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Wide Spot in the Road

Destination: Marathon

Travel time from:
Austin – 5.5 hours
Dallas – 6.75 hours
El Paso – 3.5 hours
Houston – 7.5 hours
San Antonio – 5 hours
Lubbock – 4 hours

Marathon’s more than just a tiny dot on a map of West Texas.

By Melissa Gaskill

Folks commonly call a place “nothing more than a wide spot in the road” with the intent to disparage it, the words implying that little happens there, no need to stop. Marathon, just east of Alpine and north of Big Bend National Park, physically resembles little more than a wide spot on U.S. Highway 90, but plenty goes on here to make it worth lingering.

Back in 1879, a settlement formed around a federal Army post near Peña Colorado Springs, a few miles southwest of here. The railroad came through the current location in 1882, and railroad surveyor Albion E. Shepard bought land, established Iron Mountain Ranch and applied for a post office. When that post office opened in 1883, Shepard named the town Marathon because its terrain reminded the former sea captain of Marathon, Greece.

With the railroad, Marathon became a shipping and supply point for area ranchers. Brewster County, previously part of Presidio County, was created in 1887, and it became the largest county in Texas.

In 1911, the Mexican Revolution and raids from across the Rio Grande brought U.S. Army troops to Marathon, first under Capt. Douglas MacArthur and then Lt. George S. Patton (you may have heard of them). By 1914, in addition to Shepard’s post office, the town boasted a rubber company, a hotel, four cattle breeders, three general stores, a bank, a telephone company and a pool hall.

Today, a post office and bank remain, along with a handful of restaurants, several shops, a grocery store, bed-and-breakfasts and a couple of hotels. Alfred Gage, founder of the largest cattle ranching operation in the Trans-Pecos, opened one of the hotels in 1927, a Mission-style structure designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost. (Trost also designed the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Holland Hotel in Alpine and El Capitan in Van Horn.) Houston oilman J.P. Bryan purchased the building in the late 1970s; as a former appointee to the Texas Historical Commission, he recognized the hotel’s historic and architectural significance and began restoring it. Today, the Gage forms its own little town-within-the-town, with its rooms spreading across a complex including the original historic building; Los Portales, a pueblo-style wing built with adobe bricks made right here in Marathon; Shepard’s circa-1890 home and carriage house; and three restored casitas.

Gage Hotel

The Gage Hotel.

My sister Laura and I checked into a rustic-themed room in Los Portales — cowhides on the floor, weathered wooden doors from Mexico, leather art on the walls. These rooms, across a courtyard and the pool area from the main building, face a lushly landscaped courtyard with a splashing fountain.

We strolled next door for lunch at Johnny B’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain, which is just what its name says. We had a fried catfish burger and a regular burger, and looked somewhat lustfully at the thick milkshakes the couple at the next table ordered. One-dollar bills line the wall of the small dining room, several thousand in all, most of them festooned with notes as to their origins — all over Texas and as far away as France and Russia. It made for interesting lunchtime reading.

We then visited The French Co. Grocer, the latest incarnation of what has been a grocery store here (a block off the main road) since 1980. Current owner and former Austin interior designer Marci Roberts stocks an eclectic selection of merchandise: groceries, fresh produce, kitchen supplies and essential camping gear, appropriate given the town’s proximity to Big Bend National Park. Roberts also sells Desert Critter Wear — T-shirts, camisoles and pillowcases she creates bearing images of local residents such as horned toads, rattlesnakes, javelinas and tarantulas.

The images are photographs by James Evans, who has an art gallery on Highway 90, two doors down from Johnny B’s. Evans displays the art of George Zupp, Joe Vancho and Paul Wiggins, along with his own photographs and books. A handwritten note on the door bearing a phone number advises would-be shoppers to call if the shop is closed, as Evans lives just across the road.

James Evans

James Evans at his gallery.

We ended the day stargazing at the Marathon Motel, built in 1940, renovated by John and Mary Hoover in the 1990s and purchased by former Austinite Daniel Self in 2000. Self added an adobe-walled, landscaped courtyard to the property. He also added the Skypark, a pad with a 24-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by the McDonald Observatory, situated behind barriers that keep cabin or car lights from intruding on the darkness. An impressive darkness it is, thanks to Marathon’s location in an ancient seabed encircled by mountains, its elevation of more than 4,000 feet and only 430 or so full-time residents to turn on outside lights.

“To get any darker, you’d have to go to space,” Self says. I can’t verify that, but in images of the Earth at night taken from the International Space Station, the Marathon and Big Bend area lie within an obvious dark patch among brightly lit cities and towns. Self hosts stargazing here on most clear nights, and those in the mood for more can make the 71-mile drive to the McDonald Observatory just outside Fort Davis. The University of Texas facility offers daytime tours and solar viewing as well as nighttime star parties every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Marathon Motel

Marathon Motel.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at Marathon Coffee Shop, just across the street from Los Portales. This former gas station offers a full breakfast and lunch menu along with specialty coffees and goods from guest bakers, as well as live music on a regular basis. It also sells area-themed postcards and photo cards, jewelry from local artists, a few books and local honey. We ate at the outdoor tables, which were shaded by the old gas pump awning, sheltered behind native landscaping and filled with both locals and tourists (easy to tell apart).

Post Road intersects Highway 90 at the corner just east of the Gage and runs five miles to the former cavalry post, now Post Park. This nearly deserted scenic road is ideal for running, walking and biking, and luckily for us, the Gage rents mountain bikes. At the park, we sat beneath tall cottonwood trees lining a pool formed by spring water that collects behind a dam built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. One of the few springs in this region, the water attracts not only humans, but an impressive variety of birds.
On the way back, we explored Gage Gardens, a few blocks down and across the tracks from the hotel. A crushed-glass trail winds beneath shade trees and past a cow sculpture, an herb garden, a gazebo, a variety of native plants, a vineyard and greenhouse, a dog-friendly open area (the Gage has pet-friendly rooms) with a one-mile trail and a pond, a putting green, a fire pit and an orchard, where a sign urges visitors not to take more fruit than can be eaten on the spot.

The hotel also features a game lot, behind Los Portales, that includes sand volleyball, bocce ball, croquet, horseshoes and a shaded pavilion for spectators. We opted instead to relax at the pool for a while before dinner at the hotel restaurant, the 12 Gage. Its menu changes seasonally and features locally sourced wild game, beef and fowl as well as vegetables and herbs from the Gage Garden. I had a tasty Iron Mountain chicken-fried steak with roasted jalapeño gravy, while Laura ordered rich escargot in red-wine garlic butter.

The adjacent White Buffalo Bar claims to have the best margaritas in Texas, so we stopped in to test the claim (it may be true). The bartender said the secret is fresh-squeezed lime juice. The bar’s outdoor patio buzzed with activity, including a couple from Belgium and a large party celebrating a wedding. Nothing dull about this wide spot in the road.

The next day, we took advantage of nearby hiking in Davis Mountains State Park and the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. My longtime favorite route in the state park runs from its scenic overlook to Fort Davis National Historic Site, a bit less than four miles round-trip. This hike offers plenty of photo-worthy views and has two options — one route that descends into Hospital Canyon and another that switches back through striking hoodoos, rock chimneys created by erosion.

At the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, the 1.75-mile Modesta Canyon Trail descends into a 200-foot-deep canyon formed at the contact point between two different volcanic formations, the Sleeping Lion and the Weston. Pinyon pine, Mexican buckeye, madrone and mountain laurel trees grow in the spring-fed canyon, a striking contrast to the surrounding desert. The trail also traverses high hillsides with miles-long views.

Much more hiking can be had at Big Bend, only 40 miles from Marathon — indeed, for many people, the town serves as a stopover on the way to the park. But Big Bend’s massive size really demands its own three (or more) days, and besides, we found plenty to occupy us right here on this nice, wide spot in the road.

 

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