Venturing Into West Texas
When you think of the lone star state, it's not the freeways of Dallas or the office towers of Houston that come to mind. It's the legendary, wide-open spaces of west Texas.
Panoramic sunsets and whimsical doll museums. Paranormal phenomena and 1940s-era motels. High art and cowboy kitsch. Across the expanses of Big Bend Country, at Texas's extreme southwestern border, attractions run from oddball to sophisticated, quaint to amazing. Mining and ranching towns have transformed themselves into tourist destinations, each locale working its own little niche. Meanwhile, Big Bend National Park, the main draw, needs no gimmick. As the Rio Grande turns east, rough desert converges with mountains, creating a landscape that'd make a giant feel small, an egoist insignificant.
Just remember that this kind of isolation doesn't come easy. Marathon, the first stop on this road trip, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest airport, Midland International. And Midland International isn't what anyone would call a hub.
Day one: Midland to Marathon
The initial part of the drive from the airport to Marathon is, in a word, hideous. On either side of the road, barbed wire encloses flat oil fields that stretch to the horizon. Only a belch of smoke from the occasional refinery breaks the monotony.
Then, somewhere around Fort Stockton, everything changes. The rusty pumps and industrial wasteland disappear in favor of the desert hills and valleys of Big Bend Country. Cactus flowers bloom along the highway and roadrunners periodically scurry across the road.
As it materializes in the distance, the tiny town of Marathon (the last syllable rhymes with "sun") looks like nothing more than a few feed stores and mobile homes. But as you arrive in the center, its nature becomes apparent. Upscale shops and galleries line the main street, most in adobe buildings with well-tended gardens. There's even a day spa.
A leisurely afternoon helps me adjust to the slow pace of Big Bend Country. When I ask someone to name the most popular entertainments, he says, "Sunset watching and stargazing." I poke about in the shops and galleries, chitchat with locals and other visitors. The name Texas comes from the Spanish word tejas, meaning friend. Although welcome, misanthropes and recluses may find themselves uncomfortable.
Two Marathon hotels are attractions in their own right. Opened in 1927 by a prosperous banker, the luxurious Gage Hotel quickly became the region's social epicenter. It eventually fell into disrepair, but a lush 1992 restoration returned the brick-and-adobe structure to its former glory. On any given night, all of Marathon's visitors and quite a few locals gather in the elegant bar and courtyard.
Just west of town on I-90, the less expensive Marathon Motel & RV Park has a vintage 1940s ambience, with its original neon sign and windmill. Postcards and posters sold across Big Bend Country feature the sign, which boasts that the rooms have TVs. From a small wooden building on the premises, the owner also operates what is pretty much the only radio station available out here (100.1 FM). When I knock on the door, the DJ/desk clerk invites me inside the booth for a tour and offers to take my requests. The motel's adobe courtyard has a fireplace and a shrine to the Virgin Mary; it's a great place to enjoy the sunsets, which are straight out of a Technicolor Western. Afterward, I head back to the Gage for dinner, drinks, and, indeed, stargazing.
Day two: Marathon to Terlingua
The drive to Big Bend National Park takes about 45 minutes; the entrance is nothing more than a small gate, usually unattended. (Park headquarters is at Panther Junction, another 30 minutes' drive.) Once inside the gate, most evidence of civilization vanishes. Gone are the fences and livestock, leaving only the brutal desert and distant mountains and mesas. Vultures circle overhead, but the cactus flowers that splash the land in yellow and purple somehow make them less intimidating.
The speed limit drops to 45 mph, and I follow it. I'm tempted to go faster, but driving at lower speeds prevents pollution, and gives me a chance to stop for the two coyotes that dash in front of my car. The park teems with wildlife, and if you don't see a coyote, you'll likely see a deer or a javelina (also called a peccary). Though they're plump and pig-like, javelinas aren't pigs; park rangers insist they're only distantly related. Native only to the American Southwest, these non-pigs inhabit every corner of the park, moving about in groups and eating prickly pears. They're the mammals most often spotted by visitors. Just don't approach: They smell mighty bad.
The 801,163-acre park can't be seen in a day, so I choose to explore the green and mountainous Chisos Basin. Its temperatures tend to be moderate and its trails well maintained, and it's home to the only full-service restaurant in the park. The Basin's twisty mountain roads (with the prerequisite daunting precipices) mark the beginning of bear and mountain lion country, but the map assures me that sightings are rare and attacks rarer.