Travel tales from Texas' Big Bend National Park
I’m two hours from the West Texan town of Marathon when night falls. I jump at tyre scraps that look like armadillos and jackrabbits jump at me, fleeing my headlights for the safety of the inky black. When I enter Marathon it’s so dark and silent I wince as my car door slams. Have I woken any of the 60-odd schoolchildren who live here?
The dark is deliberate. Marathon has earned a “Class 1 dark sky” rating for astronomy and stargazing, which means all of its residents and businesses help to maintain the blackness. The town is close to Big Bend National Park, a rite-of-passage wilderness that most Texans have visited at least once. It encompasses an entire mountain range and sprawls over both sides of the Mexican-American border.
A rock dome in Big Bend called El Solitario is rumoured to be continental USA’s darkest place. El Solitario is 17km across and visible from space — but big things are common around here. At 500 square miles (1300km2), Brewster County alone is larger than some American states.
I’m at the B&B’s co-ordinates but, instead of a house, I step into a greenhouse humid with rose scent. Water tinkles, wisteria tumbles and fairy lights twinkle. Painted in bold oranges, blues, pinks and purples with stairwells leading to arches that frame the high desert plains, Eve’s Garden B&B looks as if it bloomed from a child’s imagination. The bed is real though and I sleep in the way only a seven-hour solo drive can summon.
On the porch, locals and out-of-towners gather to watch the sunset’s reflection on the Chisos Mountains — or, as it’s called, the “alpenglow”. It’s a magnificent sight yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with dogs loping around or curled under stools. I end up taking ecstatic photos with strangers. Everyone does.
Alaine fills me in over a locally sourced breakfast the next day. In 1999, the Eve’s Garden team started renovating using adobe but, as Marathon is built on rock, there wasn’t enough dirt. Trees are also rare here so wood was out, too. Since discovering environmentally responsible papercrete, they haven’t looked back. “We’ve recycled over 100 tonnes of paper,” says Alaine. “I asked for a Guinness Book of Records listing but they said ‘not yet’.”
She tells me about the protests against the Trans-Pecos gas pipeline: “All the naturalists and dark-sky people were protesting. We housed the native Indian people when they came to protest. The guy who built it owns Lajitas Golf Resort, which is a water suck because they have to keep it green.” People around here notice if you waste water — and not approvingly.
Texans are criminally chatty. Ken and Bill, two guys in their 70s visiting from Dallas, interrogate me so affably I nearly forget I’m the journalist. They’ve been camping rough in Big Bend. “The night sky is spectacular just with binoculars; you can see two layers of ranges right into Mexico,” says Ken. Bill announces they killed two wild hogs. “They’re a menace,” he says. I start to pick up local lingo: bobcats, grassfires, javelina, hogs, cottonwoods and creosote.
The Gage Hotel is Marathon’s chief employer and a showcase of leathery, feathery Texan interior design (with plenty of mounted heads and horns as well). Completing the picture are ristras: dried red chillies on strings.
Michelle from the hotel shows me around and takes me over the train tracks to Gage Gardens. A man strides out of a shop, buttoning up his leather vest. He walks and talks with us for a while. “Who was that?” I ask. “I have no idea,” she says.
Wandering the oasis-like garden of native plants and trees, Michelle teaches me some West Texan gardening folklore. “When the mesquite tree blooms, you’re safe to plant your garden. And you know it’s spring when the buzzards come back.”
Fine-art photographer E Dan Klepper’s gallery is hard to miss: elk horns are fixed to the awning. For the images in his 2017 book, Why the Raven Calls the Canyon, Dan spent seven years living between Marathon and an off-grid abandoned ranch witnessing, as he writes, “the unfolding of a natural world unfettered by the overpowering human footprint that dominates so many of our remaining wild places”.
Marathon has earned a “Class 1 dark sky” rating for astronomy and stargazing, which means all of its residents and businesses help to maintain the blackness.
Because the desert’s plains are so open, Dan says, he’s seen entire weather events unfold. “You can see a storm form, build up, rage on, collapse and vanish,” he says. Capturing such moments is not risk free, though. As he opened a ranch gate one day in a storm with the ground soaked, lightning struck 300 metres away. “I felt it all up my spine,” he says.
Dan has come to look past the instant a photo captures: “Yes, it’s beautiful and wild but you’re not really seeing everything. This place is full of lives, love, tragedy, generations of humans and their struggles. It’s become a lot fuller to me gradually over time.”
He recommends the pictographs at White Shaman Preserve in the Pecos Trail Region. Early Spanish explorers described this region as el despoblado, “the unpeopled place”, but in reality it was inhabited for more than 10,000 years by the nomadic Chiso and Jumano tribes and, later, Mescalero Apache and Comanche.
Before sunrise the next day, on the road to Big Bend’s Persimmon Gap entrance, I see something bulky and slow crossing ahead. It’s a shy young javelina, standing still in the scrub so I won’t see it. I’m so keen to take its picture that I miss its mother, much bigger, planted between me and her baby. I back away.
Big Bend preserves a large swathe of the Chihuahuan Desert along the Rio Grande. The “bend” refers to the river’s U-turn, which carves the park’s boundary for 190km. I walk a trail that breaks frequently into incredible vistas but I enjoy the microcosms more: blooming cacti, rambling prickly pear, spoon flowers and purple rocks.
I meet a park ranger, Kevin. It’s his day off but he’s hiking anyway. He tells me about a canyon called Banta Shut-in, which has bright red and blue colours in the rock, bonded by crystal. It’s like “fruity pebbles”, he says.
“You can be anyone you want to be here. On that porch you’ll hear some tales, some tall, some not.” Mimi Webb Miller would know. She’s lived in this area since the 1970s. In the 80s, when people moved freely back and forth across the border, she had a ranch on the Mexican side. Now she’s in the repopulated ghost town of Terlingua, captured in Wim Wenders’ 1984 cult film Paris, Texas. Mimi runs La Posada Milagro guesthouses, rebuilt on the foundations of the town’s ruins.
The porch is the Starlight Theatre’s, a saloon and venue. I spend the afternoon marvelling at Terlingua’s outsider art — totems and installations springing up in the oddest, and dustiest, of places — and learning strange facts. The mayoral election of neighbouring town Lajitas, for example, was once between a donkey, a goat and a local musician. The goat won. Additionally, no one knows Terlingua’s population because there’s no city limits. “We set the rules back then because no one had land here,” says Mimi. “It was wild, berserk.”
It still is, a little. It’s also remote. I have no reception and while I don’t tell tall tales I feel I could. On the porch, locals and out-of-towners gather to watch the sunset’s reflection on the Chisos Mountains — or, as it’s called, the “alpenglow”. It’s a magnificent sight yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with dogs loping around or curled under stools. I end up taking ecstatic photos with strangers. Everyone does.
On my way back, I see country-blues songwriter Chet O’Keefe. He’s playing a renegade gig in front of Earth and Fire Gallery, his amp plunked between some rocks and his guitar reverberant in the open air. Up the hill in the next cabin, Jorge, a cowboy from New Mexico, tells me he’s been coming to the Big Bend region since he was a kid.
“I love how solitary it is, and wild, and the beautiful views no matter which way you look,” he says. He shows me how to take long-exposure photographs of the stars using his camera tripod. Why not? There’s nothing else to do. When Jorge and his friends leave the next day, he tips his cowboy hat.
The next morning, I’m pushing off in a kayak, floating between America and Mexico. We dismount in a rocky area known as the “riparian” zone, the green belt either side of the water and free of customs regulations.
Our guide, Reed, lives in an off-grid part of town with solar and rain catchment tanks. “Does it last the season?” I ask. “That depends on how much you waste,” he says. “I always thought I was conservative with my water use but I moved here and realised I wasn’t. It’s not easy to live here.”
Reed is worried about where development and tourism may lead his home town: “There used to be grass up to the chest of a horse and cottonwood shade down every creek but miners cut them down. Things change.”
The real ghost town, he says, is on the Mexican side of the river, a village people used to visit for sunsets, food and beer before border control tightened. The 19th hole of Lajitas Golf Resort was there. These days it’s shrunk to a family of five. “The river was something that brought everyone together and now it’s something that keeps people apart,” he says, not without hope things might change again for the better.
For days I’ve been admiring a plant that’s everywhere: thorny, grey-brown and straggly but tipped with a flare of bright red flowers. Reed tells me it’s ocotillo (“small torch”) and has many uses. The flower is used for a hibiscus-like tea, you can sculpt a living fence by replanting it to regrow in a line and, as it’s from the same family as sandalwood, it burns like incense when tossed in a campfire. Better yet? It’s a changeling. As soon as there’s rain, it sprouts fresh green leaves, which are shed as soon as the moisture is gone.
Back at the Starlight Theatre that night, I see legendary country musician Butch Hancock do a gig with his son (while I chat to Butch’s wife). It’s been a trip I’ll be talking about when I’m old: the oddball towns, the majestic scenery and all these characters I’ve met.
And that porch, most of all.
Time to travel
Temperatures in Big Bend vary lots during the year and conditions vary within seasons. Generally, there is a low chance of rain or snow. The busiest month is July, followed by March and April. January is the slowest. The warmest time is usually mid-August where highs are often around 36.5°C and temperatures rarely drop below 22.7° at night.
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