This is the route into the wide-open spaces, a path worn through the desert and uplands by Native Americans, conquistadores, pioneers, and the second transcontinental rail line. Sure, times have changed along the trail; it is only a few hours’ drive between cappuccino machines, for instance. But the best things about the journey—prehistoric pictographs, gushing springs, legendary rivers, grand mountains, and mind-altering sunsets—remain the same.
Immediately west of San Antonio’s Loop 1604, the suburban jungle gives way to typical South Texas scrub. Within fifteen minutes, however, things ain’t so typical. I’ve landed in a misplaced chunk of Alsace known as Castroville, which was settled by Henri Castro on the Medina River in 1844. At Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, the pastries are mostly all-American. The best taste of the old country comes courtesy of salesperson and lifelong Castrovillian Mildred Jagge, who will rattle off some lilting Alsatian at the slightest prodding. I can’t resist walking around the historic downtown, which is simply lousy with darling stucco cottages. After dinner I’ll waddle over to the Landmark Inn for the night. Constructed in the mid-1800’s as a general store and now operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife, the inn boasts spanking-clean rooms sweetly furnished with vintage pieces and antiques.
On the way out of town, the humps of the Hill Country make a showing to the north, baby versions of the mountains ahead. The next three towns—Hondo, D’Hanis, and Sabinal—look to have been laid out by the same city planner, with Old West–style downtown buildings clustered to the north of the Southern Pacific tracks that parallel my route. I pull into Sabinal, where I admire the elegant mesquite furniture at Hart’s and get a dish of Blue Bell ice cream at the soda fountain of Brown’s Pharmacy, in the turn-of-the-century building that once housed the Sabinal National Bank.
I roll into Uvalde, the hometown of John Nance Garner, one of the vice presidents who served under FDR, a little past three o’clock, just after the First State Bank has closed its doors. As I press my nose against the window looking for the museum-worthy artworks the bank owns, a concerned-looking man peers back at me. Persuaded that my interest is in the art and not the cash deposits, Lewis Bracey, Jr., the bank’s CEO, unlocks the door and assistant vice president Alexis Petty leads me on a tour. I’m suitably awed by the two Rembrandt etchings, the two portraits by Joshua Reynolds, and dozens of other treasures amassed by the bank’s senior chairman, former governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr., and his late wife, Janey. The bank itself is a piece of work, a cavernous, brick-walled space that’s furnished with Persian rugs, brocade curtains, plastic light fixtures, and Gay Nineties-style settees upholstered in button-tufted red leather. High art often triggers my carnivorous instincts, so I stop at Evett’s Barbecue, a Uvalde fixture since 1964, for a pound of rather sweet but falling-off-the-bone pork ribs (available Thursday through Saturday only). For dessert I pop into Uvalde Rexall Drug for a lime freeze. The fountain also serves creditable burgers and chalupas at prices as retro as the boomerang-patterned laminate covering the counter. After a brisk walk around the bustling town square and a short visit to the sublimely restored 1891 Janey Slaughter Briscoe Grand Opera House, I am wide awake for the drive to Brackettville.
The population definitely begins to thin out here; Brackettville is one of only two towns in Kinney County, which is a little larger than the state of Rhode Island. Such isolation must breed eccentricity, for the county can lay claim to a real fort that’s been transformed into a gated community and a fake fort that’s been transformed into a tourist attraction. Seven miles north of Brackettville on FM 674, Alamo Village—built for John Wayne’s fact-challenged 1960 epic, The Alamo, and still used for movies and commercials though it’s now up for sale—is a patently faux Old West town that attracts families and herds of burly bikers alike. As surreal as Alamo Village strikes me, it’s got nothing on Fort Clark Springs. The historic stone officers’ quarters of Fort Clark, an 1852 cavalry post, have been converted to residences, the barracks are a motel, the officers’ club is a restaurant serving fried everything, and the parade grounds are part of a golf course. The jewel of the community, the pool fed by the prolific Las Moras Springs, is reserved for members of the local homeowners association and guests of the motel.
As twilight descends, I motor into Del Rio, disappointed by the lack of low-flying jets around Laughlin Air Force Base. Del Rio has no shortage of chain motels, but for character and serenity, there’s the Villa del Rio, a bed-and-breakfast in a Mediterranean-style mansion on a tree-lined street. Next door is the Val Verde Winery, the oldest in the state, which is open for tastings and tours. (Locals recommend its port.) I tool around the downtown area, soaking up the historical limestone architecture, then stop by the Whitehead Memorial Museum, an eclectic assemblage of Western stuff, from the actual grave of Judge Roy Bean (on the grounds) to an exhibit on John R. Brinkley, the infamous goat-glands doctor, and his million-watt border radio station. The extended drought has left the level of Lake Amistad more than fifty feet below normal, but even so, all that bright blue water is a refreshing shock in the midst of so much desert. I toy with the idea of crossing the six-mile dam into Mexico, but there appears to be less than nothing on the other side.
Twenty miles down the road is Seminole Canyon State Historical Park. Even though I don’t have time for the guided tour to the park’s claim to fame—Fate Bell Cave, with pictographs dating back more than four thousand years—I stop here anyway and am impressed with the interpretive museum at the visitors center and the view of the canyon from the observation deck.
For the next few hundred miles the terrain is so colorless that the occasional wad of mistletoe is as striking as a neon beer sign. The land is dotted with spindly deer blinds that look like strange African tribal dwellings. I’m glad I brought along a picnic, because I couldn’t have asked for a more breathtaking spot for lunch than the Pecos River Overlook eighteen miles east of Langtry. The Pecos may be a silted-up trickle of its former self, but the 273-foot-high bridge spanning the canyon—the highest vehicle bridge in the state—is still an engineering phenomenon.
Wondering what kind of chutzpah it took to settle this forbidding land? All is revealed in Langtry at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, a temple to the man known, among many other things, as the Law West of the Pecos in the late nineteenth century. Hologramlike dioramas in the state-of-the-art center depict bar brawls, Bean’s fantasies about the English actress Lillie Langtry, and the world championship prize fight he held on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande. But the history isn’t all virtual; his home and original saloon-courthouse are here too, both amazingly well preserved.
On the next stretch of road, passengers tend to fall asleep, the radio scans continuously without luck, and a passing Amtrak train is almost more excitement than you can bear. The town of Sanderson seems to have surrendered to this general emptiness. As I cruise the streets on a Saturday afternoon, not a creature is stirring among the many abandoned adobe buildings.
West of Sanderson, the Housetop Mountains rise up, flanking the highway to the south, and as I approach Marathon, the colors of the landscape change from gray to pale purple and faded ocher.
Once in Marathon you can’t miss the unexpectedly stylish 1927 Gage Hotel, complete with chic Café Cenizo and the White Buffalo Bar. J. P. and Mary Jon Bryan bought the derelict property in 1978, opened the resurrected hotel in 1982, and subsequently jump-started a tourism boom in the sleepy town. The Adobe Rose Inn is a relative newcomer to the lodging and cafe scene. A restored two-story adobe on the south side of the tracks, it offers three romantic upstairs bedrooms, an outdoor whirlpool, and an inviting patio where you can nosh on quiche and other fresh-baked goodies and sip a cup of, yes, cappuccino. At the Evans Gallery, next door, photographer James Evans sells his arresting images of the region, from stormy skies to desert critters.
On the road to Alpine, the craggy Glass Mountains loom to the north. Just imagine—in these seemingly barren ridges, elk, reintroduced in the seventies, are frolicking. Texas mountains are secretive that way, hiding treasures like maples, aspen, and even bighorn sheep in their folds and shadows.
With a university and a population of 6,200, Alpine is an actual functioning town, not just a tourist stop. You’ll find a wealth (by West Texas standards) of lodging and dining options. For a mix of history and funk, you can’t beat the fourth-floor penthouse at the 1912 Holland Hotel, a cozy aerie with a rooftop deck. (Amenities include terry-cloth robes, aloe gel, and best of all, earplugs. Did I mention that the trains run all night through the towns along the Southern Pacific rail line and, as required, blow their whistles many times?) The White House Inn B&B, in a residential neighborhood, offers two elegant but homey rooms that open onto a sunny balcony, and the charming Antelope Lodge, built in the forties, has gussied-up adobe cottages with kitchenettes and front porches. As for eats, there is, of course, the renowned Reata, where the creative Southwestern cuisine is top-notch and both patrons and waitstaff have attitude to spare. Locals and savvy visitors battle the crowds at La Casita for consistently tasty Mexican food. For breakfast, I queue up early at the Bread and Breakfast Cafe and Bakery for a hot-from-the-oven sticky bun, the best I’ve ever had, then linger over a latte and the Sunday New York Times at La Tapatia.
The Museum of the Big Bend is like an iceberg: Only a small percentage of its eclectic holdings—which include antique business machines and a big-game hunter’s stuffed prey—has ever been on view. But static it’s not. Shows come and go faster than a full moon and range from artworks by Russian children to contemporary cowboy finery like silver spurs and exquisite saddles.
Don’t speed on your way to Marfa. Even if Smokey wasn’t on constant vigil here, why hurry through this spectacular scenery—craggy cliffs hugging the road and the Davis Mountains in the distance?
Driving into downtown Marfa is like entering one of those hollow sugar Easter eggs with a pastel scene inside, perhaps a bit faded by the sun. Okay, okay—maybe I’ve been on the road too long. Time to check into the Hotel Paisano, a 1930 Trost and Trost creation that’s currently undergoing a heroic face lift. A mammoth suite, a balcony, plush linens: Elizabeth Taylor didn’t have it so cush when she stayed here during the filming of Giant. Be sure to take a gander at the recently restored Presidio County Courthouse, a stately doozy even by Texas courthouse standards. If you time your trip to Marfa properly, a tour of the Chinati Foundation, with its rows of aluminum cubes by the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, is a must. But if you miss this high-concept outpost, you can sate your intellectual hunger at the Marfa Book Company, a combination coffeehouse-wine bar, eclectic bookstore, and community clearinghouse.
Head on to El Paso—if you must. The destination is fine, but the road ahead is anticlimactic. Maybe the herds of antelope, the drug blimp, the wind turbines tickling the foothills of the Davis Mountains, and the state’s sole adobe courthouse wasting away in Sierra Blanca are worth the drive. But there are also caravans of eighteen-wheelers, miles of Interstate 10 that are under construction and reduced to two lanes, and giant truck stops selling fried mystery meat. Civilization.
Can’t I stay here at the Marfa Book Company? Just park me on the bench with the green-suede cushion, give me a stack of Texas guidebooks, and come back in a week or two, why don’t you? Armchair travel is suddenly very appealing.
Adobe Rose Inn, 102 S First, Marathon; 432-386-4564; double rooms $120 to $135
Alamo Village, 7 miles north of Brackettville on FM 674; 830-563-2580; $10.75, children 6 to 11 $5, 5 and under free
Antelope Lodge, 2310 W Hwy 90, Alpine; 432-837-2451; from $40 for a double room to $84 for a suite
Bread and Breakfast Cafe and Bakery, 113 W Holland Ave, Alpine; 432-837-9424; closed Sun
Brown’s Pharmacy and Gifts, 300 N Center, Sabinal; 830-988-2312
Café Cenizo, 102 US 90, Marathon; 432-386-4437; dinner only
Chinati Foundation, 1 Cavalry Row, Marfa; 432-729-4362; tours Wed through Sun from 10-12 and Mon and Tues from 2-4. $10, students and senior citizens $5
Evans Gallery, 21 S First, Marathon; 432-386-4366
Evett’s Barbecue, 301 E Main, Uvalde; 830-278-6204; closed Sun and Mon; no credit cards
First State Bank of Uvalde, 200 E Nopal, Uvalde; 830-278-6231; tours by appointment; closed Sat and Sun
Gage Hotel, 102 US 90, Marathon; 800-884-GAGE; from $69 for a room with a shared bath to $189 for a suite
Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, 207 US 90 East, Castroville; 830-931-2118; closed Sun
Hart’s Antiques and Mesquite Furniture, 312 N Center, Sabinal; 830-988-2733
Holland Hotel, 209 W Holland Ave, Alpine; 432-837-3844; from $55 for a double room to $215 for a suite
Hotel Paisano, 207 N Highland Ave, Marfa; 866-729-3669; from $99 for a double room to $210 for a suite
Janey Slaughter Briscoe Grand Opera House, 104 W North, Uvalde; 830-278-4184; closed Sun
Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, on Loop 25S off US 90 in Langtry; 432-291-3340
La Casita, 1104 E Avenue H, Alpine; 432-837-2842; closed Sun
Landmark Inn, 402 Florence, Castroville; 830-931-2133; single rooms $100, suite $150
La Tapatia, 901 E Holland Ave, Alpine; 432-837-2200
Marfa Book Company, 105 S Highland Ave, Marfa; 432-729-3906
Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus, off US 90 East, Alpine; 432-837-8730; closed Mon
Reata, 203 N Fifth, Alpine; 432-837-9232; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, Sun lunch only
Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, 45 miles west of Del Rio off US 90; 432-292-4464; $3, children under 12 free
Uvalde Rexall Drug, 201 N Getty, Uvalde; 830-278-2589; closed Sun
Val Verde Winery, 100 Qualia Dr, Del Rio; 830-775-9714
Villa del Rio, 123 Hudson Dr, Del Rio; 830-768-1100 or 800-995-1887; from $120 for a double room with shared bath to $205 for a suite
White Buffalo Bar, in the Gage Hotel, 102 US 90, Marathon; 432-386-4437
Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1308 S Main, Del Rio; 830-774-7568; closed Mon; $5, senior citizens $4, children 13 to 18 $3, 6 to 12 $2, under 6 free
White House Inn, 2003 Fort Davis Hwy (Texas Hwy 118), one mile north of US 90, Alpine; 432-837-1401; single room $99