Big Country and Big Surprises in the Lone Star State
The last thing we expected to see on the lonely two-lane black top in the heart of SW Texas was a Prada store. Upon close inspection, we realized we were looking at an art installation, the first sign of the quirky avant garde art community in nearby Marfa. This was only the first of several surprises on our recent exploration of the wonders of — get this — Brewster County, TX, in a remote corner of a state better known for oil, chili, and cowboys.
The main draw was Big Bend NP, the best national park most people have never heard of. It’s remote, almost 300 miles from El Paso, and huge, over 800,000 acres. The few people who make the effort to visit have its rugged beauty almost to themselves.
There is no easy way to get there, but the remoteness is part of its charm. We flew into El Paso, then drove for four hours, passing the faux Prada store, and stopped for the night at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon (gagehotel.com), less than an hour from the park entrance.
Under the watchful gaze of a mounted white buffalo head in the hotel bar (ergo the name, the White Buffalo Bar) we had a dinner of roast quail, braised elk tenderloins and an outstanding IPA from the Big Bend Brewery just down the block. It was as good as anything I have eaten in major cities around the world.
The next morning we explored Marathon before heading to the Park. Marathon used to be a railroad town during the boom years in the late 1800s when ranching dominated the West Texas economy. It is now reinventing itself as a tourist stop on the way to Big Bend and a scenic escape for residents of the “oil patch” (Midland and Odessa) a few hours to the north and west. Marathon is pretty small so we covered most of it on foot in a just a few minutes.
In and Around the Park
We spent the next two nights at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park (www.chisosmountainslodge.com), a sprawling collection of low-slung wooden buildings in a basin surrounded by sharp peaks and broad monoliths of red rock.
Our first morning in Big Bend was clear, bright and crisp in the mountains where we were, but foggy on the floor of the park. From the road near the lodge high up in the mountains, we could see puffs of mist filling the gaps between the jagged spires of rock and rounded buttes jutting up from the desert floor.
We headed down into the fog toward Santa Elena Canyon at the far western edge of the park. The fog soon lifted, and I remembered why I love driving through Big Bend. It takes pretty much an hour to go almost anywhere, but its usually an easy, enjoyable drive on the straight, empty ribbons of road. As I drove I day-dreamed and stole glances at the lunar landscape of desert, canyons, mountains and wind- and rain-sculpted rock rolling by.
We reached the Santa Elena Canyon parking lot about 9:30 a.m. It was empty, and no one else was in sight. A short walk across a sandy beach took us to the edge of the Rio Grande. This shallow and narrow rio is not so grande by the time it trickles through Santa Elena Canyon. If we wanted to, we could have waded across the 20 to 30 yards of knee-deep water to Mexico.
A steep narrow path winds into the canyon up from the beach. In just a few minutes we were surrounded by rock walls, and the only sound we could hear was the burble of the river. We didn’t run into any one else until we headed back down the path to the beach. The total length of the hike from the parking lot and back is less than two miles.
After lunch at the lodge, we went on the 5.6 mile round trip hike to the Window, a notch in a cliff at the end of a streambed which spilled out high above the desert floor. The steep trail descends about a 1,000 feet alongside the dry streambed, then funnels through a narrow tree-shaded canyon to the Window. I inched up as close to the Window as I dared on the slick rock and could see the desert many miles away and almost 2,000 feet below.
The next day featured a horseback ride on state park lands adjacent to the national park. The horses, lunch, and Armando, our guide, were provided by Big Bend Stables (www.lajitass tables.com/bbstables.html). The scenery was provided by God, god, Yaweh, Allah, Krishna, the forces of the universe, or whatever, depending on your beliefs. I didn’t bother with that. I just gawked and hung onto the saddle horn for dear life.
Later that day we eased our sore butts onto bar stools at the Starlight Theater Restaurant (www.thestarlighttheatre.com) in the ghost town of Terlingua. Terlingua is an interesting town, if you can call it that. It was a thriving mining town in the early part of the 1900s, then fell on hard times and was eventually abandoned in the 1940s. In recent years it has turned into a refuge for artists, hippies, bikers, survivalists, itinerant river guides, 9-11 conspiracy theorists, snow birds, tourists and other free spirits, many of them living off the grid.
The Starlight has the best food, drink and atmosphere in Terlingua. Of course, there are only a few eating/drinking establishments in Terlingua, but I would probably say the same if there were many more. We ate there two nights and had some of the best Texas BBQ, roast quail, and chili I have ever eaten. We also drank a lot of tequila and had a great time talking to some of the locals. It’s a good thing Terlingua is just down the road from the Big Bend Casitas (bigbendfarflung.com/lodging/), where we stayed for the next two nights, a definite advantage after an evening at the Starlight.
On our last day in the park we canoed down the Rio Grande on a trip run by the Far Flung Outdoor Center (bigbendfarflung.com). It was a mellow, leisurely paddle down the shallow, slow-moving river through canyons and desert. Our several hours on the river were broken up by lunch, a two-mile hike, and a long soak in the historic hot springs on the river bank.
One of the canoes did get hung up in an especially shallow stretch of the river and overturned. The occupants walked a few feet to shore while the guides emptied the water out of the canoe. If they had walked the 10-20 yards to the opposite shore they would have been in Mexico — illegally, of course, but it didn’t seem like it would have been a big deal if they had. It was that kind of trip.
Another evening at the Starlight and another night at the Big Bend Casitas and our five-day Big Bend adventure was almost over. But not quite. The drive from the park along the river on FM-170 to Presidio is one of the most scenic drives in North America.
On the Way Back
From Presidio we headed north and stopped for an hour or so in Marfa, an unlikely oasis for cutting-edge art. In addition to the Prada store that really isn’t a Prada store, Marfa also has its historic charms, including the Presidio County Courthouse and the Hotel Paisano (hotelpaisano.com) where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed while making the Academy Award-winning movie classic, Giant.
We considered spending the night in Marfa at the Paisano, but decided to press on to Van Horn one hour north for the night, so we could visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park the next day. We stayed at the historic Hotel El Capitan (www.thehotelelcapitan.com), just off I-10. I don’t know if James, Liz and Rock spent any time here, but the rooms were comfortable, if a bit tight, the food was good and the bar was great. Like the Starlight, the other patrons at the bar were very friendly. One even flirted with my 70 year old wife, making her day (as well as mine).
Guadalupe Mountains NP is an hour north of Van Horn and even less well known than Big Bend, but its rugged desert mountains and empty trails were definitely worth the side trip. We only had a few hours in the park, but it was enough time to take the 2.3 mile loop trail to Smith Spring. If I ever get back to this part of the world I’ll make sure to spend more time here.
The adventure wasn’t over. The only way to describe the road from the park to El Paso, Hwy 62, is lonely. And there are no gas stations along the way. We had to take a 20-mile side trip (a side trip off a side trip) along even lonelier farm roads to Dell City to the only gas station for almost 100 miles. It was a self service station and no one was there. I spent a few anxious moments hoping that my credit card would work in the pump. It was Sunday and the town looked shut down, so I’m not sure what we would have done if our credit card or the pump didn’t work.
In any case, they did and we made it back to El Paso in time for an excellent Mexican dinner at the authentic, 90-year-old L&J Cafe (www.landjcafe.com/#about) before catching our flight back home to Los Angeles.
I usually travel far for adventure – e.g., Asia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica, and Australia. What a pleasure to discover someplace remote, scenic, uncrowded and quirky in my own metaphorical back yard. No sleepless nights from jet lag or gastric distress from unfamiliar cuisines (the chili, on the other hand…).
As a Californian, I’m not a fan of Texas politics. But to quote another Californian in a much different context and with a very different accent, “I’ll be back.”