Category Archives: Big Bend

Photo of The Visitors Center

A Close-up Look at the McDonald Observatory

Teardrop Trail Log: March 29, 2016

We headed south to the McDonald Observatory, located in the mountains of West Texas. At an elevation of 6719 feet, it is under some of the darkest skies in the continental United States.

My introduction to the Observatory came through the StarDate radio broadcasts on Public Radio. At last, we were driving up Dark Sky Drive on Mt. Locke towards the Visitors Center. We had reservations for a 2:00 pm solar viewing and tour. We met our tour guide and enjoyed the solar program in the visitors center for an up-close look at the large research telescopes. We took the shuttle to the top of Mt. Locke and the overlook of the 107″ dome.

A photo of Our guide at the top of Mt. Locke

Our guide at the top of Mt. Locke

After sharing the history of the Observatory, the guide took our group to the lobby and we climbed the four flights of stairs. He described the parts of the telescope, the functions and how the astronomers use it.

The most exciting parts of the demonstration were when he showed the telescope’s motions and then rotated the dome. We felt the power of the motors that moved the large structure. 

Photo of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The next part of the tour continued at the summit of Mt. Fawkes and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The guide explained that an amazing collaboration between four universities allowed this telescope to be built at 80% of the cost of an optical telescope of similar size. The primary mirror is the largest yet constructed making it one of five biggest telescopes in the world. Renovations have just been completed for a new cutting-edge research project, Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). It is the quest to understand dark energy, the mysterious force that makes up 70 percent of the matter and energy in the universe.

We were hoping to attend one of the “Star Parties,” later that evening but the forecast called for cloudy skies so we headed back to Balmorhea and our teardrop.

photo of a Cienegas (Desert Wetland)

The Animals of Balmorhea

Teardrop Trail Log: March 30, 2016

Balmorhea is a unique desert environment because of the San Solomon Springs. Currently flowing at the rate 15 million gallons per day, this artesian spring is fed by an underground aquifer and rainwater from the nearby Davis Mountains. At a constant 72ºF – 76ºF, it makes for a brisk swim in the nearly 2-acre pool before flowing through a series of canals to the restored 3-acre Cienegas (spanish for wetlands). Then it’s on to irrigate a variety of crops from cotton to cantaloupes in the over 10,000-acre project. Chlorine-free, its crystal-clear 25-foot-deep central pool is a favorite with divers.

photo of the Comanche Spring Pupfish in Balmorhea pool

Comanche Spring Pupfish

Image of a Camanche Springs Pupfish

Camanche Springs Pupfish

Originally dredged to improve irrigation flow in the 1936 Civilian Conservation Corps project that created the park, the Cienegas were partially restored in 1995 and then enlarged in 2011 in order to protect habitat for endangered species.

photo of Pecos Gambusia

Pecos Gambusia

The Comanche Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia, both listed as endangered, make Balmorhea their home. The Pupfish can be found in the pool, while they both can be found in the restored marshland.

photo of an American Coot (Fulica americana)

American Coot (Fulica americana)

Many other species make their home here, including the American Coot, Red-eared Slider turtle, Texas Spiny Soft-shell turtle and a variety of other fish and birds. The Cienegas are quite special. A large, covered wooden deck overlooks the marshland, and there is a lot to see. With the crystal water, you can see all the way to the bottom, and watch the fish and turtles motor around the pool. Not a bad way to spend an hour or two. There is also an underwater viewing port, where you can watch the proceedings from an underwater perspective.

photo of a Cienegas with Red Eared Slider and Texas Spiney Softshell Turtle, and Pecos Gambusia

Cienegas with Red Eared Slider and Texas Spiney Softshell Turtle, and Pecos Gambusia

Some of animals are quite bold, and we had frequent visits from a Greater Roadrunner and several Desert Cottontails. I guess regular exposure makes us seem benign, and the roadrunner spent time with us each morning, looking around as if to say: “What’s for breakfast?”

photo of The Pool at Balmorhea

Balmorhea, A Cool Oasis in the High Desert

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We headed north from Fort Davis to Balmorhea State Park. The park’s name comes from four men’s surnames: E.D. Balcom, H.R. Morrow, Joe Rhea and John Rhea – Bal-mor-hea. They formed an irrigation company in the early 20th century.

The park is located on the San Solomon Springs. In 1849, the springs were known as Mescalero Springs for the Mescalero Apache who watered their horses here. The 1.75-acre pool with 3.5-million gallons of crystal-clear freshwater was built around the springs, one of the largest artesian, spring-fed pools in the world. It’s now considered one of the best swimming holes in Texas. The water is 72 to 76 degrees year-round and the constant flow of water means no chlorination is required.

photo of Spanish Revival Archecture

Spanish Revival Architecture

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the pool during FDR’s New Deal between 1936 and 1941. In addition to the pool, they built barracks, a concession building, two bath houses and San Solomon Courts using local limestone. They also made adobe bricks for the construction.

photo of Our campsite

Our campsite

I’d spoken with several folks from the park while we traveled and it was nice to put names and faces with the voices. They were very welcoming. The campground is a small jewel with only 34 sites. We backed the Ambassador into our site and began to settle into the magic that is Balmorhea. We took a stroll around the pool. There’s a high diving board and the shallow end has a concrete floor. We forgot to bring bathing suits on this trip so we will be coming back to Balmorhea.

photo of a Camp Inn Teardrop

Camp Inn Teardrop

The next day we headed off to the McDonald Observatory, another must-do on anyone’s West Texas visit. Our return to Balmorhea was like coming home. It’s always fun to check out the other campers and trailers in the campground. There was another teardrop, a Camp Inn.  We also caught up with another couple we’d met in the campground outside Big Bend. We noticed their distinctive Scamp trailer with its unusual aerodynamic design near the showers. On our last day, Moth Man and his wife, the couple we met in Seminole Canyon, stopped by to Balmorhea for a short visit. We have made many good friends on the Teardrop Trail.

photo of sunset over Balmorhea campground

The magic …

photo of the entrance of the Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We left the county seat, Fort Davis. Debating whether to stop by the McDonald Observatory or not, and saw a sign announcing the Fort Davis National Historic Site. With plenty of time for the hour or so trip to Balmorhea, we decided to stop.

I wasn’t prepared for what we discovered. The site is far enough away from the road that we didn’t see it’s expanse. Billed as the largest partially restored historic fort in the United States, it is immense with a variety of historic buildings in various states of preservation. We stopped in the visitor’s center and spent a few minutes looking through the exhibit. With a nice overview, and interest whetted, we went on to the main event.

Founded in 1854 by Lieut. Col. Washington Seawell, six companies of the eighth U.S. Infantry, and named for the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, it was abandoned by federal troops in April 1861 at the outset of the Civil War. It was one of many posts along the San Antonio to El Paso Road, a 600-mile journey along the southern route to California. It helped bring peaceful settlement of the region between it’s reoccupation in 1867 and it’s deactivation in 1891. One surprising fact: Except for a mainly white officer corps, the post was largely manned after 1870 by buffalo soldiers.

First stop, a restored enlisted barracks where we met one of the site volunteers. This was fortunate, since the restored interiors are normally viewed from glassed off entrances. He offered to show us around the barracks. What an amazing step back in time. The building had been carefully restored, complete with period furnishings, weaponry and personal effects. The buildings take advantage of cooling afforded by the adobe brick construction and natural ventilation. Uniforms were a mix of the practical and fanciful. The parade dress uniform was patterned after european models and worn regularly — even in the heat of summer. More practical uniforms were worn for the more mundane work details including  the construction of 91 miles of telegraph line west from the fort.

The Commissary served as the local grocery and general store. Supplies for the 500 or so military and their families, as well as other nearby military posts had to be freighted by wagon train from San Antonio. The 400-mile trip took between five and six weeks, so careful planning was essential for the post’s safety and effectiveness. The commissary has been partially restored with example goods lining the shelves, and first-person descriptions of daily fare.

Several interesting exhibits are in the Post Hospital where care for sick and injured soldiers and family members was provided. The building has been partially restored, with examples of the ongoing archeological work visible within. Behind the post hospital, foundations from the original, 1854-1861 fort are visible. It was more modest in scope, and dwarfed by the later version.

Officers and their families were housed in a variety of single and shared quarters along Officers’ Row. One shared quarters building has been stabilized with a restored wooden porch — from there it is possible to peer into the unrestored interior. A couple of single family officer’s quarters have been fully restored with furnishings and personal effects similar to the enlisted men’s quarters mention earlier.

In total, Marilyn and I spent several hours touring the grounds and enjoying the exhibits. The frontier and late nineteenth century and very real here. In the gallery below, I’ve included several of the exhibit signs — they recount the history better than I can. If you’re in West Texas near Marfa, Fort Davis or Balmorhea, this is a worthwhile stop.

photo of Married officer's quarters interior

Married officer’s quarters interior

photo of bachelor officer's quarters interior

Bachelor officer’s quarters interior

photo of exhibit case of Civilan contractors

Civilan contractors

Photo of Village Farms

On the Road to Fort Davis

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

Our next stop was the town of Fort Davis. On the way, we passed several giant greenhouses. I had purchased cherry tomatoes a few weeks ago in Austin and the package said these tasty gems were from Village Farms in Marfa. Tomato farming in Marfa? Yes, hydroponic greenhouses on a huge scale. Who would have known? You just never know what you are likely to see on the teardrop trail.

Photo of Jeff Davis County Courthouse

Jeff Davis County Courthouse

Fort Davis was originally a frontier military post on the Old Overland Trail. This small community has 23 historic sites on the 1 1/2 mile walking tour that starts and ends in the town square which seems to have changed little since the early Twentieth Century. Jim enjoyed photographing the Jeff Davis County Courthouse that was completed in 1911. Unlike the courthouse in Marfa, this one was surrounded by a fence with turnstiles to keep out the donkeys that had been set free after wagons became more prevalent.

photo of Hotel Limpia

Hotel Limpia

Hotel Limpia, built in 1913, from locally quarried pink granite is named for a nearby creek. This 31 room, historic hotel has forty rocking chairs on the expansive porches that invite guests to relax after a day of hiking or visiting the McDonald Observatory. Next time we will make a reservation.

photo of Fort Davis Drug Store

Fort Davis Drug Store

The Fort Davis Drug Store was built in 1913 inside the Hotel Limpia and became a gathering spot for locals to get newspapers, visit the doctor and fill a prescription. It was relocated across the street in 1950. It offered a step back in time with a traditional 22-foot soda fountain, much like the one in the West Texas town I grew up in – a true old fashioned Texas experience.

After looking at the guide to Fort Davis, we know a repeat visit is in our future, especially when the brochure promises that it’s cooler in the summer in the Davis Mountains than anywhere else in Texas. Our next stop was the town’s namesake, Fort Davis Historical Site.

photo of Classic Soda Fountain

Classic Soda Fountain

Photo of Farma Coffeehouse

Bidding Marfa Farewell

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We went in search of breakfast. On the teardrop trail, we try to avoid chain restaurants and convenience stores. We explore the local spots. We often rely on the Internet, an app or just exploring.

Photo of Jim and a breakfast taco at Farma

Breakfast taco at Farma

The day before, we found Farma (an anagram of Marfa) at the Tumbleweed Laundry where Jim had gotten his daily mocha. A uniquely quirky Marfa combination of lattes and laundry. The menu is spelled out in Scrabble letters. We returned, grabbed breakfast tacos and beverages. The bulletin board offers a listing of the happenings around Marfa, an interesting introduction to local goings on.

Photo of The Get Go

The Get Go

Next – resupply provisions. I’d heard about The Get Go. “Small desert outpost delivering natural and gourmet foods, wine, beer and a friendly attitude.”  The offerings were amazing. A great selection of cheeses including Marfa Maid Goat Cheese. Local products and produce amongst hipster treats. Such a wonderful assortment stuffed into a convenience store size space in this tiny West Texas town. We will eat well!

While visiting Marfa, we enjoyed KRTS Marfa Public Radio, the NPR-affiliated station at 93.5 FM. I had discovered it when working in West Texas. The station was founded in 2005. They combine NPR with local news and programming, a very Marfa-centric mix. The station recently won every category in the regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. It has the smallest listenership of PBS stations in the lower 48.  It has a geographic coverage about the size of South Carolina but a much greater reach through partnerships and live-streaming. We continued to enjoy the variety of offerings until we lost the signal after we left Ft. Davis heading north.

We found boomer heaven in Marfa and know we will return….

Photo of Hotel Paisano Lobby

Dining — Marfa Style

Photo of The Buffalo

The Buffalo

Teardrop Trail Log: March 27, 2016

We treated ourselves to dinner Jett’s Grill in the Hotel Paisano, located just one block from the courthouse. We entered through the historic hotel. The lobby is appointed with a beautiful tan and brown tile floor and ornate wrought iron light fixtures with mica panel inserts around glass globes, remnants from the past. Buffalo and longhorn trophies gaze down from the white washed walls.

Photo of Jett's Grill

Jett’s Grill

Described by Vogue Magazine as the place for a proper sit-down meal, Jett’s offers patio dining in the picturesque courtyard complete with a four-tiered fountain. Our reservation was for inside. While cooking in the galley of the teardrop and eating in the great outdoors is an adventure, we welcomed the chance to relax with a white table cloth and a littleTexas flair.

Photo of Grilled Salmon over Asparagus and Pasta

Grilled Salmon over Asparagus and Pasta

We had in a lovely sauvignon blanc. I enjoyed grilled salmon over asparagus and pasta. Jim indulged his culinary wild side with

Photo of Chile Rellaño

Chile Rellaño

Chile Rellaños, long green chili peppers stuffed with Asadero cheese coated with a tortilla chip crust. Avocado cream sauce. Topped with Pico de Gallo. Served over rice.

We splurged and split a Crème Brŭlée.

Photo of Crème Brŭlée

Crème Brŭlée

photo of Former Marfa Wool & Mohair Co. Building, Chinati Foundation

The Art Scene in Marfa

Teardrop Trail Log: March 27, 2016

Marfa was founded as a railroad water stop in the 1880’s. The Marfa Plateau on the edge of far West Texas was known for the high grass and ranching. That is until minimalist sculptor Donald Judd fell in love with Marfa and in 1971 moved to Texas to escape the New York art scene. He bought two large hangars that had been a training facility during WWII and eventually acquired dozens of buildings. His vision was to create a new kind of museum where large collections of individual artists’ work would be on permanent display in harmony with landscape and architecture, often referred to as an anti-museum. This resulted in permanent installations of contemporary art that are among the largest and most beautiful in the world.

photo of Marker of Marfa

Marker of Marfa

Marfa has become an unlikely arts mecca. The Chinati and Judd Foundations were created after Judd’s death in 1994. Other foundations, art collectives, theaters, performance spaces and nonprofit organizations have come to town. One source describes downtown as overrun by galleries.

Art tourism soars. The artsy population grows as new waves of artists move to Marfa to live and work. Celebrities continue to make pilgrimages. Marfa is a thriving international arts destination that is about as far removed from the pretentious art scenes like New York or Amsterdam.

photo of Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa, Texas

Marfa Texas — Architecture

Teardrop Trail Log: March 27, 2016

We had been camping for three nights in Study Butte, and decided to treat ourselves to a real bed and a shower. After checking into the hotel in Marfa, we turned our attention to the immediate problem: it was Easter Sunday; would anything be open for dinner? I also wanted a mocha if we could find one. It turned out that Jett’s Grill in the Hotel Paisano was open and accepting reservations. The prospect of a special dinner beckoned. We just had an hour or two to kill. After unhitching the Ambassador, we headed for the center of Marfa.

We found not one, but two coffeeshops in town, and we stopped at the first one: Frama. Mocha in hand, we decided to walk the area around the courthouse. The streets are very wide and flat and lay on a grid. In contrast to the other West Texas towns we had encountered so far, Marfa seemed very prosperous. There were many buildings that had been well restored, and more than a few that had been restored and modified to suite more modern purposes.

The Presidio County Courthouse, built in the Second Empire style at a cost of $60,000 in1886, is a stunning example of Texas public architecture. Directly across the street like so many other county seats, was the jail. Nearby were several churches — all beautifully maintained. St Paul’s Episcopal especially appealed to me with it’s river rock façade. Across the street was a small bungalow that had been completely renovated in a spare, mid-century modern style. It even had a Jesus Morales sculpture in the front yard. Marfa is clearly an artful place with the resources to show it.

On the other side of the courthouse, Highland Street stretched south into the distance. This is the main street of Marfa, and is lined with buildings that echo the town’s past. The Opera House, National Bank and Glascock buildings are but three examples. Most interesting to me however was the Hotel Paisano. Built in 1930 in the Spanish Revival style, and anticipating the oil boom that never came, it hosted area cattle ranchers who came to Marfa to buy and sell their herds. In June of 1955 however, Warner Bros. came to film the movie Giant. As the production’s headquarters, the Hotel Paisano hosted Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean and 150 other cast and crew.

What a surprising town to discover in West Texas. After just a cruel tease, we’ll have to go back.

Photo of Highland Street view of the Courthouse

Highland Street view of the Courthouse

Photo of A Hoodoo in Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch and the Hoodoos

Teardrop Trail Log: March 27, 2016

Photo of Purple Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia macrocentra)

Purple Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia macrocentra)

We bid Lajitas farewell and headed west through Big Bend Ranch State Park. The scenic El Camino del Rio (Farm Road 170) hugs Rio Grande River and winds 23 miles through the panoramic views of the Chihuahuan Dessert where sotol, ocotillo and mesquite dot the dramatic landscape. The rugged mountains, steep canyons speak to the region’s fiery volcanic history. The Purple Prickly Pear and Strawberry Pitaya cactus, ablaze with blooms, line the colorful limestone layered bluffs. Unlike the national park, the state park encompasses a network of open range cattle ranches, a nod to Texas of old.

Photo of sign at the Hoodoo Trail

The Hoodoo Trail

We stopped at a parking area for photo opportunity and a short walk on the easy trail overlooking a series hoodoos, weather-carved volcanic ash, along the Rio Grande. Hoodoo is an African word that refers to the strange animal shapes of the rocks that were said to embody evil spirits. We struck up a conversation with a friendly man from El Paso on the trail who was traveling through the park. He introduced us to his traveling companion, a small mixed breed puppy whose name was Dog.

We continued down El Camino del Rio to the former Spanish mission town of Presidio. An interesting aside – it is important to pay attention driving in West Texas. Not all routes are marked. Guess the locals know where they are going. We followed what we thought was our route in Presidio and the street came to a dead end. We weren’t the only ones to miss the turn. Our friend and Dog had gone down the same street. We waved and laughed, executing a U-turn. On to Marfa.

Photo of car and teardrop trailer

The Lady and the Ambassador wait patiently