I find myself in some pretty unusual places on a regular basis, but last week’s whirlwind trip to Sanderson, Texas, notched a new experience for me.
For the first time ever, I soaked in a horse trough filled with warm water in the courtyard of a retro funky hotel while a four-piece band performed a private concert.
I tilted my head back, swirled the water around the “cowboy tub” where I was lounging outside my room at the Desert Air Motel, and watched stars pop out against a velvet sky as the Terrell County Buzzards strummed and sang Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” A 6-foot metal T-rex looked on from a corner.
The old-school, drive-up-to-your-room motel opened in 1960 in tiny Sanderson, Texas, a short drive from Langtry, former home of Judge Roy Bean. Sanderson is mostly known as a stop along the railroad and the site of a tragic flood in 1965 that killed 26 people, but I’ve been hearing good things about it lately and wanted to check it out.
Sara and Nick Ryza of Dripping Springs couple discovered the West Texas town by accident on their way back from a camping trip in Big Bend National Park two years ago.
“It all began with a wrong turn,” Sara Ryza says.
“All the sudden we were seeing signs for Sanderson,” Nick Ryza says. “We didn’t have any GPS signal, so we couldn’t see where we were until we got into town.”
They’d never been to Sanderson. They’d never even heard of it before. But when they made a return trip to Big Bend with some friends a few months later, they purposely stayed at another old motel, since closed, at the opposite end of town as the Desert Air. “We joked that the rooms were so cheap, let’s just rent entire place – let’s just buy it,” Sara Ryza says.
When their friend, Joe Godin, was driving out of town the next morning, he noticed a for-sale sign in front of the Desert Air. Three months later the Ryzas and Godin owned their own motel.
In the two years since they bought the place, they’ve renovated the iconic sign out front, ripped out the old carpeting and installed new flooring in all the rooms, and replaced the bedding and upgraded the cable system. They’ve installed cool wooden benches outside the rooms with personalized metal brackets, and created a nice picnic area under some big trees in the parking lot.
Now they’re adding a community kitchen, and creating another “backyard,” where guests will be able to sit on top of an old school bus to watch the sun set. The best part? You can get a room for less than $100.
It’s a groovy little spot, and Sanderson’s a crusty looking town with a community of kind (and opinionated!) residents. I got the local’s tour, visiting a memorial to the flood victims, driving through the cemetery where a couple of train robbers are buried, hiked a ridge above the high school football stadium (which doubles as a retention pond), bought a metal roadrunner at the Z-Bar hardware store, and ate an amazing burger at the Ranch House, where the wait staff all wear pistols on their hips.