50 States... Or Less

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West Texas

It’s even bigger than you think, and much prettier.
Santa Elena Canyon A very dramatic passage carved by the Rio Grande, with Mexico on one side and Texas on the other.

Before this trip the only things I knew about West Texas I learned from watching Friday Night Lights, which is actually filmed in Austin, and horror stories from Paul about breaking down on previous road trips in Fort Stockton in 104 degree weather. So I wasn’t expecting much, especially since my first ever glimpse of Texas was of El Paso.

We left Carlsbad and headed south, with the idea of staying the night in Marfa. The drive between Carlsbad and Balmorhea is not the place you want to go if you have an obsession with taking pictures of rusting or decaying buildings. It’s pretty damn post apocalyptic. It looks like it used to be prime farmland, but now it’s rusted grain silos and train tracks to nowhere. The drive from Balmorhea to Marfa though is very pretty. Rolling hills, actual trees, not at all what I was expecting. Marfa wasn’t exactly jumping when we got there, but it was Winter, and also a Sunday. The town itself was about what I expected, lots of art spaces, a couple of small stores with gourmet food, a pizza place run by a RISD grad who’s friends with my cousin, a couple of very modern houses among the older adobe ones. There’s also a nice looking small hotel that’s been completely updated and would not be out of place in Palm Springs. The camping situation was less than stellar, the campground had power and water and a nice view of the desert, but no bathroom or showers. I think there’s another rundown looking campground in town, which probably has bathrooms, and I’ve heard rumors of a new one opening up, so maybe the situation has improved. Since the situation wasn’t improved yet, we only stayed one night, and no, we didn’t see any weird lights in the sky.

dutch oven dinner in texas A chuck wagon dinner at Stillwell's outside Big Bend. Pork ribs, beans, garlic broccoli and peach cobbler, all made in dutch ovens.

We drove through Alpine and Marathon the next day, and both are much nicer than I was expecting, not as art filled as Marfa, but after going through so many mostly dried up towns I was shocked to see 3 in a row, in the middle of nowhere, that seemed to be doing really well.

We turned south at Marathon to our spot for the night outside Big Bend National Park, an RV park called Stillwell’s. It’s on a big cattle ranch that was settled in the late 1800’s, about 45 miles south of Marathon, and is still owned by the Stillwell family. When we got there we were surprised to see that the place was packed. We’d shown up on day 2 of their annual trail ride, and it was Valentines day, so they’d hired a band to play that night for the owners of the 40 or so horse trailers that were there for the ride, and also for the locals, since apparently ladies like their husbands to take them dancing. There was a large assortment of giant American pick up trucks parked about, and the party went on until at least midnight. Everybody was wearing an unironic cowboy hat. The dance floor was covered in cornmeal. For food they hired somebody to do chuckwagon meals for the whole week, for breakfast and dinner, which we sampled on the second night. (It was good, and my first attempt at eating ribs.) Breakfast sounded amazing, but it started at 7:30, so obviously we never made it down in time.

Loungin at Stillwells Our campsite at Big Bend National Park. This place was great... our first real taste of outdoor living on this trip.

The other highlight of staying there, beside the extreme level of friendliness, (and finally! warm weather!) was when I was sitting up at the store doing laundry, and a helicopter stopped by for a beer run. No really. Apparently they were spotters for the cowboys rounding up longhorns by the Mexican border, and they’d run out of beer. So they just flew up for a 24 pack of Bud light, like you do.

Big Bend National Park is 800,000 acres, and it took all day to drive to the southern part of the park, which is the border with Mexico, and we saw the little puddle that’s the Rio Grande. The park is enormous, it almost too big to hike, you’d have to just choose a bit and maybe bring a horse to see anything. Which seems to be a popular option. There’s a big chunk of mountains in the middle that has wooded areas, but the rest looks like artfully arranged piles of colored rocks, but on a huge scale, and really pretty, if a bit bleak. I was sure it had to be in the top of the list of biggest parks, but I forgot about Alaska, so it’s not even in the top 10. But it’s so big and remote that it has 2 gas stations inside the park.

Mostly this part of Texas makes you realize how gigantic this country is, and also just how giant Texas really is. I told someone at Stillwell’s that I’d grown up on a 2000 acre ranch, which he seemed to think was pretty puny for a ranch, but it’s giant for California! But not for West Texas, I guess.