Mesilla is border town with wild west history
Along the 245-mile route from Fort Davis, TX to Las Cruses, NM, our camping destination for tonight, we drove through hundreds of acres of pecan orchards, passed a tethered Aerostat Radar System Balloon and saw glimpses of the Rio Grande River.
Mid-day traffic was heavy driving through downtown El Paso on Interstate 10 but we arrived without incident at Las Cruces KOA west of town. The campground is high above the city, making for interesting nighttime views from our site.
We had dinner at LaPosta, a one-time cantina in historic old Mesilla frequented by the famous outlaw Billy the Kid. Other well-known personalities to visit the border town included Pat Garrett and Pancho Villa. The cantina was a stop on the old Butterfield Stage Coach Line which ran from St. Louis to San Francisco. Across the street from the restaurant is the Billy The Kid Gift Store, the former Mesilla Jail, which housed Billy the Kid after his capture and before his extradition to Lincoln, NM.
LaPosta was featured in a USA Today newspaper
Billy the Kid was jailed in this building briefly while awaiting extradition to another town where he was charged with murder.
story as one of the top ten Mexican restaurants in the country.
This huge tethered Aerostat radar balloon was anchored at a base outside Marfa on Highway 90.
Like most small towns in the southwest, Mesilla town square is surrounded by shops and restaurants. We bought fresh harvested pecans, grown in a nearby orchard, from one local store.
We took an early morning hike through Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, some of which borders on the Rio Grande River and later in the afternoon, enjoyed a visit with campground neighbors from Maine who had wintered in California and were heading east.
For those following this blog, the air conditioner is still ailing and yesterday, the roof air in the RV quit working.
Town square in Mesilla, NM.
We decided to end the trip and head home for repairs, over-nighting in Fort Stockton and Leander, TX; Scott, LA; and Marianne, FL,
The entire trip from North Florida covered 4,053 miles and covered 28 days.
Overlooking Las Cruces, NM from the KOA Campground.
Cavalry fort and star gazing in Fort Davis, TX
For a couple hours this morning, it was cool enough to roll down the Winnebago Aspect motor home windows and smell the sagebrush as we drove across the desert in southwest Texas headed for Fort Davis.
An old Army freight wagon on the grounds at Fort Davis. The fort once housed 800 soldiers who provided protection for settlers, freight and travelers heading west to California.
Like most of this huge state, this is cowboy and Indian country and no small town in Texas says it better than Fort Davis and the nearby original army fort by the same name. Locals wear boots and hats and wide belts with big buckles. They are real, not the drug store cowboy types but the real working models. Most are long and lean, sport heavy sun baked tans and smile when they say “hello” passing on downtown streets. They wave to passing strangers from their dust colored pickup trucks which all carry at least one rifle racked in the back window and “Don’t mess with Texas” bumper stickers. It’s flat desert country with the Fort Davis Mountains in the distance and known as the highest town in Texas at just over 5,000 feet. Most every ranch flies an American and Texas flag.
The parade grounds at U. S. Army Fort Davis in southwest Texas.
Our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park near Fort Davis, TX.
Having grown up in an era when youngsters played cowboys and Indians, Fort Davis feels almost familiar after seeing replicas of the old army forts on local movie screen western movies. The fort is the largest and most well-preserved cavalry post in the west.
Fort Davis was built in the 1850’s along the fabled San Antonio to El Paso route in an effort to provide protection for westward bound settlers, mail, and freight through the dangerous Pecos region of West Texas. Seven forts were established along the route to protect travelers from frequent Comanche and Apache raids.
Records show that “In 1850 the largest supply train to use the road” left Fort Inge for El Paso with 340 wagons, 4000 animals, 450 civilians and 175 soldiers.
Some original fort buildings have been restored and open to the public. Foundations of others were also preserved, giving visitors a better understanding of the fort’s original layout.
McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis, TX., houses the world’s third largest telescope.
Later in the day we drove the 74-mile Scenic Loop Road through the nearby mountains and canyons. The road begins and ends at Fort Davis.
On the second day of our stay, we visited the McDonald Observatory, which is less than 15 miles away from Fort Davis. Built on top of Mount Locke in 1939, the observatory at one time had the second largest telescope in the world. It is operated by the University of Texas. We took a tour of two of the 10 large telescopes at the facility, including the world’s third largest Hobby-Eberly Telescope, and heard an interesting presentation on ongoing observatory research including planetary systems and stars.
Visitors touring the McDonald Observatory.
One of the telescopes from the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center.
Scenery along the 73 mile Scenic Route Loop road through the Davis Mountains, near Fort Davis, TX.
Visitors to the area should not miss the Observatory tour. The high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region. We visited during daytime when the observatory showed live photos of the sun but special nighttime viewing of star and planets visits are available.
From our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park, we watched a family of deer grazing alongside a nearby creek and mountain goats on a hill overlooking the campground.
NEXT: Las Cruses, New Mexico and Billy the Kid
Spook lights and Hollywood stars in quirky Marfa, TX
Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa, TX
The drive from Big Bend National Park to Alpine, a 72-mile-trip, provided scenery straight out of a western movie. Martha noted in her trip diary that it would have been a perfect backdrop for one of Clint Eastwood’s early cowboy films. One side of the highway is flat land as far as the eye can see. On the other are mountains near and far, endless canyons and landscape best described as hostile, she wrote. No wildlife. Not even road kill. We are traveling through the desert, again.
Alpine, population almost 6,000, has green grass, the most we have seen in a week; a nice college campus and a hospital, the only one for miles around. And our destination for the next couple nights is here—Lost Alaska RV Park. No, we’re not in Alaska. We’re in Texas.
Presidio Hotel in Marfa, TX., served as headquarters for such famous movies as 1950’s epic “GIANT.”
We parked, unhooked the tow car and drove into the main part of town in search of a car air-conditioner doctor. Two places were too busy for a couple days but a one person garage on Marfa’s main street, owned and operated by an 81-year-old mechanic, said the air conditioner just needed a shot of Freon. Two cans of the stuff later, the air conditioner still failed to respond and the mechanic scratched his head and told us to take it to a dealer, the closest of which was in El Paso, TX., about 200 miles away.
The other reason we came to Alpine was to visit the little nearby town of Marfa which has been featured recently in several television segments for its “quirkiness and minimalist art.” Television’s Morley Safer called Marfa, “The Capital of Quirkiness” in a recent 60 minute segment which continues to add to the town’s popularity.
Marfa, population about 2,000 sports some historical architecture, art shops of various kinds the classic Texas small town courthouse square and art galleries plus the mysterious Marfa lights.
The Marfa lights, described as a paranormal phenomenon including UFO’s and maybe ghosts, show up occasionally on a stretch of U. S. Highway 67 just outside town. It’s not a big deal for locals but the lights are drawing crowds of tourists to town in hope of getting a glimpse of the lights, which scientists suggests are nothing more than reflections of car lights and maybe campfires. Local tourist businesses aren’t complaining.
“These balls of light may remain stationary as they pulse on and off with intensity varying from dim to almost blinding brilliance” a local brochure states…”they just suddenly appear. They may dart across the desert or perform splits and mergers.”
There were signs along the highway between Alpine and Marfa, alerting us that we were now in the “zone” but it was daylight when we passed and apparently the ghosts or whatever, were still asleep.
Marfa has another claim to fame: it has been the filming location for several dozen Hollywood movies, including the 1956 Warner Bros film Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo, Carol Baker and Dennis Hopper. The movie capitalized on the area’s stark, flat landscape and employed some locals as extras and stagehands. The downtown historic and restored Hotel Paisano served as headquarters for the movie personnel and stars during the filming and has a display of “Giant’ memorabilia on display.
More recent movies, including “There Will Be Blood,” “Fandango” and “No Country for Old Men” were also filmed here.
A ranch entrance on the highway between Big Bend National Park and Alpine, TX.
Marfa is located in the high desert country of southwest Texas and afternoon temperatures cool rapidly because of the near 5,000 feet elevation. We sat in the courtyard of the Paisano Hotel as the sun set and enjoyed a light dinner served with white tablecloth napkins and a couple adult beverages as the sun went down in the west. We drove home with the windows down since we were still without air conditioning in the car. Did not see the lights.
NEXT: Historic U. S. Army cavalry post Fort Davis
Big Bend: Dry, dusty and hot
After three days in Big Bend National Park, Texas, we had seen enough scorched earth, rocks, cactus and desert heat and broke camp today, driving to Alpine, Texas to visit the nearby funky town of Marfa and hopefully fix the tow-car air-conditioning.
Big Bend was not a disappointment but day after day was more of the same. We had expected more, not sure what, but maybe we missed something. The scenery hardly changed from one location to another.
An overlook of the Rio Grande River and artwork, purchased on the honor system, left on a rock for visitors to Big Bend National Park.
First time visitors to one of the nation’s largest and among the least visited National Parks, should be prepared for the stark landscape and heat–even in April when we visited. Nights were nice and cool but by noon the temperature was hovering near the 100 degree mark every day and climbing. Don’t expect an afternoon rain shower to cool things a bit because it only rains here about 12-13 inches annually. Ain’t gonna happen.
It didn’t help that the air conditioning quit on our tow car the day we arrived. Sightseeing was comfortable in the morning without the cool air but unbearable mid-day and afternoon . The nearest mechanic was 100 miles away in Fort Stockton so we left the park and spent afternoons in the RV under Winnebago air.
The main national park campground supports RV’s and the facility is nice although somewhat tight. There’s a store for food and camping supplies at the campground and the Rio Grande River and the Republic of Mexico are within walking and wading distances. There are walking trails nearby.
A black hawk keeps watch over a nearby nest.
We camped at Stillwell Grocery, about eight miles north of the park boundary which has full camping services, including internet, but no cell phone connection. We paid the campground office a small fee to use their landline to make reservations tomorrow at Maverick RV Resort, Lajitas, TX. The hour ride to Lajitas took us through a different section of Big Bend with dramatic mountain scenery and some flat terrain and canyons on smooth paved roads.
Also, only the main roads are paved in the park. Side roads are all dirt or gravel.
RVers looking for a fancy place to stay will enjoy Maverick RV Resort. The entire community is part of one large development that includes a hotel, golf course, upscale restaurant and shopping. Martha noted in her trip journal that this place is so nice it almost seems out of place. The campground cost $45 a night but comes with full hookup which is hard to find in this part of Texas.
Unusual rock formations inside Big Bend National Park.
Early the next morning, mindful that we have no air conditioning in the tow car, we took a short drive on Highway 170 toward Presidio, TX. The highway follows the Rio Grande River which in some areas is not much wider than a creek and very shallow. Wading across the border here would not take much of an effort. There is no sign of civilization on the Mexico side of the river, other than a few grazing cows. Not far from town is an International Airport sign, which reflects the clientele the resort attracts. We could not see the airport for the mountains.
We are on the edge of the Big Bend National Park and frustrated with the heat and lack of air conditioning in the car and no mechanic within miles. Did I say it is really dry here? The only green spot is at the resort golf course where green grass greens and fairways stick out like a sore thumb, and this afternoon no golfers willing to challenge the heat.
Camping at Lajitas, TX., just outside Big Bend National Park, Texas.
There’s no economy here to speak of that we can see. Jobs are mostly clerical positions at the resort. The landscape mirrors areas of the national park–flat, hilly, dry, knee-high bushes, no trees and dead grass. Local residents are living in old school buses, trailers and shacks cobbled together with scrap lumber. Not sure some of the houses have electricity or running water.
We packed up the next morning and drove to Fort Davis where we will spend a couple nights and check out the small town for an air-conditioning expert.
NEXT: Marfa, TX., “Capital of Quirkiness.”
A roadrunner struts across the parking lot at Big Bend National Park Visitors Center. The roadrunner is the Texas state bird.
Camping in the desert at Stillwell Store, TX
Stillwell Store at daylight. We could hear coyotes howling in the distance.
The drive from Fort Stockton to Big Bend National Park is 100 miles of nothing but flat, treeless, desert gray and brown emptiness with a few mostly bald mountains far off in the distant haze.
There are no services. Take my word for it: there is nothing. No service stations, grocery stores, people or animals. We passed only 10 cars on the trip south toward Big Bend National Park. However, locals know of Stillwell Store which is reachable about eight miles off Highway 385 and although not a grocery store like we are accustomed, Stillwell sells some canned food stuffs, beer, ice and gasoline and that’s about all the inventory. It is also a great night sky viewing area since there is no man-made light interference.
A vulture greets the morning sun on a fence post along Texas Highway 385.
Stillwell Store is also a campground and camping destination for visitors to Big Bend in addition to rock hounds who dig in the nearby endless desert and campers heading to Black Gap State Wildlife Preserve. From here, it is still about 25 miles to Big Bend National Park Visitors Center and more of the same scenery. Again, I cannot stress enough that we are smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
We are however, determined to see one of the nation’s largest national parks.
Highway 385 cuts through the mountains near Stillwell Store, TX.
NEXT: Discovering the wilds of Big Bend
The countryside changes to desert scenery in southwest Texas
It was a chilly 48 degrees when we awoke today (April 6, 2017) at the KOA in Leander, TX and after sleeping with the windows open, it was even chillier 58 degrees inside the RV.
We are driving west to Fort Stockton, TX today, a distance of about 300 miles where we will spend one night then drive south to Big Bend National Park for several days. The travel schedule is not complete beyond Big Bend.
A refreshing display of flowing water and art alongside the Fort Stockton, TX Visitors Center. The original Comanche Springs is located in a downtown city park.
During the five day stay in Leander, we drove a lot of back country roads, some of them dirt, enjoying the bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush and Indian Blanket blooms. We managed to time our visit here at the peak of the wildflower bloom.
Back country roads were excellent through Llano and Mason and the spring roadside wildflower bloom continued spectacularly along the route. At Junction we were surprised to find a Coopers Barbecue restaurant, the well-known Llano eatery we discovered several years ago while traveling the Texas Hill Country. Juicy brisket and mild link sausage with the usual baked beans and potato salad proved more than we could eat, leaving plenty for dinner tonight in Fort Stockton.
Interstate 10, where the speed limit is 80 miles-per-hour, runs through Junction and provides a straight shot to Fort Stockton, arriving there late afternoon. The landscape changed from green to gray and tan along the way as we approached the Chihuahuan Desert. To say rainfall is scarce here is an understatement.
The KOA here has an onsite restaurant which was convenient, serving country fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. The left-over Cooper Barbecue will be enjoyed on the road tomorrow to Big Bend. We were surprised to find grass in a fenced dog walk. Most of the landscape here is desert brown.
Elevation in Fort Stockton is 2,732 feet which again guaranteed another cool night. It is hard to beat the spring nighttime weather in the high desert country. During the day, however, it gets hot.
We drove a few miles into downtown Fort Stockton the following morning and picked up some west Texas travel brochures at the visitors center, located in an old Santa Fe Railroad train station. The town got its name from the original Army fort built here in 1859 near the Great Comanche War Trail that ran from San Antonio to El Paso. The location was chosen because of Comanche Springs, a longtime watering hole for Native Americans traveling through the area that still flows today in a downtown city park. The army built seven forts along the route to protect supply lines and early settlers from Indians and bandits.
The largest supply train to use the road incluided 340 wagons, 4,000 animals, 450 civilians and 175 soldiers.
We are in Texas, where everything is bigger, including ranches. The nearby La Escalera Ranch consists of approximately 257,000 acres and is considered one of the largest in the state.
After buying a couple cups of coffee in a nicely redecorated shop that was once an old garage, we drove past what is left of the original Fort Stockton then drove south toward Big Bend National Park on Highway 385.
Within a few miles of leaving Fort Stockton, traffic came to a halt. Well, not really because there was no traffic to halt. We had the road to ourselves.
Talk about emptiness—there was nothing around us. No farmhouses, no farm animals, no wild animals—nothing as far as the eye could see in every direction which was a long distance because the terrain is flat with some far off mountains. The landscape is mostly gray and tan with an occasional green thrown-in. Rocks and cactus dominate the scenery.
We did see a couple of road runners scooting across the highway at break-neck speed; 20 miles per hour says a Texas guidebook. They can run so fast they seldom fly except in short distances.
During the last 50 miles of the trip to Stillwell Store, our campground for tonight, we counted 10 vehicles. No phone signal. We were alone.
NEXT: The wildness of Big Bend National Park
Following the bluebonnet trail in the Texas hill country.
The drive from College Station, TX to Leander, TX., our destination for tonight, was uneventful thanks to good smooth roads, little traffic and lots of blooming roadside wildflowers, The back roads were chosen to avoid Austin traffic but skirting the north of the city put us unexpectedly on a toll road.
A single red Indian paintbrush in a field of bright blue bonnets.
When driving off the toll road at the Austin North KOA exit, there was no toll gate, only a sign that says tolls are collected electronically. There is no need to slow down or stop to pay toll to a clerk. Unfortunately, out-of-state drivers will pay 33 percent more than locals which they won’t learn until arriving home and receive the toll bill by mail.
We will stay in Leander for the next five days, sampling the area’s well-known barbecue restaurants and driving the back roads while enjoying the roadside wildflower blooms.
Thanks to meds, Heidi, our golden retriever, is a much improved passenger and is entertained by a half dozen Texas longhorn cattle grazing in a fenced pasture about 20 yards behind the RV campsite.
A bluebonnet field on private property not far from Ilano, TX.
It’s early April and weather in the Texas Hill Country has been comfortable with mid to upper 50 degrees at night and 80’s day time. For three days we have managed to enjoy good weather. On the fourth day we were watching early morning local teevee news when a bulletin came across the screen that a tornado warning, accompanied by 60 miles per hour straight line winds, large hail and heavy rain was expected within an hour.
RV’s are not safe places to be during a tornado. Compare it to a reinforced cardboard box.
Together with Heidi we joined about 30 other campers in a clubhouse building and followed the approaching storm on television until power went out, just as heavy lightning, rain and winds passed through the area. Winds probably reached 50 or 60 miles per hour but all the RV owners in the clubhouse were relieved that hail and tornadoes missed the area. Although the campground was full with RV’s and trailers, most chose to ride out the storm.
Wild bluebonnets along a dirt road in the Texas hill country.
Later in the day, we drove the bluebonnet trail, a circular route from Leander south to Highway 71 going west to Beecave and then northwest to highway 281 to Marble Falls and Burnet and east to highway 29 south back to Leander on Highway 183. From our campground, the route was about 85 miles.
Bluebonnets and other wildflowers were sparse along the road until midway between Marble Falls and Burnet when we happened upon the “bluebonnet house,” locals name for one of the most prolific bluebonnet blooms in the area. The pasture in front of the vacant house is fenced, and posted which keeps tourists off the bluebonnets and helps protect next year’s bloom. The entire field probably covered eight to ten acres and was a solid color of bright blue– filled with bluebonnets at peak bloom.
About a half dozen people were leaning over the fence photographing the scene when we arrived with most using phones to record the bloom. More arrived before we left about a half hour later.
Bluebonnets and cactus growing alongside a small creek.
The following day we joined a photography tour led by an area professional photographer who took us off the highway onto back roads where we found more blooming bluebonnets along with Indian paintbrush, Indian blanket, pink primrose and other wild flowers. Along with the blue color of the bluebonnets, there were reds, pinks, yellow and purple wildflowers. Some fields were all yellow which the photographer said could be canola. We photographed in the Ilano area, found a beautiful patch down a dirt road near an old bridge and more at a vacant old stone house near Pontotoc.
Serious wildflower photographers who are unfamiliar with the area, would benefit from joining a photo tour group rather than spending hours driving and hunting for places to photograph. Even with the tour guide, we were unable to cross the fenced and posted fields and had to photograph the blooms from the road rights of way. Texas, he said, is one place you don’t want to trespass.
Yellows and blue wildflowers mixed in this large pasture scene near Burnet, TX.
“Keep out here means exactly what it says.”
Thanks to the tour guide, we managed to hit the bluebonnet bloom at its best.