Far West Texas and Big Bend

Last week, Mattie and I made our first road trip alone, travelling to the remote wilds of Far West Texas. After a 300 mile journey along Highway 90, during which we made several photo stops and picnicked at Lake Amistad on the Mexican border, we arrived late afternoon at our destination: the Gage Hotel in Marathon.

A tiny town, Marathon today boasts little more than a grocer shop, a couple of churches and a library. It is so-named because one of its founders likened the surrounding area to the plains around Marathon in Greece. The hotel itself was built in 1927 by Alfred S. Gage, a wealthy local rancher, who wanted a comfortable lodging place to return to after he became a business leader in San Antonio. I had booked a room for three nights and for the next three mornings – after excellent coffee, homemade scones and Spanish omelette – Mattie and I drove through empty, rugged and quite beautiful scenery for 70 miles to the northern entrance gate of Big Bend National Park.

The other-worldly Big Bend, which covers over 800,000 acres of Far West Texas, is so-called because it lies on a big bend of the Rio Grande river that divides the US and Mexico. Built in 1944, it is the least visited National Park in the US because of its remoteness (the nearest airport is over 200 miles away). In its time the area has been home to early Chisos Indians, Comanches, Spanish and Mexican settlers and Anglo ranchers. Now just a few of the Park’s rangers live there.

Big Bend is famous for its spectacular geology, more than 1200 plant species (including some 60 cactus species) and wildlife – we spotted jack rabbits, quail and roadrunners though we missed the black bears and mountain lions! But just as thrilling for me were the pinkish-mauve and dark blue Texas sage bushes, desert and mountain wildflowers of every colour, shocking-pink cactus blossom and tall cream yucca plumes. On our first visit, at the start of a hike through Mexican pine, oak and juniper in the Chisos mountain range, Mattie was thrilled to spot a tarantula before it scooted into a hole. The views at the end of our long climb were breathtaking and we rewarded ourselves that evening with dinner at the Gage Hotel restaurant: I ate two locally caught quail on a bed of polenta and Mattie a roasted red pepper pizza. We shared a chocolate pudding.

As well as its cuisine, the Gage is noted for its cocktails and I very much enjoyed a Paloma – a mix of tequila, freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice, Topo Chico (a Mexican sparkling water) and a dash of lime. Mattie, for tradition’s sake, had a Shirley Temple: ginger ale or sprite mixed with grenadine and a cocktail cherry – she recalled drinking her first Shirley Temple at the age of 6, the last time she, Mike and I were in this part of the world.

Mattie’s other memory of that earlier visit was of standing on the banks of the Rio Grande and watching a horseman come trotting over the river from the Mexican village of Boquillas. My memory is of her anxiously clutching her teddy bear as the rider approached a nearby rock where some handmade wire scorpions lay, gathered the few dollars left behind by tourists and trotted back across the river. At that time, I was unaware that this crossing point had once been a popular tourist stop but was closed by the Federal Government after September 11th. . The crossing point re-opened about a year ago and so, on the second day of our trip, Mattie and I were thrilled to be ferried across the river by rowing boat and then ride a mile or so by donkey into the village.

Although it was sad to see the old village bars and other adobe buildings that had gone to ruin since September 11th, it was also heartening to learn that Boquillas is experiencing something of a rebirth and around 50 people live there now. After passing through Mexican passport control (inside an old trailer) Mattie and I walked around the village with its bright-yellow stone church, tiny bright-pink school, old adobe ruins and small gift shops and restaurants where we stopped for a drink. Mules grazed outside villagers’ houses and occasionally a man on horseback trotted through the village. After buying a few souvenirs – including, of course, handmade wire scorpions – we heaved ourselves onto our ever patient mules and headed back to the river. On the other side, a roadrunner crossed our path; normally quite skittish, this one very kindly stopped for a photo. After snapping away, I turned and looked back at Boquillas, splendidly located against the backdrop of the massive Sierra del Carmen, and I felt as though I had left another world.

On our third and final day in the National Park, we drove along the Ross Maxwell scenic trail, stopping for photo shoots, a picnic and short hikes to remains of old adobe ranches. We ended up at the awe-inspiring Santa Elena canyon. Due to all the rain we have experienced recently in Texas, we had to wade through a small creek almost 3 feet deep in water to the canyon, cameras held high in one hand and clutching each other with the other. We then climbed steep stone steps to the canyon trail which we followed until its vast walls met the Rio Grande. Tiny (from our viewpoint) canoes in the river below lent a splash of bright colour to the magnificent scene.

Later that afternoon, we drove along the at times hair-raising, unpaved Old Maverick Trail which finally brought us to the Park’s west exit. ‘Let’s give each other a high 5’ said Mattie at the end of the day. She looked radiant and it struck me that being in this wonderful wilderness for a few days had done us both much good.

Dinner that night was in the Gage Hotel bar where a large white buffalo head on the wall peered over us. Two young men in cowboy hats and wearing silver belt buckles entered the bar, ordered their drinks and then sat in complete silence at the next table. I turned and took a peek at them: both cowboys were immersed in their iPhones, a reminder that we were in the real world once again…

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