West Texas Mountains: Guadalupe Mountains NP, Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa

Leaving Hueco Tanks for the mountainous region of West Texas was like moving to a different house in your neighborhood … same terrain, same feeling, and yet totally different and exciting.  

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the most remote and least visited.

You can “walk the line” down the center of the highway for 20 minutes before anyone comes by.

Its namesake peak, Guadalupe Peak, juts skyward as the highest point in all of Texas, at 8,750 feet elevation.

Other people were scarce, due to the national government shutdown, but we entered anyway and explored plentiful hiking trails, including the remains of a Overland Butterfield Line stage stop.

Davis Mountain State Park, though only 140 miles south from Guadalupe Mountains, is perched a mile above sea level on a “sky island” above the surrounding deserts, offering gorgeous views and a plethora of flora and fauna.

It was here that we saw our first spindly, ugly, cactus-munching javelina.

Skyline Drive winds to the park’s highest ridges (and only location for cell service), providing breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.

From the top of Skyline Drive, you can see down to our RV campground.  Can you spot the Lucky Charm?

You can also spot the distant, historic Indian Lodge Hotel, a pueblo-style building from 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, organized to provide work opportunities through the U.S. during the Great Depression.  For $30 month (most of it sent back home), the men of the CCC molded 40-pound earthen blocks from water, straw and soil excavation on-site, and muscled tens of thousands of them into place to form 18”-thick walls, 3 stories high, to create this architectural jewel.

Nearby McDonald Observatory is one of the world’s leading astronomical research facilities, under some of the world’s darkest skies.  In fact, the local high school was the last in football-crazy-Texas to install football stadium lights, to help preserve this darkness.

On certain nights when the moon doesn’t rise until after midnight, McDonald Observatory hosts “star parties.”  We were treated to a “tour” of the night sky’s many stars, planets, constellations and galaxies, and got to look through
seven of their high-powered telescopes at specific astronomical objects.  It was fascinating, but it was freaking COLD! We **think** those are planets in the dark sky behind me below, but not entirely sure, and if they are, it was an accidental photo capture.

Fort Davis is one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post from the days of the Indian Wars, in this case 1854-1891.  When we arrived, a familiar tale … CLOSED due to the government shutdown.  Foiled again!  But then, a minor miracle, the shutdown was postponed for three weeks and the following day we were able to get it.

Fort Davis was an important strategic location to protect emigrants, freight wagons, and mail coaches going hundreds of miles between San Antonio and El Paso, from Indian raids.

There are more than 100 ruins in various states of disrepair, and five buildings that have been fully restored and refurnished to the 1880s.

The Enlisted Men’s Barracks offers a view of 1884, when it was occupied by Buffalo Soldiers of Troop H, Tenth Cavalry, an all-black battalion.  Some historians think it was the Indians who named them, comparing their hair to Buffalo hair and finding them worthy adversaries.

The post hospital could accommodate 24 of the sickest patients, but most ill or injured were sent to their barracks to recuperate, or were discharged from service and sent home.  Soldiers suffered mainly from injuries and disease, and rarely from battle wounds.  We learned of one officer and his wife, whose 7 children all died within a 2 week period from dysentery.

A day trip to Alpine, TX was guided by Philip’s work colleague Hillary, who had excellent suggestions.  The charming downtown has several paintings on the sides of buildings, similar to those we enjoyed in Silverton, Oregon, and a lovely, artsy flair.

Kokernot Field is a fine example of a classic, small baseball stadium, circa 1947, which Sports Illustrated has called “The Best Little Baseball Field in the World.” The local Sul Ross State University team was holding a scrimmage when we stopped by, and it is home field for Alpine’s professional team, the Cowboys.

We also attempted (unsuccessfully) to locate a desk, with a notebook in which to sign your name, which was hauled to the top of Hancock Hill on the Sul Ross University Campus.  Perhaps it was just a hoax and students are laughing their butts off, watching from their nearby dorm windows, as hapless strangers tromp around the mountaintop in search of that which no longer (or never did) exist.  But it was a nice hike with beautiful views of the campus and town below anyway!

Marfa is a quirky town best known for the “Marfa Lights,” seemingly sourceless lights which randomly dip and dance on the horizon from time to time.  It was also the filming location of the epic 1950’s movie “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in his final performance.

Fascination with the strange and unexplained phenomena of the Marfa Lights began during the 19thcentury and
continues to such a degree today, that an entire building devoted to its viewing has been built roadside, including telescopes, a huge parking lot, and surprisingly nice restrooms.  

We were not there at night to verify their existence, and supposedly they only appear once every few months, but the show goes on for those with an open mind.  Here is what we saw (cue the disappointment):  Nothing.

Marfa’s downtown is like so many small Texas towns, a whiff of hopefulness mixed with a tinge of disrepair, as beautiful old buildings surrounded by sagging downtowns attempt to breathe new life into their tourist economies with local shops and galleries, and a homegrown, hipster vibe.

This area boasts several breathtakingly beautiful old hotels which have been restored to glorious grandeur. Here as examples, the lobbies of the historic Holland Hotel, built in 1912 after a fire leveled downtown Alpine, and Hotel Paisano in Marfa.

As the Lucky Charm pulls away from this mystical, beautiful place, we leave with with some unanswered questions, courtesy of an abandoned Marfa building-side.  If you come up with some deep thoughts on these issues, please let us know!

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