E -- "the uninhabited land" -- is what the Spanish called the Big Bend region of Texas, the wing on the western side of the state, which stretches east from El Paso, at the wingtip, to the Pecos River, and south from New Mexico to the Rio Grande. The epithet still fits. The loneliness of West Texas is obvious from the map. West of San Angelo the web of roads tangled over most of the rest of Texas clears away, leaving only the I-10 and a few loose strings of two-lane highways connecting tiny towns in the vast white space. In life, for most of the year this space is a palette of yellows and browns, punctuated by greens. One mountain range or another -- the Glass, the Chinati, the Barrilla, the Sierra Diablo, the Christmas -- is always in sight, but you can drive on these roads for half an hour at a stretch without passing another car. We've marveled at the enormous sky throughout the Far West, but that of West Texas is especially stunning, alive with pink and blue Turneresque strokes and swirls.
West Texas, in its neglect and its isolation, retains the hard splendor characteristic of the West. It seems more "western" than Montana or Arizona or New Mexico, so much of which have become, variously, glamorous, suburban, and artsy. All of this unpopulated territory makes for great hiking, backpacking, bird watching, and horseback riding, but this region, where the American West and South meet Mexico, is also interesting culturally. Each town has a distinct character, several have atmospheric hotels, and it's not hard to find good food. The Big Bend region also has among the largest and most important permanent installations of contemporary art in the world.
Don't go to West Texas, however, if you hate car travel. Commercial airlines fly only as far as points on the periphery, El Paso or Midland/Odessa, and then you have to drive. On the three-and-a-half-hour trip from El Paso to Marfa, in the heart of the region, the colors of the landscape shift distinctly again and again with the changes in altitude. Bare brown earth gives way to grasses colored mustard, ocher, or wheat and stuck with yuccas and an occasional Joshua tree. We first stumbled on Marfa, on its near-mile-high prairie, seven years ago during the dusk of a summer day, when we stopped at a roadside place for enchiladas. This cluster of 2,500 people, with its two-block main street bisected by railroad tracks, its turn-of-the-century adobe and wood-frame houses and Second Empire county courthouse, seemed to us hardly attached to the rest of the country or to the decade. We wandered in the dry, still air down streets that petered out quickly, giving way in every direction to the grasslands.