|DESERT OASIS: Lajitas offers five-star accomodations and amenities amid the barrenness of West Texas.|
I felt odd standing in a thick cotton bathrobe, nibbling on my midnight snack of fruit, cheese, and chocolate, watching the vast barren darkness of the desert. And it was strange to hear the running water of the fountain, strange to smell roses. Lajitas, a resort ensconced between Big Bend national and state parks, is beautiful, ethereal, and startling in its contrasts.
Lajitas also arrogantly defies the desert, with its lush bougainvillea and green golf course, with soufflés and champagne and 240-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, with its pool and spa, in the way it cools and soothes and uncracks the skin. This is the desert, with rocks and dust and unmitigated sun, fierce and stark enough to evoke wonder that anyone ever settled here at all. And Lajitas, one of the three Leading Small Hotels of the World in Texas, where every need is quickly and courteously met, is the antithesis of a desert’s indifference.
Lajitas was not always like this. When Austin telecom millionaire Steve Smith bought it in 2000 for $4.25 million, Lajitas was an unprofitable resort. And, initially, it served Smith as an excellent place to hang with the guys—after all, the whole town of Lajitas cost less than some of his other ranches, I hear he’s fond of saying. But he decided to make it a world-class resort and so started bringing in the big guns: chef Jeff Blank of Hudson’s on the Bend co-owns the resort’s main restaurant; Peter O’Brien, executive chef and ’86 Highland Park grad, came from Austin’s Si’ Bon; Daniel Hostettler, who used to work at La Posada, now is CEO.
The resort bills itself as the ultimate hideout, a place where the wealthy can go to escape it all. And it is both an escape and a place for the wealthy—dinner conversation one night turned toward an involved discussion of the private jets available to members of Lajitas and how much more cost-efficient the $50,000 membership is than buying a fraction of a jet. Indeed, private jet is the preferred mode of transportation to Lajitas; the nearest public airport is Midland, a three-hour drive away.
For those who want to make Lajitas more than a weekend venture, 400 lots are under development. Some of the homes that will be built are expected to have landing strips instead of driveways. The golf course and the hunt club attract guests whose relaxation must also have purpose. Corporate clients come here, renting out the entire resort for meetings (Lajitas has a fully equipped boardroom), allowing employees to get massages between meetings to set sales goals. And outdoor adventures abound: guests can ride horses through the desert (the horse is already saddled; the guide, perhaps a former EMT, offers water), kayak down the Rio Grande, and eat lunch prepared by O’Brien, the resort’s gregarious executive chef.
At first, locals were upset by the new routine, by the outsiders coming in and taking over, perhaps even by the idea that Lajitas would function as someone’s private ranch. Hostettler, in particular, has worked on community relations, meeting with local firemen, for example, and other groups. Lajitas also now has a seven-day-a-week medical clinic available to locals, employees, and guests. That’s important when the big town of Alpine is an hour away and the clinic in tiny Terlingua recently closed for good.
Water is also an issue. Lajitas is in a desert, and, in some ways, a golf course seems hubristic in its remaking of the land. The staff at Lajitas is sensitive to this. The new golf course manager has reduced watering by 150,000 gallons a day. All the water used for irrigation is recycled. Smith dug and dug until he found water—an aquifer deep enough that some hydrologists say it will last well into the next century. “The aquifer is self-regenerating,” Hostettler says, “and there does not appear to be any issue at all.” However, he also points out that the resort is conservative with its water use and “conscious at all times that our neighbors do not have the ability to dig wells and thus have a limited water supply. Being in a desert region in general, we want to be good citizens.” This doesn’t change the fact that there’s a golf course in the desert (and a second in the works). It does, however, soften it.
Other deserts have resorts, of course. What else is Vegas, with its oxygenated rooms and dancing fountains, if not arrogant in its defiance of the desert? Scottsdale and Palm Springs, too, are known for golfing and pampering in the midst of vast barrenness. Though I’ve not been to either, I suspect that Lajitas is different. It’s barely a village, much less a city. The wall of your bedroom is all that separates your breath from the outside air. The desert becomes at once more intimate and more alien; so little exists between you and it.
And perhaps that is part of why the luxury of Lajitas both delighted and unsettled me: the desert was so close, the richness sharp in contrast. Generally, fine food and tiled bathrooms fill me with pleasure. But I’m accustomed to thinking of them in more developed parts of the world—in London or San Francisco, perhaps even the Mayan Riviera. Lajitas’ propinquity to Big Bend, a place people visit to strip away luxury, forced me to think. Every city, every town, every farm, every Versailles in the world began when someone decided to irrigate, to dig, to build. Listening to plans about homes that will be built in Lajitas, watching the water ray out from the sprinklers on the golf course, reveling in the scent of roses each time I walked back to my room, I wondered what it means that, given enough time and wealth, we can reshape the land to our pleasure.
Moira Muldoon is an Austin-based freelancer and poet. Her work has appeared on Salon and Wired.com, and she currently has two columns, “A Girl Walks into a Bar…” and “Book It!” in the Austin American-Statesman.