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Creativity Memoir Travel

We’ll have memories for company, long after the songs are gone

Grammy-winning folk artist Nanci Griffith dies at 68 — The Guardian

I first heard Nanci Griffith while driving on the Boston Expressway one night. It was three in the morning, actually, the Expressway before the Big Dig, 30 degrees with the window down, and a beautiful, unnamed voice on the radio. She seemed a kindred spirit, someone who somehow understood the loneliness of that newly heartbroken and somewhat lost twenty-something.

I’ve been workin’ in corners all alone at night
Pullin’ down whiskey
Keepin’ my eyes away from the lights
I’ll never be a fool but I will gamble foolishly
I’ve never let go of love
Till I lost it in my dreams

The moment was out of place and time, and remains in my memory to this day more than 30 years later.

I held onto those lyrics in my mind for years before I found out who sang them. Hoping to hear them again, recognize her distinct voice that still haunted me.

When I met my friend DeLinda in 1991, she knew the song. Knew the musician, too —  the two of them born and raised in the state I would come to know and love over the years.

Nanci Griffith, born July 6 (my birthday) a world away in Texas, was a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, who grew up in Austin. She was an up-and-coming folk/country folk singer when I first heard her that night in Boston. A popular guest on the PBS show Austin City Limits in the late 80s, she won a Grammy in 1994 for her album Other Voices, Other Rooms, and went on to produce more than 20 albums, including the first one I ever bought: One Fair Summer Evening.

I remember the day I found it — that first album — at a shopping mall record store mall, in the G bin. A cassette tape that played in my car for years and years, every song and note connecting to my heart in old soul ways I can’t explain.

One Fair Summer Evening sang me through that early unrequited love. Lone Star State of Mind connected me to my soul mate and my heart space. Flyer helped me grieve my father.

I saw Nanci in concert once, at Edgerton Park in New Haven. It was October 2001, a month after 9/11. To this day, I am not sure if I was more shocked by the sight of planes in the sky again or by the pure and crystal sound of her voice in the starry night air.

The New York Times wrote that Nanci Griffith “may just be one of America’s best poets.” She was, I think, many of my great loves in one voice…

I found your letter in my mailbox today
You were just checkin’ if I was okay
And if I miss you, well, you know what they say…

Just once… in a very blue moon

– – – – –

And when we die we say, we’ll
Catch some blackbirds wing
Then we will fly away to Heaven come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring

– – – – –

These days my life is an open book
Missing pages I cannot seem to find
These days your face
In my memory
Is in a folded hand of grace against these times

– – – – –

There’s a pale sky in the east, all the stars are in the west
Oh, here’s to all the dreamers, may our open hearts find rest
The wing and the wheel are gonna carry us along
And we’ll have memories for company, long after the songs are gone.


Workin’ in Corners, Poet in My Window; Once in a Very Blue Moon, One Fair Summer Evening; Gulf Coast Highway, Little Love Affairs; These Days in an Open Book, Flyer; The Wing & The Wheel, The Last of the True Believers. Photo from the album cover of Intersection, Griffith’s last album.


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Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Coda

Gulf Coast Highway

Gulf coast highway, he worked the rails
He worked the rice fields with their cold dark wells
He worked the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico
The only thing we’ve owned is this old house here by the road

And when he dies he says he’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring

She walked through springtime when I was home
The days were sweet, our nights were warm
The seasons changed, the jobs would come
The flowers fade, and this old house felt so alone
When the work took me away

And when she dies she says she’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And she will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring

Highway 90, the jobs are gone
We kept our garden, we set the sun
This is the only place on Earth blue bonnets grow
And once a year they come and go
At this old house here by the road

And when we die we say we’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring

Yes when we die we say we’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And we will fly away together
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring


Songwriters: Danny Flowers / James Brown / Nanci Griffith

Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Playlist

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.”

MONDAY

Up before dawn, we dressed and packed up the car in dark. A short stop for coffee and we were on our way to the looming Chisos Mountain range, the centerpiece of Big Bend National Park.

Desert sunrise

The Chisos Mountains are the heart of Big Bend National Park. They extend twenty miles from Punta de la Sierra in the southwest to Panther Junction in the northeast. It is the only mountain range totally contained within a single national park. Among the highest peaks in the range are Emory Peak (7,835 feet above sea level), Lost Mine Peak (7,535 feet), Toll Mountain (7,415 feet), and Casa Grande Peak (7,325 feet).

A 7-mile long paved road climbs into the Chisos Mountains Basin, a circular valley ringed by craggy peaks. In the Basin there is a developed National Park Service Campground and Park ranger stationed. Chisos Mountains Lodge operates the only hotel in the park and a dining room with the grandest view of any in Texas. The Chisos Mountains support vegetation that includes Douglas fir, Aspen, Arizona cypress, Maple, Ponderosa pine, and Madrone. Daytime highs in the summer rarely exceed 90 in the Basin, and there is plenty of shade.

Driving in the dark was amazing. Beyond our headlights, there were no signs of life as far as the eye could see. DeLinda stopped the car, turned off the lights and engine, and we were at once blanketed in the softest, widest blanket of darkness. The air was cool and refreshing. Slowly, outlines of the mountains in front of us began to appear, and life sprang forth, including a jack rabbit that crossed in our path!

A right turn brought us to the mouth of the Chisos Basin road, a winding hilly drive that led us up along the side of the mountains, up over and down to the center of this crown-like mountain range. At the center and bottom sat a sprawling campground and the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Perched inside the Basin, cupped by giant mountain walls, the Lodge faces south over Big Bend. A natural opening called “The Window” afforded views of the park as the sun climbed higher in the morning sky.

An all-windowed dining room was the perfect amphitheater for the sunrise, and we had front row seats as we enjoyed a scrumptious buffet. We ate like we hadn’t in days, and devoured our filled plates of eggs, bacon, fruit, biscuits, grits and salsa.

Sunrise from the Chisos Basin

Some photos and souvenirs, and we were back on the road again, backtracking through Panther Junction, north up 385, 70 miles back into Marathon. Overhead, hawks and eagles watched our departure and the sun on our backs pushed us along out from Big Bend and east along Highway 90.

Nancy Griffith sings about Highways 90, the Gulf Coast Highway. She was just one of our eclectic selection of music on this trip, that included the Partridge Family, Paul Simon, Bare Naked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Indigo Girls, Steely Dan, Dixie Chicks, Robert Earl Keene, Randy Travis, Sting, Amy Mann, Suzy Bogus, Eagles, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovettt, Lilith Fair, Gypsy Kings, and Abba. Each of us sharing our favorites along the way.

Highway 90 took us six hours east through West Texas, past Sanderson and Dryden on into Langtry. Here, we stopped at the Judge Roy Bean Museum. This was a weary day, and you could see our enthusiasm wane just a bit as we made plans to stop for lunch and visit the exciting town of Del Rio.

The slick and glossy brochure for Del Rio said this was THE place to be—shopping, recreation, happy Mexican dancers. We drove down now-congested Highway 90 into a stretch of every fast food joint, gas station, and car dealer known.

In the first five minutes, we saw more people than we had in the past three days! It was quite a culture shock—the cars, the people, the noise! I was reminded of Gulliver returning from the land of the Houyhnhms where he lives among the majestic horse-creatures and the “Yahoos” or humans…

“I must freely confess the sight of them filled me only with hatred, and the more by reflecting on the near alliance I had to them,” wrote Jonathan Swift. “For although since my unfortunate exile from the Houyhnhm country, I had compelled my self to tolerate the sight of Yahoos…yet my memory and imagination were perpetually filled with the virtues and idea of those exalted Houyhnhm.”

We stopped in “historic” downtown Del Rio, wondering how this congestion of dollar stores and loan shops was “The Best of the Border”? We didn’t say much as we drove east out of Del Rio, rather quickly, and on into San Antonio, then north through Johnson City and back into Austin.

In an airplane, you are aloft at some 30,000 feet in a vast skyscape of blue and white, with only your fellow travelers as company. And then, as you make the approach to your destination, the world slowly reappears. You begin to make out cities and buildings, houses and backyards, cars and people. With one weighty tug you are back to earth, and back home.

In the same way, our world took shape again. Out from the expanses of vast desert and majestic mountains, out from the quiet and dark, back into this bustling hub of activity—for better or for worse.

By the time we reached Austin at 7:30 Monday night, we had charted more than 1,500 miles on our adventure. Our modern-day weariness happily replaced by a shared exhaustion, a feeling of accomplishment, and a heartfelt sense of camaraderie.

“There’s a pale sky in the east
all the stars are in the west
Oh, here’s to all the dreamers
may our open hearts find rest
The wing and the wheel are gonna carry us along
And we’ll have memories for company
long after the songs are gone.”

— Nancy Griffith

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: This one time…in Mexico

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.”

SUNDAY

Presidio (pop 4,167) was the largest town we visited since Fort Stockton. The Mexican influence was obvious in this bordertown, and we drove through rather quickly intent on a visit to Mexico.

And so we drove, through Presido, through the border patrol, over the bridge and on into Ojinaga, Mexico. Encapsulated in our American SUV, we looked out the window into this dusty, congested town bustling with activity—car dealers, restaurant, pinata stores and street vendors.

It was at the first intersection that I realized this was not what I expected. As we sat at a red light, ready to head right, the car behind us beeped its horn. I looked up to see if we could take a right on red and saw not one sign in English! Storefronts, street signs…all, of course, in Spanish!

There has been no easy transition from English to Spanish, from America to Mexico. We were on foreign soil, so foreign that even our adventurous souls agreed to turn around. And so we drove right and then left and then right back to the border crossing, where we spent more time waiting to get back into the U.S. than we did in Mexico!

In our seats, we waited as patiently as we slowly approached the ominous border patrol. Forty-five minutes later, DeLinda rolled down the window and the border patrol officer asked if we were all U.S. citizens. In unison, without a word, the three of us held up our driver’s licenses and smiled. The officer almost laughed…these three pale white women in red bandannas with travel brochures and beef jerky strewn across the front seat. U.S. citizens indeed!

Mexico behind us, we appropriately stopped at a Presidio restaurant, El Alamo, and feasted on salsa and chips, tacos and burritos.

Driving back the River Road, we saw backwards where we had been, and stopped along the way to snap photos we had missed on our earlier journey. Weary, we camped out at the hotel for the night. Tomorrow, we drive home…

View of the rio grand, back towards Presidio, from the “big hill”

Chisos Mountains from El Camino Del Rio

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
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Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: El Camino Del Rio

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.”

SUNDAY

EI Camino del Rio extends more than 50 miles from Lajitas to Presidio on Farm-to-Market 170. Considered one of the most spectacular routes in the whole of Texas, El Camino del Rio—the River Road—plunges over mountains and into steep canyons as it follows the sinuous Rio Grande through the desolate but wildly beautiful Chihuahuan Deserted [and] the Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area, a 420-square-mile preserve encompassing the River Road.

The town of Lajitas (la-HEE-tahs) [was] established in 1915 as an Army post to protect settlers from Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican renegade. Route 170 begins its roller-coaster course before you even leave the town, following the Rio Grande west.

The road swings away from the river [and back]….After 2 to 3 miles you’ll see a cluster of weathered volcanic ash formations called hoodoos along the river….The drive then starts a steady, 5-mile climb up the “big hill” of Santana Mesa. A major engineering feat, this portion of the road ascends at a 15% grade. At the summit, an overlook affords superlative views of the canyon below and the rugged, forbidding volcanic landscape that sweeps to the horizon.

As you make your serpentine descent off the mesa, the Rio Grande winds below, a green path through the wild Chihuahuan Desert. The Rio Grande Valley continues to widen, filled with a sculptural array of eroded lava hills and mesas. You cross Panther Creek then pass a narrow fissure known as Closed Canyon, the first in a series of canyons along this undulating stretch. Continuing on, you have expansive scenes of the arid valley below.

About 10 miles farther on, the drive enters windblown Redford, an old farming community. Pressing on through open range, the road finds the river again and passes through a couple of refreshingly green oases before entering Presidio.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

El Camino Del Rio presented the most varying scenery of this trip—vast expanses of now-familiar desert, huge terra-cotta stone mesas towering above, white volcanic ash mountains and sculptures called “hoodoos.”

In the Valley—sometimes below, sometimes alongside—lush tall grasses and trees grow. You can almost imagine them deciding to congregate here along side the winding Rio Grand—low grumbling voices in agreement, like the Ents in “Lord of the Rings.”

The curvaceous road takes us up from the river. Winding! Twisting! Throwing us up! the sides of mountains and down! beneath huge walls of rock and then up! again. Then flat road for miles…surprised by smaller hills, like bunny-hops on a roller coaster.

This road was at once exciting and frightening, showing us unimagined sights and then disappearing below the hill in front of us—will it curve right? left? We hold our breaths and wait for the road to materialize before us.

“Loose Livestock” signs make us laugh at the image of risque cattle along the side of the road, catcalling to us as we fly by at 50, now 70, now 15 miles an hour. Ahead, the towns of Lajitas, Redford and Presidio, and then Ojinaga, Mexico.

We had talked about staying at Lajitas—a $200 a night resort dropped down here by some “forward thinking” developer who obviously felt this fabulous, natural wilderness needed an exclusive, high priced spa/resort complete with lighted tennis course, golf course and western-themed shopping plaza.

We drove past without stopping, grateful for our cooler full of snacks and beef jerky. Westward.

This part of the region is called Big Bend Ranch State Park and encompasses 287,000 acres of wilderness. They call it “some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the southwest.”

If you look at a map of electrical light across the U.S., this is the place where it stops. The northeast is cluttered with light, but the farther west you drive, the more dark it becomes. Here, there are no street lights, no glaring disturbances of light or hum of electricity. It is so dark here that the McDonald Observatory, north near Alpine, claims one of the best skies for star observation in the country.

El Camino Del Rio, looking toward Presidio, from the “big hill”

Along El Camino Del Rio

Hoodoos

Hoodoos

The Ents

Roller Coaster

Towards Mexico

Desert colors along El Camino Del Rio

By the hand of God

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
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Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: It’s a Ghost Town

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.”

SUNDAY

Sunday morning found us well-rested and ready for our journey down “El Camino Del Rio,” the River Road. “For over 30 miles, El Camino del Rio twists and winds with the Rio Grande, crossing arroyos, climbing mountains, and hugging canyon walls. The “Big Hill” has one of the steepest grades on a highway in Texas, and at the top, the view looks east to the Chisos Mountains 75 miles, and west into Colorado Canyon and mountain ranges deep into Mexico.”

We awoke early enough to catch the sun rising over the mountains, and all agreed that it would be great to see the sun rise in the park the next morning.

Our first stop, after coffee and a photo opp outside the hotel, was the Terlingua Ghostown, an old mining camp, now partially deserted and left in ruins. An elaborate gift shop—incredibly out of place—kept us occupied for nearly an hour, as we scouted out the first truly commercial establishment since we left Austin.

Historic Terlingua…often referred to as the “Ghostown”…was home of the Chisos Mine, which extracted cinnabar, or Mercury ore. The Chisos was the largest of almost a dozen cinnabar mines in what was once know as the Terlingua Mining District….During the boom days of 1913-1918, the population of Chisos Mine and Historic Terlingua was over 2000.

Several structures have been restored or stabilized. The main building once housed the largest retail store between Del Rio and El Paso. It now houses shops and a restaurant. Many of the stone miners’ cabins have been restored by a new generation of inhabitants. The massive adobe walls of the original owners mansion still stand, and demonstrate how quickly boom goes to bust. Although Historic Terlingua is all private property, much of it is open to the public.

The $1 walking tour brochure led us around the town and ruins, but we opted to skip numbers 6 through 15 and headed to the hauntingly attractive Ghostown Cemetery. Here, we discovered old and new graves adorned with rugged crosses of wood and iron. Candles and monuments dotted the small stone mountains standing in memory of the people who once occupied this town.

Today, people still live in the Ghostown, in makeshift houses created from the ruins. New roofs and walls attach to golden adobe brick skeletons. They call this home and we drive off toward Presidio in our SUV with our newly purchased chachki.

Ghostown cemetery

Ghostown cemetery

Ghostown cemetery

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
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Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Mavericks

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.”

SATURDAY

Leaving Castolon, we drove through the Rio Grand flood plain, dry and dusty, with trails of old river and flood obvious in the hallowed-out ground. Rocks and sand covered the road and spit up clouds of dust that made our mouths pasty and our lips parched. We stopped for a moment at the grand Santa Elena Canyon — a massive wall of rock standing tall along the Texas and Mexico border. Beyond, Mexico. There.

We turned north, along Old Maverick Road—a well-worn, dirt road leading 13 miles north toward Terlingua and Study Butte (pronounced “stewdy by-oot”).

Driving this isolated road, we felt part of everything. Alone, it was easy to imagine the early visitors here, stunned by the awesomeness of this flat landscape, surrounded by these massive, prehistoric stone mountains.

Santa Elena Canyon

Along the base of Santa Elena Canyon

Where the pavement ends…Old Maverick Road

Along Old Maverick Road

Seussian landscape

North, at Maverick Junction, we headed northwest up Route 118 into Study Butte and Terlingua. We lunched at Ms. Tracy’s, an eclectic looking cafe with an open porch out front and a blow-up Santa next to the road sign—easy to forget it was only five days until Christmas!

My sister wanted to eat inside. “I’ve had enough of the outdoors today!” And so we sat inside, a room that felt like Ms. Tracy’s dining room, while she prepared our lunch in the kitchen next to us in this “come as you are home cooking emporium.” The three of us enjoyed the stillness of not traveling as we ate our homemade Mexican lunch: salsa, picadillo, burrittos, migas.

After lunch, we made our way to the Big Bend Motor Inn, a 1950s style strip motel planted next to an RV park at the base of stone peaks. From the front of the hotel, you could look back to the vast stone park we had just left.

My sister napped while DeLinda and I took off into town, stopping for wine and snacks. Full from lunch, we opted for snacks in the room before heading to La Kiva for drinks.

Driving along the winding road in the jet black night, we found our way to this local bar recommended by DeLinda’s hairdresser Anne Monique. La Kiva is a “a unique structure of massive sandstone boulders, cut into a terrace overlooking Terlingua Creek.” Just as unique were the patrons inside…

We followed DeLinda down the narrow stone passageway, through ominous doors into a room filled with locals—a skinny woman in overalls with long braided pigtails serving drinks, an urban-looking cowboy, 50ish, seated at the bar, a bawdy woman twisting her cropped bleach blond hair and flirting with the woman next to her, a biker with a long Amish beard leaning against a far wall, and the bass player in funky white sunglasses…

We drank, acutely aware of these strangers and not feeling very welcomed. We were tourists, doing our best to act like we belonged when clearly, we did not. The funny thing is, each of us, in our own way, were as odd as the people in that bar. Our life experiences, our quirks, our eccentricities gave us membership, even if the locals did not.

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: West Texas Women

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.”

SATURDAY

In Castolon, the southernmost point of this drive, we stop to rest. DeLinda and I get out of the car to stretch our legs; I look to my sister in the back seat to ask if she will join us. She sits, knitting, with the most peaceful and contemplative smile on her face. I close the door quietly and catch up with DeLinda.

We came South today with the idea that we will cross into Mexico, near the Santa Elena Canyon. The travel books tell of river crossings where small boats take visitors across to Mexican villages for lunch and shopping, and we are excited. But, a stop at the Castolon Historic District alerts us to a post 9/11 change that makes such crossings illegal and attached to a $5,000 fine and jail time!

It was only by chance that we saw the sign on our way into a small sundries shop in this former border outpost. Inside a woman transplanted here, from Cape Cod of all places, agrees with our decision to not visit Mexico today!

We met a number of such transplanted women on our trip. They were concession hosts in the park, restaurant owners like Ms. Tracy in Study Butte, and shop owners. It seems this is the place for disenchanted but strong women to remake themselves.

At the same time, almost every story of men moving to the area spoke of their love for a woman who would not join them. It seems nothing they did—not the Terlingua mining man who built a theater, or Judge Roy Bean who named a saloon after his love—would entice them to come.

It must take a very special kind of woman to call this desert home. Most we saw or met were independent and capable; strong willed and, I imagine, strong in temperament. Their eyes were bright and steadfast, their faces aged . Were we meeting them all at the same times in their lives? Or does the very personality of this place etch itself into all faces, branding them as belonging here, and no where else.

They were not friendly to us three outsiders. We were visitors, spending our disposable income in their impoverished home town. We were on vacation, they were living. The things we take for granted too numerous to list became glaringly obvious at almost every stop along this trip—in Terlingua and Study Butte, in Presido, in Ojinanga, certainly, and Del Rio.

A cookbook I bought featured the annual Terlingua Chili Cook-off. The original proceeds of the book financed the building of a Big Bend High School. Previously, kids were up at 4:30 a.m. and bussed 160 miles round trip to Alpine each day!

These small towns were so unexpected to the eye, appearing in the middle of nowhere. “We’re not nowhere,” DeLinda would say, “We’re in Terlingua!”

What we expected—what I expected—with the mention of the word “town” was some commercial strip of shops. A New England Main Street complete with stores and people and houses. What we saw, instead, was a mismatched mix of small shacks, trailers transformed into shops and homes, old structures makeshifted into a town of similarly mismatched people, making there way in this barren and rough outpost of America.

 


BUT THE BOOK: Big Bend Pictures
It takes a long time to get to know the Big Bend. And to get acquainted with the independent, self-contained, slightly quirky people who call this place home …well, that can take a lifetime. James Evans understands that. Recalling his decision to make the Big Bend his artistic muse and photographic subject, he says, “I moved here in 1988 to dedicate my life to the Big Bend and its people. I don’t shoot pictures and leave and make a book. This work is a slow accumulation of years of being here. The mountains are familiar friends and the people my heroes. I am one of them.”


Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Scenic Drive

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.”

 

SATURDAY

We enter the park at Persimmon Gap, some 40 miles south of Marathon. Almost immediately, the landscape becomes Seussian—small tufts of trees, green and purple cacti, and ocotillo — tall, finger-like plans that grow from a center base and reach upward in random direction. In the spring, they are green with red flowers, but in winter, they are ashen and dry, like fingers of an old man reaching up for something more.

And as we drive, each of us imagines this place in early days, remembers the Indians, the cowboys and ranchers, the horse and cattle that once enjoyed this vast and remote wilderness.

We spy a family of javalina (do not call them pigs!) on our way to Panther Junction. On this trip we will see javalina, deer, jack rabbits, hawks, road runners, cattle, goats, sheep and golden eagles.

After a stop at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center, we head east to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

We drive for nearly two hours along this curving road, stopping along the way to visit the abandoned Sam Neil Ranch, to enjoy the view from Sotol Vista.

[The] Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive [extends 32 miles south from ] Santa Elena Junction to Santa Elena Canyon overlook in Big Bend National Park .

Wedged within the big bend of the Rio Grande, which forms the U.S. border with Mexico, the 801,163-acre Big Bend National Park contains deserts, canyons, mesas, and mountains. The drive—designed by Ross Maxwell, a geologist and the national park’s first superintendent—gives you a look at Big Bend’s remarkably varied terrain. From Santa Elena Junction in Big Bend National Park, the drive heads south. Mountains command the left view, with Burro Mesa on the right. After about 2 miles, you can make out angular and domed formations in the mountain rock that indicate ancient volcanism. Fortress—like outcroppings called dikes—are also common here. For the next few miles you ascend steadily past boulder strewn slopes. Sotol Vista, one of the best views in the park, offers a stunning perspective on Santa Elena Canyon and the floodplain of the Rio Grande. From here, the drive descends through a series of switchbacks, past views of the unmistakable Mule Ears Peaks formal icon: Tuff Canyon, named for its gray, volcanic ash rock and Cerro Castollan, a pile of volcanic rock that towers 1,000 feet. As you continue curving down, the Chihuahuan Desert benchland suddenly opens before you.

Don’t bypass the old Army compound of Castolon, a frontier trading post still open for business. Paralleling the Rio Grande, the road crosses a fertile floodplain. The scattered remains of old adobe buildings along this stretch mark former farms. About 8 miles from Castolon, the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook offers a view down on the narrow Rio Grande flowing through a chasm with 1,500-foot limestone walls, The road ends half a mile farther, where a 1.5-mile trail leads into the mouth of the canyon.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

Javalina in the foreground

Ocotillo

View from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

View from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Mule Ears Peaks

Looking north from Soltol Vista, where we’ve been…

South from Soltol Vista, into Santa Elena Canyon, where we go.

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Big Bend National Park

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.”

 

SATURDAY

Was it the utter silence that kept us awake all night? Perhaps the Southern Pacific railroad that passed in front of the hotel at least three times between midnight and five? Or maybe our weary brains were filled with the thoughts of the adventure ahead? Despite it all, we awoke in the morning full of conversation and excited!

It was cold outside, maybe 35 degrees, but steaming showers in the luxurious bathroom warmed us. With breakfast snacks of fruit and bagels and coffee, we were packed and back on the road by eight.

Route 385 leaves Marathon in the distance behind us, and we make our way south into Big Bend National Park — an 801,000 acres park that fills the southwestern section of Texas and borders the Rio Grand and Mexico. One guidebook compares Big Bend to the size of the state of Rhode Island!

As we drive south toward the park, we pass a large buck along the side of the road. He grandly jumps the fence as we pass, no doubt startled by the ferocity of our mighty engine roaring across the morning desert.

That desert stretches out before us with bold mesas standing wait ahead—this is where we will travel today—to Panther Junction, east to Santa Elena Junction past the Chisos Mountains to our left, then southwest down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which “skirts the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains, climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista, then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District and winding up at Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, where the pavement ends.”

Heading South from Marathon

On the road to Big Bend

How we travel

Santiago Peak, Route 385

South on 385 from Marathon

Chisos Mountain Range near Panther Junction

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: The Gage

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

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

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.

Dinner at Cafe Cenizo

 

Warmed by dinner, a guilty pleasure here in this remote desert town—we headed back to the room…

Quiet.

A quiet I have never heard before. It was…liberating.

No traffic. No hum of electricity. No people moving about.

Quiet.

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.

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.
Categories
Creativity Travel

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.
Categories
Creativity Travel

Road Trip Big Bend: Austin to Marathon

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

We began before Friday even showed itself—the three of us packed into our rented Chevy Suburban.

“Not an SUV,” said my sister, with not so subtle anti-establishment undertones. In the end, I think she was most grateful for the space, as it afforded her room to nest and knit, watch and relax…finally.

For all of us, this trip was about relaxing—stopping—more than anything else. My sister, in her second year of grad school, had not lifted her head from a book in more than a year. DeLinda had been juggling multiple work responsibilities, a new house, and family concerns. And I had been at the computer in a six month marathon of just too much work.

And so we chose to stop…pile weary bones and brains into our mighty SUV and travel nearly 600 miles across West Texas to see Big Bend National Park. Our “Road Trip Big Bend.”

In honor of our adventure, DeLinda gifted us with t-shirts she had made, imprinted with our “Road Trip Big Bend” logo. I brought red bandannas for each of us. And so adorned we left Austin on that first day just past seven.

You could hear the weariness in our silence. Imagine three woman about to embark on a four-day road trip with barely a word spoke between them. Imagine!

Instead, my sister knitted meditatively in the back seat. DeLinda comfortably assumed the role of driver as I sat mesmerized by the endless horizons of Texas countryside—low scrub trees and prickly pear cactus dotting endless miles of ranch, farm land and highway.

The back seat was stocked with our food for the trip: fruits and cheese, crackers, sandwich fixins’, goldfish crackers, bagels, breakfast bars, and a box of Christmas cookies DeLinda brought from a cookie swap earlier in the week. Our supply of beef jerky never dwindled, as we stocked up regularly. While our visit to Whittington’s in Johnson City—the absolute best place for beef jerky—was an hour too early, we managed quite well on varieties sampled at every stop along the way. To be honest, I don’t ever recall walking into a convenience store with the sole mission of finding beef jerky, but such was the case. Beef jerky for breakfast? Yes, delightfully, every day.

Along the way, we passed giant wind farms. Resourceful ranchers and oilmen have assumed stewardship of the wind, harnessing its power via these great windmills. They appear to grow from tops of mesas and up from the fields—like a science-fiction landscape, eerie and mysterious.

Three windmills stood on high looking quite biblical. It would not be the first of such references—even our excursion into the desert, itself, seemed symbolic. With a foreign dryness that left both mouth and skin parched, we were lucky that our stay in the desert was a mere four days, not 40!

Windmills on Interstate 10

“Marathon is the gateway to the northern entrance of Big Bend National Park, via Highway 385. This route from Ft. Stockton south through Marathon and on to its end at Persimmon Gap roughly follows that of the great Comanche War Trail. About five miles south of [Marathon] lies the site of old Ft. Pena Colorado. In 1879 the fort was established to stave off Comanche and Apache raids…. In 1881, the Southern Pacific railroad arrived.

Marathon is nestled in the heart of the grassy rangelands of the Marathon Basin. It is cattle country and it is on the railroad lines….One notable cattle baron was Alfred Gage, the owner of 600 sections (384,000 acres) of grazing lands. In 1927, the Gage Hotel was built to serve as his headquarters. Another cattle magnate, Captain Albion Shepard, named the community Marathon because it reminded him of the lands around Marathon, Greece.”

Big Bend Area Travel Guide

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.