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How 12 Women Found Art, Awe, and Adventure in Big Bend, TX

A trip to Marfa and Big Bend is full of extremes—sophistication and rugged beauty. To experience the magic, join our next adventure in December.

The thing that kept reverberating in my mind as the 12 of us stood on the edge of a desert canyon was: this view has rarely been seen by humans. Overhead, a rock formation hung like a cresting tsunami wave. Far below us, a green-gold valley floor stretched wide and flat to the dusty scribble of the horizon. The physical elements alone demanded reverence. But what truly made me want to genuflect as if in church, or at least to speak in a whisper, were the collection of red lines on the cliff wall—which is what we had climbed up the rock face to see.

We’re so lucky. This trip could not be more magical.

These lines were made some 6,000 years ago and, experts suspect, tell the story of the ancient people who lived in this canyon. The most striking drawing was something that looked like either an alien or a beetle with legs spread wide and a small human-ish stick figure emerging. The story of a birth. Maybe an actual birth of a child in this rugged setting, or maybe the macro version—the figurative birth of a whole race. Our host, a rancher friend who owns the canyon we were standing in, described these drawings as one of the most important collections of pictographs in the Southwest. Though he allows archeologists and researchers to study these hard-to-reach drawings, they aren’t open for public viewing.

“I’m in complete awe to be here,” Marianne Morehead, one of the NextTribers on the tour, said as she contemplated the view that the early people living in this sheltered nook would see every day. “We’re so lucky. This trip could not be more magical.”

I didn’t disagree with her, but I was having a hard time accepting that this particular excursion—our NextTribe tour of Marfa and the Big Bend area of Far West Texas—could be going so well. Even though I’m not necessarily superstitious, her words had me looking for some wood to touch. I’m always a bit anxious when I take people to an area for the first time, and NextTribe had never done this tour before. Also daunting were the logistics of moving a group around a vast region that encompasses the Mexican border and lots of lonely roads and rugged terrain.

But the main source of my jitters was the death that had almost disrupted plans even before we started. I just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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The First Shoe

Big bend travel, marfa travel

Four travelers visiting a piece of iconic installation art in the desert outside of Marfa.

The Big Bend region is arguably the most difficult spot to get to in the continental U.S. Most people fly into El Paso or another major Texas city and submit to lots of Interstate time. I’ve made many visits to the area–once on assignment for Travel + Leisure magazine, for which I drove the whole Texas-Mexico border. This was back before Marfa was an international arts center, back when the hotels had thin, scratchy towels, and the lone restaurant was a family-run Tex-Mex eatery that only had cheese going for it.

What I’ve come to love out here most is the tremendous sky, which holds the elements of the landscape together and at the same time, makes every vista seem endless, eternal.

What I’ve come to love out here most is the tremendous sky.

I got the idea of putting together a trip here for NextTribe because I’ve come across so many people who want to go to the region; they’ve read about it in travel or art magazines but don’t know how to wrap their heads around it. Where to go first. How to experience the art, the nature, the expanse. How to cover the distances.

The plans were going well for the sold-out trip until two weeks before departure.

Because of the vastness, I’d contracted with a guide to take us on the parts outside of Marfa. But two weeks before I was to gather with the 11 guests to start the six-day trip, I got the news that the guide, in his early 50s, had died of an accidental overdose of insulin. I’d never met him, but of course, I was terribly sad for his friends and family. Then after the initial shock, I panicked.

Scrambling at the last minute, I was put in touch with the Big Bend outfitter Angell Expeditions and thankfully the owner Charlie Angell was able to take over. I knew I was lucky to find a replacement, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this kind of tragedy might portend ill for the trip.

Marfa, Marfa, Marfa

Marfa Texas travel

Clockwise from top left: one of Marfa’s many murals; an e-bike tour of the town; the iconic Prada Marfa; artist Julie Speed in her studio.

Marfa may be best known these days for the installation art project on a deserted highway 26 miles to its west. It’s a replica of a Prada store, sitting among scrubland and the occasional tumbleweed. The piece, which takes a jab at retail as tourism and a culture that is devoted to buying and selling, has become something of a mecca, even appearing with Beyonce on her Instagram feed.

But at the heart of Marfa, or what Marfa has become, is Donald Judd, who transformed an old military base into the Chinati Foundation, which is home to his and other artists’ large-scale works that ask viewers to reconsider how they see art and beauty. Artists of all sorts followed Judd to this town of 1,200, which had a previous claim to fame as the setting for the 1956 movie Giant. (The Hotel Paisano, where we stayed, once played host to Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Sigh.)

In Marfa, there is much to impress even the most jaded city sophisticate.

On the first night in Marfa, our group of travelers—a couple doctors, some nurses, a lawyer and businesswomen from all over the country—had the chance to visit one of the artists. Julie Speed‘s studio sits in thick-walled former jail with nothing but a dog’s jaw of mountains between her and the horizon. Her sweet voice and cheery demeanor seem at odds with the wicked humor of her paintings and collage. We loved hearing how she came to create a whole series that feels like demented trading cards for Catholic nuns.

“To see how she works, to watch the sun set from her patio, that kind of thing is just priceless,” our San Francisco-based traveler said at dinner that night. And in Marfa, there is much to impress even the most jaded city sophisticate–restaurants serving warm pheasant salad and Texas elk osso busso; a hotel that looks like it was dropped in from SoHo; stores filled with handsome tributes to Western culture and plenty of cheekiness. At the Wrong Store, many of us bought a necklace that had “WTF” engraved on a tiny heart, which we decided should be a NextTribe emblem.

After a tour of the Chinati Foundation on day two, some of us hit the stores hard; two golfers happily played on the oddest, dustiest course of their lives; others rented e-bikes to tour the neighborhoods of small adobe houses with the sky-rocketing prices that accompany any modicum of hipness. On our second night, an after-dinner stop at the viewing site for the famous Marfa Ghost Lights didn’t reveal alien orbs bouncing across the desert, as we were told to watch for, but it did afford us a mesmerizingly vivid view of the Milky Way, with stars spreading above us like spilled glitter.

On the Road

big bend travel

Clockwise from top left, a cattle skull; hikers with a view; in the “ghost town” of Terlingua; a sunset in the Chisos Mountains.

Many people think the desert is an empty expanse, but starting with our ride out of Marfa, on the morning of our third day, we learned otherwise. Inside our van, which pulled a small purple trailer full of our luggage, we were as giddy and rambunctious as schoolgirls on a long-awaited field trip, at one point pulling out all our best dirty jokes. Through out the trip, Angell, our guide, talked about the mountains, birds, and plants; told tales of ranchers who had brushes with the law; pointed out the entrance to the ranch where Justice Antonin Scalia died and filled us in on the local reaction; slowed down so we could get a good view of wildlife (including a pair of small javelinas with faces that resembled Tasmanian devils, or at least the cartoon version). Once he stopped the van so we could all get out and look at a tarantula crossing the road—a male apparently on the prowl during mating season—which prompted a whole round of “Why’d the tarantula cross the road?” jokes.

After a stop at a Mexican bakery in the border town of Presidio, we headed east along the Rio Grande, which was a trickle here, toward the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. When I’d written about this drive before, I said the mountains spring up suddenly and magnificently, as if a giant’s brass-knuckled fist had punched through the desert floor. And all these years later, I can’t think of a better way to capture the drama.

The mountains spring up suddenly and magnificently, as if a giant’s brass-knuckled fist had punched through the desert floor.

Lunch was in the town of Lajitas, which a while back was bought up by a developer and is actually now a whole resort—with a spa, golf course, the works. Another community on the route, Terlingua, has avoided a similar sell-out. It’s often called a ghost town on maps, but a whole range of drop-outs from society have turned it into something between a hippie commune and Ted Kaczynski’s spiritual outpost.

We made it to our base, the Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park, just as the sun was setting. Conveniently, the peaks to the west of the lodge form  what’s called The Window, which on this evening dramatically framed a sky that looked like a sheet of orange-and-violet marble. Also conveniently, the bar at the lodge opened that very day for the first time in almost two years. “How lucky is that,” someone exclaimed. I raised the wine glass to my lips and knocked on the wood bar stool with my other hand.

Across the Border

Clockwise from top left: Riding to the Mexican town of Boquillas; the Park Bar cantina in Boquillas; the view of the Rio Grande from our lunch spot; swimming in the hot springs on the river.

Another reopening we took advantage of was the border crossing between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico. It had been closed since early in the pandemic up until November 17th of this year. I’d advised everyone on the trip to bring a passport, but that’s the only thing that felt official about this border crossing. That and the stern talk we received from the U.S. border control officials about not bringing back agricultural products.

We took a boardwalk through some trees to the Rio Grande, which was wider and deeper than we’d seen earlier, to the west, but that wasn’t saying much. We took turns—four of five at a time—being rowed the 20 yards to the other side, though in truth we could have rolled up our pants legs and waded across (though this isn’t always the case, I’m told). On the Mexico banks, we were greeted by a ticket taker ($5 for each person’s round trip) and exuberant men with burros and horses. Some of us chose to ride burros the one mile to the town of Boquillas for $5 each, round trip; I, along with two others, mounted up on horses, paying $7 for the privilege.

Enchiladas and margaritas always taste better, I believe, when you’re south of the border, even if only by a mile or so.

The ride along the dirt road, beside yucca cacti and thorny trees, conjured up scenes from Hollywood westerns. As did the town of Boquillas itself. The flat adobe buildings on a hill would be just the place where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could get a stiff drink and a smile from a senorita in a cantina. Indeed, there was a colorful cantina in town, called the Park Bar, with pool table and lots of tequila, as well as two restaurants. We chose to eat lunch at the restaurant with views over the Rio Grande, back toward the U.S. Enchiladas and margaritas always taste better, I believe, when you’re south of the border, even if only by a mile or so.

The shopping here was far more homey than what you find among the sleek shelves of Marfa, but our group attacked it with the same zeal. Besides the scorpions and peacocks made from copper wire, my favorite offerings were a T-shirt that said, “Keep Calm You’re on the Fun Side of the Wall,” and a sticker for the Boquillas International Ferry.

After crossing back and showing our passports to the very serious officials, we made our way to a hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande. In the early 20th Century, an entrepreneur created a health resort here, but now there are only ruins. What was left of the hot spring pool itself was definitely not up to “resort” standards, but that didn’t stop three of us from soaking in it a while, then scrambling out to swim/walk across the river to put our foot in Mexico. This return trip required no passport.

The Writing on the Wall

Clockwise from top left: NextTribe CEO Jeannie Ralston with the pioneer woman Hallie Stillwell; one of the fascinating pictographs at the private ranch we visited; the glorious Gage Hotel; dinner on our last night together.

The following day, we stopped at a museum dedicated to Hallie Stillwell, a pioneer women and an Age Boldly icon ahead of her time, before visiting my friend’s ranch for a lunch spread and our special viewing of the art work of the original people in these parts. We could have stayed days longer at his Architectural-Digest-ready ranch house, but we had reservations for dinner at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, about 40 miles away.

Maybe all my knocking on wood really worked.

We had just enough time to check into our rooms before heading to the 12-Gage restaurant for a sumptuous meal of grilled sirloin bavette or masa-dusted cod. I finally began to relax that night, reveling in the camaraderie that had grown up among the women, laughing at the songs Angell—truly a full-service guide—serenaded us with on his guitar, sinking into the relief that the trip had gone better than I’d dared hoped. We’d finish up back in Marfa the following day, and we’d disperse from there—back to lives, jobs, families….reality. Maybe all my wood-knocking really worked, warding off any mischief that could have come our way out on the edge of the West and replacing it with sheer magic from start to finish.

Toward the end of the night, several women clinked knives on their glasses and spoke about the bonds and exquisite memories that had been made over the past few days. Cathie Black, from New York City, summed it up this way: “Great experiences, an amazing group of women from many walks of life, wonderful conversations, fun and laughter, good food and magnificent mountains. What else could you ask for?”

I beamed and wondered what in the world I had been so worried about.

A version of this story was originally published in December 2021. 

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By Jeannie Ralston


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