves.” For many people, a sense of place comes from an apartment or a house, hunkered down against a city within a fence. Or place is a relationship, home the location of one’s family. The Harpers had all these things and more: place as land, as family, as spiritual bedrock—place as fortress. The way the Harpers interacted with their ranch, physically and emotionally, was tribal. This was their tribal land, and for Francis being off it was unnatural. By comparison, the connection of those of us in the art world to Marfa and its environs is a fad. To borrow the thoughts of writer Juan Estevan Arellano, People like the Harpers have become as natural in this landscape as ocotillo. Their memory has assumed the form of the landscape itself. If they lose their land, they lose their collective memory.

Perhaps it ruins art to ask it to reference place. But if the story of the art world is to mesh with the story of old Marfa, shouldn’t art do more than use the Trans Pecos as a backdrop? Prada Marfa, with its designer shoes and handbags displayed on the empty highway, might make for interesting art, but it makes for poor history. The installation is art because it does not belong, because it creates a juxtaposition between frivolous consumerism and the town of Valentine, which is a sad, shuttered, and nearly jobless place not so different from the town Marfa could have been. If we treat Marfa as little more than an exotic playground for art geniuses, we recreate the ethos of Prada Marfa within ourselves. And we risk that lifelong residents will say, as Rousseau quoted Seneca, “Ever since the Learned have begun to appear among us, good Men have been in eclipse.” Those of us not born in West Texas can try to make the memories, of those who were, our own. Then the place might become ours, too.


David McDannald is an American writer. After two years on Wall Street, he left New York to live and write on a ranch in the West Texas mountains near Marfa. He now splits his time between caring for the cattle herd, fighting off half-crazed emus, and traveling in remote areas of Africa and South America. He is the co-author of The Last Great Ape: A Journey through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent, recently published by Pegasus Books. His writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, the Huffington Post, Sierra Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, and Connecticut Review. He is at work on two novels, one set in West Texas, the other in East Africa.

NH’s Discovery of the Month:

Someone told me, you’ll find the darkest skies here. I wasn’t sure what that meant until I saw interminable blue turn into ash into infinite black, until I saw an opus of starlight where noise has no place, where quiet meets the heart, and time crosses light. From the moment I saw the desert en route from El Paso to Marfa, I knew I was going to live something special and be impacted in a way I wasn’t expecting. This treasured journey to Marfa is thanks to the Lannan Foundation, where I was a Lannan Writer in Residence Fellow this summer.

Entering the city, I passed Prada Marfa  (coproduced by the Art Production Fund of New York City and Ballroom Marfa, a nonprofit cultural space), and within days, was familiar with many of the main actors—Donald Judd (Judd Foundation & Chinati Foundation), Cobra Rock Boot Company, Hotel Paisano (where Giant—1956—was filmed), El Cosmico, the reclaimed 1959 Thunderbird Motel, The Big Bend Sentinel, Marfa Radio, The Crowley Theatre—it’s façade, fading grey yellow sepia, inside a wonderfully rustic space for performance and talks, Food Shark, Padre’s (favorite band I heard while there, the Thrift Store Cowboys), Cochineal (the owners were my neighbors in New York City), Lost Horse Saloon, and my two favorites—Marfa Book Company, owned by the wonderful Tim Johnson, a bookstore where the Lannan Reading Series is head, an exhibition space, and most importantly, a vital pulse in the local community. His companion, Caitlin Murray, works for the Judd Foundation and kindly gave me a guided tour of Judd’s house. She spent an entire year cataloging the Judd Library, which can be found online. And Squeeze Marfa, where I had my espressos every morning and chatted with the energetic Swiss German owner Verena Zbinden-Vollenweider, who I instantly connected with. She also sells in her café, crazy delicious Vollenweider chocolates from Switzerland—my weakness. The dark chocolate with pistachio was impossible to resist.

Marfa is also it’s surroundings: Chihuahuan Desert & Big Bend, water and its healing sources—Cíbolo, Ciénega and Morita springs, Balmorhea State Park and Madera Valley, Pecos River and Rio Grande, and from the Chinati Mountains an astounding view stretching to Mexico. Through the Davis Mountains, turning off the highway and driving to the summits of Mt. Locke and Mt. Fowles, you will reach McDonald Observatory (1939). I went to a star party one evening and fell in love with Saturn.

It’s impossible not to contemplate the origin of destiny or think about the dynamics of space while here. What does this endlessness mean? How does it separate and unite thought, and the spirit. How did it enter the pages of my mind? Under such mystery, you are offered a close up of yourself. One night, while stargazing on Pinto Canyon Road, I thought of a particular literary event in the United Kingdom in 1999, or perhaps it was 2000. I was a student at the University of London at the time, and Joel Nelson from Alpine went to Northumberland, England to take part in the Poetry Society Poetry Places scheme. I was told he was an important figure in the revival of Cowboy Poetry, and also a rancher and stockman. While there he met with farming families, visited schools, attended shows and gave readings. At the time, Texas was far from my mind. Yet something about the Cowboys Poets intrigued me enough that I kept the pieces about this event. I couldn’t have ever imagined that over a decade later, I would be living in the United States and writing a book about my journey to becoming American in West Texas. While working on this entry, I looked at the pieces about the Cowboy Poets in England that I kept for so many years, and accidentally fell upon again at this very conjuncture, and smiled—such mystifying deeply connecting moments, take my breath away.

I grew fond of my light blue bicycle. It took me to most places, usually five or so minutes away. It also took me on long rides. I often stopped to photograph and think about a persisting question people abroad ask me: Does the American Dream still exist?

My last night in Marfa was like finding wonderland—the perfect red, orange, yellow, the exquisite gold of the sunset deepening, the wide field and sky gracefully joining. The stars gradually appearing. The moon particularly bright. It was the kind of night that makes you think you might suddenly love a soul you’ve just crossed or that your notion of home suddenly becomes touchable. Where the patterns you never saw around you suddenly become clear under the moonlight—so translucent. And the numbers you’ve used as connecting maps suddenly find a way to intersect. But you stay still. Because the moon demands it of you. And despite your desire to rush to its brightness, you have to wait for it to open completely, like the room of twelve stars that will take you through the constellation before it delivers you back to yourself.

And I thought of the great gift of being able to commit to and spend my life in the universe of words, and paused at the confirmation that if the American dream wasn’t still alive, I wouldn’t to here. Nor would I be able to dedicate time to understanding landscapes that have haunted and nourished me. I’m not from Marfa but I can read the desert—an exquisite solitude writing verses with emptiness.

In a place so infinite, everything is a poem—the cactus beside you, the moon-shadows around you, the person in front of you. The day after I left, it rained. The rain, I missed, I keep imaging. Like I keep imaging all I still need to see and feel there. Marfa twisted my spirit into harmony but I have no idea where it’s taken me to exactly, where it’s left me to begin.

Published Jul 31, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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