Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On the Road to Big Bend: Fort Davis and Marfa, Texas

We did indeed sleep well last night, arising uncharacteristically late at nearly 8:00a.m. After a leisurely breakfast, we lounged around and finally made it outside just before noon! This is what retirement must be like, I thought to myself. I could adjust to such a laid-back lifestyle in, oh, about 30 seconds.

Today was to be occupied with a trip to McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis and about an hour’s drive north on highway 118. The drive was very picturesque, and we stopped for lunch at Cueva de Leon, a very adequate, if modest, Mexican restaurant in Fort Davis. The staff was very friendly, and we ordered for sharing a combination enchilada, chalupa and taco plate off the menu. I even purloined a piece of smothered steak from the lunch buffet, for which the proprietor didn’t charge me, even though I offered to pay. (The steak was good; I wish I had taken a couple of them.)

Sandy found some turquoise jewelry in the restaurant lobby that was made by a local artist. After assessing the pieces for a few minutes, the artist became quite a bit richer and I became quite a bit poorer. So much for eschewing expensive restaurants; this “inexpensive” meal cost me more than would have the pretentious Reata back in Alpine that I ranted so much about in the previous post. Oh, well, that’s what vacations are for, right?

We motored on up to the top of Locke Mountain, driving on the “highest public highway” in Texas, according to the observatory information. I must have been true, for at about 6,800 feet, the views were breathtaking. The visitor center was new and beautifully done, complete with a restaurant and lecture hall, where we sat through a 45-minute presentation by Rachel, a very knowledgeable and intelligent guide who had an excellent speaking voice and used perfect English (a rarity these days). We were even able to see a real-time video image of the sun via a remote display from one of the telescopes on the mountain. We could see the “prominences” (scientific term) which were gaseous emissions at the sun’s surface thousands of miles high. Sandy and I agreed that we probably learned more about the sun from this presentation than in our entire previous education. After this, Rachel led the group of about 30 visitors to the largest white dome, housing a 107-inch telescope, where she demonstrated the workings of this giant instrument for another 45 minutes. From there, the group went over to another smaller telescope a short distance away. We opted not to follow to this one, as we had done a good bit of uphill walking and standing, and we didn’t think we could absorb any more information anyway. We thought this was time and money (eight dollars per person) well spent, and the views from the mountain alone were worth that. One downer for me was that the weather was not cooperating to enable viewing of the night sky from the telescope at the “star party” to be held that evening. I had eagerly anticipated coming back up the mountain for that event but, by evening, a thin overcast had spread over the area, precluding any stargazing, unfortunately. These star parties are held only on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, so I guess I’ll try again next trip.

Fabulous View from Mt. Locke

Telescope Domes at McDonald Observatory

107-Inch Telescope at McDonald Observatory

We drove back down the mountain to Fort Davis, where we could have toured the old western Army fort for which the town was named. We were a little too late to take a tour, but we did see some of the preserved structures and restored buildings from a distance. This probably would be an interesting place to visit for some folks (our friend Jim G. comes to mind), but I guess I’m not too much into the frontier Indian/cowboy/cavalry thing. It was easy to see why the fort was built where it was, in a box canyon that would afford protection from Indian attacks. We would like to have visited the 500-acre desert nature center not far from Fort Davis, but that had to be prioritized downward, unfortunately. Oh, to be retired and have time to do all we would like to do!

Jeff Davis County Courthouse at Ft. Davis

Historic Ft. Davis Bank

We decided to drive the 21 miles from Fort Davis to Marfa. We intended to make this trip on Wednesday but, as our star party plans at the observatory went south, we thought we would go ahead and get a start on this next adventure. The 21 miles went by quickly, with excellent mountain scenery passing by. It is remarkable how good and smooth the roads are in this area; I guess it’s because there are so few vehicles to wear them out!

Marfa, frankly, was a big disappointment. We had read articles in the newspaper and Texas Monthly that described this as an up and coming destination for artists and craftsmen of all kinds and that real estate values were being inflated by the influx of wealthy folks to the next “in” location for a first or second home in a good climate. Well, I think the boom has gone bust. There are a few little artsy venues around, but many of the shops that obviously housed quite a number of galleries and boutiques now sit vacant or boarded up. The downtown is now very sleepy, with the near-vacant (but lovely) courthouse standing vigil on the north end of the main street. Only the legendary El Paisano Hotel showed any activity at all. This was indeed a marvelous newly-restored structure designed by Trost and Trost architects (legendary in architectural circles) in the 1930s. This was the hotel used by Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, along with the rest of the cast of the movie “Giant,” filmed near Marfa in the mid-fifties. The architecture of this hotel would not have been unfamiliar to these Hollywood stars, as it was reminiscent of much of the Spanish-Italianesque villa style seen in many places in California. It was fun to look at the memorabilia and photos the cast left behind and to imagine what Elizabeth Taylor’s opinion really was of this tiny, dusty Texas town in the middle of nowhere.

Downtown Marfa

Magnificent Presidio County Courthouse, Built in 1865 for $60,000. (Yes, I like old courthouses!)

Another crisis for visitors to Marfa would be places to eat. There was a Dairy Queen and a Subway, plus a very seedy-looking bar named Agate Moon, whose hand-painted sign outside advertised barbeque as, presumably, a chaser for the beer. Frankly, from the looks of the place, I wouldn’t have dared venture in there without a gun on my hip. I’m pretty sure all the other patrons had one, too.

The Hotel El Paisano had a restaurant, aptly named Jett’s Grill, after the character played by James Dean in “Giant.” We took a look at their menu, however, and discovered the owners had the same elevated opinion of their restaurant as the owners of Reata in Alpine. The prices seemed way out of line for this little town that has obviously fallen on hard times. Having seen really all there was to see, except for the Marfa lights, we decided to go back to Fort Davis for dinner. We had spotted a restaurant at the historic Limpia Hotel there, and we wanted to give it a try.

El Paisano Hotel Lobby

El Paisano Hotel Patio and Entrance to Jett's Grill

The 21 miles back to Ft. Davis went by quickly, with the theme from “The Big Country” playing appropriately on the Hornet’s XM radio. We parked parallel in front of the Limpia, and we could just as well have pulled up in a buggy and tied up our horse, given the quaintness of the Ft. Davis downtown area, reminiscent as it was of a western town of, say, 1880. We entered the Limpia dining room and were greeted by an officious, unsmiling woman with menacing facial features that would have caused a bulldog to jump off a meat wagon. Looking over her spectacles, she sniffed,
“Do you have a reservation?”
After looking around at perhaps ten empty tables, I turned to her with a smirk, and said,
“Uh…no, we don’t; how big a problem can that possibly be?”
She probably didn’t appreciate by smart-aleck retort, as she wrinkled up her nose and said,
“Well, I’m sorry, but we won’t have anything until later in the evening. We’re expecting a busload here in a little while.”

Busload, my rear end, I thought. This woman needed a fierce beating with Sandy’s purse strap, but I couldn’t talk my bride into doing it.

So, there we were, the little woman and I, rebuffed, humiliated and hungry. I had a vision of swinging doors on the Limpia and my being tossed out into the dusty street by a couple of cowboys. I picked myself up, helped Sandy into the buggy, and untied the brown mare. (Wait a minute; the imagery is getting out of hand again. Pardon me while I do a quick reality check.)

Okay, I’m back now. We hopped into the Hornet and drove around looking for another place to eat. We found the cafĂ© on the south end of town where we had earlier seen the sheriff’s patrol car parked—a good sign, we thought at the time. Unfortunately, the building was locked up tighter than Jackie Gleason’s Speedo. We were left only with a little place called Murphy’s Pizza Cafe, where we had what would have been a fairly edible pie if the crust hadn’t been undercooked and soggy in the middle. We didn’t eat that part, so what we had amounted to, well, a pizza doughnut. (I can’t make this stuff up; it just happens to us.)

Fort Davis, like Alpine and Marfa, seems to have its share of issues for visitors looking for a place to eat. However, we liked the town a lot. It was attractive in its own quaint and rustic way—sort of what we were expecting in Alpine or Marfa but didn’t see. We learned that the 1986 movie, “Dancer, Texas-Population 81” was filmed here. I have requested it from Netflix so we can see this cool little town in the movies! We wouldn’t mind spending more time here some day, to check out the attractions we missed and see if someone nicer is greeting customers at the Limpia dining room.

After eating our pizza, we drove back to Marfa. It was getting dark, and we wanted to see the Marfa Lights. These are the mystery lights that are supposedly visible on clear nights on the south side of U. S. 90 about nine miles east of Marfa. They were first reported in the mid-1800s by a cowboy who thought they may have been Apache Indian campfires. According to information we read, they generally are seen as two lights that dance on the horizon, turn different colors and perhaps merge and appear to be coming toward you.

We arrived at the viewing point just before it was fully dark. The Texas Highway Department has erected a very nice viewing center with a large parking area and restroom facilities on the south side of the highway. The lights around the viewing apron were subdued and red-colored, so as not to interfere with observers’ night vision. Since this was a moonless night, the area into which we were looking was as dark as ink, except for two lights on the horizon very far away, which appeared to me to be yard lights, perhaps at two remote ranch houses, I thought. We were told, however, that there isn’t any structure or electricity in that area, a fact I found hard to believe. I would very much like to have flown in a helicopter toward the lights, because I was convinced they were real electric lights. After looking at the lights for a long time, I began to think I could see them moving up and down and side to side. I passed this off as a phenomenon caused by staring at the lights too intently and for too long a time. Sandy had the same experience, and the bottom line is, we saw something out there, but we remain skeptical.

Marfa Lights Viewing Station

After our encounter with the Marfa Mystery Lights, we drove the 16 miles into Alpine and to Homer, where we watched a little TV and hit the sack, tired but satisfied with our full day’s activities. Tomorrow we’re off to Big Bend Ranch State Park and a very long drive through a very large and, hopefully, scenic area.

Postcript: Still unsettled by what we presumed to be the Marfa lights, we drove back by the viewing center the next morning to look at the area in the daylight. Using a pair of binoculars, I looked across the wide basin towards a mesa perhaps 20 miles away that was the approximate location of the lights we saw the previous night. I was able to see to the horizon quite clearly through the binoculars, and I saw no evidence whatsoever of civilization. I didn’t see anything but desert badlands. There was no place in the remote area where a dwelling would likely be or, for that matter, where an electric power line would conceivably run. So, I am now more mystified than ever. I presume that the two lights we saw last night were indeed the Marfa mystery lights, for they are, for sure, a mystery.

Daytime view of area where lights were seen; what's out there? No sign of life.


  1. Mike, found the page for Marfa. Thanks for the visit. I saved a link to this page so when we are heading west I'll be able to go back and read your blog posts around that time for ideas. Mark Seneker

    1. We enjoyed the visit, too, Mark! I think you'll like the Big Bend area; we're delighted to be going through there on our way to Arizona in a few days.


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