MARFA – The human foot consists of 20 muscles and 28 bones. An indefinable mix of reason, emotion, pride, vanity and God only knows what else make up the human psyche. When western boot maker Colt Miller sets to work his unusual task is to fit for both the foot and the person attached to it.
Hunched over a cluttered table in his workshop on South Highland Avenue in Marfa, he patiently tools a pair of custom cowboy boots for his girlfriend of the past five years. The complex inlay depicts her namesake, Mt. Logan, in tri-colored calfskin. In the end he’ll spend upwards of 60 hours working on this pair.
It starts simple enough. He traces the outline of each foot and takes down certain measurements: instep, toe box, width, length and the like. But Miller’s handiwork brings dirt kickers to another level – replete with a whole spectrum of colors and different types of leather, intricate inlays and embroidered designs laden with highly specific, personal symbols.
“I’ve noticed that it’s a lot of the cowboys who want the most flamboyant boots,” Miller says.
But of the 50 or so pairs he has crafted in the past seven years, only about half went to cow folk. The rest outfit concrete dwellers, those concerned less with rattlesnakes and mesquite thorns than with fashion.
Since cowboy boots appeared in the late 1800s, (a close cousin of military boots designed specifically for riding on horseback all day long), they have been subject to the whims of every generation, from polyester paisley to Ralph Lauren.
Despite, or perhaps because of this enduring demand for western wear, one-man operations like Miller’s Cobra Rock Boots are a rarity these days.
Colt Miller at work in his workshop. (staff photo by ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN)
At the Justin boot factory in El Paso a computer-programmed embroidery machine replaced 100 workers who used to do the ornate stitchings. The factory churns out 1,000 pairs of boots a day.
Miller averages one pair of boots a week, on a good week.
While still an enduring symbol of Americanism with a capital A, modern cowboy boots are predominately manufactured overseas: another commodity in an ever-globalizing economy. In all, the value of US production of men’s western style boots fell 40 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the US Census Bureau.
Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Tony Lama line is outsourced, while between 75 and 80 percent of the Justin Boots brand are crafted in China and Mexico.
Cobra Rock Boots are made from start to finish by 30-year-old Miller, who grew up in Borden County, Texas, about 70 miles south of Lubbock, the son of a cowboy and a schoolteacher. The nearest town to his family’s ranch boasts a population of 180 and a Main Street full of shuttered business, save the post office.
After studying geography and financial planning at Texas Tech, Miller returned home in search of a job he could hold down while still playing guitar in a touring country band called the Thrift Store Cowboys.
Then he met a boot maker in Post, who taught him the time-honored trade in exchange for guitar lessons. After a yearlong apprenticeship, Miller made his first pair of handmade boots for his granddad.
“It was finally something where I could be creative. I was always too self-conscious to do anything in school,” Miller says.
He moved to Marfa in August and now spends much of his time either working on boot orders or touring with Thrift Store Cowboys, whose fourth studio album came out in October.
A pair of Cobra Rock boots runs $600 for an all custom design and fit; $525 for a standard fit, designed to suit; and $300 for custom lace-up western ankle boots.
The design aspect of Miller’s work is time consuming and totally personalized, but he says it’s a good fit that makes or breaks the deal, often after 40+ hours of labor:
“You do a lot of sweating just measuring someone and shaping the last. You won’t really know until they try them on”.
Cobra Rock Boot Company is located at 207 South Highland Avenue, just north of Marfa National Bank. Samples of Miller’s work can be seen online at cobrarock.com.
from the Friday, April 29 edition of the New York Times and Texas Tribune:
photo by Alberto Tomas (Beto) Halpern/Associated Press
Wildfires overran parts of Fort Davis, Tex., in early April, destroying more than 60 homes in West Texas and killing livestock and horses.
By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: April 28, 2011
These are strange days in Texas. A severe drought gripping the entire state, unseasonably high temperatures, unusually low humidity and exceptionally gusty winds have created a perfect storm for wildfires, which have erupted statewide like never before. Horrible images of homes burned to the ground, property destroyed, and livestock, wildlife and human fatalities are impossible to escape.
The Texas Tribune
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Unfortunately, the greatest chronicler of such dire conditions — the person everyone in Texas turned to for perspective — is no longer with us to make sense of it all. It’s fair to ask, rhetorically: What would Elmer Kelton say?
Mr. Kelton was the farm and ranch editor for The San Angelo Standard-Times from 1948 to 1963. He was also the longtime associate editor of Livestock Weekly and the author of several dozen western novels. His finest work, “The Time It Never Rained,” published in 1973, focused on the historic seven-year drought of the 1950s as told through Charlie Flagg, the hard-headed, independent-minded protagonist.
If anyone knew about drought, wildfires and making a living from running livestock on the range west of the 98th meridian, it was Mr. Kelton. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009. But his son, Steve Kelton, is alive and well and living in San Angelo.
Steve Kelton, who now edits Livestock Weekly, remembers clearly that his father considered the period of time spent covering the 1950s drought for the San Angelo newspaper the most traumatic in his life. “I’d long since run out of new ways to say ‘dry,’ ” the father had told the son.
What would the elder Mr. Kelton write about today’s news? That there is an upside — a silver lining. “Dad was always a firm believer that nothing was black and white, nothing was all good or all bad,” Steve Kelton said.
“Fire can be good for brush control, if it’s a good, hot fire; these should be pretty effective in that regard,” he said in droll understatement, referring to the so-called Wildcat fires that have raged over 159,000 acres north of San Angelo in the west-central part of the state, threatening to engulf the towns of Robert Lee, Tennyson and Bronte.
Indeed, for all its obvious negatives, fire was part of the life cycle of the arid western range long before humans settled the region and tried to tame the land, instinctively suppressing wildfires whenever possible. Today, when conditions are right, many landowners intentionally burn their property because, as Steve Kelton noted, “it will improve things.”
He cited the destruction of nuisance species like prickly pear, mesquite and ashe juniper — a k a cedar — and brushy undercover that compete with native grasses. “There are a lot of caveats to that,” Mr. Kelton added. “You have to have rain, but if it comes all at once, you lose all the topsoil.”
But if the rain falls gradually, the first land that will green up and spring back to life is that which burned. “A really hot fire brings out woody vegetation that deer, birds, and even goats and sheep like to eat,” Mr. Kelton said. “Their seed needs fire to germinate.”
He made the same observation about the Texas rangeland that critics have made about forest management in the American West: the human tendency to suppress fire at first sight has created a buildup of dry tinder that makes any wildfire that manages to break out “bigger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kelton said. “But we also have the technology and the people on the ground to fight them, so we’ve got a trade-off.
“During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we went 13 years with a really severe drought out here,” he said. “Then it rained.” The country was left so depleted, he said, that there were no cattle or sheep left to eat the grasses that sprang up; so in 2006, the worst year for wildfires in Texas on record until this year, “when it burned, it burned extra hot.”
Despite the horrific loss of property, livestock and wildlife this year, the longer view finds something to look forward to in the wake of the destruction.
“This is survivor country,” Mr. Kelton said. “It puts on its best clothes when it rains after a long drought.”
Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” (Texas A&M Press).
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI Photos by Laura Wilson and Jason Schmidt July 2001
Each page is shown with the original layout (text is below each image for ease in reading).
Seven years after Donald Judd’s death, the residents of a cow town in far west Texas-caught in the middle of an estate war between the renowned artist’s former lover and his children-are plastering this question on every store window and car bumper they can find.
“It is my hope that my works of art will be preserved where they are installed.” – Donald Judd
Images: “It’s his version of cathedrals.” Judd’s permanent installations at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. And: Donald Judd, 1994.
"It’s not a healthy thing, to inherit someone’s life,” Laments Rainer Judd, the 30-year-old daughter of artist Donald Judd, after settling into a folding chair in the conference room of her father’s Print Building, formerly the old Crews Hotel in Marfa, Texas. A long rifle in a hand-tooled leather rifle holder with the initials DJ is propped in the corner, within arm’s reach.
A small town in the high Chihuahua Desert, Marfa is smack-dab in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, 200 miles from the nearest airport with scheduled service. It’s so isolated and lightly settled (population 2,121) that the vistas go on forever-mountains 80 miles distant are clearly visible on most days-and the nighttime skies are among the darkest in North America.
It’s an unlikely setting for a bitter, soap opera-like dispute over a renowned artist’s multimillion-dollar empire, a dispute that began as a tug-of-war between Judd’s two grown children and Marianne Stockebrand, the striking German woman with whom Judd, who died in 1994, spent the last seven years of his life, and that has escalated into an epic battle engaging the whole community. Should Marfa be frozen in time as a monument to what Judd accomplished there, or should it evolve into a creative mecca with galleries and shops? Indeed, what should art be: a thing in itself-pure and inviolable, static and unchanging, as Judd posited in his writings – or a cultural catalyst, as the town’s most recent newcomers would have it?
Image: A bedroom at the Marfa compound.
It’s not necessarily a healthy thing for a town to try to sort out Donald Judd’s legacy, either. But that’s what Maria has been doing, especially since last October, when art pilgrims began finding their way to this remote place in growing numbers to behold the Dan Flavin “Marfa Project,” an untitled permanent installation of 360 fluorescent tubes in the barracks of an army camp that Judd turned into the Chinati Foundation (named for the mountain range between the site and the Rio Grande, with Mexico beyond).
After the pilgrims see the Flavin, and after they see Judd’s 100 aluminum cubes housed in two airplane hangar-size artillery sheds, Judd’s giant concrete cubes scattered across half a mile of grassland, the Claes Oldenburg horseshoe that perfectly frames Cathedral Mountain, Ilya Kabakov’s too-close-for-comfort recreation of a Russian schoolhouse abandoned upon the fall of the Soviet Union, and the works of Roni Horn, Carl Andre, and John Wesley, they eventually find their way into town, where no matter where they go they’re confronted with a cryptic question, posited on the rear bumpers of SUVs and crew cabs, across the fronts of T-shirts, and in the windows of stores: WWDJD? (What Would Donald Judd Do?, a takeoff of the teen Christian slogan What Would Jesus Do?).
The question goes a long way toward explaining the unusual connection between a cow town and a prominent artist who hated galleries and museums so much that he created his own art universe in far west Texas. It also speaks of the shadow Judd continues to cast, seven years after his death at the age of 65, and the endless rounds of second-guessing over what he had in mind when he stipulated in his will that a trust be created to protect his private holdings and collections, and then in a deathbed codicil named Marianne Stockebrand (whom he tapped before his death to succeed him as director of the Chinati Foundation) as an additional executor of his estate-along with his daughter Rainer, his now 33-year-old son Flavin, and his longtime attorney John J. Jerome and declared that Stockebrand “shall be in charge of the operation of any museum facility conducted by the trust.”
Images clockwise from top left: Flavin and Rainer Judd, April 2001; the Ayala de Chinati ranch; Dan Flavin’s "Marfa Project"; Marianne Stockebrand, April 2001.
These latter instructions, which led to Stockebrand’s appointment as director of the trust, called the Judd Foundation, in addition to her duties at the Chinati, are what ignited the debate over his legacy.
Jerome declined his executorship, and Stockebrand gave hers up in 1996 in exchange for certain Judd artworks and payment of legal fees she incurred. But Rainer and Flavin Judd are now feuding with Stockebrand over what portions of Judd’s estate qualify as museums and thus fall under Stockebrand’s jurisdiction, even as the estate is in the process of transferring Judd’s assets to the Judd Foundation.
Unlike Rainer, Marianne Stockebrand has no problem inheriting someone’s life, since it’s Donald Judd’s. She feels it’s her professional responsibility. Indeed, she seems to have been practically predestined for the job. Stockebrand came from an upper-class family in Cologne and earned a Ph.D. in art history from Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich. She had a successful career as a curator at the Krefelder Kunstmuseen and as director of the Westf’Šlischer Kunstverein in MŸnster and the Kšlnischer Kunstverein in Cologne, where she met Judd, who was a high-profile celebrity in Germany.
In the years before he died Stockebrand was his Boswell-helping him write catalogs and prepare exhibitions-as well as his lover. Since his passing there’s been no other man in the 55-year-old Stockebrand’s life. The Chinati is her convent.
Rainer and Elavin Judd are the supplicants in this passion play, ostracized by much of Marfa for adhering strictly to the tenets laid down by their father, at least as they understood them. After leaving each child $300,000, Donald Judd requested that they oversee disposition of his estate, worth somewhere between $30 million and $60 million but saddled with more than $5.5 million in debt when lymphoma finally took him down. The still unresolved settlement has run up legal and accounting bills exceeding $2 million and has been so time-consuming that both of Judd’s offspring had to put their budding film careers on hold. Aspiring actress /screenwriter Rainer lives in Los Angeles, while aspiring director Flavin still lives in Marfa, having used his inheritance to buy the Porter House, one of Judd’s residences.
What Would Donald Judd Do? continued
Rainer and Flavin contend that Judd’s extensive holdings should be preserved as they are-a testament to the vision of one of the art giants of the 20th century-and they have Judd’s own words to back them up: “Too often, I believe, the meaning of a work of art is lost as a result of a thoughtless or unsuitable placement of the work for display,” his will reads. “The installation of my own work, for example, as well as that of others, is contemporary with its creation, and the space surrounding the work is crucial to it. Frequently as much thought has gone into the placement of a piece as into the piece itself. It is my hope that such of my works of art which I own at the time of my death will be preserved where they are installed.”
Rainer echoes her father’s sentiments: “The art and architecture are related just as much as frescoes in cathedrals are. It’s his version of cathedrals. It’s about creating something more sacred than museums.” The Chinati Foundation has advanced Judd’s concept of the permanent installation to a point where other institutions are using it as a blueprint. But the foundation differs with the Judd kids when it comes to determining what to keep and what to sell. Stockebrand is willing to consider disposing of some of Judd’s property-in particular the Print Building in Marfa and, in the heart of New York’s Soho neighborhood, 10 1 Spring Street (the five-story building Judd purchased in 1968 where the seeds of this new art movement first bore fruit)to advance his better-known public works. The kids say this is tantamount to blasphemy.
Newcomers to Marfa-painters, printmakers, potters, gallery people also have a stake in the dispute, since it speaks so directly to what Marfa will become. They’re championing the community as a rising colony of creativity, not to mention a pleasant weekend getaway-if you have a private jet. Many even say it’s the next Santa Fe-not too far-fetched a comparison, since Marfa has the same dry climate, the same sharp light, and the same blend of desert and mountains. But a large percentage of Marfa residents think Santa Fe is horrible and that the kinds of people it attracts would reduce Marfa to a pop imitation of its former self Which moves the old guard, which remembers it as a ranching town landlocked by cattle kingdoms the size of small states, to wonder what the hell is going on.
"I’m the optimist in the family,” maintains Rainer Judd, who offers her early recollections of Marfa-which were formed by a contentious custody fight-as evidence that she has a different perspective from most of the art crowd. Donald Judd and Rainer’s mother, Julie Finch, a dancer, were still married when he rented a summer house here in 197 1. They divorced in 1976, shortly after Judd took up permanent residence. Then, in May 1977, he practically kidnapped his children, picking them up at school in New York City as if they were going on a weekend outing and flying them to Marfa. Rainer was six; Flavin was nine. The legal battle ultimately wound up at the Presidio County Court House. Judd was awarded custody. “I knew he’d won,” Rainer says, “by the way he was driving his pickup so fast up the road.
“We had a house on a hill with a windmill, and we all had horses,” she remembers fondly. “It was very western. I dressed like a cowboy until a sweet little lady showed me cowgirl clothes.” Rainer and Flavin attended Marfa schools through the end of junior high, but their lives were hardly typical of small-town kids. Judd pulled them out of school a month early so they could spend summers traveling in Europe. “We were one-fourth European, really” Rainer says. Weekends during the rest of the year were reserved for the Ayala de Chinati ranch, the property Judd valued most of all his holdings. “I’d always want to take a friend, because there was no electricity, no hot water,” says Rainer. “We read by candlelight.” And Judd treated her and her friends like adults. “We’d sit by the fire and talk. It developed in me a wondering type of thinking, free to ask questions. Some parents take their kids hunting or to Disneyland. Driving to the land, making fires, and talking was his gift.
“That seems so long ago,” Rainer says,sighing, as she returns to reality What this 5 all about now is numbers. It’s not the kids wanting to have a good time.”
DEAR MOM. VAN HORN TEXAS. 1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN. BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY. MOUNTAINS. LOVE DON.
Donald Judd first laid eyes on these bare mountains in 1946, an Army soldier on the way to Korea via Fort McClellan, Alabama, and Los Angeles. The scenery inspired him to send a telegram to his mother back home in Missouri.
Twenty-five years later-after helping to usher in the cool school of minimalism in the early 1960s, scoring a retrospective at the Whitney when he was still under 40, and creating an art presence in Soho before it became Soho-Judd ran out of patience with what he described as “the harsh and glib situation within art in New York” and decided to move west.
He honed in on Marfa, an Anglo-Mexican community that had lost about half its population over the previous 30 years, where property was cheap and abundant. Judd began buying land (three ranches totaling more than 40,000 acres) and restoring vacant houses and buildings, including a bank, a supermarket, and a locker plant, which he turned into, among other things, a writing house, a library, an architect’s office, and a studio. He employed as many as 60 people more workers than any other single company in Marfa-to create what would amount to Juddville. He even bought the Kingston Hot Springs near the Rio Grande, which had been used by locals for more than 200 years, and closed it to the public.
In the mid-’70s the Dia Foundation, underwritten by Houston oil heiress Philippa de Menil Friedrich and her husband Heiner Friedrich, a former art dealer from Germany, began funding artists working outside conventional gallery settings (Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field near Pie Town, New Mexico, is one of their better-known projects) and purchased the 340-acre Fort D.A. Russell, which is south of town, to permanently exhibit works by Judd and his friends. But in the mid-’80s Dia cut off funding due to slumping oil prices. Judd threatened to sue for breach of contract, eventually settling out of court. He got the fort and the artwork, and reorganized them as the Chinati Foundation, which officially opened in 1986.
Marianne Stockebrand too was struck by the landscapes and all the space when she first laid eyes on Marfa, in 1989; she was in the company of Donald Judd. “Coming from Europe, I was surprised by how far you could drive without seeing another car. The distances were startling.” She was putting together a show of Judd’s furniture and architecture projects for the Kšlnischer Kunstverein and was editing previously published essays for a book on his architecture when their relationship became more than professional. Judd was as drawn to the brown-eyed woman with the prominent, finely sculpted cheekbones as she was to him.
“He had a place in Cologne and opened a studio there,” recalls Stockebrand. “And he asked me to come here and work at Chinati. When he was diagnosed, that didn’t happen. “The two did, however, talk of marriage as Judd lay dying in a New York hospital.
When Stockebrand became its director, the Chinati Foundation had less than $500 in the bank. Since then, she has built a $2 million endowment, with a long-term target of $14 million to finish what Judd intended: preparing his concrete buildings to exhibit a large amount of his artwork currently in storage, creating a permanent installation for John Wesley’s paintings, and documenting the site’s military history.
But Stockebrand didn’t just have to learn how to run a struggling foundation; she had to learn Marfa. “When she first came here, English was clearly her second language,” one acquaintance recalls. “She was frosty in a Germanic way-very, very rigid. You’d never see her out in the community But the years have softened her. She shows up at parties. She attends events. She’s much more integrated. Don Judd was a daunting figure. She can be that too. I wouldn’t want to cross her.”
Stockebrand lives in the heart of Juddville, between the old bank and old Safeway buildings Judd bought, and across the street from the Marfa Wool and Mohair building, where John Chamberlain’s car wreck metal sculptures are exhibited. “She’s the only person I’ve encountered who can live that minimalist lifestyle,” a friend says, describing the small, Spartan residence, a block from the main drag, that Stockebrand shares with her two cats. No art or sentimental photographs adorn the walls, and furnishings are sparse, dominated by a Donald Judd desk.
She’s a regular at the bookstore, she lunches at the coffee shop, and sometimes she shows up at art functions, but otherwise Stockebrand sticks to Chinati affairs, in Marfa and around the world. She clearly enjoys living in a place where she can be left alone. And yet she’s also palpably happy about the way the Chinati has revitalized the community: “I wouldn’t want to see this as an artists’ colony in a kitschy sort of way-one souvenir shop next to another-but I think it’s very nice to be able to buy olive oil here and have it on a salad with lettuce that wasn’t wilted last week, as it used to be.”
But while she has acclimated herself to Marfa, and the financial situation at the Chinati has improved, Stockebrand remains embroiled in the wrapping up of the estate, which has pitted her against the Judd kids. She believes the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation should be managed as a single entity. “From the artistic point of view, they should be done together,” she contends. “It’s all Judd’s work. It’s this tiny town in Texas. Cohesion in planning and fund-raising makes sense.” Such a merger, of course, would also bolster the Chinati’s financial footing by eliminating competition for funding and allowing the combined foundation to sell off portions of the Judd estate when and if the public works project is threatened.
“Everything doesn’t have to merge together like some great corporation,” counters Rainer Judd. “Marianne doesn’t want this [print] building here to exist. She believes it’s not a permanent installation, and therefore isn’t valid. It’s a permanent exhibit. What’s wrong with that? That’s what he wanted. They’ve tried to get us to sell Spring Street before it’s transferred to the Judd Foundation. But we can’t bend [on that]. We’re Judd’s kids. We’re the spine.”
Richard Schlagman, owner of the art book publishing company Phaidon Press and president of the Judd Foundation, backs the kids up. “We absolutely don’t want to sell Spring Street,” Schlagman says. “Not at all. Ever. In my view it wasn’t an actual desire to sell it on Marianne’s part but a lack of seeing that it could be saved. I’m sure we can have both Maria and Spring Street.”
Flavin Judd lays his cards on the table over breakfast burritos and green chile huevos rancheros at Carmen’s Cafe (TIE YOUR HORSE AND COME ON IN, reads the sign out front), while his wife Michele nurses and fusses with their one-year-old son, Pascal. Flavin makes it clear that neither he nor his sister asked for the job of executor, and they sure as hell didn’t know they’d have all the debt to clear up. “It’s a lousy situation: all these vultures hovering, all these people pretending to care about the art and about Don.”
Flavin has put the Porter House up for sale again. He’s tired of Maria and Marfa art and Maria art politics, of the pressure to either settle the estate or resign as executor. “They’ve used figures of authority to scare us,” he says. “They want us out. But we’re not going anywhere. They don’t understand. We didn’t grow up with authority figures. We were always told that figures of authority don’t know a fucking thing about art. Turns out it was true.”
While the foundations duke it out and the Texas attorney general’s office attempts to stop the continued bleeding of the estate and make sure Judd’s assets are properly dispersed in accordance with the state’s charitable trust laws, the town-art synergy has shifted to Lynn and Tim Crowley, the post-Judd “Judds” in Maria. Lynn ran Lynn Goode Gallery in Houston, one of that city’s finer contemporary spaces; Tim is an attorney and sits on the Chinati board. Five years ago, after Lynn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they bought a place in Marfa as a retreat. Now it’s almost a full-time residence. Their Marfa Book Co. has become the social center for the art crowd and much of the rest of the community. And they’ve gone on a buying spree-snatching up property in town and surrounding ranchland-that has inspired comparisons to Judd. With one major difference: Judd closed his houses and buildings to the public; the Crowleys want to open the spaces up, fill them with artists and art, and make them accessible.
Already Marfa is hopping in a way it hasn’t since the movie production of Edna Ferber’s Giant came to town, in 1955. El Paisano Hotel, the Spanish Baroque inn where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and the rest of the cast hung out, is coming back to life as a luxury lodge. Tourists can buy art to take home at Hecho en Marfa, a shop of locally made arts and handicrafts run by the nonprofit Marfa Studio of Arts. And one of the Crowleys’ former bookstore employees has opened up a health food store.
But Tim Crowley says it’s too early to call Marfa the next Santa Fe. ‘Most of our friends from Houston are bewildered,” he says, laughing. “They say, ‘We heard about art, but all we saw were these huge blocks of concrete.’ There’s not much going on. The logistics are daunting. Marfa lacks health care, goods, and services. We don’t have a drug store. We just got an ATM-I don’t think anyone’s used it yet. It’s a tough-love, challenging type place. You have to want to be here. We just got a restaurant to stay open on Sunday. Before then, all you had was microwave chicken nuggets at the convenience store.”
So what would Donald Judd have made of the new Marfa?
Rainer and Flavin Judd think he wouldn’t have embraced it. “He didn’t come here for Marfa,” Flavin says. “He came for the mountains south of here, where the ranches were. If not for my sister and me going to school, he wouldn’t have had much to do with Marfa. He was fed up with the town in 1993. He wanted to move his library down to the ranch.”
By then Judd had achieved a degree of notoriety from some very public run-ins over noise from the local feed mill and ice plant. And odds are he wouldn’t have liked the WWDJD? bumper sticker any more than his daughter does.
“That sticker was created by people who probably never met him,” Rainer notes shortly before leaving town again. “People who think he must have been a megalomaniac to create all this.”
Not a megalomaniac, perhaps, but a serious collector with very specific ideas about the way things should be. Both Stockebrand and the Judd kids are guided by what they think Donald Judd wanted, but getting an honest assessment from anyone else about who is or isn’t on the right track is almost impossible, since so much is riding on what will be done with Judd’s properties and extensive collections. The Crowleys, for example, have offered to buy the Print Building in Marfa; Tim Crowley says that the old Crews Hotel could be a nice hotel once again and that soon-to-be Marfa resident Liz Lambert, who owns the Hotel San Jose in Austin, a vintage motor court made over into a hip boutique lodging, could be the hotelier to do it. And John Vinson, an assistant attorney general involved in the case, has a residence in Marfa, too.
Ayala De Chinati, where Judd is buried, is on a south-facing promontory between the Chinati and Sierra Vieja mountain ranges, overlooking the valley of the Rio Grande a majestic landscape of canyons, peaks, and cliffs wholly devoid of humanity. To see it requires numerous formal requests, several telephone calls to landowners to secure permission to drive across their property without being shot at, signatures on forms on which one promises not to stray from the path, an all-terrain vehicle, and a pair of bolt cutters, since some “asshole landowner,” as an estate employee puts it, has been putting new locks on gates, cutting off access to the place.
It’s 60 miles of bad road from the rim of the Chinatis into Pinto Canyon and down onto the vast slope draining into the Rio Grande-three hours minimum. But when a thunderstorm parks over the Chinatis as darkness falls, dropping buckets of rain (the first rain in almost a year), and the road disappears altogether into a swift-moving stream, it’s flat impossible. So I back up and turn around. Near Marfa there are car lights. (I haven’t seen a car or person since I left town seven hours ago.) It’s the US. Border Patrol. Motion sensors planted in the pavement must have tipped them off. They tail me all the way back into town.
WWDJD? I think he’d say it was worth every bit of the effort.
The Texas Observer BY JOE NICK PATOSKI December 16, 2005
Mythic Texas gives way to Montana chic.
When the bumpy dirt road to this Far West Texas ghost town was coated with asphalt four years ago, Terlingua became convenient. Its days as a sleepy, unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path reinvented mining town were over. All along Farm to Market Road 170, the main drag of the greater Study Butte-Terlingua Microplex, just west of Big Bend National Park, there are signs of the change. Some are overt, such as the For Sale signs advertising West Texas Realty that seem to have popped up all over like mushrooms after a rain. Others are subtler, like the opening of La Posada Milagro, the new four-room rustic luxury lodge with high-speed Internet access and massage, yoga, and chi gong services. Up the road around Lajitas, fake historical markers signal a resort called the Ultimate Hideout that used political clout to reroute the state highway around its property to make it seem more exclusive.
I’d predicted Terlingua’s fate to one of the town’s residents, Betty Moore. Last August, while we were sitting inside Desert Sports, the recreational outfitter in Terlingua where Betty works part-time, she reminded me of what I’d said. Betty and I were playing a parlor game enjoyed around the Trans-Pecos, Big Bend region–that wide swath of mythic Texas between Fort Stockton and El Paso extending south of Interstate 10 to the Rio Grande: Where was the next best place? Rating a town’s buzzworthiness was an amusing way to compare notes and bullshit away some of a blistering hot afternoon. In a way, though, it’s becoming a serious subject, especially if you’re a homeowner, a prospective homeowner or second homebuyer, a realtor, speculator, hustler or seeker of All Things Cool.
The starting point of the game is always Marfa (pop. 2,424). The county seat of Presidio County has been under the microscope as an unexpected international art destination ever since the late minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to town in the early 1970s and began buying up vacant houses and buildings and ultimately, the old Army camp, which is now the Chinati Foundation, a world-class destination for fine art pilgrims. But it isn’t just Marfa that is hot and haute anymore. Folks who can spot a trend before the masses catch on are moving in all over Far West Texas. And if real-estate prices in Terlingua are climbing, almost any wide spot in the road with enough dwellings to call itself a town is fair game.
The same forces that have brought a cultural and economic sea change to the state of Montana over the past quarter century are at work in Far West Texas, mainly because massive chunks of land can be purchased by people of means who are looking for a refuge from the real world. That became evident last spring when Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon.com, bought 239,000 acres of barren ranchland in Culberson County in the flats north of Van Horn with the aim of building a private spaceport. The build-out of the Blue Origin aerospace testing and operations site on the old Corn Ranch at the foot of the Guadalupes is expected to take five years. Rockets firing from the desert floor will fit right in with the blimp refueling station at the Van Horn airport, and the tethered border control balloon farther east on Highway 90.
Montana’s makeover also started with high flyers–like Ted Turner, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Jeff Bridges–who could afford huge pieces of acreage and the luxury of flying to their high country retreats for the weekend. They’ve since been joined by legions of CEOs and the crème de la crème of the creative class, who are goosing land prices out of the reach of working cattle operations, thereby completing Montana’s transformation from authentic western to mythic western.
Far West Texas has many Montana-like attributes, particularly mountains (albeit in the desert), giant ranches (tens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid region), few people (less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), and easy access to the outdoors. Like Montana, Far West Texas is in reasonably close proximity to massive amounts of public lands. More than a million acres-worth of national park, state park, and wildlife management areas sprawl across south Brewster and Presidio counties in a state that is 95 percent privately owned.
Nowhere else in Texas is a string of small towns several hundred miles from big cities and airports actually gaining population. Most of the new residents are folks who move by choice, rather than necessity–for the wide open spaces, big sky, starlit nights, clean air, and for the things Far West Texas lacks, such as Wal-Marts, Starbucks, malls, and big-box stores. Even better, Far West Texas has its share of weirdness to accommodate the quirks and eccentricities of the rich and famous.
Betty Moore–who moved to Terlingua 25 years ahead of the curve, blowing off a sweet publishing gig in Austin to be a part-time river guide, part-time peregrine falcon researcher, part-time secretary, waitress, landlady, and book buyer–all means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploring–offered her opinion about what still undiscovered town was prime to become cool.
“I think it’s going to be Sanderson,” she mused with her usual beatific smile. “There are some great old houses and buildings there. Adobes, too”
I agreed the whole region was undergoing a rapid makeover, but there were limits, and as far as I was concerned, Sanderson was over the line. Nope. No way.
I pointed out to Betty that no matter how appealing the housing stock and prices might be, Sanderson was surrounded by low canyons, not desert mountains. It was on the way to the Big Bend, not in the Big Bend. Our mutual friend Terry Tex Toler, who headed the Terrell County Economic Development Corporation long enough to have Sanderson officially designated as The Cactus Capital of Texas, had closed down his Savage Guest House in 2005 due to lack of business. The town just wasn’t ready to join the pantheon of Marfa, Marathon, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Terlingua as far out Far West Texas towns. If there was a next best place, my bet was on another town abandoned by the railroad in the flats between the Sierra Vieja and the Davis Mountains.
“Valentine is next,” I told Betty Moore with all sincerity.
The town of 200 may lack a gas station or any kind of store other than the post office, but it sure has cachet. I cited the Prada Marfa adobe art sculpture on Highway 90 near Valentine. It’s a full-scale reproduction of a retail outlet of the trendy minimalist Prada fashion line that was installed in October, causing quite the sensation. Within days, “Dum Dum” and “Dumb” had been spray-painted on the exterior and 14 shoes, all right foot, and six purses were stolen from the display window. The acts of vandalism may or may not have been committed by the artists themselves on their way back to the El Paso airport. Even if that wasn’t true, it made for a good story, which is an important element of life in this part of the state where people love to talk as much as they love to listen, and storytelling remains very much part of the cultural fabric.
Betty wasn’t buying. No way was Valentine about to get hot, she swore.
Maybe the media will give Valentine a boost. After all, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times (three times in one month), Salon.com, and Art in America have all taken note of Far West Texas and Marfa in particular over the past year. So has The Wall Street Journal, which profiled part-time Marfa resident Quality Quinn on the trials and tribulations of social obligations and charitable giving in one’s second hometown.
Discovery has evidently come with a price. The message out front of Carmen’s Cafe on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Cafe, a storied culinary institution in Far West Texas whose family recipes date back to 1887, is no longer owned by a Borunda. The real estate market in Marfa is so overheated the city government has imposed a building moratorium while planning and zoning rules are being rewritten.
Robert Halpern, editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly Marfa newspaper I occasionally contribute to, thinks Marfa is faring the buzz better than residents in neighboring towns, who derisively refer to the locals as Marfadites, would like to admit. “Folks moving to town are not doing anything outlandish,” he says. “The adobes being remodeled are being done in the vernacular. The architecture investment has been a positive. Many new additions have been positive,” he adds, citing Ballroom Marfa, the contemporary arts and culture space run by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn; Maiya’s Restaurant, which does northern Italian cuisine; the revitalized El Paisano Hotel where the cast of the movie “Giant” once stayed; and the Pizza Foundation, named in honor of all the arts foundations in Marfa.
Robert and his wife, Rosario Salgado Halpern, the newspaper’s publisher, have a catbird’s seat for viewing the Marfa and Far West Texas transformation. He’s a native of Alpine. She’s a native of Presidio. And as the town paper of record, they’ve seen it all. Both have embraced most of the changes while keeping tabs on what is lost in the bargain. They were friends of Donald Judd, the one person most responsible for this whole New Montana/Far West Texas phenomenon, and they and their children are docents at the Chinati Foundation.
If the Halperns’ strategy is to embrace change, it may be because there’s no alternative. “How do you control it, or can you even control it? No one has a lock and key,” Robert says.
Still, you wonder if it was better before the word spread, back when Judd was alive and employed more workers than any single business in town while shunning the kind of buzz and attention currently swirling around Marfa. For all the seeds he planted–the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, which oversees much of the property he bought and filled with rare artworks, and those infernal WWDJD? bumperstickers–there’s a real sense that if Judd were still alive (he died in 1994), the last place on earth he’d want to be is in Marfa, as his son, Flavin, insisted to me a few years ago. He’d rather be at his ranch, where no one could find him. Whatever Judd started, though, can no longer be stopped.
“Far West Texas might well be the next Montana, but is that good?” asks Larry Francell. Francell is the director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, and a resident of Fort Davis, where he’s a County Commissioner. The land boom has swept up Highway 17 to Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. With a population of 1,050, the unincorporated county seat of Jeff Davis County is landlocked by the Fort Davis National Historic Site, the Davis Mountains State Park, and big ranches that dominate the Davis Mountains. Those conditions, along with the presence of the McDonald Observatory and a campaign to lock in conservation easements by the Texas Nature Conservancy, may jack up real estate prices, but they are precisely the kind of amenities that make Montana so appealing, and explain the loud outcry locally and statewide when John Poindexter–the owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort down the road near Shafter–tried to purchase several thousand acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park for $45 an acre.
Francell said he’d heard about a lot in Limpia Crossing, the only subdivision in the Davis Mountains between the town and the McDonald Observatory, originally priced at $7,000 that went for a quarter million recently. He knew for certain that the effective tax rate in the county has risen due to the flurry of construction. “There’s even two mini-mansions going up in town,” he says. “One of them is being built by a Marfadite. A lot of Outlanders are moving in and bringing real money, as opposed to the indigenous rich. But at this point, it’s subtle, like old age–you suddenly wake up and you’re old.”
The land rush extends east of Marfa along US Highway 90 through Alpine (pop. 6,079)–the county seat of Brewster County, home to Sul Ross State University, and the biggest town in the Trans-Pecos–all the way to Marathon (pop. 600). That bucolic gateway town to Big Bend National Park was a sleepy little ranching community not too long ago. These days, Marathon’s practically bursting at the seams, with four art galleries, several new shops and cafes, and a slew of second-home residences. J.P. Bryan, the man who brought modern upscale tourism to the Big Bend when he and his wife Mary began refurbishing the Gage Hotel in the early 1980s, has been eclipsed by Russ Tidwell, a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who is working the tourism angle with his Chisos Gallery, the Captain Shepard’s Inn bed & breakfast, the Cottonwood Station barbecue restaurant, and the Adobe Hacienda Lodges, south of the railroad tracks. Since the Anglo part of Marathon north of the tracks has been pretty much bought up, properties on the Mexican side of town south of the tracks are going now too. You can tell which ones are Adobe Hacienda lodges by the BMWs and Lexuses parked out front.
The development boom extends 30 miles south of Marfa as well, to the aforementioned Cibolo Creek Ranch, three historic adobe forts refashioned into a rustic luxury resort where rooms go for $450 a night, but not to Presidio (pop. 4,167), the dusty border town whose great hope at the moment is a pork-barrel highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico that other towns in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos are fighting. Once notorious as the Hot Spot of the Nation for its high summer temperatures, Presidio is too poor and too desperate to qualify as a Far Out town of Far West Texas.
On the other hand, Terlingua (pop. 100 or so; nobody knows for sure), 67 miles east of Presidio along the River Road–one of the most scenic drives in this part of the world–is most definitely a Far Out town, mainly due to the creative desert rats who came to reinhabit the adobe ruins of the old mining town or build their own off-the-grid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park.
Over the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumulating more than 400,000 acres–half the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas.
“There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.”
Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hardly the first high rollers to move in. Long before they showed up, there were lavish spreads tucked back in the mountains, like the Sibley castle in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, and Don McIvor’s Scottish castle in the Davis Mountains. The late industrialist Justin Dart, who spearheaded passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, kept a place near Blue Mountain outside of Fort Davis.
Jeff Fort, founder of Tyco Industries and part-time Marfadite, has rehabbed and reopened the Chinati Hot Springs in the desert west of Presidio. Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Tim Crowley have bought up choice properties in and around Marfa. Hamilton Fish, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nation Institute, has a second residence in town. When Ed Albee is signing books at the local bookstore, Laura Wilson is showing photographs in a local gallery, playwright Wallace Shawn is staging plays in a local theatre, and John Waters is doing a local speaking engagement, there’s a sense that if you haven’t bought in yet, you’re way too late.
Carla McFarland, a former Dallasite who bought the Holland Hotel–the historic Alpine hotel designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest who also designed the Gage in Marathon and El Paisano in Marfa–insists that Alpine, which has experienced the Montana effect in its own way, is different.
“There’s a lot of people buying up stuff thinking it’s going to happen here,” she says. “Which fucks up your tax base and fucks up your people who’ve lived here all their lives. Instead of the tenfold increase in Marfa, the Carla Prediction is we’re going to see a 50 percent increase here in Alpine, maybe even a twofold or threefold increase in price. We’re OK. I don’t think it’s going to be as wild as Marfa, but there are some opportunities.”
This means a run on adobe, especially neglected, crumbling, and cheap-for-the-price adobe, which in Far Out West Texas translates to property south of the tracks–the historically Mexican part of town. All the good Marfa adobe may have been scooped up. Not so in Alpine, which, according to a Texas Historical Commission study, has an abundance of adobe structures exceeded only by El Paso. And as McFarland points out, “Who wants to live in El Paso?”
“My business partner looked at a crumbling adobe south of the tracks going for $42,000,” she says. “It was being sold by a guy who’d bought it last year for $32,000.”
The business partner, Andrew Nelson, is further evidence of the Montana effect in Far West Texas. Nelson is a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine who moved to Alpine from San Francisco by choice after visiting while researching an article on rail travel. Two of Nelson’s friends–Tom Michael, an editor for Britannica.com, and Katherine Shaughnessy, a writer specializing in gracious living–stopped in while driving from Chicago to Savannah in search of a place to settle down and raise a family. Three weeks later, they bought a place in Alpine too. Michael is now the general manager of KRTS-FM, the National Public Radio station that will soon begin broadcasting to the region to complement KVLF-AM/KALP-FM in Alpine, the only commercial stations in the Trans-Pecos, and three low-power community stations.
Alpine remains relatively down to earth, where function trumps form, Carla McFarland contends. “Marfa people have to drive to Alpine to get their Prada dry-cleaned,” she says. “You can’t get a prescription filled in Marfa. If you’re having a heart attack, you have to come to Alpine for a defibrillator.”
But it is not without its airs. The annual Gallery Night weekend puts more people in the streets than any other community event. A brewpub has opened in the Holland Hotel. La Tapatia Cafe changed its name to La Trattoria to better reflect the Italian heritage of owner Allyson Santucci. And Sul Ross State University, which used to be famous for its rodeo teams, has added a Writer in Residence to the faculty. That writer, David Marion Wilkinson, who partnered with Alpine resident Joaquin Jackson on Jackson’s memoirs One Ranger, is sold on his new sense of place. “These people are more alive, and live with greater joy,” the former Austin resident says. “I feel like it’s a privilege to be among them.”
We’ve started to have conversations about what’s going to kill the fatted calf,” says Robert Halpern, musing over what the tipping point will be, if there is a tipping point. “Will it be the militarization of the border?” he wonders. “The Border Patrol used to be huts and temporary buildings. Now it’s these huge complexes. The Marfa airport is getting a $16 million upgrade in facilities for the Border Patrol and US Customs.” Rich folks don’t much cotton to building castles in militarized zones. Maybe La Entrada, the envisioned superhighway from Presidio to Midland will do the trick, bringing enough truck traffic, noise, and pollution to neutralize any sense of specialness.
Maybe the real cool places will just move farther off the map. Shafter, the mining ghost town between Presidio and Marfa is gussying up with fewer and fewer ruins for sale. Presidio could come into its own. If Ultimate Hideout owner Steve Smith drops another $100 million and doesn’t run out of water, perhaps he’ll actually realize his vision to make Lajitas another Palm Springs, although someone should break the news to him that while Los Angeles is a two-hour drive from Palm Springs, Midland is at least four hours from Lajitas. The villages of Ruidosa and Candelaria, where the pavement ends on FM 170, the River Road, are relatively undiscovered. And don’t forget Kent.
Despite all the stories I’d read and the complaints I’d heard, Far West Texas appears to be pretty great in the here and now, no matter what’s coming, or how it used to be. The unease under the surface, though is palpable. Where do all those rugged individualists who make the Trans Pecos and the Big Bend so appealing go when they sell out to the outsiders? Stockton? Odessa? El Paso? Valentine? Sanderson? And does the sense of place they’ve instilled go with them, leaving the newcomers with a movie set version of the real thing, just like Aspen, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming, have become?
Some of the outsiders moving in are so obnoxious, they justify the endless gossip about them (e.g. Steve Smith of Lajitas). But others deserve praise. You’ve got to admit, a coffee shop that roasts its beans on premises like the Brown Recluse in Marfa would be a welcome asset to any community in which it was located. What makes Far West Texas one notch better is the Mexican abuela around the block from the Brown Recluse. As long as she continues to serve up giant breakfast burritos in the small dining room built onto the side of her house, the changes are welcome. But when the abuela can no longer afford to live in Marfa, whatever it is that makes Far West Texas so far out will be lost. In its wake will be the Texas version of the Hamptons, or a dry variation of Aspen, where the service workers have to be bussed in from 70 miles away because they can’t afford to live there any more.
Donald Judd learned that early on. These days, it’s easier to find a Gap in Soho, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of warehouses and old skyscrapers that artists like him first began inhabiting in the early 1960s, than it is canvas and painting oils. Real artists can’t afford to live in Soho any more. Will real cowboys, ranch supplies, feed stores, and saddle shops suffer the same fate in Far West Texas?
Far West Texas is not for everyone. People come for the incredible scenery, breathtaking vistas, and rugged beauty. Some of them decide to stay. But many leave shortly afterwards due to the relative lack of goods, services, and modern conveniences, especially “when they figure they have to drive two hours to get anything,” as Alpine realtor Joy Parsons told me. Such was the celebrated case of Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, who used his royalties to move from Ohio to a ranch near Alpine, and stayed some years before departing for a more civilized place outside Fredericksburg (at least he found his second wife in Far West Texas).
In early December, I stopped in Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, with a group of people that included my friend Betty Moore. The town was as empty as ever. But I began to see it the way Betty saw it. Buying a couple blocks of a real downtown including a vacant department store would be pretty cool, I thought to myself. Sanderson had a few things going for it, all right. Whether or not it was far out enough to qualify as a far out Far West Texas town was still a bone of contention, but at that particular moment, the hand-cut, skin-on French fries at Piruli’s, the only restaurant in town open after 2 p.m., were far out enough for my tastes.
Joe Nick Patoski loves to visit Far West Texas, but lives in the Hill Country village of Wimberley, which resembles certain far out towns in Far West Texas in more ways than he’d sometimes like to admit.
Hudspeth Hustlers (sidebar)
The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn (pop. 2,435) the Crossroads of the Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy’s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs.
The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people (3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra Blanca, Fort Hancock, and Dell City) live there.
Take Sierra Blanca (pop. 533), which sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch (see “Sued and Censored,” March 22, 1996) both thankfully out of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas (see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). And before that, Hudspeth County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-de-sacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru.
“Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker.
And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days.
In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Cafe, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main Street every day.
In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Florida-based developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches.
“The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs.
The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the time because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?”
“Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”–JNP
Texas Mountains In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas.
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty. [Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine, Travel Feature]