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2-Day: Calvary, Summits & Stars

    This variety-filled overnighter explores past worlds both celestial and terrestrial. Heading out from Terlingua bright and early, we'll turn north at Study Butte and climb out of the river basin to cross an expanse of desert more typical of most folk's conceptions. Traveling through large sections of the Terlingua Ranch, this more than 200,000 acres has been subdivided since the 1960's into varying size lots with nearly 5000 separate land owners. The percentage of people that have actually done anything with their land remains in the single digits. And in these parts, "improvements" can range from a dilapidated travel trailer, to an elaborate adobe/straw bale dream home complex. It is an opportunity though to own a piece of land, and while some have never visited (and might be disillusioned if they did) other parcels are truly magnificent and worth more in spiritual value than many an urban lot with a stratospheric tax assessment. Imagine though, the "complexity" of issues for a property association that tries to encompass such . . . sagas abound.
    A bit farther on our right slowly appears the blunt 6,500 foot cone of volcanic rock known as Santiago Mountain. Part of its human history includes an early 20th century real estate scam (aren't they timeless) where unsuspecting distant investors bought lots in the highly touted (of course) township called "Progress City". Not known but to a few was the fact that the township was located on top of the mountain, completely inaccessible and well before the invention of the helicopter. Plans for the "city" are on display in the courthouse up the road. To the left comes into view the abrupt landmark line of cliffs associated with the many-chaptered "O2 Ranch". An excellent tome, "Below the Escondido Rim" (see Suggested Reading) chronicles the evolution of this huge spread from individuals to corporate ownership, a common trajectory for many family operations hamstrung by conflict between the ambitions of the "good years" and the inevitable periods of drought. To the right is 6,200 foot Elephant Mountain, administered by Texas Parks & Wildlife primarily for research on the herd of big horn sheep that roam the slopes.
    Continuing our climb, the character of the flora changes distinctly to low trees and shrubs as we top out at about a mile above sea level before descending to the fine little university town of Alpine. The treasure that is the Museum of the Big Bend is located on the hillside campus of Sul Ross University, in the last rock structure of the esteemed state school. Quite comprehensive in covering prehistory and forward, the cultural and interactive displays leave one with a far greater appreciation for all that we've seen, and will. It's a great museum.
    Alpine itself is a wonderful historic town of about 6000, that in many ways due to its isolation, has maintained and attracted a continuing vibrancy. There is of course the university, but economically it also remains healthy as a center for the ranching industry, augmented too by the energies of an increasing numbers of retirees. Home to more than ten galleries, the area has attracted creative types for its quality of life, low cost of living, as well as inspirational landscapes. If so inclined, we can pop into the stately Old Courthouse, where the lobby is full of large format photos that bring home some of the realities of the early days. You can also inspect the location of your lot in Progress City here too.
    Time for lunch and then it's on the half hour to the highest town in Texas, Fort Davis to visit the town's namesake National Historic Site. One of the nation's best preserved frontier forts, it's initial role was that of protecting against the warring Comanches and Apaches. It changed hands during the Civil War and was rebuilt afterwards to serve out the rest of the century as a principal base for the famed Buffalo Soldiers. Period furnishings and informative displays allow one to appreciate the challenges and privations of this era of military and frontier life. A short trail behind the fort leads up into the signature lava formations for a fine overview and distant vista. Adjacent too is the Overland Trail Museum chronicling more of the civilian side of early settlement and westward expansion. Late in the afternoon we'll check in to our lodgings in the nearby Old Schoolhouse B & B. The adobe structure served from 1904 through the 1930's as the area's principal school, and though there have been many transformations since, the architectural features and feel are that of a piece of history. We'll have dinner and maybe a stroll before heading up the road past the Davis Mountains State Park a half an hour McDonald Observatory,  one of the most important astronomical research facilities on earth. Situated here because the skies are some of the clearest and darkest in the world, the three major telescopes range in size from 82 to 433 inches. The largest was just dedicated in 1999 and is not a traditional scope, but rather an SST, or spectrographic survey telescope. Being a university based institution, the Observatory has always maintained a concerted public education component, though research maintains primacy. The programs for viewing vary depending on the day, but we're planning on incorporating one of the popular post-sunset, "Star Parties". Programming varies and if interested in some of the more in-depth offerings, we'll need to schedule specifically for such. It undeniably feels of true privilege to witness the cosmos and Milky Way in so crystalline and stark a fashion. Then it's back to the B&B for the night, with visions other than sugar plums dancing.
    After a hearty breakfast, it's down the road thirty miles to Marfa, first established as a water stop for steam locomotives in 1881. The town's ambitions were immediately visible with the construction of a majestic stone and brick courthouse in attempts to eclipse the political ascendancy of the larger nearby rival Alpine. Built for $60K, we'll need to wander through and peek from the cupola to fully appreciate the $2.2 million restoration of 2001. Though not far in distance from our previous two towns, the open plain here provides a very different feel. It so captured the famous minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, that he forsake New York and purchased portions of the adjacent former army Fort D. A. Russell, where two painstakingly restored former artillery sheds house parts of his permanent collection. The renaissance brought about by the internationally acclaimed artist and the cultural nonprofit foundations which followed him have also attracted a score of quality art galleries. They exhibit predominantly contemporary talent, both regional and faraway, in media including painting, photography, ceramics, and sculpture/installation art. It's certainly a contrasting emphasis from the prevailing ranching atmosphere, though reassuringly, far too far from anywhere to be overtly pretentious. Those wishing to concentrate on the art offerings here as well as tour the grounds of Mr. Judd's legacy the Chinati Foundation, will want to schedule an additional day to take it all in. The town and surroundings have also featured in a number of Academy Award winning movies, from the 1950's "Giant", to more recent "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood".
    Southward from Marfa the road ambles with rolling vistas (camels included), descending toward the Rio Grande. A band of geologic interruption intrudes beforehand, with surface silver being found in the 1850's in the foothills of the Chinati Mountains and leading to the founding of the now nearly ghost town of Shafter. Reaching more than 2000 people, later lead was also extracted for the war effort during WWII, but groundwater problems closed company operations shortly thereafter. A handful of resident folks there keep a pulse alive and tend to some of the remaining buildings and cemetery, always outlasting the succession of periodic industrial interest in reopening the diggings. The graveyard (with an extensively documented photo collection in the adjacent pavilion) is a visual and spiritual testament to those that lived, loved, and struggled in the area, and now reside here in perpetuity.
    Another twenty miles leads to the town of Presidio, an official border crossing. Known from the Spanish days as La Junta de los Rios- The Junction of the River, this is where the Rio Conchos enters and reinvigorates the Rio Grande, giving rise to the sister city on the Mexican side of Ojinaga. We won't spend much time here because next awaits the famous River Road, labeled one of the "Most Scenic Drives in North America" by National Geographic. Beforehand though, just east of Presidio is Fort Leaton State Historical Park. Started in 1848 by an Indian bounty hunter, the massive adobe fortress served as a trading post and the location of the oldest continuously cultivated land in the US. Also the scene of tortured tales and family feuding, the interpretive displays in the nearly acre labyrinth structure contrast with the peaceful atmosphere of the two short desert nature trails. Hopefully upon exit the sun is reaching a point to provide golden backlight for the beautiful road ahead. Passing the agricultural river flatlands of Redford, the river valley quickly closes in, narrowing the road that twists and turns, climbs and descends, presenting a new vista at each. Paralleling Colorado Canyon, the river's forces (and dynamite) have provided the only passage. If time and desires allow, the short hike into the narrow slot of Closed Canyon is quite unique. A scoured canyon no wider than the creek that did so, it's a humbling thought to ponder the violence evident here when the water flows.  A few miles further east is the exceedingly steep La Cuesta or Big Hill that tests transmissions and power ratios of most any vehicle. Be glad your not on a bicycle. Continuing on a bit is the old movie set Contrabando, featured in a number of famous movies (some even good). Though damaged by flooding in 2008, the empty saloon, mission church and haciendas still echo with the Hollywood history that so easily comes to mind. Gunfight, anyone?
    Not much further, we exit the canyons of the river road, to arrive at the former border trading post of Lajitas. Named for the flat limestone rocks that made crossing the river here considerably easier for horses and wagons, the storied history of Lajitas ranges from being the western crossing of the Comanche War Trail, to cavalry outpost during the Mexican Revolution, to formerly favored location for trade in both directions of products legal and otherwise. Its latest association is with that of the American tradition of resort development, though reality has not been entirely congruent with the visions of successive developers. Authenticity has a way of succumbing when corporate goals become, "image" and "theme". From actually being a trading post and watering hole, to the first incarnation of the late seventies attempting to compete with Palm Springs, to the more recent "The Ultimate Hideout" destined for the rich and pretending-not-to-be famous, the most recent ownership has vowed and is making strides towards basing its economy in much greater part on locals. Beyond the kitschy faux boardwalk, the restaurant and bar do offer value and quality. We can decide to whet the whistle or not, but definitely a look around is in order. The setting is quite nice, and the contrast between original and new (and associated topics), inexhaustible. Whatever we do, we're but a stone's throw from, "home".



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