MARATHON — Journeys to a familiar place comfort us as touchstones — a sense of homecoming, even if that place is not, literally, home.
The sparsely populated, arid high desert of Texas Big Bend country is one of those love-at-first-sight places for me. It had been five years or so since we visited, and for months I felt the affectionate pull of the purple mountains, gangly ocotillos and 100-car freight trains snaking past, their horns trumpeting presence to disdainful javelinas.
Coincidentally, Country Magazine features Big Bend Park in a recent 32-page special section as “one of 10 most breathtaking, off-the-beaten-path parks in America.”
Earthly squares dotted by oil rocker-pumps scatter across the Permian Basin landscape as we flew into Midland, renting a car for the three-hour drive to beloved 1927 Gage Hotel in Marathon — my personal favorite.
We scored the 9 Point Mesa room in the 16-room old-section at the top of the creaky stairs — a room said to be haunted by a violin-playing boy child who passed before his time. The bath is down the hall. The Gage, owned by Houston oil man J.P. Bryan, is an authentic, old-time hotel. The new section, Los Portales, has more amenities.
Dinner was in the serene adobe-walled outdoor section of Ten Gauge, the hotel’s first class restaurant, is always a treat. The food is excellent. Folks in the White Buffalo bar always seem to be having a good time. It has the only TV on the historic property.
Strolling the tiny town at dusk, we visited churches that leave their sanctuary doors unlocked — unheard of elsewhere.
A touching billboard in one announced attendance last Sunday: 10. Attendance this Sunday: 7. Collection $110. With almost no surrounding artificial light, the sky explodes with zillions of stars.
Early morning after hot coffee in a front porch rocker, we drove 25 minutes to Alpine, home of Sul Ross University, and the nearest large town; to check out the annual Agate Festival and browse numerous art galleries and the Front Street book store.
Marfa, the tiny town where the 1956 movie “Giant” was filmed, starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson, is a 40-minute drive. About 20 years ago, New Yorkers, attracted by the minimalist art of former resident Donald Judd — invaded Marfa, providing cultural incongruity.
It seemed from the recent ambience that the New Yorkness imported to Marfa has, perhaps, waned. A coffee shop which sold The New York Times, is gone.
We did not have time to await darkness to see, from an attractive viewing area just outside town, the internationally famous colored lights, which careen and pulse at supersonic speed across a stark landscape. But we had seen them twice previously. Their origin has never been explained.
On to Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & Botanical Gardens, outside Fort Davis.
I like to hike Modesta Canyon to a small spring. It is one of the few places in the world where there is absolute silence. A Chilean friend says silence is soothing because silence has a spiritual quality.
We registered at Indian Lodge, in Davis Mountains State Park, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Twenty years ago, we had a beautiful photo of us taken in their courtyard. About 10 years ago, we had a follow-up photo taken in the same pose. At our 20-year anniversary, it was time to record our longevity in the same spot.
Zooming up the mountaintop to McDonald Observatory for the 2 p.m. Sun Show, we discovered we had run out of gas. Cellphones do not work in this remote area. We borrowed the visitor center land phone to ask AAA to rescue us, which they did.
Fort Davis National Historic Site, begun in 1854 as an Indian Wars Frontier Post is well worth a visit. Olympia Hotel in Fort Davis also is delightful. There is a good restaurant at Indian Lodge.
Downtown Fort Davis has limited food options. And, it seemed to us that, perhaps, Fort Davis town was not as vibrant; it did not have as many tourists flocking, even on a Saturday, as we had seen in past visits.
This triangle of small Texas towns, each with unique ambience, are a relaxing long weekend. As I leave, I always am thinking of how soon I might return.