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.
Fatigued travelers like me have been grateful for this two-story yellow-brick building since 1927, but the former railroad hotel has become particularly inviting in more recent years thanks to J. P. Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon, who bought the then-fixer-upper in 1978. After a couple of major face-lifts and a few adobe additions, the 45-room property has been aging as gracefully as the well-to-do clientele who come to recharge in the beautiful rooms, bask by the pool, sip Topo Chico–topped margaritas in the White Buffalo Bar, and dine on hearty classics from the comfort of a cowhide chair in the 12 Gage restaurant.
As for us, sitting by the fireplace out on the patio, we fell fully under the spell of chef Brandon Waddell, who eschews flair to emphasize flavor and freshness. Our sugar-cured quail, brightened by a puddle of tomatillo salsa, was a simple, succulent little starter, and my hazelnut-crusted elk tenderloin had a terrific parsnip-maple mash as its wingman (not that it required one). After caramel-soaked flan, all I needed was someone to carry me to bed and tell me what time to be up for breakfast. As of this past summer, the fifteen original guest rooms—which I’d always found to be a little too, um, historic—have been freshened up significantly: new furniture, new bathrooms, the works. During this visit, we snagged one half of the Captain Shepard carriage house, also recently renovated, where we found a speckled Longhorn mount over our fireplace and a baroque triptych of the Madonna and two angels on our headboard. That night, I dreamed that our rental car wouldn’t start. The next afternoon, I felt a jab of disappointment when it did. —Jordan Breal
Eat: Dinner nightly. Entrées $18–$45. Reservations recommended. 102 NW U.S. 90, 432-386-4205.
Stay: Rates range from $100 to $300 and include a coffee-and-muffin breakfast. Large groups should consider booking the remodeled five-room Captain Shepard house.
Play: With a little prior arranging, you can enjoy a picnic lunch in the 27-acre garden or an evening of stargazing in nearby Sky Park, which is equipped with a 24-inch Dobsonian telescope on loan from the McDonald Observatory. There’s also a handful of antiques shops and galleries on the town’s main drag, as well as in nearby Alpine. And since you’re here, you may as well trek the 40 miles south to Big Bend National Park.