It's easy to get lost at Cibolo Creek Ranch—32,000 acres of west Texas country where countless trails wind through sagebrush-strewn wilderness.
But it's even easier to get found. It's a place where the quiet seeps into your bones, where people who don't have time to relax find themselves, quite suddenly, relaxed.
We didn't come to Cibolo Creek to re-evaluate our lives or find our inner selves. As far as we were concerned, our inner selves were just fine, thank you. It was our outer selves we were concerned with, and a week of hiking and horseback riding sounded like a grand idea. The fact that Cibolo Creek Ranch was reputed to have some of the best food in the country—and healthy food to boot—was an added attraction.
But within hours of our arrival, Cibolo (pronounced SEE-bo-lo, which means buffalo in Spanish) began to work its magic. We stopped worrying about phone calls and email because our room wasn't equipped with either. Yes, there's a phone and computer in the guest office, but we quickly found we didn't want to know what was going on in the world outside. And our cell phone, guaranteed to work in all but the most remote locations, lost connection. Phones and computers—and television—are incompatible with a 148-year old fortress.
In 1857 an adventurer and entrepreneur named Milton Favor bought land around the Great Spring of the Cibolo, an area in the midst of Apache territory. To defend his land, and the huge herd of longhorn cattle that he raised there, he built three forts—El Fortin del Cibolo, La Cienega and La Morita.
Fast forward 130 years. In 1987 another entrepreneur, John Pointdexter, formed Southwestern Holdings, Inc. for the express purpose of "acquiring and developing a large Texas ranch with a distinctive character."
Over the next six-and-a-half years, he did exactly that. For the first two years he learned everything he could about the original sites—studying old photographs, excavating the half-buried foundations, and researching other houses of the period until he understood design elements and building techniques.
The actual restoration took almost five years, and the result is a compound that is as historically accurate as humanly possible. "Milton Favor would feel at home here," says Debbi Van Etten, one of the fort's managers. "We've added electricity and heat, but in as unobtrusive a way as possible." The two twenty-foot towers in El Cibolo are now museums detailing the forts' past.
Today all three forts are used for guests, but each has its own distinctive character. El Cibolo is the hub of activity and houses the office, a dining area that seats fifty, the majority of the guest rooms, a swimming pool, campfire conversation area and lake stocked with fish for catch-and-release fishing. La Cienega is smaller and staffed separately. It's generally used by families and small groups. La Morita is more remote and completely private. It lacks electricity and heat.
The serene seclusion of the ranch, especially the smaller forts, has made Cibolo a haven of choice for paraparazzi prey. The ranch counts among its guests a host of celebrities, such as Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Mick Jagger, Tommy Lee Jones and Randy Quaid.
For the most part, ranch policy is to leave guests to find their own amusement. If requested—preferably a day in advance—the managers will arrange for horseback riding or will get out the mountain bikes or fishing poles. And on a clear day, which is to say ninety-five percent of the time, guests can tour the mountains in a grand excursion vehicle. If they're lucky, they'll spot deer, elk, buffalo, javelina, fox, coyote, wolves, bobcats and possibly an occasional mountain lion.
On their own, guests can engage in plenty of other activities—hiking, swimming, bird and bat watching, arrowhead and rock collecting. And of course there's always reading, conversing and, best of all dreaming.
At dinner—eight to ten people around a rectangular table—no one discussed what he or she did back home. The workaday world was far away and, by unspoken consensus, everyone was content to leave it there. Instead we small-talked about past and present travels, the best places for great photography, and what the secret ingredient was in the perfectly-spiced salad dressing.
We only had one overcast day, and we used it to drive 35 miles to Marfa, a small town (population 2,500) which is widely reputed to be "the next Santa Fe." A lot of folks from the big art cities of the United States and even Europe are betting their mortgages that the small adobe homes they're purchasing for a pittance will skyrocket in value in a few short years.
The art history of Marfa began in 1973 when Donald Judd, a darling of the New York art world, found in Marfa the three things he valued most: space, light and privacy.
Through a combination of perseverance and good fortune, he acquired a 340-acre former military base, Fort D.A. Russell, and began to realize his dream—a large, open space where his large-scale works could exist in perpetuity. Now owned and run by the Chinati Foundation (named after a range of nearby mountains), Judd's art, along with that of a select number of other artists, forms a contemporary art museum unlike any other.
Outside the sixty concrete boxes, arranged into fifteen one-level groups, stand in front of a row of cottonwood trees, planted by the artist. Each box is identical in size—5 meters long by 2.5 meters wide and 2.5 meters high—but as the light and shadow play upon them, patterns emerge and visitors find themselves fascinated by the seeming mutations of obviously immutable objects.
Inside more boxes, this time of mil-aluminum, all perfectly aligned with each other and with the windows of the huge barracks that contain them. Yet again the streaming light plays tricks and emphasizes the tension between the order of man and randomness of nature.
There's more. Displays by the artists who Judd invited to work alongside him, plus a revolving set of temporary exhibits, are part of the four-plus hour tour — divided into two sessions—-offered by the Chinati Foundation. Dan Flavin, like Judd, explores the possibilities of angles and light but his environments are lit by fluorescent tubes of pink, green, yellow and blue. Mounted in six u-shaped buildings and requiring visitors to make twelve separate entrances, the effect is compelling and addicting. "No one stops after seeing three or four," said our guide.
Today about 10,000 visitors a year make the pilgrimage to Chinati, but one museum—even a 340-acre one—does not a mecca make. But about eight years ago other people began to (pardon the pun) see the light. Tim Crowley, a Houston lawyer, and his wife Lynn, then owner of a Houston gallery, led the parade, moving to Marfa and opening a hip bookstore with the requisite coffee and wine bar. New galleries, small but smart, seem to be opening every day.
The old historic hotel has been spiffed up, the motel has morphed from downdy to trendy and there's a juice-and-sandwich bar that offers a change from the standard fare of pizza and enchiladas.
Whether an adobe home in Marfa is a good investment of money remains to be seen. But a day in Marfa is unquestionably a grand investment of time!
We returned that evening to Cibolo Creek Ranch and debated about making another day trip to nearby Big Bend National Park. But we decided to save that for another visit. We wanted more time at the ranch before returning to the hustle bustle of the real world.
How to get there: Cibolo is approximately 230 miles from the two nearest commercially served airports. Midland/Odessa and El Paso. It's three-plus hour drive through mostly-flat land. Private planes can land at the Ranch, or at nearby Marfa or Alpine.
When to go: Cibolo and Marfa are Texas's coolest spots in the summer, but temperatures can still reach 100 degrees. Yet the lack of humidity makes it bearable. In the winter, there may be a touch of snow, but locals say it's nothing to worry about.
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