[A still from “No Country For Old Men”, which was filmed around Marfa, the next town over from Alpine, Texas, where my father lives. “There Will Be Blood” was filmed around here, as well.]
This is my sixth full day in Alpine. Here are some notes on my time here so far, in no particular order:
1. Alpine, population circa 6,000, is actually a pretty prosperous place as far as West Texas towns go. This is mainly due to Sul Ross State University, where my dad used to teach before he retired. Besides that, the main industry round these parts is ranching. 10,000 acres is considered a small ranch. Some ranches have over 200,000 acres.
2. My main daytime hangout in town is La Trattoria, a chilled-out bistro that serves as a coffee shop by day, with excellent, authentic Italian food by night. Owned and operated by Allyson Santucci [a great, strong lady].
3. Evenings I don’t go out much. I just stay in and talk to my dad. We’ve not seen each other in a few years, so it’s a good thing.
4. I haven’t been this chilled out and relaxed since…. ummmmm…. the last time I was in Alpine, September, 1999. Funny, that.
5. It’s not official, and I’m just going to play it by ear, but I’m thinking of making Alpine my permanent US base. A lot depends on how many gigs I get this side of the Atlantic in 2008.
6. If I ever end up living permanently in the US again, it’ll be here. Nowhere else.
7. “Located 3 miles East of Marfa, Texas on US Highway 67/90, the vineyard and winery are surrounded by awe-inspiring Desert Mountain Ranges. Our West Texas sunsets over the mountains are spectacular, and Luz de Estrella is perfectly positioned to take full advantage of them.” Apparently this is the best wine made in Texas. They sell their wines at Whole Foods Market, all over. I visited their winery earlier today. I was impressed. Not just by the wine, but also the fact that they have real Texas Longhorn cattle on the property.
8. My father is a trained geologist. Since retiring from his teaching gig, he’s been publishing his own books. He writes about the local geology. He actually sells a heck of a lot of them ’round here- simply because a lot of folk who visit here want to know more than WHAT the mountains and desert looks like, they also want to know WHY they look the way they do. And nobody does this better than my father. My good friend, Doc Searls, a geology geek, was reading his stuff even before he knew that we two MacLeod’s were related. Small world.
9. Yesterday evening, after spending the afternoon working in the library at Sul Ross, I popped into La Trattoria for an end-of-day glass of wine. In the corner was playing a FABULOUS acoustic four piece C&W act, called The Doodlin’ Hogwallops. All young men, I’m guessing the average age was about 26. The lead singer, Neal, was a REALLY talented musician. Seriously. His original songs were just as fresh and inspiring as the classics he also covered. Though I make no claims to be a particularly gifted talent-scout, I found their act a truly moving experience. I hope you’ll check them out if you ever get a chance. I’ve already promised myself I’d tell certain friends of mine in the music business about them. Rock on.
10. Marfa, population circa 2100, the place made famous in the art world by Donal Judd, is the next town over from Alpine. Though it’s not a town without its charms, and for all its newly acquired, art-world trendiness, it seems a lot more run-down than Alpine. I can see why the filmmakers like using it as a cinematic backdrop. For some reason there it’s easy for a filmmaker to project “Godless & Bleak” through the camera lens, although I find the actual landscape in real life anything but. Apparently the New York and Hollywood crowd love to fly in there for the weekend, but weekdays I hear it’s a bit of a ghost town. Earlier today my father and I visited the town for lunch. He knows a lot of people there, who sell his books. Vicki over at The Hotel Paisano springs most to mind. She’s done a great job running the retail store there. This hotel, a local architectural landmark, was where James Dean and Liz Taylor stayed while filming “Giant”, all those years ago.
11. They say you can always tell the history of a place by their most prominent buildings. In Europe, we’re talking castles, palaces and cathedrals. New York we’re talking office buildings. In West Texas, it’s invariably the county courthouse. Historically, the establishment of Law & Order is a big deal here, and the more one knows of the local history, the less one is surprised. The Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa I find especially trippy, but in a good way, the same way I find Paris’ Sacre-Coeur pretty trippy etc.
12. This part of the world is full of real, working ranches, and real, working cowboys. The latter are an impressive lot in real life- I would not recommend messing with them. They’re a much different breed from the cowboy-hat wearing rednecks from my oil rig days, though I still hold lots of affection for the latter [I occasionally worked offshore in the Gulf of Mexico during my college days]. After all, cowboys physically wrestle with cattle all day long [a surprisingly strong, robust, and violent beast], so they’re not exactly intimidated by us city-slicker or “Urban Cowboy” types, truth be told. Waiting in the coffee line at La Trattoria yesterday morning, in front of me was a young cowboy getting his morning Joe. Seeing a real cowboy ordering a caffe latte is a real disconnect, somehow. You can tell they’re real cowboys five ways: 1. They’re built like oxen on steroids, with hands the size of baseball mitts. 2. They’re wearing spurs. 3. Their cowboy boots go over their knees. 4. They seem to have this uncanny combination of [A] a happily calm disposition, seamlessly mixed with [B] a palpable undercurrent of “I can, and will happily rip you in half, in less than three seconds, but only if I gotta”. Not a bad combo to have. 5. They’re surprisingly young. Like the movie says, “No Country For Old Men”.
13. West Texan interaction is all about mastering two arts. [A] Being genuinely friendly and courteous, especially to women, children and the elderly. [B] Speaking with as few words as possible. You need to be able to do both, and do them well, or else they look at you funny. Again, not a bad combo to have.
14. A nice two bedroom house in this town goes for around $100K or so. In London, you’d be lucky to get a tool shed for that amount. For someone seeking increasingly high levels of solitude, I find the property market here sorely tempting.
15. The big tourist draw in this neck of the woods is Big Bend National Park, which I’ve never been to before. 120 miles South of here, Dad and I are hopefully checking it out tomorrow. Watch this space.
i’ve loved texas ever since i went there for the sxsw festival in austin back in 92. it’s like you say it is. it doesn’t disappoint.
i was making small talk with a cabbie who, it turned out, had recently arrived in austin from odessa – where the book Friday Night Lights was set. and i had recently read. i asked him when he’d left odessa – by all accounts a grim place.
his hilarious texas reply was, after a nice dramatic pause…
“Just as soon as i got me a full tank of gas and a good set of tires”.
Ahhh, small towns, real people. Grew up in one about the size of Alpine. Tell the truth, I’d rather sit at the counter of a small crossroads cafe and listen to the locals discuss affairs than go to BarCamp and listen to a hundred Ruby-On-Rails scalability apologists.
Get all your “tech” friends down to visit, minimum stay = two weeks. Maybe more startups will have some sense of reality to them.
Great Post Hugh
Hook ’em, Hugh. Welcome back to Texas.
“…a FABULOUS acoustic four piece C&W act, called The Doodlin’ Hogwallers…”
Can you say FABULOUS in West Texas? 😉
‘Fabulous’ post. Brought back memories of a 3 month tour through the south, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida Keys. Also spending 1973 in Jacksonville, Ark., I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time, but years later realized that people are people and may have their foibles but are still loveable. Especially once I got the speech pattern down and wasn’t a damn Yankee any more.
In fact the only bumper sticker I ever had came from a truck stop in Ark. It said ‘I’m not a cowboy I just found the hat.’
Gosh you got me ‘membering. Sure is somthin’ to be said for small towns and real people. OH! yeah don’t forget the Southern belles. Thanks man.
I always enjoy it when people enjoy Texas. Sometimes I think this amazing state gets a bum rap in other parts of the country.
while I have not yet made it to Big Bend or Marfa….I have covered much of the rest of Texas. Beautiful country.
Sorry to hear you won’t make it to Austin for sxsw this year.
Spot on description of West Texas. A native Texan (although at the other end of the state in SE Texas), so many lessons I never learned from my parents but at least I stuck with using “Ma’am” and “Sir.” It will get you far.
Most people don’t survive the first shift on a rig–you’re one tough hombre to have lasted a summer as a roughneck.
Great blog, great cartoons.
You ain’t relaxed yet until you spend the day/night at Chinati Hot Springs. Take a good bottle of red and chill in the mineral hot springs. It’s south of Marfa off of 2810 and Pinto Canyon Road. You will need your dad’s pick-up truck as the road will beat up the rental. I saw more stars that night than at McDonald. The owners are real nice (like everyone down there) http://www.chinatihotsprings.com
Is there anything you don’t write well about? Now a travel-log from TX. Engrossing post. Making me pine for my beloved Colorado. I’m currently living in a place with too many trees – I can’t see – not like I could – for miles in the west. Something about seeing that brings clarity of thought.
It’s interesting how you nest in the nether regions of northern England and now west Texas; yet appreciate NYC, London and Paris.
If you decide to make Alpine your base, where do you fly out of (for client meetings, conferences and such)? El Paso?
I agree with the previous comments about Texas getting a bad rap…but Texas isn’t alone in that bad-rap-not-really-reality situation. Most places carry some sort of stigma.
I too have always thought I’d love to go rural. Either deep rural or deep urban and God help you stay out of the suburbs in-between.
And as you note, Hugh, the cost of living, and I know you mean Cost, is too high in the deep urban. Too high on all counts.
Welcome to Texas, Hugh. It’s been my home-state since I moved here in ’91. Birthed all 4 of my boys here, too!
Haven’t been there since lord knows when
Motorcycling across West Texas (back in ’70’s) gives you sense of space.
Of course, motorcycling across the Dakota’s/Saskatchewan/Alberta can do the same.
Real Cowboys … check and I’d bet they also wear Wranglers, not Levi’s
Hope you have your Lyle Lovett tunes too. Maybe a bit of Asleep at the Wheel (Miles and Miles of Texas)
Off to London next week, but very short visit
Future son-in-law works in the “City”
Love the Texas post. Being from Wyoming and now “city living” I’m nostalgic. The description of cowboys and manners was dead on. My Dad and brother are still ranchers there – it’s always amazing to go home. Not only do they wear Wranglers, they also wear boots – and only the dress boots have pointed toes.
Marfa just made coverage on NBC Evening News …
What a surprise!
I’ve always said my two favorite artist are from the UK: Ralph Steadman and Hugh MacLeod.
I guess I’m way behind the times in reading about you. I just enjoy your work but a Texas boy! You’ve made my day.
Great post, Hugh. Thanks. Made me wanna put on some Ry Cooder and grab a gallon jug of water and start walking.
I live in cowboy country – Middle Park, Colorado – and have worked horseback on many cattle round-ups. I have never seen a cowboy with boots over his knees.
Are you sure they weren’t transvestites?
I was raised on a cattle ranch in Montana and worked horseback until I went to college. We wore tall boots, with usually a 16 inch upper than came in just a few inches below your knees, in case of rattlesnakes. I’ve seen ’em 5 feet long and as big as your forearm. We also wore chaps so when you get slammed up against something you have a little protection and additionally to avoid rope burns. I’ve got a set of Tony Lama custom made boots with Ostrich I wear today with tall 16 inch tops. I think the comment about boots over their knees was just a figure of speech. I am certain that cowboys with boots over their knees are not necessarily Transvestites, they just like high heels and patent leather – the high heels come in really handy to avoid getting stirrup hung, though they are not as rugged as a roper heel. Those boots are also really cute in the coffee shops while sipping a Cafe Latte Mocha and wearing your cowboy shirt with the pearl snap buttons on the pockets and the western stitching on the front.
Hugh, I can tell you are having a great time – I can read it in your posts. It sounds like a really healthy event in your life. Thanks for letting me post a little humor. And don’t forget the sunsets …
oh how I miss texas!! Born and raised there.. have been living in seattle for 5 years now. worst mistake ever. I hate it here. I so want to move back to texas!! sigh..