Marathon Man

Gage Hotel owner J. P. Bryan is turning dusty little Marathon into a tourist destination—but some locals liked it just fine the way it was.

July 1998By Comments

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,” says Tidwell. “Tourism has been very, very seasonal here. The perception in Texas is that the summers in Big Bend are very hot. That may be true on the river, but not here, where the altitude is four thousand feet. It’s really much more like Santa Fe here in the summer.”

Tidwell also bought five old adobes on the south side of town and is turning them into guest cottages. Another transplant, Mark Aliprandini, an architect and craftsman who moved to Marathon from Albuquerque in 1993, bought the long building on the main street that houses the Chisos Gallery, the post office, and Angelo’s and Diane’s, an Italian restaurant that opened in March. He also acquired an old, abandoned school that will be transformed into his home, workshop, and studio. Jean and Mike Hardy, transplanted Houstonians who own Front Street Books in Alpine, which deals in new and antiquarian books, opened a Marathon branch in March in the old trading post, which Bryan had bought and renovated in 1995. “I could not have dreamed Marathon could have supported a bookstore this soon,” says Jean Hardy, “but Marathon is blossoming.” Ted Thayer, a former Houstonian who moved to Marathon in 1990 and owns a classic-car restoration and auto-upholstery company, has bought the old railroad depot and plans to turn it into a transportation museum. And Bryan’s Gage Gear, a shop next door to the hotel offering camping gear, clothing, and Big Bend tours, opened in April.

A past president of the Texas State Historical Association, which publishes The Handbook of Texas, and the Texas Historical Foundation, which researches and restores structures, and a member of the executive committee of the Texas Historical Commission, Bryan is “obsessed,” some say, with turning Marathon around. He owns a construction company that’s doing much of the renovation. As he gives me a walking tour of his many projects, he wears corduroy pants and a denim shirt bearing the name of the Gage. Lean from years of running another kind of marathon, with a gimme cap pulled over a thatch of gray hair and green eyes that radiate a quiet intensity, he looks younger than his 58 years. We walk through old adobes he’s renovating for guest cottages, including a house where Big Bend pioneer rancher Hallie Stillwell once lived, and the seven-and-a-half-acre organic garden and orchard that will grow fruits and vegetables for the hotel’s restaurant, Cafe Cenizo, which he remodeled in 1997. Bryan also hopes to turn some of the adobes into artists or writers studios and has set up an artisans co-op in the renovated Ritchey Brothers general store across the railroad tracks from the hotel—“I bought that at a tax sale,” he says. A lot behind the Gage will become a desert garden and perhaps the site of eight 2-story luxury guest quarters that will be pricier than even Los Portales. The hotel’s clientele has changed dramatically since the addition opened. “Before, there were a lot of RV people looking for an inexpensive place to stay or campers looking for something nicer,” Bryan says. “Now it’s more upscale.”

Bryan seems an unlikely fellow to devote so much time and money to reviving a ranch town that’s still a little rough around the edges. A Renaissance kind of guy, he can expound on everything from range management and rare books to paintings he owns by artists from the original Taos art colony. But his interest in history and restoration goes way back. His father, J. P. Bryan, Sr., was a lawyer and member of the University of Texas’ Board of Regents who had an extensive collection of early Texas maps and manuscripts, which is now at UT. The junior Bryan, who himself claims to have the largest private collection of Texana, with more than ten thousand items, and is a great-great-great-nephew of Stephen F. Austin, studied art history at UT in the early sixties while also working in the rare book business, then went on to get a law degree at UT. He made his first money cutting deals on Wall Street as an investment banker, then he started an oil and gas company in Houston, Torch Energy Advisors, which buys oil investments and manages them for institutions and companies. He started several other energy companies and in 1995 was part of a group that raised $30 million to buy control of Gulf Canada; Bryan was the president and CEO until he retired early this year.

He and his wife split their time between a house in Houston’s chic Rice University neighborhood, a house in Colorado Springs, a Victorian-style cottage they renovated behind the Gage, and their two ranches, Chalk Draw and the 20,000-acre Maravillas Ranch, also in Brewster County. Even on the ranches, Bryan is adamant about restoration. He took the cattle off the overgrazed land at Chalk Draw and is dropping herbicide by air to kill the creosote brush that had taken over, gradually returning the land to its native grasses. “I’m a type-A personality,” he says, showing me around Chalk Draw. “I feel driven to do these things.”

That drive has spurred Bryan to pour, by his own estimation, more than $2 million into Marathon. He says the Gage is profitable now, with an average occupancy rate of 55 percent and some six thousand guests a year. But “This dadgum hotel just about broke me spiritually and financially,” he says. “It’s been so difficult to find people who share my vision.” Most merchants in town applaud his efforts. “Marathon would not be the same without the Gage or the affection J. P. Bryan has for the town,” says Jean Hardy. “He’s not in here just to make a buck.” If it weren’t for the Gage, some say, the school system would be closed by now and other merchants would have folded up their tents long ago. Bryan’s “vision and his money and his efforts have brought the town along,” says Bill Stevens, who, with his wife, Laurie, managed the Gage from 1990 until a few months ago. “Marathon had been dwindling and dying for several decades.”

Not everyone is a fan. Some townsfolk say they liked Marathon just fine the way it was, tumbleweeds and all, before Bryan started “bringing in the elite and threatening to change its character forever,” as one puts it. There is a faction, mostly longtime residents, that resents Bryan’s efforts, saying he is single-handedly trying to change too many things too fast. But the Gage is such a big part of Marathon’s economy that no one interviewed would speak against him on the record. Bryan is aware of the criticism. “I’m not trying to run the town,” he says. “I’m not trying to be the mayor. We really don’t own any of this stuff—we’re just stewards of it temporarily. I’d like to think I will give it back in a lot better shape than I got it.”

To that end, he wants to have Marathon incorporated to set up some organized leadership. But even the hint of incorporation is riling some independent-minded locals who fear red tape and higher taxes. The town currently has no city government and no police force; a resident deputy sheriff enforces the law. It has no building codes or zoning. Marathon is one of those towns where people tend to leave junk in their yards—rusty cars, ranch implements, appliances—in case they might need a part, and because there are no regulations to make them dispose of it. “It’s anarchy here,” says Bryan. “You can do anything.”

The chamber of commerce recently held a meeting to discuss incorporation, but some doubt that a referendum on it would pass, at least not anytime soon. For one thing, ranchers who own the land encircling the town don’t want the threat of annexation that could come with incorporation. “Not that the power would ever be used, but ranchers out here are very protective of their property rights,” says Steve Houston, who left a lucrative job as a trial lawyer in Houston to move to Marathon with his wife and open a general law office. Some people also fear that higher property taxes will follow higher property values. “We have a lot of low-income people who live in Marathon,” says Houston, who is also the county attorney. “We have to look at what that would do to those people.”

Eventually, though, Marathon may not have much choice but to incorporate. Lyn Shackelford, who runs Bryan’s Marathon Construction and is a former president of the chamber of commerce, guesses that the town could add 150 new residents over the next several years. Columnist Molly Ivins and Austin artist and “recovering” club owner Gordon Fowler and his wife, singer Marcia Ball, recently bought property in Marathon. Says Houston: “If it continues to grow and people continue to move in and build and the hotel is going to expand—and if our sewer system reaches capacity—then we’ve got to find money for infrastructure.”

Still, people don’t want to split the close-knit community over the issue. And no one, including Bryan, wants Marathon to grow too quickly or lose its middle-of-nowhere charm. “I heard it called the next Taos and Santa Fe, and that makes me cringe,” says Mark Aliprandini, “but I think our little town has its checks and balances. You can’t get things built that fast. There’s not a lot of available land.” Indeed, the large ranches that ring Marathon are a built-in limit to growth. Another safeguard may be its sheer remoteness. With the closest major airport and shopping malls a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, in the Midland-Odessa area, Marathon will appeal to only certain kinds of people. “We’re not going to become Taos or Santa Fe or Fredericksburg, because of our distance from major urban areas and a commercial airport,” says Russ Tidwell.

Marathon is, after all, still a place where the likes of Jerry Hall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Nolan Ryan have wandered around pretty much unnoticed. “I think it will always be a little forgotten,” says Aliprandini. “You have to like the sleepiness of it. This will always be the kind of place where people have goats in the yard.”

Kathryn Jones wrote about Larry McMurtry in the December 1997 issue of Texas Monthly.

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