In recent years, Marfa, Texas, has gained a reputation as a funky, artsy destination town. Before that, it was famous as the filming location for the movie, “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the movie was released posthumously.) The cast stayed at the Hotel Paisano during filming, a -great old inn steeped in West Texas culture. The hotel plays up its connection to the movie with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos scattered throughout.
After our stay in a Roosevelt Stone Cottage in Big Bend National Park, the next stop on our week-long roadtrip was Marfa, Texas. We’d originally planned to take US385 north to Marathon. US385 parallels state highway 118 that we’d taken south from Alpine to the park. US385 had the advantage of taking us a longer and different route through Big Bend National Park to exit. The time to drive to Marfa on either highway would be about the same. That original route plan changed when I spotted a longer route that ran along the border and the Rio Grande. When I asked some of the staff at Chisos Mountains Lodge about that road, I was told it was called The River Road and not to miss it if we had the time. It would take us an extra 20 miles and an extra 45-50 minutes. We had the time, and we had a new route to Marfa.
The goal and ultimate destination of our week-long Texas roadtrip was Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. I’d heard about it all my life, but had a mental block about the distance. My loss! The park is remote…and desolate and harsh and ruggedly beautiful and vast beyond description.
My plans hadn’t included a government shutdown, and I was glad I’d booked one of the Roosevelt-era cottages in in the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge over a year in advance since the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire and was open despite the unoccupied booth at the entrance to the park and the sign notifying visitors that park campgrounds were closed and staff was furloughed. I was happy to find the cottage all I’d hoped for, and we quickly settled in on our first afternoon, eager to get outside as soon as possible. We started with Chisos Basin Loop Trail, one of the seven hiking trails that start beside the cottages. The trail as far as we explored was well-worn and easy to follow. It had been groomed with logs and stones inset to ease the way on slopes. The view from the trailhead itself was hard to beat with the well-known “Window” at the end of the basin framing the span of desert, mountains and mesas beyond.
For my first ever and long-awaited visit to Big Bend National Park, I wanted to stay in one of the five “Roosevelt Stone Cottages” belonging to Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only (non-camping) lodging within the park. While the Lodge has hotel- and motel-style rooms, the Roosevelt Stone Cottages are the most popular and book up “almost a year in advance” per the Lodge web site. I found this to be the case. Although some of the cottages were booked when I did a search last January, I was able to get one of my top picks, #101 by booking last January 19, one year and a few days before our arrival. Still, even with that lengthy pre-booking, we weren’t guaranteed the cottage of our choice since the Lodge reserves the right to change (should there be a maintenance problem, etc.). Upon check-in, I was happy to find we would in fact have the cottage I’d booked.
Heading to Big Bend National Park from Davis Mountains State Park, we made sure to make time for a stop-off in Terlingua, a former mining town known primarily for its eponymous chili cook-off (actually two cook-offs these days which take place on the first weekend in November). I’d heard about the Terlingua chili cook-off for decades and am the proud owner of a cookbook of championship recipes from the original event. The chili cook-offs draw upwards of 10,000 people to a tent- and camper-filled party in the desert. According to the town’s event calendar, Terlingua has also instituted a couple of lesser cook-offs including one for black-eyed peas and another for dutch ovens. Barring cook-offs, Terlingua is a desolate little town. I didn’t expect much, and a cook-off-less Terlingua turned out to be less than that. Oh well, all travel destinations are not created equal. If you’ve got the time, the turnoff to the Terlingua “Ghost Town” is about 5 miles west of Hwy 118 just north of a main entrance to Big Bend National Park. If you don’t have the time, no worries.
Located in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory is a research and education facility of the University of Texas. The observatory offers “Star Parties” to the public Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year which are bookable online for a reasonable fee. While the observatory web site states that Star Parties often fill up months in advance, the permissible group size is large and I found 100+ spots still available several days before our Friday night reservation. Our January 17 date no doubt had something to do with the lighter crowd, but we chose the time of year deliberately to avoid crowds…and the sweltering peak-season temperatures in our ultimate destination, Big Bend National Park.
Deciding where to stay during our much-anticipated McDonald Observatory “Star Party” came down to a historic hotel in downtown Fort Davis or Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Highly recommended by friends, closer to the observatory, located within the state park where we wanted to hike, and newly refurbished as of summer 2018, we opted for Indian Lodge.
Built to look like a multi-level pueblo village, Indian Lodge opened to the public in 1939. The lodge boasts a big two-fireplace den/game room, a lovely pool and a restaurant with hit-and-miss opening hours. Our room on the upper level had windows on two sides and a now-blocked adobe fireplace in one corner. The ceiling consisted of large beams and twigs. Just what I had in mind!
I’m super excited about our upcoming week-long Texas roadtrip. As a native Texan with roots going back to the days when Texas was an independent republic, it’s high time I got myself to one of the state’s most iconic, unique and remote treasures, Big Bend National Park. I reserved one of the park’s coveted Chisos Mountains Lodge cottages a year ago and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate when the allotted time rolled around. A government shutdown didn’t even cross my mind back then. Fortunately, although Big Bend is a national park, the park is open, if unstaffed, and the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire, so we’re still a go. On our journey, we’ll also take in other Texas classics including a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, a stay in the “James Dean” room at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and lots more.
A MONTMARTRE WALK
I always tell people that Montmartre is worth a visit and makes a great walk. A lot of people skip Montmartre because it’s more down-scale and crowded and has some steep walks, but it does have some of the best views and most classically Parisian locales and can be done mostly downhill if you follow the route I’ll set out. It’s not unsafe (I have a friend who owned a jewelry store there and loved the area), picturesque (beyond a certain grunginess) and charming in its own way. There is a large immigrant population in Montmartre, it’s the bustling fabric district of Paris, and it’s full of tourists and a fair amount of party-minded types in addition to merchants and the like, so expect bustling activity, noise and a colorful international vibe going in. Here’s my favorite route:
Start at Métro Stop Anvers (line 2)and head uphill along rue Steinkerque (to your right as you’re exiting the Métro). [It’s usually crowded, so as always in crowds, be aware of your surroundings–purse across the shoulder, valuables in inside pockets, etc. I’ve never had a problem, but it’s always best to be city-smart.] You’ll pass lots of fabric and tourist shops and see the white basilica of Sacré-Coeur on the hill ahead. Enjoy the view of the church from the base of the hill. You can walk up or skip the steep hike and head to your left (as you’re facing Sacré-Coeur, as in the photo above) where you’ll come to the funiculaire de Montmartre. If you’ve got Métro tickets or passes, they work there, or buy a ticket at the stand. Ride to the top and take in the spectacular view of the city. (You can’t, however, see the Eiffel Tower from the steps. You’ll get to see it soon, though.) Take a look at the interior of the basilica with its beautiful mosaic of Christ with his sacred heart ablaze in gold on the ceiling. You can visit the crypt and climb the dome. When you come out of the basilica, head to your right along the sidewalk to the left of the road. About halfway down that road, you’ll see the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
The road T’s in about a block. Go right a short distance uphill and you will come to the famous Place du Tertres on your left where artists are set up in a square surrounded by cafés.
After wandering the square, head downhill along the road you came into the square on (rue Norvins). (If you like Dalí, you can head left a very short way down rue Poulbot and then take another left. The Dalí Museum will be there on your left. Or take a detour to your right on rue des Saules and another right on rue Cortot to visit the small Musée de Montmartre and view Le Clos Montmartre, the last working vineyard in Paris.) From rue Norvins as you leave place du Tertres, head left downhill where rue Norvins branches and you’ll come to rue Lepic on your left. Wander downhill on rue Lepic where you’ll see a restaurant in a (modern recreation) windmill; further downhill to your right on a hill, you’ll see the last original windmill in Paris, the Moulin de la Gallette which was painted by Lautrec, Renoir, Picasso and Van Gogh (who lived with his brother on rue Lepic for a time). Just opposite this windmill, head downhill on steep, narrow rue Tholoze. At the bottom turn right, then immediately left. This will take you through the heart of the old rue Lepic street market. (Rue Lepic makes a big “U” which rue Tholoze bisects so you just pick back up on rue Lepic here.) The well-known Lux Bar is about halfway down on your left. At the bottom, you’ll come to blvd Clichy and Place Blanche. Métro Blanche (line 2 again) is in the center of the boulevard. Take time to look to your right where you’ll see the Moulin Rouge. If you cross to the Métro entrance and look back, you can snap a good picture of it or cross to the median for a straight-on shot.
I usually just hop the Métro here, as I’m a big fan of Paris’ public transportation.
One of the many great opportunities afforded us while cat and housesitting in Edmonds, Washington, is the chance to observe the local marine life. Taking it a step further, Edmonds also hosts the only whale watching boat service in the Seattle area that runs through December, Puget Sound Express. Being whale enthusiasts, we made an outing with Puget Sound Express a top priority when we arrived for our 5-week housesit in Edmonds. With the luxury of being able to walk to the marina where PSE’s two whale watching boats moor, we watched the weather forecast and booked the first sunny, calm day. We chose a weekday hoping for a smaller crowd and had no problem booking a couple of days before, probably because mid-October is off-season.
Whale watching is always a matter of chance, but we really lucked out: Within 10 minutes of pulling out of the marina, we sighted the first humpbacks in the Sound between Whidbey Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. The highlight of the day, though, came when our captain pulled us up to wait facing a huge flock of seagulls feeding on the surface. We could see at least 2 humpbacks heading for the flock and the naturalist aboard told us the whales were coming to feed. The first that arrived, swam under our boat then swam upward into the flock to “lunge feed” just in front of us, its huge head out of the water, jaws closing on food. Seagulls scattered an swirled in every direction. Spectacular! I’ve gone whale watching before, but this was a nature documentary moment.
After that, we sped out to the Salish Sea, spotting sea lions on channel markers along the way and the occasional harbor seal. In the Salish, we spotted two pods of orcas hunting and socializing. We snapped photos of them with Mt. Baker providing a picture-perfect backdrop against a blue sky. What a day!
Although we could have ordered sandwiches, chips and a drink from Red Twig, a cute eatery a couple of blocks from our condo in Edmonds for $15 apiece, we packed our own sandwiches. (The strange and very handy hardware/grocery/deli hybrid Ace Hardware store on the corner of 5th Ave. and Walnut St. in Edmonds makes great sandwiches for half the price. They’re enormous, too. Half a sandwich is more than ample for me.) We were glad we brought our own when we saw the sandwiches provided: On generic sandwich bread, not what we’d expect from Red Twig. One lady we talked to was very disappointed. For $5.50, you can buy a ceramic “bottomless” mug offering refills from the galley of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. – Heavenly, after getting chilled standing outside watching whales. The ride in the speedy Chillkat (40mph+!) was surprisingly smooth and I was never in any danger of spilling a drop.
All in all, we were really impressed with Puget Sound Express, its boat, naturalist, captain, everything. The price is $135/adult and $85/child for a 4-hour whale watching excursion. The only glitch came pre-trip with some confusion over the meeting place as Puget Sound Express Whale Watching has two boats, the Puget Sound Express and the smaller (and faster?) Chillkat. We arrived early and waited by the Express behind Anthony’s where an email told us to go, but finally had to call when no one showed up. It turned out we were supposed to be further down at Dock D for the Chillkat. The lady on the phone was not clear on where we should be either and kept trying to send us in the opposite direction, but we finally found the right spot and boarded. (Someone told us the Chillkat is the boat they takeout on weekdays; no idea if that’s accurate.) We pulled out right at 9:32am and were back at 2pm. To book the tour we took on the Puget Sound Express website, click “Tours” in the drop-down menu at the top then “Guaranteed Whale Watching Tours,” then “Seattle Whale Watching Tours.” The guarantee is that you’ll get to go again if no whales are spotted, a good offer for visitors who can make use of it. PSE also offers tours out of Port Townsend on the Kitsap Peninsula as well as multi-day and bird watching tours.