by Bekah McNeel
I’m a fan of urban density. It’s efficient and exciting. But every now and then, an urbanite needs to stretch a little. How handy for San Antonians that we live on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, where open spaces abound. As romantic as it seemed, for years I just didn’t know how to make the most of the high desert. Big Bend is not somewhere one can just hop out of the car and have the time of her life. She has to prepare a little.
Fortunately I married Lewis, who has been my shaman in the high desert, and who checks my suitcase before we leave so that I don’t end up dead from exposure. I’ve come to appreciate the desert more and more, largely thanks to El Cosmico in Marfa.
El Cosmico is essentially a campground populated with yurts, safari tents, refurbished Airstreams and two teepees. People set up their own tents and avail themselves of the public showers and free coffee in the impeccably designed retro-glam-ranch office and lounge. The experience is unique, aesthetically satisfying, and startlingly primitive. Once acclimated, we always get a kick out of watching the rest of the population at this hipster Mecca. The men have beards, the women have bangs, and no one is dressed for the great outdoors.
El Cosmico seems conscious of its appeal. It instructs its more “indoorsy” patrons on the hazards of the desert—of which there are many. Liz Lambert, the genius behind El Cosmico and other Bunkhouse properties, is a West Texas native and very savvy on such things. One has to wonder what the majority population (vaqueros, ranchers, and other practical types) thinks of this constant flow of conspicuous visitors.
The high desert is full of lessons and surprises, and it serves as a restorative getaway for urbanites in need of a little unfurling.
Thriving Lesson 1: Understand the meaning of “the middle of nowhere”
One might wonder how Marfa, population 2,121, survives. Second to ranching, their biggest industry is art. This is of course thanks to Donald Judd, the American minimalist pioneer who put Marfa on the map as a destination for those seeking aesthetic breathing room. The Chinati Foundation, which houses many Judd pieces as well as some stunning works by John Chamberlain and a steady stream of new installations, is worth a day visit. Together with the Judd Foundation, the Chinati Foundation is devoted to preserving and enriching Marfa and West Texas in a very permanent way. Their approach inherently assumes full responsibility for their own survival.
Since then, many have tried to ride the wave of the Marfa art scene with varying degrees of success. Most of the non-Judd galleries have schedules like: Open Mon and Thur from 10-3, Sat from 7-9 PM and the third Sunday of every month for an hour TBD. If the spiky plants and coyotes don’t get you, the economic reality of “this is the middle of nowhere” might.
For us, Marfa’s middle-of-nowhereness is ideal. There are plenty of places to sit, read, and write for hours. We can run year round, as desert nights are invariably cool and dry and it’s impossible to get lost. I don’t have to go without my NPR either, thanks to Marfa Public Radio piping through every radio in town, including the sidewalk near the station. Plus, we can emotionally idle. No one in that town seems to have had a strong emotion in decades. Marfa is like our beach resort. But without the salt water and umbrella drinks—unless they’re ironic, of course.
Thriving Lesson #2: Beware dehydration
After a full day in Marfa, we began to feel the pervasive ennui that wafts through the town:
Day 1, “I’m going to write a novel.”
Day 2, “Maybe I’ll just read a novel.”
Day 3, “I’m going to go buy a new novel at the bookstore.”
Day 4, “I think I’ll just go hang out at the bookstore and browse.”
So we were glad to have a full slate of things to do on our second day.
Our first stop was Davis Mountains State Park for a morning hike. Whenever we hike through the desert, I’m tempted to forsake the circuitous trails. From a distance, the bleached hillsides seem barren of all flora except some easily avoided mesquite, cacti, yucca or ocotillo. However, as I discovered the hard way a long time ago in a desperate search for a short cut, this is not the case.
The parched groundcover is a low-lying network of all things spiny, jagged, and often poisonous. I used to fume at this violent subterfuge, but this time as I stuck to the path winding through the Davis Mountains—mind-numbingly circuitous and not nearly as gratuitous with its vistas as Yosemite or Glacier— I realized that these plants are instructional survivalists. Succulents that hold water in a land that doesn’t yield a constant supply. Water is like gold there, and the system of hoarding and plundering is worthy of cinema.
Thriving Lesson #3: Cool off
Our hike ended with lunch at the Indian Lodge, a Civilian Conservation Corps project that now serves as the premier accommodation for visitors to the Davis Mountains. I really love the CCC. The idea of buildings that reflect the character of their location, that are devoted to enhancing public lands and preserving natural resources…while employing thousands of Americans…during the Depression…what’s not to love?
We headed to another CCC project, one that hung like a promise or maybe a myth in the distance as the sun rose to its scorching zenith. It did not disappoint. The pool at San Solomon Springs, perhaps better known as Balmorhea State Park, is a pristine spring-fed oasis. Diving out of the desert into the cerulean world felt like opening some magic book in a fairytale and being transported to a world of fantasy. I’m serious.
Amazingly, the place was not jammed with people, perhaps owing to the genius engineering of the CCC, perhaps to the miniscule population, or perhaps to the recent reports of swimmers breaking out into rashes after visiting the springs. No one looked anxious or itchy, so in we went.
A scuba class bobbed in one end of the pool while families played on the diving boards and teenagers swam races. Groups of young adults floated, obviously taking a brief respite from an epic road trip. Bikini-clad locals sunned themselves along the wall. One could feel the satisfied smile of a Depression Era worker seeing his wall put to such use.
After a few hours of swimming, we drove back to Ft. Davis on Hwy 17. The drive was magnificent both ways. The rock formations rivaled those of more renowned parks and scenic destinations, and when coupled with the afternoon Texas glow, the effect was luminous.
As the sun set, the air cooled. It was the ideal time to be outside, the ideal time to visit the University of Texas McDonald Observatory for their Star Party. For two and one-half hours we marveled at constellations, satellites, and Messier objects. We waited in lines to peer deep into the universe through massive telescopes at the shimmer on the waxing crescent of our moon, and the Cassini division in the rings of Saturn. Even my architect husband was in for an unexpected treat when they announced that Powers of Ten, an experimental film from the Eames studio would be showing on a continuous loop inside the visitor’s center.
Aside from the information and technology, the Texas sky in the deep darkness of the Davis Mountains is truly spectacular. Layers of stars revealed themselves as darkness thickens until the flagship stars of the night sky—Polaris, Vega, Thuban, and Spica—were barely discernible among the hosts. The sky was so thick with celestial matter it almost seemed that the world was inverted and we were looking in on a metropolis from the inky blackness of space.
Thriving Lesson 4: Get your geek on
After this day of wonder, it seemed almost strange to return to the desert’s minimalist haven. Our afterglow seemed out-of-place at first, but soon we were back into the groove of Marfa’s hands-off style.
Upon reflection, I resolved always to pick up the pamphlet and say, “Ooh! Let’s try this.” I also think it’s valuable to seek out the experts. Some of the people who have the best time in the Big Bend region are astronomers and geologists, and they will gladly enhance our experience by sharing their knowledge (and usually their telescopes).
That might be the key to appreciating West Texas. In some ways its expanse is just that, an empty space for uncluttered thinking. However, scattered within reach are marvels and adventures that span millennia and galaxies. It’s teeming with fascinating botany and geology. It’s not a theme park or a post card sort of vacation. West Texas is an advanced lesson in how to thrive.
Other accommodations and excursions for a West Texas Wonderland Weekend
Chinati Hot Springs (excursion)
The Hotel Paisano (sleeping and eating)
Thunderbird Motel (sleeping)
The Cochineal (eating)
The Food Shark (eating)
The Museum of the Big Bend
The Saddle Club (eating)
The Gage Hotel (eating and sleeping)