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Far Out Far West Texas

Mythic Texas gives way to Montana chic
by Published on

When the bumpy dirt road to this Far West Texas ghost town was coated with asphalt four years ago, Terlingua became convenient. Its days as a sleepy, unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path reinvented mining town were over. All along Farm to Market Road 170, the main drag of the greater Study Butte-Terlingua Microplex, just west of Big Bend National Park, there are signs of the change. Some are overt, such as the For Sale signs advertising West Texas Realty that seem to have popped up all over like mushrooms after a rain. Others are subtler, like the opening of La Posada Milagro, the new four-room rustic luxury lodge with high-speed Internet access and massage, yoga, and chi gong services. Up the road around Lajitas, fake historical markers signal a resort called the Ultimate Hideout that used political clout to reroute the state highway around its property to make it seem more exclusive.

I’d predicted Terlingua’s fate to one of the town’s residents, Betty Moore. Last August, while we were sitting inside Desert Sports, the recreational outfitter in Terlingua where Betty works part-time, she reminded me of what I’d said. Betty and I were playing a parlor game enjoyed around the Trans-Pecos, Big Bend region—that wide swath of mythic Texas between Fort Stockton and El Paso extending south of Interstate 10 to the Rio Grande: Where was the next best place? Rating a town’s buzzworthiness was an amusing way to compare notes and bullshit away some of a blistering hot afternoon. In a way, though, it’s becoming a serious subject, especially if you’re a homeowner, a prospective homeowner or second homebuyer, a realtor, speculator, hustler or seeker of All Things Cool.

Downtown Marfa

The starting point of the game is always Marfa (pop. 2,424). The county seat of Presidio County has been under the microscope as an unexpected international art destination ever since the late minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to town in the early 1970s and began buying up vacant houses and buildings and ultimately, the old Army camp, which is now the Chinati Foundation, a world-class destination for fine art pilgrims. But it isn’t just Marfa that is hot and haute anymore. Folks who can spot a trend before the masses catch on are moving in all over Far West Texas. And if real-estate prices in Terlingua are climbing, almost any wide spot in the road with enough dwellings to call itself a town is fair game.

The same forces that have brought a cultural and economic sea change to the state of Montana over the past quarter century are at work in Far West Texas, mainly because massive chunks of land can be purchased by people of means who are looking for a refuge from the real world. That became evident last spring when Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon.com, bought 239,000 acres of barren ranchland in Culberson County in the flats north of Van Horn with the aim of building a private spaceport. The build-out of the Blue Origin aerospace testing and operations site on the old Corn Ranch at the foot of the Guadalupes is expected to take five years. Rockets firing from the desert floor will fit right in with the blimp refueling station at the Van Horn airport, and the tethered border control balloon farther east on Highway 90.

Montana’s makeover also started with high flyers—like Ted Turner, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Jeff Bridges—who could afford huge pieces of acreage and the luxury of flying to their high country retreats for the weekend. They’ve since been joined by legions of CEOs and the crème de la crème of the creative class, who are goosing land prices out of the reach of working cattle operations, thereby completing Montana’s transformation from authentic western to mythic western.

Far West Texas has many Montana-like attributes, particularly mountains (albeit in the desert), giant ranches (tens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid region), few people (less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), and easy access to the outdoors. Like Montana, Far West Texas is in reasonably close proximity to massive amounts of public lands. More than a million acres-worth of national park, state park, and wildlife management areas sprawl across south Brewster and Presidio counties in a state that is 95 percent privately owned.

Nowhere else in Texas is a string of small towns several hundred miles from big cities and airports actually gaining population. Most of the new residents are folks who move by choice, rather than necessity—for the wide open spaces, big sky, starlit nights, clean air, and for the things Far West Texas lacks, such as Wal-Marts, Starbucks, malls, and big-box stores. Even better, Far West Texas has its share of weirdness to accommodate the quirks and eccentricities of the rich and famous.

Betty Moore—who moved to Terlingua 25 years ahead of the curve, blowing off a sweet publishing gig in Austin to be a part-time river guide, part-time peregrine falcon researcher, part-time secretary, waitress, landlady, and book buyer—all means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploring—offered her opinion about what still undiscovered town was prime to become cool.

“I think it’s going to be Sanderson,” she mused with her usual beatific smile. “There are some great old houses and buildings there. Adobes, too”

I agreed the whole region was undergoing a rapid makeover, but there were limits, and as far as I was concerned, Sanderson was over the line. Nope. No way.

I pointed out to Betty that no matter how appealing the housing stock and prices might be, Sanderson was surrounded by low canyons, not desert mountains. It was on the way to the Big Bend, not in the Big Bend. Our mutual friend Terry Tex Toler, who headed the Terrell County Economic Development Corporation long enough to have Sanderson officially designated as The Cactus Capital of Texas, had closed down his Savage Guest House in 2005 due to lack of business. The town just wasn’t ready to join the pantheon of Marfa, Marathon, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Terlingua as far out Far West Texas towns. If there was a next best place, my bet was on another town abandoned by the railroad in the flats between the Sierra Vieja and the Davis Mountains.

“Valentine is next,” I told Betty Moore with all sincerity.

The town of 200 may lack a gas station or any kind of store other than the post office, but it sure has cachet. I cited the Prada Marfa adobe art sculpture on Highway 90 near Valentine. It’s a full-scale reproduction of a retail outlet of the trendy minimalist Prada fashion line that was installed in October, causing quite the sensation. Within days, “Dum Dum” and “Dumb” had been spray-painted on the exterior and 14 shoes, all right foot, and six purses were stolen from the display window. The acts of vandalism may or may not have been committed by the artists themselves on their way back to the El Paso airport. Even if that wasn’t true, it made for a good story, which is an important element of life in this part of the state where people love to talk as much as they love to listen, and storytelling remains very much part of the cultural fabric.

Betty wasn’t buying. No way was Valentine about to get hot, she swore.

Prada Marfa art installationPrada Marfa art vandalized

Maybe the media will give Valentine a boost. After all, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times (three times in one month), Salon.com, and Art in America have all taken note of Far West Texas and Marfa in particular over the past year. So has The Wall Street Journal, which profiled part-time Marfa resident Quality Quinn on the trials and tribulations of social obligations and charitable giving in one’s second hometown.

Discovery has evidently come with a price. The message out front of Carmen’s Café on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Café, a storied culinary institution in Far West Texas whose family recipes date back to 1887, is no longer owned by a Borunda. The real estate market in Marfa is so overheated the city government has imposed a building moratorium while planning and zoning rules are being rewritten.

Robert Halpern, editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly Marfa newspaper I occasionally contribute to, thinks Marfa is faring the buzz better than residents in neighboring towns, who derisively refer to the locals as Marfadites, would like to admit. “Folks moving to town are not doing anything outlandish,” he says. “The adobes being remodeled are being done in the vernacular. The architecture investment has been a positive. Many new additions have been positive,” he adds, citing Ballroom Marfa, the contemporary arts and culture space run by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn; Maiya’s Restaurant, which does northern Italian cuisine; the revitalized El Paisano Hotel where the cast of the movie “Giant” once stayed; and the Pizza Foundation, named in honor of all the arts foundations in Marfa.

Robert and his wife, Rosario Salgado Halpern, the newspaper’s publisher, have a catbird’s seat for viewing the Marfa and Far West Texas transformation. He’s a native of Alpine. She’s a native of Presidio. And as the town paper of record, they’ve seen it all. Both have embraced most of the changes while keeping tabs on what is lost in the bargain. They were friends of Donald Judd, the one person most responsible for this whole New Montana/Far West Texas phenomenon, and they and their children are docents at the Chinati Foundation.

If the Halperns’ strategy is to embrace change, it may be because there’s no alternative. “How do you control it, or can you even control it? No one has a lock and key,” Robert says.

Still, you wonder if it was better before the word spread, back when Judd was alive and employed more workers than any single business in town while shunning the kind of buzz and attention currently swirling around Marfa. For all the seeds he planted—the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, which oversees much of the property he bought and filled with rare artworks, and those infernal WWDJD? bumperstickers—there’s a real sense that if Judd were still alive (he died in 1994), the last place on earth he’d want to be is in Marfa, as his son, Flavin, insisted to me a few years ago. He’d rather be at his ranch, where no one could find him. Whatever Judd started, though, can no longer be stopped.

“Far West Texas might well be the next Montana, but is that good?” asks Larry Francell. Francell is the director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, and a resident of Fort Davis, where he’s a County Commissioner. The land boom has swept up Highway 17 to Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. With a population of 1,050, the unincorporated county seat of Jeff Davis County is landlocked by the Fort Davis National Historic Site, the Davis Mountains State Park, and big ranches that dominate the Davis Mountains. Those conditions, along with the presence of the McDonald Observatory and a campaign to lock in conservation easements by the Texas Nature Conservancy, may jack up real estate prices, but they are precisely the kind of amenities that make Montana so appealing, and explain the loud outcry locally and statewide when John Poindexter—the owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort down the road near Shafter—tried to purchase several thousand acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park for $45 an acre.

Francell said he’d heard about a lot in Limpia Crossing, the only subdivision in the Davis Mountains between the town and the McDonald Observatory, originally priced at $7,000 that went for a quarter million recently. He knew for certain that the effective tax rate in the county has risen due to the flurry of construction. “There’s even two mini-mansions going up in town,” he says. “One of them is being built by a Marfadite. A lot of Outlanders are moving in and bringing real money, as opposed to the indigenous rich. But at this point, it’s subtle, like old age—you suddenly wake up and you’re old.”

The land rush extends east of Marfa along US Highway 90 through Alpine (pop. 6,079)—the county seat of Brewster County, home to Sul Ross State University, and the biggest town in the Trans-Pecos—all the way to Marathon (pop. 600). That bucolic gateway town to Big Bend National Park was a sleepy little ranching community not too long ago. These days, Marathon’s practically bursting at the seams, with four art galleries, several new shops and cafes, and a slew of second-home residences. J.P. Bryan, the man who brought modern upscale tourism to the Big Bend when he and his wife Mary began refurbishing the Gage Hotel in the early 1980s, has been eclipsed by Russ Tidwell, a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who is working the tourism angle with his Chisos Gallery, the Captain Shepard’s Inn bed & breakfast, the Cottonwood Station barbecue restaurant, and the Adobe Hacienda Lodges, south of the railroad tracks. Since the Anglo part of Marathon north of the tracks has been pretty much bought up, properties on the Mexican side of town south of the tracks are going now too. You can tell which ones are Adobe Hacienda lodges by the BMWs and Lexuses parked out front.

The development boom extends 30 miles south of Marfa as well, to the aforementioned Cibolo Creek Ranch, three historic adobe forts refashioned into a rustic luxury resort where rooms go for $450 a night, but not to Presidio (pop. 4,167), the dusty border town whose great hope at the moment is a pork-barrel highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico that other towns in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos are fighting. Once notorious as the Hot Spot of the Nation for its high summer temperatures, Presidio is too poor and too desperate to qualify as a Far Out town of Far West Texas.

On the other hand, Terlingua (pop. 100 or so; nobody knows for sure), 67 miles east of Presidio along the River Road—one of the most scenic drives in this part of the world—is most definitely a Far Out town, mainly due to the creative desert rats who came to reinhabit the adobe ruins of the old mining town or build their own off-the-grid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park.

Cartoon by Gary Olliver

Over the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumulating more than 400,000 acres—half the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas.

“There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.”

p>Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hardly the first high rollers to move in. L
ng before they showed up, there were lavish spreads tucked back in the mountains, like the Sibley castle in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, and Don McIvor’s Scottish castle in the Davis Mountains. The late industrialist Justin Dart, who spearheaded passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, kept a place near Blue Mountain outside of Fort Davis.

Jeff Fort, founder of Tyco Industries and part-time Marfadite, has rehabbed and reopened the Chinati Hot Springs in the desert west of Presidio. Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Tim Crowley have bought up choice properties in and around Marfa. Hamilton Fish, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nation Institute, has a second residence in town. When Ed Albee is signing books at the local bookstore, Laura Wilson is showing photographs in a local gallery, playwright Wallace Shawn is staging plays in a local theatre, and John Waters is doing a local speaking engagement, there’s a sense that if you haven’t bought in yet, you’re way too late.

Carla McFarland, a former Dallasite who bought the Holland Hotel—the historic Alpine hotel designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest who also designed the Gage in Marathon and El Paisano in Marfa—insists that Alpine, which has experienced the Montana effect in its own way, is different.

“There’s a lot of people buying up stuff thinking it’s going to happen here,” she says. “Which fucks up your tax base and fucks up your people who’ve lived here all their lives. Instead of the tenfold increase in Marfa, the Carla Prediction is we’re going to see a 50 percent increase here in Alpine, maybe even a twofold or threefold increase in price. We’re OK. I don’t think it’s going to be as wild as Marfa, but there are some opportunities.”

This means a run on adobe, especially neglected, crumbling, and cheap-for-the-price adobe, which in Far Out West Texas translates to property south of the tracks—the historically Mexican part of town. All the good Marfa adobe may have been scooped up. Not so in Alpine, which, according to a Texas Historical Commission study, has an abundance of adobe structures exceeded only by El Paso. And as McFarland points out, “Who wants to live in El Paso?”

“My business partner looked at a crumbling adobe south of the tracks going for $42,000,” she says. “It was being sold by a guy who’d bought it last year for $32,000.”

The business partner, Andrew Nelson, is further evidence of the Montana effect in Far West Texas. Nelson is a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine who moved to Alpine from San Francisco by choice after visiting while researching an article on rail travel. Two of Nelson’s friends—Tom Michael, an editor for Britannica.com, and Katherine Shaughnessy, a writer specializing in gracious living—stopped in while driving from Chicago to Savannah in search of a place to settle down and raise a family. Three weeks later, they bought a place in Alpine too. Michael is now the general manager of KRTS-FM, the National Public Radio station that will soon begin broadcasting to the region to complement KVLF-AM/KALP-FM in Alpine, the only commercial stations in the Trans-Pecos, and three low-power community stations.

Alpine remains relatively down to earth, where function trumps form, Carla McFarland contends. “Marfa people have to drive to Alpine to get their Prada dry-cleaned,” she says. “You can’t get a prescription filled in Marfa. If you’re having a heart attack, you have to come to Alpine for a defibrillator.”

But it is not without its airs. The annual Gallery Night weekend puts more people in the streets than any other community event. A brewpub has opened in the Holland Hotel. La Tapatia Cafe changed its name to La Trattoria to better reflect the Italian heritage of owner Allyson Santucci. And Sul Ross State University, which used to be famous for its rodeo teams, has added a Writer in Residence to the faculty. That writer, David Marion Wilkinson, who partnered with Alpine resident Joaquin Jackson on Jackson’s memoirs One Ranger, is sold on his new sense of place. “These people are more alive, and live with greater joy,” the former Austin resident says. “I feel like it’s a privilege to be among them.”

We’ve started to have conversations about what’s going to kill the fatted calf,” says Robert Halpern, musing over what the tipping point will be, if there is a tipping point. “Will it be the militarization of the border?” he wonders. “The Border Patrol used to be huts and temporary buildings. Now it’s these huge complexes. The Marfa airport is getting a $16 million upgrade in facilities for the Border Patrol and US Customs.” Rich folks don’t much cotton to building castles in militarized zones. Maybe La Entrada, the envisioned superhighway from Presidio to Midland will do the trick, bringing enough truck traffic, noise, and pollution to neutralize any sense of specialness.

Maybe the real cool places will just move farther off the map. Shafter, the mining ghost town between Presidio and Marfa is gussying up with fewer and fewer ruins for sale. Presidio could come into its own. If Ultimate Hideout owner Steve Smith drops another $100 million and doesn’t run out of water, perhaps he’ll actually realize his vision to make Lajitas another Palm Springs, although someone should break the news to him that while Los Angeles is a two-hour drive from Palm Springs, Midland is at least four hours from Lajitas. The villages of Ruidosa and Candelaria, where the pavement ends on FM 170, the River Road, are relatively undiscovered. And don’t forget Kent.

Despite all the stories I’d read and the complaints I’d heard, Far West Texas appears to be pretty great in the here and now, no matter what’s coming, or how it used to be. The unease under the surface, though is palpable. Where do all those rugged individualists who make the Trans Pecos and the Big Bend so appealing go when they sell out to the outsiders? Stockton? Odessa? El Paso? Valentine? Sanderson? And does the sense of place they’ve instilled go with them, leaving the newcomers with a movie set version of the real thing, just like Aspen, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming, have become?

Some of the outsiders moving in are so obnoxious, they justify the endless gossip about them (e.g. Steve Smith of Lajitas). But others deserve praise. You’ve got to admit, a coffee shop that roasts its beans on premises like the Brown Recluse in Marfa would be a welcome asset to any community in which it was located. What makes Far West Texas one notch better is the Mexican abuela around the block from the Brown Recluse. As long as she continues to serve up giant breakfast burritos in the small dining room built onto the side of her house, the changes are welcome. But when the abuela can no longer afford to live in Marfa, whatever it is that makes Far West Texas so far out will be lost. In its wake will be the Texas version of the Hamptons, or a dry variation of Aspen, where the service workers have to be bussed in from 70 miles away because they can’t afford to live there any more.

Donald Judd learned that early on. These days, it’s easier to find a Gap in Soho, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of warehouses and old skyscrapers that artists like him first began inhabiting in the early 1960s, than it is canvas and painting oils. Real artists can’t afford to live in Soho any more. Will real cowboys, ranch supplies, feed stores, and saddle shops suffer the same fate in Far West Texas?

Far West Texas is not for everyone. People come for the incredible scenery, breathtaking vistas, and rugged beauty. Some of them decide to stay. But many leave shortly afterwards due to the relative lack of goods, services, and modern conveniences, especially “when they figure they have to drive two hours to get anything,” as Alpine realtor Joy Parsons told me. Such was the celebrated case of Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, who used his royalties to move from Ohio to a ranch near Alpine, and stayed some years before departing for a more civilized place outside Fredericksburg (at least he found his second wife in Far West Texas).

In early December, I stopped in Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, with a group of people that included my friend Betty Moore. The town was as empty as ever. But I began to see it the way Betty saw it. Buying a couple blocks of a real downtown including a vacant department store would be pretty cool, I thought to myself. Sanderson had a few things going for it, all right. Whether or not it was far out enough to qualify as a far out Far West Texas town was still a bone of contention, but at that particular moment, the hand-cut, skin-on French fries at Piruli’s, the only restaurant in town open after 2 p.m., were far out enough for my tastes.

Joe Nick Patoski loves to visit Far West Texas, but lives in the Hill Country village of Wimberley, which resembles certain far out towns in Far West Texas in more ways than he’d sometimes like to admit.

Hudspeth Hustlers (sidebar)

The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn (pop. 2,435) the Crossroads of the Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy’s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs.

The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people (3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra Blanca, Fort Hancock, and Dell City) live there.

Take Sierra Blanca (pop. 533), which sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch (see “Sued and Censored,” March 22, 1996) both thankfully out of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas (see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). And before that, Hudspeth County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-de-sacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru.

“Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker.

And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days.

In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Café, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main Street every day.

In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Florida-based developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches.

“The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs.

The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the time because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?”

“Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”—JNP

Joe Nick Patoski writes about water, music, Texas, and other subjects from his home near Wimberley. Texas Coast, his second collaborative book with photographer Laurence Parent is being published by the University of Texas this fall.