Posted December 3, 2008 in Oxx Tales by Jim Markel
Red Oxx CEO Jim Markel fills us in about his trip to Reno and back for a Safari Convention, touring the big state of Texas, his fascination with the desert, shows us his beautiful and crazy travel images and tells us where you can taste the best barbecue. Let’s check in with our road weary guru.
Getting out of Dallas can be like catching a wave; timing is everything with the swell of morning traffic. We slip out mid-morning and point our sights on the Texas Hill Country. Eschewing the Interstate we slide onto the back roads with a leisurely pace. 10 days to Reno, Nevada and I intend to enjoy them all.
Looking at the map I notice roads form a nexus around certain towns. These towns are the county seat and all of the towns in the 254 counties in Texas have their own unique courthouse. Built around the end of the 1800s, these architectural gems could occupy a whole trip. One of the most surprising things you’re likely to see when in Hill Country is the exotic animal ranches. Cresting a hill you might be greeted by a Blesbok or even a Camel or two!
Deep in the heart of this part of Texas is the mother of all barbecue shacks. Pulling into Llano we are greeted by a huge cloud of smoke drifting across the road. Truckloads of mesquite are burned down into coals and then fed into the "pits". Leaping from the truck I can hardly believe my eyes, oh yes! We’ve arrived at nirvana for meat eaters. Coopers BBQ is as authentic as it gets. The experience begins right outside under the huge pavilion with stacks of mesquite piled high and pits large enough to smoke a side of beef in.
They keep it real simple down here and the gentleman running the pit is there with all the answers. Peering down through the smoke I spy an assortment of delectable items. A smoked chicken clucked my name and sitting right beside it some righteous looking brisket. Bull rings of sausages and the holy grail of pork chops – all too delicious to say no to. And the coup de grace: a bubbling cauldron of dipping sauce. I go for the full Monty; everything. Skewering my selections and splashing them into the dunking sauce our server plops them on orange cafeteria trays. Guess they’re not big on presentation here!
Next, you weigh your dinner and get some slaw and beans. Moving down the line the usual choice of sides. Something between a barbecue factory and rudimentary roadside cafeteria. That matters little after your first taste of the world famous Coopers BBQ. I methodically work away at my huge mountain of food, each bite more magnificent than the last. Food drunk and visibly swollen we stagger outside to warm ourselves by the charcoal pits. In the twilight of the evening I could’ve easily strung a hammock under the pavilion and gone to sleep. One of those perfect moments when you realize it just doesn’t get any better than this.
My eternal quest to find the next cool thing down the road has led me on some memorable side trips. The largest granite basoliths in the country is a few miles down the road so we stayed over. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a humongous pink granite rock that was exposed through erosion.
At over 450 feet in elevation and a smooth surface it looked to be a decent way to stretch our legs and work off that barbecue. Under a slight mist, we climbed to the summit. There’s just enough moisture to make footing a tad bit treacherous. Roaming around up top and feeling like an ant on a marble you get the feeling that one wrong step and it’s a long slide down. This excursion was well worth the effort with the commanding views.
To truly appreciate Texas plunge deep into the backcountry. One of the nice things about the back roads of Texas is the lack of frost heaves. The overall condition of the roads is excellent and makes for some sweet driving. Satellite radio on, we watch the terrain unfold as we descend into this fabled brush country. The transition from the Hill Country to the Brush country is like the difference between mountain and prairie. Elevation at almost sea level and the southern latitude give this land a subtropical feel.
Flora and fauna that are quite unique to this part of the United States and the history of the area is fascinating. Making our way towards Carrizo Springs takes us deep into oil country where some of the largest finds were made. Before that it was wild horses and cattle rustlers squeezing a living off the land. On the surface all seems dormant. But further south along the border lays Del Rio and Eagle Pass where things are grinding a bit in the 21st century. Immigration and illegal drug trade are today’s news. Tension simmering along the border is palpable.
A good way to find excellent Tex-Mex dining is to keep an eye out for hand painted signs. A humble sign usually belies an excellent dining experience. Each of these mom and pop operations has a unique salsa and picking out the subtle tastes is what makes the food in this region unlike any other.
Since we were running out of U.S. road so we make our way towards Big Bend National Park. In a state where 94% of the land is privately held the park is the largest chunk of public land in Texas. Another unique aspect is the isolation of the park as a destination location; you’re not likely to be just cruising by. The Chisos Mountains have the distinction of being the only mountain range totally contained within a National Park.
The thermometer hit 78 degrees in January; a glorious day as we made our way down to the Rio Grande. J.O. Langford homesteaded the hot springs here in the early 1900s and remnants of the old bathhouse are still on the north side of the river. Parking the truck and trailer it’s about a two-mile hike down to the river. (Due to vehicle restrictions).
Grabbing my Gator EDC bag and beach towel we head down the path towards the Rio Grande. The extremely arid environment has me expecting to spot a camel at any moment. No camels, but some really cool palm trees and the old hot springs store and post office.
If you’re expecting a Mai Thai and lawn chairs you’re going to be sadly disappointed. The hot springs are pretty rudimentary and wild but that’s what makes it worth the journey.
The only food and lodging in the park are located in the Chisos basin. Our destination appears like an apparition in the distance. A natural fortress of rock that juts up suddenly from the desert floor providing some shelter. Climbing over 5,400 feet in elevation we arrive at the lodge just as the sun disappears behind the rim of the canyon. Chisos mountain lodge is operated by Forever Resorts.
Since this was the first time I had stayed at an eco-lodge, I had no idea what to expect. But we were not in the position to quibble. The rooms were clean, more of a dormitory feel, certainly more than satisfactory. The lodge makes an excellent starting out point for several day hikes. Feeling the high desert calm of the evening it was off to the chow hall.
Knowing how hot it can get in the desert it’s always a good idea to do your walking early in the morning. In the pre dawn chill lots of the wild animals are active so your chances of spotting them are much higher. The Window Trail is about a 4-mile hike within the shelter of the Basin. Water and wildlife abound as the trail takes you to a narrow slot that overlooks the Chihuahuan desert. It’s here in the low point of the basin, all water flows out. The view is like standing in the door of a C-130 getting ready to jump.
If this were a window to another time you might expect to see Pancho Villa’s riders kicking up a dust cloud in the distance.
Trailing along the north side of the river, we catch glimpses of the rugged canyon of the Rio Grande. Each turn of the road unfolding a kaleidoscope of geological formations that dominates your sense of scale. Breaking out of the canyon lands we find it easy going along the southern border. We pass little towns sitting on the bitter edge of existence. Their prosperity and hope for change left somewhere in the past century. But still there are signs of habitation and I can only admire their tenacity for living out here on the border.
Running through this part of New Mexico has an almost surreal feeling. Fantastic vistas punctuated occasionally by remote cameras extended above the scrub. You actually start to think your traveling through an Orwellian creation superimposed on an ancient land. Yeah, the man is “watching” and I’m not feeling all that secure.
New Mexico State Road 9 takes you to the town of Columbus N.M. and the site of Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid into the U.S. Nice little museum and natural area, a great place to stretch your legs and picnic. Walking among the war relics of the dawn of the industrial age it is truly astounding how rapidly technology has advanced. In less than a century we have gone from the biplane and rudimentary armored vehicles.
Today we have Predator drones that are remotely controlled half a world away. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for boots on the ground. The bridge between beasts of burden and the advent of mechanization in the military was especially poignant in 1916.
With a cold front bearing down on us from the north and temperatures hitting below zero in Gallup, New Mexico it was time to make for Ajo, Arizona. By my estimations the warmest place in the United States. Coincidentally it just happens to be located adjacent to Organ Pipe National Monument. Sweet! Monster cacti warm weather and blue bird skies.
Accommodations in Ajo can best be described as vintage 1950s motel in less than pristine condition.
Time for laundry and a brief tour of the monument. The great thing about small town laundry mats is the time you get to sit down and absorb a bit of the community. Well, at least that’s what I tell myself as I’m cooling my heels. I stroll out to see what makes this little burg tick.
Rounding the first corner I spot some construction. As I glance at the Montana license plates and then the familiar logo of a local tele-communications contractor. Continuing down the street I spot a Red Oxx Cell Phone Case on the hip of one of the workers! Stopping to chat I learned the crew was down for the winter working on infrastructure. The town has a subtle well worn feel. Mining and retirement being the mainstay of the local economy since hoteliers were not setting up anything for the Monument.
Finding lodging out here on the fringe can be a bit dodgy. Our friend Pancho Villa found some accommodations here in the local jail. Lots of times these small town motels are booked full by out of state crews.
The town square is Spanish Colonial Revival as well as the old railway station. I make my way up the hill to where they’re working on the Curley School. One of those beautiful brick monsters from the Taft or Harding era perched on the hillside. The sign says 30 artists’ apartments coming soon. For a sleepy little town there was something afoot.
Wandering the streets past the old miners clapboard houses; some having been devotedly taken care of, while others in serious disrepair. Little towns all over west are all in the same type of retrograde. There’s a bit of renaissance going on here. With the advent of the Internet we’re seeing more companies relocating to the hinterlands. The old saying in Montana is that you can’t "eat the scenery." While true a few years ago, today location is not as critical as it once was. Red Oxx has now shipped from Billings to over 93 different countries. Lookout folks Opie and Andy are moving back to Mayberry to open up a real dot com.
We were right there when the local café opened. After a tremendous breakfast we headed out to Organ Pipe. The Ajo Mountain Loop is the most advised if you’re short on time and just want to wheel through. Trailer in tow we set out on the 20 plus mile jaunt across gravel. Maybe not the smartest move I’ve made but I was not to be denied my giant cacti. Under cobalt blue skies and 73 degrees we inched along the one way trail.
No sign of humanity as the terrain begins to climb and wind across an alien landscape. I don’t know what it is about deserts that really fascinate me. Maybe it is their likeness to the ocean. The mystery of how life works in such hostile environments is an intriguing paradox.
Making our way around the inside of a small box canyon I’m surprised by the amount and variety of cactus. Everywhere I look there’s another species, like a forest. Then it’s time to make for Reno, Nevada like the wind. Wind that blows along the back roads, that is.
Keeping to the state roads as much as possible we make our way over Hoover Dam. As a result of 9/11 the government is constructing a high span bypass bridge. Cars will no longer be permitted to cross the dam. After a quick check from the security detail we’re permitted passage.
There’s nothing worse than towing a trailer in a major city during rush hour so after a quick stop we decide to push on. Heading north along 95 takes you right along the back of Death Valley and Area 51 on the other side.
Looking out the window I see a Predator drone taking off from the Indian Springs Auxiliary Field. The sleek looking machine was not exactly ripping down the runway and I had a chance to keep pace. What’s surprising is the size. Trying not to wreck the truck I see it gaining altitude. Banking away the machine virtually disappears in mid air! Man, I would hate to have something like that lurking on my 6. Sort of like a man-made Great White shark that can fly.
North through this part of Nevada is all mountains and while not as high as the Sierras, they can make the drive interesting nonetheless. Tonopah is a high desert mining town that has great old buildings. Stopping there is recommended. It’s just about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. This puts us within a day’s drive of our goal.
Having worked quite a few shows in Reno I feel like I’m a part time resident. Deer Run Ranch B&B is the official Red Oxx residence when we’re exhibiting. Located in the Washoe Valley about a 1/2 hour drive from Reno. The ranch is situated above a lake and buffered by a wildlife sanctuary. The owners David and Muffy have created a comfortable sanctuary. Muffy is a master potter and her studio is full of exciting finds. David is a semi retired architect who designed and built the house. The artistic blood runs thick in this family and their daughter September Vhay is a celebrated artist in her own right.
For 4 days Reno becomes the destination of hunters from all over the world. Getting a table for dinner’s a challenge. So we searched out the less frequented establishments. Reno is home to ethnic groups that work in the casino and hotel industry. These transplants brought their cuisine. The El Salvador restaurant located down in the hood serves up the real deal.
Another place off the beaten path is the Silver Peak Brewery, a pub started by a couple of locals. Dining is top notch and they throw down a pretty mean brew, too.
The annual Safari Club International convention in Reno is the premier sporting convention in the world. Specialty manufactures, artists, gun makers and of course, Professional Hunters all converge here. Some of these gun makers only make a handful of firearms every year. Makers like Westley Richards are swarmed by movie stars and moguls. All lining up to wait years to have a one of kind weapon made to order.
Bronze artists like Christopher Smith who we commissioned to sculpt the Oxx Master Bronze and other craftsman are the best of their respective trades. But of all the exhibitors, there is one who has been a mentor to me and many others.
A remarkable man from Zimbabwe named Patrick Mavros. I recall my first meeting with this perceptive man. Strolling up to my little display many years ago he made the most succinct but truly brilliant observation. "You chaps were in the military!" Guess it takes one to know one and Patrick served as a Selous Scout back when they still called it Rhodesia. Now he’s a world famous silver sculptor with a gallery in London.
Since that first meeting Patrick and his family have all traveled extensively with Red Oxx gear. Over the years he has given me some good advice.
"Jim, like the leopard who has been hunting hard it is time to go home to the thicket and rest. Take care of your wounds and get ready to hunt again."
This was in response to our rapid growth issues. Red Oxx had been growing so fast our infrastructure development was barely keeping pace. So over the last 2 years we’ve totally focused on internal operations. The crew has been going through the manufacturing plant stripping out whole rooms and refining our processes. We are nearing completion on this extensive effort and Patrick’s advice was spot on.
The coming together of the safari community every year is something attendees and exhibitors all look forward to and it passes in a flash. Then like the horde breaking camp 5,000 exhibitors and roadies dismantle the whole production and disappear.
Heading back to the land of ice and snow is not always a joy ride. Our first challenge was a phantasmal fog that kept the sun at bay. Cutting speed it was a perfect opportunity to dial in the satellite radio and just chill as the miles roll by.
Elko is another one of those waypoints on the road home that has just what the weary traveler needs. A clean room and a killer burrito! Sergios is a solid 4 fly strips on the Mexican restaurant rating scale. The temptation to bolt for home is strong, but keeping to the natural order of progression is paramount.
Enjoying every moment of your travels is what makes the art of traveling a true passion. Heading out on the campaign trail for weeks on end has a seductive appeal. Disconnecting from your life back home and immersing yourself in the present. Sometimes the biggest worry is the weather. At other times it could be finding a decent meal and some shelter.
It’s not until we turn towards home that you really begin to miss your life there. The land out west is still fairly free and in the ever diminishing black holes of cell phone coverage, there is some peace to be found.
Evening weather reports indicate a nasty cold front bearing down on us. We set out to beat it or get stuck in Nevada. Gone were the easy days of palm trees and cactus. The march across Idaho was an exercise in white knuckle driving in 4-wheel drive. The snow had blanketed the flats and just getting to the Monida pass was a workout. Still with Montana in sight we summoned the strength to push on to Dillon before another front tried to crush us.
Piling our bags into the hotel for the last night it’s hard to believe the journey was almost at end. Left to my devices I wonder how long could I drift on the currents of my curiosity? For those of us who have that wanderlust we work and plan our next escape. Sometimes the 2 are not mutually exclusive. Stealing away to a museum on your next business trip may bring you inspiration.
Sometimes it’s the unexpected events and discoveries on the road are what form the most indelible memories in the crossroads of our mind’s eye.
Cheers, Jim Markel CEO