Down the Rabbit Hole: A Weekend in Marfa for the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love

A trip to Marfa is not complete without a stop at the local Prada outlet.
A trip to Marfa is not complete without a stop at the local Prada outlet.
Caroline North

As Index Fest was happening in Dallas, I found myself headed west to Marfa for another music festival -- the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love. The long drive gave rise to a lot of important realizations. One: Being able to move 70 mph in one direction for eight hours without leaving the state you began in is absolute insanity and a quality that Texans should be uniquely proud of.

Two: There's a lot of stuff in Dallas. I know this because there is not a lot of stuff on Interstate 20. I'm convinced that Dairy Queen sponsors that expanse of highway because I started to feel like Chevy Chase in European Vacation, except that instead of yelling "Big Bend! Parliament!" it was just "Dairy Queen!" over and over for 300 miles. I was thankful to finally reach my destination and confirm that they had, in fact, been different Dairy Queens. Needless to say, I made myself sick on soft serve over the weekend.

The site of the festival is El Cosmico, a property owned by Liz Lambert, who also owns Hotel St. Jose in Austin. Lambert purchased the property in 2006 and has held the Trans-Pecos Festival there since then. I rolled into Marfa around midnight, and by that point Ira Glass' voice had lulled me into something of a trance. El Cosmico appeared like a mirage. String lights illuminated a sea of tents, teepees, airstreams and yurts. I could hear Heartless Bastards, Thursday's headliner, playing nearby.

It had rained that day and I stepped out of my car into two feet of mud. I trudged through the muck to find my welcome packet, a popcorn bag that held my wristband, my ticket to the pig roast Saturday night and a voucher for a bucket of Shiners. The map directed me to tent number 14. Many people had brought their own camping gear, but El Cosmico also offers the aforementioned tents, teepees, trailers and yurts, and they give the place it's funky charm.

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I chose to rent a scout tent, which was just a plain, unfurnished tent, but I was spared having to lug and set up a tent in the dark. They only had four-person tents available when I made my reservation. It was an enormous tent for one person, with enough room to comfortably stand up inside. I dropped my things and walked toward the stage, where Heartless Bastards were just beginning their hit "Only For You."

The stage is at the center of the small campgrounds and about 200 people were gathered around. Although I only caught the end of that night's lineup, the merits of the festival were immediately evident. Trans-Pecos Festival should not exist. It's in the middle of nowhere. When I say the middle of nowhere, I mean that the nearest airport is three hours away. When you're there, you're there, and there's very little to do, save a few art galleries and shops to peruse in Marfa. It's a feat that El Cosmico is able to attract hundreds of people to this festival every year, but it's an even bigger feat that they're able to book such large acts to play for what is still, ultimately, a small crowd.

Unlike every other music festival I've been to, there was literally no hassle at any point over the weekend. I never even bothered to put my wristband on and no one ever asked to see it. I parked feet from my tent, which was itself feet from the stage. I easily got a spot in the front row for performances that included Old 97's, Ben Kweller and Deer Tick. And even in the front row, I had two feet of space around me at all times.

Down the Rabbit Hole: A Weekend in Marfa for the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love
Caroline North

There were hot tubs -- yes, hot tubs -- in view of the stage, as well as a cluster of vendors from Austin, Los Angeles and New York offering various wares. A lot of the clothing for sale seemed to reflect a kind of uniform that the girls at the festival were sporting. There were multitudes of cowboy boots and floppy suede hats, but one fashion rule was cardinal to the others: fringe everything. Gradually, this boho-Western look began to infiltrate my psyche and I was almost convinced that I needed to participate, when the hefty price tags jolted me from my reverie. Everything was outrageously expensive, which quickly became a theme.

There wasn't a lot of diversity at the festival. Most of the attendees were white hipsters in their 30s, with a sprinkling of goofy moms and dads. I appreciated the parents and their weird, enthusiastic dancing. It was comforting in a sea of otherwise effortless coolness. I retired to my tent excited for the following day, and crawled into the sleeping bag I had borrowed, only to discover that it was a child's sleeping bag. This didn't particularly surprise me, because I've never been accused of being a competent camper. The Boy Scouts have "Be Prepared," and I have "Be Unprepared, and See What Happens!" I managed to fall asleep, but I woke up cold and reached for my coat. It was soaked. It had rained in the night and I had left my coat directly under a hole in the tent.

Friday was dreary and cold sans my warmest piece of clothing. Jo's Coffee from Austin had set up a mess tent near the stage, impressively replete with an espresso machine. I ate a breakfast of oatmeal, peanuts and coffee and watched dogs wrestle while they waited for their owners.

Mid-afternoon I went into town to see the Marfa sights. Every shop I visited was of the variety that sells ten things, each placed precisely 6.7 inches apart. There were pencil sharpeners made of precious metals and coloring books of genitalia. Inexplicably, I wanted everything that I saw -- a fact that filled me with great anxiety. I eventually found a thrift store that sold $1 hardbacks and sighed with relief. That was more my speed. I bought a slice of margherita pizza from Pizza Foundation, and it was as good as any pizza that I've had in recent memory.

In Marfa you can really be alone with your thoughts. I'm accustomed to a lot of quiet time, but this was different. The grayness of the day certainly played a role, but I felt a bit like I was on The Truman Show, if the set had been designed by a bunch of people on peyote. The combination of architecture and open sky seemed to fill me with nostalgia for a time and a place that I had never experienced. Aesthetically, I found it almost haunting, but in a pleasant way.

I had committed to volunteer in exchange for the price of admission to Trans-Pecos, so late Friday afternoon I returned to work the front gate. At one point, I was instructed to only let people through if they were artists. "So everyone, then?" I joked. It seemed that every person I met had some claim on the art world.

Friday night Ben Kweller and the Old 97's took the stage. Ben Kweller had performed at Trans-Pecos before and the crowd cheered when he mentioned the Marfa Lights in his song "Full Circle." The Old 97's performed two love songs, "Designs on You" and "Question," for a couple that had gotten married at the Marfa courthouse that day.

Saturday the sun finally came out and I took the opportunity to drive the 20 minutes out to Prada Marfa. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading Merritt Tierce's Love Me Back in a grove of hammocks at El Cosmico. That evening, Lou Lambert -- brother of Liz, and proprietor of Lambert's Barbecue in Austin -- hosted a pig roast. I feasted on pork, beans, coleslaw and sweet potato salad. For dessert I ate a cardamom-spiced Rice Krispies treat studded with raisins from Fat Lyle's food truck. Fat Lyle's and Food Shark, another Marfa truck, were also there feeding the hungry.

One of my favorite moments of the weekend was watching country and bluegrass musician Robert Ellis perform. I had never heard him, and to that point, I was not aware that I liked bluegrass. The only damper on the performance was an errant bro in a Vineyard Vines outfit who kept shouting, "Play one for Levon!" and requesting Bob Dylan's "Hurricane." Apparently "Hurricane" is the new "Freebird."

In between performances, I spent a lot of Saturday looking for a psychic who was allegedly reading an interesting part of the human anatomy -- the ass. I was unclear on whether this meant cheek or anus, and desired to have an audience with this soothsayer. I found her teepee, but each time I walked by it was zipped closed. Alas, that curious page will remain unturned.

I'd gone to Trans-Pecos by myself with the intention of meeting new people, but I hadn't been that successful. So imagine my surprise when I hear my name called during Deer Tick. I turned to see Victoria, a girl I had volunteered with. She pulled me toward the front row. At the end of the performance, a guy wearing a mask and an elaborate sequined tunic ascended the stage and invited the crowd to an afterparty at a house just off the campgrounds. Victoria and I followed the herd and ended up in a small living room where the afrobeat band Golden Dawn Arkestra was set up and immediately began playing. The sweaty dance party lasted until 3am. It was the first time on the whole trip that I'd felt excessively warm, and I slept like a baby, ready for the long trek home.

See you next year, Trans-Pecos.


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