Leaving Lajitas to its uncertain future (they are building houses and condos, and there's an RV park, but not many visitors at this, the most popular season of the year) we took Texas 170, which was named a Scenic Highway by National Geographic, to Presidio. Along the Rio Grande, through canyons and hills and past a variety of cliffs and rocks, we admired the scenery and enjoyed the colors; prickly pear and ocatillo abound and along the river there are reeds and grasses galore. It's a long way to get there, but we recommend this ride highly.
This is range cattle country; we met one young steer up close and personal. Along the road we found a Texas Historical Site, Fort Leaton. We wandered in for a short visit. The Spanish had built a string of missions on the Rio Grande and Concho rivers, but farming conditions were not the best. The area experienced relative prosperity as a waystation on the Chihuahua Trail from Monterey to the coast; it was at this time that Leaton moved in and built a large strong adobe. It was called a fort because it was easy to defend against Comanche raids. The building passed to Leaton's widow, then his partners, who met mysterious deaths. The Burgesses, who held the property the longest, are buried in a family graveyard next to the building.
After leaving the visitor center, we walked around the adobe and were met by a flock of goats, including quite a few skitterish kids. We hadn't been this close to goats since Louisbourg, on northeastern Cape Breton Island. We stopped at the modern Post Office in Presidio, where the principal business is the sale of money orders to be sent home to Mexico. Just ahead of us was a tall, lean gentlemen in faded jeans and denim jacket, his shoulder-length white hair covered by a tattered cowboy hat. He was mailing a book, and asked the clerk if she had read his first book yet -- we had been standing behind a Local Author!
North from Presidio the scenic hills quickly gave way to vast range land; two historical markers described a nineteenth century cattle baron. Starting as a store owner, he saw that the railroad would render the Chihuahua Trail obsolete, so he "brought in" a large herd from Mexico, then found the best sources of water to maintain his spread. He was fond of entertaining, lived well, and died in 1889. His three ranches are still operating.
We went through the town of Marfa, with a lovely courthouse square, and a number of signs at parking spaces telling drivers to turn their engines off. Seems a lot of folks have been seing mysterious and silent night lights, off and on, since 1883. Evidently watching for lights is a summer tourist activity.
Talking about the Marfa Lights, we headed west on Highway 90, when we happened to notice a mysterious white spot in the sky. For quite a while it seemed to occupy the same position in the sky, as if it was moving away from us at the same speed as we were driving -- 70 mph.
But it was just far away, and we soon saw that it was stationary in the sky. It was an Air Force tethered radar aerostat, part of our country's war on drugs, to detect smugglers' aircraft coming across the Mexican border.
We ate Mexican lunch at Chuy's in Van Horn. Chuy's is the home of the All Madden Haul Of Fame, or the John Madden Hall Of Fame, depending on which signs you read. It seems that Mr. Madden passed through Marfa some time back and enjoyed his meal so much that he later returned for a fajitas dinner. A special chair with his name is reserved for any future visit, and various football souvenirs have been gathered around, including Singletary's jersey (number 63, as we recall.)
While waiting for our food we read the local paper which contained an account of a couple who had seen one of the mystery lights. They never figured out what it was. Also in the paper was a chapter of a serial adventure story set in the local area. It included an attack by feral chihuahuas. We wondered if our author had written this, or perhaps the other book reviewed in the same issue, a guidebook for "informal visits to Mexico" apparently involving taking a boat across the river between official entry points.
Next door to Chuy's Restaurant we found a personal vision, a couple of welded sculptures of bugs.
US 90 used to be the major east-west road until I-10 was built. It's kind of like the Chihuahua Trail and the railroad. The towns along US 90 are beat up, with buildings falling down, closed motels, cafes, and gas stations, and a few tired-looking older inhabitants. Only the fences along the roads and the herds of grazing cattle reveal that there are still some prosperous enterprises in this country. The ghost town is not a phenomenon we saw in Europe; European governments would be certain to bring in money and business to keep a town going. But change is rapid in the U.S., and towns will wither and die if they lose their economic base. The flip side of the coin is the American boom town, also a phenomenon we didn't see in Europe. Spurred by NAFTA, El Paso is over half a million souls, including a lot of young people who moved in off highway 90.