TUMBLEWEEDS AS BIG AS COWS sometimes blow across the main street in Marathon, a town that feels like a way station between civilization and the rugged Big Bend wilderness. It is nothing less than an oasis in the high desert, and it owes this status in large part to the Gage Hotel, which has been owned for twenty years by Houston businessman J. P. Bryan. Once a little cowpoke inn where guests could get a hot bath and a steak, the Gage is now a place where backpackers, mountain bikers, and upscale tourists venturing into remote Big Bend National Park or Mexico’s rough interior can get sage-roasted quail with fresh strawberry glaze, a good bottle of wine, even a room with monogrammed bathrobes.
Not satisfied with having made his hotel the toast of the Trans-Pecos, Bryan has been buying up building after building in town, renovating old adobes for a second life as shops, studios for artists and writers, and guest houses. He wants to transform Marathon from a dusty ranch town at the foot of the Glass Mountains into a destination, where visitors who once would have spent just one night will linger for days, swimming, shopping, and using it as a base for other travels nearby. After a long slide, Marathon, an unincorporated town of about seven hundred people, is booming again. “You would have a very different Marathon today if it weren’t for the hotel,” says Bryan, adding, “It’s starting to have a ripple effect. Ten years from now you’ll see something completely different here.”
Marathon was founded after the Southern Pacific railroad came through in 1882, bringing supplies to Fort Peña Colorado, which had been established three years earlier to counter Comanche and Apache raids on settlers and whose ruins are still standing south of town. Marathon was then a major shipping center for cattle and