The drive from Austin to Marfa, Texas, when done in one long stretch, feels less like a daunting car ride and more like an odyssey when you get into it. As the terrain changes from forgotten roadside truck stops to long stretches of brilliant nothingness, a mountain scape lingering in the distant horizon, you start to lose your sense of everything you were worried or stressed out about before. This is the magic of West Texas – it breathes you into its grandeur and sweeps you away.
The Friday before New Year’s Eve my fiancé and I drove through thick fog set heavily onto I-10. It didn’t seem likely that it was sunny and temperate in Alpine, but as we got through Fort Stockton, the fog and cold lifted and then everything began to brighten. Back about 40 miles, I’d touched the window and felt a chilling coldness; now when I touched it, it was luke warm.
Once in Marfa, after a fruitless hike up a hill behind Sul Ross to locate the desk that Jim Kitchen put there back in the 80’s (or, the replacement desk at least), we rolled into the chill, bohemian El Cosmico. As we checked in I absorbed the ambiance of the lobby, and overheard the associate at the front desk offer a couple waiting on their teepee cold Topo Chicos.
I almost chuckled as I watched a woman in full high fashion chic-cowboy getup wheel a wagon full of shit to her airstream trailer. She definitely wasn’t in West Texas for the same reasons we were. In fact, many of the patrons of El Cosmico seemed to be in the town of Marfa just to hang out, barhop, go to shops, and take fashionable pictures of themselves with a high desert backdrop.
As we left El Cosmico for dinner, we spoke to a family also from Austin. The young mother laughed when we told her we were also from Austin and said, “It’s a migration, really.” And a migration, it is. It seems like everyone and their mother was in Marfa, Texas on the weekend of New Year’s Eve. As we sat in a little restaurant courtyard, eating nachos and drinking, my fiancé first saw a coworker, and then saw his high school girlfriend. Mortified, he quickly paid and we left soon after.
Also seen in Marfa: An old man driving from bar to bar talking to random visitors. Notable because he had a small, spotted dog with bat-like ears that waited patiently on the roof of his car. When the man walked to his car, sat down and started the engine, the dog hopped into the passenger seat through the window.
On our first full day in West Texas, we woke up early to a certain stillness that I’ve rarely experienced. We immediately drove to Big Bend, which took a good three hours. At the base of the Chisos Mountains, the parking lot was almost full at 9:00AM. We started our journey to Emory Peak, a roundtrip hike of almost 12 miles.
Seen on the highest peak of the Chisos Mountains: Some guy jumping like a spider monkey from rock to rock, bragging about how he’s training for American Ninja Warrior. Some other people connecting because they both went to Rice University. Someone dropped part of their sandwich into oblivion, and as I watched it fall and fall, I began to feel a slight sense of vertigo.
We had to boulder down from the highest rock of Emory Peak. I lost my sunglasses and ripped my hat, but the view was amazing. The trail itself was challenging, with huge rock formations, trees and the occasional blue jay.
From Big Bend, we journeyed back through Marathon, looking at the passing mountains and thinking about how insignificant our lives are in comparison to them. They’ll be here long after the human race kills itself off, and that’s incredible.
In Marathon we stopped at the rustic Gage Hotel for more drinks and nachos. It is in Marathon that I felt truly like I was in West Texas. This dusty speck of a town is populated with small homes, a couple high-end hotels, and just a few select shops. As the sun began to set, we sat on the patio of the 12 Gage and sighed with relief after a long day’s hike.
The drive from Marathon to Marfa at sunset was one of my most treasured memories of this trip. We spent our last night drinking champagne outside of the Marfa Lights Viewing Area (not sure if that’s allowed). The moon was so bright that the stars were not too visible, but it was still a fun time.
Things I learned on this trip: Big Bend is only 13% explored. Everything in Marfa closes between 3PM and 5PM. During this time, people just hang out. It’s sort of like the West Texas version of an afternoon siesta. All you need is a minimum of 3 or 4 days to cleanse your soul in Big Bend, if you’re coming from Central Texas.
Song we listed to the most on this trip: Road Head by Japanese Breakfast.