Sunday, October 12, 2008

Big Bend Country - Alpine, TX

On last year's trip, we left El Paso and went right down to get on I-10, heading straight across Texas to Austin via US 290. But since the family was away for the weekend this time, when I left El Paso Saturday morning after two nights in the Day's Inn, I turned off I-10 at the little town of Van Horn and headed down along US 90 to check out Big Bend Country in the south of the state. US 90 follows the old Union Pacific railroad line, so the route has lots of little old 19th-century railroad towns.

South of Van Horn, I passed a long freight train going east on tracks some distance from the highway. A few miles on, the tracks ran right alongside the road, so I stopped to wait for the train to get a photo. While I was waiting (looking west), an AMTRAK passenger train surprised me going west. I remembered that this is the route followed by the AMTRAK Sunset Limited from New Orleans to L.A., the line I rode on a cross-country railroad trip back in 1998. [Well, I later realized, I hadn't actually traveled this route then. Coming down from Chicago on the Texas Eagle that year, I'd gotten off in Dallas, rented a car, and visited Austin (before JP lived there) to visit some of his friends. I partied kind of late the last night there, and left past midnight to drive down to San Antonio to catch the Sunset Limited at 5:30 AM. In the pre-iPhone days, I wandered around town a bit before finally locating the AMTRAK station, which was little more than a shed in the rail yards. Just as I pulled up to the station, I saw the train pulling out for the west. So I dropped the car at the airport and caught a flight to El Paso, where I caught the train last that afternoon. So I'd missed Big Bend Country in '98.]

I like passenger trains even more than freights (gotta catch 'em while they last), so I turned the car around and went back westward to find a spot to get shot of the train approaching. The tracks veered away from the road again, and we were separated for several miles by an orchard. Past the orchard, I finally found a road heading towards the tracks, and turned onto it. After driving about a mile on the rugged dirt road, I came to a crossing and got out to wait. I could see the AMTRAK headlight way in the distance and set up my shot. After quite a while, it became obvious that the train wasn't moving. The iPhone Google maps actually worked out there, so I found my location, and noticed that behind the orchard, the track split into two - there was a siding, where trains often wait for a train in the other direction to pass. Ah, it must be waiting for the freight I saw before, so I waited. And waited. Then I realized that this might go on for an hour or more (remembering such delays on my train trip), and decided to go back the way I came and take one of the little roads going through the orchard which led right to the siding. After making my way along the dirt road back to the highway (the rattling of the car gave me Nevada flashbacks), I turned east again, only to see the Sunset Limited in the distance heading west right towards the spot where I'd been waiting. No time to go back, nearly an hour
wasted for a photo not obtained. Referring back to the map, I realized that where I was waiting for the freight to pass was very close to where I'd passed it before, so It was obviously long gone past the AMTRAK when I got there. OH WELL, sez me, you can't win 'em all. I passed that same freight train several times along US 90 as I made my way southwest, stopping occasionally for gas, lunch, etc.

I decided to take a detour off US 90 and head up to Fort Davis, where there was an historical exhibit. On the smaller road, through the hills, the countryside was really awesome; not like the mountains up north, much more barren in the prairies. I pulled into the Fort Davis lot at 5:15 PM, only to find that it had closed at 5 PM. Really surprised me, as the sun was still fairly high off the horizon. I'd gotten used to pretty early sunsets, since Arizona doesn't do Daylight Savings Time, and PDT had stayed with me all the way through AZ. Then New Mexico got me on Mountain Daylight Time, and after El Paso I entered Central Daylight Time, where the sun set much later than yesterday (particularly in the western part of CDT). So, no Fort, but the extra hours of sunshine are cool.

After going back down to rejoin US 90 at Marfa, I continued east into the hills. I'd decided to stop for the night at Alpine, which had an above-average selection of motels according to google. But, weary of the same old nationwide chains, I picked a small local motel - Motel Bien Venido - in order to patronize the locals. It was the cheapest ever ($38), cruddiest ever (light bulbs out, table & no chair, ancient toilet facilities), but I don't really care about that stuff. As long as I had my internet access (finally getting a good Wi-Fi signal on the 3rd room I tried).

I'd read and heard about the mysterious Marfa lights, an "unexplained phenomenon" visible from the highway back towards Marfa, so I figured it was worth a little 20-mile backtrack to check them out. A major tourist attraction of Marfa, there's even a well-marked roadside observation area, where I pulled in. I thought I'd be the only one out there, but there were a few other cars. Lighting is wisely kept minimal here, and the idea is to look to the southwest in case this is one of the 10% of nights when they're visible. I saw some twinkling near the horizon in the distance, but it sure seemed likely that they were headlights of vehicles on US 67 going south from Marfa to the border town of Presidio. I overheard some dude lecturing a couple of his guests about the lights, going on about PYE-zoelectric effects (it's pee-ay-zo if you've ever heard it and not just read it) and such, and had to roll my eyes. I was still peering at the distant sky near the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that didn't look like headlights to me, when we few visitors were suddenly surrounded by kids of all ages - three (3!) tour buses had just pulled up and unloaded, and the jabbering masses were a stark contrast to the serenity of the surrounding country. All going on about the "mysterious" lights. I wanna believe (something), but I left tending to side with the various academics who have done studies and concluded that what everyone's been seeing for years are distant vehicle lights.

So, back to the Bien Venido, I caught some late movie on the snowy TV, and finally fell asleep in the sagging old bed. I awoke around 5 AM itching all over, and finding welts wherever I scratched! There had been no sign of mosquitoes, and sure enough, an examination of the bed revealed bedbugs - one under the pillow, another in the sheets, only two out of many more, no doubt. My first encounter with these critters. I got the bug spray out of the car and covered my entire body with it; and, since the other bed in the room was firmer and in better shape, I switched to that on the off chance that bedbugs prefer ratty beds and mattresses. It took quite a while to get back to sleep, not only with the itching, and the concern about more bugs, but I kept realizing that my jaw was tightly clenched in rage at the situation. When I awoke around 8 with only a couple hours of sleep, there were many more welts, and much more itching, demonstrating that bedbugs are not affected by bug spray, and infest beds of any quality with no prejudice. I was ready to give the manager hell, but his little wife was at the desk, and expressed such dismay and concern when I stressed to her the absolute unacceptability of bedbugs in a motel, I just shook my head and stormed out. I'm sure it's a well-worn display of surprise and concern.

I try to keep my expenses down, but a motel price that low should be a warning to keep moving.

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