The Wonders of West Texas

Story by Jamie Elvidge// Photos by Jamie Elvidge
August 22 2018

Whether you’re looking for paved elevation changes or dirt tracks, fine restaurants or barbecue, the Big Bend area has all that and so much more to satisfy your soul

“Texas is a state of mind” John Steinbeck wrote in his 1960 travelogue Travels with Charley. And while there is no dispute the state is best known for its prideful swagger and bold stance on the world stage, there is another, quieter nature to the Lone Star State, a sensation available only while travelling its deepest back roads and resting in its quietest corner. A state of mind that’s less about an exhibition and plentitude and more about the undiscriminating, healing arms of solitude.

Vintage Cars in West TexasIt took me many years to fall in love with Texas. For at least a decade, I simply rode across the colossal state as quickly as possible on my many trips back and forth from my previous home in Los Angeles to various bike events in Florida. Twice the size of Germany and four times the size of Florida, Texas is nearly 1,300 km across at its widest, most oft-traversed span. It was always a gruelling task, tolerable only for the barbecue and big smiles so plentiful along the way.

But then one spring many years ago, I found myself travelling east to west across Texas with the sun in my eyes and a few days to spare. I first dropped down to Austin – then just budding as the hub of hip it is today – to explore the roads I’d heard about in the Hill Country. These were and remain the best roads Texas has to offer if you’re looking for corners: the famous Twisted Sisters, of course, and the smaller single-lane squiggles in between as they dash across rivers and whoop over modest hills.

From the Hill Country I rode down to San Antonio to check out the Alamo, Texas’s most visited tourist attraction, to see firsthand the root of Texas pride and defiance, a battle site that was pivotal in Texas winning its freedom from Mexican rule to become an independent republic almost a decade before it was annexed as one of the United States in 1945.

A Church in the Desert

Bulls Fighting in West TexasFrom San Antonio, it was a very long, lonely ride across U.S. 90 and the current-day Mexican border to investigate West Texas, another part of the state I’d heard great things about. Little did I know this area would become sacred to me, that I would find a repeatable religious experience in Big Bend National Park, or that the towns tethering the roads into Big Bend would come to feel like old friends. It would be a place to which I would return over and over in the coming years, whenever I needed a true escape, to think big, to feel small, to be alone or to spend unforgettable time with friends.

These days if I’m travelling from the east, I make my way to Marathon and treat myself to one night at the Gage Hotel. Built in 1927, this historic hotel is the essence of Texas architecture and charm, including great food and an award-winning bar.

Mapping programs will suggest to drop down to Big Bend on Texas 118 via the larger town of Alpine, with its chain hotels and fast-food options, but this is a mistake. Not only is Marathon a higher-quality port of entry, U.S. 385
is a much more scenic highway, with gorgeous mountain views and an abundance of sweeping corners that take you into the park proper sooner than if you arrive via Texas 118.

Finding Your Space

Riding on the Open Road in West TexasI suggest you spend a minimum of two days in the park if you’re on a street-only bike. If you would like to include some soul-satisfying hikes or downtime, allow for three days, and if you’re on an adventure bike, four days, minimum, with a week being ideal.

Big Bend National Park is not only extremely remote and austere, it is extreme in temperature as well, with summers bringing unbearable heat (many campgrounds and both visitor centres at lower elevations close from June through October). Winters tend to be mild with cold nights. I try to spend time in Big Bend in April and May or October to December.

In the summer, I make my main hub for exploration the Chisos Basin Campground, which can be crowded, but I feel safe leaving my tent unattended, and there is Wi-Fi at the nearby visitor centre (no cell service is available anywhere in the park). This is where you’ll find the only restaurant and camp store open in midsummer, and often the only livable temperatures, since the campground and visitor centre are situated almost 900 metres above the rest of the park.

If you don’t like to camp, there are dated (and in my opinion overpriced) motel-style accommodations here at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. If you have the luxury of planning ahead, the ideal scenario is to reserve one of the five Roosevelt Stone Cottages built in the 1930s. Thanks to a no-show, I lucked into one of these cabins for a night years ago and it was fantastic, but they are typically booked a year in advance. If you do have that kind of time to plan, try to book Cottage 103, which offers impossibly beautiful views down to the valley 550 metres below.

Roads to Nowhere

To ride in this region is to witness time standing still. The cliffs and washes and rock-crowned mountains are exactly as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. The famous Rio Grande River bisects this territory and creates a natural border between the United States and Mexico. Immigrants don’t cross in this landscape because the distance is too great and the weather murderous.

Basin Junction Road, which runs to and from the services at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center is a fun little ride on its own, with lots of twists and elevation gain. To the east of this road’s terminus is Panther Junction and Park Road 12, the kind of parkland two-laner where you just have to surrender to the ridiculously low speed limit and enjoy the scenery. It will lead you to several cool things, including a scenic loop created by an unimproved dirt trail, Old Ore Road, which provides awesome views of the Chisos mountain range.

East River Road, a street bike-friendly dirt path on the opposite side of the park road near the Rio Grande Overlook, will take you to the trailhead of the short walk to the Langford Hot Springs, where ruins from an early bathhouse remain on the edge of the Rio Grande, framing tubs that still catch the 105-degree spring water for those who care for a soak. The water in the tubs has been crystal clear the times I’ve been there for a soak, though the Rio Grande beside them is almost always too muddy for a very satisfying cold plunge.

To the west of Panther Junction is beautiful, meandering Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which leads to the banks of the Rio Grande at Castolon and eventually to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. If you’re on a dirt-worthy bike and don’t mind some washboard, create a loop back into the park using Old Maverick Road. There are numerous, more primitive dirt roads on this side of the park – one, called the West River Road, even traces the Rio Grande all the way back to the eastern end of the park. Check with the park service before planning an outing on these routes, however, as many of the trails and campgrounds along the river are closed seasonally.

Rocks and Road Art

If I’ve arrived at Big Bend from the east, I depart to the west on Texas 118 to Study Butte, where I stop each time to visit Ring Huggins at the Many Stones rock shop. Ring is an old codger extraordinaire, a lifelong fossil hunter who was born in Texas but owned a rock shop in Kaslo, B.C., for 30 years and taught adult education on the remote North Coast reserves. He only recently returned to Texas to set up the roadside shop, where I first met him a few years back. Do stop by for a chat and to ogle Ring’s finds, which range from fossiliferous rocks to an ancient buffalo skull and priceless dinosaur bones.

Another worthy stop just down the road from Many Stones is the ghost town of Terlingua, where the sparrows fly in and out of the abandoned church as quietly as whispered prayers, and the town cemetery is crowded with ghosts and anonymous graves.

If I have the time, I continue on Farm Route 170 along the Rio Grande to Big Bend State Park for more beautiful scenery before sweeping up toward my exit indulgence of Marfa, an even more pleasurable bookend to Marathon, and always a pre-entry stopover if I’m travelling to Big Bend from the west.

Back when I first visited Marfa on that fateful excursion off I-10, the town was about five unlocked doors away from abandoned. I’d stopped overnight to see if I could catch a glimpse of the fabled “mystery lights,” unexplained dancing lights sometimes viewable in the far distance. In the years since, Marfa has exploded in popularity as a fine-arts enclave – super fashionable and fully endowed with city-style eateries and luxurious boutique hotels.

Rolling north out of town on Texas 90 toward El Paso, you’ll notice a tiny square building on the west side of the road. As you pass, it will reveal itself to be an impossibly perfect, yet fake, Prada store, complete with lighted displays, just one of the dozens of permanent art installations in the area. And then suddenly you’re back in regular old Texas, its flat, arid landscape etched by barbed wire fences and pin-straight roads dotted with barbecue joints and gun stores.
If you’re like me, the desolate high mountains behind you will have left an indelible mark. A beacon that will call you back to that magical space of absolute solitude and ensuing self-realization.

To Steinbeck, Texas was a state of mind, while Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg wrote that “Texas is a blend of valour and swagger.” I think everyone would agree that at its heart, Texas is about attitude. About the pride of its people.

And way over to the west, in the high mountains above the Rio Grande, you’ll find its soul.


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