An officer of the law, a sheriff I believe, stands in the middle of US 90 as we barrel along at the 75mph speed limit that most of West Texas, even the two laners, allow. I apply the brakes, the Airstream towing behind gets the signal, and our silver convoy slows to a halt.
“There’s a bad crash between here and Marathon,” he tells us, “prob’ly take all night to clear it up. You can wait,” he points north, “or detour up through Fort Stockton.”
It’s a two hour detour. An hour north to Ft. Stockton and another back down. Just about everything in West Texas is an hour or so away. That’s why it’s beautiful. Nothing but power lines, railroad tracks and these desert mountains.
We make it to Marathon a little behind schedule, except there is no schedule. The entire chunk of bent knee that is Big Bend will be our home for the next however long feels right. For now, base camp is Marathon.
A bar in the middle of town glows neon blue. The same three employees have worked from open til close every day this week, 11am to 11pm or so. “I came here to make money, so I might as well work,” she says, she being the waitress who’s served us every day we’ve been here. Because though there’s a lot to do in Big Bend, and the adventurous mind can even find a lot to do in this sleepy town, there’s always plenty of time in the day to take advantage of the bar…when it’s open.
That’s the Famous Burro. Hours are something like Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to whenever the bartender gives up. We meet a general contractor another night at the one other still open bar in town, the White Buffalo, a tiny quintessential West Texas fancy dive (in an incredibly posh but very boots and cow skulls hotel known as the Gage) and he says, “Most nights the Burro is closed before I even get cleaned up, so I come here.” We drink selections from Big Bend Brewery or what everyone insists are the best margaritas in Texas. Various establishments glow with neon, from the Burro in town to the Marathon Motel & RV park just west, within walking distance.
An adobe courtyard at the motel focuses around a small but always amply stocked firepit. Free fire, and massive empty deep black skies perfect for letting the glow of layers of stars the depths of which most Americans will never realize exist.
Rigs and tourists pass through town regularly, but the roads feel empty, and even with families beginning to shuffle in for spring break, or to flee Austin’s SXSW madness, town is largely vacant and at times the wind will blow heavy on a piece of sheet metal, it begins creaking in the wind and the possibility of an old west gunfight doesn’t seem completely unlikely. At night, cars fill in the Main Street and you wonder where they’ll all find a seat.
A hawk flies over head, breaking up the usual circling of vultures. Grackles flee. A train’s lights can be seen in the distance, even in the hot afternoon sun. The breeze is as consistently cool as the little boots and book shops in town are randomly open. The sound of the train’s horn blows, it comes and it goes, and a few hours later it’ll happen again.
Across the tracks a hostel by the name of La Loma Del Chiva offers a free night to cyclists, and a general vibe of love and sustainability the likes few other places hoping to achieve such a feat could possibly near. It’s built of simple materials, but wildly adorned. To describe it would be to attempt to quantify the value of art, patronage and community fellowship into a single sentence, so instead a personal trip will need be made in lieu of any further explanation. Except to say it is a rare and beautiful thing in this nation and not seeing it leaves a hole in your bucket I’m not quite sure any list could ever fill.
The sun sets nightly. Traffic dies down. Coyotes and javalenas perk up. I have called this place home before and feel rather at so now. Very few people I knew back then are still here, and it is precisely that transience which Marathon wields to live up to its name as the Gateway to Big Bend, because that’s what it is, a gradient between the civilization of the rest of the world and the still Wild West of this part of Texas. Always slightly changing and yet as durable as an ages old Polaroid.