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3-Day: Hills, History & Ancient Water

    A clockwise swirl, this mini tour includes many of the highlights of the others, but with that added attraction of huge crystal clear, spring fed pool --in the middle of a desert.
    As always, the early bird gets the worm and we'll depart Terlingua after breakfast to travel the few miles to the Barton Warnock Environmental Center, the eastern office of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Beyond the bookstore and 2.5 acre desert garden, the Center boasts one of the most complete and sophisticated interpretive displays on the natural history and cultural attractions of the region. The Desert Garden has considerable information on the local plants used by early inhabitants for food, shelter and medicine (in case we all get separated at some point). The Center provides a great knowledge base for the rest of your trip.
    A mile away to the west we pass by the formerly old settlement of Lajitas, after which the road immediately squeezes in next to the river, narrowing, twisting and turning, climbing and descending, always presenting a new vista at each. Labeled one of the "Most Scenic Drives in North America" by National Geographic, it parallels Colorado Canyon, where the river's forces (and dynamite) have provided the only passage. 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. A few miles further west is the exceedingly steep La Cuesta or Big Hill --be glad you're not on a bicycle.
    Since we've already paid for entry into the State Park, the short hike into the narrow slot of Closed Canyon is definitely warranted. 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. We can't make it the whole way without rappelling, but the outlet does form an interesting rapid where it empties into the Rio Grande (see River Trips). Leaving the State Park, the terrain softens and becomes agriculturally centered as we pass through the settlement of Redford.
    Just outside of Presidio, we'll visit the Fort Leaton State Historical Park. Started in 1848 by an Indian bounty hunter, the massive adobe fortress served as a trading post for an area that is considered the oldest continuously cultivated land in North America. 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. Presidio is the US-side town of, La Junta de los Rios- The Junction of the River, as this is where the Rio Conchos enters and reinvigorates the Rio Grande, giving rise also to the sister city on the Mexican side of Ojinaga. Known meteorologically as the "hottest town in Texas" (most literally), we'll not spend a great amount of time before heading up out of the river valley and north to Shafter. This is where a band of geologic interruption intrudes and led to surface silver being found in the 1850's in the foothills of the Chinati Mountains and mined to the degree to form a complete company town. Now a ghost town after reaching more than 2000 people, later lead was 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.
    Northward now, the road leads to the Presidio county seat of Marfa, first established as a water stop for steam locomotives in 1881, and our locale of evening repose. 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. 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". It was famed too from the beginning, for the "Marfa Mystery Ghost Lights" frequently sighted just east. This phenomena has defied definitive explanation (you'll have to wait to learn of all the theories) with balls of light appearing the horizon, moving in directions and at speeds that provoke animated conjecture but not explanation. Even the skeptic has gone away in wonder. We'll go try our luck after dinner when darkness falls . . . after dinner of course.
    'Tis morning again, and off we go the short distance to Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas.  The town's namesake National Historic Site, is one of the nation's best preserved frontier forts. Its 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. 
    Enthralling history definitely builds appetites, and so it's lunch before crossing scenic Wild Rose Pass to arrive at Balmorhea State Park. You've of course packed your scuba gear because this is a desert, and so you can certify where many folks do, in the deep, clear 70,000 square foot pool. It feels more tropical than local, with all the plant and marine life below, though the water remains about 75 degrees --another factor in its great summer popularity. On average, 25 million gallons of pristine spring water flow from San Solomon springs each day and through the 25 foot deep pool before exiting the Park. The pool as well as the surrounding limestone and adobe buildings were built in the 1930's by the sweat of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It's quite a unique spot.
    By later in the afternoon we'll be headed back through Fort Davis to visit the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens just south. With an outdoor as well as greenhouse gardens, there is plenty of opportunity to learn of the local flora. There are also artifacts and displays on the last 10,000 years of mining in the region. A promise too, is that of stretching our legs on the 2.5 mile Outer Loop Trail that explores the 500 acre property from the bottom of Modesta Canyon to the vista of Clayton's Overlook. On top is the brand new exhibit "Our Dynamic Geology: Geology, Culture, History", with informative panels explaining views in all directions. It's but a few minutes from here to dinner and our lodgings in Alpine.
        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 there's still energy after dinner, we might do a bit of the historical walking tour.
    Always an early start, this morning's highlight is the treasure that is the Museum of the Big Bend, 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. If so inclined, we can also 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.
    By early afternoon we'll continue on the half hour to the town of Marathon to have lunch at the Famous Burro. Before departing this former railroad stop, we'll wander through the historic Gage Hotel, long the most important lodgings between San Antonio and El Paso, and now a destination wedding favorite. The road south from here head to the National Park, passing through the Persimmon Gap entrance. The Gap is and was a major passageway from prehistory to modern times for creatures of all sorts. Its period of human infamy dates to the nineteenth century, when for many generations it was an integral part of the Comanche War Trail, where ferocious raiding parties from the Great Plains tribes would annually plunder Mexico for horses and slaves.


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