Call of the West
Destination: Fort Davis
By Karen Hoffman Blizzard
Travel time from:
- Austin - 6.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 10 hours /
- Dallas - 7.75 hours /
- El Paso - 3.25 hours /
- Houston - 8.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 5.75 hours /
- Lubbock - 5 hours /
Once you’ve been to the Fort Davis area — with its sky-high mountains and offbeat culture — you’ll feel the tug to come back soon.
A sign reading “Lacayo’s Cajuns of New Orleans” beckons road-weary travelers passing through the isolated West Texas town of Sonora. It’s the last thing you might expect to find along this lonely stretch of I-10 connecting the Hill Country to West Texas. Exiting I-10 at Sonora and cruising along Loop 467 in search of a lunch spot, my husband, Mike, and I happened upon Lacayo’s and were drawn in by the prospect of a Cajun meal.
The interior was awash with Mardi Gras décor, and the food was tasty, especially considering how far the shrimp in our po’boys must have been transported. Owner Diane Lacayo told us that she and her husband, Dennis, had evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and moved to Sonora because they were ready for dry ground. “All our other relatives lived on the water, including the ones in Florida, so we decided to take a road trip,” Diane says. After a year and a half in Sonora, their business has doubled and they are basking in the Texas hospitality. “People in Texas are great,” she says. “We have never met anyone so nice in our lives.”
With the imagined sounds of Mardi Gras revelry in our heads, we left Lacayo’s and continued our journey to the mile-high town of Fort Davis, which we had chosen as “home base” for excursions to Balmorhea State Park, the annual open house art bash in Marfa and Davis Mountains State Park. We were drawn to Fort Davis because of its proximity to all the places we wanted to visit, as well as for the town’s colorful history as a military post in the mid-19th century, its healthful mountain air and its wide selection (by West Texas standards) of vegetarian-friendly restaurants.
About halfway between Ozona and Fort Stockton, we passed numerous wind farms that in recent years have given a new look to the West Texas landscape. As our minds gradually emptied themselves of urban cares, our thoughts began to merge with the countless wind turbines spinning atop desert mesas, creating a surreal dreamscape across an otherwise monotonous canvas.
Mid-afternoon that Friday, we reached Balmorhea State Park, the “jewel of the desert” and a true desert oasis for humans, fish and turtles alike. The park’s location near the junction of I-10 and Highway 17 makes it the ideal stopover for travelers on their way to or from Fort Davis, Alpine, Marfa and Big Bend. Overnight visitors can stay at San Solomon Springs Court, a Spanish-style adobe-brick motel that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, along with the other park buildings and the pool itself. The motel sits adjacent to the park’s ciénega, a desert wetland that was reconstructed in the 1990s and where visitors can observe many species of birds and fish, including the endangered Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish.
The centerpiece of the park is the spring-fed swimming pool, filled from the pure artesian waters of San Solomon Springs that rush in at a rate of 22 to 26 million gallons per day. The water temperature is a near-constant 72 to 76 degrees, ideal for year-round swimming. Weekdays are the best time to swim, as the pool can become crowded on the weekends. Wear swimmer’s goggles, or a mask, snorkel and fins, in order to fully explore the pristine waters teeming with small, translucent fish that will swim right up and nibble at your legs, as well as numerous catfish, turtles, and other varieties of fish that hide among the plants at the bottom of the pool. Ah, paradise!
After swimming and communing with the fish for well over an hour, we drove five miles to La Cueva de Oso (the Bear’s Den), which rightfully advertises itself as “the cutest restaurant in Balmorhea,” for delicious Tex-Mex food and a cold beverage. After dinner, replete and relaxed, we headed south on Highway 17 along the final 35-mile stretch of road to Fort Davis. The winding road could probably be described as scenic by day. In the moonlit darkness, however, it was downright spooky, with menacing rock formations jutting out of the mountains as if they were about to come alive and advance on us like something out of Lord of the Rings.
In Fort Davis we pulled up to the Hotel Limpia, a charming historic hotel built near the courthouse in 1912. Over time, the hotel has expanded to include the original hotel, the Limpia Suites located just behind the hotel, and assorted guest houses and cottages on or near Court Avenue, several blocks to the west. The guest houses differ in character, and each has one or more features to surprise and delight travelers, such as a fireplace in the bedroom, renovated bathroom, jacuzzi or wraparound porch. The completely renovated Grierson House is the newest addition to the Hotel Limpia. For a real treat, ask for a room in the Trueheart House, a restored 1898 home that later became a doll museum until its acquisition by Hotel Limpia in 2005.
We stayed in the Limpia Suites building. Our suite had a separate living area and kitchenette, a clawfoot bathtub and — our favorite part — a covered porch with rockers and a hammock. The next morning, we had coffee and bagels on our fabulous porch and walked around the hotel gardens and pool area. We noticed several of the guests walking their dogs and made a mental note to bring our two guys with us on our next visit to Fort Davis.
After a leisurely Saturday morning, we drove about 20 miles south along Highway 17 to Marfa to experience the weekend-long 20th Annual Chinati and Judd Foundation Open House. Each year, the open house draws more than 2,000 international pilgrims from all corners of the United States and abroad, creating a mix of people even more diverse than the usual West Texas potpourri of artists, cowboys, hippies, vegetarians and urban refugees. This means that all of the hotels within about a 90-mile radius of Marfa book up quickly for the event, so it’s a good idea to make a reservation several months in advance.
The annual Open House event showcases the work of artist and Chinati founder Donald Judd (1928–1994) and features exhibitions by Robert Irwin, and Josef Albers, among others. Throughout the weekend, visitors are treated to all the free art, food, music, readings and artist talks they can possibly cram into two days. The exhibitions occupy various buildings and locations in Marfa, and one of the weekend highlights is the Saturday Night Open House Dinner, a free dinner and dance held outside on the main street in downtown Marfa.
As we drove into Marfa, we were relieved not to encounter any traffic snarls. Apparently the gently sprawling town had absorbed its visitors with ease. We decided to head first to the Chinati Foundation museum because most of Donald Judd’s art is there. Formerly the site of a U.S. Army post, the museum occupies 340 acres and consists of six army barracks, several other buildings and an open field, all of which are staging grounds for the foundation’s art installations and exhibitions. We wandered through the compound and in and out of the buildings, experiencing Judd’s minimalist aluminum sculptures and his giant concrete sculptures in the field, and visiting Dan Flavin’s wonderful fluorescent light installations in the barracks, among others. Everything seemed large-scale, appropriate to the vast West Texas openness surrounding Marfa.
After spending the afternoon feeding our souls on art, we wandered downtown to feed our bellies at the downtown open house dinner, compliments of Fort Davis restaurant Cueva de Leon. The sun was setting as we walked, casting its palette of pinks and oranges over the horizon. As we turned onto Highland Avenue, we were treated to the festive sight of lights, buffets of steaming food, an eclectic crowd of partygoers and rows of long tables and chairs stretching down the street, with a musical stage at the opposite end. Hosting a dinner for 2,000 is no small feat, but despite the long lines at the buffets, there was plenty of food and drink to go around. After dinner, we joined in the dancing in front of the stage to the music of Mariachi Aguila.
As the dinner and dance started to wind down, many of the local artists’ galleries around town were still open to the public. By chance, we walked into the newly opened gallery of Julie Speed, one of my favorite artists, who had recently moved to Marfa from Austin. She was there along with Mark Smith, the co-director of Flatbed Press in Austin, where Speed created many of her etchings. At another gallery, we met an artist named Steve Dubov, whose work we liked a lot. According to the program, a band called the Dandy Warhols would be playing later at a venue called the Ice Plant, but we decided to head back to Fort Davis and those wonderful front-porch rockers.
On Sunday morning, after enjoying breakfast and art at the Twin Souls gallery and coffeehouse, Mike stayed behind to try out the porch hammock with a good book in hand while I went hiking at Davis Mountains State Park, about four miles down the road. I had not been to the park since coming with my family on a summer vacation years ago. Feeling nostalgic, I drove through the park to the Indian Lodge, where we had stayed. The stunning white Southwestern Pueblo-style lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, nestles cozily in a basin at the foot of the Davis Mountains. Within the last several years, the lodge has been extensively renovated, with the addition of new amenities and the preservation of its original style. Otherwise, the place was pretty much as I had remembered it, and I could practically see my younger sister and brother trying to run all the way up one of the mountains surrounding the lodge without stopping.
Although the sky was overcast, the air felt refreshing and I decided to hike a portion of the 4.5-mile trail that begins near the interpretive center, crosses the state park boundary and ends at the Fort Davis Historic Site. The trail winds its way quickly to an overlook at the top of a mountain from which you can look down at the town of Fort Davis and enjoy stunning views in all directions. From there, the trail continues along the mountain ridges, somewhat rocky but otherwise good for trail running. Since we were driving back to Austin that day, I turned back after only a couple of miles but was already planning to run the entire trail on my next visit — preferably with my husband and a vehicle waiting at the other end. Fort Davis, I had discovered, has a way of calling you back even before you’ve left.
Chinati Foundation (432-729-4362, www.chinati.org)
Davis Mountains State Park (432-426-3337, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/davismountains)
Balmorhea State Park (432-375-2370, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/balmorhea)
Hotel Limpia (800-662-5517, www.hotellimpia.com)
More West Texas lodging (www.lonestarlodging.com)