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Big Bend to Marfa Where I Struggle to Live Like a Hippie

May 16, 2017

In the middle of the night in the Terlingua, I wake up in complete darkness and think for a second I’m back home. Realizing where I am, I remember the stars are supposed to be beautiful since there’s no light pollution way out here. In my boxer briefs, I throw on my boots and walk outside looking like Cousin Eddie from the National Lampoon’s movies. It’s nearly a full moon, though, so I can’t make out more than I’d see at my parent’s house in Iowa and head back to sleep.

day 10
Big Bend to Marfa. 158 miles.

I wake up for good at 6 a.m. and watch the sunrise over the mountains while I pack the bike. I get the directions ready and discover the first issue with my phone from the drop yesterday, the headphone jack doesn’t work. Not ideal, but the Harley has Bluetooth. I haven’t used it up to now because it’s harder to hear over the wind, but much worse could have happened.

rise with the sun
Rise with the sun

It’s a short ride up to Marfa, TX today through Big Bend Ranch State Park just west of Big Bend National Park. I pass through Lajitas, another ghost town. Clay Henry III was mayor until recently, a drunk goat. I’m not making that up. I make a quick stop in Contrabando too, a ghost town that was a movie set for old westerns.

The Bluetooth is having issues too. It keeps dropping the connection and I have to restart my phone to get it to reconnect. I can’t do this while I’m riding. I imagine it’s related to the headphone jack. It thinks headphones are getting inserted so it drops Bluetooth. I try not to use navigation when I ride at home so I can better learn the area, but I also have an idea of where I am there. My only real option is to try to do the same for the rest of the trip. The Harley has GPS but it’s annoying and time consuming so I leave the map up on the bike’s screen, note the mileage and name of my next turn from Google Maps, and watch the odometer. Today is short with few turns so I can try this out and see how it works.

From Contrabando, the ride through the park is beautiful. Up and down twisting roads with huge canyon walls on either side. There aren’t turnouts to take pictures so I strap my GoPro to my helmet. It can’t quite capture the vastness of the landscape, elevation changes, or winding curves as I ride along the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico, but it’ll do.

canyons big bend ranch state park
Canyons through Big Bend Ranch State Park

There are wild burros aka donkeys in this area and I’ve seen a couple grazing off the road. As I come around a turn, I see a dead one in the middle of the road with chunks of car bumper strewn around it. It must have happened recently. I see it with plenty of time to swerve and concentrate more on scanning the roadsides for more. It’s not long before I reach Presidio, another border town with a crossing into Mexico. I stop for gas, check the map, and start up Hwy 67 to Marfa.


Outside Presidio, I go through another border patrol checkpoint and don’t even get questioned. She asks for IDs from each person in the car in front of me and then lets me pass. I consider the lucrative coyotaje business smuggling people into the US.

  • Step 1: Ship some Street Glides and riding gear into Big Bend National Park
  • Step 2: Ride straight through the checkpoints and into California
  • Step 3: …
  • Step 4: Profit

While I mull over the capital investment for the multiple Harleys my scheme requires, I see signs to watch for livestock. Sure enough, a few miles up the road I see a cow standing in the middle of it confused about how to get back through the fence to its buddies on the other side. I touch the breaks and we stare each other down as I pass on my last 20-mile stretch into Marfa.

Marfa is a small town of around 2,000 people in the high West Texas desert. It’s known for its art galleries, especially Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation. I’m camping at El Cosmico, a 21-acre campground that also has safari tents, teepees, yurts, and renovated vintage campers you can stay in.

El Cosmico hotel and campground

I arrive around noon and pay for a campsite in the office. I unpack my bike and set up shop under the shade of a tree. It’s windy and I didn’t bring tent stakes. There are a bunch of large rocks around, though, so I drop one in each corner of the tent and get it set up. My tent is screened all around. This is great in nice weather because you can leave the rain cover off and sleep under the stars. In the dusty, windy desert, though, it’s less great. Iput the rain cover on to block the dust, but without stakes, it’s blowing around pretty bad. I unroll my sleeping bag and lay on top of it in the tent as it gets battered by the wind. Can I really make it through the night like this? The weather report says it isn’t going to die down. About five minutes later, a big gust blows all the dirt in the desert up under the rain cover, through the screen, and onto everything in the tent and into my mouth. “Nooooo! No! Fuck this wind!” I cough as I unzip the tent, spit the dirt from my mouth, and shake the half inch layer from my things.

I crawl out and go back to the office to see if they have anything else. They have one safari tent left. It’s five times more than camping, but I’m assured mouthfuls of dirt are rare once inside them and accept. I head back out to roll my sleeping bag back up and take the tent down, a chore in the wind. I bring my stuff into the office where they’ll watch it for me until I can check into the safari tent at 3 p.m.

camper 2
Fancy renovated camper with AC. And its own hose?

With two hours to burn, I get back on the bike and head to FOOD SHARK, a food truck I’ve heard is a must. It’s closed on Tuesdays. Damn. I remember passing a burrito place on the way and ever in the mood for burritos, I’m on my way. Martha’s Burritos is a tiny restaurant with outdoor seating. I walk into an empty room and make my way into the kitchen where I see a lady cooking. She greets me with a smile and I order a burrito, which prompts her to rattle off ingredients in Spanish. I recognize about half of them but say yes to all of them. I ask for agua and am pointed in the right direction. In no time, she brings me the Frankenstein burrito I ordered and holds up four fingers. She could charge twice that, this burrito is the size of a child.


Uncomfortably full, I ride to Chinati Foundation, they offer both self-guided and guided tours of the collection. Except on Tuesdays. It’s closed on Tuesdays. Damn it. I head back to El Cosmico and get some writing done in the office, the only place with internet. I get carried away and at around 5 p.m., grab my still dirt-filled gear and head to my tent.

safari tent
The most conformtable bed of the trip is in a safari tent in the middle of the desert.

The tent is great. It’s around 85° now, so I turn the fan on and tie the doors open to see if I can find a use for this wind that’s brought me such misery. I sweep the light dusting of desert sand form the pillows before plopping onto the comfy bed. Staying at El Cosmico is all about “Dolce Far Niente” or “Sweet Do Nothing”. From their website, “It is not to be confused with lazy—it is the liberation from an obsession with productivity.” That doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in. I’m all for watching an entire season of a show on Netflix in one sitting or playing video games occasionally. I also read a lot, but laying in a hammock or on the beach all day doing nothing? Not for me. I give it shot, though, “When in Rome” and all that. I make it about 30 minutes laying in the tent before I’ve had enough and start wandering around.

mini bar
The minibar at El Cosmico is in a tackle box and includes rolling papers, a "Marfa Shag" dime bag, and a "Get busy bag" with condoms and Astroglide.

I walk around El Cosmico and take pictures. There’s a guy flying a kite that looks like it’s a pair of jeans. Maybe it is. There are a few people Dolce Far Nienting in hammocks. Lazy bums. It’s about time for dinner, so I walk into town to Stellina, a recommendation from a friend. I take the back streets to get a feel for this desert town. In a trailer park on the outskirts, I nearly lose my life to a vicious dog after loitering a few seconds too long.

vicious dog
If this dog wasn't chained I'd be missing my esophagus

It’s communal seating at Stellina so I pull up a chair to the bar. They have a Dogfish Head beer so I order it without even looking at what kind it is and get the chicken dish the lady sitting next to me was just served. The atmosphere is great and the beer and meal are delicious. They’re about half the price you’d pay in San Francisco, but that seems to be a trend. I take my time eating, I’m in no rush.

gunshot van
Target practice on the way to dinner

A line starts to gather at the door so I pay my check and leave. I head to Lost Horse Saloon but when I get there, it’s empty except the bartender so I go back to my tent to watch the sunset.

camper 3
Sunset over El Cosmico in Marfa, TX

There are many communal places for people to gather, but I’m guessing since it’s Tuesday no one is at any of them. I have a long day tomorrow, though. I want to check out Carlsbad Caverns National Park and then get to Roswell, NM before the International UFO Museum closes at 5 p.m. I do a bit of reading in my tent with the door propped open and then get to sleep early.

bottle caps
Bottle cap parking lot outside Lost Horse Saloon

Rocky Warren

Rocky Warren's blog. Principal Architect, Tech Lead, Product Manager. I do other stuff too.