Alpine Marathon

It was 29 degrees last night and the review of the new Trango 4 tent by Mountain Hardwear is in. The Trango 4 is professional level tenting. You can tell immediately when you pull on a sturdy zipper. The material quality is tough. The design shouts experienced outdoorsman. And, when it is 29 degrees outside and the wind is blowing, it is still really cold in a tent. We had our warmest sleep gear on – full flannel and wool products – zippered into the mummy bags. Quite frankly, it’s all a bit constricting but it beats freezing during the long night. I’m sure it could have snowed overnight and we would have been no less cold, or warm. Does that it make it 4-seasons? Is that a win?

You can’t live in a tent 24/7, even a good one, so you better have a heated room.

Prior to dropping into the Big Bend, Sheri was walking 5 miles everyday as she fully recovered from her ankle, knee, hip, it’s-all-connected injuries. Listening to podcasts like The Adventures of Memento Mori (loved it), Way out West Texas and Heart of the Big Bend with travel host Chris Ruggia, she got wisdom on learning to live by remembering to die (hopefully at a ripe old age) and insights on must see activities in the small towns of the region.

Alpine, where the people live that are not just visiting Big Bend NP.

Coming out of the Persimmon Gap entrance of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, TX is the first town with traveler amenities like hotel, motel, gas and the French Grocery, a hipster market with an outdoor party patio owned by Sam Stavinoha. We heard about Sam on Alpine’s “Heart of” podcast – a guy who left Austin to find a smaller but bigger life way out west. It struck home as Sheri belongs to the Texas Stavinoha clan so a stop in to meet Sam was on the itinerary.

Sam has created a cool vibe and built a gem of a venue in the last town before Big Bend.

The French Grocery is the only store for locals who do not want to drive the 30 miles into Alpine, and caters to the passing through crowd by offering homemade carnitas burritos and double chocolate chunk cookies made by the chef of hard knocks. There’s a wide selection of craft beers, gourmet cheeses, art, books and camping supplies. If you need it they’ve likely got it and if you see it you’re going to want it. At 35, Sam is of the younger Stavinoha generation and did not know his lineage as well as Sheri. The elder Aunt Loretta wasn’t responding to calls or texts, so we settled on a cool to meet you and stuffed down a burrito for the drive to Alpine with a planned return for a Friday night Chili Dogs and musical guest, the Doddlin Hogwallops.

I don’t smoke, but these guys make me want to start. I can drink a Lone Star!

Alpine is home to Sul Ross State University and 6,000 residents. It’s a college town with a rancher working class and businesses grinding out a living waiting for tourists like us to roll in and bask in their freedom. We don’t know actually how free they are, or if their life is any better or worse, but we like checking it out cause it feels very different from our own. We can say it is a friendly town, happy to be no bigger and no smaller than it is. The sweet spot is big enough for a State college, 25 bed hospital and well stocked Tractor Supply, but too small for a Walmart.

First rate art in a too-cool-for-school building. Folks in Alpine would like to keep it on the down low.

The University is for aspiring artists, scientists, teachers, psychologists, writers, entrepreneurs and historians. Voted the #4 prettiest, most affordable, high quality universities in the country that you will not be attending (by Eric), its Sul Ross U that put Alpine on the map initially. This host the critically acclaimed Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering, are the reigning champs of College Rodeo and they host the Museum of the Big Bend and an Insta-hyped hike to The Desk.

A genius undergrad instagram idea! Who says they are not teaching critical thinking at SRU?

It’s a mystery how a heavy metal desk made a mile uphill climb to an overlook, but we are betting that some drunk undergrads can enlighten the world. There’s always a notebook and pens for visitors to write messages, which are archived in the library for posterity. Eric left a limerick …
There once was a guy from Philly
Who scrambled up Hancock, “So Hilly!”
He arrived at The Desk
And declared “Picturesque!”
{you’ll have to hike to The Desk to read the last line}

If it is anything like Florida, expect 99.9% pickleball and 0.1% tennis. Sorry tennis team, you were tricked.

Sheri laughed so hard she fell off the chair and cut open her hand. Luckily the welcoming host at the Museum of the Big Bend offered a wash station, snack and free entrance for the wounded. That is front desk service Alpine style! Meanwhile, the locals have convinced the SRU tennis team that it will be to everyone’s advantage to re-surface the tennis courts and add Pickleball lines! I think I am falling in love.

Is it a museum or a thrift shop? We think thrift shops are some of the best museums.

The museum is two sided with the old side housing artifacts, maps and historical displays of the settling of The Big Bend while the new side showcased art and event space celebrating it. We were a week too early for Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians exhibit, but we did catch the movie about Tom Lea and his renderings of the cow trade. Amazing!

Lots of rules, but really good donuts in Alpine. Strategically placed next to the laundromat – we had time!

An avid fan of the the Big Bend Podcast, Sheri stopped in the Alpine Visitor Center to meet Heather and pick up some stickers and map for the mural tour. Alpine is home to 44 murals that help promote downtown businesses. Even though Baker’s Dozen donuts didn’t have a mural, we found them a few times on our rides through, declaring the apple fritter #2 in the country behind Gold Star in Sarasota. What Alpine lacks in charm, it makes up for in heart; even the propane filler at the Tractor Supply who was just about to go home for the night opened up for one last friendly fill, no charge for the rambling conversation.

You can’t judge a city by its murals. Or can you?

We made the drive back to Marathon for chili dog night and the Doddlin Hogwollops didn’t disappoint. The locals were friendly, the Lone Stars were cold and the $6 chili dogs were, well, a fun idea. With the temperatures dropping, we left Sam and the crowd of kids, dogs, cowboys and gals to their date night on the Back Porch. We had a long cold night ahead on the rocky ground and wanted to get a jump on all that comfort.

Like SNL Cheeburger – You have your choice of chili dog, chili dog, or chili dog.