West Texas TimesFebruary 1, 2016 No Comments
Western Texas is a grand place. Big sky, big stone monuments, big mesas, even the cattle are big. And of course, Big Bend National Park. It’s also a place of big pleasure. From short hikes along the Rio Grande – that’s Mexico right across the muddy water – to longer hikes on well-marked trails with views across the vastness that is this wonderfully under-populated National Park, the vistas are unparalleled. Watch the sunset inside the park, as the sun sinks between two massive monuments; then look up at the large and untrammeled sky packed with stars. That’s West Texas.
We stayed at The Gage Hotel in little Marathon, Texas, in many ways more of a ghost town than a big town, with a population of 430, a bar, a grocery, and a pizza shop. But this hotel offers a “big” range of comfort for its guests. It’s got a rustic feeling from brick patios to adobe walls, but it’s also elegant, with a pretty and heated pool, and rooms furnished with authentic Western style. It has an interesting history, too. It was originally built back in 1927 as a spot for owner Alfred S. Gage, to stay while he oversaw the cattle on his ranches. It was designed in Mission style by well-regarded architecht Henry Charles Trost, fell into disrepair, and beginning in the 1970s, was artfully restored by J.P. and Mary Jon Bryan. The current property is made up of the original, fifteen-room hotel, twenty adobe brick rooms slung low across the adjoining courtyard, and the newest section of the property, three large casitas and the five seven bedroom Captain Shepard House property.
While dining is in the “fine” category at the hotel’s 12 Gage Restaurant, that doesn’t mean you have to head on down the street to the local pizzeria. The chef is very accommodating, and will offer smaller, plainer portions of inventive food items. Dining can be inside or on the patio, where with twinkling white lights overhead, the atmosphere is relaxed. Dinner over, it’s time to walk to the edge of the property, away from the lights, and gaze up. The spread of stars here is amazing; crisp dry air makes the starsgazing especially bright.
The Gage makes a perfect place to recharge after a day in Big Bend. Just driving the main roads into and out of the park provide plenty of picture-worthy stopping points, and there are over a hundred miles of paved roads that lead past spectacular rock monuments and offer glimpses of flora and fauna. But to really explore the region, it’s best to hike or walk. At 0.3 miles, the paved Window View Trail is by far the easiest, circling a hill and offering great views of the craggy peaks that ring the Chisos Basin. Another short and easy trail is the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail at 0.5 miles. This is a flat desert-climate trail that’s shaded by cottonwood trees in part. The remains of a Native American settlement are visible from it. Chisos Basin Loop Trail is 1.8 miles and unpaved, but it’s shaded and climbs slowly through pine and juniper. A great trail for bird watchers, we saw blue jays and orioles. In spring, agave plants along the trail burst into colorful bloom.
Adults and older kids will enjoy Chimneys Trail, a 4.8 mile trail studded with red rock shaped like chimneys. Some pinnacles have Native American petroglyphs carved on them.
Outside the park, there’s plenty more to see as well. Forty-five down the highway from the Gage in Marathon is the town of Marfa, home to sculptor Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, a former military fort converted into galleries. Full and half day tours are offered, and even older kids may get restive at the full day version. The half day will do it, leading visitors through many a light-filled space filled with sculpted shapes, neon streaks, and other minimalist artworks, most of them Judd’s. Even without a tour, you can enjoy grabbing a bite to eat at the Foodshark gourmet food truck in town, and taking your artful taco with you to marvel at Prada Mafa, a mock up of a boutique that would be right at home in Beverly Hills, but which enjoys a surreal spot on a dusty stretch of highway U.S. 90.
Heading west toward Marathon again, you’ll come to the viewing platform for another big attraction in West Texas, the Marfa lights: glowing white orbs often visible across the shimmering desert floor, particularly just about sunset. Communication from aliens or distant headlights reflecting off a mountain pass? You be the judge, along with a cheerful crowd of locals and tourists. Often a local musician will strum, sometimes locals sell food and drink.
Over-all, from landscapes to art, we found that the very biggest thing about Big Bend country was simple: big fun.