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Six January Days in Deep Texas: Cibolo Creek Ranch

Not everyone is drawn to vacation at a ranch-resort in South Texas. (Some don’t even believe ranch and resort belong in the same sentence.) If you aren’t a die-hard Texan inspired by sagebrush-studded plains, or a soul smitten by the vast arid landscape of the film Giant, you might not have considered Cibolo Creek Ranch a crucial place to stay before you die. But maybe you should. For Cibolo Creek Ranch presents a once-in-a-lifetime dreamscape, a stretch of deep quiet in an endless vista coupled with luxurious rooms so private that they have no phone or internet connection. As aficionados predicted, Cibolo is a place where we couldn’t help but unwind.

Cibolo Creek Ranch (credit: Carol Serur)

The ranch comprises 30,000 mostly empty acres in the Chinati and Cienega Mountains, perched midway between Marf, the au courant art world outpost and Big Bend National Park, which shares a border with Mexico. It enjoys the best of both locales for it has an up-to-the-minute hipness. It is consistently listed as one of the best places on earth to stay--Tommy Lee Jones films there, and Mick Jagger loves it-- while retaining the timeless beauty of a national treasure. Yet Cibolo is entirely its own party; this first-class getaway is set within a painstaking recreation of a 19th-century ranch.

The heart of Cibolo Creek is three formerly ruined adobe forts built long ago by a mysterious cattle baron, Milton Faver, to fend off the Comanche and Apache tribes. The two bigger strongholds, El Fortin del Cibolo and El Fortin de la Cienega, have been obsessively restored to follow the regional architecture of the late 1800s. Cibolo Fort, the structure that houses the dining quarters and most of the accommodations, had its walls rebuilt with adobe made from local mud, its beams replaced with cottonwood from Texas’s Red River Valley, and the whole painted and furnished in traditional Mexican colors and style. It also contains a small museum filled with artifacts from the area. Those who crave exclusivity will find it in one of Cienega’s five deluxe quarters or in an adjoining hacienda where a private staff looks after them. Others who prefer a more authentic down-home experience (fireplaces and oil-burning lamps, read: no electricity) will opt to sleep in one of the two chambers, in Fortin de la Morita, Faver’s sheep and goat headquarters. Morita has been left largely unrestored at the request of the Texas Historical Commission, and when you hike out to see it, you’ll be glad of that.

Though we heard a lot of talk about Faver while at Cibolo, the guiding spirit here is the man funding the restoration, one John Poindexter. A wildly successful Houston businessman and Vietnam veteran, Poindexter’s mission is to return not only the architecture, but the very landscape around Cibolo to what it was when the settlers first arrived. As far as design goes, his mission is accomplished. His property has earned three listings in the United States Register of Historic places, countless state and local prizes, and truckloads of ink in travel magazines and papers. The landscape is more of a challenge. Like the rest of America’s Great Plains, West Texas has been radically changed by farming, ranching and drought. The tall prairie grasses that once sang in the evening breeze have long since been replaced by splotchy scrub, mesquite, and sagebrush. That is, until the visitor arrives near the gates of Cibolo Creek. Here the dustbowl landscape suddenly gives way to grassland chosen specifically to repair the damage done by dozens of decades of overgrazing and rotten weather. It’s been reported that this presto restoration trick carried out with weed-killer; targeted hormones, including one that causes cacti to grow themselves to death; and bulldozers cost $75 an acre. It’s also said that the price is more than what Poindexter paid for those acres. It certainly makes for beautiful country, but as it’s hardly a pinprick in the thousands of surrounding acres, it might make you wonder about the quixotic quests of lone men against the forces of history. In other words, good luck with the grass.

Guest Room At Cibolo Creek Ranch

Of course, I don’t go on vacation to participate in historical reenactments. I’m happy to report that Cibolo Creek offers a warm Texas welcome, luxury that sneaks up on you, and an almost palpable sense of peace and quiet. After flying into El Paso and renting a car for the drive along those scrub plains, the manager who greeted us at the entrance made it abundantly clear that he was available to meet our every need. He actually was—and never to the point of annoyance—for the next five days. Straightaway he pointed out the in-house museum and the award plaques, but with the other hand he was pouring drinks and offering refreshments. In keeping with the Texan egalitarianism of the place we brought our luggage to our rooms where we found an enormous bath, a working fireplace, and a four-poster bed with crisp white sheets that seemed to whisper promises of deep dreamless sleep. These rooms have no phones and our cell phones weren’t working there either, though there are isolated spots in the common areas for phoning and web-surfing. We had arrived at a place of near perfect peace and quiet where, as the website promised, we were treated like honored guests.

So, what do honored guests do in the middle of the Texas desert?

On our first morning we enjoyed a humvee tour of the property that was beautiful though bitterly cold. (Texas’ plains can feel arctic when the sun is hiding.) We went on a trail ride, which was very mild—nothing wild west about those horses.

One crisp morning I joined my husband and friends at the tail end of their skeet shooting escapade. I’m not too keen on guns, but the guide allowed me to take a couple of shots at the clay pigeons. That evening over dinner I was very pleased to hear that I’d actually hit one of the poor little sculptures. Apparently I’d turned away so fast I missed my own success. The ranch also offers paddle boating, fishing, bird and bat watching, and spa services. My masseuse drove an hour from Alpine just for me.

And then there was the hiking. Faver’s three forts are still joined by 100-year-old irrigation channels, called acequias, fed from a spring that babbles prettily. We loved rambling out to see the longhorn cattle, the buffalo, and the horses roaming on the plains. As you might guess from Poindexter’s concept, Cibolo Creek is a working ranch, and its longhorns are in demand from rodeo operators and collectors. Poindexter has also imported such exotics as camels, javelina, elk, pronghorn antelopes and the magical oryx, which I made a point of trying to see every day. (Three out of five wasn’t bad.) We did not, however, glimpse one of the roadrunners they claim are there, nor, thankfully, any wolves, mountain lions, or black bears.

We generally followed the walking path to El Ojo Grande (The Great Spring) of Cibolo from which we set off for several longer, beautiful hikes into the surrounding landscape. You can almost feel yourself moving step by step into the rugged isolation of the West. We saw pioneer ruins, Indian pictographs, and at the southwest tip of the property a Texas Ranger camp set up to fend off cattle rustlers and smugglers.

Gate of Cibolo Creek Fort

We also savored a lot of down time. Since the guest quarters are TV free, watching a favorite program means joining the group in the common room. On two nights we gathered outside with others to roast marshmallows and watch “Texas TV,” a.k.a. the night sky. Maybe you’ve heard about the stars at night, big and bright, deep in the heart….well, it’s true. By day we often sat on the rock porch behind El Fortin de la Cienega, and we lost hours reading, dozing, and watching absolutely nothing happen.

Now, doing nothing doesn’t exclude eating. Three meals and constant snacks are included in Cibolo Creek’s room rates, a necessity since there’s literally nowhere else in town. There’s also no town in town, but that’s why we were there. The fare is fresh and healthy, but not so healthy that taste is spared. There are steaks--this is Texas, after all--and cholesterol enough to make a cardiologist squirm. I’m shy about group dining, but the crowd was so amicable that I never had any complaints. Dinners were spent with outdoor enthusiasts, professors from the state schools, the mayor of a large Southwestern city, and a cadre of architects and architecture buffs. One couple had become flat-out Cibolo devotees, were on their third visit in two years, and were planning on more. In the end, all of us had been turned into lovers of South Texas so we had plenty to talk about, including the peace of the isolation, the beauty of the place, and the painstakingly detailed reconstruction all around.

Yes, the restoration work is inescapable, and not being much of a camper I was grateful for it. But the genius of Cibolo Creek is that Poindexter’s massive and frankly amazing project doesn’t override the experience of South Texas, of being immersed in a world of yucca and dust and, and a smattering of recently planted prairie grass, with red granite mountains in the distance and the big Texas sky all around. It can’t, actually, for there’s just too much landscape out there, and (blessedly) too few people.

Nearby Attractions

Skeet Shooting at Cibolo Creek Ranch

Before leaving the area, we drove south to see Big Bend, a place that deserves at least four days of exploration. Still, even an afternoon spent driving through the park is well worth the time, and there are lots of places to step out and walk around. The next day we toured the region just north of Cibolo, which includes the three true Texas towns of Alpine, Marathon, and Marfa. In Alpine, I showed my husband the Railroad Blues Bar, which is surely one of the best bars in Texas and a place where, many years ago, I witnessed men in dusty leather chaps playing darts. No such luck on this trip, though we did see a man wearing leather chaps at a drugstore in Marathon, where we’d been looking for Neil Chavigny’s new restaurant, The Famous Burro. (It wasn’t open yet.) And we couldn’t miss Marfa, since my husband is a fan of the minimalist Donald Judd. We did drive slowly past Judd’s Freestanding Works in Concrete, recently re-released to the drive-by public. Unfortunatedly, we’d called too late to get an appointment at either the Judd Foundation or the Chinati Foundation. Apparently January is peak tourist season. We were sorry to miss those two uber-modern museum spaces, though we enjoyed the fruits of all the minimalist cool: a Marfa full of urbane restaurants, great looking artists and slackers, and chic ladies in black carrying Dia Foundation bags. We did visit, and do recommend, the literary emporium, Marfa Book Store Co., which has as smart a selection of books on art, architecture, and postmodern theory as any in Manhattan. And, though a Texan worth her salt might be embarrassed to admit it, Marfa is West Texas’s h.q. for a damned good cappuccino.

Cibolo Creek Ranch
Marfa, TX 79834, 432-229-3737, http://www.cibolocreekranch.com

Big Bend National Park
1 Panther Dr, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, (432) 477-1107, http://www.nps.gov

Chinati Foundation
PO Box 1135, 1 Cavalry Row, Marfa TX 79843, 432 729 4362, http://www.chinatifoundation.org

Judd Foundation
104 S. Highland Avenue, Marfa, TX 79843, 432.729.4406, http://www.juddfoundation.org

Marfa Book Store Co.
105 S. Highland Ave., Marfa, TX, 432/729-3906, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, http://www.marfabookco.com

Railroad Blues Bar
504 W. Holland Ave. Alpine, TX 79830, (432) 837- 3103, http://www.railroadblues.com

The Famous Burro
Corner of Hwy. 90 and Post Road, Marathon, TX, 79842, (432) 386-410

--Alexis Quinlan

Fall, 2009