Road Trip Big Bend: Marathon, Texas

This following post represents the collective experiences and thoughts of three women who set out on a 1,500 mile trek across West Texas in December 2003. This is their “Road Trip: Big Bend.”

 

FRIDAY

Seven hours along Interstate 10 led us to Fort Stockton, the northern most point of our journey. Here, we stopped for lunch next to the famed Pisano Pete roadrunner statue, then made our way to Route 385 south to Big Bend National Park and Marathon, Texas.

Jen with Pisano Pete, Fort Stockton

Our trip to Marathon led us closer and closer to Big Bend country with high, looming mesas and arid deserts as far as you could see. Wire fences noted ranches and homes along the road.

Signs of approaching Marathon encouraged familiar images: shops, restaurants, people bustling about for last minute holiday gifts. Instead, we crested a small hill and looked down into town—a two block expanse with a gas station, two gift shops, a bank, coffee shop and The Gage Hotel.

It is difficult to describe exactly how foreign this place is. Branford is a growing town of 29,000; Austin explodes at 500,000—nearly 18 times as large as Branford. By comparison, the towns we visit on this trip count populations like 7,800 (Fort Stockton), 455 (Marathon), and 250 (Terlingua or Study Butte).

Highway 385 to marathon

The far western end, or Trans-Pecos region, of Texas is the state’s most mythic. Even though few Texans live there, and fewer really know what the place is like, Hollywood has so often used the region as a Texas backdrop that to most, the Trans-Pecos is Texas. And while the dry desert region is a far cry from the more densely populated areas most Texans inhabit, it does symbolize for many Texans the wide-open, rough-and-ready quality they attribute to their state.

The region is some 30,000 miles quare, about the size of South Carolina or about three times the size of New Hampshire. Yet excluding its only city—EI Paso, which sits on its western edge—less than 60,000 people inhabit the place. While measuring the American West, the U.S. Census Bureau determined that an area was “settled” when its population density exceeded six persons per square mile. By those terms, the Trans-Pecos is still frontier. Four of its nine counties—Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Terrell—have more square miles than people. The area seems a great empty space, an expanse of caliche and rock surrounded by dry mountains.

Even the region’s name speaks for that: “Trans-Pecos” might refer to the region lying on either the eastern or western side of the Pecos River, depending on the namer’s point of view. Trans-Pecos defines the area on the western side—because there are too few people on that side to name anything.

The Trans-Pecos is as isolated as any area in the United States. Residents of Presidio for example—reputed to be the nation’s hottest spot, with summer temperatures often reaching 110 degrees—must drive five hours to the nearest commercial airport at Midland-Odessa. Their daily bread comes from EI Paso, another five hours away. People who live in this town of 3,000 drive 90 miles to pick up a pizza, 60 miles to playa round of golf, and 230 miles to attend a district football game. The leading daily in Presidio is the San Angelo Standard- Times, whose Sunday edition doesn’t reach town until Monday, when the mail arrives.

People who live in tiny Redford, 40 miles downriver, must drive into Presidio or 34 miles into Lajitas over a rough, winding road, to buy a pair of shoes. The drive over Texas Farm-to-Market Road 170 (El Camino Del Rio), from Presidio to Lajitas through Redford, is one of the prettier ones in the state. The pavement snakes, climbs, and dives. On one side, red rocky canyon walls; on the other fall steep banks down to the Rio Grande. On this road, and on other in the Trans-Pecos, isolation has its virtues, but can be downright frightening, too. Three Trans-Pecos counties have no doctors, and even emergency crews can’t reach Redford in less than a half-hour’s time.

Compass American Guides: Texas

Can you imagine a town with only 250 people? That’s just 10% more than my high school graduating class!

One wonders if the urban sprawl so familiar in places like Austin and Branford will ever find its way here. McDonald’s and Targets and Taco Bell and Home Depot. And then one whispers, “I pray not!,” hoping the great and greedy commercial gods did not hear the idea!

Entering Marathon, TX
No looking back…
Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.

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