The west Texas we'd imagined—flat, arid, studded with oil wells—began at Midland. We were headed to the middle of nowhere, 225 miles south to the 25,000-acre Cibolo Creek Ranch, perhaps the most remote luxury enclave in America. It hides out in Big Bend country, just 25 miles north of the Mexican border. Nearest town: Shafter, population 30.
Leaving Midland at twilight we were soon plowing through the darkness. So lulled were we by the big night that three and a half hours later we almost missed the ranch entry—a stone marker and a barely paved road. Dinner was already well under way when we arrived at the ranch house, but the last thing we felt like was socializing (meals here are served at communal tables). However, Artie and Lisa Ahier are intuitive hosts, for without a word they had a table set on the veranda of our room, the Master Suite. Candles were lit and the meal—Lisa's organic mixed greens (grown, like many of the vegetables, on the ranch) with ginger dressing, spicy Chilean sea bass stew with tomatoes and chiles, and Mexican lime pie—began appearing at a relaxed pace, every dish luscious and sophisticated. While we dined, we picked up strands of conversation, and I realized that everyone at the main table had flown in—correction, had flown himself in. (The ranch has a 5,300-foot airstrip six miles from the main building.) One, an Englishman living in New York, had stopped off en route to Phoenix, planning to stay one night. Three days later he was still grounded, so enchanted was he by the place.
So were we.
For apart from its splendid isolation Cibolo Creek Ranch makes you feel you've stepped back in time to 19th-century frontier Texas. That's intentional. Owner John Poindexter, a Houston businessman, spent two years researching and then four years restoring the property's three forts, which contain the guest accommodations. The earliest was built in 1857 by a rancher/trader/tough guy named Milton Faver—or Don Melitón, as he was known during the years he spent south of the border.
We were in the 11-room main fort, El Cibolo, which was in ruins when Poindexter found it. The four-bedroom fort La Cienega, 12 miles away, has its original adobe walls and is furnished with Spanish antiques that look as if they were put in place by Don Melitón himself. Most remote is La Morita, which has but one bedroom, is lit by oil lamps, and is the most atmospheric of the three buildings. (It's decorated with black-and-white photographs of the Don and his family.) However, the Spanish antiques, Mexican masks, and tiles in El Cibolo conjured up plenty of historical romance themselves.
Most of the 11 rooms run along an arcade facing the courtyard. We had requested the most private room, the Master Suite, Poindexter's own when he is in residence. It's a sublime room for relaxing. There's a huge, high, wood-framed bed, two plump armchairs in Southwestern striped fabric facing an adobe fireplace, a Texas-sized bathroom with oversized Jacuzzi, and just the right accessories: stone table lamps, Mexican silver sconces, wood armoires, plus photos of the owner's family and friends. We fell asleep to the sound of javelinas, local wild boars, running through the brush and we woke to the sun coming up over the Chinati Mountains. (Poindexter picked the best view for himself, of course.)
The next morning, over huevos rancheros, we met our fellow guests, many of whom, like us, had signed up for the horseback ride that was led by Mike Stevens, cowboy poet, electric guitar artisan, and co-wrangler of the ranch's 22 horses. We threaded our way through the desert and the foothills of the Chinatis, past 900-year-old Native American pictographs, and through stands of ocotillo and mesquite. At one point cockiness overtook us, and we engaged in some impromptu cattle-rustling until a large bull turned and we cityslickers scattered.
But mostly we were counting down to lunch, for Lisa Ahier's delicious food quickly becomes addictive—even though there's usually only one choice at meals. I loved everything she served: mesquite-grilled quail on homegrown greens; grilled antelope; a flavorful taco of Pacific snapper and king salmon with cilantro, mango, and kiwi salsa; the ultimate chocolate fondant. She has a tough job, for as she says, "Considering where we are, people don't have a choice about going out to eat." (No one I spoke to would have gone anywhere else, even if they had the choice.)
During our three days we ventured out only to see aluminum sculptures by Donald Judd at his Chinati Foundation, 33 miles away in Marfa. (The ranch also offers a daylong outing to Big Bend National Park.) On Saturday we made it only as far as the hammock (via the pool), a few hundred yards from the house. Still sore from our horseback-riding, we had massages from Denise, a student from Marfa. That night, we listened to Stevens' cowboy songs by the bonfire under a planetarium sky.
On the last day we gathered near the pond to send off the English aviator, who tipped his wings goodbye before heading west to Arizona. Then we looked into the restored chapel and the museum Poindexter created, one last immersion in the 19th-century before rejoining civilization. Lisa handed us a car picnic for the drive back to Midland, and mentioned that later this spring eight more rooms should open, all with fireplaces and even more private than the Master Suite—the perfect excuse to come back to the middle of nowhere.
Cibolo Creek Ranch
Address Box 44, Shafter, Texas 79850
Reservations 915-229-3737; fax 915-229-3653
Tip If traveling in a small group, reserve the entire four-bedroom fort, La Cienega, which has its own heated pool, kitchen, dining room, and living area.
Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in March 2000, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.