As you drive US 67 south from Marfa toward Presidio and the Rio Grande, the rolling hilly plains are sparsely punctuated by houses and other signs of the world today, so that it’s easily possible to create a welcome feeling of escape from the conventional limitations of schedules and deadlines. The occasional pronghorn and buffalo are common enough to allow a hazy image of the 19th-Century landscape. That sense of time spacing out and slightly distorting its logic is an appropriate preamble to a wide-open ranch experience in the Texas Big Bend Country.
Thirty-two miles into the drive, about halfway to Presidio, a simply designed flag bearing the basic “F” brand stands near an unobtrusive stone wall and an historic marker on the west side of the highway. The marker explains part of the story of Milton Faver, the original baron of Cibolo. Assuming Cibolo Creek Ranch is your destination, here’s where you turn off the pavement onto the gravel road. If you’re driving past, stop and read a little about the landscape that surrounds you.
The F on the flag is your first hint of Faver on the approach to the ranch. But this is not the last time you’ll consider the man who left the mortal realm well over 100 years ago. That’s because the current baron of Cibolo, John Poindexter, has rejuvenated the Faver legacy by reconstructing Faver’s three historic forts so painstakingly and so faithfully that the buildings not only house luxurious lodging, but also are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The stories about Cibolo Creek Ranch, burnished by fable and rumor, continue to evolve. But Poindexter is extremely precise in his descriptions and meticulous in everything to do with the ranch. Based on my conversations with him, I’ll suggest that it’s dangerous to generalize about the ranch or its history in his presence. That’s because Poindexter published a history of the ranch and exhibits a daunting attention to detail as if it defines his personal creed.
Whether it’s because of Poindexter’s fascination, obsession, or precison, Faver’s legacy defines the ranch buildings: three adobe forts, each sited to protect a priceless water source in this semi-arid environment. This architecture rises out of the ground and frames the visitor’s experience of the vast landscape.
If Poindexter followed Milton Faver’s legacy with the ranch buildings, he just as surely established his own legacy with the management of the land itself. “We’re involved with the true restoration of the landscape,” he points out, “not conservation,” as he describes management practices such as clearing invasive species, planting native grasses, and after years of careful tending of grassland, moving cattle to pastures for short periods, so the grass is not overgrazed or abused.
And the landscape around the main fort, El Cíbolo, which also houses the main rooms of the hotel, bears testament to Poindexter’s commitment to landscape restoration. The hilly land around the fort, like more than 15,000 additional acres of the ranch, has been cleared of brush and replanted to allow the bunch grass to flourish once again.
On a tour of the ranch, most notably on the drives to the second and third forts, La Ciénega and La Morita, the impact of Poindexter’s restoration is abundantly evident. On one side of the fence, Cibolo Creek Ranch’s grass stands thick and healthy. On the other side of the fence, another landowner’s neglect is evident in the choking, almost impassable, brush and prickly pear.
He doesn’t dwell on it, but the hugely successful Poindexter admits that the land itself can be a tough adversary, and he is candid about the challenges of restoring native grasslands that have been overgrazed and abandoned for decades. Then there was a controlled burn that got out of control one year. And recent relentless drought makes nourishing rain—as well as the picturesque, seasonal waterfall that tumbles from a height of several stories when one wet-weather creek is flowing— seem a distant memory.
But the ranch’s essential springs, the resources that helped sustain Faver’s original farming and livestock empire more than a century ago, still flow. The sprawling, 25,000-acre ranch harbors wildlife (the remaining brush provides shelter and habitat for both game and non-game); ruins of long-abandoned, dry-stacked-stone houses; even an example or two of native rock art.
Late one afternoon, weather radar shows thunderstorms drifting up from Mexico, with two menacing pockets, only a few miles away, near the Rio Grande, glaring red from the computer screen. Our group figures that even if the storms don’t bring some always-welcome rain, the storms should create a glorious sunset, so we pile into the ranch’s tricked-out Hummer and—bounding over tortuous, winding roads—make our way to a high point.
There are a lot of high points on Cibolo Creek Ranch. The Chinati Mountains make their presence known. “On an afternoon drive like this, the chance of seeing wildlife is strong,” suggests our guide. In the course of this ride, we see a few elk grazing and a pair of aoudad making their way up a steep, scree-strewn slope a few hundred yards away. Almost as if on schedule, the thunderstorms drift away from the ranch, teasing us with a random spattering of rain.
“Looks like they might be getting some rain back in Marfa,” the guide says.
The next afternoon’s tour takes us to the tumble-down walls of hand-stacked stones, some with windows and doors defining multiroom cottages that provided shelter for a few dozen villagers in the early 1900s. An ancient, enormous fig tree, now long dead, clearly marks a still-flowing spring that reminds us of the remnant of a lifeway integrated into this unforgiving setting. Today, it is impossible to relate to the remoteness of that long past.
Sometimes I hear stories about the genuine Texas ranching heritage, and my conclusion is that “genuine” doesn’t always translate into “fabulous” when the adjective applies to a guest experience. Today, stories about the big ranches are likely to include celebrities jetting in for a hideaway weekend. Those folks, like most visitors, adventurous or not, don’t really want to work cattle and jump into the rough-and-tumble of true, old-fashioned ranch ways. At Cibolo, the history, made more vivid by the massive adobe buildings, is integral to the experience. The big skies and open spaces of the western prairies, and the accompanying brilliant, intense colors of the sunsets, make the ranch mythology seem even more immediate and alluring.
In this setting, the reality of the rugged individual and the Old West seems more immediate, even if not actually attainable.
For most visitors, it’s hard to beat a tart and icy margarita to accompany a batch of fresh guacamole and house-made tortilla chips to sharpen the appetite for Cibolo’s succulent grilled quail paired with a voluptuous pinot noir. And a bite of caramelicious flan for dessert. Follow this with a stroll to look at the stars, maybe a few minutes in the hot tub, and then a cozy bed.
That’s not really ranch life. But it’s a good start for something like a vacation.
In fact, most visitors to Cibolo Creek Ranch are not averse to some variation on the theme of the ranch experience, even though they’re not looking for the sleep-on-the-ground cowboy ways. It’s useful for the mystique if the entire operation cultivates a sense of the endless possibility that still attracts visitors to West Texas.
The significance of the ranch comes into play when you’re out touring the land.
At Cibolo, it’s the re-creation of the original, 19th-Century forts that generates a dramatic part of the attraction. And Milton Faver himself—in spirit at least—surveys his original ranch from his adobe mausoleum atop a hill adjacent to El Fortín de Cibolo.