This is the third in an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.
Texas touches the sky in its western reaches, where mountainous summits fade into rain clouds and the thin air cools at night, offering relief from the heat of the day.
While Marfa is the celebrity of West Texas, three nearby towns situated amid breathtaking mountain views offer charms aplenty without all the fuss of their more popular neighbor’s pricey boutiques and luxury burgers.
Along the five-hour drive from San Antonio, a vehicle will gradually climb from 663 feet above sea level to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet at Marathon.
With a population barely scraping 400, Marathon feels more like a sprint, the town proper less than 1 mile square. The Gage Hotel anchors downtown, long notable for its elegance and Texas-themed architecture and decor.
When legendary chef Anthony Bourdain visited “Far West Texas” in the final season of the Parts Unknown television series, he slurped down a fresh-squeezed margarita at the hotel’s White Buffalo Bar and dug into a rare steak from the 12 Gage Restaurant.
Bourdain made no mention of the French Co. Grocer around the corner, known locally as French’s, which in its various phases has for decades been a town staple as a general store. Recently under new ownership, the store offers a surprisingly wide selection of goods, from fresh deli food and fancy coffee to grocery staples, camping supplies, toys, clothing, hardware, a small wine selection, and the inexplicably named Cat Crap spray (which I learned is an effective anti-fogger for glasses).
New owner Sam Stavinoha has turned the formerly unused backyard of the building into a comfy, screened patio that regularly hosts a Sunday gospel brunch, featuring area musicians and delicious Tex-Mex food. The homemade tamales with fried egg on top made a filling day-starter.
Just around the corner sits a true Texas oddity, Eve’s Garden Organic Bed and Breakfast. Upon entering, an edenic courtyard garden offers greetings of velvety roses, burgeoning bougainvillea, birds of paradise, and actual birds that have found their way through open spots in the building’s eccentric archways, domes, terraces, staircases, and open windows.
The ever-evolving layout is the brainchild and handiwork of Kate Thayer. She bought the building two decades ago before expanding it into today’s B&B — at first using adobe brick, then lighter-weight papercrete, an eco-friendly mixture of recycled paper, sand, clay, and Portland cement.
The brightly painted building is unmissable, ironic considering Thayer’s great-grandfather Abbott Thayer — a noted Hudson Valley painter — is considered “the father of camouflage.” Ask Kate, and she’ll share the story of how the U.S. Army rejected her ancestor’s camo theories, but France took him up on it and thus gave a name to the concept, which translates to “puff of smoke.”
Near Fort Davis
Former San Antonio physician Jack Wright teamed up in 2011 with viticulturist Adam White to plant a vineyard on the southern outskirts of Fort Davis (population 1,250), in the Blue Mountain area known for its grape-growing suitability.
The vineyard opens its quaint patio tasting room on weekends for sampling of recent vintages and imaginative gourmet takes on grilled cheese sandwiches from the Too Hot for TABC food truck. I’m no connoisseur, but the apple-brie-fig jam sandwich paired well with a 2020 Roadkill Riesling.
As night descends on the high desert, a city dweller will notice truly dark skies unbothered by light pollution. Further up the steep slope of Texas Highway 118 leading west of Fort Davis sits the McDonald Observatory atop Mount Locke, elevation 6,670 feet.
Run by the University of Texas, the observatory is open to the public daily and in the evenings for its popular thrice-weekly Star Parties. Experts guide audiences on tours across the night sky, using laser pointers to draw the outlines of common constellations and a multitude of amazing phenomena hovering over Earth on any given night.
If seeing the Big Dipper — called Ursa Major in astronomical parlance — as a bear seems befuddling, a Star Party will show the astronomical creature in its full form, well worth the $25 price of admission.
Though unidentified celestial phenomena are not a regular feature of the Star Parties, the Marfa Lights are one reliable way to experience midnight mystery.
The town of Marfa itself is easily avoided, as the viewing area for the lights is 9 miles east of town along U.S. Highway 90, 20 minutes west of Alpine. From experience, my recommendation is to choose a new moon night, pack a picnic, arrive 11:30-ish planning for an hour of viewing time, walk a bit west of the main viewing station into the crushed granite flat where others will likely be camped out, and gaze patiently south.
The eerie lights themselves might seem unspectacular, until you consider that no amount of technology or scientific know-how has managed to conclusively uncover their source.
A sign on the west edge of Hancock Hill behind Sul Ross State University in Alpine (population 6,000) states that “in 1981, three students decided they needed a quiet spot away from the dorm to study.” Though unnamed on the sign, those three Sul Ross students were Jim Kitchen, Bill Wagner, and Travis Miller.
At the time, Kitchen ran track for the school and schlepped furniture in the storage room to help pay tuition. One day he hid an old, beat-up metal desk behind the building and, under cover of night, pushed it up the hill. He made it about one-third of the way up before realizing he needed help hauling the several-hundred-pound desk and enlisted two close friends whom he trusted to keep the secret of the desk between them.
“The Desk” now sits atop a rocky outcrop on the eastern slope of Hancock Hill looking toward the Glass Mountains to the east and Del Norte Mountains to the south, an ideal perch for contemplation.
Early on, Kitchen put a notebook and pen in the desk to record running times up the hill as he worked to improve his track performance, inadvertently establishing an enduring tradition. Alpine visitors now regularly trek to The Desk and add their own jottings to the growing collection of notebooks, the supply of which is maintained regularly by townies.
As the collection grew, Kitchen persuaded the university’s Archives of the Big Bend to accept a decade of notebooks, and the university has embraced The Desk as an institution, enlisting the Lobos football team to replace the desks as they succumb to the elements every 10 years or so.
“It takes the whole friggin’ football team, and I did most of it by myself,” Kitchen laughed during a phone interview from his home near Yosemite National Park, emphasizing his appreciation for how the university has accepted his gesture as an official institution.
He remains a staunch advocate for his alma mater, and once the pandemic subsides Kitchen will make the trip annually to lead hiking tours to The Desk during freshman orientation, in part to lend insight into the history of the school.
Future Sul Ross freshmen might find some good advice in the notebooks, such as an anonymous entry from March 25 that begins, “I’m at a crossroads in life,” and ends with “even when you feel lost, you never truly are.”
Down to earth
Downtown Alpine has been quieted a bit by the coronavirus pandemic, but some shops and food vendors are open. One always accessible feature of the town is its ever-expanding collection of colorful and informative murals, now numbering 44, enough to rival San Antonio’s thriving street art scene.
Not on the official itineraries is Harry’s Tinaja, a local dive bar legendary among West Texas travelers. A sign behind the bar reads, “We Don’t Rent Pigs,” an obscure reference to Lonesome Dove by Texas author Larry McMurtry. Far more personal references cover the ceiling and walls in the form of marker-scribbled notes on dollar bills, soccer shirts, knickknacks, and sundries hung from every surface.
Anyone open to chatting with the locals will quickly learn a concise history of Alpine, including that Bourdain once visited Harry’s (ask to see selfies!), which food trucks in town are best, and an inventory of broken bones that Todd the blacksmith has suffered. Darker aspects of the town’s past also freely come to light, such as that being from “the other side of the tracks” was a very literal problem in a racially divided Alpine for many years, with Latinos south of the railroad and non-Hispanic whites living and running exclusive businesses to the north.
Alpine native and current Sul Ross President Pete Gallego did much to change that, rising through state politics to become the U.S. representative for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District from 2013 to 2015. Gallego Avenue now runs the entire length of town south of the tracks, which still host the Amtrak Sunset Limited line running between New Orleans and Los Angeles.
Leaving Alpine and the mountains of West Texas to head back to the flatlands of the Balcones Escarpment, a road-tripper might be tempted to say, “It’s all downhill from here.” Whether that’s a positive or negative thought depends on the traveler.
If You Go
How to get there
Interstate 10 is the quickest route, with scenic views beginning especially past mile marker 353 just west of Ozona, where majestic mesas signal entry into desert country. U.S. Highway 90 is generally thought of as more picturesque, but the recent influx of police and Border Patrol presence, and a dearth of gas stations complicate the route.
The roads between towns offer plentiful gasp-worthy sights — turning south from Fort Stockton onto Highway 385 in late summer, bursting rainclouds shrouded mountain tops in a heavy gray pall.
Where to stay
Eve’s Garden Organic Bed and Breakfast runs in line with area Airbnb options, though note that many require a minimum two-day stay. The Gage Hotel is a popular destination, as is the Holland Hotel in Alpine. The Mountain Trails Lodge in Fort Davis offers duplex cabins with mountain views and discounts for renting two or more rooms. Hunters might appreciate the more traditional Harvard Hotel, which is connected to the Sproul Ranch nearby.
Fort Davis is closest to the McDonald Observatory, which highly recommends advance reservations to the popular Star Parties as tickets are “rarely available the day of the program.”
Where to dine
The pandemic has complicated dining options in the area. For example The Century restaurant in the Holland Hotel was recently closed indefinitely while the fine-dining Reata was open. However, Alpine food trucks are well-regarded, including Tri La Bite offering classic American food. The Château Wright patio offers a solid outdoor option, but is only open Friday-Sunday.
The French Co. Grocer offers delicious deli selections by chef Franc Harriss and a comfortable patio for seating.