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 is still a center of the local ranching industry. Later it would ship lead, zinc, silver, and mercury mined in Brewster County and across the river in Mexico as well as rubber processed from the guayule plant and wax processed from the candelilla plant, both of which grow in Big Bend.
West Texas cattle baron and San Antonio banker Alfred S. Gage built the yellow-brick Gage Hotel back in 1927. The headquarters for his 500,000-acre ranch during his frequent trips to Marathon, it became the social and business center of town, where residents dined, danced, and held ranching functions.
But by the time Bryan entered the picture, Marathon, a town that once had its own newspaper, a bank, several mercantile stores, and a bustling main street, was a string of empty storefronts. When he bought the Gage for a mere $30,000 in 1978, the hotel was a “disaster,” he recalls. Linoleum covered the floors, the place reeked of gas fumes, and there were thirteen coats of paint on the woodwork. Bryan’s original idea had been to use the hotel as a second house for him and his wife, Mary Jon, because their 15,000-acre Chalk Draw Ranch, which abuts Big Bend National Park, was such a long way from Houston. Then he found out that the Gage had been designed by Henry Trost, an El Paso architect who had designed El Paisano Hotel in Marfa—which had been a gathering place for the cast and crew of the movie Giant—as well as Conrad Hilton’s first hotel, in Cisco, and some three hundred buildings in El Paso. Once Bryan had tracked down the Gage’s original plans, he was hooked on the idea of restoring it as a hotel. Because he wanted it to be “a walk back in time,” no TVs or phones were installed in the rooms.
Today, many of the hundreds of thousands of travelers who arrive every year at the intersection of U.S. 388, the northern route to the national park, and U.S. 90 still don’t bother to go the extra distance into town. And until recently, there wasn’t much to entice them except for the Gage and a rustic trading post that sold a conglomeration of bleached bones, primitive antiques, and other interesting junk. Run for twenty years by Dubb and Della Haley, it’s gone now, closed last year when Della decided to retire (Dubb died in 1993).
Things really started jumping, relatively speaking, in 1992 when Bryan expanded the Gage, adding a $1 million adobe section called Los Portales that looks straight out of Taos, with rooms (with phones as of this May) arranged around a courtyard and a trickling fountain. With rates of $125 to $175 a night, Los Portales has attracted affluent travelers with money but, until recently, few places to spend it in Marathon. Nowadays, folks like Jerry Hall, the Mesquite-born wife of rocker Mick Jagger, can drop $5,000 in a three-hour shopping spree, as she did last year.
Much of the new investment and growth is coming from people who have lived in big Texas cities and found in Marathon an escape to a slower, simpler place. One of the first newcomers to open a shop was photographer James Evans, who moved to Marathon from Austin and launched Evans Gallery, a fine-art photo gallery, across the railroad tracks from the Gage in 1991. A few years later, Russ Tidwell, an associate director of public affairs for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association in Austin, where he still lives, bought and renovated the home of the town’s founder, Albion Shepard, a sea captain who said the area reminded him of the plains of Marathon, Greece (locals, however, pronounce the town’s name “ Mare-a-thun”). The two-story adobe structure opened three years ago as Captain Shepard’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that is managed by the Gage. Then, in 1996, Tidwell opened the Chisos Gallery, which sells art, furniture, pottery, jewelry, and Mexican artifacts. It complements Bryan’s V6 Collection near the Gage, which stocks an eclectic assortment of Western rugs, pottery, clothing, jewelry, and antiques. “I wanted to do something that would promote tourist traffic through here year-round,”