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 flyerslike 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 creme de la creme 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, partictens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, 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 necessityfor 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 Moorewho 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 buyerall means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploringoffered 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 , 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 Caf on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Caf, 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 DECEMBER 16, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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