Alpine – living throwback to the old west
Had we stepped back in time? It felt like that as we arrived about three hours late at the one-room Amtrak station in Alpine, Texas. This was our jumping off point for the Big Bend area. It was almost midnight and a cold mist hung around the train platform. Looking across the tracks, we saw a main street from the 1890’s. Running into Clint Eastwood’s man with no name would not have surprised us.
There are no loudspeaker announcements on an Amtrak train from 10p to 7a. To let us know it was time to get off, the car attendant walked down the aisle between the coach seats whispering, “Alpine, next stop…Alpine, next stop. We’ll only be in Alpine a few minutes. Don’t leave the train platform if you are continuing on with us or you’ll get let behind.”
Only four people got off at Alpine
Alpine was not a busy stop. Only four of us got off. About a dozen smokers also stepped out onto the wet platform. They were grabbing their last cigarettes before the train was scheduled to get to San Antonio at 7 the next morning. It would be a long time without nicotine and the smokers were taking advantage no matter how bad the weather.
Our hotel was across the street
The town was closed up and dark except lights were on in the bar at the old Holland Hotel, located just across the street from the tracks. Fortunately, the Holland was the destination for our one night in Alpine. The clerk had left our key in an envelope waiting for us on the reception desk, so we first went up to make sure we could get into our room. The room was small but comfy – about 12×12 with an old fashioned bathroom. A king-sized bed took up most of the room and a big brown leather sofa acted as the bed’s foot-board. I opened the heavy wooden door to the closet and found pillows, blankets and sheets to make up a bed on the sofa.
Exploring the sleeping hotel
The Holland Hotel had few guests on a Thursday night. We went downstairs to the Century bar but a tired bartender said he was closing. Restless after having napped on the Sunset Limited, then suddenly awakened and thrust out into a seemingly abandoned western movie set, Shane and I wandered around the sleeping hotel. Old photographs of long passed townspeople were blown up and framed in the hallways. Three pictures were of a man dressed in jeans, cowboy hat and boots with a full-grown javelina on a leash. In one photo, the javelina walked like a well-mannered dog. In the other two photos, the man had squatted down to hug the peccary and ruffle its bristly hair
A lobby for deal making
The reception desk was in the middle of a gracious sitting area with lots of stuffed chairs, couches and good reading lights. There were a couple of private parlors that were used for rancher or mine owner meetings in earlier decades of the hotel’s existence.. The main sitting area opened into a courtyard with a fountain. On the desk was a stand up card advertising a dog for adoption – an “Itty Bitty Pocket Pitty” named Bella. She’d been rescued from a puppy mill and had had her ears chewed off. We hoped to meet Bella when the front desk opened up.
One person per square mile
The Holland Hotel had been a fixture in Alpine since 1912. The town has a population of almost 6,000. Alpine is downright crowded if you consider that the Big Bend area, which covers 12,000 square miles and 3 counties, only has 12,500 people. That’s about one person per square mile
Alpine – from a cattle campsite to center of the region
Alpine, originally called Osbourne, was a campsite for cattle herders until the early 1880’s. In 1883, the railroad needed access to nearby springs owned by the Murphy brothers. The railroad wisely helped get the settlement’s name changed to Murphyville and got access to the needed water. Six years later, residents petitioned to have the name changed to the much prettier “Alpine”.
At that time, Alpine had a dozen houses, three saloons, a hotel, rooming house and a drugstore that housed its post office. The creation of Sul Ross State Normal College in the 20’s and Big Bend National Park in the 30’s and 40’s helped it grow.
Alpine’s size protected its charm
Wikipedia wryly notes “The town was always small enough that no one insisted on tearing down old buildings to make parking lots, and it is still too small to interest big box store chains”.
The Holland Hotel was built during the brief mercury mining boom that also created Terlingua. It was designed by Henry Trost, the well-known regional architect who also designed the El Camino del Norte hotel we’d visited in El Paso. Over 100 years later, it was a key part of a downtown of early 20th-century buildings still occupied by family-owned retailers and restaurants.
Meeting the Pocket Pitbull at the Holland
In the morning we came down to complete our registration and get to know the hotel in daytime. Bella, the itty bitty pocket pitty was on duty behind the desk. The Big Bend area took care of it’s animals. The Holland was just the first of many places where we saw posters for adoption and people fostering abandoned dogs and cats. The Holland had successfully fostered and adopted out 17 dogs since the beginning of the year. The dogs worked behind the counter and flirted with customers of the hotel, restaurant and bar. Invariably someone fell in love with them and took them home.
Bella had been there two months – the longest stay for a foster dog. No doubt her bulging muscles, strong jaws and lack of ears made her an acquired taste but she was loving and affectionate. The good news is that when we returned four days later, we met a family with a six year old son and a baby girl who were making a final decision on Bella. It looked like she had found a home and when we left, Bella was happily snuggling up against the baby.
Zuzu is missing
Along with “adopt a dog” posters, Alpine and all the other Big bend towns we visited also had signs begging for information about ZuZu Verk. Zuzu, a Sul Ross student, had gone missing in the early morning of October 11th. As we walked around Alpine that morning, we passed a woman standing on the corner of highway 90 and 5th street. She was holding a sign that said “Be a man, Robert Fabian”. Fabian was Zuzu’s off and on boyfriend, the last person to see her alive and now considered a suspect in her disappearance. Zuzu is still missing as far as we know.
A different rent car experience
We’d reserved a car from Alpine Car Rental to drive to Terlingua, Big Bend and Marfa. I had no physical confirmation from them. The desk clerk at the Holland wished us luck. “I think he’s only got about four cars. Hope everything is okay with your reservation.” We crossed our fingers and called Alpine Car Rental. “I’ll be right there,”he answered.
We leave it where?
Our gray Ford Focus showed up in minutes. It only took a few more to sign the paperwork and decline all insurance but the windshield/tire coverage, good to have with lots of dirt roads ahead. I’m so used to having to hassle with rent cars, that I could have hugged the guy, especially when we asked about how to return it before catching our 8:30 train on Monday night. “Just park it under that tree at the depot, put the keys in the visor and lock it up.”
Walking around Alpine
It had all happened so seamlessly that we had plenty of time to explore Alpine before we headed to Terlingua. The oldest part of Alpine was an easy four blocks long and five blocks deep running on either side of the railroad tracks. The rent car guy had suggested a couple of restaurants and things to see so we started walking east of Holland street, looking in the store fronts facing the tracks. Walking into the Texas Ranch House Too at the corner of Holland and Fifth (across from the woman with Robert Fabian shaming sign), the greeting “may I help you” was replaced with “do you have a biscuit?” Cooper the corgi met us at the door. He was a charmer and featured on the back of T-shirts throughout the store.
Here’s what they use the dogs for
Moseying a little farther down 5th, we wandered into Ocotillo Enterprizes (Books, Beads and Rocks). Foxy the red terrier mix who looked vaguely foxish escorted us in. So this is what Alpine was doing with all those adopted dogs. Ocotillo was like a new age junk shop. We bought a travel book by local Scot Jim Glenndinging, a clump of sage to bless our Terlingua airstream and tree bells with an Egyptian eye motif – things small enough to take back with us on the train.
Reata – a humble precursor to the big place in Ft. Worth
The car rental guy highly recommended Reata for lunch and the restaurant in an old house was just down from Ocotillo. It was 11:20, before the lunch time rush and the manager sat in an empty side room. After looking at each other for a few seconds, we realized we’d been row mates on last night’s train. Cassidy was one of the four passengers to disembark at Alpine and had pointed us across the street to the Holland.
Tamales worth the trip
Even stranger, I’d been in Fort worth the weekend before and had had a drink at a place called Reata in the stockyards area. The food at the Fort Worth Reata looked wonderful but we had reservations at another restaurant. All the great things we’d seen on the menu in Fort Worth were here in the original Reata. I ordered the tenderloin tamales with pecan mash and goat cheese salad with candied pecans. When my food arrived, I sent a picture of my plate back to my friends from last week’s trip along with the caption “They didn’t disappoint!”. Small world getting smaller all the time.
Where the working folks lived
We walked off lunch by crossing the railroad tracks to wooden store fronts and cantinas that had defined the laborer’s section of town in earlier times. Both sides of the tracks made up an easy to read map of how Alpine had grown and changed but not too drastically.
The shabby feel of this area and the different kind of businesses that were settling here felt relaxed. On our return, we picked up the “windshield tour” map available at the Holland and explored this area more thoroughly. Up on the hill was a rock building built by the CCC as a Scout Headquarters. Adobe and frame buildings lined the streets in this area as opposed to more ornate storefronts and Victorian homes.
Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church at Fifth and Gallego was in a 1941 brick building that replaced the 1902 wooden structure. Across the street, an early two-story frame hotel showed signs of an attempt to shore up sagging building. I bet there was a huge difference in the business deals that went down here and at the Holland. Another story for another time.
But not it was time to get on the road. We went back to the Holland to pick up the Ford Focus and headed east on Highway 90 and south on TX 118. We were off to meet Alice the Airstream in the Terlingua Ghost town.