Forty thousand miles.
That’s how far I’ve ridden on a motorcycle the last few years, through all the western states and back roads and little towns and The Big Empties.
Places like Route 50 through Northern Nevada. Seriously empty. Other than the asphalt road and a telephone line, there is little evidence of any human activity. You might as well be back in time ten thousand years.
Driving around the country in a car is one thing. You’re ensconced in comfort. Music playing, plush seats, AC, heat, and probably a cup of hot coffee in a cup holder. You’re watching a movie through the windshield. But when you’re on a motorcycle for what could end up being months at a time, you’re not watching the movie. You’re in the movie, for better or worse. You just learn to adapt to the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, the bugs, and anything else the road throws at you. And you lower your expectations and find joy in everything you see.
And you fall in love with places.
Like I fell in love with Route 50. There are only a few tiny towns and a few cars, and you always fill up when you can.
And Marathon. Pronounced Marathunn and not Marathon, and I’m not sure why.
The Marathon Motel is 388 miles from my driveway. I load up the bike with a tent, sleeping bag, and a change of clothes and leave early in the morning, and head west, then north to Llano, then west again through Iraan (pronounced Ira Ann), Eldorado (pronounced EldorAAdo) and at some point, drop down onto I-10 to avoid big trucks for a few miles and get to the motel around eight hours later. I’m usually riding with JimBob and another friend or two, and we used to stay in his vintage Airstream, but the trailer died, and now we camp.
And the rest of the world goes away for a time when we get there.
There is always that cliché talk about some places having a different rhythm. Time stands still, or moves more slowly, or whatever. I try to avoid cliches in my thinking, but cliches are cliches because maybe they have a seed of truth.
And time does move a little slower in Marathon.
It’s 30 miles from another city, with one road going through the middle and a railroad track. A couple times a day, the train rolls through and will shock the hell out of you at first, then you just kinda stop hearing it. It’s the thing that marks time, really, and when you spend enough time there, it becomes the reminder that life is still rolling along on big, slow-moving steel wheels.
After a time, the train is reassuring.
You’re still here. Not a lot going on. What kind of bird is that?
As you get to know a place, you start to see why people end up there. With 390 people in Marathon, you find some were born nearby and have always stayed, but most wandered through, found a reason to stay and just stayed.
Danny was at a wedding in the late 90s and ended up at the motel because the Gage was booked. He fell in love with the place and ended up buying it.
Now he’s been there over 22 years and has heard that train go by around 48,000 times.
Danny has a couple beautiful Indian motorcycles, and we ride together. The motel is a nice place to call home for a while. The rooms are nice and always pristine and the big courtyard is beautiful with flowers, fountains and a fireplace that always has a stack of firewood and fatwood starters. Any time I’m there, I get the fire started and before long, other guests wander over and we solve the problems of the universe and Danny will usually show up and have a cigar and a glass of evening bourbon.
In the mornings, we used to walk down to The Oasis for a leisurely breakfast, but that closed down last year so it’s the V6 for coffee and Wi-Fi. I find myself there working a bit every day. Amidst all my screwing off on a motorcycle, I still maintain some ad clients that kindly pay for my screwing off on a motorcycle.
Eventually, we’ll pick a destination and ride. The River Road, Terlingua, a burrito in Marfa, Presidio, Fort Davis, and a milkshake and onion rings at the drugstore. Wherever we go, the air is bright, the views are forever and the roads are unencumbered by cars.
We’re not in a hurry.
We’re unlikely to get any speeding tickets.
We all just find riding motorcycles around Big Bend to be that big exhale you do when you’ve been holding your breath for a while.
And Marathon is part of that exhale. Both the place and the people. Eventually, if you spend enough time there, you start to understand the rhythm of the place.
Every Friday is burger night at the French Company Grocer. Burger night? Who the hell cares. Every damned day and night is burger day and night in every town in America. Why is Friday special in Marathon?
Damned if I know.
But the dirt lot behind the French Company ends up being filled with half the town and burgers are cooking and there’s usually a band. It’s mostly locals, and occasionally a tourist wanders down from the Gage.
It’s just a burger. It’s a good burger, but it’s the center of the week for a lot of the people who live there.
Sam found himself in Marathon and ended up working out a deal to buy the little market. It’s the only market in Marathon, so it has to serve the people going into the national park, tourists staying in town and the folks who live there. The next closest market is in Alpine, 30 miles away.
And oddly enough, the French Company Grocer puts Marathon very high on my “Caper Index.”
Caper Index, you ask?
This is something I came up with while riding around The Big Empty over the years. I would end up in places and wonder why someone lived there and HOW they lived there. The Caper Index is simple.
Imagine you’re cooking trout almondine, and it’s early evening. You suddenly realize you have no capers, and trout almondine ain’t doodly-squat without capers.
How much trouble is it to get some capers?
Let’s say you live 40 miles from the nearest source of capers. Now you’re looking at an hour and a half round trip for said capers. So that would rate really low on the Caper Index. Maybe a 1 or a 2. But if you live in Marathon, you just walk down to the French Company and they have capers. They have everything from great steaks to hats to fresh sandwiches and cookies and little metal medallions that say “Love Lasts Longer in Marathon.”
So that puts Marathon pretty high on the Caper Index. I’d put them at a 7 or 8, considering Alpine is 30 miles away.
Then there’s the Gage. It’s a beautiful, historic hotel with a great bar and restaurant. The chicken fried steak is, in my opinion, the best in Texas and Texas takes its chicken fried steak pretty seriously. I get one every time I find myself in Marathon and I generally avoid food that will kill me. That’s my motorcycle’s job.
And the White Buffalo Bar. There is a real white buffalo head on the wall. It’s a small place but it’s got good juju. It’s an amicable mix of locals, ranchers in town for a whoop and tourists. Sometimes you’ll see a line of shiny Ferraris all parked in front of the Gage because an owner’s group raced out there for a weekend of shiny fast, and they’re all having drinks in the bar in Ferrari shirts.
They’ll be drinking ranch water with real ranchers, and everyone gets along just fine.
And there’s Danielle. She seems to be in the middle of everything that is Marathon. She’s lived there for years, is raising a family there, works for a hydrology company, works with the Marathon to Marathon, works with the library and local ranchers, and seems to be involved in just about everything. Oh, and she edits this magazine. One wonders when she exhales that exhale the rest of us do when we get there.
I’ve met a lot of people with the “We stopped here for lunch and are still here 30 years later” story.
Marathon just seems to be that kind of place. It’s not flashy or all that special when you first have a little taste, but eventually, you learn to love it.
For me, I compare it to a place like Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg is a nice place, very touristy with some real history, and I ride through and have lunch fairly often but I don’t love it. Marathon is a tiny spot of its own self at the end of a long journey and the water tastes good, the sky is big and very blue during the day and very black at night and the stars are all there waiting to see you because they can’t when you’re back wherever you live the rest of the time.
So maybe yes, maybe love does last longer in Marathon.
Maybe Big Bend Never Leaves you and Love Lasts Longer in Marathon.
I’ll be back in a couple weeks, and I’ll let you know.
By Chris Greta