Town & Country, July 2002
Kimberly Brown Seely
One of the most beautiful hideaways in America is Cibolo Creek, a 30,000-acre ranch in the wilds of West Texas.
On my first day at Cibolo Creek Ranch, something like a miracle happened: I could suddenly hear myself think. I'd wandered out to the pool, book in hand, but was so spellbound by the quiet emptiness of the surrounding West Texas desert that I never picked the book up. It wasn't exactly pool weather, but the long light from the west warmed my toes, and as the sun sank behind the dark-brown Chinati Mountains, I simply sat and watched the ranch's 30,000 acres roll off into the distance.
Back at the hacienda, it had been impossible to do what I usually do – which is wake up with NPR, read the papers, check my e-mail. This was no accident. Our room came with a well-chosen collection of western-history books and a coffeemaker, but there was no radio, TV or telephone. My cell phone had stopped working miles back, on the long drive from El Paso toward the Mexican border. And since every aspect of Cibolo Creek is calculated to block out intrusions from the modern world in order to re-create a treasured fragment of Texas history, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd stepped straight into the pages of a Larry McMurtry novel, albeit one with an extremely cushy setting.
Like the town in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Cibolo Creek Ranch isn't on the way to anything. Its appeal lies in its absolute isolation, which is the reason that Dan Rather, Larry Hagman and Dallas's Caroline Hunt have all blazed a trail here and Mick Jagger has flown in for monthlong stays. To reach Cibolo Creek, you either come by private jet or fly to El Paso and then drive several hours through el despoblado – "the uninhabited land," as the Spanish called the Big Bend region of Texas. The ranch sits off a ruler-straight, two-lane road that runs south from the west Texas town of Marfa to the Mexican border, and once you finally arrive at Cibolo Creek, there is no question that if privacy is a luxury, you've landed in one of the most luxurious places in the contiguous forty-eight states.
Cibolo Creek Ranch is the site of three historic 19th-century forts, the largest of which is the 150-year-old El Fortin del Cibolo. All of them have been painstakingly restored with fanatical attention to detail by the ranch's owner, John Poindexter, a Houston businessman and a third-generation Texan. "You can't live in Texas without owning a ranch," he quips. "The desire to own a large property must be some sort of inherited genetic defect."
Struck by the unusual character of this particular large property, Poindexter bought Cibolo's first 20,000 acres in 1990. Then he connected the old fort sites with a hundred miles of roadway, restored forty miles of fences, excavated to find the exact footprints of the original buildings and set about learning how to make adobe. "I had to bring guys across from Mexico," he says. "Even they weren't very good at it."
But Poindexter didn't want to be just another gentleman rancher. He wanted to restore Cibolo to its 19th-century zenith as a lush longhorn-cattle ranch. And so, in an endless undertaking that has been compared to creating a large-scale work of art, he not only began reclaiming the land (which was overgrown with catclaw and mesquite) and rebuilding its adobe forts, but being a stickler for appearances, he also insisted that no modern conveniences be visible inside them. "We concealed all the conduits above the original ceilings," he says. "Even the lamps are 19th-century fixtures that have been electrified."
About eight years ago, Cibolo began taking paying guests. If the accommodations sound in the least bit uncomfortable, rest assured that Poindexter has struck all the right notes and added plenty of 21st-century touches. (Julia Roberts checked in for two days of filming last year and stayed a week.) The result is a Southwestern setting worthy of a Ralph Lauren commercial – the ranch has, in fact, been used for several fashion shoots – with watchtowers, walls three feet thick and even nails crafted by hand, as they were a hundred years ago.
What saves Cibolo from being a precious re-creation, though, is the hardness of the landscape here, the palpable sense of place and the very real layers of history. A pioneering cattle baron named Milton Faver staked out the area in 1857 and became the first Anglo rancher to survive in the region, thanks to the series of forts he built to fend off attacks by Apaches and bandits. You can reserve one of the eighteen rooms in what was his headquarters and is now the hub of activity (Cibolo), or request one of two more-remote outposts: La Cienega (a fortress with a pool, which the Jagger entourage wanted to buy; it's about thirty minutes via dirt road from the primary fort) or La Morita (even farther out and often booked by adventurous honeymooners because it relies on oil lamps and a fireplace for light and heat).
Our room in the main fort was equal measure high texture and low tech. Period pieces from Mexico, Spain and Texas anchored a king-size bed topped by a velvety suede coverlet and a down duvet. A calfskin rug softened Saltillo floor tiles, and in the bathroom, baskets of rosemary-mint unguents, stacks of fluffy white towels and a heater that warmed the chilly floor in seconds flat turned a simple morning shower into a sensory event.
The overall feeling at Cibolo is one of relaxed comfort; you feel more like a weekend guest at Poindexter's private retreat than like a visitor at a resort. Step outside your room, and if it's one of ten lining the long Lakeside Hacienda that faces a flowing acequia, or canal, the sound of water washing over small stones will be so soothing that you might decide, as some people do, to sleep with your door ajar at night. At one end of the hacienda is a media room with distressed-leather couches and a video library (for those in need of a fix), as well as an octagonal felt-topped poker table – a huge hit with my boys, ages twelve and ten. At the other end, just off the kitchen, there's an honor-system fridge, so you can wander in and sign for a beer or a soda. If you still aren't relaxed, you can request a massage.
Mornings begin with guests drifting into the dining room and helping themselves to coffee and tea; fruit from ceramic platter piled high with sliced strawberries and melon; yogurt; homemade granola; and toast. After that, people disperse until lunch, when guests reconvene to discuss their morning activities. Compared to a typical guest ranch, Cibolo offers few organized events, but almost everyone gets caught up in the spirit of the place: taking a horseback ride, hiking up to Milton Faver's tomb, heading down to Mexico or Big Bend National Park, or signing up for one of the guided ranch tours and digging for arrowheads in the dirt. Beyond, that Cibolo is really designed more for total decompression – like reading beside the pool or taking a siesta.
My favorite part of each day was dinner in the dining room, one of the most inviting spaces you can imagine. It is long and intimate, with white-washed walls, restored ceiling vigas (big round support beams) and an adobe fireplace that crackles with flames every night. (Bruce Willis's desk is planted in front of this fireplace in the recently released independent film Grand Champion, parts of which, including Julia Roberts' cameo, were shot at Cibolo last year.) By the time we visited, however, Willis's desk had disappeared, and in its place was a wide-board pine table long enough to seat all thirty-six guests in matching Spanish Colonial dining chairs.
Most nights, you'll find yourself next to couples and families that have made their way to Cibolo Creek from New York or from outside Boston or Los Angeles, or have driven halfway across the state of Texas to get here. Something about the spare tone and absolute warmth of the setting inspires easy conversation. Or maybe it's just that you're in Texas. You might be served a simple plate of mixed greens topped by sliced avocados in a red-pepper vinaigrette, followed by marinated duck and a mound of orzo punched up with pico de gallo, piles of savory biscuits and, for dessert, chocolate flan topped by a layer of white chocolate and raspberries. Everything is flavorful but not overly fancy, just like this part of the state.
When people ask me about Cibolo Creek and whether they'd like it, I have to confess I don't always give the same answer. It will not appeal to those seeking a five-star resort with impeccable service and a steady diet of activities. It isn't a place for people who require daily spa treatments, golf or tennis, or constant connectivity via a TV and a phone in their room (there is a phone in Cibolo's study, as well as a single computer with an Internet hookup, if you must dial out).
But if you have forgotten what it's like to hear the sound of miles upon miles of silence; if you are rejuvenated by the sort of sky that goes on forever, or by the truly authentic, you should add West Texas to your list. I've had the good fortune to visit many wonderful places during my travels, some of them much more elegant, but there is something about Cibolo Creek – the combination of the harsh, rugged landscape and the pervasive mix of Mexican, Native American and western cultures – that makes it a rare and hauntingly beautiful place to be.
In the end, it was hard not to like a spot where your kids were having one of their best times ever (my younger son still corresponds with Irvin, an amazing thirteen-year-old who amused us all with local folklore and legends while his mother, Irma, a Cibolo housekeeper, worked), the horses have names like Frijole, the mornings dawn crisp and clear, and you're talking to people you've known for all of two days about meeting up again, same time next year.
You can reserve individual guest suites, one of the three forts in its entirety, or even the whole ranch for larger parties. Rates are double occupancy and include all meals, fishing in the ranch's two-acre lake and use of the pool. Other activities (horseback riding, skeet shooting, mountain biking, paddleboating and ranch tours) are available for an additional charge. El Fortin del Cibolo is the largest fort and the most popular, with eighteen guest suites, along with a heated pool and a hot tub. The climate is wonderful year-round; in winter, mornings and evenings can be chilly, but in the afternoons, shirtsleeve weather prevails. Fall and spring are gorgeous; summer is hot, but low humidity keeps days pleasant.