MARFA, Texas -- On the road to Marfa, groves of pecan trees give way to border patrol stops and the buttercream plains of west Texas. Artist Donald Judd infected this high desert cattle town with East Coast sensibilities in the 1970s. Now it's an amazing outpost of the avant-garde.
Wanting to escape his pretentious patrons, Mr. Judd left the New York art scene and found his sanctuary on an old military base. He bought more than 300 acres of former Fort D.A. Russell, which was named for a Union officer killed during the Civil War and used first as a cavalry outpost in the early 1900s. During World War II, the fort was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Germans captured from Rommel's elite African Corps were sent there because, according to the Geneva Convention, prisoners should be held in a similar environment to where they were captured -- in this case, desert to desert.
Mr. Judd fitted two old artillery sheds with huge windows and an installation of aluminum cubes, each with the same dimensions but each one different. In a field beyond, he planted massive open concrete squares. Visitors are free to wander among and inside them.
Though the artist was trying to escape, lovers of modern design followed him to Marfa, establishing the town as a kind of minimal mecca for cultural enlightenment. Art galleries and restaurants fit for those sophisticated palates sprung up.
Flying along U.S. Route 90, you know you are getting close when you spot a standalone Prada store on the right. Hit the brakes and back up because this sculpture of sorts constructed by artists Elmgreen and Dragset is worth a walk around. It's so incongruous surrounded by nothing but the occasional dirt devil and dry grass of the high Chihuahuan Desert that you are compelled to take pictures.
This is one of the oddities of the desert that can be explained. One that can't is known as the Marfa Mystery Lights. First noticed by pioneers, the phenomenon is just part of the desert panorama to the locals.
"It's no big deal if you grew up here," said Kaki, a 20-something who came back after college and works at the chamber of commerce. "The lights seem to be drawn to certain families."
The lights appear suddenly and move in all directions -- up, down, left, right, along the ground and into the sky. They have a playful quality and are most often red or white but not always.
"One night this guy I knew was dropping his girlfriend off in Valentine [37 miles north of Marfa]. As he was driving home, one of the lights came across the desert and started going along the side of the road with him. He was a little freaked out after he sped up and it sped up and he slowed down and it slowed down," she said.
Another story she told was of a man who parked at the observation station built for visitors to come to look for the lights. It was cold so the man went back to his car to sit while others remained at the station. Suddenly, observers saw a large green light coming across the desert toward them. It went right over the man's windshield and zipped into the night, she said.
Marfa has ghosts to go with its mystery lights. In 1932, the Army decided to stop using horses in the cavalry in favor of tanks and other automation. Louie, a horse groomed by a Sgt. Hayes, "got too old, and as a form of honor a firing squad shot him and buried him where he fell," said Mona Blocker Garcia, who owns a section of the fort known as Building 98. "So distraught over the loss of his beloved horse, Hayes took a gun to his head and shot himself over the grave."
Today, people claim to have seen the spirit of Sgt. Hayes on the old parade grounds where his horse was buried.
Building 98 was once the officers' quarters, mess hall and club. Mrs. Garcia has turned the property into the headquarters of the International Women's Foundation, a place for women to nurture their spirit in a setting where warriors once relaxed.
"Gen. George Patton lived here and would come to play polo," she said.
Mrs. Garcia has preserved German POWs' murals in the building and is slowly restoring the ballroom and other parts.
The 2,000-plus population of Marfa, the county seat of Presidio, is an interesting mix of transplants, natives and Hispanics. The diversity is most evident in the variety of culinary combinations. Choices range from Middle Eastern/TexMex fusion at the Food Shark to Southern-influenced Mediterranean cuisine at Miniature Rooster to Italian Mexican at Mayia and basic burgers, chili and tequila at Padres. You'll need a few days just to sample it all in between tours of the galleries and museums.
The Chinati Foundation, a modern art museum, oversees Mr. Judd's installations as well as those of John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. Ballroom Marfa helped fund the Prada store and is a supporter of other cultural and artistic endeavors in town, including exhibitions and concerts. Ballroom recently helped bring Tinariwen, a band of Sahara desert Berbers, from north Mali to Marfa's Capri Inn for a concert.
The Ayn Foundation in the Brite Building is currently displaying Andy Warhol's "The Last Supper" and Maria Zerres' "September Eleven" series of paintings. Just down the street is the Food Shark, a gourmet food truck locals and tourists frequent for lunch. It sits under a large metal canopy where there also are a few tables and an old school bus set up for dining next to the railroad tracks. The Judd Foundation, which preserves the homes and workspaces of the artist, is nearby.
If all the minimal modern starts to chafe, head over to Hotel Paisano. The tiled lobby -- decorated with a buffalo and deer heads, wood beams, leather chairs and ornate architectural details -- is the perfect salve. Opened in 1930 as a cattleman's hotel, it is where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed while filming the multi-Oscar-winning film "Giant." The movie is always running in a little room off the lobby. Other films made around Marfa include "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." All three movies featured the dry desert landscape, distant mountains and expansive vistas -- nature's own version of minimalist design.