Around the Big Bend

By Benjamin and Christina Schwarz

April 2000 ATLANTIC
EL despoblado — “the uninhabited land” — is what the Spanish called the Big Bend region of Texas, the wing on the western side of the state, which stretches east from El Paso, at the wingtip, to the Pecos River, and south from New Mexico to the Rio Grande. The epithet still fits. The loneliness of West Texas is obvious from the map. West of San Angelo the web of roads tangled over most of the rest of Texas clears away, leaving only the I-10 and a few loose strings of two-lane highways connecting tiny towns in the vast white space. In life, for most of the year this space is a palette of yellows and browns, punctuated by greens. One mountain range or another — the Glass, the Chinati, the Barrilla, the Sierra Diablo, the Christmas — is always in sight, but you can drive on these roads for half an hour at a stretch without passing another car. We’ve marveled at the enormous sky throughout the Far West, but that of West Texas is especially stunning, alive with pink and blue Turneresque strokes and swirls.

West Texas, in its neglect and its isolation, retains the hard splendor characteristic of the West. It seems more “western” than Montana or Arizona or New Mexico, so much of which have become, variously, glamorous, suburban, and artsy. All of this unpopulated territory makes for great hiking, backpacking, bird watching, and horseback riding, but this region, where the American West and South meet Mexico, is also interesting culturally. Each town has a distinct character, several have atmospheric hotels, and it’s not hard to find good food. The Big Bend region also has among the largest and most important permanent installations of contemporary art in the world.

Don’t go to West Texas, however, if you hate car travel. Commercial airlines fly only as far as points on the periphery, El Paso or Midland/Odessa, and then you have to drive. On the three-and-a-half-hour trip from El Paso to Marfa, in the heart of the region, the colors of the landscape shift distinctly again and again with the changes in altitude. Bare brown earth gives way to grasses colored mustard, ocher, or wheat and stuck with yuccas and an occasional Joshua tree. We first stumbled on Marfa, on its near-mile-high prairie, seven years ago during the dusk of a summer day, when we stopped at a roadside place for enchiladas. This cluster of 2,500 people, with its two-block main street bisected by railroad tracks, its turn-of-the-century adobe and wood-frame houses and Second Empire county courthouse, seemed to us hardly attached to the rest of the country or to the decade. We wandered in the dry, still air down streets that petered out quickly, giving way in every direction to the grasslands.

MARFA is an eccentric place. Starting out life as a watering stop on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, it was named — the story goes — by an engineer’s wife after a servant woman in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.What’s more, there are the “mystery lights.” By the side of the highway nine miles out of town a state historical marker denotes the official viewing spot for these glowing orbs, which people since the 1800s have reported seeing dancing along the mountains to the south. If you park at dusk and stand on the hood of your car, you might see them — and then again, you might not. Although theories ranging from UFOs to inversion layers abound, no one has yet hit on a scientifically satisfying explanation.

Marfa-TexasMarfa was a part of the Wild West for as long as any of the West remained wild; Mexican bandits raided the surrounding ranches as late as 1919. Today one of the town’s largest employers is the U.S. Border Patrol. But next door to the patrol’s sector headquarters is the Chinati Foundation. Named for the nearby mountain range, the foundation was begun by the late Donald Judd, arguably the most important American Minimalist, who moved to Marfa in 1976 to escape the New York art world, and lived there until his death, in 1994. Convinced that most contemporary art was shortchanged and misunderstood, particularly when crowded museums exhibited single pieces out of context, Judd wanted to create large, permanent installations inextricably linked to their environment. With Chinati and his extraordinary private collections (many of which are not, unfortunately, now open to the public), Judd put into practice his theories about how art should be experienced, including his idea that some art “should be placed and never moved again.”

Over time Judd imposed his vision and idiosyncrasies on Marfa, transforming much of the town into a sort of giant studio and private museum as he bought land and structures in which to make and install his own art and to house works by other artists of his generation — Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, John Wesley, John Chamberlain, Larry Bell, and Yayoi Kusama, among others. He bought a 1930s bank building and furnished the upstairs offices with early-modern furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gerrit Rietveld, and Alvar Aalto. He converted the railroad depot, once used for wool and mohair shipments, into a display space for Chamberlain’s hulking sculptures, and arranged his 10,000-volume library in what was once an airplane hangar. Each of Judd’s pursuits commands its own space. He used an old hotel as his print studio, one office building as his architecture studio, and another as his ranch office. To write in, he bought a Craftsman house that had been built for Katherine Anne Porter by her uncle. He put a bed of his own design in every workspace, because he didn’t think he should have to leave his work in order to rest. The exteriors of the buildings Judd used remain just as they were originally, so the artist’s influence is almost invisible from the street.

The Chinati Foundation is housed in Fort D. A. Russell, a former U.S. Cavalry post that has been somewhat renovated to suit the artWDJP_Judd-Marfa it displays. By far the most significant work here, Judd’s 100 milled-aluminum boxes with identical dimensions but varied interiors, is installed in two enormous artillery sheds, the walls of which Judd made mostly windows. Even to those, like us, who are fairly ignorant about contemporary art, these rooms are magnificent workings of geometry and light, arrangements and rearrangements of rectangles, shadows, and unexpectedly glowing surfaces. The buildings, used during World War II by German prisoners of war, are strikingly simple, but the concrete, iron, brick, and glass of their construction — as well as the huge Texas sky, the sea of grass, and the distant mountains framed by the windows — are clearly integral to the piece.

In the seven years since our first visit to Marfa this isolated town has attracted some artists, architects, designers, and gallery owners who’ve brought with them elements of a hipper world. Around the corner from the old furniture showroom, featuring brown La-Z-Boys, is a designer’s furniture gallery with chic lettering on the window that reads Marfa, Texas; Brooklyn, New York. Although the Marfa Opera House has long been vacant, and to see a movie you must drive half an hour, you can now sip cappuccino and peruse the American Poetry Review right in the middle of town. For the moment, this infusion of sophistication enhances rather than overwhelms Marfa’s offbeat identity, but the tipping point may soon be reached.

BEFORE 1995 you could interrupt the drive between Marfa and the pickup-truck-packed border town of Presidio with little other than a spooky detour through Shafter, a mostly abandoned silver-mining town. Now, however, you can lose yourself for days at the intimate, plush Cibolo Creek Ranch, if you don’t mind spending a bundle for the pleasure. The day we left the ranch, two Yemeni oil tycoons were arriving, at the resort’s private airstrip. The only other way in is along circuitous gravel roads that lead deep into the Chinati and the Cuesta del Burro Mountains. Cibolo is composed of three meticulously restored mid-nineteenth-century adobe forts that have among them just sixteen guest rooms. The grounds of each fort are watered by natural springs and are therefore surprisingly lush in this otherwise astringent, desolate terrain. Altogether the place is an oasis of luxury, in which the food is gourmet and organic (much of it grown in a large garden on the property), the furnishings are Spanish Colonial antiques, and the toiletries are Aveda. Although you could spend all your time at Cibolo paddling in the pool (especially exhilarating under the bright big sky full of Texas stars) or being massaged, there are activities for which it’s well worth getting dressed: hiking, or going riding with a wrangler who is also a botanist, or taking a jeep tour with an experienced birder. On one short evening walk we saw a group of javelinas (they look like boars), a great blue heron, a tarantula, a jackrabbit, roadrunners (ubiquitous in West Texas), and tens of horse-lubber grasshoppers — and those were just the species we could identify. According to Cibolo staff members, before the Big Bend area was overgrazed, forty species of grasses grew here, some of them as tall as a horse. In an attempt to re-create the original landscape as nearly as possible, Cibolo has reseeded some of its property with the seven or eight grasses still extant.

The majority of the rooms are in El Fortin del Cibolo, the main fort. To reach the other two forts, La Cienega and La Morita (the inhabitants of the latter were massacred by Indians in 1875), you must drive still farther along dirt roads, past wallowing long-horned cattle. When we arrived at La Cienega, a golden eagle swooped down and perched thirty feet away from us — uncomfortably close to our cat, who prefers to stay well clear of predators. (Hostelries in West Texas, by the way, are the most consistently pet-friendly we’ve encountered. Every hotel we tried allowed our cat in the room, and even welcomed the stray dog we found on the trip and, much to the cat’s dismay, brought home.) With its original dark adobe dining room, entered through doorways so low that even we, who are rather short, had to duck, and its bedrooms with old-fashioned cottonwood-beamed ceilings, La Cienega feels romantically removed from the present. Especially if you can rustle up enough friends to book the four rooms, it’s definitely the place to stay.

BIG Bend National Park, which deserves to be the focal point of any trip to this region, is the best-preserved corner of the Chihuahuan desert. Bordered on the south by the Rio Grande, the park stretches over 800,000 acres of varied elevations, terrains, and microclimates. At its center the Chisos Mountains, towers of rock nearly 8,000 feet high, covered in piñon pine and juniper, rise abruptly from the desert. The extensive networks of canyons, valleys, and peaks in the Chisos make for hikes with constantly changing vistas and views far into Mexico. Experienced hikers can explore backcountry trails in a remote desert area like the Dead Horse Mountains or trek a thirty-two-mile loop through the Chisos. The park supports plants that can be found nowhere else in the United States, along with more than seventy species of cacti and more than 400 species of birds. No other national park in the United States or Canada has as many of either. The cacti and wildflowers generally bloom in March and April; the sky blooms in summer, when storms come and the lightning, better than fireworks, forks into scores of branches in all parts of the firmament at once. October and November, when the river is typically high but fairly stable, are the best months for rafting the Rio Grande. Runs ranging from slow-moving water to dangerous whitewater pass between pleasant sandy banks, complex rock formations, and 1,500-foot sheer rock walls, forming a canyon that the Apache believed was a place of no return.

Other than campsites, the only place to stay in the park is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a cluster of basic but very clean motel rooms in a high mountain basin, cupped on three sides by jagged peaks and open to views of the desert floor to the west. The dining room has a wall of windows to catch the sunset and a décor and menu seemingly unchanged since 1966. We found this charmingly nostalgic, although it might seem bland to those with more-demanding tastes. Don’t be late: as you’ll be warned when you reserve your room, if you turn up after eight, you’ll find nowhere to eat for miles.

020609-01From the main visitors’ center the road leading north out of the park traces the path of the Comanche war trail, once a mile wide in some spots and strewn with the skeletons of livestock that the tribe had plundered on its raids deep into Mexico. Only seventy miles from the park headquarters (a short distance in this part of the world) the town of Marathon — so named because the low mountains around it reminded its founder, a retired sea captain, of the hills of Marathon, Greece — is a good base for exploring Big Bend. The largest, nearly the only, business in this hamlet of modest wood-frame houses, mangy back yards, and derelict windmills is the small, handsome yellow-brick Gage Hotel, built in 1927 by a local banker and cattle baron, and once popular with ranchers. Mexican-style adobe rooms in a new annex are tasteful and probably more comfortable and private than the seventeen rooms in the main building, but the latter, with their transoms, rustic high beds, and squeaky floors, are more atmospheric, especially when a train whistle blows in the night. (Some of these rooms share baths, but don’t worry — they’re extremely luxurious baths.) The restaurant, which on our last trip was homey western with a southern bent, serving chicken-fried steak and chess pie, has since joined the ranks of northern Italian/southwestern/pan-Asian mishmashes that clutter the rest of the country. Still, it’s pretty much the only game in town — although for breakfast you can stroll down the block to the bakery to buy doughnuts and biscuits from the women who used to bake the chess pies.

If Marathon is the Marathon of West Texas, then Alpine, thirty miles to the west, is its Athens. Although those familiar with, say, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnn Arbor or Yellow Springs might not recognize it as a college town, and practically the only concrete evidence of collegiate influence is a good independent bookstore and a restaurant that serves vegetarian meals, still, Sul Ross State University, where intercollegiate rodeo originated, gives the town an aura of relative urbanity. With a population of 6,000, Alpine is by far the largest town of the region; it boasts a movie theater, a hospital, and a gorgeous ballpark built by an eccentric millionaire rancher for his semi-pro team. It also has a restaurant, Reata, that has been praised by Martha Stewart. Reata serves what might best be described as haute western: rib eye with sun-dried-tomato butter, bacon-wrapped shrimp with onion jam, and cornmeal stars.

The sweep of blond grasslands along the drive to Fort Davis, a little more than twenty miles from both Alpine and Marfa, gives you a sense of what the land looked like before ranching transformed it. Fort Davis itself, situated on a plain 5,050 feet above sea level, is the highest town in Big Bend country — in fact, the highest in Texas — and is therefore greener, cooler, and prettier than the rest of the region, and the Davis Mountains are gentle and rolling, covered in light-yellow grass and dotted with green trees. Fort Davis has actual sights to see: the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke, and the fort itself, which began as a defensive post to protect travelers from Apache and Comanche attacks and was rebuilt just after the Civil War for the 9th U.S. Cavalry, one of two regiments of black so-called “buffalo soldiers,” charged with subduing the Apache in the Indian wars. With its cool nights, Fort Davis has long been a destination for Texans escaping the summer heat, and it still sustains two old and old-fashioned hostelries: the rustic, pueblo-style Indian Lodge, built in the state park’s mountains by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933; and, in town, the Hotel Limpia, built in 1912, which has a verandah lined with rocking chairs and which once promoted itself as “the finest place anywhere for children and run down mothers.”

guadalupe-mountains-np-lNorth of Fort Davis the landscape flattens out beyond Balmorhea — where, just off Route 10, you can swim in a 1.75-acre, twenty-five-foot-deep spring-fed concrete-walled pond, also built by the CCC — into the scrubland of the Trans-Pecos. No foothills prepare you for the Guadalupe Mountains, which begin at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert and compose one of the country’s least-developed national parks. Shooting straight out of brown, nearly featureless salt flats, the Guadalupes loom almost 9,000 feet into the sky. Beyond their barren outer slopes the interior burgeons with grassy meadows and forests of ponderosa pine, maple, mountain juniper, madrone, and Douglas fir, providing habitat for mule deer, elk, and mountain lions. Higher, more extensive, and still less accessible than the Chisos, the Guadalupes are impossible to appreciate fully without hiking on difficult trails deep into the wilderness. The National Park Service has made a deliberate effort to keep the Guadalupes wild. There are no hotels or lodges within the park boundaries, and the nearest motel is thirty-five miles away.

For better and worse, the rest of Far West Texas has proved less impregnable than the Guadalupes, and changes there over the past seven years are striking. In casual conversations we discovered time and again that we were talking to recent transplants from places like Austin, Houston, Kansas City, Wichita, Seattle, New York, and even Germany. And no wonder: West Texas is beguiling. Go, but go now.

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