Monday, September 02, 2013

West Texas travels - part 1

Marfa, McDonald and Beyond

This is the wonderful trip John planned for me for my birthday (6 months ago) and only revealed in early July. When he had the idea in February, the first time the tickets were available to the special viewing at the 107” telescope at McDonald was August 21. So that became the central event around which the trip was built.

We left on Monday and started the drive west. We stopped for lunch in Mason, TX – a quaint little town with a population of 2,104. The town’s claim to fame is that the largest blue topaz found in the US was discovered there. But of course that museum was closed on Mondays. (We should’ve sensed a theme…) We had lunch and looked around a bit, added a little gas to the tank, and got back on the road. (114 miles)

Turns out Mason was exactly half-way to our first planned vacation destination, the Caverns of Sonora, in Sonora, TX (114 miles).  The caverns are a National Natural Landmark. The cave was warm and muggy (98% humidity), and there were about 360 steps to climb (up and down) throughout the tour, which meanders for almost 2 hours over 2 miles of caves.  The tours here are a lot less practiced and formal than the tours at Luray – partly because it’s not a National Park Service site. No uniforms – Bill, our guide, wore a t-shirt and jeans. There were exactly 3 people working there that day, so they were alternating tours. The caves are amazing; formed by gas, there are very different formations here, including helictites that stick out at odd angles from the walls or the ceilings. The most famous one at Sonora, which formed as the shape of a butterfly, was vandalized by someone on a tour in 2006. (Bill told us they think they’ve caught the person, and really want him to bring back the piece that he took!)  In Texas, it’s a jailable offense to vandalize caves and cave formations, so the thief is in trouble either way.

We had some ice cream (had to recover from the heat of the cave!) and headed further west. If you’re counting the miles we’ve driven and thinking about our gas mileage, you may understand the mild panic we were beginning to feel as we got closer to Fort Stockton. We were now getting into the higher elevations (and going up and down mountains), so we pretty much made it to the gas station on fumes! (141 miles)

On our drive west from Austin, particularly on Route 29, we crossed a lot of creeks. They were, with one or two exceptions, all bone dry. And had been for some time.  Lesson #1: Just because it’s called a “creek” doesn’t mean there’s any water there.

From Fort Stockton, we went south to Alpine, in search of dinner. There’s one really nice restaurant in Alpine, called Reata. Unfortunately, Reata was closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for renovations. Sigh.  So we quickly looked up another restaurant, but we found it at 8:15 and they were closing at 8:30. Sigh. Where did we eat dinner, on our first night of vacation? Subway.  Well, it was food. And we didn’t want to wait til we got to Marfa to eat, fearing that everything would be closed. (67 miles)

Turns out, we were smart not to wait for Marfa for dinner… we were right, everything was closed! We checked in to the El Paisano Hotel, which is where Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (and the whole crew) stayed when they were filming “Giant.”  It’s charming. John got us a suite facing the courtyard and fountain. The room bizarrely had two levels – the kitchen and sofa on one level, and the bed and bathroom up 2 brick steps on a higher level platform (that creaked like crazy).  The accents in the room were interesting, including a small stained glass triangle window with a fleur de lis above the bathroom door – which was also ringed in bricks.  We had two sets of French doors looking out over the patio. It was really lovely.  Fortunately the hotel has (weak) wireless access – lesson #2: cell phone service is awful out there. (26 miles)

When I went to unpack my toiletries, I noticed that everything was a little wet and smelled minty. What do you know? My small bottle of mouthwash – the only thing not in an additional plastic bag – had opened and leaked out all over everything. Fortunately it was clear, not green…but everything had to be taken out of the bag and wiped off.  I’m just lucky my library book didn’t get a minty makeover!

Total mileage day 1: 463 miles (plus a few extra driving around Alpine, looking for dinner).
Total time: 11 hours
Here's a Map of our route 

Day 2 – Big Bend

We slept late and lounged around for a while, and then decided to go find breakfast. Here’s where we learned lesson # 3: Marfa is only open on the weekends. Everything we tried, including places that had been highly recommended, was closed on M-T-W.  We finally found a little hole-in-the-wall place (Alice’s Restaurant) serving breakfast burritos.  We weren’t the only people in the place -- two Border Patrol guys were enjoying their breakfast, so we figured it had to be good.

We thought we’d have to choose between going to the art museums in Marfa and going to Big Bend, but with lesson #3 in full effect, the decision was made for us. Big Bend, here we come!  We packed up our gear and set off.  First stop, gas and lunch in Marathon. We bought burgers at the gas station grill. (I eat at Rudy’s all the time, so why should eating lunch from a gas station bother me?) We took it to go and set off for the park. (56 miles to Marathon)

Basically, from Marathon, you drive straight south to Big Bend. It’s very long and flat, but the mountains in the distance are gorgeous. I had no idea that there were big mountain ranges like this in Texas! It really doesn’t look like what people imagine west Texas to look like – or what you see in the movies -- with big saguaro cactus, dry earth and rolling tumbleweeds. There were lots of little cacti, and low scrub brush as far as the eye could see. And it was actually GREEN! (40 miles to Big Bend)

There was nobody on the road with us for most of the trip – not just to Big Bend, but in general – I think we were passed once on the highway on Monday, and only saw one other car on the way to Big Bend. Halfway to the park, there’s a Border Patrol check point, with lots of cameras recording who comes and goes, but we didn’t have to stop.

When we got to the park, it also seemed deserted. The entry gate was unmanned, with a sign to pay for your park pass at one of the three visitor stations. The first visitor station, right inside the gate, was closed for lunch (it was 1:45, and they were reopening at 2pm, but we didn’t want to wait).  So we drove on to the next station, Panther Junction, which is roughly in the center of the park, about 26 miles in. The hills started getting steeper, and the vegetation was more desert-like. The rock formations were amazing. We talked to the Park Rangers at Panther, ate our burgers, and decided to head for Chisos Basin.

[There was a teeny bit of cell service at the park, so I got a call back from Cochineal restaurant in Marfa, offering us a dinner reservation time of 8:15pm. This turned out to be perfect – if it had been earlier, I don’t think we would’ve made it back in time.] 

The most famous pictures you see of Big Bend are of Casa Grande Mountain, and are usually taken from Chisos Basin (9 miles into the park).  We went on one of the shorter hikes into the basin area, and caught sight of a roadrunner, who walked ahead of us just fast enough that we didn’t get very good pictures. Sadly, he did not say “meep meep.” We took lots of pictures at the basin, and then turned around. [96 miles back to Marfa]

We had to stop at the Border Patrol station (briefly) on the way back. The two officers came out and checked the car and asked, “Just the two of you in the car?” Yes, sir. “And you’re both US Citizens?” Yes, sir! “Have a nice day!”  I guess we don’t look like we’re smuggling anything (or anyone). ;)

When we got back to Marfa, the ground was wet - it rains in west Texas, too! We had about an hour to rest, and then we got dressed and went to dinner. We had time for a drink in the hotel bar, which was nice. The food looked good – it had to be, considering they had a mostly captive audience of hotel guests who couldn’t get food anywhere else nearby!  As we left to walk the four blocks to dinner, it started raining again. I stood under an awning while my chivalrous man ran back to get the car. So John was a little damp by the time we got to dinner, poor guy.  Dinner at Cochineal was excellent… I understand why the reservations are so hard to come by.  For our appetizers, John had arancini (fried balls of risotto) and I had fried artichoke hearts with garlic aioli. They were both wonderful. There was a LOT of garlic in mine!  Then we both had chilaquiles with pork for dinner.  We probably could’ve split one, but it sounded SO good, and it’s a house specialty.  We ate so much, we declined dessert!

At dinner I finally got to give John a present that I had been hiding for a month… one that I had hoped to be able to give him for Xmas, or his birthday, or any other occasion where we’d see his family up in Richardson, but that was not to be. You see, it takes a lot of time to get the right parts to repair a 100+ year-old pocket watch.  When we were first dating, he showed me this family heirloom (in pieces, missing its glass, etc.), stowed in a plastic bag in his office closet. It was engraved to his great-grandfather in 1906! I knew from the minute he showed it to me that I was going to “steal” it and get it fixed for him. I snuck upstairs one afternoon last December and took it, and dropped it off at the jeweler that week, but it wasn’t ready until mid-July. Well, the trip seemed like the perfect time to give it to him, and he loved it. It needs a longer chain so he can wear it more often.

We went back to the hotel and crashed. It was a loooong day!

Total mileage, day 2: 270 miles
Total mileage overall: 733 miles
Here's a map of our route

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