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.”
As we drove Route 385, we followed old electrical poles—short well-worn wooden stakes, in no particular shape or conformity. Some still wore glass transformers, now perched in sad and telltale disemploy.
This place is a time capsule. In New England, we make treasure of artifacts and architectures from our colonial past now hundreds of years gone. Here, the past is not so distance—a mere century, slightly more. Much of what they consider recent—houses, shops, utilities—would have been bulldozed eons ago back home, where everyone seems to strive for better and more and now!
The Gage Hotel sits like an oasis in the vast, flat-out landscape. As I flew into Austin (was that just the day before?), we passed north of Houston. The pilot announced it on the intercom and I bravely looked, expecting to see a great metropolis below, as if peering down from a skyscraper. I strained to see for several minutes before I saw it…a small remark on the ground below, like a chess piece on a giant game board.
In the same way, Marathon and The Gage sat in play in this desert.
Our bodies tired and dry from the eight and a half hour drive, we stepped into the lobby and were greeted by a warmth one imagines greeted weary cowboys in from the ranch—deep, soft leather sofas, rocking chairs, and a great buffalo head above a dancing fire. Outside, the 50 degree afternoon seemed an odd backdrop to the evergreen boughs and poinsettia.
Our room was one of the last along a long courtyard next to the main hotel. The doors, made from old mesquite, barely closed and were decorated by a red chile wreath. Inside, two iron beds with soft mattresses, down comforters, wool western blankets, and soft coffee-colored linens invited us in to rest. Clay tiles the color of terra-cotta pots lined the floors, and western decor—chaps, cowboy photos, a cowskin rug—set the mood.
The bathroom was divine with Mexican tile, wooden doors with wrought iron handles, and a linen shower curtain embroidered with colored flowers. Spa bath products of sage and rosemary and welcoming white robes bid us to stay a while and enjoy.
Welcome to Los Portales, “The Porches”, at the Gage Hotel. We hope that you enjoy your stay with us. We would like to share with you some of the more unique aspects of the architecture, the furnishing and the artifacts of the room in which you are staying. All the building materials and decor of Los Portales, and the Gage, are representative of the Mexican, Indian and Anglo cultures of the Big Bend area. They are configured around a courtyard, or “placita”, which historically provided a protected open space and often was the location of the community well. Our “well” is a fountain made in Mexico out of soft volcanic stone called “canterra”. It offers relief from the desert sun with the sound of trickling water and the cooling effect of evaporation.
The adobe bricks, a sun dried mixture of this caliche soil, straw and water, were made on the lot just north of Los Portales. Some 80,000 were used in constructing these buildings. The exterior of the buildings are plastered with three coats of cement stucco while the interior of the rooms are plastered with three coats of gypsum plaster and then finished with a coat of wax. The adobes in the patios and pool area are stabilized and have been left exposed.
One of the first things you might notice at Los Portales are the entry doors to the rooms. These doors, no two of which are the same, are very old mesquite doors salvaged from abandoned buildings in Mexico. Most of these doors are handmade and are well over 100 years old. Please be patient with them if they do not open or close easily.
The ceilings on the porches, “los portales,” and the ceilings in your room are also of an indigenous architectural style. The log beams are called “vigas” while the sticks in between the logs are called “latillas”. The “vigas” are ponderosa pine which can be found north of here in the Fort Davis Mountains. The “latillas” are made from the flower stalk of a local plant called sotol. All the sotol latillas, some 35,000, were collected from a ranch south of here near the entrance to Big Bend Park. Historically a layer of river cane would have laid over the latillas and then plastered with mud to provide a primitive roof system.
The brick on the porches, clay floor tiles and painted bathroom tiles are all from Mexico. The manufacturing processes have changed little from the way they were first made. The clay floor tiles are called “Saltillo” tiles and come from Saltillo, Mexico. The tiles are formed and laid out to dry in the sun before being fired in kilns. You may note that some of the locals dogs were out for their evening stroll before the tiles were quite dry enough. The bathroom tiles are called “Talavera” tile, and along with the sinks are hand made and painted in Dolores Hidalgo in Mexico.
After naps—who wouldn’t—we changed and made our way to Cafe Cenizo for dinner: “creative regional cuisine with influences from Mexico’s interior, and West Texas cowboy flair.” Chilled by the surprisingly crisp night air, we welcomed the warmth of this gourmet oasis, and were thankful for the fire crackling happily beside our table.
Our newly discovered favorite, Yellow Tail Shiraz, was our wine of choice, and we dined on melt-in-your mouth beef tenderloin, bold T-bone, and perfect rib-eye , each accompanied by salad, vegetables, and luscious horseradish mashed potatoes. For dessert, peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler and a Frangelica for my sister.
Warmed by dinner, a guilty pleasure here in this remote desert town—we headed back to the room…
A quiet I have never heard before. It was…liberating.
No traffic. No hum of electricity. No people moving about.
Not cricket or bird or bug.
Standing alone outside The Gage, I looked up and saw the clearest, darkest sky sparkling with stars—Orion, the Big Dipper, the Milky Way and thousands and thousands I have never seen before.
A slow, steady whooosh—like wind approaching across a marsh—a lone car approached, then faded off into the night beyond.
Quiet, once again.