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Land O'Lights

Destination: Marfa

By Robert Macias

Head way out west for mega-hot springs and ultra-cool people - but don't forget your spare keys.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 8 hours /
  • Brownsville - 11 hours /
  • Dallas - 9 hours /
  • El Paso - 3.25 hours /
  • Houston - 10 hours /
  • San Antonio - 6.75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 5.75 hours

Leave it to those sneaky New Yorkers to begin their invasion of Texas in the last place anyone would be looking: Marfa. They’re buying houses, opening art galleries, and demanding better coffee. Yet, as I drive along Highland Avenue, it looks just like any other small town in Texas, with a beautifully restored courthouse surrounded by small shops. The signs on the shops, however, begin to reveal Marfa’s evolving identity. Where other towns would have Frank’s Firearms or the Nothing But Bunnies Gift Shop, Marfa has Galleri Urbane, the Marfa Studio of Arts and the Midtown Marfa Gallery of Contemporary Art.

As much as I’d like to spend time exploring the galleries, I remind myself that we’re on a tight schedule and, after all, I don’t work for Texas Arts & Wildlife magazine. I do peek into one cavernous gallery, one of several unnamed art spaces around town owned by the late Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, where the artwork consists of widely spaced, neatly piled parts off of junk cars. Who knew that the only thing separating a junkyard and an art gallery was better presentation?

The foyer of the circa-1930 Hotel Paisano, our headquarters for this mission, is lined with memorabilia from the movie “Giant.” James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed here in 1955 while they were making the epic movie. In July, the Marfa Chamber of Commerce will host an event at the hotel celebrating the 50th anniversary of the making of the film.

As interesting as the history of the hotel is, after an 8-hour drive from Austin, it can’t compete with the appeal of a hot shower. The cozy, antique-filled room is about a hundred times more classy and comfortable than most accommodations you’ll find in this remote region. On the downside, the rooms have no telephones, and cell phones have a bad habit of not working in these parts.

Before setting out on our first adventure the next morning, my girlfriend Karen and I head to the Marfa Book Co., which is also a coffee shop, wine bar and center of the odd cultural universe that is Marfa. There is nary a soul on the street, but the scene is hopping inside the bookstore. Young hipsters tapping on laptops and aging hippies alternately mingle and ignore each other, some speaking languages that sound nothing at all like a West Texas drawl. As we leave, I overhear this exchange between two of the computer-wielding youngsters:

“So are you living here now?”

“Oh, yes, I live here…and New York.”

Armed with strong coffee and still slightly befuddled by what we’ve just witnessed, we make the two-hour drive to Terlingua through the Del Norte mountains. The whole region is greener than usual, thanks to last year’s higher-than-average rainfall. According to Mike Sullins, a TPWD biologist based in Alpine, the area averages about 14 inches of rain per year, but some parts of Big Bend Country received almost 40 inches last year. We pass small groups of muledeer enjoying the browse and grasses that are flourishing because of the rainfall.

In Terlingua, we’re greeted by Greg Hennington, the cheerful and feverishly multitasking proprietor of Far Flung Adventures. The company hosts Jeep tours as well as full- and half-day Rio Grande rafting trips. We’re signed up for a leisurely half-day float. Although it lacks the drama of going through a canyon, the half-day excursion is ideal for first-time rafters or families with children since there is no whitewater involved.

After a bumpy van ride from Far Flung’s office to the Rio Grande, the slow-moving water at the river-access point at Madera Canyon is a welcome sight. Along with six other floaters, we learn the fine points of loading ourselves butt-first into the rafts from guides William Hennessy and Kelly Kruyshoop. Karen and I end up in Hennessy’s raft, along with another couple from Austin.

Hennessy, a self-described mountain climber moonlighting as a river guide, shares his knowledge of the area as he rows. He points out that there are more than 450 species of birds in the Big Bend region — a cardinal-like pyrrhuloxia darts in front of the raft as if on cue. On the Mexico side, we’re looking into the state of Chihuahua. On the U.S. side, we’re cruising along the edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park. Hennessy explains that what appears to be dirty snow on the side of the nearby Bofecillos Mountains is actually a volcanic rock known as tuff that’s so delicate it can crumble in your hands.

The water on this part of the river is only about 6 inches deep. As we approach an even shallower stretch, Hennessy initially suggests that we all get out so he can get past the rough spot with a lighter load. Instead, he decides to take a vote. In another sign that an ill-informed populace weakens the very premise of democracy, the gung-ho passengers, including myself, all say “Go for it!” — and we immediately get stuck on the rocks. A slightly red-faced Hennessy hops out and pushes, instructing us to bounce on the edges of the raft. Soon we’re free and inching down the river again. Learning from our mistake, Kruyshoop unloads the passengers from her raft and sails over the rocks, further humiliating our guide.

Eager to change the subject, Hennessy launches into a diatribe about salt cedar (tamarisk), the water-guzzling tree that lines both banks of the river. Originally planted in the 1800s to curb erosion, the non-native trees are now choking the river, with each tree consuming up to 60 gallons of water per day. The leaves of the tree secrete salt, causing an increase in the salinity of the surrounding soil. The salt concentration has made the environment uninhabitable by many native plant species, and the wildlife that was dependent on those plants for food is long gone too.

While several salt-cedar eradication strategies are currently being studied, including everything from herbicide sprayed from airplanes to ravenous goats, some biologists have high hopes for the humble salt cedar leaf beetle (Diorhabda elongata). Inside a large, fine-mesh tent at an undisclosed location nearby, the next phase of a controlled-release experiment is about to begin. Late last summer, beetle larvae were released inside a large tent full of salt cedar trees, but the larvae may not have had enough time to fully develop before winter set in, according to Mark Muegge, a Texas A&M entomology specialist based in Fort Stockton. The next step is to see how many survived the winter, Muegge says. While there’s no doubt that the beetles love to munch on salt cedar, it’s still unclear how well they can deal with Texas weather or how effective they will be for large-scale salt-cedar control, Muegge adds.

For now, the trees continue to suck the Rio Grande nearly dry, making our half-day float even lower-key than we had expected. Near the end of the trip, we all get excited when we enter some “gallops,” as Hennessy refers to the oh-so-slightly accelerated current.

Back at Far Flung’s office, we prepare to begin our trek back to Marfa. I go to unlock the glove compartment of my car to retrieve my wallet and — crack! — my key breaks in half! Of course, my only other key is back in Austin. In a stunned daze, both Karen and I stumble back into the office and Greg Hennington listens patiently as we momentarily lose our minds. Maybe we could have the other key sent overnight by FedEx? There’s really no such thing as overnight service in Terlingua, Hennington tells us diplomatically. What about glue? Do you have any Super Glue? What about a locksmith?

Hennington retrieves a bottle of Gorilla Glue from the back. As I busy myself trying to glue the two pieces of the key together, Hennington starts making calls. He reaches Dean Tedford, the closest locksmith — who lives three hours away in Fort Stockton. It’s inconceivable to me that any locksmith would drive that far, so I just squeeze a little tighter on the now-gooey key. Hennington hangs up the phone and says Tedford will “think about it,” but first he has to finish his dinner. I squeeze the key still tighter. I think the glue might just be working. I let off the pressure just a little, and the two pieces slide apart.

Finally, Tedford calls back. Three long hours later, the nice old man shows up and saves the day. While it was a pricey lesson to learn, I’m comforted by the fact that I’ve helped Tedford pay for a badly needed new hip.

We hit the road back to Marfa, and it’s about 1 a.m. when we come upon the Marfa Lights viewing area. The place is eerily silent and deserted except for some foraging rabbits. At first I don’t see any lights at all, but then Karen points out two pairs of lights almost at ground level near the horizon. They just look like distant headlights. But then one of them turns blue, appears to float upward and merges with the light next to it. Viewing them through the zoom lens on the video camera, the lights become far more spectacular. The blue one reminds me of the bad special effects in the original Star Trek series, a wobbly ellipse of blue light. For a few seconds, it looks as though something is revolving around its core, like those animations from high school science of electrons orbiting the core of an atom. Then the light darts out of frame, stops abruptly, and turns bright white again. When a Border Patrol truck pulls up next to us with its lights off, we both jump. It moves on, but we decide that maybe this isn’t the best place to be in the middle of the night.

The next morning, we wake up late and realize our schedule is blown. Some hard choices have to be made. I’d hoped to head north to Ft. Davis to go horseback riding and check out the McDonald Observatory. Yet I’ve also been hearing about Chinati Hot Springs for years, and I’m dying to go there. After the stress of the “key incident,” we both decide the lure of the relaxing hot springs is simply irresistible.

We end up taking the long way down Highway 67 to the springs because, well, sometimes I don’t pay attention like I should. At Presidio, we head north along 170 toward Ruidosa. At a bend in the road, a decrepit but noble-looking old building appears directly ahead of us. It is the 100-year-old Sagrado Corazon Mission, one of the last remaining arched adobe structures in West Texas, according to the Texas Historical Commission. The commission recently awarded a $30,000 grant to save the building — and not a moment too soon. An arch above one of the doorways recently collapsed, and the structure itself remains unstable. Local volunteers will assist with the stabilization effort, including helping out with the labor-intensive process of creating new adobe bricks. The commission hopes to turn the mission into an educational center that will help draw tourists to the region.

Just a few more miles away, down a bumpy gravel road, we’re greeted by a pack of dogs at the entrance to Chinati Hot Springs. Watch out for the little one, Hominy. He’s got a bit of a Napoleon complex. Caretaker David Sines comes out to say hello and gives us a tour. The five rustic cabins are small but comfortable. El Presidente is the only one with an attached hot mineral bath. The other indoor baths are in a separate building, and there’s a large outdoor hot tub in the community area between the cabins. We opt for the outdoor tub. The 109-degree water has an instant calming effect. After a while, a couple of locals show up and join us in the tub. They’re friendly, but it’s clear that they’re none too thrilled that I’m writing a story about the place. They’ve just been popping by for years, and they dread the time when they’ll have to make reservations to enjoy what they see as their hot springs.

After soaking for a couple of hours, we’re about as relaxed as we can get, and our fingers look like big red prunes. We say our goodbyes and head out, and this time, thanks to a large sign, I actually find the right road back to Marfa, Highway 2810, also known as Pinto Canyon Road.

The winding gravel road offers some of the best scenery in Texas. At sundown, it’s particularly amazing as light plays off the side of mountains. Tricks of light, it seems, are all around you day and night in West Texas. As we reach the top of a hill and see a golden valley stretched out before us, I’m reminded of an article I read recently about dreams. It explored the theory that nighttime dreams are little more than the mind’s chaotic attempt at reshuffling and organizing the thoughts of the day. I wonder whether the Marfa Lights may be a kind of cosmic afterburner, leftover bursts of energy from the astounding light shows that happen every day in this extraordinary part of Texas.

For More Information

Marfa Chamber of Commerce:
<www.marfacc.com>
(800) 650-9696
Paisano Hotel:
<www.hotelpaisano.com>
(866) 729-3669
Far Flung Adventures:
<www.texasriver.com>
(800) 839-7238
Chinati Hot Springs:
<www.chinatihotsprings.org>
(432) 229-4165
Texas Historical Commission:
<www.thc.state.tx.us>
(512) 463-6100
Chinati Foundation
<www.chinati.org>
(432) 729-4362
Tedford Key and Lock Service
(432) 336-3278
309 N. Nelson St.
Fort Stockton, TX 79735

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