A Road Runs Through It: Van Horn at the Crossroads

Hear about a small town at the crossroads of interstates that slice all over Texas and the ground zero for space travel.

By Tom MichaelNovember 12, 2015 9:45 am, ,

This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio.

This is a truck stop town and we’re in the center of it, with Patricia Golden from the Van Horn Chamber of Commerce. “This is the old Hwy 80,” Golden says. “The bank-head highway and the cross road here is Highway 90. And that’s where the hotel is – El Capitan Hotel, then kitty-corner we have the Clark Hotel Museum.”

There’s a fountain outside El Capitan, Van Horn’s historic hotel. At the front desk, Pat Munoz says guests come from all parts of the globe. “We’ve got guests from Germany, from Poland, all the United States,” Munoz says.

But they don’t stay long. “One night stays, that’s the majority of it,” Munoz says.

People look for things to do. “They visit the museum. They always ask what can they do, what can they visit,” Munoz says. “We always direct them to the museum.”

Golden opens the door to the museum, the old Clark residence. “The Clarks were ranchers. They sold seeds and cactus, I know. This is the lobby. Where standing in where the Clarks used to live,” Golden says.

They turned their home into a hotel. “There’s a sign here that says please ring the bell,” she says.

A dusty old ledger is open on the desk. “This is their register book,” Golden says.

Almost a century later, the world still passes through Van Horn. Things haven’t changed. “No, not much,” Golden says. “I get tourists all the time and they’re from all these places. And it’s that Bankhead Highway that we sit on. It’s that main highway on the southern route.”

A transcontinental road – the Bankhead Highway – is gone. There’s Interstate 10 now.

Pam Young, a retired schoolteacher, has lived here 56 years. Van Horn’s tagline is Crossroads of the Texas Mountain Trail. “We have mostly motels,” Young says. “Then we also have lots of service stations, gas stations and then restaurants. Although we don’t have as many restaurants as we used to have.”

Young sits across from her friend Darice McVay. “I was born and raised here,” McVay says. “I graduated from high school here. And we used to laugh and say if you stand in the middle of Van Horn, it’s 120 miles to everything.”

“They used to say – whenever Darice and I were growing up – if you wanted to go anywhere scenic, you had to go through Van Horn,” Young says.

McVay lives northwest of town at the Red Rock Ranch, known for its wind-carved sandstone, pictographs, and big horn sheep. It’s a relic now, with abandoned buildings around a large courtyard, but you can see where her grandfather and father kept their motel empire, the old McVay Courts.

“Yeah this is the house I grew up in,” McVay says. “And this is the office from the court. This is front of the station, some of the rooms are singles and some of them are for truckers.”

The McVay Courts thrived for more than 30 years. Then, “My daddy closed it down in the late 60s and early 70s,” McVay says. “But something else happened in the early 1970s: Oh, the interstate back there.”

That dull roar in the background, that, for the past 40 years has carried drivers past Van Horn at high speeds.

Burt Brownfield and has lived in Van Horn since 1970. He just celebrated his 90th birthday, at El Capitan, with chile verde and tortillas, and neighbors telling tales about him. “It’s a nice little town to live in,” Brownfield says. “I like it very much.”

Van Horn was his place for a second chance, when raising cotton failed. “And that’s what broke me – Señor Cotton,” he says.

Tourism is still the main economic activity. Instead of cars, there may soon be rockets. Blue Origin’s first developmental spacecraft test flight took off this spring. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Rocket scientists are developing sub-orbital flights outside of Van Horn for space tourism.

“They’ve made an impact on the town,” Pam Young says.

“Well we have this Blue Origin,” Brownfield says. “Bezos bought a lot of land here. You buy a ticket and they put you up and bring you back.”

It’s an expensive ticket. Would Brownfield do it? “Sure, I’d go tomorrow,” he says.

At age 90 he still drives his pickup. He quit competitive team roping five years ago and just gave up horseback riding two years ago. But into the skies? Heck, yeah, just days before, he was up in a small plane.

“Just got through with a friend who owned an airplane,” Brownfield says. “And how pretty it is. It’s green for a change. And the Sierra Diablo escarpment was green and pretty. So we took some pictures of that.”

And that’s his question for the astronauts. What does West Texas look like from way up there. Is it just as green?

“I ranched awhile too and I had always liked the rain,” he says. “I was wondering if they could see some of the green different, a different color. But anyway, it’s outer space, whatever that is.”

In West Texas, there’s always room for improvement. You can go a little faster on the roads, or a little higher in the sky, but the concerns remain down to earth.