Although it’s a spring morning in Marathon, gateway to the Big Bend, it looks more like a hot midsummer’s afternoon—vacant sidewalks, shuttered shops, and empty streets. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all accommodations including the Gage Hotel, Marathon Motel, and Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast have been closed for weeks, an abrupt end for spring break. Big Bend National Park, its biggest attraction, is also off-limits. Now Marathonians have been asked to tuck in at 10 p.m., a countywide mandate and perhaps an unnecessary curfew for this sleepy town where lights-off happens around then anyway. After living here for 20 years, I should be accustomed to the peace and quiet. But this feels different—no quick trips to the national park to take some night pictures, no overnight backpacks, no travel plans to write a story or deliver some commissioned art, and no local get-togethers for potluck dinners or springtime bonfires.
In a community this tiny—population around 400—everyone feels a bit like family, for better or worse. We’re managing to maintain our distance but also our sense of humor. Samuel Stavinoha, the proprietor of French Company Grocer, is doing his best to keep the chiller stocked with fresh organic produce. He also offers a homemade hand sanitizer for customers. If requested, he’ll even wear a plushy unicorn mask while scanning your purchases.
“I’m selling out immune system boosters like blueberries every week,” Sam mumbles through unicorn fuzz. “And lots of yeast. Everyone wants to make bread.” Sam’s also making fresh kale available, courtesy of his neighbor Marian Collins and her garden.
Marian was sewing face masks when I caught up with her. “I’ve got to do something with my time when I’m not gardening,” Marian tells me. She’s sharing the last of her winter crops with shut-in neighbors, dropping a mixed bag of kale, broccoli, and asparagus on doorsteps around town.
Down the block, in another garden full of edibles, Alaine Berg of Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast is working on a cookbook. She was in the kitchen listening to a podcast from NPR when I called.
“The cookbook will feature recipes for all of our favorite meals at Eve’s, including buttermilk ricotta pancakes with lemon curd and homemade blueberry maple sausage, served with homemade yogurt.” If the words alone sound delicious, you can bet it’s even better in your mouth. And what’s new in the garden? “Mulberries are about to fruit,” Alaine reports. “Jelly!”
Locals who are growing weary of their own cooking can phone in orders for BBQ brisket sandwiches and a growler to-go every Saturday afternoon from Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue. Curbside service begins at the end of the make-shift drive-thru lane down Marathon’s main street (follow the orange traffic cones). And how is the Vault’s pitmaster and sports fan Phillip Moellering fighting off the doldrums when he’s not firing up the pit? “Streaming [Xbox] Game Pass. Big time.”
Marathon Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brad Wilson had some reassuring news. “Things have been really quiet,” Brad reported. “It’s usually the high season for tourists around here but with only 27 hospital beds in the entire county to handle medical emergencies, it’s probably good everyone has gone home.”
My Marathon gallery, Klepper Gallery, is shuttered as well although I’m still at work in the studio. But I find I need to spend some time outside every day, whether to ride a bicycle or lay in the hammock and stare at the sky. Yesterday, I hung an old cast iron bell in the yard that once belonged to my grandfather, Leo Dibrell. Born in Texas in 1901, Leo would have been 17 years old during the 1918 pandemic, surviving under the care of an extensive Klepper family. I spray-painted the bell golden before I hung it in place.
Once all of this is finally over, I’m going to ring it.
“Small-Town Dispatches” is a new series from Texas Highways focused on how COVID-19 is affecting some of our favorite Texas communities, from writers who live there or live close enough to visit often.
Read more from this series.