For many travelers, this far West Texas town is a last-chance pit stop before heading south to brave the wilds of Big Bend National Park. But, this past spring, after driving 407 miles (that’s roughly 7 hours and 143 country songs) from Austin to get here, my three friends and I were perfectly content to drop anchor in this desert oasis for a few days. Our plan: to brave nothing wilder than our TV-less hotel room. And so we spent 72 hours shopping, strolling, eating, and exploring along the short stretch of Highway 90 that makes up the town’s main drag.
Population: 430 (not counting the dozens of wild burros).
Best times to visit: Early May or late September.
Getting here: The two nearest commerical airports are Midland International Airport (about a 2.5-hour drive) and the El Paso International Airport (about a 4-hour drive). But I think the longer it takes you to drive here, the more rewarding the trip.
Known for: Majestic mountains, peace and quiet, the Gage Hotel.
Annual events: The Marathon 2 Marathon race, in October (slogan: “The hard part is getting there”). Cabrito goat cookoff, usually in September.
They’ll know you’re not from around here if…you pronounce it Mare-a-thon instead of Mare-a-thin, as the locals do.
Where to Stay
The Gage Hotel – The yellow-brick structure was built in 1927 for West Texas cattle baron and San Antonio banker Alfred S. Gage. (The architect, El Paso’s Henry Trost, also designed the iconic Hotel Paisano, in nearby Marfa.) Houston businessman J.P. Bryan bought the run-down property in 1978 and spiffed it up. There are 16 rooms in the original two-story building (some have shared baths) but, if you can, snag one of the 20 Los Portales rooms that encircle a lush courtyard. (Tip: I stayed in No. 30, but next time I’d ask for No. 29, a spacious corner room with a private patio.) Dine on lavender-marinated elk medallions at the 12 Gage restaurant or raise a margarita topped off with Topo Chico in the White Buffalo Bar. (Tip: On slow weekday nights, the kitchen may close before you get there, so make a reservation to let them know you’re coming.)
Where to Eat
Marathon Coffee Shop – Bottomless cups of pour-your-own coffee, breakfast enchiladas (stuffed with green chiles and onions), and cinnamon rolls the size of a saucer. Service can be a bit slow on busy weekends, but that’s because it’s beloved by locals and out-of-towners alike. Johnny B’s Soda Fountain – The migas, huevos rancheros, and Trash Can burritos (eggs, hashbrowns, pico, bacon, sausage, and more) make for the best breakfast in town. For lunch, a burger wrapped in a flour tortilla and a pineapple milk shake were unexpected, but tasty, treats. (Random fact: The owner used to be the local constable.) Burnt Biscuit Bakery (photo above) – Sugar-dusted fried pies in a dozen flavors (including blackberry, pecan, and jalapeño). Biscuits, served on a Dixie plate, come laden with gravy and heaped with sausage. [Read reviews of Marathon restaurants in the Texas Monthly dining guide.]
Evans Gallery (pictured above) – Like many of the folks you’ll meet here, photographer James H. Evans is an expat—in his case, from Austin. For the past 23 years he’s lugged his camera through the desert to take photos of stunning and sun-soaked vistas, which are available in this sleek, well-lit space as framed and unframed prints. If you prefer fauna to landscapes, Evans (a TEXAS MONTHLY contributor) has silk-screened images of horned toads, tarantulas, javelinas, and other underappreciated animals onto pillowcases and T-shirts, as part of his Desert Critter Wear line.
Front Street Books – Though smaller than its sister store, in nearby Alpine, this indie shop requires a significant chunk of time to sift through all of its gems. I was able to fill a few gaps in my personal library, by stocking up on classic Texas titles, including I’ll Gather My Geese, frontierswoman Hallie Stillwell’s city-girl-gone-country autobiography, and Federico Villalba’s Texas, an account of a Mexican pioneer’s Lone Star life. We whiled away the afternoon reading local trail maps and scanning the back-room shelves for 50-cent paperback westerns. Klepper Gallery – West Texas is a natural haven for artists like E. Dan Klepper, a San Antonio native who has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an enthusiasm for the outdoors (he’s the author of 100 Classic Hikes in Texas). His vividly hued photographs, which he prints onto canvases that range in size from a modest two-feet-by-two-feet to panoramas that would almost cover a queen-size bed, offer stirring snapshots of enormous cumulonimbus clouds, imposing mountains, and multicolored horizons.
Explore the Gage Gardens – If there’s not a wedding or other soiree being held in this 26-acre desert garden (pictured above), wander over to these surprisingly lush grounds just across the railroad tracks. We happily meandered along the quarter-mile walking path, which takes you past a pond, a putting green, a vineyard, an orchard, and dozens of native plants and trees, all thoughtfully labeled (my plant identification skills, I realized, are lacking). Birdgaze or stargaze at Post Park – This is still on my Texas To Do List, as we didn’t get a chance to explore this cottonwood-shaded park about 5 miles south of town. But I hear it’s a good spot to spot birds (since it’s on the banks of a natural spring) and stars (since there aren’t a bunch of “city” lights to muck up your view). Dig up really old things in the Crinoids Hills – I wouldn’t know a brachiopod from a trilobite, but I’d still like to embark on a hunt of my own in this fossil-fertile area 5 miles west of Marathon. I tried to read through this (likely) insightful guide to the “Geology of Big Bend National Park,” but I decided I’d rather just be out fossiling.
Read: Frontierswoman Hallie Stillwell’s I’ll Gather My Geese, Barton Warnock’s Wildflowers of the Davis Mountains and the Marathon Basin. And, from the Texas Monthly archives: “Marathon Man” – a 1998 profile of Gage Hotel owner J.P. Bryan by Kathryn Jones; “Hallie and Farewell” – a 1997 tribute to West Texas frontierswoman Hallie Stillwell by Helen Thorpe; “Home on the Range?” – Nate Blakeslee’s April 2012 on the controversial Texas Parks and Wildlife program to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the mountains of far West Texas.
Follow: @trailgirl, for fun West Texas adventure ideas. (There seems to be a lack of good West Texas–focused tweeters to follow. Looks like @BigBendNow hasn’t tweeted in a year. Anybody got any hot tips?)
Watch: This awesome YouTube video of a drive along US 90 from Marathon (don’t blink or you’ll miss it in the first 12 seconds!) to Pecos.
Bring: A cooler for drinks, slippers (the saltillo-tile floors in the Los Portales rooms at the Gage get chilly at night), a sun hat.