I first saw West Texas when I moved to Austin from California last year. It wasn’t a good time. I barely registered the dry flatness of much of the terrain after I entered my new home state on Interstate 10 during the last leg of a three-day journey, my car packed with the belongings I had carefully picked out of the Bay Area apartment where I had lived with my wife. It was stipulated in the divorce that I had rights to half of our shared possessions, but I wanted to travel as light as possible. I was ready for a fresh start.
Embarking on a new phase of life turned out to be as exhausting as it was exhilarating. About eight months after I arrived, I needed a break. I also wanted to give the western part of Texas the time and attention it deserved. So, early on a cold morning in January, I set out in the dark on the eight-hour drive to Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, about thirteen miles southwest of Terlingua, right up against the Rio Grande and adjacent to Big Bend National Park. My excitement at the prospect of a few days off the grid made the journey pass quickly.
The sun was at its zenith when I swung into the resort. I checked in, dropped my bags in my room, and took a stroll around the grounds, which cover 27,000 acres. Right away, I was enveloped by Lajitas’s most noticeable characteristic: the silence. It was so quiet that I realized my ears were still ringing from the road.
I walked up a small rise toward the Officer’s Quarters section, which houses suites that overlook Black Jack’s Crossing, the property’s eighteen-hole championship golf course. The vista was magnificent. Undulating fairways stretched into desert mountains that looked like a painted movie set for a western epic.
I took a deep breath and stretched my arms over my head. I already felt relaxation setting in. My eyes traced back down the mountains and across the fairways and stopped at the golf range, which I noticed with delight was all grass, unlike the mats of artificial turf common at urban facilities. A big, doughnut-shaped green for putting practice sat behind it, and in the center was a huge black statue of two figures on horseback. But before I could go investigate, I had an appointment to keep at the spa.
My one previous spa experience took place more than a decade ago, at a Turkish bath in Istanbul. What I remember most was a shirtless bear of a man, probably the descendant of some champion Ottoman wrestler, aggressively brushing my back with a loofah that looked like an oversized oven mitt and felt like industrial-grade sandpaper.
Lajitas’s Agave Spa has a menu of much gentler services, including facials and body treatments, as well as more specialized options, such as the Golfer’s Massage. I opted for the intriguing Desert Rain Body Wrap and submitted myself to the care of Lisa, a friendly employee with a warm smile and forearms and hands that appeared capable of ripping a hardcover book in two. Lisa led me to the Laurel room, one door over from a room called Sage. It matched my mental image of a spa’s interior, with an essential-oil diffuser, sepia lighting, a white massage bed, and gentle flute music. I entered stiff and fatigued from the long drive but nonetheless mildly skeptical of spas and massages, which I have long associated with “healing” stones, astrology, and yoga pants.
The wrap began with a gentle dry brush followed by a full-body rubdown with chaparral-infused jojoba oil and shea butter, which, Lisa told me, smells like the desert when it rains. It didn’t matter to me whether it were true or hullabaloo—I breathed it in. After the oil massage, she swaddled me in a plastic tarp, which traps body heat, and left me for the final ten minutes. By that point, my muscles were soft and limber, and my mind felt as if it were soaking in a natural hot spring. When the treatment was over, I mumbled my gratitude to Lisa, floated back to my room, and napped. I’d been converted.
The resort offers 125 guest rooms spread across two main areas divided by the two-lane Farm-to-Market Road 170. Visitors can choose from standard accommodations, luxury suites, and entire cottages. On the north side of the property is an RV park and a walled compound containing the Cavalry Post, featuring 26 deluxe queen and king rooms plus 2 cabins, and La Cuesta, which includes 12 one-bedroom suites next to the swimming pool. On the south side is the core of the resort, called the Lajitas Boardwalk, styled as an Old West town, which comprises the reception area, Agave Spa, and three dining options. (Just to the west of the Boardwalk, construction is underway on 12 condo-style units, dubbed the Lakeside Cottages.) I was staying in the Badlands Hotel, in the Boardwalk area, which contains the resort’s least expensive accommodations, at about $160 a night during my visit. My queen room was a small, sparse affair that straddled the line between rustic and run-down. But I didn’t spend a lot of time there—there was too much to do.
The resort’s activities include horseback trail rides, stand-up paddleboarding on the Rio Grande, and gun and archery outings. I attempted the Combat Course, which was designed by two Iraq War veterans based on their boot camp training. I discovered I couldn’t hit a barn door with a handgun but was a crack shot with an AR-15.
One of Lajitas’s main attractions is its proximity to Big Bend National Park. I had reserved Monday to drive the hour to the park’s Chisos Basin visitors center and hike the thirteen-mile South Rim Loop. It’s a demanding trail with a 2,800-foot elevation gain that rewards hikers with an extraordinary view of the basin from 7,500 feet above sea level. Granted, I’m still getting to know Texas, but the Big Bend area is the most beautiful I’ve encountered. I felt I had communed with an iconic part of Texas’s soul. I returned to Lajitas smitten and more emotionally connected to my new home state.
I had set aside my last full day for what I was looking forward to the most: playing golf at Black Jack’s Crossing. I arrived well before my 9 a.m. tee time to warm up and was thrilled to discover that I was all alone. I hopped in a golf cart and drove to the practice range to get in some full swings before putting. The air was crisp, and there was a touch of dew on the grass. This was going to be a good day. Satisfied with my swing, I turned and walked to the putting green and finally got an up-close look at the fourteen-foot-tall, six-ton bronze statue I’d spotted when I first arrived: it was Robert E. Lee on horseback, accompanied by an aide-de-camp. A recent plaque informed me that the monument, unveiled in Dallas in 1936, had been relocated to Lajitas in 2019. “May we always remember lest we forget,” it read. “May we never forget lest we repeat our mistakes.”
This was not the general I would’ve expected to see memorialized here. The course takes its name from John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who famously led U.S. troops from West Texas across the Rio Grande to pursue Pancho Villa, the charismatic Mexican revolutionary leader who had looted and burned a town in New Mexico in retaliation for U.S. support for his major rival in Mexico’s civil strife. Lee, before leading Confederate forces in the American Civil War, had served briefly as a U.S. Army officer at posts near Fort Worth and Brownsville but is not generally associated with Texas. So what was he doing here? What mistakes, exactly, was he meant to remind us of?
Those were my first fleeting thoughts, but I worked to put them out of my head. All of my psychological momentum had been directed at letting go of the world, at giving myself a relaxing few days after a difficult year. I decided to feel not so much dismay as embarrassment for the resort. I hurried over to the first tee. I shanked my first shot. I stepped back, admired the resplendent mountains, and re-teed. I striped the ball down the middle of the fairway, and the statue receded quickly from my mind.
Black Jack’s Crossing is a spectacular golf course. Golfweek magazine named it the best in Texas in 2021. The rippling fairways are immaculate, and the sloping greens roll fast and true. It could probably also be described as Texas’s most unlikely golf course. Its first iteration was destroyed by a flash flood in 2008. At that time, the resort had just come under new management, which hired retired professional golfer Lanny Wadkins to design a new course and make it less susceptible to water damage. It opened in 2012. It’s 7,413 yards from the tips, but three other tee boxes make it fun for scratch golfers and humble hackers. The resort felt very far away for most of the round. The first six holes take you nearly two miles from the property and deep into the mountains. (Carts are included in the green fees.) The last four holes skirt the Rio Grande; it’s an unofficial tradition to launch a ball over the river and into Mexico from the fifteenth tee box. It was golfing nirvana.
The following morning, before my departure, a staff member took me on a golf cart to tour parts of the resort I hadn’t seen, including the Cavalry Post–La Cuesta compound. The main entrance opened onto a large courtyard, and there, at its center, stood a thirty-foot-tall stone pedestal. I found myself staring at a monument in honor of the Confederate Army, which, like the Lee statue, had once stood in a Texas city—in this case Beaumont. It was installed at the resort last year.
Dallas’s city council had voted to remove the Lee statue from a local park in 2017, following white supremacist violence over the planned removal of a similar statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, while Beaumont’s council removed that city’s monument in 2020, after the police murder of Houston native George Floyd in Minneapolis. Both statues were purchased—for about $1.43 million and $25,000, respectively—by Holmes Firm PC, a law firm in Dallas, which didn’t reveal whether it was acting on its own or on behalf of a buyer. Dallas is the home of Kelcy Warren, the energy billionaire who has owned Lajitas since 2007. He too has not spoken publicly about the Confederate monuments, apparently leaving that to Scott Beasley, the managing director of Lajitas and president of Dallas-based WSB Resorts & Clubs.
Beasley told me that the resort’s intention was to preserve two “fabulous pieces of art.” But he also believes Lee is misunderstood and was not “a bad guy,” and while he respects the opinion of those who think otherwise, he hopes the statue may inspire a reconsideration. The monuments, he said, have by and large been “a nonissue” for the resort, which has received few complaints. Beasley estimates that about a quarter of the 60,000 or so guests who came last year thanked the resort for preserving the statues.
I can only report my own reaction. I did not appreciate having a contentious political issue thrust in my face during an expensive vacation, especially given that the resort’s website contains no mention of these statues. Because there were no significant Civil War battles within 650 miles of Terlingua, the monuments make about as much sense there as if they were erected in Palm Springs or Maui.
I went to Lajitas to get away for a bit. The staff members were unerringly kind and helpful. The golf was phenomenal. The spa was rejuvenating. And the quiet, majestic desert worked its magic, for a while. But my great escape ended while I was still at the resort.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “(Trying to) Get Away From It All.” Subscribe today.