Day 1: We left the house early, around 6:00 a.m., a 570-mile drive ahead of us. We didn’t bother with breakfast before we hit the road, as every minute we delayed would put us deeper in heavy Dallas traffic; breakfast would wait until the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area was sufficiently behind us. It took just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Weatherford, where we stopped before dawn at an old cafe for a nice breakfast, a very big, filling breakfast. Normally, we have light morning meals; not this one, though. By the time we left the cafe after daylight, the sky was overcast with odd, iridescent clouds. We had been expecting clear, blue skies, so the somber grey and pink iridescence was surprising, but pretty.
Crepuscular rays lent an air of majesty to the scene before us as we headed west. The first scene here, the one with the road ahead, appeared earlier than the one with the crepuscular rays; the brightness of the sun’s light in the sky darkened the appearance of the landscape to the side of the car as we drove west.
The landscape west of Fort Worth can best be described as rolling hills occupied by scrub, a tangle of spindly weeds and grass hardy enough to can survive the rocky alkaline soils, and stunted mesquite and a mix of cottonwood and oak trees. Though the scenery is stark and hard, there’s a beauty to it; even in times of drought, the dying grass and trees are somehow stately as they wither.
The big breakfast left us too full for a big lunch. When we stopped in San Angelo for gas, we bought a couple of green chile and bean buritos from the convenience store; we drove a few miles out-of-town, found a roadside picnic area, and had our fill…not much, but all we needed.
We took Interstate 20 west only as far as we had to, turning southwest onto Highway 67 a bit west of Cisco, then driving through Coleman, Balinger, San Angelo, intersecting with Interstate 10 about fifteen miles east of Fort Stockton. We stayed on Interstate 10 just those few miles to get into Fort Stockton, where we stopped long enough to take in the butterfly gardens at the Fort Stockton Visitors Center. Then, I took a photo of Paisano Pete, the sculpture of a road runner that makes Fort Stockton memorable, before we turned south on U.S. 385 for the last leg of the trip into Big Bend National Park.
The drive from Fort Stockton to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we stayed while in the park, is long (135 miles) and lonely, with very little traffic and almost no signs of civilization along the way, save the tiny town of Marathon, where U.S. 385 intersects with U.S. 90. About 98 of those 135 miles are outside the park; it’s another 37 miles from the park entrance to the Chicos Mountains Lodge in the basin, which is about 10 miles from the park headquarters at Panther Junction.
Along the way, we saw a sign that puzzled us, reading: “Entering Sierra Madera Astrobleme.” We learned what it was after we were able to get internet connectivity a few days later, after we left the park. It is a meteorite crater, about 6 miles in diameter, with the central structure of the rebound structure of the impact crater rising 793 feet above the surrounding land.
After arriving at the Chisos Mountains Lodge sometime before 6:30 p.m., we settled into our room and headed over to the deck outside the restaurant, where a park ranger gave a talk about the park. Then, we ate dinner at the lodge restaurant (Elk Chili, chicken fried steak, and Texas toothpicks [slivers of breaded and fried jalapeños and squash]) and went back to our room and made an early night of it. There was no internet, no television; just the clear sky and watching the Milky Way overhead when it got dark. And then, sleep.
Day 2: We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the Lodge, then headed out to see what we could see. We saw spectacular scenery of mountain passes, mountain peaks, the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon, massive deposits of volcanic ash amid fields of huge sharp-edged boulders, and a surprisingly amount of greenery, courtesy of recent rains. As for Day 2, I’ll let the photos tell the story.
Day 3: Our third day on the road started early, well before daylight, as we got up and packed the car for the next leg. We waited until just after it was light enough to see before we set out toward the west exit of the park to Study Butte/Terlingua. We stopped for breakfast at a little place that had an excellent buffet, then continued north toward Alpine. In Alpine, we visited the Museum of the Big Bend and wandered about town for a while, then headed to Marfa to explore for awhile. Surprised that there appeared no place open for lunch, we headed back to Alpine and stopped at the Cow Dog food truck, where Janine ordered a Bangkok dog (Thai-inspired) and I ordered a Bad dog (heat-inspired).
From there, we drove to Fort Davis, where we stopped to try to find an as-yet-uncooled six-pack of Big Bend Brewing Company beer, but that was to no avail. I had hoped to take a six-pack or two back home to give to a friend, but each time I looked for it, I found only chilled beer and I did not want to warm an already cooled six-pack, as that could do damage to the flavor. Onward toward the McDonald Observatory for a quick look-see, then a long, winding, looping scenic drive back down to US 90. We headed west on US 90 to just past Valentine, where we got a glimpse of the Prada store, an art installation on the side of the road that looks like a Prada shoe store. We continued on US 90 until we got to Van Horn, where we decided to call it a day. We got a room at the Hampton Inn, then headed out to find dinner, which we found in the form of enchiladas and chile verde at Chuy’s Restaurant.
Day 4: We began the day with a leisurely breakfast at the Hampton Inn, then headed east on I-10 to Fort Stockton, where we stopped for lunch at Bienvenidos Restaurant. Along the way, we paused for a look around Ozona, then drove to Sonora, where we got off the interstate and went searching for the Caverns of Sonora, which we’d heard were worth visiting. When we arrived, we were greeted by a guy named Patrick, who encouraged us to join a tour of the caves that was just about to leave; we quickly decided to spend the $40 for the tour, which lasted almost two hours. We followed some steep passageways and stairways down into the caverns, descending (according to Patrick) more than 150 feet below the surface. It was well worth the time and money. Below are just a few photos of some of the formations we saw during our trek through the caverns.
We continued east on I-10 all the way to Junction, where we stopped for the night at a Best Western; we used the last of my “points” to get a free room there. After checking in, we had dinner at Isaak’s Restaurant, then kicked back at the motel.
Day 5: Our primary objective for our fifth day on the road was to have lunch at Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery, in Tarpley, a town about 70 miles northwest of San Antonio.
The place, featured on the very first episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, has long been on my wife’s list of places she wanted to try. We both had the cabrito burger; it was out of this world good! The woman who runs the place told us she raises the goats she uses in the cabrito burger. Just behind the building, we saw a pasture where several goats were grazing; fresher meat cannot be had!
After lunch, we took back roads through Bandera and Pipe Creek and into Boerne. I was stunned at the horrible traffic in Boerne; what once was a bucolic little town is a tourist trap with crowds and nasty drivers and people who forgot what lured them to “the country.” Arghh!
From there, we wandered down Highway 46 a bit more until we found a more tranquil country road. We followed it until we got to US 281 at Blanco. From there, we headed north through Johnson City, Marble Falls, Burnet, and Lampasas, veering off US 281 at Hamilton to Meridian and Cleberne, joining the world of Big Traffic on I-35 at Burleson.
From that point on, we were back in the big city. We got back to our neighborhood around 6:30 pm, stopping at Jack Mac’s Swill & Grill for a nice dinner. And then, we were home.
This post doesn’t begin to do the trip justice; it was spectacular. But I’m tired and wanted to get something online before too much time had passed and I forgot details I wanted to remember. So, here’s the lousy travelogue!