Every year we’ve been on the road (three now), we spend a couple months in the dead of winter climbing and soaking up the desert sun in El Paso, Texas. Yes, there is actually more than (delicious) burritos, strip malls, and a great view of Juarez in El Paso. Where we camp is actually just outside the city to the east, near a state park called Hueco Tanks. And every winter, climbers from around the world flock to the mountain of boulders here that were seemingly shaped to be climbed on. But that’s for another blog post. This article is about a different part of the west Texas desert.
So, like I was saying, every year we come down here and spend about two months living basically within a one square mile patch of desert, with the exception of the weekly trip into town to refill on fresh tortillas and other borderland delicacies. There’s not much else around these parts, so there’s not much reason to stray far from the camp and climbing. However, there is one place that we’ve always talked about visiting each year we’ve been down here – Marfa, Texas. This year, we finally broke the mold. We piled into the Tahoe with our road pals Jess and Andy Wickstrom (also Airstream dwellers), their ridiculously adorable Pit-bull, Pickle, and our fluffy lil buddy, Aiko, hitched up our trailer, and took a little road trip within a road to check out Marfa. And while we were at it, we decided to venture even further on down to Big Bend National Park, too.
Marfa, if you’ve never heard of it, is a tiny town in rural southwest Texas with roots tracing back to the late 1800s, when it served as a water stop for the railroad. And you need water out here. It’s a desolate and unforgiving landscape. The nearest Walmart is over 90 miles away, to put it in perspective. But we didn’t drive four hours into the middle of nowhere to see a town that only has one intersection. The thing that makes Marfa famous, of all things, is its art.
In the early 70s, New York artist, Donald Judd, moved to Marfa. Over three decades, he continued to produce works of art, largely the minimalist sculptural pieces that he is known for, with a focus on more permanent installations. His thought was that out here in the desert, miles away from anything, these works could remain in one place for longer than the typical several-week cycle of gallery exhibitions back in the city. There was no shortage of space for it all, that’s for sure. And so over time, as artists traveled to Marfa to view his works and collaborate on installations, many found a similar appreciation for the serenity of the desert and began setting up their own studios and galleries.
Our first sign that we were getting close to Marfa was the Prada store on the side of one of the most desolate highways we’ve ever driven. The store is actually about 30 miles outside of Marfa, because apparently Marfa wasn’t remote enough. This isn’t an actual functioning Prada store, but an installation by two Germany-based artist. Something about consumerism and high fashion and nobody around to care about it so does it really even matter? Either way, it makes for a fun photo op.
After about four hours of driving through flat far west Texas nothingness, we were in Marfa. With this influx of art to a traditionally rural farming town, what you end up with is this anomaly where country farmers meet offbeat art types, coexisting in this tiny desert town. There are high-end restaurants and galleries that you’d find in downtown NYC, and then a hundred yards down the street is a feed lot. Pretty wild.
One of hippest spots in town is the campground, El Cosmico. Embracing a strong bohemian/southwestern vibe, they offer accommodations in a variety of colorful vintage trailers, towering teepees, and airy canvas tents. Or, like us, you can park your rig in the glamorous dirt parking lot.
Two more of our road/climber friends from Hueco, Johnny and Hannah, came down to join us in Marfa on day two, bringing the pack to six large plus two dogs. After another day doing artsy stuff in Marfa and getting served cold fried chicken from pretentious restaurants (actually just one – Capri, or Crapri if you will. Don’t go there.), it was time to carry on down to Big Bend. Big Bend has gotta be close to as remote an area as you can find anywhere in this country. Crossing the border here looks like a really not fun thing to try and do. Not that I thought otherwise before, but this is a seriously harsh and vast landscape. If you can cross the Rio Grande, avoid border patrol, and survive crossing miles and miles of the most vicious desert we’ve ever seen, I’d say you deserve to stay.
We rolled into the park late at night, on the way experiencing one of the most stressful two hours of driving ever. We must have seen over 100 deer milling about beside the road, and more than a few were caught in our headlights. It was slow going down deer alley. Eventually we made it, but signs said all campgrounds were full. So we did what we do best and parked in a random pullout and slept there. The stars were insane and it was quite the scene to wake up to in the morning.
The next day we set out to explore Big Bend. We were camped out in the far southeast section of the park, which is super desert-y and dry and brown and deadly hot. But as you travel westwards, the elevation rises, temperatures fall, and more vegetation starts to appear. The highest point is in the heart of the park in the Chisos Mountains, where Emory Peak rises 7,835 feet above sea level. You can drive into Chisos Basin, where you’re surrounded by a ring of four mountain peaks. We walked out to a viewpoint where you can look through “The Window,” which is a notch in the mountains that looks out onto the desert floor thousands of feet below. Johnny also bought a pint of ice cream.
After cooling off in the pleasant temps of the Chisos’ high elevation, we piled back in the car and dropped down to the desert floor again, heading towards Santa Elena Canyon. A little over an hour later and we were standing next to the Rio Grande looking into one of the most impressive sites we’ve ever seen on our travels. If you ever visit Big Bend, this is the number one must see. Massive limestone cliffs flank the Rio Grande, forming the Santa Elena Canyon. It looks like something out of Indiana Jones, where if you hopped in a raft and paddled back you might find untold treasures. We didn’t quite do that, but we did hike back into the canyon, took a bunch of photos, scrambled on boulders, and enjoyed the much needed break from the sun.
That night, we returned to camp and went for a soak under the stars in an amazing natural hot spring built alongside the Rio Grande River. With spring water coming in at 105 degrees, it was a great soooaaaaaaak. We didn’t take any pictures, but we did take bets on who would swim across the Rio into Mexico.
The next morning we began our trek back home through the scenic route, which would take us through the bohemian/western ghost town of Terlingua, and then up through Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is basically an extension of Big Bend to the west. It’s a strange and interesting scene in Terlingua, which appears to be home to people who don’t like seeing other people very often. At the bbq food truck we went to (highly recommended), the owner told us multiple stories murders and bar fights and basically everything you’d expect from a proper wild west ghost town. Apparently in 2014, a local bar owner and his river guide friend were drinking these tall blue drinks called “Mind Erasers,” and things went south. The river guide ended up smashing the bar owner’s head in, and then got away with the murder. I guess the regular rules of law don’t apply out here in Terlingua.
The last leg of our journey through Big Bend Ranch State Park was perhaps the most beautiful. Texas FM-170 weaves and rolls and climbs and falls along the twisty Rio Grande River. There were too many scenic vistas to count and we found ourselves pulling over to snap photos a lot, dragging out the roughly 50 miles the road travels along the river. It’s said that this is one of the most scenic drives in the country, and we’d have to agree with that.
Living on the road full time, it’s actually easy to fall into a routine of just sticking to the areas you’ve been before. But we’ve been making more of an effort to explore beyond our usual hangs this year, and it’s been totally worth it. Feel free to comment with questions on the area or our road trip itinerary. It’s a good one!
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