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A Rio Grande Refuge

Miles from anywhere, in the cactus-and-mesquite country of big bend, a chef and her husband turn a historic Texas fort into a traveler's getaway

At Cibolo Creek Ranch in far west Texas, I had a stupid song on the brain: "Rollin', rollin', rollin'...keep them doggies rollin'...Rawhide!" Nothing would kill it, not the wide-screen vistas of the Chinati Mountains nor a golden eagle soaring over the agaves and mesquites. This was, after all, the place that spawned the lyric that everyone knows but nobody can get quite right.

Milton Faver--or Don Meliton Faver, to use the honorific he earned during his spectacular life--built Fort Cibolo in 1857, enclosing its courtyard within thick adobe walls as protection against the Apache. A five-foot-nothing Renaissance man with a two-foot-long beard and a Mexican wife, Faver was a trader, rancher, merchant and passionate agriculturalist who planted orchards and gardens. By all accounts sophisticated and dapper, he was also so tough that he inspired the character of rancher Gil Favor on Rawhide, the television show that gave Clint Eastwood his break, and the Blues Brothers their hit.

In 1990, a Houston businessman named John Poindexter bought Faver's fort and set about painstakingly restoring it, along with the two other mini-forts on the 25,000-acre property: the four-bedroom La Cienega (which comes with a private chef) and a tiny honeymooners' haven, La Morita. In the two years that managers Lisa and Artie Ahier have run the ranch, it has become the hideout for celebrities craving seclusion (Mick Jagger is a regular) and locals wanting to be fed well and pampered. Most stay, as I did, in El Cibolo, the main building, in one of the rooms overlooking the courtyard. All have cowskin rugs on terra-cotta floors, supremely comfortable wood-framed beds, air conditioning for blasting Texas summers, fireplaces for chilly nights and bathrooms stocked with locally made herbal unguents. There are also more toiletries than I have seen in any five-star hotel--evidence of Lisa's thoughtfulness, and a tip-off to why word-of-mouth fills Cibolo in all seasons. The Ahiers are hosts with perfect pitch.

This part of the southern Big Bend really was once Rawhide's Wild West, but Cibolo itself is now the cozy west, the utterly calm, extremely civilized west. The schedule revolves around hammocks, pool, riding trails and dining room. Artie, a Canadian-born naturalist, leads bird walks (he has counted nearly 200 species here) and bat watches.

"Our location is our biggest disadvantage and our biggest advantage," he declared when he scooped me up from the El Paso airport for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Cibolo. "Nobody drops by on the way to anywhere." This remoteness has repercussions for chef Lisa, a native Texan and a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Wrangling supplies is a constant challenge. On arrival, she quickly formed relationships with the local food co-op for organic everything and with Texas's Broken Arrow Ranch for meat. She and Artie also researched and revived Don Faver's gardens, planting 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and 10 kinds of corn along with berries, beets, broccoli, kohlrabi, Swiss chard and herbs--produce that forms the basis of each meal.

"You can't pin me down," Lisa says happily. "I often decide the menu at the last minute." Her cooking style is rooted in Western traditions, but she will also make side trips to exotic cuisines--breakfast might be huevos rancheros and venison sausage, lunch might be pad thai. The evening meal is always an occasion, whether it's in the baronial dining room, the threshold lit by luminarias (unless the javelinas, the only true wild pigs in the United States, have eaten the candles from the brown bags) or around the fire pit, a.k.a. the Texas TV. If you're lucky, Lisa will prepare marinated steak fired on the grill with buttermilk-soaked onion rings or maple-chile-glazed quail with sugar snap peas and jalapeño blue-corn sticks. And if you're very lucky, the Ahiers' friend, Mike Stevens, formerly a bassist for the Austin Lounge Lizards, will provide a cowboy serenade.

Mike came riding with us on my favorite day at Cibolo. The saddle surely affords the best view of this terrain, and one of the ranch's wranglers, Barbara Baskin--a former archaeologist with a smile like Lauren Hutton's--was on hand to teach riding technique and find the best trails. She led us high up into the pass, where we stopped in a fold of the Chinati Mountains for a picnic lunch. Artie handed out hot hand towels and cold beer, Lisa served fried chicken and chocolate chip cookies and, as the tethered horses chomped on wild grasses, Mike got out his guitar and began to play a number about a café in Marfa.

"I can smell the enchiladas steaming on a plate," he sang, "cooked on a woodstove built in 1888..."

It was a song about good food, home comforts and cowboy romance--just what Milton Faver's Rawhide ranch now does so well.

Published June 1999
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