Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Running to Marathon

Sunset in Marathon, May 24, 2008

Kate and I made good use of our three-day weekend with a really nice trip out to Marathon. We began our stab westward around 7:30am on Saturday morning. Upon our arrival in Fredericksburg, I noticed our passenger-side front tire was almost completely flat. Because I'd been having unexplained air loss in my driver-side rear tire that mysteriously rectified itself, I naturally assumed the two problems were related.

I anxiously told Kate I had bad feelings about going further west. I've known several people with aspirations of going west from Austin who've been waylaid in Fredericksburg by breakdowns, pot busts and other bouts of misfortune. I doubted the fix would be simple or inexpensive, but Kate wisely counseled me to withhold judgment until we had the flat tire examined. The mechanic on duty at 7-Day Tire said we had a stem leak and fixed it for $8. As it turned out, that was all we needed.

The trip continued without incident until we left I-10 on the last remaining stretch of the former U.S. 290 west of Ozona. Now decommissioned, SH 290 offers a dramatic panorama as you descend from the I-10 exit toward Fort Lancaster State Historical Park and Sheffield. If you're headed toward the Big Bend region, this is a nice - though slightly slower - alternative to taking I-10 to U.S. 385 in Fort Stockton.

At Sheffield, ramshackle site of a recently-closed Texas Youth Commission boot camp, we headed south on SH 349. A few miles outside of town, I was pulled over for speeding by a state trooper. I thought the speed limit was 70, but it was only 60 on this two-lane state highway in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the trooper let me off with a written warning. I made sure to mention that I was a fellow state employee when he asked what I did in Austin and that probably didn't hurt.

A few miles later, we turned west on FM 2400. This was the most isolated part of the trip, with no towns and very little traffic. I would've normally taken this road going 80 or 85, but I kept my speed down just in case. About five or 10 miles before we hit U.S. 285, we came upon a broken down truck carrying three men I assume were working on one of the area's many oil and gas wells. We pulled over and one of the men asked if we could drive to his house in Sanderson and tell his wife to come pick them up. We found the wife in Sanderson and relayed the message before pressing on toward Marathon on U.S. 90.

We had reservations at the Gage Hotel, a nicely-refurbished hotel built for ranching magnate Alfred Gage in 1927 and designed by celebrated El Paso architect Henry Trost. Upon our arrival at the Gage around 4:30pm, we celebrated with a refreshing dip in the hotel's oasis-like cement pond. Then we ate dinner at Café Cenizo, the hotel's pricey-but-excellent dining room. Despite the blaring of train whistles from the old Southern Pacific line at 4:30am, we slept pretty well.

On Sunday morning, we grabbed some breakfast burritos from the surprisingly well-apportioned French Co. Grocer and headed toward Big Bend National Park. Although Marathon is the closest incorporated town to Big Bend, it still takes over an hour to get to park headquarters. Our goal was to hike the Lost Mine Trail, which is a five-mile round trip.

Kate applauds the beauty of the Lost Mine Trail

The first half of the trail featured a 1,250-foot elevation gain, but the view from 6,850 feet was well worth it. After having lunch at the top, we stayed preoccupied on the hike back down by naming words that begin with "in."

Aside from Café Cenizo, there were no restaurants open for dinner in Marathon, so we decided to drive into Alpine - a relative metropolis of 5,000-plus inhabitants 30 miles to the west. Unfortunately, a lightning-rich thunderstorm stood in our way. I'm not sure I've ever felt that close to getting struck by lightning before. While I've always heard your car is the safest place to be in the event of a lightning strike, neither Kate nor I wanted to find out if this was true.

After eating a mediocre-but-passable hamburger meal at a 24-hour diner next to a motel in Alpine, we headed back to Marathon. As we drove, we were rewarded with a wonderful view of two rainbows on the backside of the thunderstorm we'd just driven through. Meanwhile, the sun was setting in the rearview mirror. There's nothing quite like being able to see that much sky all at once.

Barely visible rainbow along U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marathon

Back at the Gage, the air was almost cool enough to warrant a long-sleeve shirt. As the sun finally receded around 8:45pm, we stepped into the hotel's White Buffalo Bar to watch the Spurs-Lakers playoff game. We sat next to a couple from San Antonio whose daughter works for the Spurs, which made the game more interesting. Kate said her margarita may have been the best she's ever had and I'm still kicking myself for sticking to beer. After a couple of drinks, we retired to our room and fell fast asleep.

Yesterday's trip back to Austin was much smoother than our outbound leg. We had a really tasty Tex-Mex lunch in Ozona at a place called Pepe's Café. I'm certain it's the only restaurant along the I-10 corridor between San Antonio and El Paso with Frank Kozik posters on the walls.

For more on our Marathon expedition, read Kate's blog entry here.

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