Let’s spend the night together. Three nights, in three iconic century-old Texas hotels.

A train horn blows loud, rattling the wooden french doors that open to the narrow perch overlooking the courtyard.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.DSC_0564 (2).JPG

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

A Teacher’s Summer at the White Sands

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Heading west through the heat of a Texas sun with a destination north of El Paso in the Chihuahua Desert. Leaving behind what most school teachers hold dear, the summer, I pass through small towns and upper elevation villages until the two lane crests and I begin my descent into the Tularosa Basin. The purpose of this summer sacrifice – White Sands National Monument. The NPS has allowed me the privilege of working as a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher for the next 8 weeks. The time is intended to be a mutual benefit to both parties.  Gravities’ pull accelerates me down the final miles to the entrance of the monument. The monument’s adobe visitor’s center sits baking in the sun while the basins surrounding mountains are veiled in a haze. I set up my camper and eagerly await the next day’s realizations.

National parks and monuments, too many visitors, are the scaffolding of an all-American road trip. These natural backdrops for Kodak moments provide grand itineraries to trip planners and fill the lines of life’s list destinations. For many years, I held the same tourist approach to the purpose of the National Park Service’s unique lands and monuments. I was unaware that these areas of beauty and awe held far more valuable lessons in environmental appreciation and emotional connection to nature until I was immersed in the NPS.

My awareness of NPS themes, or purpose, came through my participation in the Teacher-Ranger- Teacher program of the NPS. This program allows classroom teachers to work in a national park or national monument for 8 weeks during the summer. During this time I determined the NPS, just as a teacher, is attempting to make connections with people. I began to see WHSA as a classroom, a wonderland of geology, biology, and ecology. White Sands National Monument is an environment where adaptations occur before the eye and Earth’s cycles perform as if on stage.  As a TRT I was able to entangle myself in these plays for the majority of the summer.  This genuine experience showed me a purpose to the NPS I was unaware of, an incredible educational resource.   

My experience has helped me not only as a teacher but a visitor to our national parks. My family and I will no longer be the “30 minute” tourist. We will stop and stay longer and instead of just taking the iconic photo or seeing the must see attraction, we will listen to a ranger talk or go on a guided hike. We will attempt to interpret the park on a personal level. This new purpose to our travels will allow a better connection to “our” national parks and monuments.

As my summer TRT experience comes to an end and I head east toward home.  My vehicle struggles up the Sacramento Mountains one last time,  I turn and look down upon the Tularosa Basin – I now know that when a visitor looks upon Whites Sands National Monument in the right light, at that particular time of day, when the mind is full of wonder and curiosity, that he will see the gypsum infused water flowing into Lake Lucero and evaporating just as quickly while the temperature, water, and wind relentlessly weathers and breaks down the selenite crystals into smaller and smaller pieces creating the sea of soft white waves.

The El Capitan finding purpose on the Bankhead Highway

Elements create, in the hands of artisans, wonders. Some wonders inspire as art, some function as needs, some create envy as wants, all have a purpose. The Hotel Capitan, in Van Horn, Texas, was created with such purpose. The designer’s purpose was aesthetics while the developer’s purpose was to capitalize on the tourist industry. The combination of these two purposes would culminate into developing several hotels in West Texas whose purpose would impact well beyond the expectations of the designer or the developer. Elements of art, earth, and the economy would bring to life the Hotel Capitan and these elements would continue to shape the hotel’s purpose throughout its life.

Designer and Developer

The designer, Henry Trost, was an established and respected architect well before designing the Hotel Capitan.  Trost’s designs had come to life across the southern states.  Trost is credited with designing most of the buildings in downtown El Paso, between the years 1910 and 1933. His buildings can be found from Austin, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Trost found inspiration in a multitude of styles, although he would embrace the Spanish Colonial Revival style in many designs in the southwest. Trost’s designs were cutting edge in  respect to the steel-reinforced concrete he would use. Approaches such as this could be the reason many of his buildings still stand.

Charles Bassett a developer and part of  the Gateway Hotel Chain had the vision of hotels at the crossroads of the newly developed National Parks of Big Bend, Guadalupe, and Carlsbad Caverns. Bassett developed five Gateway hotels within a 200 radius of El Paso. He felt that tourism would soon create a great need for overnight accommodations.

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The Hotel Capitan opened in 1930, arguably not the greatest time in American history to become a realization. Only one year before the stock market crashed and brought about the start of The Great Depression. This did not deter the Hotel Capitan from being a success and operating as a hotel into the late 1960’s.

The Hotel Capitan met the same demise as many other early and mid-twentieth century overnight accommodations. Interstate ten bypassed the main street of Van Horn, Texas. While the interstate is in earshot of the hotel, this had a huge impact on not only the Hotel Capitan but all of Van Horn.

Mid-life

Many hotels and motels fall quickly into disrepair and decay once their original purpose is abandoned. The Hotel Capitan was able to escape this fate by being repurposed as a bank in the mid-1970’s.  While this did change much of the character and design of the original layout it would ultimately save an American roadside architectural treasure.

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Rebirth

In 2007, seventy-seven years after the Hotel Capitan was built it was purchased by Joe and Lanna Duncan. The couple had the plan to convert the Capitan back to its former glory. The Duncans had success in bringing life back to Hotel Capitan’s sister property, The Paisano, in Marfa, Texas. The dedication of the couple would eventually bring the Capitan back to its original purpose of welcoming, entertaining and wowing the weary traveler in West Texas.

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2019 – The summer of KOAs

In the mid-seventies while the nation was in a gas shortage and energy crisis my family was pulling a Terry bumper-pull travel trailer around the USA. In my mind we were always traveling somewhere, in hindsight I realize my blue-collar dad only had off a couple of weeks per year making this memory of constant transcontinental travel impossible.

Today, I know many memories were the product of photo albums and stories that saturated my mind.  It really does not matter to me how these reflections of family vacations  got in my head, they are there and that is what is important.

Oh – most of my memories are at KOAs

So In the summer of 2019 Tab across Texas hit the road and to check out a few KOAs to determine if they still held the power to create memories.

Spoiler alert, to our surprise, they did.

Our summer journey began in Oklahoma and we would ultimately stay in four Oklahoma KOAs.

Each KOA offered a different experience with similar vibe, a friendly vibe. No matter if we just showed up to get a spot or called ahead, the KOA staff seemed authentic in manner and customer service.

As for the experience – right on the mark for memory making. From fishing ponds to  game rooms, on-site horse tracks to casinos, not to mention the swimming pools and wonderful restroom and shower facilities Oklahoma’s KOAs are A OK.

Our KOA experiences continued on into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.

The KOAs in places such as Abilene, Texas and Grants, New Mexico we used for quick overnight spots. Even for these stays of less than twelve hours the KOA offered easy setup, attentive staff, and quite neighbors.

The Las Cruces, New Mexico KOA was an experience that will not be forgotten. A pleasant staff greeted us on arrival and we settled into a spot with a great view of the Organ Mountains. A wonderful sunset and a brilliant night sky made for a wonderful experience.

Our KOA experience in Mesa, Arizona was just as pleasant as New Mexico. Our site had a great view of Superstition Mountain and was surrounded by Saguaro cactus. The busy season in Arizona is definitely winter, while during summer reservations would not be required for an RV site, many attractions and restaurants are closed for the season.

Tab across Texas made it all the way to Las Vegas during the summer of 2019. We found a KOA at Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino and set up for a couple of nights. At first we were a bit leery about a KOA on Bolder Highway in Las Vegas but our concerns quickly dissipated as we entered into this desert oasis. While the RV sites are nothing to write home about the pool and facilities are great. With the Tab only a few yards from these amenities we would spend the day by the pool before venturing over, easy walk, to Sam’s Town for and evening of entertainment.

Tab across Texas stayed in a total of nine different KOA in five different states over the course of the summer of 2019. The KOAs offered a consistency in operation that allowed us to not worry about what to expect from each overnight.

While the prices ranged from thirty to fifty dollars per night, Tab across Texas believes that quality comes at a price and from our experiences, KOA is quality.