Friday: The Road Trip Part, Coopers B-B-Q, and The Limpia Hotel
Emily and I set out from Austin on Friday morning in Emily’s 2008 Honda Element AWD, which had served us so well on our Port Aransas road trip a few months earlier. On this trip, the importance of Emily paying too much to upgrade from a 2WD version of an otherwise perfectly good 2005 Honda Element became clear, as I will explain later.
The plan was to try and get to Fort Davis in time for the 7 pm Star Party at the McDonald Observatory. That would give us the rest of the weekend to do whatever we wanted at our own pace, without having to be at any more scheduled events. It’s about an eight hour drive from Austin to Fort Davis at a relaxed pace (stopping for pictures and such), so there was plenty of time for us to get out of our heads and relax.
Unfortunately, we had started late and it was well past lunch time when we stopped in Junction for some chopped brisket sandwiches and peach cobbler at Coopers Bar-B-Q. I can’t fairly judge a BBQ joint based on a chopped beef sandwich, but I will say they were awfully proud of their food (I’m guessing there is an I-10 “you don’t have many options” surcharge). But, their sandwich was decent value for the money, if a little dry. I tried to address the dry sandwich with one of Cooper’s two sauces, but the hot sauce wasn’t hot enough and both were too watery for my taste. The peach cobbler was delicious.
Our late start meant that we arrived in Fort Davis too late to go to the Friday night star party, so we drove on to our hotel. The Limpia Hotel is a beautiful and charming old hotel that was built back in 1912. We checked into our lovely room in the historic Orchard Suites, which featured 12-foot ceilings with pressed tin tiles, a four poster bed, and an antique clawfoot bath tub. We were starving, so we dropped our bags and wandered over to the hotel’s restaurant, The Blue Mountain Bistro, which surprisingly offered a fine dining menu. Emily and I enjoyed a light dinner of tapas, stuffed mushroom caps for her, carpaccio and caprese salad for me. It was quite good and helped lift us out of our road weariness.
We went back to our room and had a nightcap of The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old single malt whisky, which had been a birthday gift to me from Peyton and Rob Kellog, who were supposed to have joined us on this trip. We felt it only right to have a drink in their honor and with gratitude for such a fine bottle of whisky.
Saturday: Prada Marfa, Marfa, and the McDonald Observatory
The next morning, we got up and wandered over to the bistro bar for brunch. The coffee from a local roaster was very good and was enough to bring us back each morning of the trip. We gathered our things and headed for Prada Marfa.
Prada Marfa is a permanent art installation about 26 miles outside on Marfa on U.S. 90. It’s actually closer to Valentine, Texas. The installation is designed to look like a Prada boutique, but makes an ironic statement by being located on a remote stretch of a rural Texas highway.
Prada Marfa as it looks in November 2014.
Jimmy + Emily at Prada Marfa.
The windy day creating a Marilyn Monroe situation.
Our fashion shoot at Prada Marfa.
Girl on Film.
Prada bags and shoes.
After our photo shoot, Emily changed clothes and we turned back towards Marfa. We spent the next hour or so wandering around the town square. If I’m honest, there was less there than I had hoped to see.
Part of the Food Shark collection: a beautiful 1964 Pontiac Bonneville…
…made more beautiful by a fortunate reflection.
Pink fire station.
The lobby of the gorgeous El Paisano Hotel.
We enjoyed a local craft beer in the bar of the El Paisano Hotel.
The Palace Theater, now an art studio.
Could this possibly be the most wonderful place on Earth? Only open late, so we had to go back later that night to find out.
That night, we drove up into the Davis Mountains for the McDonald Observatory Star Party. It was pitch black, except for red marker lights to guide visitors to the amphitheater, where an astronomer used a green laser pointer to conducted a constellation tour. Then we were free to walk around and look through several telescopes at pre-selected objects. I really enjoyed the star party, but it was freezing cold and we had not dressed warmly enough. It was a short program at about two hours, so we toughed it out. After we had looked through all of the telescopes, we went into the visitors center to warm-up with a cup of coffee.
My favorite display at the visitors center was the giant 1930’s scale model of the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope.
We finished our coffee and made our way down the mountain and back to Marfa for some grilled cheese sandwiches.
The Museum of Electronic Wonders & Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour is a little sandwich shop filled with kitschy, round, space age TV’s that would look at home in a 50’s or 60’s science fiction flick. Most of the TV’s display a slightly unnerving video loop of a severe woman staring back at the viewer. There are also displays of retro, space age radios. An 8-track of Van Halen II played over a Hi-Fi. The menu could not be more simple. Four grilled cheese sandwiches offered that night, starting with the classic, intermediate choices with a variety of ingredients, and finishing with the Motherf**ker, which contained all of the ingredients of the other sandwiches on the menu. We stuck with the classic and it was delicious.
The line at the counter often extended out the door and with room for only about a dozen customers, there is always a crowd on the sidewalk, some people leaning on cars and eating their sandwiches. We were lucky enough to grab two chairs inside and we were served on a single TV tray. It was like eating at Emily’s house.
Please don’t stare at me while I eat.
Sunday: Pinto Canyon Road, Ruidosa, Chinati Hot Springs, and the Marfa Lights
Pinto Canyon Road is a 20 mile long, unpaved and mostly unmaintained road that begins at the southern terminus of RM 2810 and winds its way through the Chinati Mountains along Pinto Canyon and emerges in the Rio Grande Valley at Ruidosa, Texas. We spent the better part of a day driving and exploring this road and it was probably the highlight of the trip.
At the starting line of Rallye de Pinto Canyon.
We had only just started when we came upon this lovely scene.
The Chinati Mountains.
Torrey Yucca Succulents.
Pinto Canyon Road winding through the Chinati Mountains.
Emily exploring volcanic rock.
The first low water crossing. It doesn’t look like much, but there was a steep drop into the creek bed. It was enough to make us stop and get out of the car to have a look.
Emily kicking dirt and rocks into a makeshift ramp.
Pinto Canyon Road is not perilous by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not for every vehicle. At one point, Emily said, “I’m glad we didn’t bring The Boss.” The Honda Element shows the utility of its raised suspension, short overhangs, and all wheel drive. Still, this low water crossing would give us even more trouble on the way back out.
Another low water crossing.
Emily planning her approach. God, I am so in love with this dork.
Emily running back to go for it.
Taking a break at a fork in the road.
We decided to do Ruidosa first and then Chinati Hot Springs.
There isn’t much to say about Ruidosa, Texas. There were just a couple of buildings, a burned-out house, a broken-down church, and what looked like one residence. In fact, it looked like the town might be for sale.
Exploring a dilapidated building in Ruidosa, Texas.
An old abandoned church…
…that someone doesn’t want falling down just yet.
My beautiful explorer.
Even in terms of ruins to explore, Ruidosa didn’t have much to offer. So, we turned up the road and drove to the Chinati Hot Springs.
The term “oasis” is probably overused in the travel and leisure industry, but I can assure you, the Chinati Hot Springs looks and feels like a real oasis in the middle of the dusty Chihuahuan Desert. This is especially true, because unless you arrive by helicopter, you will have to drive a minimum of six miles on dusty, unpaved roads to get there. Our route was much longer than that, but when we arrived, we were rewarded with a facility lush with green grass and bright flowers.
The proprietor welcomed us and told us that even day visitors were required to make reservations. However, she was kind enough not to turn us away after our long journey. After we had paid the day rate ($15/ea.), she gave us clean towels, showed us the changing rooms, and directed us to the spring fed community pool.
Outside the community kitchen.
The landscaping adds some elegance, without taking away from the rustic beauty.
A beautiful Bougainvillea in bloom.
Emily changed into her swimsuit and we walked down to the pool. I had forgotten to bring swim trunks, so I just swam in my underwear, which luckily was date underwear and was no worse than swim trunks
a EuropeanThe Cosmopolitan might wear. We pulled the cover off of the pool and slid into the warm water. It was clear and felt refreshing on such a cool afternoon.
Emily relaxing after a long drive.
We had the pool to ourselves for at least an hour before we were joined by another couple (also from Austin). The young man had grown-up in the area and was familiar with the hot springs. He told us that the water contained lithium, which might be why some people believe the water to have healing properties. I would have suggested to Emily that we give them the same privacy that we had enjoyed, but then they told us they were staying in a room there. So, knowing our time was more limited, we chatted with them for awhile until they wandered off and Emily and I enjoyed the pool to ourselves for a little while longer.
Emily enjoying the spring fed hot pool.
Emily smiling! Was it the lithium?
We didn’t want to leave, but we knew there was a long drive ahead. We got dressed and turned back towards Marfa, promising ourselves that we would come back to the hot springs and stay longer next time.
Awesome scenery along Pinto Canyon Road.
On the return trip, we came to the first low water crossing where we had built a ramp to get across. Emily took a run at it, but the Element failed to crawl up the other side and slid back down into the creek. Emily gave it more gas, but the tires spun sending mud up the side of the car and into my open window. She tried to back out, but the car stalled. She restarted the car and tried again, but it stalled again. She had dug us into the creek bed. She tried a third time and managed to rock the car forward and back, until it came free. She backed onto solid ground and we got out to work on our ramp.
The shadows were growing long and it was getting colder. In the three hours we had spent on Pinto Canyon Road, the only other people we had seen were border patrol agents. But that was on our way out and they had been heading the other way. If there were border patrol agents, that must mean that there were drug runners or coyotes (both kinds) out there. Maybe they would help us. Then I remembered mountain lions. I set to work moving rocks.
Emily preparing for another run at the low water crossing.
After we had built-up our ramp, we planned the approach and Emily gave it another go. She hit the embankment at a good clip and kept her momentum. The Element made it up easily. The rest of the trip back to Marfa was uneventful and we were able to enjoy the scenery in the waning light.
More stunning rock formations.
After the day’s adventures, we were tired and famished. After breakfast, we had only eaten a couple of granola bars. So, we rolled into Marfa looking for some food. We knew from talking to the bartender at the Hotel Paisano that restaurants in Marfa don’t open until 5 pm. What she failed to tell us was that there aren’t any restaurants in Marfa. We stopped at the Lost Horse Saloon, because it had a huge “Bar-B-Que & Beer” sign on the side of the building. As soon as we walked through the door, I could tell that there was no food to be had there. The bartender confirmed this. She and the two old regulars sitting at her bar suggested some place called Padres. I began to question her about how a tourist destination with a thriving new art community could hope to exist without any food. Emily could see me unraveling, so she grabbed my arm and rushed me out the door.
Padres Marfa turned out to be just another bar, but their burgers and sweet potato fries were pretty good. We ate at the bar and soon attracted the attention of one of the regulars. Roger was a big Mexican-American truck driver who was so dark that he said he was sometimes mistaken for a black man. He had an epic black and grey beard. The hair on his head was cut short, but he said when he was a young man, he wore a huge afro. He was as big as a football player and as it happens, he said he had walked-on to one of the pro teams, but didn’t make the cut. He seemed almost ashamed that he was the smallest one in his family at only 6′ 3″. He has a brother that is 6′ 10″! I know all of this, because Roger had been drinking since noon and he was pretty chatty.
As soon as we mentioned that we were going to look for the Marfa Lights, he lit up and told us all about them, but he also indicated that he knew a secret about them that …no, he just couldn’t tell us. However, he did give us directions for finding the best place to see them. He told us to go to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center, but then look for a fence and follow it until it ends. There we would find a picnic table and we should look for the Marfa Lights from there. He also gave us very specific instructions for finding the set from Giant.
Our conversation had started light, but eventually things took a dark turn and Roger began talking about his bad relationship with his ex-wife or maybe ex-girlfriend and how all of his family was dead or dying. Maybe the fact that Padres used to be a funeral home engenders that kind of talk. Drinking tequila and PBR for eight hours certainly might. Then he sidled up to Emily and started pawing her a little while he talked. Just arm touching stuff, but he had worn-out his welcome, so she excused herself. I have a soft spot for those kind of drunks, so I talked to him for a while longer and tried to steer the conversation in a positive direction. When Emily got back, we said goodbye and Roger gave us each a big hug.
The Marfa Lights Viewing Center was just a few miles east of Marfa on U.S. 90. It looks like a really nice rest stop, except it has red ambient lighting (like the McDonald Observatory) to help with night vision. Behind the building is an observation deck with several mounted binoculars. We could see a fence behind the observation deck, so we decided to try Roger’s directions. Emily used the LED flashlight feature on her phone to light a path through a grassy field towards the end of the fence line. We came across a stone marker like the one in this photo:
Marker at the entrance of the Marfa Lights Viewing Center.
It wasn’t exactly a park bench, but it did have bench seats, so we sat down and huddled in the bitter cold to look for the lights. Our eyes acclimated to the darkness and we were rewarded with a beautiful clear sky. The moon hadn’t risen yet and the Milky Way was plainly visible. We saw satellites and a falling star. We eventually even saw the dim shape of Roger’s park bench just a few feet away from us! Emily and I held each other and tried to stay warm. After awhile, I realized that I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for or in what part of the sky I was supposed to look. Emily pointed to some lights on the horizon, but I was unsure. We made our way back to the observation deck and I finally just asked a couple who I overheard talking about how good the lights were that night. Sure enough, Emily had been right. The lights on the horizon were the Marfa lights.
I looked through the binoculars. The lights appeared to move, rise, fall, split, and change colors. They were interesting, but not exactly mesmerizing. We looked at them for about half an hour, all the while listening to the excited theorizing of other observers, before finally packing it in and driving back to our hotel.
So, what are the Marfa Lights? The truth is out there. No, I don’t mean out there, I mean the truth can be found on the Internet. But, it wasn’t important. To see them and wonder is about the suspension of disbelief. It’s no different than seeing a movie. What’s important to me was seeing them with Emily. Maybe the Marfa Lights are just headlights from a distant highway, but to see them, we sat shivering on a cold bench and held each other and saw actual, fantastically amazing celestial lights in the sky. Our fingers and faces were ice cold to the touch, but my heart was warm like a glowing ember. The light inside – that’s the truly mysterious light.
Emily relaxing in a clawfoot tub after the long day.
Please pin, tweet, and share! Most importantly, let me know what you think in the comments below.