A train horn blows loud, rattling the wooden french doors that open to the narrow perch overlooking the courtyard.
Once-upon-a-time the train would have stopped and allowed a respite for the rail weary travelers. Once refreshed the passengers would return as the big engine would let out a “psssssssht” while a “clunk and clang” would indicate that the massive metal monster would soon be pulling out.
Today, the train horn blows loud, not stopping, multi-engines maintaining a speed that will soon pull its links of load over the Delaware Mountains and into the fertile lowlands of the Rio Grande River, an international border that creates an oasis in the desert.
Today, passenger trains do not stop in Van Horn, Texas. No trains stop in Van Horn, Texas. The trains just blow horns and rattle the windows, acting as an early morning alarm clock in this far west Texas town or reminding the town, who is responsible for its establishment.
I sit in a room, in a hotel, that has witnessed world wars, economic collapse, and midcentury prosperity, and whose own life has been a series of up-downs, repurpose and renewal.
A hotel whose sister property, Hotel Paisano, hosted Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean during the filming of the motion picture, Giant. A hotel whose architect Henry Trost, arguably, designed every structure in downtown El Paso, Texas, in the early 20th century.
The courtyard’s fountain’s song is muted by the train’s announcement.
The water sprays over the wall of the fountain. The fountain works against the wind and freezing temperature to maintain its purpose, fighting to hold the water against the north wind that blows hard and cold.
Tonight I find myself in the iconic Hotel Capitan in Van Horn, Texas. The third historic hotel I have stayed in, in as many days. All three have been west of Dallas/ Fort Worth, and all have been located on the old Bankhead Highway.
A slow wifi connection has me pondering and wandering through my thoughts. I wanted to love this hotel. I love Van Horn, Texas, the desert and southwest Texas. I wanted my journey to end with experiences that would be transcendental as-well-as transformative.
Am I different than when I started? Do I have an appreciation of what century-old hotels can offer to today’s traveler? Would I do it again?
I guess I should start at the beginning, or at least three days ago my first hotel, my first stop, my first night, The Eastland Hotel, in Eastland, Texas. Two blocks from the railroad tracks and one block off the town’s square.
The Eastland was built in 1918 as a rooming house, a time when Eastland county was booming. An oil strike in neighboring Ranger, Texas, ushered in wealth, prosperity, and roughnecks. Roads were laid, buildings built, and fortunes found.
The oil boom memories are scribed on historical markers while murals depict the area’s historical events in faded full-color glory.
I linger outside the property appreciating the longevity of the building that has withstood so many years. While the structure is a century-old the amenities are 21st century. My room is large with five windows and a kitchenette as well as a deep tub with jets. The hotel boasts a pool and conveniences such as heat and air, luxuries never imagined in 1918.
Looking out the rear window of the second-floor room, I can view the location where, ninety years ago, a vigilante mob hung the Santa Claus bank robber. Tonight there is no activity on the corner where justice was found. I try to imagine two-thousand individuals packed into the side streets and alleyways and find peace that I am unable to create an image of what the window bared witness to.
The Eastland Hotel does not have a full-time desk. The guest is given a front door code when checking in, an easy code I still remember. Wonder how often they change it? This setup does have the feel of what I would imagine a rooming house would be like. Come and go with your own key, sharing everything but a bed.
Creaky steps up to the second floor announce my return after wandering the town’s square and visiting Old Rip, the zombie horn toad. Legend has it that Old Rip was revived after a thirty-year slumber, hence the Old Rip (Van Winkle) name. Today the legend’s body can be found “lying in state” at the Eastland County Courthouse.
This evening I was unable to find any restaurants within walking distance and settled on a microwave meal from the grocery two blocks away.
As for breakfast, The Eastland Hotel offers coffee and pastries to guests but I have my heart set on a classic two-egg breakfast. Luckily there is a breakfast place just up the street.
Louise’s is everything I could hope for and more. What breakfast should be, a time to gather thoughts, make plans, enjoy endless cups of coffee, devour starches and fats without guilt, while listening in on the familiar gossip and goings-on of people in an unfamiliar setting. Perfect.
I am satisfied with my night’s accommodations in Eastland. A quiet night in a hotel that felt like a rooming house. A true step back in time. An experience I would return to. A hotel I would frequent.
Now on to the next historic hotel, the Hotel Settles, miles away in distance and a world away in appearance and purpose from humble yet perfect Eastland Hotel.
The Hotel Settles appears like a large lum over the town of Big Spring, Texas. The odd monolith towers high. At one time the tallest building between El Paso and Fort Worth, Grand in appearance and attitude it seems that no one has let the edifice know anything has changed regarding its status.
In 1930, the Hottle Settles opened, designed by David Castle, and built by oil revenue of the Settles family, its future was soon in limbo with the onset of the Great Depression and the drying up of the oil reserves.
The hotel would go through several owners and be the accommodations for political, and pop-cultural royalty, including President Hoover and Elvis Presley.
The oil and energy demand would ultimately be the downfall of the hotel. By the late 1970’s, Big Spring, a town built by oil, had succumbed to what many other parts of the nation faced, an energy crisis coupled with a West Texas oil bust.
In 1982, the hotel shut its doors, the playground of vandals’ mischief, and property decline for the next thirty years. In 2006 the hotel came back to life with a 30 million dollar renovation.
Tonight my room is on the third floor with a view to the north. Only two blocks to the railroad track. The room is well-appointed with a desk that faces the window. A window that looks upon a town that has seen better times, but offers more than meets the eye.
While the hotel offers an incredible restaurant and lounge, a vibrant nightlife has sprung up around the grand hotel. Multiple restaurants and lounges are tucked away in obscure buildings presenting an eclectic mix of class, culture, coexisting in a perception of calamity.
Lumbre, a restaurant, nestled beside an abandoned theater plays host to a packed house and offers up a menu of five-star dishes.
Big Spring, Texas, is sure to surprise. And offered a night to remember combining refined dining and lodging with classic Texas hospitality.
Now here I sit. Hundreds of miles away from home listening to the train’s horn blow loud. The winter sun has set early and the courtyard glows in the chilly air. The wind has subsided, the old Bankhead Highway is void of traffic.
I venture downstairs to the dining room, surprisingly packed. I sit at the bar and order the signature dish, a pistachio-crusted chicken fried steak. I enjoy the meal around the company of fellow travelers. We discuss historic hotels attempting to one-up each other on our experiences.
I return to the room and open the french doors. The air is cold but the soothing sound of the fountain convince me to deal with the temperature. The experience of the three hotels have not changed. I have learned a great deal about the towns I visited and their struggles.
What I realize is these hotels, when built, were the hub of the communities. As revitalization continues, in towns across Texas and America, it becomes apparent that these hotels return to the original purpose, establishing themselves as the hub of the communities. The epicenter of energy where commerce and life radiates from.