In 1969 or so, I got a glimpse of the Big Bend country of Texas, stretched-out in the back of my sister’s little Pontiac station wagon, wedged in between the luggage, picnic supplies and my niece and nephew. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return and do it right.
Forty-five years later, I made good on that resolution. I recently spent two nights in Marathon, a quiet, low-key place of some 400 souls, located 54 miles southwest of Fort Stockton, 32 miles east of Alpine, and 108 miles north of Terlingua—with nothing in-between any of those destinations.
This is what people who have never been to Texas think the state looks like. The topography is certainly breath-taking: low-lying mountains as a backdrop, with broad fertile basins between—home to real ranches and their vaqueros. And at night, well, the sky is bright with stars, undimmed by any lights from below, just like that old song says, “the stars at night, are big and bright…” While I could easily romanticize the region, I also realize how hard it would be to make a living in this rugged locale. While no doubt some fortunes were augmented, I doubt if any were actually made here.
Edna Ferber’s Giant did as much as anything to lock-in a certain stereotype of Texas and Texans. In fact, this is in the heart of Giant country—the movie was filmed in the next basin over, on the other side of the Alpine pass. Marathon itself has something of the mystique of that particular movie. Alfred Gage, a Vermont-born entrepreneur, founded the town and named it Marathon after a description he had read of the original Greek site. The town became the headquarters for his ranching operation. The historical marker said that his ranch encompassed 600 sections. A section contains 640 acres. You can do the math. Gage later went on to San Antonio, where he made his real money—in banking, of course. He would return to the ranch, however, and in the mid 1920s constructed what is now the Gage Hotel to serve as his residence and ranch headquarters.
From a commercial standpoint, the hotel is the town. Take away the hotel, its restaurant, the bar and the small cluster of businesses absolutely dependent on the Gage’s clientele, and there would be no real reason to even slow down while passing through Marathon. I liked the vibe of the hotel—all done out in 1920s Texas cattle baron grand.
I have a bad habit of noticing small things and drawing perhaps too large implications from them. I took breakfast both mornings at Johnny B’s, a small hole-in-the-wall eatery next door: a simple establishment consisting of six barstools and four tables. Arriving before sunrise, I was the only Anglo there, joining the cook and two tables of Hispanic cowboys—the real kind, not like those from where I'm from. What caught my notice was that they had all taken off their hats inside, as gentlemen used to be taught to do. As I slurped on the coffee and waited on my pancakes and bacon, I realized that I was dining with a classier clientele than most anyplace I would otherwise frequent these days.
The Gage Hotel is always quiet. They have no televisions, and consequently weed-out those guests who cannot live without them. My upstairs room was located on the front of the hotel, facing the railroad tracks across the highway. After a while, you become accustomed to the occasional plaintive whistle in the night, followed by the rumbling of the tracks as the trains whiz by. The first night, I heard a train whistle approaching from the west. I pulled the shutters back, and then raised the window and peered into the darkness outside, as the train's headlight approached Marathon. This was no ordinary train, however, but the Sunset Limited, carrying passengers from Los Angeles on to New Orleans. The sleeper cars and the dining car were all alight. I briefly wondered about these passengers lumbering across West Texas in the night. And I was reminded of the passage I quoted previously from The Broken Road—of Paddy Fermor hiking across the Rumelian plateau in 1934, stopping to wave at the passengers aboard the Orient Express as it hurried along on its way to Constantinople. My experience is not exactly that, but in this diminished age in which we live, it will have to suffice.