Reversal of Fortune

Thursday, January 19, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

To Big Bend and Back, Day 15 

LAJITAS, Texas— What a difference a day makes!  Chalk it up to returning to our normal routine or the sunny weather or the West Texas hospitality, but today was such a big improvement over yesterday.  Before leaving Fort Stockton, we paid our respects to Paisano Pete, the city mascot and one-bird welcome wagon.  Pete has been silently greeting visitors to the city since 1979.

Paisano Pete
At 22 feet long and 11 feet tall, Pete held the title of "World's Largest Roadrunner," until a few years ago when some upstart roadrunner constructed out of refuse from a local dump moved in at Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Still, Pete continues serving his public without complaint, knowing that someday that New Mexico junkyard bird will return to whence he came and concrete Pete will reclaim his rightful title.

From Fort Stockton, we headed south on US-67, finally on the last leg of our journey to Big Bend National Park.  Travelling across Texas gives one a new appreciation of just how vast the state is.  Though we haven’t been driving great distances each day, it seems as if it has taken forever to traverse this massive state.


Unlike so many states in the east where just a few miles separate one small hamlet from the next, one can drive long stretches between towns in Texas.  After leaving Fort Stockton this morning, we drove 60 miles before we reached the nearest town south— Alpine (pop. 5,905).

In Alpine, we visited Sul Ross State University, founded as a teacher training college in 1917 and named for an early Texas governor, Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross.  When the school was searching for a logo, students lobbied for the bar SR bar, in the style of a cattle brand.  School officials embraced the notion as it meshed so well with the school's west Texas environment.

Later, alumni donated what has become known as the Branding Wall near the university’s main sign.   The wall displays the brands of those who have made significant and lasting contributions to the school.  And in West Texas, that’s a reasonable notion because who doesn’t have a brand?

SRSU's Branding Wall

In keeping with the more positive slant the day had taken, we easily located the letterbox near the branding wall and moved on into the city to find two additional boxes.  A quick stop at the local supermarket seemed wise also since such luxuries as large, well-stocked produce departments will not be available in the sparsely populated areas around Big Bend.

From Alpine, we made a beeline west toward Marfa, a small town (pop. 1,981) that has become a haven for artists and foodies.  Our sights were set on the Food Shark, a local restaurant we had actually learned about in a letterbox clue.  Based on the acclaim that owners Adam Bork and Krista Steinhauer have received in publications ranging from the New York Times to Southern Living, we must have been the last to learn about this converted 1974 Ford delivery truck serving up a unique blend of Mediterranean-meets-West Texas street food.


When the Food Shark is serving (Tuesdays through Fridays for lunch), it can be found parked under the public pavilion next to the railroad tracks in the heart of Marfa.  On days when the weather is good, everyone just eats at the sturdy tables under the shelter.  


Dropping temperatures or rain will send guests into the dining car, an old BlueBird school bus converted into a 30-seat diner with booths and tables. We tried the famous “marfalafel” and a fatoush salad, both of which were fresh and flavorful.  This was one shark we’d love to encounter again.

Marfa also held three letterboxes, all of which we found handily before returning to Alpine and heading  south on TX-118 toward Lajitas, where we’ll spend the next three days as we visit Big Bend National Park.  About a dozen miles south of Alpine, we encountered a major Border Patrol station where agents were stopping and inspecting all northbound vehicles.

Elephant Mountain near Terlingua
Texas has treated us to a variety of scenery today as we have driven south.  Most appears to be arid to semi-arid, from flat grassy scrublands to seven thousand foot peaks.  The consistent quality across the different types has been the natural beauty surrounding us.  If  the approach to Big Bend has been this scenic, we can’t wait to see what the park itself will offer.

ROAD NOISE:

  • While retrieving a letterbox between Alpine and Marfa today, Ken said, "A train is coming."  Since the railroad tracks were across the highway from our location, this wasn't too surprising.  However, he definitely left me in awe when another five minutes or so passed before the train did.  It was Amtrak's Sunset Limited making one of its thrice-weekly runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles.  After I gushed on and on about his ability to hear the train so far in advance of its arrival, Ken patiently explained that he had learned such skills as a young boy watching westerns such as The Lone Ranger.  I also remember watching that show but obviously didn't pay close attention to the important parts.  All I seemed to have learned is "Hi-yo, Silver, away!" and "Um, that right, Kemosabe." 
  • In 2006 by a unanimous vote of the legislatue, Texas boosted speed limits on two stretches of rural highways to 80 mph, the nation’s highest posted speed limit.  The 80 mph zone is limited to mostly straight stretches of rural West Texas highways that have relatively little traffic. In September, 2011, the legislature upped the ante again, approving the concept of an 85 mph limit.  Now the ball is in the Texas DOT’s court to decide which highways merit the pedal to the metal limit.
  • After we checked into a resort in Lajitas, the only decent hotel within 100 miles of the park (and we had studied this topic at length), we were gobsmacked when we saw the so-called cottage we had reserved.  The description and single photo we had examined on the internet belied the dreary nature of the actual facility.  This was one dark, sunless room with a tiny closet masquerading as a kitchen.  A two-burner stove was provided but no cookware, no dishes or flatware.  Our negotiation with the front desk resulted in a new room assignment which could not have been more perfect—a spotless one-bedroom condo with a full modern kitchen.  An ideal retreat for our three-day sojourn at Big Bend!

DAILY STATS:
  • Started in Fort Stockton, TX; ended in Lajitas, TX
  • Weather:  Sunny, 53° to 73°
  • Miles driven:  249          (Trip total:  2,659)
  • States: 1 (TX)          (Trip total:  6)
  • Letterboxes found:  8         (Trip total:  72)
  • Art studios in Marfa:  38
More Photos from Today

Why Texas finds 80 mph reasonable in some places
One of many Marfa buildings turned into art studios
Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa
Fort Worth Spudder (ask Ken about it)