Caprock Canyons Trailway Ranger, Clyde Dudley, keeps careful watch over the 64-mile trail and its spectacular scenery. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The Real Texas: Caprock Canyons Trailway
Rails to Trails
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Forrest MacCormack
History pulses along the Caprock Canyons Trailway as it courses by ancient flatlands, wild canyons and authentic, old Texas towns.
On October 20, 1541, Franciso Vasquez de Coronado wrote to the King of Spain, describing the remarkable landscape he had encountered during his exploration of the American Southwest. The Spanish adventurer had come upon the Llano Estacado, a huge mesa spanning northern Texas and eastern New Mexico. “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” he wrote. “With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
As I stand at the western end of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway nearly half a millennium later, I can see pretty much what Coronado saw on his fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold: perfectly flat grasslands sprawling to the western horizon with little interruption, save for the neatly ordered rows of corn, sorghum, wheat, peanuts and cotton. But once I head east a couple of miles on the trail’s wide gravel bed, following the path blazed by thousands of modern explorers on bicycle, horseback and foot, I encounter a different view altogether. The plateau drops off dramatically to another kind of rough country-rolling hills and valleys. Those contrasting vistas are the calling cards of this Texas rail-trail, colored by the direct connection to deep history and richly ornamented by such picturesque railroad artifacts as the 46 bridges and one tunnel. But for some of us, it’s the privilege of savoring sweet isolation and absolute solitude that puts the Caprock Canyons Trailway in a class of its own.
To navigate this spacious open country, travelers of yore needed something, anything, to help them figure out exactly where they were. Coronado began a history of references to the tabletop plain’s few landmarks as “stakes,” thus the name Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. A jagged 300-mile-long palisade, known as the Caprock Escarpment, that runs southwest to northeast divides the higher Llano from the rolling plains below, and there’s no better place than the trailway to witness this geological transition of the famous Red River Valley The “breaks” are particularly vivid two miles east of South Plains, a vaguely defined settlement at the rail-trail’s western end, where the high plateau drops-up to 300 feet in some places-forming red dirt canyons pocked with arroyos, washes, pour-offs, and even hidden creek bottoms bristling with cottonwoods, willows, oaks, pecans and mesquite. During rare wet periods, there’s even a waterfall or two. It’s the stuff of a Western movie. Only this is the real thing.
Since ancient times, the Caprock canyons and the Llano above them have been nomadic country. The land is too tough, too harsh ever to be really settled. Prehistoric peoples moved through with the seasons. Modern Plains Indians, notably the Apache and Comanche, traded with comancheros, people of Mexican descent in New Mexico. Briefly, ciboleros, New Mexican hunters, moved into the area, following in the footsteps of the Native Americans to hunt the plains buffalo, and doing it so efficiently that they killed them off. Third and fourth generation descendents of Anglo pioneer ranchers and farmers still work the land, trying to hang on.
Tomas Hinojosa, Quitaque Riding Stables owner, leads a pack of trail riders in Caprock Canyons State Park. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The ideal way to get a feel for this wild country is to cycle, hike or ride horseback along the Caprock Canyons Trailway at a pace similar to that of the people who moved through here centuries ago. Buzz through the still-wild frontier by car at 70 mph and you miss the nuances. The distant honk of a sandhill crane on a clear, mild winter’s day. The crackle of branches signaling a family of white-tailed deer or pronghorn antelope moving through the brush. The sight of a young rattlesnake sunning on the trail a few feet from a horned lizard that skitters into the grass. The sudden flap of quail flushed out of the tall grass by the sound of a bike tire rolling on a cinder path. Paw prints and scat on the trail, vivid evidence of mountain lion or bobcat nearby.
A little knowledge of the past, whether measured in geological time or on the more fleeting human scale, will summon ghosts-of cataclysmic floods and creeping erosion; of buffalo herds rumbling across barren valleys; of migrating flocks on the Central Flyway above; of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief; of Charles Goodnight, the first mythic rancher of the Texas Panhandle; and of the spring cattle drives from Matador Ranch, a few miles south, all the way up to the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, one of the longest, most storied livestock migrations in the cowboy kingdom.
The railroad arrived in 1928, late by Western standards. Denver Road general manager Frank Clarity promoted the idea of a South Plains spur of the Fort Worth-Denver railway to connect the cotton and farming hub of Lubbock, Texas, with the town of Estelline on the railroad’s main route. He was honored by having the tunnel on the new line named in his honor. But the Fort Worth-Denver South Plains Railroad didn’t last long. The growth of the trucking industry and a declining agricultural base made the line a luxury for its parent company, Burlington Northern, to operate. The line was abandoned in 1989.
When the railroad pulled out, local citizens already were ruminating about the idea of converting the corridor to a one-of-a-kind trail. The late OR. Stark, Jr., a banker and local booster in the little town of Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-Kway,” and named by Charles Goodnight after the Indian word for “end of the trail”), along with two area pastors, since departed, organized grassroots support for the rail-trail, while the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took the initiative on the state level. They figured the trailway would complement the newly opened, 14,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park and could be maintained and operated by the park’s staff. Residents of the three farming and ranching towns along the trailway-Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline-were behind the concept, since each was losing population (a plight common to small towns throughout the Great Plains). With no industry or natural resources to promise salvation, tourism via the trailway was a last, best hope.
“O.R. Stark saw the natural beauty of the Caprock and knew it would be an asset, not just for the community but the whole area,” his son, Randy, says. “The hardest part about making it happen was all the waiting. It took two years to get it going, mostly because he had to deal with the state”; navigating through a government bureaucracy takes time.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) eventually stepped in to help the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department acquire the rail corridor for recreational use, funneling federal funds for infrastructure improvements to the state through federal transportation ISTEA grants. For its part, Burlington Northern was happy to donate the land, structures and trestles once the rails had been sold for salvage.
In 1993 the Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park was officially dedicated. The rail-trail is composed of six segments, five to 17 miles long, and has eight access points along the way. The first two segments, Quitaque Canyon Trail and Los Lingos Trail, extend 22 miles from South Plains to the town of Quitaque. The most scenic stretch, Quitaque Canyon, traverses the escarpment and passes through one of the few railroad tunnels in Texas. South of Quitaque, the Los Lingos Trail crosses the Valley of Tears, so named for the sobs of captured Anglo pioneer women and children being held by the Comanches before being sold off to the comanchero traders of Mexican descent and taken west into New Mexico.
Interpretive markers on the trailway lay out all the details.
The 10-mile Kent Creek segment that runs along the trickling creek bed links the towns of Quitaque and Turkey, each sporting populations of about 500. The trail’s 32-mile eastern half, running from Turkey to Estelline, population 150, cuts through soft hills and valleys-prime Texas ranch and farmland. On the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail segment, between Tampico Siding and Parnell Station, wide-angle views encompass the Cap rock Escarpment all the way to the banks of the Red River. And on the easternmost Plains Junction Trail segment, just outside Estelline, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted.
While the entire trail can be done in a day, my wife, Kris, and I opted to start at South Plains and ride the Cap downhill into Quitaque. Roland Hamilton, Quitaque mayor and owner of the Caprock Home Center hardware store, shuttled us up to our starting point. As we cruised up the road to South Plains, Hamilton shared a little lore, mostly about the Valley of Tears and the Ozark Trail. (Founded in 1911 by a man from Arkansas, the Ozark Trail ultimately spawned Route 66, the storied Mother Road that linked the Midwest to the West Coast. There’s still an Ozark Trail marker to be seen in Tampico, if you know where to look, Hamilton told us, and another buried under the highway in the middle of Quitaque that folks talk about digging up someday and putting on display.)
Once on the trail, Kris and I saw not another soul for four hours, save for a man and a boy crouched above the entrance to Clarity Tunnel. They told us they’d arrived early for the evening bat emergence. Every night from March to October, they explained, up to 50,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the tunnel en masse, spiraling into the sky for their evening meal of insects. While the phenomenon also attracts the interest of coyotes, raccoons, snakes and raptors, we didn’t stick around to witness the amazing emergence, but walked our bicycles through the 582-foot-long tunnel, half expecting a band of outlaws on horseback to meet us midway.
Throughout our ride, we kept a slow, purposeful pace, pausing on the bridges to examine the gullies and creek beds below, and stopping more than once to savor total silence, a sensation known to precious few city folk. That alone was worth the price of admission.
We made it to Quitaque as darkness fell, in time to chow down at the Sportsman’s Cafe and relive our afternoon on the trail. After dinner, we packed it in for the night at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse, too tired to do much but go outside to look at stars, then crawl into bed.
Next morning we headed over to Caprock Canyons State Park, in the heart of canyon country, three miles north of Quitaque. We could have spent the day riding there, since there are more than 30 miles of paved roadways and off-road bike trails to negotiate among the spectacular red rock formations. Instead, we drove around, hoping to spot the official state buffalo herd, which lives behind a high fence in one corner of the park. The rarely seen bison are descended from the herd Charlie Goodnight put together from remnants of the southern herd that once roamed the Great Plains.
Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline offered eerie evidence of the steady depopulation of the Great Plains over the past half-century. Each town’s main street summoned visions of Larry McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show”-blocks of sturdy, red brick storefronts, most of which have been boarded up and deserted. The buildings have outlasted the people they were built to shelter. Now they stand as mute monuments to another time. With no resources to pluck, the water table of the Ogallala Aquifer steadily being lowered, and the vast expanse subjected to some of the most extreme weather on earth (the trailway is in the heart of Tornado Alley), it’s safe to say Caprock Canyons is in no danger of being overrun by seekers of the Next Best Place, nor is Quitaque destined to become the next Moab. For me, that was beguiling, as much a draw to biking the trailway as the scenic plenty.
Sure, it would have been nice to dial up a bike shop on the cell phone when Kris blew her tire near Clarity Tunnel. A place to eat that serves fresh greens would be okay, too. The upside to the absence of those amenities was an up-close and personal encounter with an authentic, rural Texas that is getting harder and harder to find.
Along the trailway, that authentic Texas was everywhere. Staying at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse was like visiting the rural Texas grandparents we never had. The Hotel Turkey is that rare railroad hotel that hasn’t been gussied up too much; it still functions like a railroad hotel, just without the railroad. The breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros at Galvan’s Mexican Food in Turkey were as filling and autentico a breakfast as I can find in Falfurrias, 600 miles south. The Midway Drive-In halfway between Turkey and Quitaque, one of the last four drive-in movie theaters in Texas that still show first-run movies in the summer, was straight out of “American Graffitti.” The western horizon at sunset, which lit up the sky with streaks of flaming reds, oranges and pinks, was just like the one buffalo hunters and seekers of gold must have seen: glorious, radiant and unsullied.
The few people who do live along the trailway are some of the friendliest folks I’ve met traveling across Texas. Take Wilburn Leeper, the 67-year-old former mayor of Quitaque and president of the Caprock Bike Club, who’s racked up probably more miles riding the trailway than anyone else. Leeper appreciates the big views and isolation of the trailway. That’s why he is involved with Caprock Partners, the organization that helps support the state park and trailway, and helps run the group’s moonlight ride on the trailway every fall. “It’s the expanse of it all,” he says dreamily, explaining why he’s become hooked on cycling the route whenever he can. “It seems like you can ride forever.”
Or Randy Stark, a banker like his daddy, who considers the trailway the region’s calling card. “1 saw last year where Caprock Canyons State Park had 115,272 visitors. That’s quite a bit to be passing through a town of this size. That shows what a tourism economy can do, especially with the farm economy the way it is. We like having visitors, but we still want the slow, country way of life too. We get a little of both here in Quitaque,” says Stark. “I’m a photographer,” he adds. “What I enjoy most is all the scenic spots, all the canyons, and how the light is always changing how they look.” Since he tries to capture scenes at the end of the day, when the lighting contrast is sharpest, he’s been exposed to the calls of the wild. “1 hear coyotes howling all the time. If you’re on the trail at sunset, I guarantee you’ll hear the coyotes. I’ve heard as many as six at once, howling and barking away. One night on a full-moon ride with a club from Dallas, someone recognized the cry of a mountain lion. And wild turkey-you can find them mostly in the creek beds towards the latter part of the day.”
Or Raymond Roy, an Amarillo accountant who has spent so much of his free time around Quitaque, fishing, hunting and just kicking back, that he finally bought the Sportsman Cafe, Quitaque’s social hub and culinary heart and soul. When Kris and I ate dinner there, Roy took it upon himself to come over to our table and introduce himself. “1 knew you weren’t from around here,
when I saw her taking her purse with her to the salad bar,” he said, nodding to Kris. Locals don’t need to fear for their valuables, because everyone knows everyone else. “1 just wanted to make you feel at home,” Roy said. It’s hard to be a stranger on this rail-trail.
By the time we headed south toward home, we were making plans for a return trip in the fall. That’s the sweetest season of them all, according to Randy Stark, with warm days, cool nights and none of the wind or violent weather that defines springtime on the plains. Kris was ready to buy up half the downtowns of Quitaque and Turkey, drawing up plans for each building in her mind. Me, I was still buzzing, happy to have savored the real Texas few Texans get to know or see.
BEFORE YOU GO: Bring your own water, food and tire repair kit. In summer, pay heed to the extreme heat advisory included in your trail map. Although there are pay telephones at six stations along the trail, a cell phone comes in mighty handy. Fall is prime time, weather-wise.
GETTING THERE: Lubbock, the closest gateway with regularly scheduled air service, is 69 miles southwest of South Plains, the western terminal of the trailway, via State Highway 207 South and U.S. Highway 62 South and West. The Caprock Canyons Trailway is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 287 at Estelline, 101 miles southeast of Amarillo, and 238 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Quitaque, at the junction of State Highway 86 and Farm to Market Road 1065, is 98 miles southeast of Amarillo, via U.S. 287 to Claude, State Highway 207 to Silverton (a scenic route that cuts across Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest gaping maw in the United States), and State Highway 86 East.
TRAIL ACCESS AND EQUIPMENT: The trailway is maintained and managed by Caprock Canyons State Park. You can buy trailway entrance permits ($3 per person) at park headquarters. There are eight trailhead access points with parking areas, spaced about 10 miles apart along the 64-mile trailway. The most popular trailheads are in Estelline, at the eastern terminal of the trail on U.S. Highway 287; at Quitaque; at Monk’s Crossing, 4.5 miles east of the Clarity Tunnel; and in South Plains, at the western end of the trailway.
If you want to do the trail the old-fashioned way, on horseback, contact Quitaque Riding Stables (806-455-1208). Queen of the Valley Tours (806-983-3639) offers guided tours of the Quitaque Canyons and Los Lingos trail segments on an old school bus.
For bicycle rentals, shuttles and repair kits, contact Roland Hamilton at the Caprock Center hardware store in Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260).
WHERE TO STAY: Roland Hamilton’s spacious family farmhouse about two miles east of Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260) is comfortable, and a real bargain at $50 for two. The house has nine guest beds, and porches from which to watch both sunrise and sunset.
More upscale accommodations are at the Quitaque Quail Lodge B&B (806-455-1261), a country-style, ranch house and hunting lodge featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and hiking trails.
The Hotel Turkey (806-423-1151, www.turkeybb.com) in Turkey is a 1927 railroad hotel that was converted to a bed-and-breakfast, though the rocking chairs on the front porch remain.
There are seven designated backcountry campsites on the trailway, plus campgrounds with RV hookups and additional backcountry campsites at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque.
WHERE TO EAT: The Hotel Turkey cooks dinners on weekends. The Saturday night special is mesquite-grilled steak with all the trimmings; two-day advance reservation only.
Groups of 20 or more can enjoy Comanchero breakfasts and Chuckwagon suppers at Joe and Virginia Taylor’s Circle Dot Ranch (www.circledotranch.com), a working cattle ranch five miles from South Plains (March through October, by advance reservation only).
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Caprock Canyons State Park schedules wildflower walks, history and nature tours, star parties and other events throughout the year.
The Bob Wills Museum in Turkey features memorabilia of the King of Western Swing, the Texas original fusion of jazz, swing and country. The Turkey Heritage Association stages a free talent showcase jamboree at the Bob Wills Center the first Saturday of every month. Celebrating its native son, Turkey goes full-tilt boogie on Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday of April.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park c/o Caprock Canyons State Park (P.O. Box 204, Quitaque, TX 79255-0204, 806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock/caprock.htm), Quitaque Chamber of Commerce (www.fnbquitaque.com), Turkey Chamber of Commerce (www.turkeytexas.com). For more cycling information, visit the West Texas Cycling Web site (wtcycling.com).
by Paul Burka, Jane Dure, Michael Hall, Christopher Keyes, John Morthland, Joe Nick Patoski, Eileen Schwartz, Patricia Sharpe and John Spong
(alphabetical, by city)
Unless otherwise noted, all places take credit cards.
ABILENE: Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q We didn’t catch pitmaster Harold Christian singing gospel songs to his customers, but we’re told that isn’t an unusual occurrence. This cozy little room, packed with nine picnic tables, seven booths, and a congregation of athletic trophies, is where Abilene gets its primo meat, smoked for twelve to fourteen hours over oak in a fifty-year-old box pit: brisket, pork ribs, chicken (on Fridays), turkey breast, German pork-and-beef sausage, and ham. A thin, spicy sauce is poured over the meat, which we usually don’t like, but it just lightly seasons the brisket, which was all fall-apart tender. Specialties include hot-water jalapeño cornbread and blackberry cobbler that made us weak in the knees. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. 1305 Walnut, 915-672-4451. Open Mon, Tue, Thur & Fri 11-6:30, Wed till 2, Sat till 5. by Katy Vine
AMARILLO: Beans N Things The plastic cow still stands guard on the roof of Shirley and Lawrence Bagley’s order-at-the-counter restaurant, with its knotty pine walls and lunchroom tables. At three-thirty in the afternoon, the hickory-smoked brisket and mesquite-smoked ribs had gotten a little dry and “shreddy” but were redeemed by honest flavor. The sausage was commercial, but the same was not true of the puckery-sweet coleslaw with a hint of tarragon vinegar or the eight-hour-cooked pinto beans. Take your pick of mild or spicy sauce, both opaque and on the thick side. Besides barbecue, the kitchen turns out a range of homey dishes, including breakfast burritos, fajitas, and Frito pie. Brisket plate $5.99. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 1700 Amarillo Boulevard East, 806-373-7383. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8:30-6:30. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: BBQ World Headquarters Why this place hasn’t developed a huge following is a mystery, because in its six years of existence, it has quickly worked its way up the barbecue ladder in Austin. One reason is the quality of the brisket: Certified Angus beef. It’s slightly fattier than some but marvelously tasty and tender. The pork roast is not just picnic-quality but good enough for Sunday dinner. Pork ribs, baby back ribs, chicken, and (unfortunately salty) pork sausage from Mike’s Barnyard in Liberty Hill round out the meat menu, and everything is smoked over oak. The borracho beans bristle with bits of pork and sausage; the creamy coleslaw has character and crunch. You can eat inside the little corrugated-metal-and-cinder-block building, with its cheery red and blue vinyl tablecloths, or sit at a picnic table outside on the asphalt. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.6701 Burnet Road, 512-323-9112. Open Mon-Sat 11-4. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: John Mueller’s BBQ In 2001 John Mueller left the family business in Taylorthe famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, which was started by his grandfatherto open up his own place in East Austin, where he has quickly risen to the top of the local ‘cue heap. The bare-bones cinder-block building with a frame-house annex out back radiates blue-collar, duct-tape funk despite the parade of athletes (Ben Crenshaw, Major Applewhite), legislators (Mueller did a catering gig for Speaker Tom Craddick this spring), and other celebs coming through the screen door. And the oak-smoked meat tastes right. Mueller is usually at the counter, ready to slice it to order and serve it on a butcher-paper-lined tray. Just be sure to stipulate lean or fatty on the brisket (we’re fools for the latter). The pork ribs, pork chops, smoked T-bones, and prime rib rock too. The all-beef sausage, made according to John’s own recipe, comes from the Taylor Meat Company. Choose from two sauces at the condiment tablethe runny, peppery kind that Louie Mueller’s is famous for or a thick, sweet one that will appeal to the Salt Lick and County Line crowd. Brisket plate $7.95. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1917 Manor Road, 512-236-0283. Open Mon-Fri 10-8, Sat till 6. by Joe Nick Patoski
BELTON: Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que There’s something about a pit. At Schoepf’s, the cooking pits (where they smoke the brisket over mesquite coals for half a day) are out back and the serving pit is on the patio; you go there first and pick out your ribs, chicken, brisket, oryumpork chops, then take them inside to get your sides. The meat is sold by the pound and is so moist and smoky you don’t need sauce, though it’s dished out on the sidevinegar based and pepperyif you want it for occasional dipping. Afterward, Schoepf’s is a fine place to linger, sitting at your picnic table and watching the locals doing the same thing. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 702 E. Central Avenue, 254-939-1151. Open Mon- Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun 11-3. by Michael Hall
BRADY: Lone Star Bar-B-Q Spare but spacious, with basic Hill Country hunters’ decor, Lone Star offers exemplary brisket and thick, flavorful pork chops with a light salt-and-pepper rub, cooked Llano-style over mesquite. The pork ribs are fatty but tasty; the sausage is so-so. The tart, pale-red vinegar sauce far surpasses its sticky-sweet companion. Good sides. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2010 S. Bridge, 915-597-1936. Open daily 11-9. by John Morthland
BURNET: Burnet County Barbeque The counter sits at one end of this stone roadhouse and the smallish dining area at the other, with a wood-burning stove for wintertime warmth. Mesquite-cooked brisket (up to eighteen hours in a pig-iron pit) and substantial pork ribs exude smokiness and powerful flavor, as does beef sausage from Elgin; the thick tomatoey sauce does the meat justice. The fruity, almost nutty slaw has a hint of celery seed, the beans are fortified with jalapeños, and the potato salad is mustardy and quite chunky. Several kinds of scrumptious pies (dense pecan, puddinglike chocolate, and more) are baked by a local woman. Brisket plate $6.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 616 Buchanan Drive (Texas Highway 29), 512-756-6468. Open Sun & Wed-Thur 11-6, Fri & Sat till 7. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by John Morthland
CANADIAN: Cattle Exchange Patrons who come for ‘cue benefit from this Panhandle restaurant’s dual status as a steakhouse. The 1910 building has been beautifully restored, and the amenities include, believe it or not, cloth napkins. Smoked over mesquite, the brisket is tender and reasonably moist, the sausage full of flavor, the ham better than most. Two saucesthe spicy, snappy “original” and a milder “sweet”allow for custom seasoning. Although the potato salad is a tad timid and mayonnaisey, the beans, cooked with tomato, green chile, onion, and bacon, would be hard to improve upon. The whiskey-sauce-drenched sourdough-bread pudding may make you woozy. Brisket plate $8.99. Rating: 4. Second and Main, 806-323-6755. Open Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri & Sat till 10. by Patricia Sharpe
CONROE: McKenzie’s Barbeque The strip-mall location didn’t bode well, but once we got a whiff of the oak burning in the pit, we knew this place was serious about its barbecue. The brisket is well executed, and the meaty pork ribs kept us gnawing and licking our chops long after we should have stopped. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the thick, A-1-ish saucethe excellent meat can stand on its own. The McKenzies are yet another Texas family with barbecue in their DNA: Darin McKenzie runs things in Conroe; his brother, Kevin, runs the original McKenzie’s, in Huntsville; and their sister, Shannon, owns a Bodacious outpost in Longview. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1501 N. Frazier, 936-539-4300. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-8. by Eileen Schwartz
CORPUS CHRISTI: Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant What is success? Not having to work on the weekend. So don’t expect to find Malcolm DeShields here on Saturday or Sunday (the original Bar-B-Q Man, DeShields’ father, M.O., kept the same sweet hours). The place does plenty of business during the week with refinery workers and white-collar types. They come for DeShields’ huge portions of mesquite-smoked Certified Angus brisket and spare ribs and a bronze-hued house sauce that bites back. An off-putting chain-link fence surrounds the property, but inside it you’ll find the Bar-B-Q Man’s spacious dining rooms and a patio with pool tables, a dance floor, and a bar. Service is cafeteria-style. Brisket plate $8.95. Beer and wine. Rating: 4. 4931 I-37 South, 361-888-4248 or 888-4296. Open Mon-Fri 11-8. by Joe Nick Patoski
DALLAS: Baker’s Ribs A sweet, spicy, gooey glaze puts the finishing touch on melt-in-your-mouth hickory-smoked pork ribs, and the lean, thick-cut brisket (cooked for twelve to fifteen hours) and zingy beef sausage are almost addictive. The pork loin is more flavorful than most, and the chicken breast has a smoky surface and a juicy white interior, but the ham, turkey, and sauces are humdrum. Standout sides include potato salad heavy on the dill, creamy slaw with celery seeds, brisk marinated-tomato salad, and jalapeño-spiked black-bean-and-corn relish. Though larger than Baker’s Commerce Street flagship, this outlet is just as good. Brisket plate $7.25. Beer. Rating: 4. 4844 Greenville Avenue, 214-373-0082. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-8. by John Morthland
DALLAS: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Now the flagship of a chain that gets justifiably mixed reviews, the original Sonny B’s can itself be erratic. But when the ancient, custom-built pit (stoked with hickory) is producing up to snuff, the burnt-crust brisket is almost, but not quite, falling-apart tender, and the pork ribs are almost, but not quite, falling-off-the-bone tender; the former dazzles on sandwiches. Ignore the other meats and the sides, except for the whopping golden-brown onion rings. The thick, sweet sauce is marginal. Customers still eat at one of about twenty cramped school desks or outside in (and on) their cars. Brisket plate $6.99. Beer. Rating: 4. 2202 Inwood Road, 214-357-7120 (other Metroplex locations). Open Sun-Fri 10-4, Sat till 3. by John Morthland
EAGLE LAKE: Austin’s BBQ and Catering You have to fight for one of the two picnic tables out front or sit on your car hood if you want to eat at Ron and Denice Janow’s converted gas station, where the old garage bays are filled with smoke from two portable cast-iron pits. Meat is serious business here in hunting country, and this is some of the most serious barbecued meat in Texasoutstanding brisket meant to be eaten with your fingers, five-star boneless pork, and pork ribs with a tantalizing pecan flavor and a peppery kick. Save room for the buttered potatoes and the usual sides, as well as banana pudding, coconut pie, and 7-UP cake. This place is definitely worth the thirteen-mile detour off Interstate 10. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 507 E. Main, 979-234-5250 or 800-256-0166. Open Thur-Sat 8-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
EAST BERNARD: Vincek’s Smokehouse The tan brick exterior is plain and institutional, but inside, Vincek’s exudes a sense of place, from the “Jak Se Más ” (“How Are You?”) Czech welcome on the menu board at the end of the long meat counter and the homemade bread, kolaches, and tea rings in the bakery case to the local polka CDs for sale and the posters advertising the Triumphs playing Riverside Hall. Even the sweet abuela who cut our order spoke with a slight Czech accent. The pecan-smoked brisket was first-rate, with a salty bite and the obligatory red ring, and the ribs were exceptionally meaty, but it was the spicy, coarsely ground sausage that hit the spot. Choose between the too-sweet house sauce and a runny, vinegar-based type. Sides include Spanish rice and coleslaw with a pucker-inducing tang. Brisket plate $5.75. Beer. Rating: 4. Texas Highway 60 and U.S. 90A, 979-335-7921 or 800-844-MEAT. Open Tue-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3. by Joe Nick Patoski
ELGIN: Crosstown B-B-Q This unassuming little operation, with its bare plywood walls and minimal decor, was packed with folks when we visited, including what must have been the entire Elgin High School baseball team. We liked its lean, subtly spiced sausage more than any other local links we sampled. The oak-smoked brisket and chicken were moist, and the peppery ribs meaty and tender. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 3.5. 202 S. Avenue C, 512-281-5594. Open Sun-Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Eileen Schwartz
EL PASO: Chris’s the Brisket BBQ The beef rib is still king in El Paso, but unlike other ‘cue joints way out west, where the ribs come like snow cones (they taste like whatever syrup is poured on top), these ribs have no marinade. Instead, a simple salt-cayenne-and-black-pepper rub allows the ribs to taste like ribs: tender, rich, never stringy. Pit boss Chris Ivey treats the rest of his meat with the same care, producing a shiny black crust over a thin red ribbon on the brisket and a crunchy black skin on the sausage, all smoked over pecan. Ivey says his secret is never to leave the meat and the fire unattended, and he gets to his pits each morning at three o’clock. The early start allows him to make potato salad, chili beans, and coleslaw fresh each day and also whip up several cakes for dessert. His sauce is intentionally bland, and so is the restaurant’s interior. The only decoration was a tableful of slow-pitch-softball trophies and a Christmas tree, which was still up in April, festooned with yellow ribbons in support of the troops. Brisket plate $6.50. Rating: 4. 11420 Rojas, 915-595-0114. Open Mon-Fri 11-3. by John Spong
[please visit Texas Monthly for the remaining fifty]
The Best of the Best
by Paul Burka, Michael Hall and Joe Nick Patoski
(in no particular order)
Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q
The name “Cooper’s” has long been synonymous with Llano, but now the Mason operation of the same name has overtaken its distant cousin. Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q was opened in Mason in 1953 by the late George Cooper, whose son Tommy (also deceased) cloned it a decade later in Llano. Today the two are entirely separate, though both continue to follow the founding father’s formula: Let customers select their own meat straight from the outdoor pit and then take it inside to be weighed, sliced, and priced. And quite a selection it is too, covering the whole barnyard: beef, pork, chicken, goat, andoh, happy moment of discoverylamb ribs, the very thought of which sets the mouth to watering all these weeks later. On weekends, the mesquite-smoked fare expands to include T-bone and sirloin steaks and pork loin. The brisket is without flaw in taste or texture, sweet and juicy; it may be the best in Texas. The beef sausage is prepared in Austin following an old Cooper’s recipe, according to owner Duard Dockal, who took over from George Cooper twenty years ago. The flavor is on the mild side, a condition that can quickly be rectified by an application of Dockal’s homemade sauce, a piquant concoction whose distinctive orange color announces the ample presence of mustard. You can’t go wrong here; even the sides are homemade. The only drawback is that the cinder-block dining room has just four rectangular bench-style tables, with one more outdoors. For a nice alternative, order your food to go and dine at Fort Mason Park, about three quarters of a mile south of the pit on U.S. 87. Brisket plate about $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 5. S. U.S. 87, 915-347-6897 or 800-513-6963. Open daily 10:30-5:30. by Paul Burka
It’s been three years since Kreuz Market was forced to vacate its storied, century-old premises and relocate down the road, a move that remains a topic of conversation among conspiracy theorists. Owner Rick Schmidt’s sister and landlord, Nina Sells, wanted to double his rent and make him pay for improvements. Rick refused to pony up. But despite any lingering bad blood, Texas Barbecue Nation is better for the family feud. Kreuz’s huge new location accommodates three times as many diners, in two giant dining rooms and a long, breezy porch. Shiny and crisp at first, the interior of the metal-roofed building is slowly getting a satisfying smoke patina. The woodpile around back covers almost an entire city block and may be the largest in the free world. Traditions from the old site remain: The only utensils provided for the meat are plastic knives, a symbolic nod to the days when diners sitting at Kreuz’s counters had to use knives chained to the wall. And the optional sides avocados, yellow cheese, and onion slicesare as quirky as ever. As before, potato salad and coleslaw are not sold, though in a bow to popular demand, pinto beans have been added to the menu (to tell the truth, they were pretty boring the last time we tried them). Though the first year was shaky, the post oak-fired pits are now turning out some of the best, if not the best, meat anywhere on earth, notably the amazing brisket (a caveatit can be too salty), the spicy, garlicky coarse-ground sausage, a smoked pork chop that trumps any rib, and boneless prime rib for the discerning barbecue fan. No sauce. No need. Brisket plate (with beans only) about $5.45. Beer. Rating: 5. U.S. 183, just north of town; 512-398-2361. Open Mon-Fri 9-6, Sat till 6:30. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Going to Louie Mueller Barbecue is like going to barbecue church: You open the screen door and walk into an expansive room with a high ceiling and ancient walls. To your right are images of Texas music icons, people like Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then there’s the air, rarefied andsmoky. It’s the smoke that sanctifies Louie Mueller’s, from the food to the people who eat there religiously. Mueller’s has been open since 1949, and it’s been in its current location, a former basketball court, since 1959. Founder Louie’s son, Bobby, took over in 1976 and has kept up the quality for more than a quarter of a century. And that means doing things the way they always have: simply, using a basic salt-and-pepper rub on the meat and cooking it using post-oak coals for about six hours. The brisket issurprisesmoky, the smoke somehow penetrating every molecule of the meat. Mueller’s beef sausage has the consistency of meat that was put into the casing manually, not by machine (check out the understated jalapeño links; you can taste the pepper as well as its heat), and the pork ribs are juicy. The sauce is dispensed, as it should be, in a little cup for dipping. No need to cover anything up. The sides are homemade; try the spicy pinto beans. In 1974 the Muellers put up a bulletin board that customers could attach their business cards to, and in a matter of months, the white cards were beige. You can peek under the top layer for a glimpse of past customers or add your own card. Soon, it too will be covered in smoke, the badge of honor. Brisket plate about $6.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 206 W. Second, 512-352-6206. Open Mon-Sat 10-6. by Michael Hall
While vast amounts of ink have been lavished on the changes in the Central Texas barbecue mecca of Lockhart, fifteen miles to the north, nothing much at all has changed at City Marketwhich is a real good thing. With roots going back 45 years, City Market has all but perfected the arcane art of smoking meat. You become a patron of this art when you walk into the main dining room and proceed to the primitive-looking pit room at the back. You can’t miss it; just look for the line of fellow museumgoers and the posted warning “Please don’t hold door open.” Breathe deep when you walk inside: barbecue heaven. Now squint through the air, dense with smoke. The pit crew, led by manager Joe Capello, Sr., himself, is most likely the same bunch that was stoking the pits, taking your order, and slicing the meat the last time you visited, no matter how long ago that was. After you gather up your butcher paper full of post oak-smoked meat, head back through the main room to the center counter for beans, potato salad, thick slices of yellow cheese, beer, Big Red, and IBC Root Beer. On weekdays, locals outnumber tourists jamming the long tables in the two wood- paneled dining rooms, where almost equal numbers of Anglos, Hispanics, and African Americans gnaw in harmony on out-of-this-world beef brisket, celestial pork ribs coated with a mysterious bronze glaze, and juicy, coarse-ground homemade beef sausage. If you must, you can slather on some sauce; it’s thin, mustardy, and loaded with pepperlike everything else, Central Texas style at its best. Brisket plate about $5.25. Beer. Rating: 5. 633 Davis, 830-875-9019. Open Mon- Sat 7-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
Out-of-towners who crunch their way across the gravel parking lot, past the post oak-stoked fire at the back of the redbrick building, and into the big old bare-bones dining room might not realize that anything has changed here if they failed to notice that the name on the building is now Smitty’s Market and not Kreuz Market. That’s because the brisket at this Lockhart destination is still primo, the coarsely ground handmade sausage is sublime, and the pork chops are thick, sweet, and delicately smoky. Those in the know spring for the succulent, juicy boneless prime rib; since it’s cooked to be perfectly medium-rare right when lunch begins, it’s more subtly flavored than Smitty’s longer-smoked brisket. Just as in the old days, all the meats are sold by the pound and slapped onto butcher paper. Now three years old, Smitty’s is named for Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells. Although the restaurant’s first few months were up and down, it seems to have hit its stride under manager and pitmaster John A. Fullilove, Sells’ son. Yes, sometimes the brisket can be a tad dry and the rub too salty or not salty enough, but there are times when Smitty’s is even better than its predecessorand that’s saying a lot. In a concession to modernity, the dining room now offers potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. Likewise, diners are grudgingly provided with plastic spoons and knives but not forks, a reminder that in the old days, folks weren’t too proud to eat with their hands. And as always, there’s no sauce anywhere on the premises. Brisket plate about $5.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 208 S. Commerce (though most everyone uses the rear entrance fronting U.S. 183), 512-398-9344. Open Mon-Fri 7-6, Sat 7-6:30, Sun 9-3. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Barbecue is nothing less than the national food of Texas, and from a mom-and-pop joint in Eagle Lake to a temple of brisket in Taylorwe’ve searched out the best. On your mark, get set, dig in!
THIS SMOKIN’ THING IS GETTING out of hand. The custom of cooking meats over wood fires has been going on since before there was a place called Texas, but in recent years the concept has gotten so refined and peculiar thataside from the basic truth that Texas barbecue is superior to every other regional stylenobody here can agree with anybody else about anything.
We learned this the hard way six years ago, when Texas Monthly first weighed in with our picks of the state’s top fifty barbecue joints. We thought we’d covered the territory and then some, but we should have known better. The insults started coming fast and furious, via letters, telephone calls, and e-mails, the general drift being, “How on earth could you have missed [fill in the blank]?” Frankly, we’re still stinging from the critic who called us a bunch of “city boys.”
This time around, we doubled the size of our barbecue SWAT team to ten intrepid souls, who risked indigestion and clogged arteries chasing chimney smoke around the corner and into the next county, drove more than 21,000 miles to visit 360 places, got three speeding tickets, and gained more than thirty collective pounds in search of today’s best barbecue. Our new, revised top fifty includes 18 places from the old honor roll. Leading the pack are the five that we’ve anointed the new best of the best: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor (which were in our top three six years ago), City Market in Luling, Smitty’s Market, in Lockhart, and Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason.
Clearly, Texas Barbecue Nation is in a state of flux. Witness what has happened in the intervening years to our holy trinity of 1997: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller’s, and Cooper’s in Llano. In Lockhart, the small farming community that many consider the capital of Texas barbecue, a business disagreement between Rick Schmidt and his sister, Nina Sells, led to Schmidt’s relocating Kreuz Market down the road. Sells moved into the old location and dubbed it Smitty’s. Over in Taylor, Louie Mueller’s head honcho, Bobby Mueller, and his son John had words, leading John to leave the hallowed, soot-encrusted family business started by his grandfather to open his own place in Austin. Meanwhile, devotees seeking out Cooper’s in Llano, the personal favorite of the president of the United States, have been complaining about inconsistent quality, escalating prices, and crowds that never seem to thin out. Cooper’s didn’t make it into our top five this time, and after a particularly unhappy visit, we almost kicked it out of the top fifty. But at the last minute, we relentedbecause when Cooper’s is on, it’s on.
The changes that have affected the biggies are mirrored across the barbecue spectrum: The Gonzales Food Market dropped its prized beef ribs from the menu recently when the wholesale price got too expensive. Billy Pfeffer, the longtime pit boss at Dozier’s, in Fulshear, died a couple of years ago. Tough brisket ruined a SWAT team member’s otherwise perfect atmospheric experience at Novosad’s, in Hallettsville, this winter. The independent culinary entrepreneurs, who still dominate the ‘cue realm, are getting squeezed by chains that are beating the old-timers at their own game.
But perhaps it’s only natural for the barbecue world to be in constant turmoil, since the very origins of the craft are in dispute. Did barbecue start with the Czech-German meat markets of Central Texas that cooked up their unsold meat every Saturday in the days before refrigeration? Should African Americans get the credit, for having brought the tradition over from the Deep South? Or should we tip our hats to the early Anglo cowboys and Mexican vaqueros who dug deep pits, covered the meat with wet cloth or leaves, and slow-cooked it over coals for hours, following in the foodways of nomadic peoples in the Big Bend who cooked edible plants in pits 10,000 years ago?
Then there is the great dry-wet divide. Dry refers to two related methods of barbecuing meat: the modern-day cowboy-vaquero style (directly over burning coals, popular in South Texas) and the Czech-German technique (more slowly and over indirect heat, typical of Central Texas). These methods produce a nice crust on the outside and meat that is tender but firm. Dry barbecue is eaten with the sauce on the side, if at all, and said sauce tends to be runny and spicy. Wet is all about African American and Southern styles that emphasize even slower cooking (up to 24 hours) and yield moist and tender brisket and ribs that fall off the bone. Wet also refers to the fact that, as often as not, the meat is automatically drenched in sauce, which is typically sweet and thick.
Beyond cooking styles, what meats qualify as “real” barbecue? In Texas, brisket, ribs, and sausage are the bedrock. Big-tenters also embrace chicken, pork loin, pork chops, fajitas, ribeyes, prime rib, and sirloins as long as they’re slow-cooked with smoke. (Here, I have to weigh in with my own opinion: Prefab turkey breasts and ham don’t count. They’re usually just one step up from deli loaves and thus doomed from the start. And don’t get me started on barbecued crab, barbacoa, or anything grilled over flames or cooked in an oven. They may be delicious, but they’re not the real deal.) It goes without saying that within this carne-copia, folks have strong individual preferences. For some, brisket is the standard. Others are true to ribsno bones, go homebut they divide into two camps, beef and pork. Sausage purists split over beef, pork, or beef-and-pork and can argue the merits of the hot links common in East Texas but appreciated statewide (fat, stubby, and finely ground, in a tight red casing) versus the coarsely ground Central or South Texas blends (more loosely packed in crinkly casings).
Wood too is a burning question. Name your smoke and you define your ‘cue: oak and pecan, found mostly in the central and north-central parts of the state, give a strong, aromatic flavor; mesquite, abundant in South and West Texas, imparts a distinctive sharp taste that turns bitter if the meat is cooked too long. Hickory, native to East Texas, lends a classic, mellow smoked flavor and is common throughout the South, although it is often shipped as far away as the Panhandle and El Paso (where any kind of wood is hard to come by). A footnote: Although I know some places use gas in addition to wood to speed the process, to purists, gas equals sissy ‘cue.
The appropriate sides set off a whole other firestorm. Are beans, potato salad, and coleslaw the perfect complement for meat, or does more exotic faresay, green beans, baked potatoes, rice and its variations (Mexican, Cajun, rice salad), or macaroni and cheesestrike the right balance? Are sides even necessary when just a piece of white bread, a slice of onion, and a pickle or a jalapeño will do? Finally, what is the best drink to wash it all down: iced tea (sweet or unsweetened?), beer, or Big Red?
But all this controversy is just part of the fun. So in that spirit, let’s stir the pot with our choices for the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas today. In a state that’s got around a couple thousandfrom shacks where you eat the meat off of butcher paper with your fingers to places with waiters, silverware, and cloth napkinswe had to make some hard choices. We know you may not agree with all of them, but, heyeverybody’s entitled to his or her opinion. We’re ready for your outraged cards and e-mails asking how we could have missed (fill in the blank). Just don’t go calling us city boys.
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
- Have you been to Big Bend Ranch State Park? Blog Joe Nick about your adventures.
- Did you hear Joe Nick talk about his hike on the Glenn Mitchell Radio Show?
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS