IN 1888 THE VOTERS OF MURPHYVILLE, in an early display of Texans’ tendency to exaggerate the size of their natural endowments, changed the name of their town, which sat at 4,481 feet above sea level, to Alpine. Now in Switzerland, home of the Alps, 4,481 feet is a mere hillock, but this was Texas, and this was the middle of the Trans-Pecos desert. Alpine was positively Himalayan, and with its gorgeous mountain vistas and mild climate, it was something of a West Texas anomaly. It later became home to Sul Ross State Normal College, the only four-year university in the region, and later still to scores of federal agents from the DEA and the Border Patrol. Then came artists and writers, some all the way from New York.
In other words, Alpine is a strange little town, and I mean that in a good way. Unlike most West Texas communities, it’s thriving. The normal college is now Sul Ross State University, a full-scale yet still small (enrollment: 2,100) redbrick campus that sits on a slope overlooking the town. There’s a new hospital, the Big Bend Regional Medical Center, and a new federal building is being raised, which will hold a courthouse. There are about a dozen art galleries downtown. You can take a creative-writing class at Front Street Books or surf the Web all night long at the 6th Street Coffeeshop. Alpine is full of cowboy conservatives but also desert-rat liberals; a group of left-wing curmudgeons holds court every Friday afternoon at the popular local bar Railroad Blues, drinking beer