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Monday, April 4, 2011

Into the Wild West Texas

(One of my favorite trips from Fort Worth)

Monahans Sand Hills. Balmoreah's Natural Spring. Davis Mountains. McDonald Observatory. Historic working cattle ranches. State Parks. We pass all of this on our way into our Trinitarian food and fun Mecca: Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa. Due to my passion for this raw and simple part of Texas I will write in parts so you don’t fall asleep on your computer screen. I could keep an entire blog just about West Texas.

PART I: The Drive Out There
The speed limit is 80 m.p.h. and the sky is as vast as the vaqueros’ vocations that have worked this land for more than 150 years. A smile always crosses my face as I leave the complications of society and the city life behind me. The drive from the Midland/Odessa airport to our destination is roughly 150 miles west and rich with undulating landscape, history and even bigger skies.

I don’t know what it is about the desert, but the drive from Odessa to our Fort Davis/Marfa/Alpine destination has become an essential part of our vacation. As the city sloughs off my shoulders like an old heavy coat, the air lifts me into the ever-growing blue sky. I put on Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack and roll down the windows. I turn up the volume to the lyrics "wind in my hair I feel part of everywhere." Very few people are out there, but the cars we do pass almost always give us the “L” wave. They stick their index finger and thumb out while still holding onto the wheel just to say, “Howdy, welcome to West Texas.”

Monahans Sandhills
Our first stop is usually the Monahans Sandhills State Park just 30 minutes west of Odessa. We surf 70-foot, snow-white sand dunes on round plastic discs. One time we actually camped out there, drank wine and cooked steaks under the visibly brilliant Milky Way. It was so bright that night because the moon reflected its light off the alabaster sand. We let the ancient dunes tell their story and imagined what it was like for the first explorers who stumbled upon the edge of the 3,000-acres of salt-like sand mountains. They probably said something like “oh no … still no water.” 

But we don't always have time to camp and stargaze,  so we stop for an hour and surf until our legs go weak and we can’t hike the huge hills anymore (you think running on the beach is hard?) By time you're finished surfing it's time to dip in a huge cold bathtub, which is usually our next stop — a chilly tub filled by a natural spring. 

Fort Davis State Park
Just as the Fort Davis Mountains begin to peek over the deserts’ flat horizon we arrive at a glassy, two-acre pool fed by the San Soloman Spring in the Balmoreah State Park. It’s time to rinse off the sweat and sand. This 75-degree natural spring is in the middle of nowhere at the mountains foothills. One arm of the pool is about five to 10 feet deep and another is 25 feet deep. The first time I doggie-paddled over to the deep abyss I was intimidated because amazing visibility allowed me to see all of the fish, flora and fauna below. I scream every time one of those minnows tries to suck on my fingers or toes. Yek! Apparently it’s part of the experience. Sometimes it's nice just to sit on the side and look at the mountainous backdrop. 

All of this climbing and swimming usually makes me hungry, so while passing through Balmoreah we always stop at the little local convenient store for some brisket burritos and salsa verde. They are some of the best I've had, but watch out for that verde ... it's hot! I don't remember the name of the little place, but it's one of the the only places open in town. We save room because in 35 miles we also stop at Cueva de Leon in Fort Davis for a late lunch before we indulge in our culinary adventures in Marfa. But that is for another post — Part II: Dining in Marfa.

Reata Alpine
During one trip we actually stayed in Fort Davis at the Indian Lodge. We spent the afternoon hiking in the beautiful state park where my husband proposed at the summit one afternoon. That evening we drove about 25 miles to Alpine to eat at the original Reata restaurant. Most of us in Fort Worth don’t know that our current Reata downtown was born out of a petite wooden house in Alpine, Texas. The menu is the same, but the experience is ten times better. The atmosphere is intimate and authentic. The local personalities and ranchers definitely add to the genuine Texas timeout. And if you have to wait for a table, I would head to the warm, chummy bar in the back and for some firewater or a barley pop.

. . .

Our trip is a variation of the same every time and it never gets old. We usually knock it out in a weekend, but recommend taking Friday or Monday off so you have a little more time to explore. Take a week off and squeeze in Big Bend.

We land at the Midland/Odessa airport about 9 p.m. on Friday night and head to Mamaw’s (my grandmother-in-law) house in Odessa for a late dinner and some good sleep. When the sun rises we embark on our two-and-a-half-hour journey into the wild, leaving all urban pretensions behind us.   

Part II: The Most Unforgettable Restaurants
Part III: The Sights, Sounds and Hikes
Part IV: The Art Scene
Part V: Married in Marfa

Places we like to stay 
(Click name to go to place website)
Places we want to stay next time:
* This link is a great guide for places to eat in and around Marfa. You will not be disappointed. 
Places that I've tried that are consistently fantastic:
  • Austin Street CafĂ©
  • Cochineal (my favorite)
  • Pizza Foundation
  • Maiya's (where my rehearsal dinner was)
  • Marfa Table
  • Jett's Grill