Q: I’ve lived in Houston for the past 39 of my 65 years. After this length of time, I consider myself a proud Houstonian and loyal Texan. I’ve taken numerous trips throughout this great state over the years, to places like Austin, San Antonio, the Hill Country, and my favorite of all, North Padre Island. It’s hard to beat the Padre Island National Seashore in the summer. I’ve never been to Big Bend, though, so I have planned a road trip during the end of February. I’ve seen the pictures in Texas Monthly and checked out the internet for information. Any tips you might have for a first-time traveler to that region? I’ll be staying in Terlingua.
Luke Rifkin, Houston
A: If the Texanist were to make a list of all of life’s great pleasures, a good road trip would sit right up there near the top. Really, is there anything better than rousting the inner nomad, packing up the ol’ horseless carriage, and hitting the trail, leaving the stress and workaday worries in the dust-filled rearview mirror, with nothing but adventure and good times ahead? Wait, let the Texanist answer his own question: There is not.
And as Texas is blessed with more roadway miles than any other state in the Union, it is, as luck would have it, the road trip capital of the U.S.A. Borrowing from that classic Robert Earl Keen tune, the road in Texas goes on forever … and the variety in destination choices for gallivanting never ends. Congratulations to you, lucky traveler. The Texanist is a little jealous.
But even though Padre Island can get a little crazy in the summertime, it appears that you’ve played it pretty safe thus far. The Big Bend region is, perhaps, the greatest of all of Texas’s great road trips, and, if the Texanist’s math is correct, you’ve resided in Texas for well more than half of your lifetime, nearly forty years. What’s taken so long? Maybe you had a house full of young kids who you found to be a challenge on long car trips. Maybe you were desert averse. Maybe you were saving the best for last. Whatever your reasoning, it’s not important now. The Texanist is sure you have your reasons.
What is important is your forthcoming trip. You’ve done some research, which is good. This magazine, as you have noticed, is no stranger to Big Bend. Through the years, in both photographs and words, it has been covered fairly thoroughly. And, as you have also likely noticed, there’s plenty of good travel info to be found along the information superhighway.
To nutshell some of the available data: Terlingua, the tiny former quicksilver mining camp turned ghost town turned obscure tourist destination turned Chili Capitol of the World, sits way out in the furthest reaches of remote far West Texas, right smack between the massive Big Bend Ranch State Park (310,000 acres) and the massiver Big Bend National Park (801,000 acres). A person could spend a lifetime In these two behemoths hiking, camping, canoeing, river floating, wildlife viewing, and participating in interpretive activities. The Texanist suggests taking advantage of these jewels to your heart’s content.
In Terlingua proper you’ll want to hit the charming Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon and the charmingly weird semi-subterranean La Kiva bar. And be sure to catch a sundown from “the porch” out in front of the Starlight and the adjoining Terlingua Trading Company. The beautiful pink and orange brilliance cast upon the distant Chisos Mountains is a sight you’ll not soon forget. Tiny Lajitas, right on the Rio Grande, is nearby and you’ll want to stop by the general store there to have an audience with the beer-drinking mayor, Clay Henry III, a goat. Yes, you heard the Texanist right.
And, as you’ve read, be sure to bring along your passport for the most affordable international adventure you’ve ever dreamed of. From inside the national park, for a pittance, you can daytrip over to the charming and quaint Mexican village of Boquillas for a little lunch, a little beer, and little shopping. Just show up at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry, scratch your chin at the thought of a border wall, and then hop in the $5 (US) roundtrip rowboat (powered by an experienced oarsman) and head on over to Old Mexico for a spell. Once across, there are optional modes of transportation for the rest of the quarter-mile or so trip into the village: Horse ($8 roundtrip), burro ($5 roundtrip), or walk (free). The Texanist likes the aromatic authenticity of the bumpy burro and highly recommends this choice. Once back across to the U.S. side, check in at the kiosk and partake in the remarkably brief and easy federal reentry rigmarole.
Another favorite activity of Big Bend goers is driving the famed River Road (FM 170) between Lajitas and Presidio. The Texanist, a longtime fan of scenic vistas, can attest to the stunningness of this drive. And then, since you’ve come this far (It’s 654 miles from Houston to Terlingua), why not head on up US Highway 67 to Marfa to view the hipsters, over to Fort Davis to visit the out-of-this-world McDonald Observatory, and then back to Terlingua via Alpine, home of the Museum of the Big Bend? You could do it all in a day, but you could also take a week or more. Since you’re driving, the Texanist will leave it up to you.
All of this, of course, is just the tiny tip of the Big Bend iceberg of activity. We’ve barely scratched the surface. But there is one tip the Texanist will give you, and it is likely something you have not found in your research—because it wouldn’t make for a very compelling read on its own: Though you should absolutely take in the flora and the fauna, the geography and the geology, the hiking, the biking, climbing, canoeing, driving, eating, drinking, dancing, and sightseeing, you should also do yourself the favor of taking plenty of time to just do nothing but wallow for long silent moments in the immense vastness of it all.
One more thing: The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they’re even bigger and even brighter way out on its far-flung parts.
Happy trails, lucky rambler.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available at [email protected] Write to him there and be sure to tell him where you’re from.
A version of this is published in the March 2018 issue.