Go Wild for a West Texas Summer Road Trip

Follow Jenna Bush Hager on an unforgettable adventure through the rugged country she calls home.

By Jenna Bush Hager
Highway Scene
Photo: Wynn Myers

West Texas is in my blood. Even though I haven’t lived in Midland now for over 20 years, it still feels like home. It’s where my parents first met as innocent, unsuspecting seventh-graders at San Jacinto Junior High School—and where they fell in love on a summer night at a backyard barbecue. They were married, just three months later, at First United Methodist Church, in the heart of downtown.

Actually, Mom and Dad might never have met if my paternal grandparents weren’t so adventurous. Everybody probably assumed that my grandfather would take a high-powered job in New York City when he graduated college. After all, he was a war hero with a Yale degree—clearly on his way up. But instead, he and my grandmother left their families on the East Coast and drove from New Haven, Connecticut to Midland’s neighboring West Texas town—Odessa—like a couple of young mavericks taking on the great frontier.

My mom’s father, Harold Welch, was one of the most prominent homebuilders in Midland. When I was a young girl, we would hop in his beat-up ’75 Buick and go searching for his signature ranch homes, which lined the flat streets like pieces on a Monopoly board. Even today, you can find homes that he built, leaving his mark on this part of Texas.

Once Henry and I fell in love, it seemed like a rite of passage to take him to the place where my roots run as deep as the oil beneath that tabletop of a landscape. We set off on a make-it-or-break-it driving tour across the country. Ultimate destination: West Texas.

Midland is an oil town. When there’s talk of a boom, the town booms with it. When gas prices fall, Midland falters. Somehow, though, the essentials endure. When we landed, we picked up my maternal grandmother, Jenna Welch—I’m her namesake—and drove to Johnny’s BBQ, a restaurant owned by my grandfather’s best friend, Johnny Hackney. He showed us the back room where, years before, men (including my grandfather!) would come to watch football and play cards on Saturdays.

We packed up ribs and beef brisket before Henry and I set off to experience a West Texas adventure together. From Midland to Balmorhea to Marfa and Big Bend, the two of us were mesmerized by the rugged countryside, constantly transforming itself, sometimes in subtle nuances and sometimes in the kind of dramatic sweeps that can take your breath away. We ate Pecos cantaloupes and swam in the natural spring-fed pool of Balmorhea State Park, built in the 1930s.

Last year, we started feeling nostalgic for the sense of freedom that we had enjoyed so much on that first West Texas trip together. So we decided to re-create it, this time bringing along my sister and some close friends. Together we drove across the desert, with the infinite sky as our guide. Texas never ceases to amaze me. And it’s home.

Highway Scene Davis Mountains
On the drive from Marfa to Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains, you'll catch Texas-tinged rust appeal dotting a rugged landscape.
Photo: Wynn Myers

Midland to Marathon

Midland:
Have lunch at La Bodega (2700 North Big Spring Street; 432/684-5594), and pick up Johnny’s BBQ to go. 316 North Big Spring Street; 432/683-4581

Monahans:
Monahans Sandhills State Park: Rent a sand toboggan or disk and go “surfing”on the soaring sand dunes—some of them as high as 70 feet. 2500 E I-20; 432/943-2092; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/monahans-sandhills

Marathon:
For a classic West Texas experience, check in at the Gage Hotel, a historic Mission- and Spanish-style property that offers casually elegant comfort with polish in the dramatic setting of the Chihuahuan Desert. Choose from 14 rooms in the main hotel; 20 pueblo-style brick rooms framing a courtyard; three casitas (“small houses”); or the former home of Marathon founder Captain Albion E. Shepard. Have drinks at the hotel’s acclaimed White Buffalo Bar and dinner at the relaxing 12 Gage Restaurant, serving locally sourced gourmet fare. Rates from $242; 432/386-4205; gagehotel.com

Gage Hotel
Marathon's Mission- and Spanish-style Gage Hotel, which first opened in 1927, was designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost.
Photo: Wynn Myers

Marathon to Marfa

Marathon:
Marathon Coffee Shop: You never know when you might spot some locals having an impromptu jam session on the patio as you caffeinate for the day’s adventures at the popular “home of the green chili hash browns.” 301 NW. First Street; 432/386-4352; marathontexas.net

French Co. Grocer: This is one of those handy road-tripping spots where you can pick up anything and everything—from groceries and sandwiches to camping supplies, toys, and souvenirs to take home. 206 North Avenue D; 432/386-4522; marathontexas.net

Alpine:
Judy’s Bread & Breakfast Bakery Cafe: Treat yourself to Judy’s giant cinnamon rolls and then browse all the country stores in town for cowboy gear. 113 West Holland Avenue; 432/837-9424

Alpine murals: Modeled after vintage calendars, the annual mural projects depict the unique culture and heritage of West Texas. Stylle Read’s 2013 mural, based on “Poco and Poquito” calendar artwork by Jesus Helguera, was the first in the series. Find it on the Printco building at Holland Avenue and 5th Street. Greetings from Alpine—an earlier Read work—is on the Kiowa Gallery (105 East Holland Avenue).

Big Bend Brewing: Take a one-hour tour, which includes a complimentary tasting of each small-batch craft brew. 3401 West U.S. 90; 432/837-3700; bigbendbrewing.com

Marfa:
Note: Many Marfa locations are open only on weekends. Call to check current hours before making your plans.

El Cosmico
Photo: Wynn Myers
Why stay someplace ordinary when you can book vintage trailers – as well as teepees, tents, and yurts – at El Cosmico?

Marfa Burrito: Brush up on your Spanish, and prepare for home-cooked food that will make you swear you’re in Mexico. 104 East Waco Street; 325/514-8675

El Cosmico: “Camp” under the stars at El Cosmico—where you can choose from whimsically renovated vintage trailers, safari and scout tents, yurts, Sioux-style teepees, or tent campsites. Rates from $150 (yurt); $175 (teepee); $85 (safari tent); or $140 (trailer); 432/729-1950; elcosmico.com

Ballroom Marfa: This converted 1927 dancehall now supports contemporary cultural arts, including film, music, performance, and visual arts. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; 108 East San Antonio Street; 432/729-3600; ballroommarfa.org

Cochineal
Photo: Wynn Myers
Cochineal's steamed asparagus with lightly poached egg and Hollandaise sauce.

Hotel Paisano: Book a room where Hollywood legends Liz Taylor and James Dean stayed while they filmed the movie Giant. You can have drinks or dinner indoors or by the patio fountain at the appropriately named Jett’s Grill. Rates from $109; 432/729-3669; hotelpaisano.com

Cochineal: Make a dinner reservation here to experience chef/owner Tom Rapp’s innovative restaurant—with an open kitchen—which focuses on fresh ingredients and an ever-changing menu. Cochineal has a cocktail bar and maintains some 250 bottles of wine from around the world. Dinner service available daily 5:30-10 p.m.; 107 West San Antonio Street; 432/729-3300; cochinealmarfa.com

Lost Horse Saloon: Head to Ty Mitchell’s seriously authentic Texas watering hole for unpretentious libations and live music. Open 4 p.m.–midnight Sunday-Friday and 4 p.m.–1 a.m. Saturday; 306 East San Antonio Street; 432/729-4499

Lost Horse Saloon
Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stayed at the Hotel Paisano.
Photo: Wynn Myers

Marfa to Fort Davis:

Balmorhea State Park
Photo: Wynn Myers
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 19030s, Balmorhea State Park has the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool.

Marfa:
Balmorhea State Park: Take a cool dip in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. 432/375-2370; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/balmorhea

Freda: This tiny boutique sells locally made crafts and goods, along with what it calls “carefully curated gems from elsewhere.” Shop online or at the store (noon–6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday); 207 South Highland Avenue; 432/729-2000; shop-freda.com

The Chinati Foundation: Tour this contemporary art museum founded by artist Donald Judd, whose 100 untitled works are installed in two former artillery sheds. The Chinati Foundation’s collections are housed in 15 buildings on 340 acres. Open 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 1 Cavalry Row; 423/729-4362; chinati.org

Cobra Rock Boot Company
Photo: Wynn Myers
Cobra Rock Boot Company, where boots and leather goods are handmade in America

Cobra Rock Boot Company: Visit the store Saturdays only (11 a.m-5 p.m.) and see where Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck make their Western-inspired boots and leather goods. (Most boots must be pre-ordered and take at least 8 months from deposit.) 107 South Dean Street; cobrarock.com

Squeeze Marfa: Owner Verena Zbinden is the only U.S. distributor of her Swiss family’s Vollenweider chocolate. Zbinden set out to create a juice bar, but it expanded into an eatery serving juices, smoothies, creamsicle sodas, frappes, and java specialties, as well as interesting breakfast and lunch fare, such as vegetarian soups, bratwurst, sandwiches, and salads. Open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 215 Highland Street; 432/729-4500; squeezemarfa.com

Pizza Foundation: Known for delicious hand-tossed thin-crust pies, it’s only open on weekends (noon-9 p.m.), so the wait can be long. Order in advance. 305 South Spring Street; 432/729-3377; pizzafoundation.com

Marfa Pizza Foundation
Marfa's Pizza Foundation is famous for its hand-tossed thin-crust pies.
Photo: Wynn Myers

Fort Davis:
Davis Mountains Scenic Loop: Follow a high 75-mile circuit created by State Highways 118, 166, and 17. Book a stargazing party at McDonald Observatory (3640 Dark Sky Drive; 432/426-3640; mcdonaldobservatory.org)

Indian Lodge: This full-service hotel with adobe walls offers rustic but comfortable accommodations inside Davis Mountains State Park. Reservations: 512/389-8982; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/indian-lodge