FarWestTexas report


BALMORHEA POOL at Balmorhea State Park, my favorite swimming pool in all of Texas, is even better on a 100 degree day on the edge of the Pecos Plain. The 76 degree water is deliciously cool, the clarity beyond comprehension, and the pupfish, minnows, black catfish and turtles are pretty much oblivious to the 1,500 visitors who show up on a hot weekend day.

Superintendent Tom Johnson reports record attendance this year at Balmorhea, meaning it’s no longer and secret and that the CCC-vintage guest cabins are booked into October, which is still a fine time to swim – I can personally testify that any month is a pretty great time to swim at Balmorhea although there have been times in January and December when I had to gut it up to get out of the warm pool.

Friday evening August 10 was near perfect. Late Sunday morning August 13 was just as sweet, watching members of the San Angelo Dive Club scoot along the bottom of the springs as I do my laps.

It was fun watching ground squirrels sneak up within inches of a sunbather sprawled out on her towel in the grass and observing a young girl trying to sneak up on the squirrels before they inevitably scurried into their burrow, poking their heads out whenever the coast was clear.

The crowds were tolerable in the pool, but not so tolerable when it came to leaving litter on the grounds around the pool or in the desert cienega nearby, which was trashed with plastic bottles, cans, and cigarette butts. I’m headed back soon to help the park staff clean it up, but it’d be nice to hit litterbugs with a $1,000 fine to discourage such disrespect of the resource.

We did some stargazing while in Balmorhea. We found the darkest skies by driving west of town on Highway 3078 towards Kent, pulling over, and laying down on the hood of the car. We also sat on the playground slide by the Balmorhea pool but had a hard time focusing due to being divebombed by bats eating the mosquitoes that were trying to eat us. Some bats swooped close enough to touch and we left with nary a skeeter bite.

The cheese and chicken enchiladas, stacked (not rolled) and topped with green chiles and onions at Cueva de Oso, $6.50 for cheese, $7.50 for chicken or beef, were the culinary highlight of my weekend. There may be other items on the menu, but that’s the call for me at Florinda and Joel Madrid’s family restaurant curiously described as the “cutest restaurant in Balmorhea.” The décor is cute, I guess, although I think of it more as functional with frills (plastic flowers in the flower bed by the entrance, calendars of the high school’s sports teams, a corner display of family photographs in the second dining room) with an outdoor patio on the side. The menu is basic Mexican and American cuisine with hamburgers and fries to placate the tastes of the community, but more important to any west bound travelers on IH 10 in Texas, this is where the green chile cuisine belt begins (the cafes of Sierra Blanca west of Van Horn are another green chile hotspot, leading to other meccas such as Chope’s west of Anthony, Texas and the cafes of Hatch on IH 25, just north of the IH 10/25 split near Las Cruces. Cueva de Oso in Balmo also deserves an AJUA! for their righteous homemade red salsa (the bowls were too tiny for us) and ice cold Bohemias for $3.


There’s two competing snow cone stands on the main drag across the canal along the highway, one that stays open late in the summer.
Watch out for the wild turkeys on the street while driving through town.

On Saturday, we climbed the highest peak of the second tallest mountain range. It was one of the weekends that the Nature Conservancy opens the Davis Mountains Preserve to the public. The preserve has an extensive trail network including a new 2.5 trail that will be open to the public year round accessible from the roadside park near the preserve’s entrance. Wildflowers were in full glory near the summit of the 8,378 feet peak including one native that was so smelly, everybody in our party later confessed they thought they had forgotten to use deodorant or wipe. We sighted two stands of quaking aspen, craned our necks admiring Ponderosa pines and Texas madrones, dipped a toe into a cool, swift-running mountain creek watched zone-tail and red-tail hawks and turkey vultures ride the wind currents, and picked up two horny toads, icons of my youth which are rarely found elsewhere in Texas anymore (one squirted blood from its eye, a defensive measure and the other went to sleep when you rubbed its belly). The summit swarmed with ladybugs. Turns out ladybugs seek out mountain peaks in the southwestern United States, according to James King of the conservancy, to breed and then ride the winds hundreds of miles. The best part of making it to the top was watching the play of light and shadows on distant mountain ranges and being high enough to appreciate the vast grasslands as a desert sea.

Unlike most of the rest of the United States where the phrase suggests chasing so-called celebrities, stargazing is the real deal in Far West Texas which has some of the darkest night skies in North America (and some of the most agreeable August temperatures – upper 80s, low 90s for highs, upper 50s and low 60s for lows, the least humid atmosphere in the state). We booked Saturday night at the Harvard Lodge on the H.E. Sproul Ranch behind the Prude Ranch, in the mountains eight miles from Fort Davis and eight miles from McDonald Observatory. Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park was booked full so we picked the closest nice lodging to the observatory. The rooms in the small eight-room spread on a working ranch were spacious and comfortable and within eyesight of the observatory domes on a distant ridge. Next door to the ranch headquarters, about a couple hundred yards to the east, was a giant radio telescope in keeping with the astronomical theme. The huge extraterrestrial-appearing contraption was one of ten radio telescopes from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii comprising the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Long Base Array. Here’s where you can get a real time view of the Fort Davis telescope and the others of the VLBA: http://www.vlba.nrao.edu/

Once again, we found the best viewing for stargazing was away from the lodge on the road by the radio telescope, which startled us whenever the telescope was repositioned.

The Harvard Lodge where our room for two with a king sized suite went for $125 a night plus tax, was a mixed bag as a place to stay and watch stars. The site was once where Harvard University had an astronomy facility. Its primary function now seemed to be as a hunting lodge, with a skeet shooting facility and a skinned bobcat hide on the wall of our room as part of the décor. And for all the isolation it offered such as the unobstructed view of high country grasslands, which are all greened up from the summer monsoon rains, it would have been nice to find someone in charge to turn off the country music blaring on the big screen television by the pool or to help us figure out how to make the satellite TV operate or hook up the advertised wireless Internet connectivity, both of which proved to be harder than Chinese arithmetic.
Those are minor quibbles because we got what we came for: a deep, dark black sky, stars to infinity, and wonderfully cool breezes in the evening.
For details on Harvard Lodge, go here: www.harvardhotelandlodge.com

We were starved after mountain climbing so we drove over to Marfa to check out the newest high-end restaurant in a town of 2,500 that already has more than one. A reservations-only joint in a remodeled gas station on the west side of town, the Javelina delivered fine dining with a definite Moroccan streak (couscous, lamb burgers, goat cheese) in a casual atmosphere. With a cool, spare layout with original art on the walls, the place felt right. Running into writer Pete Szilagyi and his wife at the Blue Javelina was a good sign we were in for some good groceries. The proof was in the plates. The wife went for the quesadilla appetizers with ground lamb, blackened pistachios, olives, cilantro, feta and jack cheese and aioli ($9) and a dreamy cold citrus soup swimming in avocado and cilantro. I devoured the pork tenderloin in a raspberry chipotle glaze ($17).
You don’t expect adventurous dining in Far West Texas but that’s exactly what we got. Next time, we aim to check out the Sharkmobile food wagon we heard about that serves hummus and tabouli on the streets of Marfa. Sadly, we missed the food wagon in Fort Davis that did fish tacos for awhile. www.bluejavelina.com

We enjoyed some serious Peruvian coffee two mornings in a row at the Twin Souls coffee shop and gallery on the main drag in Fort Davis. My-T-Fine in our book.

I caught wind of the pending purchase of the bank building in downtown Van Horn that once was the El Capitan Hotel by Joe and Lanna Duncan. Joe and Lanna are the owners of the Hotel Limpia and the Veranda in Fort Davis and the Hotel Paisano in Marfa. Like the Paisano and the Gage, the Pueblo Revival-style building was designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest whose early 20th century buildings are landmarks from Marathon to El Paso to Albuquerque (The Franciscan Hotel) all the way to Douglas, Arizona, home of the wonderful Gadsden Hotel (www.hotelgadsden.com). I know Joe and Lanna are fans of Trost’s work because they gave me a hard-to-find book of his work.

Not too long ago, Betty Moore and I argued whether Sanderson or Valentine would be the next happening town in Far Out Far West Texas. With the Duncans’ redo of El Capitan, one of the most adventurous designs Trost ever did, Van Horn, notable for its strip of franchise motels and restaurants, John Madden’s Haul of Fame museum in Chuy’s Restaurant, the Red Rocks Ranch, a blimp refueling station, and the best water in the state, instantly has potential as a destination rather than a place to pass through.

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