The small town of Marfa in southwestern Texas is billed as the Next Big Thing in hipster art, but I was interested in less worldly matters when my wife and I visited in May. I was hoping to see the Marfa Lights, glowing orbs that sometimes appear in the night skies outside of town.
A friend from St. Louis had seen them. “It was unbelievable. They moved across the horizon. Nobody can really explain them.”
Another friend visited Marfa and did not see the lights. Sometimes they appear; sometimes they don’t.
We were staying in the Paisano, the town’s grand old hotel. It’s where the cast of “Giant” stayed in 1955. Their photos are prominently displayed — James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor. Candid shots of the stars as they relaxed between takes.
In the afternoon, we had a drink at the hotel bar. We stared at the scene outside. The sun was shining brightly as rain poured down. This can happen anywhere, of course, but for it to happen in Marfa seemed a sign that strangeness was the order of the day. A good omen for the lights, I thought.
Night came, and we drove to the viewing area outside of town. We sat on a bench with a couple from North Carolina. We stayed for about an hour. No lights appeared.
In the morning, we drove south to the Mexican border and then followed a state highway east as it hugged the Rio Grande. The river was green and shallow. The desert seemed a much more formidable barrier than the water. There was no wall, and if there was a fence, I couldn’t see it.
Just west of our next destination — Big Bend National Park — is Big Bend Ranch State Park. It is desolate country. Comanches used to pass through. They didn’t stay.
Between the state park and national park is the town of Lajitas. It had its heyday shortly before 1900 when cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted, was discovered nearby. Pancho Villa rode through on his way north in 1916. Gen. Jack Pershing soon followed on his way south. Eventually, the mines played out, and the town slipped into obscurity. A few years ago, somebody came up with the idea for a festival — Voices from Both Sides. Bands on each side of the river would take turns playing while festivalgoers partied in the shallow river.
This year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put notices in the local papers. Any Mexican national crossing to the U.S. side would be subject to arrest. I saw one of these notices and thought about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What plot twists would come to his mind? A young man on one side of the river, a young woman on the other. Love in the Time of Trump.
We got to Lajitas a few days after the festival. Apparently, there had been no arrests. “Bands from Chihuahua and Terlingua took turns playing as people gathered mid-river in an act of neighborly love,” the Alpine Avalanche reported.
Bands from Terlingua? That’s where we’d be spending the next couple of nights. Terlingua is not a town, but a “census-designated place.” According to the 2010 census, it had a population of 58. Like Lajitas, Terlingua had its heyday after cinnabar was discovered and declined when the mineral was gone. A smattering of abandoned adobe buildings recall the past. Now Terlingua seems to exist mainly to service visitors to the national park.
We stayed in a motel and RV park three miles from the park. It was a step below the Paisano, but we planned to spend our time in the park, not in our room.
Before we left St. Louis, I had called a travel company to see if we could spend a day rafting along the Rio Grande. The water levels were too low for rafting, I was told. That’s a seasonal activity. Big Bend National Park is generally considered a winter destination. It starts getting hot in April and starts cooling down in October.
Daytime temperatures were in the 90s when we visited in mid-May. That meant most of our hiking would be done at higher elevations in the Chisos Mountains. Still, we wanted to take at least one hike on the desert floor. There is a certain harsh splendor to a desert in the summer heat. We selected a short (two-mile) hike that the guidebook described as easy. We put a few bottles of water in a daypack and took off. We followed a sandy wash to a boulder field and then reached our destination — a large rock formation. In front of us, the desert seemed to go on forever.
By the way, visitors can appreciate the park without doing a lot of hiking. Just driving around and stopping at overlooks can give a sense of the vastness of the desert and the mountains. It’s hard to imagine earlier people trekking through here. The Spaniards called the region “El Despoblado” — the uninhabited.
While driving can give you a sense of the place, there’s nothing like being out in it. We took several hikes. One was a short trek near the Rio Grande Village, a visitors center that was closed for the summer. There was a nearly empty campground nearby. The river meandered along below us. We rested on a hill. We looked into the distance and tried to follow the path of the river. The air was still, the silence almost palatable. The trail must be an entirely different experience in the winter when hikers trade solitude for comfort.
The Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains is one of the most popular day hikes in the park. It’s 4.8 miles, but the first half of it is up. We were nearly at the top, taking a break, when Mary’s cellphone rang. Really? There’s service out here? It was Mary’s sister, Shivaun. “We’re on a mountain in south Texas,” Mary said. “I’m on vacation in France,” said Shivaun.
Our final hike was in the Santa Elena Canyon. The scenery is spectacular. The Rio Grande cuts through the narrow canyon with limestone cliffs rising to 1,500 feet on either side. Despite the season, there was little solitude on this trail. We had seen only six people on the Lost Mine hike the day before. We saw four of those six on the Santa Elena Canyon trail. We greeted one another as old friends.
The river was shallow and I waded across. There is an official — that is to say, legal — crossing point in the park at Boquillas Canyon near Rio Grande Village, but it was closed during our visit.
We left the canyon and the park and headed toward the town of Marathon about 40 miles away. It’s home to a fine old railroad hotel — and not much else. But the Gage Hotel, which was built in 1927, is worth the visit. We cooled off in the swimming pool before having dinner in the upscale restaurant. How does a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere thrive?
It’s like the Marfa Lights. Some things are just inexplicable.
IF YOU GO
Marfa, Texas: Visitmarfa.com
Paisano Hotel: Hotelpaisano.com
Big Bend National Park: nps.gov/bibe/index.htm
Gage Hotel: Gagehotel.com