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On the Mountain Trail

Destination: Van Horn

By Dan Oko

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 6.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 10 hours /
  • Dallas - 7.5 hours /
  • El Paso - 1.75 hours /
  • Houston - 8.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 5.75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 4.5 hours /

In addition to amazing mountain views, Van Horn offers surprises ranging from Van Gogh knock-offs to John Madden’s favorite dish.

I am standing above the surreal red rock formations of the aptly named Red Rock Ranch just a stone’s throw from the town of Van Horn. As the sun gradually recedes behind the western mountains, it ushers in the so-called “magic hour,” a beatifically photogenic period of day that provokes rapture in landscape photographers worldwide. And it is a magical scene unfolding before me — the rocks bathed in soft hues of gold and orange, with tall trees in the distance coming up for air from between deep crevices carved by hidden streams. These dark cottonwoods and oaks dotting the largely treeless high desert of yucca and sotol reveal the presence of life-giving water just out of sight.

My guide is Darice McVay, who grew up in Van Horn and whose mother lives at the ranch with her rattlesnake-sniffing dog and a shotgun at the ready for unwelcome intruders — both the two-legged kind and those with no legs at all. One wag has said that McVay, who spent the heyday of the Cosmic Cowboys era promoting music in Austin, is land rich and cash poor. Yet, there is no way to calculate any real earthly value for the panorama before us. We’re joined briefly by a trio of mule deer, including a handsome six-pointer with antlers in velvet — a nice treat for me, a visitor used to seeing stunted Hill Country whitetails in and around Austin.

The McVay spread includes an 1880 homestead and has been featured in films such as Blue Sky, for which Jessica Lange won an Oscar in 1995 (playing the wife of West Texas native Tommy Lee Jones), and the 1996 miniseries Dead Man’s Walk, based on Larry McMurtry’s prequel to Lonesome Dove about the early days of his most famous fictional heroes, Gus and Call. Tours of the Red Rock Ranch can be undertaken on foot or by four-wheel-drive, which is how I travel the ranch, hopping in and out of McVay’s truck to explore the outcroppings of billion-year-old sandstone that give the property its name. It’s a cinematic landscape indeed, reminiscent of the cosmic red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and practically unmatched in Texas from a geological standpoint. The springs on the property also support a variety of wildlife, including quail, mountain lion and a modest herd of reintroduced bighorn sheep, once a common sight in Texas’ far western hills. At one point, McVay and I spy a pair skittering almost spider-like across the cliffs.

Most drivers passing through West Texas along Interstate 10 barely notice Van Horn, but even a brief visit can lead to surprising discoveries. Red Rock Ranch, for instance, holds pictographs dating back thousands of years hidden in the arroyos between the Beach Mountains bordering the property to the north and the Carrizo Range to the south. The ranch tour turns out to be a highlight of my visit to this small town, which is about 120 miles east of El Paso. Van Horn is also the unofficial gateway to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, 86,416 acres of wilderness popular year-round with backpackers. To fully appreciate Van Horn, a real mountain town situated at 4,000 feet above sea level, it helps to slow down. Rather than chasing the trucks making time between Houston and LA, Van Horn offers a change of pace. It’s a place where holing up is a fine alternative to keeping on.

Stop. Look around. If Texas is a whole other country, as the saying goes, then West Texas obviously deserves to be considered its own state. And despite the fact that it is neither big nor flashy, Van Horn is a town ripe to be recognized as the capital of West Texas. “It’s true we don’t get the Holly-wood types or Houston millionaires,” one local said during my recent trip. But despite the fact that Van Horn has not enjoyed the sort of boom that has changed the face of Marfa, a town with a lively arts scene and upscale eateries, nor suffered the sort of development seen in tiny Lajitas close to Big Bend, where dudes pay big bucks to play cowboy at a brand-new 25,000-acre resort just beyond the banks of the Rio Grande, there’s no reason that the rest of us should stay away.

The Texas Mountain Trail is part of a state tourism program that covers six counties and touches on the majority of public land in West Texas, including lots and lots of mountains. Van Horn bills itself as the Crossroads of the Texas Mountain Trail. Be they motorists, bikers or bicyclists, travelers enraptured by the big skies of West Texas can enjoy Van Horn’s proximity to popular recreational destinations such as Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks, the Davis Mountains and Big Bend Ranch state parks, not to mention mountain neighbors such as Alpine and Marathon.

Texas Mountain Trail visitors who stay in Van Horn are even helping to preserve what’s left of a distinct rural community, explains Jeff McCoy of the Van Horn Economic Development Corporation. McCoy is a native son of El Paso, but after nearly a decade in Van Horn (he married into the community), he says he is still considered the “new guy.” Regardless, McCoy has a stake in the future of Van Horn and is working closely with Beth Nobles, another local newcomer, who overseas the Texas Mountain Trails program from its Van Horn headquarters. The pair is working hard to figure out the best ways to promote tourism in Van Horn, top to bottom. “We’re exploring the development opportunities to make it an A-list destination,” McCoy tells me over lunch at the Blue Quail, a new Southwestern bistro in town. “But the nuances of the geography and the desert climate should help keep us from getting too developed.”

Van Horn was founded in the 1800s and immediately benefited from the discovery of deep water wells nearby. Regional Indian tribes already knew about the area’s water resources, but they were chased out by the time the Texas & Pacific Railroad was completed in 1881. The whole orientation of the town has shifted twice since then, first when the Old Spanish Trail, an early motor road, replaced the railway as the primary travel route across the region, and again when I-10 was constructed a block south of Broadway, the main street. Van Horn has managed to survive in the meantime by offering a rest stop for weary travelers, and propping up the economy on the back of natural resource use, such as talc mines. Lately, movie making has been one of the industries added to the economic mix.

As it heads north away from town, Highway 54 crosses what was once the floor of a great inland sea. Texas has few stretches of mountain highway more lovely or lonely. You won’t find many billboards or houses in this rugged landscape. In both directions, the road offers sublime views of Capitan Reef, a 400-mile-long marine formation that hugs the Pecos River basin and is capped by the highest point in Texas: Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet. The reef reemerges from the earth’s crust just beyond the outskirts of Van Horn as part of the Apache Mountains — from home plate on the new Little League field you can look out at this awesome geological phenomenon.

During my time in Van Horn, I drive to the national park to take advantage of the rarely crowded campgrounds. Each time I have visited the park, which was established by President Johnson back in 1966, I have uncovered a different personality. During the summer, the Guadalupe Mountains offer a respite from the desert heat (another cooling option is to visit the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park, which is about 60 miles from town). When I am there, the quarter moon is waxing, not yet bright enough to wash out the Milky Way spilling across the sky. This latest trip, the environs feel like an old friend’s embrace. Coyotes come to the edge of my camp and a sleek racer snake crosses my path, slithering beneath a pencil cactus while I hold my breath and hope for a second glimpse. Years ago, my first Guadalupe trip was in early winter. A petulant storm coated the spiny blue agave and the red-skinned Texas madrone trees with several inches of snow. That first morning, I found myself in Wonderland.

Back in town, I uncover a wonder of another sort: The Van Gogh Gallery of Texas on East Broadway, which is run by a 50-something painter who calls himself Ran Horn. Randell Horn is a self-taught artist from Odessa who for 10 years has been living in Van Horn and painting “knock-offs” of the great Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh. The paintings have sold to art collectors, lucky passersby who stumble upon the gallery, and even celebrities, including the country music star Dwight Yoakum, who was in town during the filming of Tommy Lee Jones’ 2005 independent project The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The storefront studio space is filled with bric-a-brac and books. Dogs sleep on the floor. But the paintings are bona fide showstoppers. Horn has got the Van Gogh style down. In addition to copies of Van Gogh’s most famous works, several original oils tackle surreal or difficult subjects — Joe Camel’s Autopsy is an emblematic title. Yet these colorful paintings are imbued with an amiable naiveté.

When I question Ran Horn about his impression of the high-rolling scenesters in Marfa, he tells me he prefers being a big fish in a small pond. “There, I would just be another artist,” Horn says. “Here, I still think it’s true that if you address a letter to the ‘Artist in Van Horn,’ I would probably get it.”

Van Horn and its residents seem to share a certain no-nonsense instinct for survival. I’m reminded of the small ferns that Darice McVay had showed me a few days before. They were growing in the fissures of the red rock, where soot from Apache fires still stains the sandstone. “If we hit them with a little spray bottle, they would come right back,” McVay said. That’s why they’re called resurrection ferns.

Details

  • The Texas Mountain Trail (432-284-0002; www.texasmountaintrail.com/)
  • Van Horn Chamber of Commerce (432-283-2043, www.vanhorntexas.org/)
  • Red Rock Ranch Tours (800-735-6911)
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park (915-828-3251, www.nps.gov/gumo/)
  • Ran Horn’s Van Gogh Gallery, 202 E. Broadway (no phone, vangoghtx.com/)
  • Holiday Inn Express (432-283-7444, www.hiexpress.com)
  • Chuy’s Restaurant is Van Horn’s most famous establishment, a Mexican café favored by NFL commentator John Madden, who crisscrosses the country by bus during football season. The menu says that the chicken picado is Madden’s favorite dish; the food is tasty, but it is the announcer’s “Haul of Fame” that draws the crowds. (432-283-2066)
  • A popular new option is the Blue Quail Coffee Shop, open Tuesday-Saturday. Enjoy brisket sandwiches, old-fashioned banana splits and an adobe courtyard. (432-283-2262).
  • Other dining options include the Sands Restaurant and Hotel, featured in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada movie. The Sands has steaks hand-cut to order, Tex-Mex and American standards. (432-283-9824)

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