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Big Bend Country: Alpine—A World Apart

Written by Dale Weisman. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.
Built in the 1940s, Kokernot Field, on the Sul Ross campus, originally fielded the Alpine Cowboys baseball team. Nowadays, the Sul Ross Lobos and high-schoolers like these, from the Fighting Bucks band, play the field.

As you roll west on US 90 between Marathon and Alpine, the Big Bend tableau swallows you up in its vastness. Mile-high peaks capped with rimrock and cloud shadows dwarf your body and soul. This is the real West—Giant country—where the antelope play, Herefords graze, and ranchers pray for the miracle of rain.

It’s also miraculous that a happening little town like Alpine took root and flourished in this arid hinterland in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. But there it lies—an oasis of academia, arts, and cowboy culture splashed across a picturesque valley (altitude 4,481) at the base of Twin Peaks, which brand the town’s skyline with their undulating M signature.

“I love the area,” says Alpine resident Joanne Crenshaw, who works downtown at Front Street Books. “It gets in your blood. This is the first place I’ve ever lived where it would kill me to leave. I like the stark, serene landscape. There’s practically no crime, very little traffic, and no real traffic signals—only three flashing reds in the entire town.”

The seat of Brewster County, Texas’ largest county, Alpine (population 6,200) is first and foremost Big Bend’s commercial center. Delve into Alpine’s history and culture, and you’ll discover that the town wears several hats, from Stetsons to berets: It’s a cow-town surrounded by traditional working ranches, a railroad town on the Southern Pacific line, a university town (home to Sul Ross State University), and an up-and-coming arts community and tourist destination with a surprising diversity of festivals.

Cow-Town

When Texas Ranger Everett E. Townsend, the so-called father of Big Bend National Park, came here in the late-19th Century, Alpine was, in Townsend’s words, “a little cow-town spraddled across the railroad tracks as uncertain in con­formity as a pair of ragged overalls. It was just a little dot on the map and in actuality a very wee dot, situated near the top of the divide, in the middle of the vast expanse....”

Little has changed around Alpine over the last century except the price of beef. Born on the open range, Alpine remains a bona fide Western town where the cowboy way endures on sprawling, family-owned ranches. Local cowboys and cowgirls still buy their tack at Big Bend Saddlery, an Alpine tradition since 1905. They ride, wrangle, and rope for a living and test their skills at local rodeo competitions, such as Alpine’s Big Bend Ranch Rodeo, held each August, and rodeos hosted each October by the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) at Sul Ross State University—birthplace of the NIRA some 60 years ago.

If you think cowboys are taciturn Clint Eastwood poseurs, then you haven’t been to the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held annually since 1986. Each March, cowboy and cowgirl poets from Alpine to Australia gather on the Sul Ross campus and at other local venues to recite verse, tell stories, sing, yodel, dance, and bend iron. From chuck-wagon suppers and campfire recitations at the lovely Poets’ Grove to the Trappings of Texas Western art and gear exhibit at the Museum of the Big Bend, the gathering preserves and celebrates the cowboy way of life.

You can also get a vivid sense of ranch life from the photographic images of Diane Lacy. An award-winning photographer, Diane lives on the 220-square-mile Kokernot 06 Ranch with her husband, Chris Lacy, a fourth-generation member of the Kokernot family, which has owned and operated the 06 for more than a century. “You can ride from Fort Davis all the way to Alpine on the ranch,” says Diane.

The 06 ranks among the state’s largest family-owned ranches. The 06 still practices free-range grazing and relies on horses and chuck wagons for roundups, and Diane captures it all on 35mm film. Galleries across the nation exhibit her images, and many are on display in the “Spirit of the West Gallery” at the Apache Trading Post, west of town.

Alpine remains landlocked by large ranch­es, which has helped rein in the town’s growth.

“If the old ranches ever fold, Alpine won’t be what it is today,” says Barney Nelson, an English professor at Sul Ross, an environmental writer, and founder of the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. She adds, “To me, the ranchers are saviors to this part of the world. If you want to treat the land well, then give it to some old rancher.”

Railroad Town

Long before the ranchers arrived, the Alpine valley was home to ancient hunters and gatherers, and much later a crossroads for Apaches and Comanches. Spanish explorers purportedly reached the valley in the 1680s. Anglo-American traders passed this way as early 1839, plying the old Chihuahua Trail, which linked San Antonio and Chihuahua, Mexico.

The railroad—and a storied spring—played a colorful role in the founding of Alpine. Cattlemen began settling the area in the late 1870s, and with the arrival of the Southern Pacific line in 1882, railroad workers and their families put down roots. Originally called Osborne, the nascent com­munity was renamed Murphyville in 1883 as a concession to the Murphy family, which gave the railroad rights to tap the family’s spring (now known as Kokernot Springs, in Alpine’s Kokernot Park) for its steam engines. In 1888, residents changed the town’s name to the more evocative Alpine.

Although Kokernot Springs has run dry, the lure of the train whistle lives on. The Southern Pacific line runs through Alpine, converging with the South Orient line on the west side of town. The highest point on the Southern Pacific between New Orleans and San Francisco lies 12 miles west of Alpine, at 5,000-foot Paisano Pass. Here, the South Orient splits off and rolls south to Presidio on its way to Mexico’s west-coast ports.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited stops several times a week at the old train depot on Holland Avenue. From there, it’s a short walk to the historic Holland Hotel. Built in 1912 by rancher John R. Holland to provide a “respectable” hotel serving the new Orient line, the hotel gained prominence as a gathering place for ranchers, businessmen, and wayfarers. After various reincarnations and a period of decline, part of the structure reopened in 1985 as the Holland Hotel.

“We are the least expensive of the historic, hysterical hotels out here, and we are probably more hysterical than some,” says the hotel’s owner, Carla McFarland, with a wry smile. “We attract independent, easygoing people who are interested in historic preservation, antiques, and unique places.” The Holland features a fine restaurant—the West Texas Grille—and 13 guest rooms, including a most unusual penthouse with a private deck. “It’s probably the only hotel room in Texas that’s in a converted elevator shaft,” adds Carla.

Carla leaves fresh earplugs beside each bed in the hotel in case the bellowing train disturbs guests. Most locals accept the whistle blows as part of the local ambiance.

Alpine’s premier live-music venue, Railroad Blues, sits right beside the tracks. In 1995, Texas music promoters R.C. Toler and Richard Fallon bought what was then a hole-in-the-wall bar and added the dance floor and stage. “We opened with a bang,” laughs R.C., recalling the 5.6-scale earthquake that rattled Alpine the day before the grand opening.

Patrons have a great time dancing to border music, shooting pool, and hanging out on the patio. On weekend nights, the Blues rocks to live music—reggae, rockabilly, country, folk, and R&B. Jerry Jeff Walker, Asleep at the Wheel, Pat Green, James McMurtry, and Arlo Guthrie have all played here, and Toni Price recorded her live album Sol Power at the Blues.

“A lot of bands want to play here—sometimes for free—just to come to Alpine,” says R.C. Scanning the crowd, he observes, “I bet you there’s not more than one or two people who are locals. They’re from all over. But when they move here, their whole attitude changes. They slow down and get more relaxed....”

University Town

Alpine’s laid-back atmosphere has attracted waves of artists, intellectuals, and free thinkers in recent years, and the influx of these mostly urban escapees makes for an interesting dynamic in this predominantly conservative ranching community.

“There are so many Ph.D.’s wandering around here you can trip over them,” quips Carla McFarland.

With its respected faculty, diverse academic programs serving some 2,000 students, and attractive campus, Sul Ross State University has enriched Alpine’s cultural and educational fabric. The university anchors the east side of town, and its distinctive “SR” brand—outlined in white stones and visible for miles—adorns a cactus-studded slope of Sul Ross Hill. Established in 1917 as a teacher-training college and named for the frontier-era Texas governor Lawrence Sul­­livan “Sul” Ross, the university is re­nowned for its range management, animal science, biology, and geology programs. Arguably Sul Ross’ most famous faculty member was the late Barton War­nock, who headed the botany department for 33 years and devoted his life to cataloguing the Trans-Pecos re­gion’s extraordinary floral diversity.

When it comes to exploring the borderland region’s culture and prehistory, the scholarly world turns to Sul Ross’ Center for Big Bend Studies (CBBS), an interdisciplinary program established in 1987. CBBS director Robert Mallouf, a distinguished anthropologist and former Texas State Arche­olo­gist, has conducted fieldwork in the Big Bend since the 1970s.

“I really love this desert-mountain country,” says Robert, a longtime Austin­ite who jumped at the chance to move to Alpine and lead the CBBS. “Alpine has its own flavor. In fact, I think it feels more like north-central Mexi­co than the Southwest.”

You can delve into the Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo-American cultures that have shaped the region by visiting the Mu­seum of the Big Bend. A centerpiece of Sul Ross since the 1930s, the museum chronicles centuries of human influence in the Big Bend. You can stroll through a cactus garden, explore the old Chihuahua Trail, learn about herbal cures used by curanderas, and view a re-created 1920s general store. The museum displays only a fraction of its extensive collections and hosts major traveling exhibits, so there’s always something new to see.

Another of Alpine’s jewels, Kokernot Field, ranks as one of the nation’s finest small-town baseball fields. Constructed of local rock and wrought iron in the mid-1940s for $1.25 million by ranching magnate Herbert Kokernot Jr., the Wrigley-style stadium was once the home of Kokernot’s baseball team, the Alpine Cowboys. Nowadays, the Sul Ross Lobos and the Alpine High School Fighting Bucks play their home games on this field of dreams.

“If you want a feel for a small town, really the heart and soul of America,” says Jim Glendinning, a peripatetic Scots­man, author, and eco-tour leader who has called Alpine home for more than a decade, “come watch a game at Kokernot Field some summer evening when the sun’s going down.”

Tourist Town

If you’ve come to Alpine expecting to find a manicured main street garnished with cowboy kitsch and espresso bars, you may be disappointed—or pleasantly surprised.

“Alpine’s not Santa Fe-ized,” explains Jim Glendinning, author of Adventures in the Big Bend. “It’s a real town, warts and all.”

To be sure, Alpine has its share of kitsch, and you’ll find espresso at La Tapatia and Digger O’Dell’s, as well as a good cup of coffee at Bread & Breakfast. But virtually all of Alpine’s restaurants, such as the Longhorn Steakhouse, Twin Peaks Res­taurant, Oriental Express, and Alicia’s Burrito Place, are home-grown.

Locally owned shops here brim with folk art and collectibles, and galleries showcase regional artists and photographers. The town also abounds with Western murals, such as the faux Rem­ington and Giant imagery by muralist Style Read in the Reata, an upscale restaurant acclaimed for its “cowboy cuisine.” Read’s murals also adorn the Museum of the Big Bend and the lobby of the Best Western hotel.

The epicenter of Alpine’s arts and crafts scene, typified by shops like Quetzal Imports, lies along Holland Avenue. Quetzal owner Karen Williams specializes in colorful Talavera ceramics from Mexico, and she also carries Zapotec Indian woodcarvings, Indonesian sarongs, Mexican glassware, and other international wares and folk art.

Ivey’s Emporium also caters to eclectic tastes. Proprietor Bill Ivey, who owns much of Terlingua in south Brewster County, hand-picks his merchandise—glassware, jewelry, leather goods, and fine art from Mexico and the Southwest, as well as a wide variety of gourmet foods, including coffees and chocolates. Next door, local realtors Ken and Pam Clouse have stocked their Cowboys ’n Cadillacs with Texana and Western art.

Another Holland Avenue favorite is Keri Artzt’s Kiowa Gallery, featuring “Art of the Big Bend”—paintings, ceramics, glassware, and mixed-media works. One of the newest shops on Holland is Digger O’Dell’s, an antique store cum espresso and dessert bar owned by Suze and Alec Quiett, who relocated to Alpine’s sunny environs from rainy Bainbridge Island, near Seattle.

Front Street Books, with two locations on Holland Avenue, offers an amazingly diverse selection of new, used, and antiquarian books, with an emphasis on the Big Bend region. Houstonians Jean and Mike Hardy opened Front Street in 1994 and have watched their store grow exponentially. “We’re book people,” says Jean, a former magazine and book editor. “It’s the only business I’d ever want to be in.” She and Mike also operate two publishing companies, one of which published the best-selling A Thousand Country Roads, an Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, who keeps a low profile on his ranch south of town.

On a quiet side street off Holland Avenue, you’ll find an incomparable selection of hand-coiled Mata Ortiz pottery by artisans near Casas Grandes, Mexico. Huichol art and Zapotec weavings are also on display at Walking Rain Gallery. According to shop owner Penny Flack, the name Walking Rain came from a Pueblo Indian expression for a miracle of the desert, “those curtains of rain you see moving in the distance over the mountains.”

On another nearby side street, Ocotillo Enterprises has been an Alpine tradition for nearly 20 years. It’s really three shops in one: bookstore, rock shop, and bead gallery. Store owner Judith Brueske moved to Alpine in the 1970s after deciding it would be a safe, out-of-the-way place to live in the event of a nuclear war. Editor of the quirky newspaper Desert Candle, Judith is also the author of the popular, self-published booklet The Marfa Lights. The world-famous mystery lights bobble and flash at night across Mitchell Flat, south of US 90 be­tween Alpine and Marfa. (You can look for them 17 miles west of Alpine at the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area, which offers free telescopes and the state’s most architecturally impressive public restroom.) As a prelude to the Marfa Lights, visit the Apache Trading Post, three miles west of Alpine. Here, you can watch a free video on the phenomenon, as well as shop for Indian jewelry, pottery, books, fine art, kiddy keepsakes, and Big Bend topographic maps. “We call ourselves map nirvana,” says store owner Charlotte Allen, who moved to Alpine from New Orleans 20 years ago. Charlotte also has a soft spot for her five burros, which she pampers in her whimsical “Jack-Assic Park,” a guaranteed kid-pleaser next to the trading post.

Charlotte and many other newcomers who have opened businesses in Alpine are like-minded about one thing: They like to have fun. Joining forces in 1994, they started Gallery Night. The weekend before Thanksgiving, folks stroll and mingle along Holland Avenue, admire new works of art displayed in participating shops, and sample free hors d’oeuvres and libations. An art-car parade, live music, and bonfires lend a street-party atmosphere. Keri Artzt, one of the festival’s founders, sums it up: “It’s all about getting people out to see what kind of art is happening in Alpine. It’s a big social thing, too, and it’s a little bit bigger than we ever expected it to be.”

The same holds true for the steadily growing Big Bend Balloon Bash. Launched in 1997, the Balloon Bash now attracts more than two dozen hot-air balloons from Texas and New Mexico, not to mention thousands of festivals-goers, who flock here to watch the brightly hued giants lift off at dawn from Alpine’s airport.

Others make tracks to Alpine for yet another area attraction: rocks. Not just any old rocks, but multicolored agates and other prized minerals. The Big Bend Gem and Mineral Show each April draws rockhounds from all over the country, and serious “rockers” come here year round to hunt specimens. For many collectors, the 3,000-acre Woodward Agate Ranch is mecca. A century-old cattle ranch now run by Trey Woodward and his wife, Jason, the Woodward abounds with red plume agate (the world’s only source), jasper, chalcedony, opal, and carnelian, to name a few. You can buy any agate you find for a dollar a pound, or shop for already collected, cut, and polished specimens at the rock shop and lapidary. You can also camp, hike, ride your horse, mountain bike, picnic, and cool off in spring-fed Calamity Creek.

Other nearby cattle ranches are opening up to avid rock collectors, thanks to the efforts of Teri Smith, who has earned the trust of landowners and frequently guides rock-hunting outings. Teri and her husband, John, a retired Air Force fighter pilot turned silversmith, own and operate the popular Antelope Lodge. Built in 1949 as one of West Texas’ first “motor courts,” the Antelope caters to guests who prefer rustic, laid-back charm. An agate fanatic, Teri displays part of her extensive collection in the motel’s Last Frontier Mu­seum of Rocks & Gems.

The Alpine area also attracts hikers, birdwatchers, and nature photographers, who travel here to visit the 23,000-acre Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area and the 507-acre Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute (CDRI), an oasis of desert flora and canyon trails north of town. Closer to town lies Mitre Peak Girl Scout Camp, a paradise of cliffs and spring-fed pools in the shadow of 6,100-foot Mitre Peak. The 56-year-old haven for Girl Scouts is now cautiously opening up to tourism and has recently begun hosting group tours and overnight stays.

One of the finest short hikes in Alpine takes you to “the desk”—yep, an old school desk—that some “rugged individualist” hauled to the craggy crest of Sul Ross Hill overlooking the university. Replaced at least once, the current desk has been painted sky blue and embellished with a fiery orange sun. Hiking to the desk has been an Alpine tradition for more than 20 years, but you won’t find the route marked on tourist maps. To reach it, you duck through a barbed-wire fence behind a dormitory on the Sul Ross campus and trek up a rocky, unmarked trail through yucca, sotol, and ocotillo. Surrounded by volcanic boulders, the desk is a great place to savor stunning Big Bend sunsets and contemplate what a fine town you’ve discovered.

Local boosters have called Alpine “home of the last frontier” and “the Taos of Texas.” From the vantage point of “the desk,” Alpine fits the image of a Western mountain town—but without Taos’ skiing scene and ancient Pueblo Indian aura. What it offers instead is a friendly, unassuming ambiance that’s missing in so many tourist destinations.

How long Alpine stays laid-back remains to be seen. The promise of tourist dollars—coupled with the ambitious La Entrada al Pacífico highway plan, which would route NAFTA traffic through the heart of the Big Bend—may someday attract more newcomers, developers, and possibly the first strip malls and retail chains in the county.

It’s a day that longtime residents like Sul Ross professor Barney Nelson don’t care to see. “I have a lot of mixed emotions about growth and tourism,” admits Barney. “What attracts people to small towns like this is exactly what they destroy when they get there. The only way to keep a town’s personality is by preserving the culture that upholds it. If you ever lose that, you just have another vanilla shake.”

For now, Alpine remains a world apart, true to its ranching roots and small-town heritage.

Alpine Essentials

The Alpine Chamber of Commerce, Tourist Information Center, 106 N. 3rd (79830), has comprehensive tourist information, brochures, and maps, including an excellent "Historic Walking & Windshield Tour" map; www.alpinetexas.com; 432/837-2326 or 800/561-3735. The area code is 432.

Getting There

By air: The closest commercial airport is the Midland Intl. Airport, about 150 miles northeast. By car: Alpine is at the crossroads of US 90 and Texas 118, about 57 miles south of I-10 (24 miles to Fort Davis, 26 miles to Marfa, 31 miles to Marathon). By train: Amtrak's only regular stop between Del Rio and El Paso is in Alpine. Schedules and rates at www.amtrak.com.

Accommodations

Contact the Chamber of Commerce for a complete listing. Antelope Lodge and Last Frontier Museum, 2310 W. Hwy. 90, "rustic casual" cottages with kitchenettes; 837-2451 or 800/ 880-8106; www.antelopelodge.com. Holland Hotel, a Texas Historical Landmark, 209 W. Holland, 837-3844 or 800/535-8040; www.hollandhotel.net.

Dining and Entertainment

Alicia's Burrito Place, 708 E. Ave. G, 837-2802. Bread & Breakfast Bakery and Cafe, 113 W. Holland, 837-9424. La Casita Restaurant, 1104 E. Ave. H, 837-2842. La Tapatia Cafe (coffee and juice bar), 202 W. Holland, 837-2200. Longhorn Steakhouse, 801 N. 5th, 837-3217. Oriental Express, 3000-A W. Hwy. 90, 837-1159. Railroad Blues, 504 W. Holland, 837-3103; www.railroadblues.com. Reata Restaurant, 203 N. 5th, 837-9232; www.reata.net. Twin Peaks Restaurant, 2800 W. Hwy. 90, 837-1500. West Texas Grille, 209 W. Holland (in the Holland Hotel), 837-3844.

Shopping

Apache Trading Post and Spirit of the West Gallery, 2701 W. Hwy. 90 (3 miles west of downtown, across from the Ramada), 837-5506; www.apachetradingpost.com. Big Bend Saddlery, 2701 E. Hwy. 90, 800/634-4502; www.bigbendsaddlery.com. Cowboys 'n Cadillacs, 101 W. Holland, 837-7486 or 877/733-3790; www.cowboysncadillacs.com. Digger O'Dell's, 300 E. Holland, 837-3777. Front Street Books, 121 E. Holland, 837-3360 or 800/597-3360; www.fsbooks.com. Ivey's Emporium, 109 W. Holland, 837-7474. Kiowa Gallery, 105 E. Holland, 837-3067; www.kiowagallery.com. Ocotillo Enterprises and Desert Candle, 205 N. 5th, 837-5353. Quetzal Art and Imports, 302 W. Holland, 837-1051. Walking Rain Gallery, 110-A N. 6th (open by appt.), 837-7173.

Attractions

Sul Ross State University, Box C-114, Alpine 79832; 837-8011; www.sulross.edu. Center for Big Bend Studies, Box C-71, Alpine 79832; 837-8179. Museum of the Big Bend (on Sul Ross campus), Tue-Sat 9-5, Sun 1-5. Admis-sion: Free; donations welcome. Call 837-8143. Kokernot Field and Park, 837-8226. Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute (CDRI) (approx. 4 miles south of Fort Davis, on Texas 118), Box 905, Fort Davis 79734; 364-2499; www.cdri.org. Elephant Mountain Wildlife Mgmt. Area (26 miles south of Alpine, on Texas 118), HC 65, Box 80, Alpine 79830; 837-3251; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wma/. 06 Ranch (custom adventures & working-ranch activities), Box 918, Fort Davis 79734; 426-3380; www.dianelacy.com. Mitre Peak Girl Scout Camp (no drop-in visits; call Star Smith, 364-2201), Box 2098, Fort Davis 79734. Woodward Agate Ranch (18 miles south of Alpine, off Texas 118; open daily; RV hookups, one cabin, camping), 364-2271; www.woodwardranch.net. Guided rock-hunting at area ranches–Contact rock-hunt organizer Teri Smith at the Antelope Lodge, 837-2451 or 800/880-8106.

Annual Events

Visit www.alpinetexas.com/html/events.html for a complete list of annual festivals and events. Popular events include: Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Mar.)–Contact jj Tucker at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 837-1071. Big Bend Gem and Mineral Show (Apr.)–Contact Judith Brueske of Ocotillo Enterprises and the Chihuahuan Desert Gem & Mineral Club, 837-5353. Big Bend Ranch Rodeo (Aug.)–Call Big Bend Saddlery, 800/634-4502. Big Bend Balloon Bash (Labor Day weekend)–Go to http://bbbb.westtxrealty.com. Gallery Night (weekend before Thanksgiving)–Contact Keri Artzt, 837-3067; www.kiowagallery.com.

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