‘As big as Brewster County’

MARATHON, Texas — Some Texans, when they want to indicate how big something is, will say: “As big as Brewster County.”
And with good reason: Brewster County is the largest of Texas’ 254 counties, with 6,193 square miles — bigger than Connecticut (5,544 square miles) or the combined territory of Delaware (2,489 square miles) and Rhode Island (1,545 square miles).
But heck, the King Ranch in south Texas is almost as big as Rhode Island.
Brewster County mapOur cross-country bicycle caravan crossed into Brewster County on Wednesday during a 53.98-mile ride from Fort Davis to Marathon, via Texas 118 and U.S. 90. The ride passed quickly because, save for a few short and moderate climbs, the landscape tilted downward.
From Alpine, the midpoint of the ride, the route along U.S. 90 paralled the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Alpine, the largest — and only — city in Brewster County, is the county seat. A brief stop there on Wednesday morning allowed me to hook up with old friends Mike and Cindy Perry. Mike is editor of the Alpine Avalanche, which serves Brewster County, and Cindy is the chief reporter. Our visit was all too short because Mike and Cindy were on deadline (the Avalanche comes out Thursdays) and I was keen to get down the road.
alpine postcardAlpine has a population of about 6,000. The rest of Brewster County’s 3,000 or so folks are scattered on ranches that stretch down to Big Bend National Park in the southern part of the county.
I’ve lived in Texas for more than two decades, but I hadn’t visited the Big Bend until February 2008. It was a big mistake not to go sooner. It’s wild, spectacular country with breathtaking vistas at every turn.
If a traveler turned south at Marathon on U.S. 385, he’d end up at an entrance to Big Bend National Park, one of the largest, most remote and least used of U.S. national parks. Only 300,000 to 350,000 people visit the park every year, compared to 9 million to 11 million for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Big Bend National Park embraces 801,163 acres, and its southern boundary is the Rio Grande, the border with Mexico. The park administers the U.S. side of the 118-mile-long portion of the river that borders the park. The only U.S. Border Patrol presence we saw during our 2008 visit was at a checkpoint after the park exit.
Marathon signMarathon, where we’re spending Wednesday night at the Marathon Motel and RV Park, calls itself Brewster County’s “Second City” — second fiddle to Alpine, 24 miles to the northwest. The U.S. Census Bureau calls it a CDP, or “census designated place” — a concentration of population but with no municipal government.
Fact is, not much population is concentrated at Marathon — about 455 people in the 2000 census. It’s hardly more than a wide spot along U.S. 90.
But Marathon’s proximity to the main gate of Big Bend National Park, 36 miles to the south, is apparently enough to support a gem of a hotel, the Gage, and its first-class restaurant. It’s an oasis of fine food, wine and lodging at a crossroads in the back of beyond.
Gage HotelThe Gage is named for Alfred Gage, who came to Texas from Vermont in 1878 and made a fortune as a rancher, banker and businessman. He commissioned construction of the building in 1926-1927 as a hotel and headquarters for his 500,000-acre ranch. In 1978, J.P. Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon, bought the building, restored it and made it must-see stop on the way to the Big Bend.
Marathon acquired its curious name from Capt. Albion E. Shepard, a former sea captain who had worked as a surveyor for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway as the rail line pushed east from El Paso.
Shepard bought land in the area in 1882, established the Iron Mountain Ranch and applied for a post office, which was established on Feb. 13, 1883. He called the place Marathon because its terrain reminded him of the plains of Marathon, Greece. The town became the principal shipping point for most Brewster County ranchers because the relatively flat Marathon basin was more accessible to cattle than Alpine.
MacArthurDouglas MacArthur, then an Army captain and company commander, was posted to Marathon in 1911 when the town became a center for military operations to counter the threat of raids from across the Rio Grande during the Mexican Revolution.
The Marathon Chamber of Commerce says that Marathon, at an elevation of 4,040 feet, is “blessed with a dry high-desert climate that assures cool evening breezes.” Its nighttime skies, unmarred by urban light pollution, guarantee splendid stargazing.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Texana

6 responses to “‘As big as Brewster County’

  1. Man Jim I am thoroughly enjoying the blogs, did I mention the rain —– every day for three weeks….my new bike is molding.
    I surely hope the hills around Camp Wood are at least dry for you —- it is truly down hill after that!

    Carpe Diem!

  2. Ben

    I really need to get to Big Bend.

  3. annamaude

    hi Jim,

    can you say hello to Derrik

    From anna and pom.

  4. Hey, Jim. Congrats. You were featured today on BikeBlogs.com!

  5. Zack

    Um, sorry to nitpick, but is Big Bend truly the least used? I would have figured that if indeed a park in Texas had that distinction it would be Guadalupe Mts.

  6. I belive that Karl Rove was in your area, hunting this week. Did everyone run for cover? lol.

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