Friday, March 27, 2009

The REAL Texas

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, we always thought of Texas as a land of rugged mountains and deep canyons. After all, that's what it looked like when we watched the cowboy movies that supposedly took place in Texas. As we know now, Texas is mostly an area of flat plains, rolling hills, and low forests; but there is one area that looks as if it could be the home of a Roy Rogers episode, and that's the Davis Mountains of far Western Texas. If you've driven the desolate stretch of Interstate 10 through Western Texas, you've seen the mountains in the Southern distance without realizing just how close you were to a completely different landscape of towering peaks with forested slopes and endless grasslands. In the middle of this area, is one of our favorite places to visit, Fort Davis and the Davis Mountains State Park.
On this trip we spent a week in the park, one of the best we've visited. It's a large park, with spacious, full-hookup sites, hiking trails, and an interpretative center with scheduled programs. At an elevation of over 5000', the campground is still surrounded by higher peaks, and a 4-mile scenic drive takes you to a number of overlooks with views of the campground and the town of Fort Davis. The park also has a large lodge, the "Indian Lodge", built in the 1930's by the CCC in the style of an Indian Pueblo. The lodge has a restaurant and WiFi hot spot, and great views of the surrounding mountains. The park is a great place to spend time, with plenty of wildlife (deer and javelina are campground residents), but is also a good place to stage visits to the many interesting places in the area.
We visited the McDonald Observatory and attended an evening "Star Party". We'd been here for a day tour (Jan 2007 Blog), but had heard many good things about the evening program. We weren't disappointed; it's hard to describe the beauty of the night sky, sitting on a mountain over 6000 feet up, with no ambient light from cities within 200 miles and a perfectly clear night. After a lecture which described and pointed out the visible constellations and stars, we roamed among 10 telescopes of various sizes to see the rings of Saturn, craters of the moon, and constellations. This is a must-do if you're ever in the area.
The town of Fort Davis is also the home of Fort Davis National Historic Site, one of best-preserved calvary posts we've seen, with a large visitor center, restored barracks, housing, and post hospital. It's a large site, with an interesting history; you can read more about it here.
We took a day drive on the Davis Mountain Loop, a 74-mile drive through rugged mountains with elevations over 8000'. Along the way, we were surprised to see a group of Desert Bighorn Sheep sharing an area of grassland along with cattle. This is an area of huge ranches and few people; what most of us picture when we think of the American West. The drive took us to Marfa, home of the "mystery lights" (see Jan 2007 Blog) and from there we detoured to Alpine for dinner at one of the town's many good restaurants.
The town of Fort Davis is one of those small towns with character. Small shops and two hotels make up most of the small shopping area. We discovered one of those special places that we like to highlight; Nel's Coffee Shop, a great lunchtime spot that we visited often since they were also one of the few WiFi spots in town (the Verizon aircard service was unusable in the area). Nel and her husband Jerry made you feel as if you were old friends, and their sandwiches and soups were wonderful. Besides the service and food, an outstanding feature of Nel's is the restrooms - both are decorated as tributes to the military and veterans and their wives are invited to join others who have autographed the walls. It was surprising just how many veterans and active duty miltary have visited - they're going to need another wall soon!
We'd heard about Balmorea State Park and the hot springs and thought we'd take a look. It was a great drive through the mountains north to near I-10, but to us the park was just average. We did come across this rather unusual road sign; looks like wild turkey are making a comeback in the area.
Fort Davis and the surrounding area are one of the hidden jewels of the Southwest. Next time you're driving I-10, take a few days to turn South and visit - you won't be disappointed!
We're off to Alamogordo, NM and Brenda's favorite casino.....donations are appreciated!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Big, Big Bend

Staying in Marathon, Texas gave us the opportunity to visit Big Bend National Park, a place we've visited before (see Jan 2007 blog), but only the Western side of the park. To understand Big Bend, first think BIG, over 800,000 acres spread along the border. There are three distinct types of landscape to explore; the desert with miles of Yucca and creosote bush, the Chisos Basin area with pine and oak trees, and the riparian areas along the Rio Grande River, with towering cottonwoods and tall grasses. The challenge in visiting Big Bend is the distances involved. From Marathon where we stayed, it was 40 miles to the park entrance, then another 30 miles to the park headquarters. From there, it was another 10 miles to Chisos Basin in one direction, and 21 miles to the Rio Grande in the other, and once inside the park the speed limit of 45 makes these distances seem even longer. We visited Chisos Basin first, a remarkably different area after the miles of desert and barren mountains. The basin, high and cool and surrounded by tall peaks, has the park's only lodge and restaurant, and has a large no-hookup camping area. It's amazing to see Bigtooth Maple and Quaking Aspen amid yucca and prickly pear cactus. It truly is an oasis and the heart of the Park. After a great lunch at the lodge, we headed back toward the park's Southern border at the Rio Grande river. Descending out of the basin, the terrain quickly changed to barren hills with little vegetation. Reaching the river area, everything changed to green; tall Cottonwood trees and high grasses lined the river and we hiked through an area where a ranch once existed and down to the river bank. It was strange to see how little distance there was across the river to Mexico - as you can see by the picture, Mexico (on the left) is just a stone's throw away. There are two small villages across the border, and even in this age of tight security, if you walk down to the bank and wave, someone will come across in a boat and take you across into Mexico to visit the few shops and restaurants. Since the two villages are separated from the nearest other towns by almost 200 miles of dirt road it apparently isn't a security issue for the Border Patrol. In fact, a bridge that allowed crossing between the two countries existed until it was closed in 1997 due to budget cuts. One disappointment in the area was the RV park, the only one in the park to provide full hookups. It was just a parking lot that required RVs to be backed in; however, it was very narrow. With a large motorhome there was very little room in the middle to maneuver and trying to back into a space would be nearly impossible. From the park, it was a short drive to Boquillas Canyon where we hiked over the ridge to see where the river exited the canyon. It's a popular haul-out point for canoe trips, and we met a school science group that had spent the night upriver, had their tents uprooted by 40+ mph winds, and were visibly tired (and bored) by the whole experience. With over 100 miles of travel back to Marathon ahead, we headed back toward the park headquarters and the road to Marathon. We probably won't visit Big Bend again. While it's worth a visit if you're in the area and is an amazing contrast from the environment of rest of West Texas, it's best suited for back-country hikes and short-term camping. Its remote location, without cell phone service, TV, or even radio, and lack of basic services can be an attraction or a hardship depending on your lifestyle.
Next stop; Fort Davis and Davis Mountains State Park - C'mon back!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Magnificent Marathon

Unlike our previous stop, our 3-day visit to Marathon, Texas proved once again that there's a lot of interesting things to do and see in small, out-of-the-way places. Marathon is just a wide spot in the road while traveling on US 90 in far West Texas; with a population of 473 it doesn't even have a traffic light. We stayed at the Marathon Motel and RV Park, a surprisingly upscale little park with a beautifully landscaped courtyard complete with fireplace. At the motel/park office we enjoyed chatting with the owners, John and Mary, who "rescued" the 1940s-era motel and turned it into a special place to stop. The office is also the location of the town's radio studio, a low-power station which provides the only radio programming in the area. Down the road is the Gage Hotel, the centerpiece of Marathon and the hub of daily activity. Built in 1927 to serve as a hotel and headquarters for the half-million acre ranch of Alfred Gage, the hotel dominates most of the main street, and also has a health club and 26-acre area of gardens and ponds. We were impressed with the lobby and patio areas; it's a beautiful building. The restaurant and Chef Paul Peterson are famous throughout Texas; very upscale with exotic menu items such as "Pepper Crusted South Texas Antelope", and of course, chicken fried steak (which I believe is required by Texas law). There are also a few of the obligatory gift shops and galleries, a 50s-era soda fountain, a bakery, and what quickly became our favorite place to eat, the Famous Burro, one of those places that stands out in an era of cookie-cutter restaurants and menus. The menu changes weekly, and during our visit Brenda tried the "Bodacious Meatloaf" which she described as unique and delicious, while I tried a truly memorable dish, the Southwest Grilled Chicken with Chocolate Ganache and Orange Wedges. I always thought that anything would be good with chocolate - but chicken? It was amazing! Served with Chipotle Sweet Potatoes and a large glass of Shiner Black, it was a combination that I'll remember for a long time. The Famous Burro is a new restaurant, and we wish it the best of luck; it's a special place.
We had heard rumors about Marathon's "secret pond" and decided to visit. Traveling five miles South of town, we came upon a large, tree-shaded park surrounding a small lake. The site was the home of Camp Pena Colorado, an army post built in the 1880s built to provide protection for residents from bandits and hostile Indians. It is an oasis in this desert area, and attracts birds and wildlife along with locals looking to escape the heat of summer. Nearby, we came upon this herd of Pronghorn, a rare sight in this area. We sat and watched them for a while before returning to Marathon for another cool night in the desert. While in Marathon, we visited Big Bend National Park; come back and see what we experienced!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Bracketville, TX

Many Times when exploring the small towns of America we've been pleasantly surprised by the hidden beauty and interesting things to see and do. Our visit to Brackettville, Texas was not one of these. Located 30 miles East of Del Rio on the main route to San Antonio, Brackettville has one stop light, a crumbling main street, and one gas station. It does, however, have two redeeming assets; a drive-through beer barn and Fort Clark Springs, where we stayed at the RV Park. Fort Clark Springs was the last Calvary post in the US Army before closing in 1946. Over the years the fort lay mostly dormant until purchased by a private group in the 1970s, when work was begun to turn the fort into a combination resort, RV Park, and housing development. It's an interesting mix of beautifully restored old buildings and houses, enclaves of crumbling WWII houses and old mobile homes, and recreational facilities, including a golf course and large pool. Some of the old barracks have been converted into modern hotel rooms adjacent to the old parade field (now a par-3 golf course) and officer's housing area. The pool, spring-fed and a constant 68 degrees, was the brainchild of General Johnathan Wainwright, who being frustrated by years of funding disapproval, decided to instead call it a "horse trough" and then finally received the money with which he built the pool. Local legend is that his ingenuity earned him an assignment to Corregidor Island just before it's capture by the Japanese in the early stages of WWII. The Fort was interesting to explore, with an excellent museum and many activities. The RV park was also interesting - almost all of the residents were returning snowbirds from the northern states and Canada. Our neighbors had been returning for 11 and 8 years respectively, and it was obvious that the park residents were like an extended family, with nightly get-togethers, pot-lucks, and card games. Its doubtful Brackettville would exist without the employment opportunities of the fort; there's no industry, services, or other activity besides being the county seat. Ruins along Main Street, vacant buildings, and depressed housing all point to a town whose time has passed. Another disappointment was our trip to Alamo Village, billed as "an active movie set", and of course, the site of John Wayne's movie "The Alamo". Built in 1959 for the movie, the set was used for other westerns of the time, such as "Bandelaro" and "Two Rode Together". Since then, it's been used for TV shows and movies ("Lonesome Dove" being the most memorable), but judging by the state of the buildings, it hasn't received much attention in recent years. As you can see by the pictures, we were
practically the only people visiting the set. We were told that during the summer things pick up, but I can't imagine visiting this place in the heat of July and August. At least, we thought, we could visit Del Rio and Laughlin AFB for some shopping and exploring. There's a saying in the Air Force that if transferred to Laughlin, make sure you travel with your family at night or at least blindfold them prior to leaving San Antonio. We can certainly confirm that it's the right thing to do. The base, while modern and fairly large, has the poorest commissary and exchange facilities we've ever seen. For a base this size, housing looked mediocre, and worse, the only other shopping is 8 miles down the road in Del Rio. You'll notice I didn't include any pictures of Del Rio; there's no point in wasting pixels just to create depressing images. Ah well, the beauty of our lifestyle is that we don't have to stay in any one place very long, and so we're moving on to spend a few days in Marathon where we'll visit the Big Bend National Park and surrounding area. Come back and see what we've found!