THE COWBOY OUT OF THE BOX
STORY BY Max Wastler
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Max Wastler and Garrett Cornilison
“I’d show up in a cloud of dust and mess that place up. she didn’t care, though. she didn’t take my shit, and i didn’t take hers.”
Before you meet Ty Mitchell, you’ve already encountered him. His aura covers Marfa, but nowhere is it stronger than the Lost Horse Saloon. You approach the long, low, sloped roof, where you hope to hang your hat for the next few hours. As you pass beneath a small sign out front, you notice that the neon red has a particularly sharp, ruby flicker and cries out “BEER, BEER, BEER.” That’s it: a lone lit sign, promising an all-caps experience. As you enter, you train your eye on the fetching young woman behind the bar, her braided ponytail pulled tight to reveal a neck tattoo of a Texas state flag. Obliging the cliché, you order a Lone Star Light and scan the room. You crack a wry smile as you notice a band of bearded college students setting up a drum kit in the corner. Just then, a loud cheer comes from the bar’s side yard, where a collection of local men has corralled around a widescreen TV to hoot and holler over the San Antonio Spurs. In the crowd of men, you spot him tipping his longneck bottle toward a blonde woman with a serious tan.
Ty Mitchell fits right in at the Lost Horse Saloon: a 6-foot-4 cowboy, with an improbable 28-inch waist, clad in a black hat and an eyepatch. Lost in your daydream, you snap to it when you realize the two of you have locked eyes. He grins at you. You return the smile. The craggiest face you’ve ever seen seems to be inviting and blackballing you all at once. His face is the personification of a “Welcome to Marfa” sign and perhaps, at the same time, the best iteration this side of an Alamo gift-shop coffee mug that says, “Don’t Mess with Texas.” The next day, you ask folks around town, “What’s the deal with Ty Mitchell?” You get the same response from everyone you talk to. “A true Texan,” some say. “A real cowboy,” others echo. A pair of women you meet declare, “He’s so sweet!” Tom Michael at Marfa Public Radio wonders aloud, “When’d he start wearing an eye patch?” Returning that afternoon, the sun spills into the bar from a set of windows on either side of the front door. The tattooed bartender is back. You ask if Ty’s around. He’s outside having a smoke.
Heading in that direction, you see his back is turned. He’s balancing on the back two legs of a ratty chair, pencil-thin legs crossed and resting on a tree stump. Petting his Blue Heeler, he pulls from a pale blue-andwhite can of beer that he rests on the scorched grass. You hesitate to introduce yourself, wondering if he’ll be sour to you— an outsider, a Northerner. Turning around to buy a shot of courage, you tell yourself you’ll assimilate by simply ordering whatever he’s drinking. You flash your cash at the bartender, and she cracks open a can for you. You order two whiskies, hoping to smooth over the introduction with the offering of your favorite bourbon. You tip your brand new straw "Open Road" classic cowboy hat, the one LBJ wore (and as you’ll later discover, so do all the suits in Texas), in his direction. He touches a long, finger to the brim of his dusty, old Spradley black beaver as he takes a prolonged drag from the last nub of a hand-rolled cigarette. “Hot day,” you swallow. “Yep,” he grins, as he deadens the butt of the cigarette and pulls a pack from his shirt pocket. As he rolls another, you recognize the red Prince Albert label. “Pipe tobacco? My grandpa smoked Prince Albert,” you say.
“Mine too.” His smile widens into an introduction. “Ty Mitchell. I own this place.” As he looks up at you from under his brim, his one good eye scans the bar. You shake his hand firmly. His palms are tough, but not as tough as you’d expect for the man you had pictured hopping off a tired American Paint Horse, lasso in a gloved hand, tying down a stray calf. He’s kind, you realize, handing him a glass of bourbon, which he immediately raises in a toast to you.
That’s when you start to pepper him with questions. He takes each one, considers it, and offers a mountain’s worth of information, whatever the subject. That Lone Star Light can you’re enjoying? Purchased to serve at the local roller derby. He figured cans were better than glass bottles to serve at a roller rink, and when the derby girls no longer neededthe abundance of leftovers, he put them behind the bar
Though he spent all but the first year of his life in Texas, he refuses to refer to himself as a Texan. “ Born in New Mexico,” he reveals. “Actually, I have a certificate from the governor declaring me an honorary Texan.” You pry into the story. You learn that while she was the governor, the legendary politician Ann Richards (the tarttongued Texan who once quipped, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, she just did it backwards and in high heels”) befriended Ty while campaigning, and she invited him to the governor’s mansion more than once. “I’d show up in a cloud of dust and mess that place up,” he recalls. “She didn’t care, though. We really got along well. She didn’t take my shit, and I didn’t take hers.”
You find out he’s more than just a bar owner and a rancher. He is also a seasoned professional actor. “Can’t tell you how many times I get somebody that comes in here [saying], ‘I seen you a mile high in Times Square.’ Or, ‘That was you, weren’t it, in that one movie that shot here?’” Ty explains that a few movies have featured his mangy mug, a face that so typifies this one-stoplight town in West Texas. He goes on to tell you that Marfa was founded on the quality of the ranches tucked into the surrounding hill - sides that make their way toward Big Bend. And it blossomed from the magnificent light that drew filmmakers to take advantage of its wide, impressive sunrises and sunsets. Much like Ty, for several decades the smartest Marfa residents have capitalized on these two defining features of this incomparable place for decades. When Hollywood and Madison Avenue come calling, Ty and his Blue Heeler, Quatro, are often first on the casting directors’ call sheets. “One year, that dog made more money than I did,” he says. “But some girl came in here and took too many pictures of her. Now she don’t sit still.” The conversation turns serious when you ask about his eye. “Shrapnel,” he says.
He probably wants to leave it at that, but he chooses to explain a bit further. “I was in Libya, in the merchant marines. We were doing some work and some shrapnel hit my eye, and I wasn’t able to take care of it properly. It’s been a problem on-and-off for a long time, and I think, as of a few weeks ago, I’ll be wearing this eye patch for good.”The dry air West Texas air, mixed with windy days on the ranch, doesn’t help and causes his eye to flare up. “It’s the iron in the soil. It gets up in my eye socket, and it gets really irritated.”
He asks if you’ve got a girlfriend. You nod and answer with the same question. “ Yep, German,” he says. “She’s a novelist.” And at that, his face lights up. The wrinkles—well, most of them—disappear. He says she moved to Marfa from Germany to focus on her latest project. The two had an instant kinship. She, a fish out of water, and he, who couldn't be more in his element, found themselves spending more and more time together. A long-distance relationship was born. “I’m trying to get her to move here,” he says as he smiles wide and takes a drag from his umpteenth cig. “I think I have her convinced.” (You’ll learn after leaving Marfa that he did convince her, and the two were married by the end of the year.) As he continues to speak highly of his lady, you take a glance around the yard. Several projects in various stages of completion strewn around. Beyond the fence, the clouds have gathered, and the sun is about to set. Ty notices you’ve locked in with the sky, and he motions toward the pink and yellow streaks: “That is a masterpiece. Hard to argue with something like that, right?” Walking away from the Lost Horse Saloon, you recall another of Governor Richards’ one-liners: “I thought I knew Texas pretty well, but I had no notion of its size until I campaigned it.” And you realize: She may as well have been talking about Ty. —Max Wastler