Big Bend in the Road

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Four communities in remote West Texas try to find a way to manage the future before it runs over them.

By Jennifer Reut 

There are a lot of different kinds of roads in Texas. There are state and federal highways that pull truckers through long stretches of the state from one town to another. They tangle up briefly in urban and suburban streets before heading west. There are farm-to-market roads and ranch-to-market roads, so named because they connect rural people to towns where they sell their products, find education, and maybe find jobs. Roads in Texas, especially in sparsely populated areas of the state, were more than a way to get from point A to point B. They brought progress, change, newcomers, but also a way for people to leave for good. Texas was slow to adopt paved roads, and many of the farm- and ranch-to-market roads weren’t paved until after World War II. Today these roads make up just over half of the 80,444 miles of roads managed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

In Texas, US 67 is a highway that runs from Texarkana to the border with Mexico at Presidio. It passes through Dallas and San Angelo, intermingling with other, bigger federal highways along the way, and finally gets loose on its own around Fort Stockton (population 8,356). From there it’s a sometimes rolling, sometimes clear shot through Alpine (pop. 6,065) and Marfa (pop. 1,772) to Presidio (pop. 4,099) and the border with Mexico.

For much of the ride, especially south of Marfa, US 67 is a two-lane road with narrow shoulders, hemmed in by ranchlands or rocky buttes on each side. Ranch roads peel off occasionally but not often, so there’s no predictable place to pull over and turn around. Once you’re on, you’re on.

Fortunately, it’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful drive through the northeast corner of the Chihuahuan Desert,which overlays 140,000 square miles of West Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. It’s a mountainous desert—the highest elevation in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8,751 feet, and temperature and rainfall vary depending on where you are in the basin and range topography.

The Chinati Foundation houses large-scale artworks, including Judd’s sculptures, 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980–1984, which can be seen on the right, just before US 67 cuts the landscape. Photo by Florian Holzherr, courtesy the Chinati Foundation.

About 70 miles east of Presidio is Big Bend National Park, the largest protected piece of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. It is one of the most biodiverse parks in the system, with more than 1,200 species of plants, including 60 cacti, 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. Life in the desert ecosystem clusters around water, and 118 miles of the Rio Grande River forms the park’s southern border with Mexico. The area has archaeological evidence of long stretches of human habitation that includes pictographs and petroglyphs, and is home to a dozen Native American nations. Big Bend is a popular site for birders and naturalists, with attractor designations such as a Globally Important Bird Area, UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and an International Dark Sky Park, but it’s still a bit of a wallflower in the park system, with fewer than half a million visitors a year.

On the stretch of US 67 from Alpine to Marfa, you’ll encounter some of the road’s trickiest bends, and at night, when the fog catches and settles into the passes between mountain ranges, it can be treacherous. From Marfa to Presidio, the landscape flattens out, revealing open grasslands punctuated by wide stretches of scrubby, sparse desert plants—creosote, ocotillo, and yucca are common—and open sky, hemmed by the shoulders of the Davis and Chinati mountain ranges. When driving that portion of the highway, time and space can feel off. Landscape features seem to crawl by rather than clip. Along straightaways, you’ll want to go fast, and maybe the few other people on the road will, too. Its landscape beauty is so hypnotic that you can watch YouTube videos of the drive set to house music.

Unless, that is, you’re going on a weekend, or around Easter, Christmas, or spring break. Or you’re heading across the border during rush hour to do some shopping or visit family along with the thousands of other families who are all trying to squeeze through the port of entry at Presidio to visit Ojinaga on the Mexican side in Chihuahua. An additional border patrol checkpoint between Marfa and Presidio further slows down the traffic. Then the enchanting two-lane road vanishes and becomes a parking lot, where cars can back up for miles. Emergency vehicles can’t get where they’re going. There are no roadside services. The wait can be several hours.

This is what worries Chris Weber, the Alpine area engineer for TxDOT. The agency has made a big push to reduce traffic fatalities statewide as part of a safety campaign called End the Streak. Weber can rattle off the crash data for US 67—higher than for other rural roads and condensed around several hot spots—and all the unexpected ways certain sections of the road can be dangerous, like the spot where dropped cell phone coverage returns and drivers scramble for their phones. By his own admission, Weber is not like other transportation engineers. He’s outgoing, with big energy and a restless brain that jumps around but always comes back to his point. It’s clear when he talks about making the road safer that he really loves this place, the people, and the process. But in this part of Texas, US 67 is not just a road.

The border crossing at Presidio is primarily pedestrian—there’s some truck freight, and transmigrantes bringing goods from the United States to sell in Mexico, but nothing like the crossing at El Paso, which brings in $18.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. Here, it’s mostly families and day-trippers. Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, grew up coming back and forth on day trips from Chihuahua City to the United States in the 1980s. “I remember it feeling like a very remote and small place,” he says of Presidio. Later, as a young design faculty member, he brought groups of students and architects from the Superior Institute of Architecture and Design of Chihuahua to Marfa, a practice he continued from the University of Texas at Austin and then the University of Arkansas, where he now teaches. During those visits, Marfa “felt very alive and festive. People were very welcoming and diverse,” though they seemed oblivious sometimes to the border nearby. Since then, he says, Marfa has become more expensive and exclusive, and the landscape more endangered.

There are long stretches of open road along US 67 heading north toward Marfa and the Davis Mountains. Photo by Jessica Lutz.

In the late 1990s, US 67 was designated part of La Entrada al Pacifico, a proposed trade corridor from Texas through Presidio-Ojinaga to the port at Topolobampo, Mexico. The corridor was meant to move goods from Texas to global markets, but the idea had been around for a while—one local told me it goes back to the mid-19th century. It’s not hard to see how oil and gas concerns in Odessa might have eyed that stretch of US 67 and imagined how much more product they might move out if the road were wider, divided, and faster. Enacting La Entrada would have created an opening for widening the road and creating passing lanes, easing the way for more trucking and freight.

The way the locals tell it, La Entrada wasn’t so much rolled out as it was slunk through. TxDOT held a few public meetings, in 2007 and 2008, and by most accounts they did not go well. Conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, allied with long-established ranchers and residents old and new who prized the region’s remote and uninterrupted landscape views. They opposed La Entrada and the increase of trucking and traffic it would bring. Other residents saw opportunity and job growth, not just for Odessa and Midland but for Presidio, one of the poorest counties in the state, and one that has an interdependent economic relationship with Mexico.

A road is an abstraction on the land, imposing boundaries where none were sought, and here it was the dividing line. “Interstate 10 has become West Texas’ 38th parallel,” opined the Odessa American during the controversy. “To the north: the mineral-rich Permian Basin, West Texas’ longtime industrial and trade hub, hoping to become an international distribution center. To the south: the rugged but charming Big Bend region, West Texas’ tourism boomtown rich with visitors soaking up Western ambiance where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson once filmed Giant.”

There was some deafness on both sides of the controversy. The opponents of La Entrada pointed to the project’s detrimental effects on the area’s economic powerhouses of natural and cultural tourism, not always the most equitable engine, and the supporters sometimes sounded dismissive of the importance of landscape integrity to the regional character, which they referred to as “scenic areas.” Though all the affected towns were small, each place was complex and layered with distinct identities and cultures that sometimes overlapped and sometimes clashed. Military and border patrol mixed with ranchers, artists, university faculty, and conservationists; borderlands cultures overlaid clusters of oil and gas field camps and national parks and wilderness areas. But the life and work above and below I-10 was tied to the landscape—the two regions just had very different approaches to its utilization.

The “ghost town” of Shafter (population 11) is one of the few stops along US 67 before the border. Photo by Jessica Lutz.

La Entrada was scuttled, perhaps because of the public pushback, or maybe because of a deal neighboring New Mexico made with the Mexican state of Chihuahua that offered an alternative route to the corridor. People I spoke to were frank in their assessments of the corruption they believed defined the project, but said that was business as usual in Texas politics. Although it went quiet, La Entrada al Pacifico did not go away, and the rough feelings around it have remained.

In the spring of 2018, TxDOT posted a notice of a public meeting for the US 67 Corridor Master Plan, the first in a series of 12. The agency was seeking public input for improvements along 142 miles of US 67, from I-10 west of Fort Stockton to the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry on the border. Meetings would be held in all four towns beginning that spring. On its website, TxDOT explained that the agency was undertaking a corridor study “to help determine the current and future transportation needs to best serve the communities along US 67.” The study was to see if there could be upgrades to the road that would improve safety and relieve congestion. Chris Weber, Alpine resident, was the local lead for TxDOT.

For many people in the region, the memory of the first go-round with La Entrada was quite fresh. Weber understood where they were coming from. “Ten years prior there was a study done on the same corridor,” he says. “Presidio was pitted against Marfa, Alpine, Fort Stockton. It was divisive.” This time it was being done with good intentions, but he understood that people wouldn’t be persuaded easily, given the region’s history.

The artist Donald Judd first saw the Southwest desert from the window of a bus. As a young soldier headed to the Korean War, he traveled from Fort McClellan, Alabama, to Los Angeles through the heart of West Texas. Years later, an established artist in New York City and dissatisfied with the art world’s bounded approach to installing his artworks, he returned. He eventually settled in Marfa, a tiny town near Fort D.A. Russell primarily populated by Hispanic families. Buildings were cheap; company was infrequent.

Judd bought his first properties in Marfa in 1973. Other properties followed over the next 20 years in what is now a nearly mythic art world trajectory. He bought more buildings around Marfa that became studios, living quarters, and offices, and filled them with his own and others’ art, a library, and a matchless collection of furniture, including his own designs. Judd’s entwined approach to architecture and landscape guided his hand in adapting the structures he acquired, which eventually included 40,000 acres and three houses that he named Ayala de Chinati in the Chinati Mountains. He avoided disturbing the land and elected to use what was at hand and to work within the vernacular of the buildings. “All ideas, seemingly simple and easy, are difficult for people to understand,” he wrote in the essay “Art and Architecture” in 1987. “One of the most difficult is the one of leaving the land alone: Leave it alone or return it to its natural state. The natural world seems not to exist for almost everyone.”

In 1978, Judd bought, with the support of the Dia Art Foundation, two of the Fort Russell buildings and began adapting them for installing large-scale artwork. They now house the Chinati Foundation and operate as an independent art museum that includes works by several artists including Judd, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, and Robert Irwin. (Sasaki did a master plan for Chinati in 2016.) At the center of the Chinati complex, within two former artillery sheds, is Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982–1986. In a meadow east of the main complex, Judd installed his 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980–1984, a series set along an arc that looks east across US 67 to the Chinati Mountains. Both works rely on the particular range and quality of light that is specific to the site—light that is affected by mass and shadow from buildings and landforms and by the degree of humidity and particulate in the air, including dust and vibration from US 67.

Judd died unexpectedly in 1994 and left his estate in disarray. His children, Rainer Judd and Flavin Judd, stepped in and began the process of determining what to do with the deteriorating buildings, cataloging the objects, and conserving the artworks and the landscapes. Judd’s vision of the way his art should be installed and experienced was uncompromising, or at least very clear, but it’s not easy to sustain over time, especially in the desert climate. The 22 buildings, which are organized as 12 spaces, required money and attention to preserve and maintain. Some of that came from an auction, held in 2006, of 36 artworks that contributed to an endowment. The placement of the land in a conservation easement helped provide funds to settle the estate and protect the land in keeping with Judd’s principles.

Alpine, Texas. Photo by Jessica Lutz.

Today the Judd Foundation, led by Rainer and Flavin Judd, manages the buildings and gives guided tours of the nine spaces open to the public. There are plans to open more spaces in the future. It also conserves materials and archives and produces new programs, publications, and exhibitions, including the recent retrospective, the first in three decades, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In Marfa, visitors see the spaces left as they were at the time of Judd’s death, not just the artwork, but the everyday objects and tools of an artist’s life. The experience is unsettling and confrontational, and it provokes questions about the temporal nature of art and place that are hard to shake. Judd framed and defined ways to see his spaces and their contents (the people who lived there are felt in absences between objects)—what to value, what to discard.

Marfa is a wedding destination now. The Hotel Saint George on Marfa’s main street, Highland Avenue, caters to this crowd and hosts conferences and meetings. It seems to be doing well. The Marfa Visitor Center reports 22,000 people came through in 2019 compared to 11,000 in 2014. There are now non-Judd galleries and arts organizations; the bilingual newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel; and a theater. Independent directors shoot films around town. Marfa’s long-standing tourist attraction, the Marfa Lights (a supernatural phenomenon), now has to compete with Prada Marfa (an art piece) for tourist attention. Marfa Radio, an NPR affiliate, can be heard globally on the Internet.

It’s still a part-time town, and many coffee shops and stores are open only Thursday to Sunday, but it’s changed from a whispered-about place to a hashtag destination, and that has brought a lot of money into the region, and gentrification. It would be difficult to estimate how much the investment by the Judd Foundation has benefited Marfa economically—the foundation says it had 10,000 visitors in 2019, but there would be less Marfa tourism without Judd, for better or for worse. I asked one resident what accounts for the recent uptick in visitors and swank businesses that cater to them. “Beyoncé,” he responded. “When she posted that photo in front of Prada Marfa”—that was 2012, to be exact. “It’s become this bucket-list item.”

In May 2018, not long after the US 67 Corridor Master Plan was made public, Rainer Judd posted a statement on her personal Instagram feed on behalf of herself, her brother Flavin, and the Judd Foundation. “This is a special place,” she wrote, “and it’s special because of the relationship between the people and the land, the way the houses sit in the hills, and the way the roads wind through the landscape.” She went on to make the argument that people live in West Texas because they like being far from the things you have at hand in cities such as Houston or Los Angeles. She wrote that they understood the safety issues but wanted to see the data that supported the effort. While road maintenance, new scenic overlooks, wildlife crossings, and a visitor center for Presidio would be welcomed, widening US 67 would not. She observed, as the New York Times had a decade earlier, that tourism was a significant employer in the region. “The percentage of the local economy due to the arts is 8 percent,” she wrote. “Mining, oil, and gas, by comparison, is 1 percent. It’s important the solutions to our problems fit the local landscape.”

The Permian Basin, which includes the Delaware and Midland Basins, is the richest source of oil and gas in the United States. A company wishing to build a pipeline has no permitting requirements other than to file with the Railroad Commission within 30 days of construction for pipelines that are more than a mile long, with the exception of those that carry hydrogen sulfide or “sour gas” products. Any pipelines considered a “common carrier,” which includes those that transport oil, oil products, gas, carbon dioxide, salt brine, sand, clay, liquefied minerals, or other mineral solutions, are granted the right of eminent domain, as if they were a public entity.

Land condemnation through eminent domain is a particularly sore point across the political spectrum in West Texas, and it colors the way residents feel about infrastructure projects. The vast majority of land in Texas is privately owned, so state-level protections are scant. An organization such as the Nature Conservancy can bargain to place easements on land, but that protection won’t hold off oil and gas leasing, and it won’t hold back eminent domain.

In 2015, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, planned to build a 143-mile pipeline from a storage facility near Fort Stockton to Mexico. Because of Texas eminent domain laws, landowners and ranchers found out about it only when surveyors showed up on their land. Uneven development among Marfa, Fort Stockton, Alpine, and Presidio meant there was not universal agreement on the pipeline’s hazards versus its benefits, but anger over the eminent domain laws has brought together many West Texans who might otherwise find themselves at odds, and a recent documentary, Trans Pecos, tells this story poignantly. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline went online in 2017.

Coyne Gibson is a volunteer and a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), an organization that came together in 2015 during the time that the Trans-Pecos Pipeline was going in and has participated in the US 67 public meetings. “Most of us down here have a very strong sense of place,” Gibson says, “and it’s hard for me to describe the sky, the landscape, the air, the clouds, the holistic nature of what this place is all about.”

Today the Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s scars can be seen clearly as you drive down US 67, where it runs along the west side of the road. When the notice went up about the US 67 Corridor Master Plan, it touched not a nerve but an open wound. The first public meetings for the project were packed. Online forums filled up quickly, and comments at public meetings were telling: “We have a beautiful small town; we do not want trucks coming through it creating noise, traffic, odor. Our quality of life is important. Need a major bypass to keep trucks out of our town.” “A bypass would kill this town. DO NOT Bypass.” “Semi-trucks must be re-routed FAR outside of Marfa & other city limits! No oversized HMSE! Wondering if this is a step to bring back La Entrada, which would enrage the community.”

Siblings and Presidio natives Vicky and Ramon Carrasco survey the construction of the new Presidio-Ojinaga rail bridge at the border. Photo by Jennifer Reut.

Vicky Carrasco grew up in Presidio before leaving to become an urban and regional planner. She spent her career in the Washington, D.C., area, working in natural resource management and public engagement. Her brother Ramon Carrasco is a civil engineer and owns the firm Kleinman Consultants. When the US 67 Corridor Master Plan project came online, they joined a team that included the engineering firm CDM Smith, the environmental consultants Blanton & Associates, and CONSOR Engineers that was bidding for the public involvement contract. When they won the contract, Carrasco moved back to Presidio in 2017 and joined her brother’s firm full time. She says that when she was growing up, Marfa was very different. She knew about the Marfa Lights, and about Judd, and the 1886 Presidio County courthouse, but “Marfa was just a small town we passed through,” she says, on the way to the more exciting cities of Pecos or Odessa.

Carrasco, along with Weber and Kim Johnson, from Blanton Associates, the public involvement lead, helped direct the local community engagement process for US 67. It was, by any measure, thorough. The team developed a public involvement plan that included virtual and public meetings, online forums, media outreach, bilingual materials, interviews, and small and large group meetings. They formed committees of local judges, mayors, and other officials, and took people from various constituencies—ranching, arts and culture, conservation—on bus tours of US 67 to show them the pinch points for traffic safety and get their input on improvements. They harvested public comments and, in one of the last meetings, CDM Smith brought in an augmented reality presentation to show potential street improvements, so residents could see what a new traffic circle might feel like.

It was an overwhelming amount of attention for a project that TxDOT insisted was only for planning purposes, and it puzzled some people I spoke to and made them a little suspicious. But the result was that, as the residents became more informed and less wary, they stopped showing up for the public meetings. Weber says he had to adjust his perspective a bit to see this as a win. “When you engage the public and you try to do it the right way, and you try to be ultra-inclusive, less and less people come to the meetings because they find what you’re doing is not controversial.”

When the final master planning document emerged in November 2019, it ran to 176 pages, not including several hundred pages of technical appendices. It laid out the current conditions along US 67 and outlined projections for freight, tourism, and economic development. The agency also provided plans for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which were often mentioned in public meetings, a reflection, perhaps, of a culture change in auto-reliant West Texas. The whole project, of which the public engagement was just a small part, took 28 months.

A view from the northeast in the Chinati Mountains, near Ayala de Chinati, one of the artist Donald Judd’s properties near Marfa, Texas. Photo by Rainer Judd © Judd Foundation. 

For residents unaccustomed to much state intervention, the corridor plan was an astonishing amount of resources directed at the region that many thought had been underfunded and overlooked for decades. Many of them welcomed the attention. Regional planning in West Texas is scattershot, and most towns don’t have a comprehensive plan or experience in successfully advocating for state resources. “This is a really good opportunity,” says Trey Gerfers, a former board president of the BBCA, who lives in Marfa and makes his living as a translator. “This corridor study is a good opportunity to go after some funding, and we desperately need it. For so long, we were just excluded. We have a chance here to shape it and use it. If we ignore it, it’s not going to happen.”

Change, even incremental, should be balanced with recognition of the precarity of the environment. Montemayor thinks a more integrated approach, for communities and ecosystems on both sides of the border, including a binational park along the Rio Grande, would be a start. “This is obviously a beautiful place. But it is threatened,” he says, by the oil and gas fields and pipelines, as well as by the commercial activity they bring. “Marfa has been gentrified; Alpine is in the process. This is a place where we could balance the arts and nature.”

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