Even in the barren wilderness of West Texas there are a few places where you can feel at home on the range.
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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 al Pacifico train in Ojinaga, Mexico. If you hit town at supper time, troll over to the Old Borunda Cafe for some fine Mexican food. The only other tourist attraction in the area is the Marfa Lights, an eerie unexplained phenomenon that glows in the hills off the highway between Marfa and Alpine.
Alpine, home of Sul Ross State University, is a picture-postcard town whose looks belie its rather xenophobic nature. This town and Marathon are the two gateways into Big Bend National Park. If you are heading for the park from a distance greater than 600 miles you are likely to hit Alpine about sundown in need of a place to stay. Accommodations range from the less-than-sublime to the ridiculous. The best choice is Antelope Lodge, a 30-year-old group of stucco bungalows with red tile roofs. They are clean, air-conditioned , and have TV. Rates are from $10.30 for a single to $17.50 for a five-person suite. Mr. East, the flinty-eyed owner, says, “My place is physically clean and morally clean.” Bring your marriage license. Antelope Lodge. U.S. 90W, Alpine 79830. Phone (915) 837-2641.
Big Bend is a park of striking contrasts-vast desert and austere mountains, wooded river flood plains and deep canyons. During the summer, the Chisos Mountain basin area is probably the best bet for camping, since the desert flats are likely to be II0 degrees in the shade. Up the steep ascent into this mile-high offshoot of the Sierra del Carmen, the scenery changes fast-very fast-as thick, water-storing plants suchas the maguey give way to grassland, then to oaks, pinyons, junipers, and pines in zone of demarcation that are dramatically abrupt. Before the turn of the century there was more timber in this area but it was cut down to fire the furnaces of the mercury and silver mines at Terlingua and Shafter. However, the Chisos Mountain area is still relatively pristine, protected now by the National Park Service, and is a botanist’s delight. Rocky Mountain plants like Douglas fir thrive alongside the Mexican drooping juniper.
At Big Bend you can choose anything from a $1 campsite with a spectacular view into Mexico up to a $22 four-person suite in a clean modern motel built of the ubiquitous stucco and red tile. There are also old stone cottages with or without private baths, and for those on a tight budget, there are spartan, clean wooden cottages (with a central bath) for only $7.50 per person. All (except the park campsites) are part of the Chisos Mountains Lodge. As for food, you’d be wise to buy groceries in Alpine or Marathon. I’ve never met anyone who was happy with the food or price in the lodge or the local grocery stores. Chisos Mountains Lodge, Big Bend National Park 79834. Phone (915) 477-2291. Reservations necessary.
The desolation of Terlingua outdoes anything in my experience. It is so dry out here that prospector-turned-innkeeper Glen Pepper must haul in every drop of water used by his family and guests at Villa de La Mina; but even so he’s building a swimming pool. Although he looks like a desert rat, Pepper has an affinity for water and takes groups on float trips down the Rio Grande anytime except high water, low water, or cold weather. The trips, recommended mainly for thrill seekers, range from four hours to two days and go through some or all of the river’s spectacular canyons-Colorado, Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquilla . Prices range from $35 to $120 per person, depending on the length of the trip. For less hair-raising entertainment you can tour an old mercury mine on Pepper’s place for a buck. The best-looking of the fourteen cottages is the one nearest to the road (there are no name or numbers). Tell Pepper you want the one with double door that has a sunken blue bath, fireplace, kitchen, step-down living room, and two bedrooms. Room rates are from $16 to $26, and the management will prepare meals. Villa de La Mina, Terlingua 79852. Phone (915) 364-2446.
If you would like to do some comparison shopping on float trips, check with Ben and Mariel Simmons at the Lajitas Trading Post, P.O. Box 48, Terlingua 79852. Phone (915) 364-2234. They offer Rio Grande boat rides (the natives tell me they aren’t as wild as Pepper’s) and Mexican pack trips, too. The best place to eat in this area is the Shafter House Restaurant; it overlooks the ghost town of Shafter where the silver mine was located and where The Andromeda Strain was filmed. People drive from miles around to enjoy steaks and Mexican food here.
The drive from terrible Terlingua to Presidio on Ranch Road 170, otherwise known as El Camino del Rio, is one of the most scenic short pieces of highway in the state. Following nearby the Rio Grande, the road has a clear view of the harsh Sierra del Carmen in Mexico, sheer bluffs, dipping swallows, and a mixture of desert and mountain flora. It twists and curves for 69 miles up and out of the river valley.
Once in Presidio, keep on driving straight for the border and the Mexican port town of Ojinaga. You can leave your car at Fowler’s Texaco and take a cab into Mexico, where you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find no piñatas or punched-tin suits of armor for sale. Ojinaga is much less a hassle than other, larger border towns. For a México típico night, try the Hotel Rohana. For $7.47 American you can get a clean azure blue room with the best mattress to be found on the trip, central air and heat, and a shower with intermittent hot water. The hotel rooms open onto a balcony that overlooks the lovely arched lobby, which seems romantic but is actually as noisy as the street. Single hotel rooms are $7.47; cabanas are $13.70, with $2 for each additional person, both places. The hotel has an excellent dining room where you can try some honest TexMex cuisine. Enchiladas suizas, made with corn tortillas, white goat cheese, and green enchilada sauce will send you grabbing for a Tecate (Mexican version of Coors), but they’re worth it. Hotel Rohana, Apto. No. 16, Cd. Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico. Phone 45.
One old cowboy calls thisthe lonesomest country there is and I’d have to agree. It is wide and open and largely peopleless and it takes a certain mind-set to appreciate its spare landscapes. Unless you are truly a desert person, this is not country to travel in the heat of summer. It’s wonderful in the fall months, when a few mild cold fronts have had a chance to cool things off. If you are fortunate enough to be there after a rain, the desert flats come alive with blooming plants. If you do go in the summer, you’d be well advised to carry a gallon of water in your car and a blanket for the chilly nights.
(This is the last of a two-part series on Texas country inns.)