Big, Dark, And Handsome: Week 21

Hello from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they are certainly delivering on this “Land of Enchantment” name. It’s still a little odd to be back in a city after the week you’ll read about below. Fair warning – this one’s a doozy, so you might want to pour yourself another cup of coffee or freshen up that drink. Snacks are always encouraged for blog reading purposes.

On our first day in West Texas, we naturally did what anyone else who’d just driven 400 miles the previous day – drove another 250 miles round trip. This is simply what you need to do if you’re going to see Big Bend National Park, and especially some of my favorite parts along the Rio Grande. We did the drive from Alpine to Big Bend and the southern border a handful of times over the course of the week, but it was never as incredible as the first time. After clearing the foothills around Alpine, Highway 118 essentially turns arrow-straight through the desert, with only an occasional tiny off-grid home distant from the road as company. These drives change your perception of distance. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Oh, it’s just an hour and a half. It’ll be close to an hour before you know it, and anything under 45 minutes is a breeze.”

Our destination was the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, one of Big Bend’s most popular sights. I drove it on my last visit, but only got to see a tiny fraction of the trails and overlooks, which we took ample advantage of this time.

Our longest hike of the trip came on our first day. The roughly 4-mile hike to Mule Ears Springs is an amazing way to get up close and personal with the Chihuahuan desert – especially since there’s almost no shade. In the distance, you’re treated to views of the Mules Ears, a rock formation and local landmark.

With copious water breaks, we made it to the end of the trail – an easy-to-miss spring near a historic stone corral from the park’s days as ranchland. Naturally, we chose to do our long, unshaded desert hike on what turned out to be the hottest day of the week. I was very proud of both Morgan and me for toughing it out.

We continued down the scenic drive to our final stop for the day, Santa Elena Canyon. This is truly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. The Rio Grande runs through 1,500-foot tall canyon walls, separating the United States and Mexico. It’s almost completely silent, other than some idle chatter from other hikers and the hiss of sediment cutting the canyon deeper and deeper. Without getting too political, it’s frankly hard to imagine where you would put a border wall.

We didn’t hike into the canyon (stay tuned for canyon hiking later), but we did get our feet wet, or more accurately our toes covered in Rio Grande mud. We made a quick stop at the Castolon area, a historic former community I visited in 2018 that has since been devastated by wildfires, but our exhausting day had taken a lot out of us, and we headed back to Alpine as the sun set over a gorgeous West Texas night.

Our unofficial plan for the week was alternating a ”hard” day (one with hiking, long drives, or other tiring activities) with an ”easy” one, filled mostly with exploring, shopping, and relaxing. Our first easy day came Tuesday, as we ventured 30 miles down the road to Marfa, the unofficial hipster capital of West Texas. Again, I had visited Marfa once before, briefly, driving through on the way from Terlingua to El Paso. It seemed oddly sleepy for such a well-known town, and I sort of struggled to find stuff that was open – other than the Hotel Paisano (no relation.) At the time, I chalked this up to the time, day, and season; I drove through around midday on a Sunday the week before Christmas.

But this time, it wasn’t very much different. In the way that we sometimes do (see Biloxi, Mississippi), Morgan and I grew slightly tenser with each other as we wandered around in slight incredulity that this town is apparently so hip that you can’t even find a place to eat lunch.

Luckily, we stumbled across a food truck that just happened to have some of the best pad thai I’ve ever had.

Cowboys know all the best pad thai spots. Marfa, Texas – Feb. 2022

Afterward, we took a quick look around the Hotel Paisano, another very cool early 20th century hotel which is equal parts lodging, gift shops, and a museum about the film “Giant”, which was filmed in Marfa with the cast staying at the hotel. Today, you can even sleep where they slept, and book the “James Dean Room” or “Elizabeth Taylor Suite.”

Still, we were vaguely unsettled about Marfa – maybe things just open later in the day? So with plans to return later, we headed west out of town to the hipster Instagram mecca of west Texas, the Prada Marfa.

First of all, to say this is in Marfa is, shall I say, fake news. It’s 37 miles out of town, past the tiny sort-of town Valentine and along a highway flanked by an ominous-looking border surveillance zeppelin. What exactly IS it, you may be wondering? It’s an art installation that’s been sitting along the side of US Highway 90 for more than 16 years now, designed to replicate an actual Prada store. If you look inside, you’ll see actual Prada shoes and bags, sitting in the dark behind reinforced glass. As for that glass, the site has been vandalized quite a few times, leading to decisions by the artists to only display left shoes and cut the bottoms out of the handbags. I’m not going to pretend to understand the art behind it, but it’s a pretty cool sight out there in the middle of all that nothing.

On the way back, we took the scenic route through the town of Fort Davis, which seemed nice enough but, once again, had few things open. In any case, we were fully in West Texas Driving Mode at this point, and what’s another 40 miles to do some exploring?

Back in Marfa, a miracle. We found something open! Planet Marfa, a beer garden and restaurant with spaces like a teepee and an old school bus, is thoroughly weird in a way that finally lived up to the city’s reputation. On a Tuesday afternoon at happy hour, the crowd included us, a traveling boomer couple, and some crusty old cowboy types. All in all, a good group.

We headed back to Alpine fairly early – we had a 6 a.m. wake-up call the next day.

If you’ve got Morgan willingly waking up at 6 a.m., you know whatever’s going on has got to be good. Morgan’s love of horseback riding is well established, and I’ve wanted to do a river trip on the Rio Grande for a while now. The solution – Saddle and Paddle. It’s a full-day tour with a morning of horseback riding in Big Bend Ranch State Park, and an afternoon of rafting (or in our case, canoeing) on the river.

The only downside was the 8:30 a.m. start time – at a meeting point roughly two hours from our home in Alpine. Leaving town in the complete darkness in 24-degree weather was unpleasant, to say the least. But catching a desert sunrise made the early morning worth it already

We arrived at Lajitas Stables on time, basically a single building and a corral on a hill overlooking the Rio Grande, and mounted up. I rode Colima, who, like my last horse, loved to snack. Morgan rode Shandor, who spent a good deal of the trip farting on me and my horse. In spite of this, the ride was amazing. I was a bit apprehensive about 3-4 hours on a horse, both from a physical perspective, and wondering if I’d be bored. One look at the scenery and the latter issue was put to rest.

We rode further and further up a narrow, rocky trail until we reached a mesa overlooking the river and the plains and mountains of Mexico on the other side. It was a little more unsettling than riding along a nice, flat beach in Port St. Joe, but at that point, we had no choice other than to trust the horse.

After a picnic lunch in a canyon along the trail, we worked our way back down to the stables, where our river guides picked us up and drove us upstream. By all accounts, this should have been a fairly easy excursion. Only about 4 miles, all downriver, with nothing in the way of significant rapids.

But unfortunately for us, the river was fairly low, meaning we’d need to go in canoes instead of rafts. Worse still, there was an intense wind blowing upriver, so strongly in points that the river flowed backward. We are not experienced canoers, so on top of the normal challenges of staying straight and navigating, we were paddling with everything we had in us just to not get pushed in the wrong direction.

In retrospect, I can say I enjoyed the scenery and the experience. At the time, I was not having a ton of fun. There were some tense moments as one of us accidentally steered the other into huge stands of rivercane, or turned us sideways or backward. As our guides reminded us, they don’t call them “divorce boats” for nothing. Nevertheless, we successfully made it downriver, including a stop on the Mexican side for Morgan’s first trip outside of the country.

We were tired beyond belief by the time. It had been almost 13 hours of driving, riding, paddling, and driving once again. But you simply don’t drive through Lajitas, Texas, without paying tribute to its most famous resident – Mayor Clay Henry IV. Clay is, as his ancestors and former mayors before him, a goat. Not just a goat mayor, mind you – a drinking goat mayor. For decades, people have been stopping by to give Clay and his forefathers beers, or in Clay IV’s case, wine coolers.

I had come across Clay IV once before, on my last trip. But it was a Sunday morning, and the adjacent Lajitas General Store wouldn’t sell me any alcohol. I was determined this time would be different. We successfully purchased a wine cooler, and went over to meet the mayor himself. Alas, he wouldn’t drink it. Some politicians, it seems, cannot be bought. We poured out the wine cooler and headed home to collapse into bed.

To say we were sore waking up Thursday might be the biggest understatement of this blog to date. In a hall of fame-worthy moment of advance planning, we had the foresight to book ourselves a spa day to recover from our saddle and paddle excursion. So we hopped in the car and drove the practically insignificant 29 miles to Marathon (pronounced mara-thin, for reasons unclear), where we had an appointment at the Gage Hotel Spa.

Morgan had booked herself a massage and CBD body wrap, while I decided to take advantage of the eucalyptus steam room. I figured it would be a good way to relax for a bit while Morgan got her treatment. It turned out to be one of the most relaxing experiences I can remember. There’s nothing quite like stepping out of steamy, 104-degree dim room into the cool, incredibly dry Texas sunlight. When I’ve mentioned the dryness here and earlier, I’m not kidding. The same complete lack of humidity that makes your lungs ache and nose bleed dries off the human body incredibly quickly. Within a minute of stepping outside for periodic breaks, I was completely dry. Next door, Morgan was living on a new plane of relaxation, with her masseuse loosening up muscles she didn’t know she had and soothing away a week of physical activity.

I finished a while before Morgan, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and relaxed at a table alongside Highway 90. It was quiet, with only an occasional passing car slowly rolling through, and for a moment I could see myself getting used to this kind of ultra-small town life.

Marathon was the town I’d had the most experience with from my previous trip, and it remains one of my favorites. It’s sort of the platonic ideal of a western town, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not much more than a few businesses and restaurants clinging to the highway and train tracks, along with yet another strangely ornate small-town hotel. If you’ve ever seen the movie Paris, Texas, you’ve seen Marathon (and a good bit of the rest of Big Bend, for that matter.)

Morgan finally emerged with a gigantic smile on her face, and we got lunch and discussed our plans for the afternoon. By now, our brains had been totally West Texified when it comes to distance. Without much thought, we decided we’d head 55 miles south into the national park to check out the exhibit showcasing the area’s incredible fossil discoveries.

I can’t stress enough how unusual a spur-of-the-moment 55-mile trip would be when we lived in Washington. In DC, this would require planning and logistics roughly equivalent to D-Day. Here, it was a quick, less-than-hour-long drive, albeit adding 110+ miles to what was supposed to be our “quiet day.” The flip side of this is that you’ll always need to keep one eye on your gas gauge, because at any given point you may be dozens of miles from the nearest gas station. This is absolutely not a joke out here. Most of the area has no cell phone service, and you’ll be lucky to get a car coming along twice or three times an hour. People can and do die out here, and this fact never left the back of my mind when making sure we headed out every day with a full tank, extra water, snacks, and blankets. Between this and the random jackets, paper products, and trash, I’m sure every park ranger and Border Patrol agent probably thought we were living out of our car. Little did they know Linus simply wouldn’t allow that.

Through some combination of luck and skill, we successfully avoided running out of gas at any point this week, including on our unplanned jaunt to the park’s Fossil Discovery Exhibit. It was an extremely cool and interesting setup – an outdoor pavilion with replicas of fossils found in the park, along with signs explaining the history and photos showing real-world comparisons to the dramatic changes in Big Bend’s ecosystem, from shallow sea to coastal swamp to desert highlands. It’s almost impossible to conceive of this area all being underwater – especially since the tops of the mountains were, in many cases, the one-time bottom of the sea.

We took some pictures, strolled the short trail, and then headed back to Marathon for a delicious dinner at Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue. I’m a sucker for most places set up in old service stations, but the housemade beers were pretty good, and the barbecue was even better – even if it didn’t quite compare to some of our Austin spots.

If I said I was totally enthusiastic about the idea of another 250-mile day in the car on Friday, I would be lying. You can take advantage of the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, you can have the best music or conversation partner, but another four hours in the car is always daunting. Little did either of us know how worth it it would be.

Our destination was Boquillas Canyon, at the very eastern end of the park. Essentially the bookend to Santa Elena Canyon in the west, it’s a similarly popular 1.4-1.8 mile round trip hike (depending on which Park Service literature you check.) We arrived at the canyon overlook around noon, and enjoyed an extremely peaceful lunch overlooking the Rio Grande and the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas.

Unlike the western side of the park, the eastern side’s proximity to Mexican settlements on the other side of the river means there are tons of displays set up at trailheads, viewpoints, and along paths – all filled with Mexican crafts like bracelets, statues, carved walking sticks. There were no vendors in sight – it was strictly the honor system, placing money in a jar. Either unfortunately or thankfully, we didn’t have enough cash to buy anything. Unfortunately, because some of the items were quite cool, and would have made a great souvenir. Thankfully, because buying them is illegal and we were quizzed about our interactions with these trinket stands at the Border Patrol checkpoint later that day.

We started the trail after lunch, which started with a steep climb up a small hill. As soon as we got to the top, it was obvious this was going to be a great hike.

The Rio Grande here was fast, deep blue, and crystal clear, completely different from the muddy water we struggled through earlier in the week. There was a group of horses drinking from it and grazing along the banks on the Mexican side, to Morgan’s eternal delight. Downstream, the river disappeared into the narrow, soaring Boquillas Canyon. This would be a great part of the river to ride – if the next spot to get out wasn’t three days downriver, at a spot a few miles further down the road from the middle of nowhere.

Down the hill and another 10 minutes down a sandy path brought us to the end of the trail, totally silent except for the babbling of the river over the stones. Being in these river canyons is unlike anything else you’ll experience, and probably one of the most beautiful international borders in the world.

After some more exploration along the beaches, we made our way back to the car. Our final destination for the day was Big Bend’s historic Hot Springs. Believe it or not, part of the riverfront was once home to a luxury hotel and motor court in the early 20th century, something that’s pretty amazing considering some of the local roads remain a little sketchy a hundred years later. It’s both easy and hard to imagine vacationing down here as you wander through the ruins of the district.

But the big reason people brave the narrow, winding dirt road to the area is the hot spring itself, located just steps from the Rio Grande. At about 104 degrees, it overflows out of the foundation of what was once the resort’s bathhouse. These days, you can relax in the soothing spring and hop right out into the river to cool off.

As you might expect, it’s a pretty popular spot, and essentially the only place in the entire Big Bend region where it was even remotely crowded. But with a little patience, we got ourselves a spot, soaked our very tired feet, and soaked in the sun. In Morgan’s case, slightly too much, earning her a rare sunburn. We bid farewell to the national park for the final time and headed back north, making it back to Alpine just in time to enjoy a spectacular West Texas sunset along the way.

What does one do in Alpine, Texas on a Friday night? Go to the biker bar/coffee shop/music venue/hotel, that’s what. We grabbed dinner and some exceptionally satisfying drinks at The Old Gringo, and soaked in some Texas country from a live band before calling it a night. After this sort of week, we didn’t have the party spirit in us – and the roll up the sidewalks fairly early here, anyhow.

Saturday – Even God took a day off, and after six long days of adventuring, so did we. Saturday morning, we slept in – a delightful concept, really. No rushing off for a hundred-mile drive, no place to be other than the Alpine Farmers Market. We strolled over (with a stop along the way for coffee at Plaine and caught the final merchants selling homemade hummus, breads, canned preserves, and crafts. We grabbed some of the delicious-looking harissa hummus (and a salt scrub for Morgan), and walked back toward the center of town.

Alpine has an interesting history that you can see in part based on the railroad tracks. Alpine was essentially a segregated town for most of its existence – whites to the north of the tracks, and Hispanics and others to the south (literally, the other side of the tracks.) The community is far more diverse these days, and what was once the main integrated commercial strip in the town is now a strip of hipster stores, galleries, and a wine trailer.

We did some more shopping and grabbed an every-so-slightly before-noon glass of wine from an incredibly friendly owner, and sat outside and enjoyed the Texas winter sun with some tasty food truck food. Yes, it may have been a little decadent. But as far as we’re concerned, it was a well-earned reward for a week where we drove somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 miles (roughly the distance from Boston to Miami), walked approximately 25 miles, rode horses for about 8, and canoed for just over 3 and a half.

There was one final thing I needed to get in before leaving Alpine. While Morgan enjoyed an afternoon of relaxation around the house, I drove over to Sul Ross University for a hike. Drive to a non-descript parking lot in the back of the college, walk straight up a rocky hill, and use a combination of a compass and good luck to navigate the maze of half-blazed trails. Physically, it wasn’t much of a challenge. But never quite knowing if I was going in the right direction was equal parts thrill and frustration.

With a little directional skill (and the help of my AllTrails app), it suddenly appeared. The Desk. What started as a private spot for the school’s track team to keep track of their times has now become yet another piece of west Texas weirdness. It’s pretty spectacular and surreal to see the view.

A train chugged through town in the distance as I descended, and our adventures in Big Bend finally came to a close. I thought a week would satisfy my curiosity and desire to explore this breathtakingly unique area. In reality, it just made me want to come back for more. Neither of us has seen the Chisos Mountains in the national park, and we only scratched the surface of Big Bend Ranch State Park. We want to check out the McDonald Observatory and see more of the biggest Dark Sky Park in the United States. Morgan still needs to experience the strangeness of Terlingua (and sleep in a bubble under the stars.) We’ll drive the River Road to the end, and successfully get that damn goat to drink some alcohol. And perhaps one day, we’ll finally find out when things are actually open in Marfa.

If you’ve made it down here, thanks again for reading through this unexpectedly epic-length (one might say, Big Bend-sized) post.

Nick and Morgan

5 thoughts on “Big, Dark, And Handsome: Week 21

  1. Love the pictures! Dad and I will have to plan a trip there someday, but, you’ll have to come along as our guide. Sounds like an exhausting week, glad you both got a chance to treat yourselves to some spa time.

  2. Wow, what an epic week! Love all the pics. I will likely never see this part of the country first hand, so I love seeing it through your eyes. So glad you are keeping my girl safe and making sure you don’t run out of gas. 🙂 Safe travels. Can’t wait for what comes next.

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