Because of Judd, Flavin, and others, Marfa today is a pilgrimage site on the international art landscape. When it was founded, in 1883, its only relation to high culture was its name. A railroad engineer's wife who read Russian novels (in Russian) baptized the town with the name of a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. "At first, Marfa was a watering stop on the railroad," says Cecilia Thompson, the local historian. "But it soon became a cattleman's town, with the huge herds that came west in the decades following the Civil War." Marfa was still very much a rancher's outpost in 1930, when the Hotel Paisano, its most famous building, opened its doors. Designed by noted Southwest architect Henry Trost, who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish colonial–revival structure was based on Trost's design for the Hotel Valverde in Socorro, New Mexico, and marked by "red-tile roof parapets, delicate ironwork balconies, and areas of plasteresque ornament," as described in a published account of the hotel.
The high point of the Paisano's history came in 1955, when the cast and crew of Giant occupied the hotel during the film's three-month shoot in and around Marfa. "It was the most exciting thing we've had in Marfa in all these years," says Lucy Garcia, a town native who was one of a half-dozen teenagers to hang out at the hotel during the shoot. "Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor were here, but they were a little too big for Marfa. They gave us autographs but wouldn't allow any pictures. James Dean let us take pictures of him at the hotel and showed us the lasso rope trick he was learning for the movie. He told jokes. He had such a pretty giggle."
A drought in the fifties coincided with a collapse of the cattle industry and weakened the town's economy. Consequently, Judd was able to buy a lot of property in the community in the eighties. But he didn't do much with the buildings when he bought them. "Judd wanted to put his art in the natural landscape where it belonged. He did little, if anything, to the town as he bought it up," Thompson says. "Judd never mingled. He actually didn't make an impact on the town—its façade, that is. That wouldn't happen until Judd died and civic leaders like the Crowleys moved in. They actually invested in the town. Take Main Street, for example. They're responsible for waking it up." Part of that revitalization involves the Hotel Paisano. It fell into disrepair in the eighties and nineties. In 2001, Joe Duncan bought the building for back taxes ($185,000) and restored it to its original splendor. James Dean's suite looks just as it did 50 years ago—and there are still no telephones in the rooms.
Marfa is a place full of traditions. Judd himself inaugurated one of them in 1987: the annual Open House (this year, October 8 and 9). The town plays host to a party that includes art exhibitions, readings, lectures, a street dance, and, for 2005, a concert by the rock band Yo La Tengo. Though Open House almost doubles the town's population, all events and meals are free.
But the tradition that has come to define the city most is not even explainable. Every September (this year, September 2–4), a festival celebrates the Marfa Mystery Lights. Just outside town, at a certain bend in Route 90, you can stand on the side of the road in the desert and, looking south toward Mexico, see fleeting visions of light that flash about in the sky. First recorded in 1881 by a young cowboy named Robert P. Ellison, who was tending a herd of cattle and thought he had spotted the campfires of Apache Indians, the lights—still unaccounted for by science—appear and disappear, and seem to divide and travel in the night sky. Near the viewing site where you can best see the Marfa Mystery Lights, a plaque explains why they cannot be physically located: The flickering lights are "an unusual phenomenon similar to a miracle where atmospheric conditions produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air blend together so it can be seen from afar but not up close. The mystery of the lights will remain unsolved."
PAUL ALEXANDER is the author of six books and two plays. He writes often about politics for Rolling Stone.