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Finding the Middle Ground

Big Bend options offered when families seek travel compromise
Written by Melanie Haupt. Photographs by Melanie Haupt.

goatsgaloreOver the years, we’ve taken a few trips out to West Texas as a family, and our parental choices as cruise directors/vacation curators have been met with mixed results. There are the obvious places to visit as a family, but they might not be for everyone.

For example, Mom and Dad might really enjoy hiking in Big Bend, but the small fry? Not so much. The kids might enjoy swimming at Balmorhea State Park alongside thousands of tiny fish that may or may not have be nibbling at their appendages, but the Dad who doesn’t love swimming might have to occupy himself with a book. Naturally, a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory is a hit with the whole family, but you can only do that once or twice, and only at night. So, what’s a family with hard to please kids to do while on vacation in West Texas? Here are a few off-the-beaten-track finds we’ve discovered along the way.

Alpine

The Big Bend area’s sole college town, Alpine is fairly sleepy but contains a few hidden gems. The kids -- and their parents -- really love Front Street Books, a little indie bookseller with a surprisingly large inventory of new and used books, not to mention a robust collection of rare first editions. There’s something for everyone here, from cookbooks to cozy mysteries to young adult graphic novels. Because the drive back to Austin is long and pretty dull, we always find something to take with us at Front Street. Hospitable, from tiny honor-system coffee area to play table in the kids section. Perhaps my favorite part of the shop is the very back room, which is filled with antique volumes of Big Bend lore, including self-published biographies of late 19th-century homesteaders.

Lunchtime landed us at Los Jalapenos, a tiny little West Tex-Mex cafe on Murphy Street that had been suggested to us by a local. While the food took a little while to arrive (a common theme in the Big Bend area, as no one here seems to be in any particular hurry, providing a much-needed gut check to those of us accustomed to urban freneticism), it was worth the wait, arriving piping hot and clearly made by hand. My son’s french fries were thickly cut wedges that had obviously been a whole, raw potato when we’d walked in the door. My husband’s entree, a glistening heap of sauteed chicken, jalapenos, onions, and red bell peppers served with rice and freshly made tortillas, was bracing and vibrant, the peppers adding pleasant heat and brightness to each bite. I enjoyed my chicken taco plate, although I had to steal some peppers from my husband’s plate for added interest.

For dessert, we went to Murphy Street Raspa, about half a block away from Los Jalapenos. Here, kids can get all sugared up with hand-shaved ice dressed in flavored syrups like bubblegum and red velvet cake. Then, parents should plan to work in some window shopping on Holland Avenue, and maybe even explore the Amtrak station that runs parallel to these two streets.

Marfa

One of the highlights of any trip to Marfa is dinner at Pizza Foundation. The hours are extremely limited — Friday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., and even that isn’t set in stone — and it gets extremely busy, with wait times up to two hours (bring some playing cards and go ahead and splurge on a bottle of wine). The pizza is worth the wait, though, with chewy, hand-tossed New York-style dough and an assortment of standard toppings (pepperoni, sausage, jalapeno, olives, and so on). Here’s a pro tip: Call in your order at opening time, so that they can plan ahead for your pie. This significantly reduced the wait time for our piping-hot pizza, which is a godsend when you’re dealing with cranky, hungry kids (and parents).

goat“I can’t decide, but I think this might be my favorite part of this trip,” my son exclaimed during our visit to Marfa Maid Dairy Farm. I would not have known to schedule this if I hadn’t heard about it from a friend, whose sorority sister lives in Marfa and gave her the skinny on this hidden gem in an already-remote outpost. We booked the last five spots available on a Tuesday-afternoon tour during spring break, then entrusted our GPS to lead us to the right spot on a country road (we ended up having to call Marfa Maid for directions from a real, live person).

Quite literally a Mom and Pop operation, Marfa Maid is run by Malinda and Allan McLane, who started raising dairy goats on their 15-acre spread in 2010. Malinda, an artist and printmaker, and Allan, a former mental health professional and construction worker, walked us through the small homestead, showing us the “nursery,” where newborn goats nuzzled their protective mamas, let us milk a goat named Spike, and sampled out their fresh batches of flavored chevre spreads and feta, which they sell at the Saturday farmer’s market, as well as in local groceries like The Get Go and supply to restaurants like Pizza Foundation. The (human) kids got to bottle-feed an abandoned baby meat goat who’d appeared on the farm a few days prior, and a nine-week-old male named Bruno romped with my kids and teethed by nibbling on flapping shirt hems and shoelaces. Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t leave Marfa with a new pet goat, my city children were that enamored.

Another big hit was a visit to Moonlight Gemstones, on San Antonio street in Marfa. The tiny shop is crammed full of various rocks, gems, and stones from around the world, along with a stunning collection of West Texas agates. In addition to the various stones on display around the store, there’s also a small assortment of handmade jewelry made by proprietor Paul Graybeal, who incorporates the agates into his custom-made designs. The kids were eager to touch and scrutinize many of the stones, begging us to purchase a treasure they could take home with them. After they made their selections — aragonite for him and shiny pyrite for her — we went outside to explore the mounds of geodes on the front porch before moving on.

All told, we were able to fill the bulk of our days with things to do in West Texas with our persnickety kids thanks to a combination of research and helpful information from locals (and friends of locals), while striking a balance in terms of keeping everyone happy. While we are hopeful that, as the kids get older and their horizons broaden, the Venn diagram of what our family enjoys together will have more overlap. Until then, I’ll be tapping all the resources I possibly can for quirky, fun, under-the-radar places to visit and things to eat in order to maximize our time off together.

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