During February of 2014, Denny and I embarked on our first-ever Southwest adventure. He grew up in Phoenix, so we went out to meet his folks and do a mini-roadtrip. It was amazing. This year, we wanted to explore the west again but in a slightly different setting–and ended up deciding on West Texas and New Mexico. The scenery was absolutely incredible. In each town, we stayed at the coolest places we could dig up, ate at the most authentic restaurants, and drank at the diviest bars. And as always, we met a lot of memorable people along the way. In partnership with Enterprise Rent A Car, here’s our story.
Day One: Midland to Marfa, Texas
We started our journey in Midland, Texas. Out of the two airports that served “Marfa” (3 hours away), we looked at the possible routes from both and decided that Midland would be the better choice. (We’d also be doing the drive from Marfa to El Paso, the other route, a couple days later.) About an hour and a half in, we stopped at our first destination at Monahans Sandhills State Park. Though it was cold, it was the first of many beautiful sights to behold: rolling yellow sand hills as far as the eye could see.
Since it was pretty cold (read: windy and raining), we left pretty quickly and set off to Marfa. If you’re going this route, make sure to take the scenic road through Balmorhea and Fort Davis via I-20W to TX-17S through Davis Mountains State Park.
We arrived in Marfa early evening, just as the sun was setting. The weather had been cold and dreary all day and made for a really dramatic sunset.
For our first night’s stay in Marfa, we settled into the Spartan Mansion at El Cosmico, which is hands down the coolest hotel we’ve ever been to. (We applaud you, Liz Lambert!) The trailer heated and air-conditioned, making for cozy lodging year-round. After we unpacked, we headed into town for our dinner reservation (they’re recommended) at Cochineal. Though a bit on the pricey side, it was really fresh, creative food and it’s in the middle of nowhere. Not a bad first meal! Don’t pass up on house-baked bread basket or famous date pudding dessert. We ended up making some friends at dinner, too–Ginger, who runs Marfa Brands; Chick, her architect boyfriend; and two guys in bands from Brooklyn that were spending some time in out west.
Day Two: Exploring Marfa, Texas
We had the misfortune of being in Marfa during a freakish cold spell; when we woke up, it was 20º. Thankfully our little red Spartan was nice and cozy. After taking some photos, the first order of business was getting some coffee and pigging out at Marfa Burrito.
After picking up coffee and filling up on breakfast burritos, we headed over to the Chinati Foundation, home to a huge Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain collection. (Thus reminiscent of New York’s own Dia:Beacon.) The three spent some time there in the late 80’s and early 90’s and has the space has been preserved ever since. The museum gives both full-day tours ($25) or two hour ($20) tours; alternately, you can opt for the outdoor, self-guided tour through the field which is free. We’d at least recommend the two-hour tour if you don’t have time for the full day. We were in a hurry, so we just did the outdoor, and regretted not having more time than that.
We spent the rest of the early afternoon walking around town. Since Marfa–and the entire west–was going through this freakish coldspell, a lot of shops were closed. (Must be nice.) On the short list of shops we wanted to see but were closed: Freda, Cobra Rock Boot Company, Garza, and Wrong. We popped into whatever was open, which included Marfa Brand, Marfa Book Company and a couple art galleries. We also stopped into The Get Go, a surprisingly great natural foods store–especially for the middle of nowhere.
By this time, it was lunch, and we’d heard great things about Comida Futura (R.I.P.) We weren’t even to the counter before running into someone we knew–an old neighborhood bartender and friend, Brandon, whom we haven’t seen for several years. Small world! Neither Denny or I had seen him in a long time, and had no idea what he was up to or where he was. Turns out, he was living in Marfa for a few months and was just as surprised/happy to see us as we were to see him. He ended up inviting us to his house for dinner.
After lunch, we stopped into the beautiful and historic town hall. During warmer months, you can climb the stairs to the very top for an overlook of the town. (Unfortunately for us, because it was still winter, it was closed.)
The weather finally warmed up to mid-50’s and we were dying to spend some time outside. Brandon told us about a 5 mile hike just outside of town, on a ranch. He warned us it would look like we were intruding on private property, and it did absolutely feel like we were intruding–until we saw a cowboy who tipped his hat and waved us on.
After the hike, we stopped back at El Cosmico to move into our new space–a safari tent.
Dinner was amazing. Brandon and his girlfriend Jenny were really generous hosts–especially for such late notice. They cooked us a vegetarian feast, which we shared in good company: Brandon’s visiting parents, Krista who runs Comida Futura, and Maestro, who works for Chinati. (We later learned that everyone had nicknames in Marfa, explaining Chick and Maestro’s weird names. We never got the real ones.)
Afterward, the whole gang headed to Lost Horse Saloon, an awesome dive bar where we hung out with some some other folks in Marfa we’d met. After a couple drinks, we were inspired by everyone’s ghost/alien stories and headed to the middle of the desert to try and see the infamous Marfa Lights. We stood in the brutal cold for 20 minutes, didn’t see anything, and called it a night.
During the night, I had to pee, and I went to the outhouse without my glasses. I ended up getting back into the wrong tent, letting a stranger’s dog out, and scaring the shit out of her. Don’t do that.
Day Three: Roadtrip from Marfa, Texas to Big Bend National Park
Thanks to the cold, we woke up really early and promptly checked out. No trip is complete without a visit to the gift shop, so we picked up a couple tee shirts and a scorpion paperweight. We headed back to Do Your Thing to warm up by their fire pit and route the next leg of our adventure.
We set off Friday morning for Big Bend National Park. Though we’d seen photos, we had no idea what we were in for. The drive was incredibly scenic–we must’ve stopped every 15 minutes for a photo. If you head down here from Marfa, make sure to take the scenic “River Road” route, which is only 15 or 20 minutes out of the way. Also make sure to plan a couple nights here, unlike us, who ended up canceling our next night to stay a day longer at the park.
We didn’t get to the park until mid-afternoon, so we figured a short 2 hour hike would be best. As we drove closer to the hike, the horizon split in half between the massive cliffs and the big empty sky above it. The last 5 minutes of our approach revealed a little sliver between two massive cliffs, which turned out to the the location for our hike at Santa Elena Canyon.
We stayed in the ghost town of Terlingua that night at a hotel called Big Bend Holiday Hotel in the El Patron Suite. It’s only about an hour drive from the hike, still inside the massive park. When we arrived in town, we were really hungry and really tired. We put our names down on the waitlist at the Starlight Theatre, then killed time on their front porch drinking beers from a six pack. We met some locals, who lured us to their firepit across the road where we watched the moon rise over the mountains. When it was time, we bid our new friends adieu, and returned to the restaurant where we nabbed the best seats in the house.
Between the best (deliciously smoky) salsa we had the whole trip, the great veggie burgers, and the free show–this was our most memorable meal in Texas. After a couple more drinks at the bar, we decided to change our travel plans and stay another night in Big Bend.
Day Four: the Strange Town of Terlingua, TX in Big Bend
We got up with the sunrise in Terlingua, and took some photos of the sunrise over the mountains. Breakfast was fresh and yummy at La Posada Milagro, where we were joined by a local and his dog at the next table over. He gave us the low-down on the touristy hikes versus the hidden, locals-only hikes.
After much deliberation, we ended up landing on Lost Mine Trail. The hike was about 4 hours round trip, with an elevation rise of 1300 feet. Spectacular views the entire way. We had a picnic and a beer at the top and soaked in the magnificent view.
Unfortunately staying at Big Bend for the day meant a pretty long evening drive. We stopped briefly to take photos at Prada Marfa and it’s hometown of Valentine. (No, Prafa Marfa is not actually in Marfa.) Valentine was very charming in that worn-down, dusty Southwestern way.
We finally made it to Alpine and the Maverick Inn (“a roadhouse for wanderers” starting at $95/night) mid-evening. We were ready to collapse, but needed dinner and went in search of authentic Mexican food. We found it just a short walk from our hotel at a tiny joint called Los Jalapeños. After, we went to the legendary music venue Railroad Blues where we enjoyed a Texas-sized bonfire.