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In Texas, Bright Lights, Small City

They're called the Marfa lights after the nearest town, a low-lying little burg of 2,424 that supposedly got its name, in turn, from a character in Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" (that being the book the railroad executive's wife, who suggested the moniker, was reading when she and her husband passed through this railway watering stop in the late 1800s). Marfa can make a few other claims to fame. It has one of the most beautiful courthouses in Texas, it was the location of the 1956 Elizabeth Taylor-Rock Hudson-James Dean movie "Giant," and it's home to the Chinati Foundation, a celebrated museum of contemporary art begun on an old military base by the late sculptor Donald Judd two decades ago.

Along with mile-high Fort Davis (pop. approximately 1,000) and the appropriately mountainous Alpine (the "big city," with a population of about 6,000), Marfa forms an equilateral triangle enclosing a swath of desert terrain out of which rise majestic volcanic mountain peaks, many higher than 6,000 feet. It's an arid, otherwordly beauty -- like the landscape of the moon, or Mars, maybe, but for the scrubby grasses and bushes, yucca and cactus that stipple the flats and the mountainsides, and the cottonwoods that hug the creek banks. There's sky -- blue as lapis on glorious days or roiling with thunderheads on stormy ones -- every way you turn. Desert though it is, the climate's actually a draw; in the old days, wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs from Dallas and Houston traveled to the Davis Mountains to put up at the Limpia Hotel and enjoy the dry air and pleasant breezes. Yes, the temperatures can reach 110 degrees in the shade, but as you've no doubt heard, when it's this dry, you don't feel it.

What you do feel is the haunting nature of the place, the way it launches you back to another time. A frontier time, when people led hardscrabble lives and braved the wilderness and the elements to make a home in an inhospitable place, where water was scarce and other people scarcer.

The cattle ranchers who staked out vast tracts of scrubland for their steers had to have what it takes to persevere here. Even today, a handful of ranchers, descendants of the first settlers, still control most of the land in and around Fort Davis. At least that's what the elderly lady minding the desk one day in the town's curio-filled Overland Trail Museum told me. (A dusty, unpaved stretch of the local "overland trail," the San Antonio-El Paso stagecoach road that ferried 19th-century travelers between the two towns, still runs through the heart of Fort Davis.) "They decide who gets to move in and who doesn't," she said conspiratorially, as I leafed through a bin of old, laminated turn-of-the-20th-century photos. My husband and I were her only visitors that day. "That's why you don't see a McDonald's or any chain stores around here," she said. "They want to keep Main Street looking like it did 100 years ago."

She didn't sound exactly happy about that, but I was. None of us missed McDonald's. And fast, I'm sorry, just isn't the mode in these parts. "What's your hurry?" Betty Nunnally, the proprietor of Starr's Emporium in Fort Davis, chided my menfolk when they tried to pry me away from her eclectic shop on our most recent trip. "You're in far west Texas now. You got to slo-o-o-w down."

Seems like the right prescription to me. Fits the spell of this place. It tickles me that our cell phone doesn't work everywhere down here, that the Limpia and its sister hostel, the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, don't have phones in the rooms. I love that you might see someone riding horseback down the highway, that you can catch the occasional glint of spur on someone's cowboy boots around town, that one of the oldest working dude ranches is around the bend from Fort Davis. I savor the sense of having stepped into another world, of being in a place that, while modern enough, is still cut off from the narcissistic, plugged-in present.

So I'm sure you'll understand my reaction when, after having read that Marfa's experiencing a yuppie boomlet, I saw a couple of bikers in full tight-shorted, speed-helmeted racing regalia working the scenic loop the day we drove it last July. "Where did you come from?" I screamed. (Don't worry, the car windows were all up.) "Go away!"

The Marfa lights have been around since at least 1883, when a rancher by the name of Robert Reed Ellison supposedly first saw them shining in the distance as he bedded down in the desert one night. Ellison assumed they were Indian campfires. Only when he rode out the next day to the area where he'd spotted them, he found -- cue "Twilight Zone" music -- no remains of any campfires.

Today, there's an official viewing area erected by the Texas Department of Transportation, complete with telescopes and restrooms. It's a little weird to have someone lay out the red carpet for what some people think could be UFO landing lights, but it's nice to be told where to have the best look-see.

Of course, "best" in this case is relative. In fact, it's downright idiosyncratic. For they say that everyone sees the Marfa lights differently. You can be standing right next to someone who's ooh-ing and aah-ing and essentially see . . . nothing. That was my experience the first time out: One of the boys or my husband would point and say "There!" and I'd ask, "Where?" I didn't see many that time, nor on our most recent trip this summer, when the lights seemed sluggish and coy.


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