Big Bend Adventure

Our nephew Christopher from London came to Austin recently, and we wanted to do something special. So we decided to drive to Big Bend country in the west of Texas. So this is a bit of a travelogue of a five day “circle tour” of this beautiful and different area. A fast way to get to Big Bend country is to head west on I-10. However we chose a more scenic route, down 281 to the fringes of San Antonio, then west on 90 through Uvalde, Del Rio and Marathon.

Our first brief stop after about four hours of driving was on the outer part of Del Rio at Julio’s for a tasty family style Mexican lunch – Chili Rellenos and fajitas hit the spot.

Then we hit route 90 again. Shortly after Del Rio we drove across Lake Amistad (from the Spanish word for friendship), a reservoir that borders the US and Mexico. Located at the confluence of the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils Rivers, the US portion is a National Recreation Area.

Since we crossed the Pecos River shortly after Amistad, we were now “west of the Pecos” and soon reached the small town of Langtry, home of the museum honoring the famous Judge Roy Bean. We stopped to investigate. The museum is quite well done, consisting of a very nice visitor center, the original courthouse/bar and lovely gardens heavily filled with a wide variety of cactus. The center was “manned” by a lovely lady named Maggie, who filled us in on the history. Judge Bean was known as the “Law West of the Pecos“. He was the west’s most colorful justice of the peace, and he ruled America’s last frontier in the last decades of the 19th century.

Our first overnight stop was at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, built in 1927 by famed architect Henry Trost for pioneer Texas rancher Alfred S. Gage. The beautifully restored Gage Hotel is an excellent example of Mission and Spanish-style design. Marathon was established in 1882, and was a main shipping point for large Brewster county ranches and the newly built railroad. It is now a gateway to Big Bend National Park 40 miles to the south.

After breakfast the next morning and a visitor to Gage Gardens across the street, we headed south to Big Bend NP, an 800,000 acre park with spectacular views and varying terrain – mountains to desert, bordered on the south by the Rio Grande as it makes a big turn initially south, then north. Our first stop was at the Fossil Center with its’ excellently displayed dinosauric fossils and depictions of the area that was once 100′ under water. We then checked out the east end of the park down to Boquillas, followed by an enjoyable tour back to park central. With much recent rain, there was an unusual level of color especially with large areas of colorful Texas sage.

We checked in to our rental house, then joined old friends at the Chili Pepper Cafe in Study Butte for a home-style Mexican dinner. These were friends from the Austin area who are building a remote cabin in Study Butte, and an old photography friend who lives in Terlingua.

The next day we joined our photography friend Lee (an outstanding photographer) for a full day of touring the park. But first a stop at the Terlingua Ghost town cemetery.

Then a brief stop at Lee’s garden – another skill the man has. And a favorable review by Christopher, an accomplished landscape designer.

Then on to the park, from Chisos Basin at 5400′ elevation, and cooler weather, to the Ross Maxwell Drive with various stops along the way. There has been so much rain that the road from Castolon to Santa Elena Canyon was still closed due to high water in the Rio Grande. Nevertheless we had some wonderful views of a spectacular area.

The next day we headed to Marfa via Lajitas and Presidio. Christopher and I had a date for a tour at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. But we did stop for a view of the river and hoodoos.

Arrived in Marfa at lunchtime. Chris found a highly rated burrito cafe; we stopped and ate great burritos in a very very casual environment, evidently visited by many well known people.

Next we checked in at the Saint George, a fairly new four story hotel in downtown Marfa. Then on to the Chinati Foundation for a three hour tour featuring three prominent contemporary artists. The museum was created based on the ideas of Donald Judd to link contemporary art and the surrounding land. The collection includes art from 13 artists; we viewed works by Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin.

The first of Judd’s two major “pieces” included 100 untitled works in mill aluminum in two ex-artillery sheds, each 41″ x 51″ x &2″ – all different and laid out with fascinating precision.

The second was 15 untitled works in concrete placed in a large open field; each was 2.5 x 2.5 x 5 meters.

Dan Flavin’s work, spread over six C-shaped old barracks buildings, illustrates his use of fluorescent lighting.

Robert Irwin developed the art of perception through manipulation of space and light.

After a quick dinner at the famous Paisano Hotel – where the stars stayed during the filming of Giant – we jumped in the card and headed to the “star party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains via the scenic route around the south and west side of this mountain range. The mountains are an irregular jumble of isolated peaks and ridges separated by flatter areas, and occupy a rough square about 50 km on each side.

The McDonald Observatory is an astronomical observatory located on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains, and is part of the University of Texas. They operate four research telescopes, the largest of which is 10 meters across. During the summer the observatory holds star parties during which many constellations are identified and one gets an opportunity to view certain stars/planets through smaller telescopes. We had a wonderfully clear night and enjoyed seeing Jupiter, Saturn and a star cluster, as well as observing many constellations.

On our last day of the trip, Chris went to see Donald Judd’s home and workshop, while Karen and I strolled through some of the shops in Marfa.

After a brief lunch, we headed home.

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