When Warner Brothers bought the film rights to Edna Ferber’s Giant, director George Stevens sent a scout to find the essential Texas. Ferber had set her novel on the famous King Ranch, which is in South Texas near Corpus Christi, but the filmmakers located a spot which they felt embodied the myth of Texas more exactly. Giant was filmed, to a large extent, in the great Trans-Peco outback of Texas near Marfa. Wide-open spaces, mountains rising abruptly from the desert, a harsh unyielding climate, West Texas is a different country altogether from green East Texas. Because this half of the state was settled, in general, a quarter to a half century later than the eastern part, and because it is sparsely populated, it lacks the historic hotels and inns that dot the eastern sector (see “How Suite It Is,” TM. June 1976). Still, there are interesting places to stay if you know where to find them.
Many travelers traverse West Texas on IH I0 and most of them bypass the best-kept secret in the state park system, Balmorhea (pronounced Bal-moreay), which is located four miles down U.S. 290 at Toyahvale. There is no sign in the village of Balmorhea leading to the park and nothing in the prevailing land scape of barren desert mountains prepares you for this oasis . Like a mis -placed California mission, Balmorhea Park is a cluster of adobe buildings with tiled roofs nestled in a shady grove of cottonwoods and cooled by meandering canals . Flowering cacti hide the roadrunners, and the cool archways are home for iridescent blue-backed barn swallows, which raise families of yellow-billed young that blink at you across their mud nests.
The primary attraction of Balmorhea Park is a two-acre swimming pool built over San Solomon Spring, where Comanche and Apache raiding parties watered their horses. The spring gushes 24 to 26 million gallons daily, completely refilling the pool every five hours. Looking like a giant Roman bath, the pool is basically round with two wide canals jutting off to each side. Depths range from three feet in a side canal to 35 feet in the center, where the spring is. The water remains a comfortable 76 degrees year-round. There are slides, a diving board, an adequate bathhouse, and a playground for children. In the summer, as many as II00 people a day purchase tickets- 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children. Because of Texas law, the pool is open only from the fourth Friday in May until Labor Day, which seems a shame given the mild desert climate.
If you reserve three weeks ahead in the summer, you may be able to rent one of the eighteen cabins that were built, together with the pool and concessions building, in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. All the units are cool, clean, and outfitted with geometric Texas Penal Period furniture made by inmates of Texas prisons. Fireplaces, unfortunately, have been blocked off because of bat invasion. All units have central air and heat. The remarkably low rates are $10 for the first adult, $2 for each other adult, and $1 for each child 6 through 12. Children under 6 are admitted free. A room with a kitchen costs $4 extra. Linens are provided, but bring kitchen wares. In addition to swimming and sunning, you can fish for crappie and cat in Balmorhea Lake, six miles east of the park. Overnight camping in the park costs $2 per night with $3 extra for electricity and water hookups. Park entry fee is $1 per car. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale 79786. Phone (915) 375-2370.
When you want to eat out in Balmorhea, Rick’s Cafe is a great find. Owners Rick and Hattie Moon have a slogan-“Our specialty is from scratch”-and they aren’t kidding. Rick makes all his own bread (including six-inch hamburger buns), grinds his own beef, cuts his own steaks, snaps his own beans, and makes real coffee and real tea. The $2.50 blue plate special the day I visited was homemade beef barley soup, a cornmeal pancake, succulent sweetbreads, fresh broccoli with cheese sauce, an English grilled potato, fruit salad, and homemade bread.
The stretch of IH I0 west of Ozona roughly follows the old Chihuahua Trail, which was used to move trade goods from Chihuahua to North Texas and points east.
Fort Davis was founded to protect West Texas travelers from Indians in 1854, during the Gold Rush. It has been well preserved by the arid climate and the intercession of the National Park Service, so that you can visit today and appreciate the harsh conditions that early West Texas soldiers endured. Go on Saturday or Sunday when the staff presents a living history program.
Three mile west of town on State Highway I 18 is Davis Mountains State Park, which includes Indian Lodge, another Depression-era project of the CCC. The hotel, with 39 units, is a large white pueblo-style building built into the side of a steep cedar-covered mountain. The rooms are immaculately clean and have handmade cedar furniture; here, too, the fireplaces can’t be used (remember the bats) . Other amenities include a heated pool and an attractive dining room with a varied menu. (Although the Mexican food was good, you’d better skip the barbecue.) A central courtyard is shaded by a huge madroña tree and an apple tree loaded in the proper season with fruit. There’s also a game room and an assembly hall. In addition to poking around the town of Fort Davis and visiting the actual fort, you can drive 13 mile to McDonald Observatory (which has tours daily), you can hike, or drive the 73-mile ridge road. Costs range from $12 for a single to $23 for a suite. Children 6 through 12 are $1 extra; children under 6 are admitted free. Indian Lodge, Box 786. Fort Davis 797 34. Phone (9 15) 426-3254. Reservations recommended.
Now that the once-glorious Paisano Hotel has closed, there’s not much reason to be in Marfa except en route to catch the Chihuahua