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Chinati Hot Springs
Marfa, Texas

by Byron Browne

I first heard of the Chinati Hot Springs from a former student of mine. Because of the source and my own ignorance of the place, I was suspicious that the name had been both mispronounced and, subsequently, misspelled in my mind. So, when I tried to locate the area, I formed every variation of the word that I could imagine. Most likely, the consonants were appropriately placed. The vowels, however, were suspect. After only a couple of days, I had trouble remembering exactly what the student had said. Was it Chinouti or Chuneté? Chanootoo or Chanitu? More troubling was the notion that maybe a diphthong was at play, Chaeniti perhaps. Who could tell? Well, a Google search proved both my student and my ignorance correct.

The resort spans 640 acres and rests on the side of a ravine in the Chihuahuan mountains. It is concealed by the lesser peaks even from the seven miles of almost paved road that lead to it. The route is a wide, white- rocked shaving of a trail, which has an upward, circuitous direction and must be handled with some delicacy. If entering after night fall (not a good idea if you're unfamiliar with the area. I mean, really, not a good idea) be prepared for near total blackness when shutting off your car's lights. While there are campers, and the caretakers, David and Krissy Fines, are almost always available, most everyone turns in early. Out here, night's black cauldron, lacking the urban staples of radio, computers and television, brews a somniferous stew. We tried to arrive before nightfall (my unspoken goal) and almost made it.

My wife and I arrived at Marfa in the mid-afternoon, pleased that we had passed the interstate portion of the trip so quickly. I-10 has an 80-mile an hour posting now and the rental car we drove took us from Fredericksburg to Fort Stockton in just over two and half hours. We ate lunch at Conchita's, one of the few restaurants on Marfa's main street (Hwy. 90) which seemed unmolested by the recent wave of renovation. I ordered a torta that was slow in coming, but worth the wait-a sandwich equal parts avocado and beef inside of a tear of bread that tasted fresh baked although the kitchen seemed too small for such an enterprise.

Heading south on Texas highway 2810 is more of an adventure than a drive. There is such a lack of human activity out there that the cows stared at our car as we drove by, the hawks did not bother to leave their posts and twice we had to steer around rancher-shot javelinas, one of which was so large that it demanded, even in death's rigor, one of the two available lanes. The springs' web site has described the Pinto Canyon road, the unpaved portion of the highway and a relative "short-cut", as a journey though, "deep canyons, across creeks and high peaks". An off-road vehicle with a "high clearance" was recommended. I thought that probably, the site's author was erring on the side of safety and common sense. We decided to make the attempt.

Pinto Canyon Road creek, West Texas
Pinto Canyon Road Creek
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

After a couple of miles on the unpaved road we came to an open gate, guarded by a cattle grate and a large, sun-blanched sign that read that the road beyond was "private property" for ten miles. Stopping the car, we got out and stood bewildered in the open country looking back and ahead for some sort of ethereal assistance, a comedy for the cattle and horses. Had we taken a wrong turn? Impossible. There had been absolutely nowhere to turn. We researched the map more times than needed and decided that we were probably pretty close to our goal and should try simply moving forward. If we were right, we would make the springs well before nightfall. As we inched the car ahead, the road on the other side of the grate became nothing more than a pocked rock path, clearly created for and by vehicles and animalia foreign to ourselves. After a few hundred yards we saw the canyon beneath and the path that extended through it, a brown ripple of a trail with more curves and bends than a burlesque dancer. The car panicked. The afternoon's sunlight was wearing away and we quickly saw that our supplies (a hot twelve pack of beer, two diet cokes, three sticks of gum and half a tank of gas) would probably not suffice if we became stuck. Besides, hadn't we read something about wild cats and black bears? Our pioneering spirit was fading with the sunlight and we retreated back to the paved section of the highway.

While we had seen no one on the drive south, we now passed a sole white truck, which quickly turned in behind us. Evidently, the Border Patrol casts an inquiring eye on cars coming up from the border. We were followed, nose to butt, for a couple of miles. While my wife asked repeatedly whether she should, "just go ahead and pull over" I tried to display an insouciant attitude. Of course, we were eventually stopped. I honestly thought that when the officer heard our story and saw our whimpering, dusty rental car, he would send us on our way. However, the Homeland Security insignia on the trucks now require officers to dismiss what is highly probable for what is remotely possible. Our licenses were taken back to the truck for at least ten minutes, during which time my wife tried to show me the day's pictures on our digital camera. When the officer returned, he approached the passenger side and asked me to come to the back of the car. With my mind in a tumult, he began to ask, through his sunglasses, what my wife had handed to me while he had been in his truck. Unsatisfied with the camera explanation, he pursued that it had been drugs. I denied the charge and was soon exposed to the onset of what would become 30 minutes of the best laconic stare-down technique that our tax dollars can coach. Offering again that we had no drugs brought the declaration that if I were to simply produce my drugs he would, "toss them on the road and there [would] be no arrests". While I wondered if twelve hot Coors in the trunk constituted a felony and whether or not I was willing to part with them, our officer (by now, in the middle of this desert, he had indeed, become solely, ours) once again allowed his sunglasses, unnecessary at this point in the day, to speak truth and justice to my heart. I'm afraid that all I could confess was a weak smile of discomfiture, which I was more than willing to let fall to the grass. Undeterred, he asked me to fetch my wife to the back of the car and we stood, statues on the steppes, while he searched our still exhausted car. Satisfied that we posed no immediate threat to state or country, our officer let slip that, "there is an ungodly amount of narcotics" that travel north on this highway. Undoubtedly, he is right. Also, undoubtedly, we looked alien to the landscape as he knows it. Any cow out there could tell you that. Ten minutes of small talk, replete with the same intent staring and several instances of holster checking, bought us a one-way ticket back to Marfa and a longer journey to a destination obscured by mountains and a darkening sky.

Highway 170 west of Ruidosa to Chinati Hot Springs
Highway 170 west of Ruidosa to Chinati Hot Springs
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

The path to the Chinati Hot Springs lies just west of Ruidosa off of highway 170, an arrow straight road that is nevertheless, savagely water warped and undulating. The road is so close to the border that you can smell the Rio Grande. If you were of a mind to run drugs from Mexico, you would be ideally situated. The road is roughly seven miles long, and in the dark feels like many more. However, the Springs are one of those destinations that make you truly glad to have endured such a harsh path.

As we entered through a metal gate, still unsure about where, exactly, we had landed, the kitchen cabin became visible by its soft interior light, left on perhaps, by accident. The cabin seemed the lone-lighted spot for miles in any direction. We parked and found ourselves wondering what to do next. The kitchen was empty of people and, while I knew the caretakers were expecting us, there was not a sign of anyone. My wife and I walked to a cabin that seemed to be more official than the others due to its size, and knocked, startling a couple of dogs who charged the door and chased away what was left of my reserve. David, half of the husband and wife managerial team, hushed the dogs, pronounced them harmless, and walked us, and the limping car down to our cabin, the El Presidente. David ignored my comment (it was a compliment) on the black velvet Matador tapestry hanging above the bed, wished us a goodnight, and disappeared like Batman into the darkness. Left to ourselves, we went to fish our bags from the trunk of the car. In all honesty, I can relate that neither my wife nor myself, from Puerto Rico and Lubbock, respectively, had ever witnessed a night's sky such as this one. I could not remember when I had seen the Milky Way so clearly, when a star's flaming could be seen without myopia, when space seemed so perfectly real and close at hand. We stood that way, backs arched, necks cocked to the car's roof for longer than a Border Patrol agent can stare. When we finally did lie down, the stars were the conversation that sleep faded.

Bath, Chinati Hot Springs , Texas
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

The El Presidente cabin at the Chinati Hot Springs is one of two on site with its own private tub. The other, the El Patron, has a bath sharing a wall with the El Presidente's. Additionally, five other rooms share three semi-private baths available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The water contains several trace minerals as well as lithium, sulfur and arsenic. The tubs are close to three feet below the level of the floor and relaxing into them is akin to a sort of rural isolation chamber (Was I the only one who remembered Dr. Lily's salt water sensory deprivation chambers from the '80's? And the movie Altered States? My wife said yes). The water's spigot was little more than the terminus of a lead pipe extending from the cistern. The water flows, unfiltered, for both drink and wash. There is a certain majesty to the fact that the waters rise from a single source, a sulfur orange cavity in the rock directly behind the cabin. I couldn't help but imagine that I was being healed of some of my afflictions; the lithium would lighten my personality, the minerals could reproduce my arthritic knee into a fixture as smooth and white as Pelop's shoulder. A common, local tale concerns a relative of the Kingston family, the owners of the property in the early twentieth century. The man was cured of his crippling arthritis after bathing in the spring water. Out in the Chihuahan desert, the improbable frequently seems possible.

The communal kitchen at the Chinati Hot Springs is the one area where you are likely to run into others who have ventured away from their urban environs. However, if you're looking for a protracted conversation you will need to find your car keys, because, you're driving back to town. Aside from volleying "good morning", the only talk I nearly had with another visitor was when I found myself wanting to thank whoever had made the coffee early that first morning. The individuals who travel to this spot are here to be with the mountains, the sky, and their own thoughts.

Chinati Foundation Museum Marfa Texas
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

Chinati Foundation in Marfa

We left the Springs for an afternoon to visit the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. The Foundation is home to permanent installations of various Minimalist artists of whom Donald Judd is the most prominent and indeed, the Pater Familias of the entire site. It was Judd who, in the late 1970's, bought the land and converted the barracks and hangers of the former military base into a museum. Indeed, the huge scale of the museum almost defies the Minimalist effort. The museum offers a two-round tour, Wednesday though Sunday, that begins at 10:00 a.m. and then again at 2:00 p.m. In addition to Judd's work there are works by Donald Flavin, John Chamberlain (located at a sight away from the main buildings and the reason for the second round of the tour), Ingólfur Arnarsson, John Wesley, Ilya Kabakov and others. Mr. Arnarsson's exhibit, Untitled Works 1991-1992, is ghost-white, a rectangular room with thirty-six, grey, frameless drawings that seem to hang suspended from the walls like phantasms. At either end are two concrete rectangles painted white, the focal points of the room. The entire work projects a deceptive warmth with an underlying fragility.

Kabakov's School No. 6
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

Mr. Kabakov's installation is much less abstract. School No. 6 is a study in Kabakov's childhood, Soviet era memories. The entire work is a representation of a failed and abandoned schoolroom. Scraps of paper, photographs, magazine articles, musical instruments and faded, broken furniture are strewn about the floor. The Foundation's intern and tour guide asked all of the visitors to, "please [not] touch anything. Even the dirt is placed exactly where the artist wants it". Indeed, the courtyard of the U-shaped building includes grasses and weeds that are let alone to further add to the perception of rejection and neglect.

The Chinati Foundation opened in 1986 and since that time Donald Judd has become the same sort of totem for Marfa, Texas that John Steinbeck became for Salinas, California. I am quite sure that if Marfa were large enough to warrant a Chevrolet dealership, the name Judd would certainly blaze across the façade. In fact, the town, at one time a backwater that hung precariously close to extinction, has witnessed a re-flowering with the migration of affluent artists from all over the country. My wife and I noticed, with some trepidation, the similarities between Marfa and south Austin. Remodeled, split-level, tri-colored studios are replacing the prairie homes as quickly as the west Texas wind can blow them in. Perhaps unfortunately, the wind is simultaneously blowing the veteran residents to parts unknown. Counting the for sale signs (our count was 16 in one section of town) was a lesson in applied mathematics; many Marfans are taking full advantage of the swell in housing prices.

Prada Marfa, West Texas
Prada Marfa
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

Prada Marfa

Between tours at the Foundation we headed west on highway 90 towards the town of Valentine. About thirty minutes from Marfa, many know the area today as the overseer of the Prada Marfa, a permanent art installation that has the semblance of being an outlet of the famous Italian boutique. Designed and erected by Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the work contains six handbags and fourteen right shoes, hand picked by Miuccia Prada herself. Originally "opened" in October 2005 (and badly vandalized three days later) the structure appears as out of place in the chaos of west Texas' ranch lands as the camel we saw, grazing alongside longhorns, just south of town.

* * * * *

The Chinati Hot Springs are run by the husband and wife team of Krissy and David Fines. Both are transplants from Dallas' Deep Ellum area. Asked by a friend four years ago if they wanted a, "life changing experience" they accepted the challenge and have been living at the Springs ever since. Both told us that a recent story about the Springs on Texas Country Reporter has increased business like never before. "The phone rings constantly now," David proclaimed.

The couple were more welcoming and warm than anyone we encountered on the trip. When I told them about the Border Patrol stop, Krissy, looking towards her husband, produced a preemptive, knowing smile to allay the controlled rage that she knew was stewing inside David. Evidently, he had had some of his own unpleasant encounters with the local Patrol.
Chinati Hot Springs pool and mountain view , Texas
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

Near the end of our second night at the Chinati Hot Springs, Krissy led my wife and I to the newest addition at the resort--a 15' x 20' pool situated on the hill behind the office cabin. Krissy was obviously pleased with the pool and after sharing her satisfaction, left us to admire the embers of the setting sun from this new citadel.

The following morning we reluctantly packed and I made a last stop at the kitchen cabin in search of coffee. All I found were the paper towels that I had to use trying to clean up the mess I made while attempting to brew the day's first pot. No one would be thanking me for this.

Pinto Canyon Road, West Texas
Pinto Canyon Road
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

Leaving the resort, we passed, once again, the Pinto Canyon Road detour that we had been so easily swayed from a couple of days before; literally, we had come to a crossroads. David had told us the previous day that a van had made the trip through the pass only recently and, encouraged by this information (I wasn't about to let a minivan outclass our rental) we decided to give it a try. Besides, Krissy had mentioned a few times that the road was, "just beautiful" and not to be missed. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Driving the route in the early morning's light was an ethereal experience. We rolled down a dirt path and up into the canyon on a smooth, sandy trail, crossing streams and draws, over divots and rocks. The mountains embraced us on either side and we felt completely relaxed and assured in their company. Even my constant anxiety about being blind-sided by deer ("buck-shot" as a friend of mine calls it) was mollified by this extraordinary landscape. The proverbial cream was the fact that the Chinati Mountain was still snow capped from a storm over a week prior. We stopped the car twice to get a better view from outside. Just as with the stars a couple of nights earlier, my wife and I found ourselves voluntarily abandoning speech as a method of communication; there was simply no need.

Pinto Canyon Road , mountain, stream, West Texas
Pinto Canyon Road, mountain and stream
Photo courtesy Byron Browne, 2006

The Chinati Hot Springs is a "peaceful and restorative place" according to the brochure. I assume that this might be an adequate description from someone who has been there more than once and become accustomed. To the uninitiated it is near heaven. The Chihuahan desert is an area of Texas that is surreal, detached from our usual, suspected realities. The divine inclusion of the hot springs only augments the majesty. In fact, all things Chinati, whether the Springs, the museum, or even the mountain, guarantee obsequious attention, an unspoken devotion. In fact, if I ever open my own business, I'll brand the word across the front of the building knowing that the initiates will come.

May 6, 2007

© Byron Browne
Special thanks to. Ballroom Marfa, Emilia and Ilya Karbakov and Ingólfur Arnarsson for photo permissions. Many thanks also to the Chinati Foundation's Director Nick Terry.

Area Destinations:
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