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INCOMPARABLE SMALL GROUP JOURNEYS ON THE LAST FRONTIER (South!)
 
 

3-Day: Mountain Loop Extended

    This mini itinerary is a delightful extension of the 2-Day: Desert Mountain Loop, continuing on for an overnight in Marfa, and visiting the ghost town of Shafter and on into Ojinaga, Mexico the next, before returning to Terlingua. Departing from the 2-day itinerary after the visit to the Desert Nature Center, we'll head the few miles back to Fort Davis to connect with the 26 mile route to Marfa.
    First established as a water stop for steam locomotives in 1881, Marfa'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". 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 on 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 . . .
    Whatever our previous evening's experience, today promises completely distinctly different ones, poking through a silver mining ghost town and heading into Mexico for lunch, before returning to Terlingua via the scenically acclaimed "River Road".
    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 Rivers, 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'll double check our passports, park next to Border Patrol, and walk across the International Bridge (yes, it's safe).
    Ojinaga (or 'OJ' to many) is about five times the size of Presidio at about 30,000, and is one of the most remote and least used crossings on the US/Mexico border. It's about 600 miles between crossings, and so far the violence plaguing Juarez and elsewhere has spared 'OJ'. Also absent is the traffic, long wait times and commercial sleaze associated with larger crossings. Mariachi music and brightly painted buildings will grace our walk the mile to the Plaza, the town square flanked by City Hall with dramatic historical murals on one side and the simple 18th century red-tiled church at the end. Many goods and services are dramatically cheaper here, leading to some of the same medical tourism influences found elsewhere. Many gringos from Terlingua and the region come for dentistry and prescription drugs. Tequila is pretty cheap too. Lunch will be in a local cafe, with hopefully the eclectic establishment Fausto's open for perusal. Run by Eduardo Holman, the city's unofficial tourism officer, he also administers the informative and exhaustive website www.ojinaga.com. It's a fascinating cultural experience for so easy of a visit, but our feet are probably by now starting to point us back toward the US. A quarter's worth of pesos for each of us on the Mexican side gets us back across the bridge to clear US customs. 
    Now it's time for 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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