Whenever I make it out to Marfa—formerly known as a tiny West Texas ranching town—I marvel anew at the New Yorkers and Europeans and other hip non-Texans who alight on this cultural capital in well-dressed flocks. Someone has to feed all these worldly people, of course, and Maiya Keck, a 2013 James Beard semifinalist, has long been one of those someones.
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It was with significant hesitation that I broke one of my cardinal rules—“Never order duck outside major cities”—at the Turtle, a “slow food” restaurant in Brownwood (population 19,000). But the fowl that chef Stephen “Bubba” Frank had in store for me, served pink atop polenta and flash-fried brussels sprouts, was a masterful balance of savory (pecan oil), sweet (honey and cinnamon), and duck-y (the fat crispy, the meat tender). Being wrong had never tasted so right.
The closer my friend and I got to Marathon, the quieter I became. Partly it was because the West Texas landscape whizzing by—a tapestry of broad, green cuestas and the exposed ridges of the Glass Mountains—always lulls me into an awed silence. But mostly it was because I was hungry. We pulled into town at seven o’clock, right on time for our dinner reservation at the Gage Hotel, on the edge of Big Bend.
“I could get used to this,” murmured my friend as we drove along the narrow winding road, past open fields and stands of oaks, cypress, and pecan trees. Patterns of light and shade flickered across the windshield. We rolled down the windows and let the breeze in. The trees moved imperceptibly closer. What was that?! Oh, it was silence—I hardly recognized it.
Feeling lost,we looked high, low, and sideways for the entrance. Vaudeville, a home goods store, gallery, and bistro, has occupied a three-story 1915 brick building on Main Street for two and a half years, ever since partners Jordan Muraglia, chef, and Richard Boprae, artist, came to Fredericksburg from Colorado. But what draws the gourmet-minded is the thrice-weekly “supper club” in the courtyard restaurant—and we weren’t sure how to get in.
There is no tv in your room. Your smartphone will barely work, if at all. There is Wi-Fi, but you’ll forget about it. Rancho Loma, Texas’s version of the French Laundry, is three hundred idyllic, tree-dotted acres that will inspire you to shake off all digital preoccupations and revel in an emancipation of the sort that I imagine prompted Robert and Laurie Williamson to decamp from TV jobs in Dallas for an 1878 stone farmhouse seventy miles south of Abilene.
The sun had risenat six-thirty, and for the first time in ages I woke up without an alarm. I ran down the outside wooden stairs with a book and flopped onto a sofa on the breezy dogtrot between the two halves of the main lodge. A pot of coffee—good coffee—would be ready in an hour or less. As the sky turned from peach to baby blue and breakfast aromas began to waft from the dining room, the silhouettes of scrubby trees came into focus along the grassy slope stretching down to the creek.
In Jefferson, time stopped in 1873. That’s the year the water level in Big Cypress Bayou fell, leaving the bustling river port quite literally high and dry. The city’s lovely old homes sat there for decades, like so many dragonflies in amber, until the people of Jefferson gradually began to reimagine their town as a historic tourist mecca.
It’s hard to compete with the beautifully restored Second Empire–style Parker County courthouse. But the red-brick facade of Fire Oak Grill will likely catch your eye as you wander the square in the town of Weatherford, birthplace of Peter Pan actress Mary Martin and final resting place of cattle driver Oliver Loving, thanks to a very long haul at the hands of his dedicated friend Charles Goodnight.
When I hear the phrase “catch and release,” I’m more inclined to think of the knots in my shoulders than unsuspecting fish in the lake. Fortunately, Rough Creek Lodge is ideal for both rest and recreation. My travel buddy and I took quite a shine to its 11,000 acres of pure Texas adventure, with all the amenities we expected, like hayrides, and quite a few we didn’t, like model rocket launching.