West Texas is magic: wide open spaces, wild west aesthetic, blue skies filled with little fluffy clouds, sunsets so vibrant that they almost don’t look real, pockets of eccentricity, and that sense of total freedom and possibility. It’s like nowhere else in the world.
From Bandera, we traveled the backroads until we got to Historic Highway 90, which hugs the Texas-Mexico border and takes you through all of these tiny desert towns that pop up like oases packed with personality. We found out that all of these towns that are roughly thirty minutes apart connect like dots for a reason: 30 minutes was exactly the amount of time the trains back in the day could run before needing to fill up on water for the steam engine. It’s the sole reason that they all exist. Meanwhile, the landscape changes to desert and mountains. It’s like traveling through a beautiful postcard. We even got our first glimpses of the Rio Grande!
Our gateway to West Texas was Del Rio, a border town where we stopped for the night. We’d heard that it’s also home to Val Verde, Texas’s oldest winery. We got there in the late afternoon and were greeted by a lovely lady in the tasting room. She’s a San Diego transplant whose husband is in the military, and she was able to give us some insight into the workings of Del Rio. It’s apparently a very Catholic town, hence why they were able to circumvent Prohibition back in the day and currently have low crime and no homeless. She ended up recommending one of the rosés, which came at a very reasonable price, and we enjoyed it in the backyard at one of the picnic tables. You have a view of the vineyard back there, and lots of families and friends were also picnicking. It was lovely.
We continued onward the next day. Hwy 90 takes you right through the middle of all of these towns, and we ended up driving right through Uvalde. Uvalde, of course, was where last year’s tragic school shooting took place. Spotting tributes to the shooting victims in the town square was both sad and sobering.
We continued along the highway, making a stop in the town of Sanderson. The tiny town was once a thriving ranching town and the biggest supplier of sheep’s wool in the country. Business boomed through the 50s but then a flash flood in 1965 devastated the town. The subsequent downturn of the railroad and ranching businesses contributed to its decline. Today, it’s home to roughly 900 people and is known for being both the Cactus Capital of the World and the eastern gate to Big Bend.
We stopped for coffee at the Stripes gas station and had a nice chat with two sweet old men who were sitting at a table outside. “Where y’all from? That’s quite a rig you got there!” They were genuinely curious and asked us a bunch of questions about the truck. Sanderson also has metallic T-Rexes along the highway, most notably the twenty-foot tall one outside of Z Bar Trading Co. hardware store. And there’s a really adorable-looking Palm Springs-style Desert Air Motel that beckons from the side of the road. The Ranch House restaurant was closed that day. Otherwise, we’d have loved to see for ourselves what’s touted on Facebook as their pistol-packing mamas on waitstaff.
Marathon was our next town and, as the official Gateway To Big Bend, is a last stop for many people before they trek down into the park. It’s an utterly charming little place with plenty to take in. We first checked out Gage Gardens that are run by the historic, upscale Gage Hotel. Where else were we going to get to see a 27-acre Victoria garden in the middle of the desert? We were treated to Native landscaping, a rose garden, a pond, and a mini putting green, all for free.
We afterward parked the truck on the downtown strip so that we could walk around and check out the buildings and local businesses. We stopped by French Grocer to browse. They have an amazing selection in there of just about everything and as their sign says, if they don’t have it, you don’t need it! We bought some homemade tamales, which we ate on the back patio, and tortillas.
We then browsed the buildings on the other side. Our favorite was the liquor store, which also has an amazing selection. It’s so damn cute in there. The lovely lady who was working gave us a tour of the neon signs and decor that make the store feel like a beautiful boho lounge. We complimented her on her tiara.
She said, “Oh, thank you. You know, one day I was coming to work and I’d cut my hair myself and it looked like a lopsided mushroom. So I went to the store and saw a cheap $5 tiara, and I put it on to help with my hair. And then I just started wearing it every day. It had this heart on top of it, but it eventually broke and I was a broken-hearted princess for a while, haha. But (as she points to her head) this one I’ve had for a little while. A friend of mine sent it to me. I got a package and when I opened it, there was the tiara and a beautiful note that said something like ‘A real princess has more than one crown’. And that near choked me up. And now I wear it every day, even when I’m home alone. We’ve all been through so much these past few years, you have to add a little pleasure and joy where you can.” We couldn’t agree more.
We asked her what time the gas stations were open til, as it was getting near sunset. She said, “Well, there are two. One is run by a woman, and she closes whenever she feels like it. The other is run by a man, and he always closes before dark.” We thanked our lady, who smiled and said, “Have a blessed day”, and we rushed to get out truck over there to fill up. Sure enough, the neon “open” sign got turned off as we were pumping.
One destination in this area that we knew was a must-see before even leaving Canada was the McDonald Observatory. Situated in the Davis Mountains, it’s part of the University of Texas. The observatory is home to the Hobby-Eberly telescope, one of the largest optical telescopes in the world that they use to study dark energy. They sometimes hold viewings from that one for a steeper price. Plus, they’re partnering to build the Magellan telescope in Chile, which at 24 meters in diameter will be the world’s largest. They were also the first university to get access to the data from the James Webb telescope, which they had for a full year. As one of the astronomers present that night put it, it’s very exciting because for years they’d all heard that Webb was in the works, “but then the decades go by and still nothing, and you get a little jaded, and then suddenly it’s here and it’s unbelievable. We’re learning so much.”
The observatory offers weekend star parties, where for $25 per person you can stargaze, learn about the constellations, and look at the planets and nebulae through their telescopes. You drive through the very cute town of Fort Davis to get there, then pass through the land of no reception and rolling, pale green mountains and grassy ranches with horses in the fields. Out in the middle of nowhere never looked so good. It was well worth the trek and the spend. We learned some new info and looked at Jupiter and its moons, the Pleiades, and Orion’s nebula. We even chatted with one of the guys manning the telescopes, who told us that he’s putting together a book of his work with astrophotography. Our inner children were pretty happy. And there’s a nice little iOverlander spot in a gazebo picnic area where you can pass a peaceful night afterward and continue your stargazing.
And then it was time to head to Marfa. Marfa had been on our radar for a while, and we were so excited to finally make it there. Once a sleepy ranching and railroad town, Marfa’s evolved into what Vanity Fair once described as a “playground” for “art-world pioneers and pilgrims”. It’s a kind of hipster art mecca with small-town vibes that sits in the middle of nowhere like a desert oasis. A little bit like a Texan version of Joshua Tree with postcard-perfect landscapes and a dreamy, desert aesthetic worthy of the chicest Pinterest board.
There’s a great sense of freedom there to be, do or create whatever your heart desires and to live your dream. That freedom coupled with a can-do entrepreneurial spirit is what led to Marfa’s current incarnation. Shift happened in the 70s, when sculptor Donald Judd came across the town while on a search for authenticity. He became enamored with the place and left NYC to make Marfa his home. This put Marfa on the map as an arts destination, which helped breathe new life and identity into the sleepy town. (Hey, Marfa does have Pluto sitting on its rising sign in its natal chart, so the town’s constant reinvention comes as no surprise.) His legacy lives on in the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation. Today, you can find all kinds of galleries and studios in addition to the original Foundations.
It makes it a really cool, interesting place to visit. But it also draws a bit of a divide between what’s been described as the art community and the general community, along with that age-old battle between capitalism and the soul.
For starters, there’s the adobe tax debate. Made up of earth, straw, and water that are pressed and sun-dried, adobe’s always been a practical, dirt-cheap material. The numerous adobe structures around Marfa were originally self-built by Mexican-American residents. But thanks to Judd and his “hipster humble cool”, as well as the vacation-home owners and creatives who followed his lead and flocked to Marfa, adobe suddenly became something that all the cool kids coveted. They started buying or building adobe homes as a means to live out their cowboy-cool dreams, just like collecting cowboy boots and vintage flannel. Presidio county tax assessors took notice, as they were under the gun by Texas law to drum up more revenue and they saw that adobe homes were now selling for a premium. They raised their appraisal values in 2017, just three years after a town-wide revaluation. The end result was two big tax hikes that hit the older, weathered houses owned by longtime residents just as hard as the newer, more expensive ones. Suddenly, a beaten and battered structure on the outskirts of town saw its taxes raise from $319 to $1,953. This certainly explains why we saw so many abandoned homes and unfinished builds throughout town.
It brings up an interesting conundrum for the locals. On the one hand, the gentrification of Marfa has brought in tourism that sustains the town. But, as is always the case, the double-edged sword that is gentrification threatens to hack away the things that make Marfa Marfa, including much of its Mexican heritage as these structures that have stood for generations get torn down and slated for redevelopment.
Luckily, the Blackwell School lives on as a reminder of Marfa’s history. The adobe schoolhouse served as a de facto segregated school for Mexican Americans that ran from 1909 to 1965. Much like with Canada’s residential schools, their culture was stamped out as they were forbidden to speak Spanish, even going so far as to make the students hold a mock funeral for their language. The lovely local volunteer we chatted with told us that even after the schools were integrated in 1965, they remained segregated for a few more years. “We were told that it wasn’t segregation, that it was just separation because they only spoke Spanish (like ESL), but that was a lie.”
But then Blackwell graduates went on to the main high school, which wasn’t segregated. While everyone hung out and socialized there, the “separate but equal” doctrine still colored the culture. As in, “You better not bring any Mexican boys home”. She said that things started to change at some point in the 80s. “People stopped saying stuff. I mean, they might have been thinking it, but no one said it any longer.” She also recommended the documentary “Children of Giant” about the making of the movie because it highlights the segregation and racism that was very present at that time.
The school was rescued by an alliance of former students and turned into a museum (turns out that, unlike Canada, many former Blackwell students have positive memories of their time there thanks to some well-meaning teachers). Biden just recently signed a bill that makes Blackwell a National Historic Site, soon to be taken over by the National Park Services with funding and renos on the way. We really were so glad that we stopped to check it out because we learned so mch, and highly recommend making the stop here if you’re ever in the area.
We were hungry upon arrival on our first day, so we parked downtown and walked to Marfa’s Burritos, where Ramona Tejada has been serving them up in the kitchen of her adobe house since the 90s. Everything’s fresh, from the handmade flour tortillas to the sauces, and you get a lot of food for 7 or 8 bucks. Just as the Google reviews promised, the food is simple but very good. We ate as we looked up on the wall at pics of Ramona with fellow patrons Matthew McConaughey, Mark Ruffalo, & Anthony Bourdain.
We also explored the historic Hotel Paisano, made famous by being home base for the cast & crew of the movie Giant. It has really cool decor and lots of Giant memorabilia. It was there that we quickly learned that Marfa is a dog-friendly town, they’re everywhere. Pups (and well-behaved ones, at that) roam in every bar, shop, and even hotel. We walked into a coffee shop (an old horse trailer conversion, which was very cool) and were greeted by 4 smiling pups, which we of course loved.
From there, we tried to go to the Lost Horse Saloon but it was closed, despite posted hours that said otherwise. We quickly found out, as confirmed by a local named David we chatted with at The Marfa Store, that Marfa businesses don’t really stick to hours. And many people have taken January off altogether. David joked around with us with his sarcastic humor, but he also filled us in on some of the aspects of Marfa life. He gave us his thoughts on Mexico and immigration issues. He said, “They’re our neighbor. Those folks just need to work. They’re happy to pay our taxes, and we’re happy to let them. That’s why we oppose the wall.” As we parted ways, he said, “My wife always tells me that I harass people, so I figured I ought to make up for that. So here, I have a little something I want to give you.” We followed him to his truck, where he pulled out and handed us 3 small cards as a parting gift, each with one of his photos on the front and his poems on the back:
We checked out Marfa Spirit Co, which had some of the most amazing elixirs we’ve ever tasted. There’s a bit of a controversy over their producing sotol, which is traditionally Mexican. There seem to be 2 distinct schools of thought on the matter, from both sides of the border. This article gives a good overview of the situation:
Their gin, however, was one of the best we’ve had.
And we ended day one with an evening at Planet Marfa, the bar/beer garden we were told “everybody shows up” at. It’s like the coolest adult fort/playground ever. We walked into karaoke night, which was a lot of fun. More and more locals showed up as the night wore on, and they’d start singing country as everyone got on the dance floor.
We opted to check out contemporary arts space Ballroom Marfa while we were there. It’s free, you just need to make an appointment on their website in advance. We really enjoyed Kenneth Tam’s examination of American westward expansion & its toll on the Chinese laborers who built the country’s Transcontinental Railroad. He also explores the traditional Marlborough Man version of masculinity versus a more modern, vulnerable kind. It was really moving and well done.
And we were tipped off that Para Llevar had the best pizza, made from scratch with sourdough crust. We popped by and ordered a pie and a couple of beers to enjoy in the back garden. It didn’t disappoint. Right next door is a room that houses a quirky art vending machine and some wall installations that’s also worth checking out.
We knew we couldn’t leave without trying to get a glimpse of the Marfa lights. First spotted in 1883 by a cowhand who mistook them for Apache campfires, these legendary lights flicker & dance on the desert horizon. Nobody’s solved the mystery of what they are or where they came from. The phenomenon’s been chalked up to ghosts, UFOs, fallen stars, Fata Morgana, piezoelectric charge, & gas. We camped for the night at the viewing area along the side of Hwy 67, just a nine-minute drive out of town. We were treated to an absolute stunner of a sunset, and that alone was already worth the trek. The stars then started to appear while we sat in our lawn chairs and waited. Seeing the lights is never a guarantee but we did see them! We used our telescope and phone 10x zoom to get a closer look. What we saw more resembled a planetary orb, and our pics when you zoom in look a lot like pictures we snap of the moon. While we don’t have answers, we really love the reminder that life’s best when it holds a little magic & mystery.
Finally, no Marfa trip’s complete without a trek to the Giant cutouts & Prada Marfa. Prada is Ballroom Marfa’s permanent land art installation. It’s the artists’ response to high-priced commercialism that was gentrifying cities in the 90s and pushing people out. Like all good art, it polarizes. It was vandalized on the eve of its grand opening back in 2005, and the perps even stole the six bags and fourteen right-footed shoes that Prada had donated from its 2005 collection (they were obviously replaced). It’s a really cool sight to see in the middle of nowhere. And almost more interesting are the contributions that people have made in the form of the locks and stickers attached to the surrounding fence.
All in all, this last week was the perfect sendoff after our wonderful month spent exploring Texas. What was previously a large, mysterious space on the map of the States has become a place we’ve come to know, love, and greatly appreciate. Texas is rich in beauty and culture, and we’re forever grateful for our life on the road that allows us to really get to know the ins and outs of all these places. Thank you, Texas.