Daily Archives: March 3, 2016

19th-century forts

We haven’t been following a military history agenda on this trip, but when an intact installation  appears, we check it out.   We came across two forts in Florida and Texas, which were built for very different circumstances, but which had an interesting connection.

DSCF0996Ft. Pickens was the largest fort built to defend Pensacola Bay.  It is located at the tip of Santa Rosa Island, and is now part of the Gulf Island National Seashore.  Built largely with slave labor, it was finished in 1834.  It is of the  type known as a Third System Fortification, unified forts with extensive earthworks to resist naval bombardment, and containing large guns to shell ships that attempted to enter the bay. DSCF0953  DSCF0965

It was never involved in a battle until the Civil War, when the Union troops defended it from a Confederate attack, and then held it for the whole war, effectively eliminating Pensacola as a useful Confederate naval base.  The most interesting parts to see are the brick vaults that housed the guns, munitions and personnel, underneath the earthworks.  DSCF0985  DSCF1005  DSCF1004

The masonry is fantastic, definitely looking at Roman architecture (and anticipating Lou Kahn).  DSCF1010  DSCF1012

We’ve discovered that Greta likes tight little caves and tunnels such  as these, which are under the outer ramparts.  During a battle these could be filled with explosives, so if the fort were being overrun, the tunnels could be blown up under the enemy troops.  DSCF0978

Around the Spanish American War, a new battery of concrete and steel was built within the older fort, to house the enormous new guns of the era.  Very similar to Ft. Casey on Whidbey Island.  DSCF1037

The Gulf barrier islands have beautiful beaches, with the softest, whitest sand we’ve seen anywhere.  But as you look across the beach, something catches your eye.  DSCF0942

It’s part of the third phase of armaments installed here, in the 20th century.  Since the guns had come so enormous and had a range of up to 25 miles, it made no sense to try to shield them in a central location.  So instead they were dispersed into hidden bunkers scattered around the island.DSCF0944

Which also make excellent viewing platforms. Created with Nokia Smart Cam

The barrier islands have afforded protection not only to naval operations and the harbor, but obviously also to the whole coastline and its ecosystem.  As you look at them (Pensacola Beach in this photo) in this era of climate change, it seems likely that they won’t be fulfilling this role for much longer.  That has been one of the themes of this trip – a Climate Change Farewell Tour of sorts – much of what we’re seeing will be radically changed during Greta’s lifetime, so I thought she should see it before.  DSCF1047a

In West Texas we visited Fort Davis (in Jeff Davis County, within the Davis Mountains), built in 1854 and named after the then-Secretary of War, later President of the Confederacy.  (No discussion about renaming any of these that we heard.)  Its function was to protect traffic along the El Paso road and the Chihuahua Trail, and it was also involved in the wars with the Comanche and Apache tribes.  It must have been a pretty desolate, end-of-world posting.  DSCF6295

Many of the buildings have been preserved and are being restored, such as this barracks.  After the Civil War, this fort was largely manned by Buffalo Soldiers, regiments solely of African-Americans, including Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African- American graduate of West Point.  DSCF6325  DSCF6286

The officers had quarters for their families, beautifully built out of local stone, including the commander’s residence:  DSCF6296  DSCF6304

While we might be inclined towards residences that echoed the stark simplicity and elemental qualities of the environment, the inhabitants favored interiors that mimicked the current styles of the east as closely as possible. DSCF6298

West Texas is a vivid place, with a scale and and emptiness that is beautiful but forbidding.   There is a strict geometric order to this fort, which stands in stark contrast to the huge space of the landscape, a contrast which is still striking when seen today, as not that much has grown up around it.  While the ordering of the place might have had specific military or organizational reasons, the ability of this geometry to represent the projection of American power into the natives’ land is palpable.  DSCF6283  DSCF6282

As we went through the museum at the fort, we came across a photo we’d seen before.  It was of a band of Apaches who had been captured in this area.  We recognized Geronimo sitting near the front and remembered where we had seen it:  at Fort Pickens.  This band was then transported east away from their land, and were imprisoned for several years at Fort Pickens.

Food Shark

By our third day, I was beginning to become convinced that the Marfa food scene was a big performance piece.  Nine of the ten restaurants in town had yelp reviews of four or higher, but they were never open.  The first night we were there we drove past six, all of which were closed. The second day, we could only find two food carts that were open for lunch, and one was a horrible little thing that only served kale smoothies.  We were heading out of town, planning on peanut butter and jelly, when we drove past and saw that Food Shark, another food cart, and the highest ranked on yelp, was open.  Their regular menu has mostly vegetarian options, like the Marfalafel, but their specials usually are a meat dish.  Normally I would say this was a bad strategy, because if you’re always learning new dishes how will you practice enough to make them good?  I shouldn’t have worried. Today it was brisket sandwich and lamb kebab.

Man, those guys know how to cook meat. Admittedly, I have not eaten a lot of brisket on this trip, but that was second only to Smitty’s (coming soon!). It was so soft and tender I almost mistook it for pork.P1080003

The lamb would not have been. The way it was cooked seemed to almost highlight the best parts of the meat, rather than trying to gild a lily and adding something new. The flatbread it was served with was soft and fresh, and we were seriously considering asking to buy a tub of their hummus.  It was some of the only stuff we’ve encountered on this trip that wasn’t dry, gritty, or bland.P1080004

Marfa is really far from nowhere, so you probably won’t go there unless you’re into art or take my food recommendations really seriously. But if you do, don’t come early in the week. Art tours may be easier to book, but none of the restaurants will be open. And even then, beware of the performance art.

Marfa, Texas

DSCF6004Marfa is a small West Texas town where the level of irony, postmodernism, contextual intervention, self-consciousness, and appropriation is so high that you can’t tell if it’s a real town, or the largest conceptual art installation in the world.  It was probably a straightforward, small town on the main railroad line until Donald Judd put it on the art map.  Now it has hip art-tourists coming through to see the work at the Chinati Foundation, and a permanent population of arty types, together forming a mini-Santa Fe for West Texas.  These people require services not typical for small western towns, and it was there that we found the first clues to what was really going on.

The original town is great – maybe this is why Donald Judd ended up here    The county courthouse is grander than some state capitols (such as Oregon’s), and occupies a full-block site in the middle of the north-south axis.   Many years ago JB Jackson wrote about western courthouses as the center of small-city civic life, but this trip was my first exposure to the classic ones.   (Other notable ones we’ve seen in Texas are in Lockhart and Ft. Davis).  DSCF6086

Marfa began as a watering station on the railroad, and as it grew, many buildings were built right on the line.  DSCF6040


The main commercial street runs south from the courthouse to intersect the RR and US 90, the main highway to San Antonio (400 miles away).  It has classic early-20th century commercial buildings, and remarkably few later additionsDSCF6085


At the Judd Foundation compound, our excellent guide had pointed to one sculpture – identical metal boxes aligned vertically, with the exact same amount of space between them.  He mentioned that this was the iconic Judd piece, variations of which are seen in museums around the world.  I had wondered why that piece resonated so far, and where Judd had come up with the idea.  Then we left the compound and turned left on to the main street:DSCF6099

We began to notice what was missing in Marfa – mainly, the very recent roadside commercial stuff that seems to have squeezed out everything older everywhere else in the South.  There is a Dairy Queen in Marfa, but no other chains.  Perhaps two old gas stations.  No modern motel chains.  It felt like a time warp – we’ve been traveling along Route 66 in the Southwest often recently, and every town through which it passes makes a big deal out of the older, retro, roadside remains.  But in all of those towns, the hip retro stuff is wedged between the usual bad new stuff.  Marfa has been magically protected.  The intersection between the old and the quirky reigns, as in this LED-enhanced grotto at the Catholic church, right on Highway 90.DSCF6005

As we looked for a campground, we found two listed in town.  There is El Cosmico, which felt a little self-consciously retro – you can rent an old trailer from them, or a teepee, and there are hip cultural events taking place there.  But strangely, no accommodations for you bringing your own little trailer.  So we went to the Tumble In, out on the highway, where the campground self-register office is in a small trailer, and the common space and bathrooms are in the de rigeur hip/retro/industrial vernacular. DSCF6120

The Scamp fit in amongst the Airstreams and vintage 60s trailers, which seemed to be all occupied by Buddy Holly lookalikes with mangy dogs.  DSCF5999

Outside of Marfa proper, there are two notable attractions. The first is the Marfa Lights, a phenomenon supposedly visible from Highway 90 ten miles east of town.  For decades, people have reported seeing strange moving lights in the desert to the southwest.  The town even acquired funds to build a combination viewing platform / bathroom building out there to accommodate the believers.  We read a bunch of articles online about it, and Greta found the ones that debunked the stories – claiming that they were simply perceptions of highway lights on Route 67 winding through slight hills – to be most convincing.  Given the choice between sitting out in the desert night waiting for a possible hokey paranormal experience, and sitting in the trailer, getting online for the first time after about a week in the wifi-free zone of the Chihuahuan Desert, Greta opted for the internet.

The other attraction in the desert is the Marfa Prada store, 35 miles to the west.  A small building filled with Prada products has been built on a lonely stretch of highway 90, where it is an illuminated icon of First World consumerism to the immigrants crossing the Chihuahuan Desert.  The punchline is that the store cannot be entered – one can only look through the store window.  We’d seen the images, and a friend had recently reported that it was full of flies that had found a way in.  We had experienced enough irony for one day, so we decided to forego that attraction too.

The lack of the normal sprawlscape means that other options for meals had to be be sought.  I had expected that with the influx of arty tourists, Marfa would be well-supplied with hip dining venues.  Greta jumped on Yelp and found a bunch of quirky, highly-rated restaurants and carts, so we headed out.  The Lost Horse turned out to be closed (and riddled with bullet holes).  DSCF6021

Carmen’s Cafe appeared to be defunct.DSCF6019

Food Shark, highly-recommended, was closed too.  DSCF6027

As was the Museum of Electronic Wonders & Late Night Grilled Cheese next door.  DSCF6028

Padre’s had a sign proclaiming it would open at 5:00, but they lied.DSCF6030

The Ballroom showed no sign of life.DSCF6258

Boyz 2 Men, which is supposedly noted for the banter of its employees, was calm.  DSCF6029

Finally we went looking for Cochineal, which the reviews said was overpriced and not as good as they seemed to think it was.  We wandered down the street, but couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be.  We encountered an artsy type from LA, who said he had reservations to meet a friend there, but he couldn’t find it either  He called them, and confirmed that their address was 107 West San Antonio Street.  We all walked along the block, past 103, to 131, then carefully looked along the property line between them. Nothing.  We broadened our search, and finally found number 107 further down the block, next to number 149.  We started to think Marfa was in the Twilight Zone, a town which appears normal at first glance, but where nothing is quite right.

We ended up at Capri, a hip new restaurant serving elf food.  Though they had a very limited menu, the pleasant young waitress couldn’t explain a single thing on it, and would giggle nervously and apologize before scurrying off to find someone who could answer.  We suspected that she was not really a waitress, had never done this before in her life, and that again, the whole set-up was a performance piece.  DSCF6008

The next day was a repeat.  Our guide at the foundation told us that she had driven by Marfa Burrito, the proprietor was there, and it was certainly open.  We arrived to find that it was not.  DSCF6013

However, when we saw people walking around behind the building, we followed them, and found this food cart.  We hurried over and scanned the menu.  But after re-reading the lists of ingredients several times, I had to ask them what the noun was:  there were many ingredients, but what form did they take all together, perhaps a burrito?  The woman in the trailer answered that they served nutrient-dense food.  I persisted, and she handed out a sample, which was a tiny cup with a thick, green liquid in it, announcing it as a nut-kale smoothie.  I gave it to Greta, who gamely sipped it, and managed to politely suppress her honest reaction.  DSCF6012As we took our leave, we realized that the Prada store supplied the primary metaphor for all of Marfa – it is all about desire and frustration.  We began to wonder whether any of these establishments were real.  Greta had me listening to her favorite podcast, Welcome to Nightvale, about a town in the desert where strange occurrences are common.  It all started to feel familiar.  We finally found an open taco cart, Salsa Puedes, which had good food, and where I had a conversation with a cowboy while we waited.  Maybe we were imagining things.

But the pattern repeated the next day.  As we drove by, we saw that Food Shark was open, and we had a fabulous meal.   But I spotted their salt and pepper shakers, and knew that they were on to us;  this couldn’t be a coincidence.  DSCF6232As we were eating, we realized the pattern:  at any mealtime, there was exactly one establishment open in Marfa – a different one every time.  Maybe there was only one person in town who could cook, and she randomly picked a different place every day.  It was a town where people just drove around until they spotted the place that was open.

Other weird patterns emerged.  A concentration of very old American cars.  Types that I barely remembered and Greta had never seen.  Some in suspiciously good condition.  DSCF6251




We noticed older buildings sprouting strange new additions.  What was really going on behind those grimy facades that could cause such bizarre new growth?DSCF6115

We began to look suspiciously at buildings that had appeared innocuous to us the day before – what activities were they hiding inside?DSCF6080

Then we came upon the local hardware store and looked in the window to find this disturbing tableaux.    DSCF6114

All became clear.  This couldn’t be a display of goods for sale, this could be nothing other than an MFA thesis installation.  We really were unwitting participants in a performance piece at the scale of a town.

We headed north across the desert, away from the Lights, trying to reach New Mexico before dark.