Ed. Note: Read about Day 1 of our West Texas travels here.
Hotel hunting in Del Rio doesn't turn out as I expected. Our guidebook recommends Amistad Lodge, a place built in the 1960s right on the water of Lake Amistad, with porches that face the lake. It's a bit north of town but the book says it's been nicely renovated while still keeping that mid-century roadside charm. Unfortunately, winter is not peak season for Del Rio tourism, and though their website says their office closes at 6 p.m., no one answers when I call at 5:45. We drive out there anyway, just to have a look, and the place is deserted.
The city is much bigger than I thought it would be, so we're able to find a nice room at a chain motel with free wifi. Soon we'll be in cell hell, so we check our email and do some work online.
As we were driving around we passed a restaurant by the lake called Cripple Creek, advertising prime rib as a specialty, so we head there for dinner. The prime rib was indeed excellent, especially their horseradish sauce, and my companion, who orders a sirloin shish-kabob, enjoys his meal too. Unfortunately, steaks are about all they do right. I drink literally the worst margarita I've ever had in my life there, and the baked potatoes are old and dry.
It is weird to arrive in a new city at night and then see it revealed during the day. I desperately want to go to Mexico. I've heard Ciudad Acuña is about the safest and most interesting of the border towns, but my travel companion has not brought his passport. Maybe next time. Instead, we head north, chased by a fast-moving cold front, into the fog.
In the summer Del Rio must be hoppin'. Amistad is supposed to be the best bass-fishing lake in the world, and the potential for other water sports is huge since we're right on the cusp of the Chuhuahuan Desert. The lake looks very large. I hear it's popular with divers -- there is a cave there filled with ancient pictographs that is only accessible by water.
About 30 miles north of the lake we stop at Seminole Canyon State Park, on a branch of the Pecos River. The park features several miles of hiking trails along with excellent camping. A ranger-guided six-mile hike takes you down to the base of the canyon to see larger-than-life petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) from three different eras, including one period so different from the rest experts wonder if its creators were an entirely different civilization.
Archeologists have found evidence from bison jumps, including the bones of a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years, indicating how just how long humans have lived in the region. Unfortunately, it was too damn cold to take the ranger tour, so we walked around the small but well-designed museum instead. A bargain at $3 a person.
We cross the jade-green Pecos River and pull off the highway to have a look at the spectacular Eagle Nest Creek. It catches my eye as we zoom past so I ask my travel companion to turn around. I don't like heights, but standing on the highway with this empty bowl of limestone below me is thrilling.
In Sanderson we stop for lunch and I have a jalapeno bacon cheeseburger in a trailer cafe. It is hot and delicious. A fellow traveler warns us there is fog ahead. Just outside of Sanderson we hit it: 20-foot visibility from Sanderson until Marathon. When the fog finally clears, the scenery has changed. I see mountains in the distance.
In Marathon we drive past the iconic Gage Hotel and discover a backstreet filled with organic grocers and hippie B&Bs. Alpine is much bigger -- it's a college town, and it's also becoming a model for sustainability in Texas, with a farmer's market, huge recycling program and an emphasis on shopping local. Not that there's anywhere else to shop. The next closest town is Marfa.
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SHOW ME HOW
I have wanted to go to Marfa since the day I moved to Texas. I'm sad it took so long. We check into our hotel, The Thunderbird, which is a bit overpriced at $100 a night, but I'm willing to pay that much to ensure old hotels like the 'Bird don't get turned into Comfort Inns. The other big hotel in town, the famous Paisano, where Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed while filming Giant, starts at a slightly higher price. At the Thunderbird, amenities offered in our room include a Lomography camera, a t-shirt, Mexican Coke and dried chili mangoes.
I don't know if it's the economy or the season but Marfa is dead and half the galleries I want to visit are closed. Instead, we head north past Ft. Davis to the McDonald Observatory for one of their nightly star parties. The fog has burned off and the drive north is fantastically lit by the full moon that night. We wind higher and higher above the fort -- Ft. Davis is the highest town in Texas -- to the observatory, where $10 gets us an outdoor lecture on the visible constellations, an indoor presentation on the winter sky, and as many glimpses as we can muster in the freezing night through the facility's many telescopes. On the way back south we circle downtown Ft. Davis before heading out to view the infamous Marfa lights. On another trip, I plan to return to the fort and take a tour.
The Marfa Lights hold a lot of appeal for me. I want to believe in them, and I'm eager to visit the newly-built viewing center off Highway 90, despite the fact that it's 10 degrees and windy. I'm sad to see that the lights are pretty obviously just headlights in the distance. They don't even look like anything more spectacular than that. It's obvious. So five minutes later, back to town we go.
We need to warm up so we swing by the Paisano's bar for drinks, but the barkeep is just closing up shop. He directs us "across the tracks" to Padre's, the bar owned by former Houstonian David Beebe. Beebe, a partner in The Continental Club, bought an Airstream trailer, moved to Marfa a few years ago, and ran for city council. Now he splits his time between Marfa, Austin and Houston. At his bar, I finally have a decent (better than decent, actually) margarita, and later a hot toddy. I trade buttered rum recipes with the bartender, who tells me no one in Marfa can make a margarita or Mexican food right. Duly noted.