The Wonders of West Texas by Motorcycle

From Mystery Lights of Marfa to the rivers of Hill Country

The enchanting greenery of Texas.Jamie Elvidge

This article was originally published in the October 2002 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

I can't remember how many times I've blown across the state of Texas on my way to or from the East Coast.

Well, actually, I take that back. Perhaps it's more accurate to say I can't forget all the times. The Lone Star State is one big mutha, and a crossing, especially at midlevel, seems to take a dry, flat, windy eternity. Of course, once you're on either side of Texas you're almost to wherever it is you're going.

I've always known there's more to Texas than what you see from the Interstate though, and on each passage I've longed for more time to explore. The western section in particular has always invited a little two-wheeled investigating since there is more geological bump and groove going on. And as any biker worth his floorboard feelers will tell ya --if ya ain't got hills, ya ain't got corners. There's also the little legend about the Mystery Lights of Marfa that's stuck in my head for, oh, about 25 years. Story goes that there have been unexplained sightings of these "dancing lights" on the horizon just east of Marfa dating back to the 1800s. Of course this includes much debate about their origin (aliens, burning gasses, St. Elmo's Fire...) since the lights vanish before you can approach them. The town itself is a wee dot on the map down where Highway 90 sends 67 off on its way to Big Bend National Park. When I left California last month heading for a slow loop of the continent, I promised myself I wouldn't come home without seeing this oddity for myself.

So I dropped off I-10 at Highway 17 South for my first real tryst with Texas, and found my quest for intimacy quickly rewarded. You know how you can run for days on a limited-access Interstate and never really taste, smell or feel the land you're traveling through. Those Chevrons and Taco Bells just don't change. The truth is, you don't know a place until you untie its back roads...until you look at the toys in its front yard and see the melons growing in its gardens. I felt like I knew more about Texas in my first 30 minutes off the Interstate than I knew in the dozens of hours I've droned across its surface over the years. It's big, it's largely empty and it has ghosts--ghosts of hope and joy and sorrow, the way any place that's been settled and abandoned over and over again is likely to have. Of course, that sepia veil of long-dry dreams didn't cloak all the regions of Texas I touched, but even in the big cities and well-kept historic districts, the feel of hardship had collected like a heavy dust in the corners.

Rusty Fender in Texas
Charming and enchanting.Jamie Elvidge

Of course all things rusty are charming to me, especially when they are nestled in rich greenery, so I found this first face of Texas enchanting. And the fact that any part of the state was green in June surprised me, but here were not only green cacti and healthy sage, but also meadows of grass and wildflowers amid the red, rocky hills. I delighted in the yucca that were throwing blooms like white fireworks as I wound my way down through the Davis Mountains to check out the McDonald Astronomical Observatory just northwest of Fort Davis. The road (TX118), which takes you to 6971 feet, is so pine-laden, the air seems almost heavy with the smell of sap. Visitors to the observatory can count the stars through an array of telescopes, and once a month (by reservation only), you can fondle the big guns, a 107- and a 340-inch scope normally hoarded by University of Texas students.

But I wasn't here to see stars. I wanted lights. Mystery lights. So I rolled into Marfa early to yak with the locals about the spectacle, and to check out the town where the classic movie Giant starring Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor was filmed back in 1956. Marfa, with its quaint "any town" pastel motif and traditional town square also found itself as a backdrop in several other movies including "Fandango."

You know how it feels when you've wanted to do something for years and years? Then when you're finally going to do it there's a little pang of disappointment knowing that goal will be erased from your daydream play list? I had that feeling riding into Marfa that afternoon. So when the Mystery Lights didn't show that night, and everyone was boo-hooing, I was secretly relieved. I could stand to come back to these hills again, and to spend a few more years looking forward to seeing the Lights. And according to some who are familiar with Marfa's marvel, it can take a dozen visits to witness the mystery.

Mystery Lights
A spot that boasts a chance to see the mystery lights of legend.Jamie Elvidge

The viewing site for the Mystery Lights, an elaborate new platform complete with flushing potties and floor lighting, is about seven miles east of town. I rode in before sunset, cracked a soda and watched the crowd assemble. Everyone was buzzing as The Man Upstairs dimmed the lights. All kinds of folks were there--singles, families, older couples and teenagers on dates--truckers, bikers and candlestick makers. And there we sat, and sat and sat and sat.

So tra, la, la and I was off into the darkness. I'd chosen to follow Highway 90, which dangles on the midriff of Texas like a waist chain, all the way to San Antonio. The armadillos skittering about the desert night talked me into finding a hotel earlier than I'd planned. So I stopped in the next town (and dreamed that the people working at my hotel were aliens responsible for the Marfa Lights).

I could hardly wait to spend the day on Highway 90. Exploring any new road can bring a feeling almost as intense as butterflies before a blind date, especially a desolate road, which I could tell by the map that 90 would prove to be. And sure enough, I was pretty much alone on the planet that morning. In the first 150 miles I passed only one vehicle, a Border Patrol truck, and had to buy gas from a guy selling it out of a can on the side of the road. I set the radio on the Venture Royal Star to "scan" and watched it spin through the numbers for two hours straight. There's nothing like that kind of wide-open space. How did people ever cross this land without propulsion? There was no shade, no shelter, no Shoney's. I babied the bike along for fear of running out of fuel, knowing I would probably shrivel up and blow away if I had to find my way on foot.

Once I hit the sizable border town of Del Rio it ended my romance with doom, and I missed it. So I tended to my civilization blues with ice cream and rode on. It had been such a hot, hairball day that I was planning to ride straight to San Antonio and the first clean, cool shower I could find. But a funny thing happened when I stopped for gas in Uvalde (and it wasn't that my cell phone fell out of my pocket and into the toilet). I was standing there nursing a giant bottle of water and couldn't help but notice all these sportbike riders pouring off Highway 83 at its intersection with 90. It was late in the day and they were obviously coming home from an afternoon of riding. I looked at my map and saw that 83 led up to Hill Country and a doodle of green dotted back roads. How could I beg off such a promise of twisty fun?

River in west texas
I was wooed into stopping to wrestle out of my riding clothes in the shelter of Mandrone trees and partake in a rather blissful dip.Jamie Elvidge

I'd heard about Hill Country and how it is unlike any other part of Texas, and now I can say the same with great conviction. While it's not at great elevation, most of the sensuous landscape is high enough to afford pinion, juniper and oak trees. After eight hours of riding in a 105-degree furnace of the South Texas desert, I was treated to a 20-degree dip in temperature and the cool smell of meadow grass and river water. In fact, the Rio Frio water looked and smelled so good as I crossed its winding tributaries again and again I was wooed into stopping to wrestle out of my riding clothes in the shelter of Mandrone trees and partake in a rather blissful dip. The water was so sweet and cool and clear I couldn't have dreamt it better.

One of the nice things about Hill Country is that it's situated in a corner of Interstate 10 where it bends south in its east-west march, making it a perfect long-cut if you're traveling through.

Texas Towns
You can find wonderful village-like towns and historic hamlets sprinkled across the vast expanse of Texas.Jamie Elvidge

The roads of Hill Country are fantastic for cruising. Many are straight or sweeping and a few offer challenging corners. All are hugely scenic and deliver you to an assortment of wonderful village-like towns and historic hamlets. My favorites were Medina and (aptly named) Utopia, which was more than a bit like Mayberry. This region, about as big as Buddha's belly button when you look at a Texas map, is brimming with treasures. You can explore backyard antique shops or tube the lazy rivers, nest at one of the cute B&Bs; or camp next to one of the area's caverns or waterfalls. An anomaly on the grand scale of all things Texas? Hill Country most definitely is. It's also the place I'll be visiting again now that it's headlining on my daydream list--right up there with actually seeing the Mystery Lights of Marfa.

Besides, what fun would it be if we checked off everything on our "To See" list? There's a lot more of Texas waiting for me to touch and smell and understand. I just wouldn't have wanted to depart without leaving some behind. That way, I'll always have a reason to come back.