Marfa and the Worlds Largest Horseshoe – Day 19

Day 18 — April 18, 2003 — Friday

Marfa and the Worlds Largest Horseshoe

 Badlands Hotel was B-A-D.  As I reported yesterday, the hotel was cheaply built.  For $195 a night, I expect top quality, but there was NO quality in the room.  In fact, there wasn’t even electricity, running water, or telephone service – though all were supposed to be provided.  The service was poor from the time I dropped in to book the room, to the time I checked in later that night, to checkout.


The only thing worse than the lack of speed with which the checkout guy handled checking me out was his complete void of personality.  When he handed me my bill, not only was there no adjustment for the lack of electricity, water, or telephone service in a room with the windows caulked shut, they had tacked on a $15 “resort fee.”  Words cannot express….


Let me just say to Steve Smith, the “Austin billionaire who has bought Lajitas and has turned it into a resort” as I was told is the case.  If the rest of Lajitas is like the BADlands Hotel, you should have stuck with whatever made you rich.  I felt completely, totally ripped off by the BADlands.  And to take a lovely, old town that dates back to an ancient Rio Grande River crossing first recorded by Spanish explorers in 1588 and completely convert it to a modern-day tourist trap resort should be a crime punishable by extended imprisonment in room 216.


You have to blow off steam every once in a while; I’m glad I got that off my chest.


Despite my eye injury, I got up and out before the sun came up as I wanted to see the sunrise at Big Bend.  I hiked a ways off the road to an area that Yvette, the bartender / waitress from last night, told me would be the best spot.  I sat on a rock in the cool morning air and saw a beautiful sunrise out of my right eye.  I got several excellent photos, even though I am now having to modify my photographic efforts as I have always been a left eye shooter.  I’ll be doing right eye work for a few days.


I started meeting interesting people bright and early with “Dr. Kathy” and “Dr. Doug Blackburn” of the Phillips 66 station in Study Butte.  I picked up a Visine product, but when I told Kathy, the Phillips 66 store manager, about my eye problem, she knew I had the wrong stuff, so she became Dr. Kathy as I was directed to get something that was not limited on the amount of daily use.  Visine Tears was the right product for me, and it gave me some relief, though my eye hurt badly throughout the day.  I felt bad about complaining during the first few days of the trip about having to take my glasses off to be able to take photographs and not seeing as well as I used to.  It could be worse.


Dr. Doug Blackburn is a real character.  He came up and knocked on my window as I was organizing myself for the day’s drive.  He was wearing hospital scrubs with an impressive-looking hospital-like photo ID pinned to his blue scrub top.  But he had on a “Study Butte Store” baseball cap, and when I looked closer at the ID, it said “Doctor of Boarderline Psychology.”  We talked about the trip, Terlingua, Study Butte, and Lajitas…and some of the characters who lived around there.  I asked: “May I take your photo, Dr. Blackburn?”  He said: “Oh, I’m not a real doctor; I’m just one of the clerks at the Study Butte Phillips 66 gas station and store.”  I didn’t want to tell him that I had long since figured that out.  He proudly pulled back his jacket so his ID would be clearly visible in the photo.   Nice guy and obviously a lot of fun!  The Round America sign on the car is very effective as it pulls people to me, and I meet far more people as a result.


The Study Butte Mall aka Phillips 66 station has a stoplight in the front of it.  It’s the only stoplight in the town.  It’s on their property – not on the road.  Pretty cute.


Since I drove back and forth between Big Bend and Lajitas several times, and Terlingua is the town in between, it will probably be the town that was most visited on the trip.  I went to or through Terlingua five times.


Driving back and forth in Big Bend and at a few other points during the trip, I realized that you see a different view just by traveling in the opposite direction.  Maybe we’ll take this trip “backwards” someday – do the same route, but head north from Savannah rather than south, and just travel “backwards.”  Better see if we can finish this trip first and try to make some money with the book to cover these costs.


Blue sky today, so I was tempted to stay and repeat all the photos I took on overcast yesterday.  But at 8:15, I pulled away from Study Butte and drove to Presidio, which may be an even more beautiful drive than the drives I took through Big Bend yesterday.  The sky was blue, so the pictures are pretty good, though I didn’t stop as much as I would have because my eye was just killing me.


I saw a lot of faces in rocks today.  I swear I saw Bob Hope’s face in a rock.  I may have gone too long driving alone in the car.  Come back Bozzie Jane!  On another trip, I’d like to try photographing the faces that I see and then using PhotoShop to alter the images so others can see what I see.


Right outside Lajitas, the Big Bend Ranch State Park begins.  Gorgeous views.  Many more “oh ****’s” today.  I stopped at the Contrabando movie set.  At several points, I stopped for a photo, and then turned around to see another stunning view.  Sometimes we never turn around and miss the good stuff.


Because of the eye problem, I skipped a few things today that I otherwise would have done.

Presidio is a small town, but bigger than most I have seen lately.  I stopped briefly at the ghost town of Shafter.  Fort Shafter was a defense against the Apaches.  Someone there has a sense of humor as there was a makeshift “roadside park” set up there — at least I think it was to be funny…maybe just a way for the one or two folks living there to meet the occasional tourist who stops by for a photo.


I landed in the delightful little town of Marfa at noon, and I spent much longer there than planned as it proved to be a very special place.  It seems that a wealthy artist and/or art lover, the late Don Judd, was originally the person responsible for restoring Marfa’s buildings.  Then along came Tim Crowley to continue the process.  The result is that virtually all of the great old buildings in the center of the town have been restored.  Marfa has a significant artist’s community, and judging by the number of airplanes at the airport in this small town of 2400 people, there are a lot of folks with some money in and around Marfa.


The largely non-commercial restoration of the buildings in Marfa has made it a really special place.  Undoubtedly a place that the artists would love to keep a secret.  I thought of all the small decaying towns that we’ve seen.  Every town needs a wealthy art lover, but few have one.  Marfa is so fortunate to have had two.


The old military base was turned into a HUGE art museum by Mr. Crowley.  It encompasses many of the military buildings, and there are a lot of them.  I found out about the Chinati Foundation and museum from skateboarders  Erik, Jerek, and Anthony.  I asked where I could find the world’s largest horseshoe, and Erik said it was at the Chinati Foundation, and he directed me there.


The Chinati Foundation looked like it might be some kind of cult place, and when the two nice young men inside, Tim and Jason, said I could not come in, I really started to wonder.  But they told me it was an art museum, and two Austin artists outside, Scout and John, confirmed it.  Tim and Jason said they did not have the authority to let me in to photograph the horseshoe, so I headed to town for lunch.


I turned down a side street looking for a restaurant with pickup trucks.  That’s a great way to find a good restaurant in Texas.  Another great way is to look closely at the civic club signs at the city limits as many will say where the club meets for lunch.  Chances are, they meet at the good places. On this street, I saw two great 50’s-era motels, the Capri Inn and the Thunderbird Inn.  I had an excellent T-Bird Club Sandwich at the Thunderbird Restaurant.  The waitress, Rose, is definitely in the running for best waitress on the trip.  She has a great smile, and we had a delightful conversation.  She also was an invaluable resource about Marfa.  She told me several sights to see; told me about the Marfa Lights; and explained how I could take a photograph of the horseshoe without permission.  I loved that part.


I put on my shades and my secret undercover mission began!  I followed Rose’s directions and drove down the road and took a left just past the Laundromat.  Then I drove for a mile and a half and began looking to the left for the museum buildings at the old base.  Once I saw the buildings, I was to turn into the area with several homes and go in the backyard of the one closest to the horseshoe.  I found the closest house, and I pulled the car around a barn on the side.  I got out, tiptoed through the horse pasture, zoomed the camera in as far as it would go, and snapped one photo.  Then I ran back to the car and started to pull out when the lady of the house caught me.  She asked: “what in the world are you doing in my yard?”  I replied: “Just taking a picture of the horse shoe.”  She said, “the horse sh**?”  I said “no ma’am, SHOE.  Sorry to have troubled you,” and I sped off as I had when I spotted Fast Freddy with the giant hedge clippers.  I mentally thanked Rose, and enjoyed a nice sense of accomplishment from having managed to get a photo of the forbidden horseshoe (even if it was from 100 yards or more away).


Back into the center of Marfa, I began to see that Marfa has quite an artist’s community.  There’s a great flag sculpture next to the courthouse, and there are a number of galleries.  I understand there is a lot more hidden from view.  Kind of like those rattlesnakes Dr. Dan told me about in Lajitas.  I met and spoke with Belinda and Kim — two Marfa artists.  I learned a lot more about the art activity in the town.


The Marfa Lights are an unexplained phenomenon that causes lights to appear in the sky.  According to Rose (who I would trust with my life), it’s no hoax.  A number of scientists have been in to try to figure it out.  There are several theories, but no explanation.  I was sorry I couldn’t stick around to see if the lights came out that night.  But Boz and I will absolutely come back to Marfa and spend a day or two.  If one wanted to live in a town of 2,400 people, Marfa looked like it would be a dandy.  It’s hard to believe that we lived most of our life in Texas and had never really heard much about Big Bend and had heard nothing about Marfa except the spooky lights.


I stopped briefly in Fort Davis.  It has a lot of tourists.  After seeing Big Bend, I saw no reason to take the scenic drive through the Fort Davis Mountains.  That would have been like going to the carnival after having just been to Disney World.  If Barbara had been with me, we would have seen the doll museum there.  I can’t figure out how Fort Davis had so many more tourists than a lot of other great places I have been.  Perhaps because it is easier to get to.


Not far out of Fort Davis, the land flattened, and I began seeing terrain similar to what I grew up with in West Texas – flat and dusty.  There was a good old West Texas dust storm blowing, and that was the last thing my eye needed.  Then a lot of oil wells appeared, so it was flat and dusty with oil wells.


I was taking this route so I could hit Wink, Texas to see the Roy Orbison Museum.  He had such great songs – Pretty Woman, Only the Lonely, and others.  A very unique voice.  Roy is Wink’s claim to fame.  There actually is one other claim to fame there – the Wink Sink – a giant sinkhole.  They do have a red water tower and formerly had a Pink Panther Bar.


I snapped a few classic small town photos in Kermit, and then I boogied for the New Mexico line.  The time changed there, so it was just before 5:30 Mountain Daylight Time.  The scenery changed almost immediately as well – greener, some hills, and mountains in the distance.  New Mexico, “the Land of Enchantment,” is a very beautiful state, but you gotta like mountains.

I passed through Loving, and I was hoping to get some love-oriented pictures, but I didn’t see any businesses to speak of, and nothing was love-related.  We’ve seen way too many adult businesses in tiny towns; if there had been one there, I would have photographed it.  Loving.

What I did find is that a great salesperson once visited Loving.  Might be the same guy who made such a big sale in the country of Belgium where all the highways have street lights every 50 feet or so.  Same deal in Loving.  There were street lights every 50 feet from one city limits sign to the other.  I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else.


I pulled up to Carlsbad Caverns about 6 pm.  I saw a sign that said “Eat 750 feet underground.”  Not me.  Both Boz and I are quite claustrophobic.  So, I took a picture of the sign, and called it a Carlsbad’s Caverns.


I was much more excited to see White’s City.  White’s City uses Burma Shave-like billboards to advertise for many miles.  It’s an OLD souvenir shop tourist trap (and I say that in a good way).  I wanted to see their Million Dollar Museum.  I paid my $3 and went in.  I’m sorry to report that it was a little better than Sponge-O-Rama, but not much.  Then again, Sponge-O-Rama was free.  The Million Dollar Museum was 11 rooms in the basement filled with old displays of “antiques,” some of which were in poor condition.  I’m afraid White’s City was a disappointment – not what it used to be.  If I hadn’t been so tired of driving and my eye hadn’t hurt so badly, I probably would have found it entertaining in a camp sort of way.  Attitude is an amazing thing.


As I drove back to Carlsbad (Carlsbad Caverns is about 20 miles outside the city of Carlsbad), Gutter of the Brotherhood of 74 motorcycle gang waved for me to pull over.  Three weeks ago, this would have scared the dickens out of me, but it was a busy street, and he looked nice.  Big on that big bike, but nice.  He was no weekend biker (and we’ve seen a whole lot of them); his jacket and doo-rag were the real stuff.  We had a nice talk, and he agreed to let me take his picture.  He wanted to be sure I told everyone that the Brotherhood of 74 does a lot for charity.  I overheard him speaking to someone on his cell phone as I drove off; he told them he was going to be in a book.  Folks really like that!


I chased the sun once again, but I was smack dab in the middle of Carlsbad.  I tried to get to the outskirts of town, but I had to settle for sunset at a temporary storage facility.  Not every sunset can be a Big Bend masterpiece.  Gotta take ’em as you find ’em and learn to enjoy what you got.

The restaurant on my list for Carlsbad was Casa de Cortez.  I found it on the highway.  The place was filled with older locals, so I knew it would be great, and it was.  If their hot sauce had been more to my taste, I probably would say their Mexican was the best yet…but I’m sticking with Rosita’s as best so far.  I never got the name of the waitress.  She was busy.  I was tired.


I spotted the No Whiner Diner just before Casa de Cortez, so I backtracked for dessert.  Alyssa recommended the apple pie with ice cream, and it was very good.  In the parking lot, I met an interesting young woman named Alma — from Wisconsin.  She said she was trying to get away from the guy she had come to Carlsbad with and was trying to get home, but AAA was not answering the phone…or something like that.  I asked if I could do anything to help, and she said “pray for me.”  I asked permission (as I always do) and took her picture.  I asked if she had any money, and she said no.  I gave her $20.  If she was a hustler, she had the best approach I have ever seen as I never felt hustled.  I hope she was just a young girl who needed to get home to Wisconsin.  It’s so much more gratifying to look at things positively.


I met Cody and Erica at a Chevron station.  Cody was born here, and Erica got stuck here.  From what little I saw, Carlsbad certainly wouldn’t go on my list of favorite cities.


Just outside of Artesia, I had my first truly scary experience on the trip.  I watched as a car pulled out of a parking lot, and I thought for a split second that I had gotten confused and was somehow on a one way road going in the wrong direction as the car came straight at me.  No, I was in the right place; the car had turned into the wrong lane and was heading straight for me.  Fortunately, I saw it all happen and had the time to maneuver off onto the shoulder and out of harm’s way.

I was relieved to reach Roswell.  I had never planned to stay at the far south end of Big Bend, so I was on the road for 100 miles more than planned today.  Too much.  Then I spent several hours in Marfa (which will be in the running for Best Small Town).  I was tired, but Roswell appeared to be a very thriving city of 47,000, and I was anxious to see all the UFO stuff.


I met Becky, Bill, and Fletcher as I checked into the Comfort Inn.  They each confirmed that they felt UFO’s exist and are real.  Bill had seen lights.  I was delighted to fall asleep with this important issue put to bed.


The lesson for today is that history is good and important and to be treasured.  I wish things could be more like Marfa and less like Lajitas.  Restored rather than overly commercialized.  I never even thought about being a “preservationist” before this trip, but I am one.  I also learned to enunciate more clearly the next time I get caught with my camera in someone’s horse pasture.




One of the most asked questions is “where are you from?”  I started the trip saying “Atlanta.”  Now, I say I am from the town I last slept in, but tonight I will be from the town I will next sleep in.  This usually starts an interesting conversation.


For the last two weeks, I have rarely known what day of the week it is.