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Getting to Marfa Isn't Easy, and That's How They Like It

Just how big is West Texas? Presidio County, of which Marfa is the county seat, and neighboring Brewster County together stretch more than 10,000 square miles along the Rio Grande. By comparison, the state of Rhode Island is barely 1,200 square miles. And Cape Cod? All of 339 square miles.

WCAI’s Steve Junker is in West Texas for the next three weeks, where he’s hosting Morning Edition for Marfa Public Radio. During that time, Travis Bubenik of Marfa Public Radio is in Woods Hole hosting All Thing Considered for WCAI. It’s part of our experimental Radio Exchange program.

Imagine 10,000 square miles of land and sky. And very few people. The population in these two Texas counties together is less than the town of Bourne.

This is high desert, a country of endless cattle range and abrupt soft mountains. It’s hard to convey this kind of geographic scale. Consider if, to get to Cape Cod, you had to fly to Albany, New York, and drive the rest of the way. That’s roughly what it takes to get to Marfa from the nearest major airport, in Midland, Texas—more than 160 miles.

The sun goes down late here, at nearly 8:30. My family and I, arriving on a connecting flight from Boston, get out of Midland airport just before sunset. An hour later, as we drive south, there’s still a glow lingering in the bare western sky.

The radio station I’m heading to also sends its signal up to Midland. This region is called the Permian Basin. It’s dead-flat oil country. Across the distance pumpjacks labor up and down, and the air smells of petroleum. Flames burn atop flare stacks.

Don't be put off by Midland, I was told in advance. But the warning is unnecessary. The Permian Basin isn't a beautiful landscape, but it is fascinating. Here they’re extracting the stuff that replaced Nantucket’s whale oil. It’s where the hard work happens that fuels so much of this nation. It’s purposeful.

When the last trace of sunset finally fades, the night on the road is black. Which is to say, the land to either side is empty. No houses, nothing. We’ve left behind the industry of the Permian Basin and entered rangeland, like open ocean.

The highway runs straight, and cars coming the opposite direction are far between. The posted speed limit is 80. Skirting the tiny settlement of Coyanosa, it dips briefly to 75.

When headlights appear in the distance, even at this speed, it’s a couple of minutes before we actually pass.

Then the land begins to change. The road rises and falls. Dark shapes occasionally interrupt the stars, suggesting steep hills. The town of Marfa, population 2000 or so, appears as lights in the distance.

In January the New York Times selected Marfa as one of 52 places to visit in the world. Why? What’s out here?

The landscape is majestic. But the town itself is also known as an art destination. The minimalist artist Donald Judd set up an anti-museum here beginning in the 1970s, attracting other artists. Now in this once-cattle-town many storefronts have become art galleries.

Freight trains roll through the downtown regularly, but they don’t stop.

A small town in the high desert is an island economy. There’s a shortage of housing in Marfa, thanks to limited supply and rising demand. Second homers from Austin and Dallas and Houston are buying here, driving up prices. The small population living in Marfa year-round, drawn by the beauty, the frontier identity, and cultural life, must depend economically on the tourists and part-timers who may be squeezing them out.

Sound familiar? It's a dilemma we know well on the Cape and Islands.

You can follow along on our radio exchange experiment on Twitter, hashtag #radioswap.

Steve is Managing Editor of News. He came to WCAI in 2007. He also hosts the weekly News Roundup on Friday mornings and produces The Fishing News.