The Weird, Weird West
Location: Fort Davis
What You’ll Need: Cowboy hat, canteen
The pleasures of Fort Davis aren’t as arty or oddball as the ones in nearby Marfa or Alpine, but that’s not to say that things aren’t strange. For example, which is weirder: that Fort Davis and Jeff Davis County, in the mountains of far West Texas and 1,300 miles from Atlanta, are named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, or that the video explaining the history of the old fort is narrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
It’s hard not to like a town where the best place to eat is a drugstore. That would be the Fort Davis Drug Store, a great spot for a big breakfast. The building sits on the town’s main drag, State Street, and it served as the locals’ prime gathering place when it opened, in 1950. Now you’re apt to see ranchers and realtors eating giant breakfast burritos or old-fashioned hamburgers and drinking malts made with ancient steel machines.
After eating, take a walk down State Street, past the Old West-era buildings, and visit some of the arts-and-crafts stores, including the Davis Mountains Broom Shop, which sells walking sticks and nineteenth-century floor-sweeping devices. Stop in Memorial Square, across from the courthouse, and check out the monument to the town’s namesake, who was the Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857 (he is also known for championing the idea of importing camels to West Texas). Perhaps in part because of his legacy, Fort Davis was home to the secessionist Republic of Texas cranks who engaged in a standoff with the Texas Rangers in 1997. There are still plenty of cranks living there; a rebel flag hangs outside the town’s rock shop.
You can spend a whole afternoon at Fort Davis National Historic Site, which sits at the north end of town. It was built in 1854 to protect the mail route that connected El Paso to San Antonio. When Union soldiers abandoned the fort, it was taken over by Confederates, who used it in an effort to invade New Mexico. After the war, the fort was the home of two all-black regiments, the famed buffalo soldiers. As noted buffalo buff Abdul-Jabbar explains in the museum video (while wearing a cowboy hat, no less), the soldiers lived here until 1885. You can roam along the 474 acres of ruins and renovated buildings while bugles playing assembly and mess call echo off the mountains looming behind you. In front of some buildings are photos from the 1880’s, and the mountain views look the same today as they did back then. We stayed overnight in nearby Davis Mountains State Park, at the Indian Lodge, a gorgeous white adobe structure that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.
The best way to see the area, of course, is from atop a horse. So in the morning, mosey over to the Fort Davis Stables. We rented a couple horses, Roany and Lefty, and set off behind our guide and two dogs. I was with my five-year-old, but you can also take a more adventurous trip, say, up to Mount Livermore, which appears on the cover. We rode through the brush and creek beds, under ancient cottonwoods, and over a meadow on the Sproul Ranch. We stopped and looked up at a panther sculpture high on the rocks. A red-tailed hawk circled overhead. A one-eyed bull eyed us. Crows called. Our horses stopped and ate the yellow grass, and there was nothing we could do but sit and listen to the wind whistling off the rocks that haven’t changed in a million years.
Fort Davis Directory
Davis Mountains Broom Shop 401 State, 432-426-3297.
Fort Davis Drug Store 113 N. State, 432-426-3118.
Fort Davis National Historic Site 101 Lt. Henry Flipper Dr., 432-426-3224 or nps.gov/foda.
Fort Davis Stables 800-770-1911 or fortdavisstables.com.
Indian Lodge Inside Davis Mountains State Park, 432-426-3254 or tpwd.state.tx.us. Rates start at $90 a night.