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Tantalizing Tex-Mex

On the banks of the Rio Grande River, in the morning shadows cast by the desert mountains of Big Bend National Park, I step to the alternate eleventh tee at the Ambush at Lajitas. Nearby four wild burros scamper away. Across the river in Mexico, backed by mission walls and a towering bluff, just ninety-nine yards but a country away, is the green—the other half of the world's only dual-citizenship par one. Before I can hit my shot, two Mexican cowboys appear, wading their horses down the river. It's as if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have ridden out of the Old West and into my golf game. I wave. "Buena suerte," one of the young vaqueros calls out. Good luck.

Long before the first white men arrived here, Comanche war parties crossed the Rio Grande at Lajitas. Pancho Villa would later do the same on his U.S. raids, prompting General Blackjack Pershing to establish a cavalry post here. Thirty years ago that post was converted into a modest tourist destination with an Old West boardwalk, novelty shops, barracks lodging and a scenic but simple nine-holer. Next to the Lajitas General Store, built in 1888, you could share a beer with the town mayor, Clay Henry. A brilliant politician, the mayor never said a word but would chug all the beers you'd buy him. Clay Henry, incidentally, was a goat.

The new mayor, Clay Henry III, has recovered from being castrated—a presumably inebriated local did the deed when someone took his bottle of beer and gave it to the goat. Practically everything else in Lajitas has been altered, too, most of it for the better. Two years ago, Texas telecom tycoon Steve Smith read in the Wall Street Journal that the entire town was about to be sold at auction. Driven by forces he says he still doesn't fully understand, Smith bought Lajitas for $4.2 million: Since then he has wagered almost $50 million more that America's most discerning golfers would come to these badlands for a good time. Smith's passion for Lajitas is easy to understand. This is a place of stark, soul-inspiring beauty surrounded by approximately one million acres of parkland, three hundred miles from the nearest big city (El Paso) and a hundred miles from the closest cell-phone tower.

The barracks are now four-star accommodations; many visitors arrive in Gulfstream jets on a new 7,500-foot runway; and the once-dilapidated Lajitas stables now sport a 30,000-square-foot covered riding arena. There's also a large outdoor amphitheater and $1 million mountaintop homesites. Still, all the amenities in Texas wouldn't cut it if the new golf course didn't live up to its dramatic setting. But Austin-based designers Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell were equal to the challenge. Despite wide Bermuda fairways and pristine bent-grass greens, the Ambush name is apropos, especially from the 7,042-yard tips, named El Jefe. (The other four sets of tees are the Rustler, Bandito, Caballero and Gambler, while the course's amusing hole names range from Ante Up and Quick Draw to Double Cross and Quick Sand.) The opening quintet lulls you into overconfidence. Then you come to the sixth, seventh and eighth, called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The last is a 470-yard par four with a vast reed-filled marsh on the right side of the fairway and a long, wicked sand trap guarding the entire left. The only thing ugly about it was my score. Uglier still was my slice on the tenth hole—the first of four holes built on an island in the Rio Grande—that landed well into Mexico, and with no immigration papers whatsoever.

With its alternate green in Mexico, the eleventh hole has a superb gimmick. And because the green is tilted back-to-front and funnels toward the permanent cup, it doesn't take much to get one close; any high shot hit fifteen or twenty feet above the hole has a chance for glory. The cowboys having moved on, my own tee ball soared out of the shadows into blinding sunlight, landed just ten feet long, caught the slope and began to trickle back toward the cup. Since I was one of the first golfers to play here, my shot would have been the first international hole in one in history, but despite my shouts of encouragement, the ball stopped six inches short of the cup.

New Realities
There's no official crossing here, no customs or immigration on either side, so historically you've been able to traverse the border without hassle either on horseback or by paying to be ferried across in a rowboat. For years the Mexican children of Paso Lajitas attended school on the American side in Lajitas. Ten years ago I crossed the river with friends. We were soon invited to a wedding fiesta, greeted with open arms and many open bottles of tequila. My last clear memory was of doing the West Texas Waltz with the bride's grandmother. It was a toss-up as to who was smiling more.

Now it's just Titleists and Callaways zipping across the river to Paso. All that cultural exchange was brought to a screeching halt just a few days before my recent trip when American border authorities, tightening our borders in the wake of September 11, confiscated the local rowboat and temporarily jailed the young man at the oars. Drawn by my fond memories of Paso, I hitched a ride across the river in a friend's four-wheel-drive truck. As we cruised up its dusty main street, my friend pointed out the new 25,000-gallon water tank that Steve Smith donated to replace the primitive system that had long delivered water via a makeshift web of garden hoses. Unfortunately, with the border closed, the children of Paso were no longer able to attend school on the other side. Here's hoping an official border crossing will open here soon, for people on both sides of the river benefit from their long and friendly relationship.

Back in El Norte, Smith's vision for Lajitas is rapidly taking shape. A second course is on the drawing board, a desert layout to be called the Outlaw. A 32,000-square-foot clubhouse and the indoor-outdoor Agave Spa, set magnificently on a hilltop overlooking the Rio Grande, are expected to open this year. An old stone house that overlooks the river has been expanded into the spectacular Ocotillo Restaurant (915-424-5035), under the direction of renowned chef Jeff Blank. With a menu of indigenous foods, it's on the grill that the deer and the antelope play, along with rattlesnake cakes, cabrito enchiladas and wild-boar quesadillas. Atop the restaurant's three-story stone tower is the Look Out Bar, where under the desert's dazzling array of stars the winter's evening chill can be chased away by outdoor fire pits, Indian blankets and aged tequila.

Out of Bounds
If you get a hankering to move farther afield, head up the road to the neighboring town of Terlingua. Home to an eclectic bunch of artists and desert rats, Terlingua is the site of the world's first and oldest chili cook-off. Year-round pleasures can be found at the cool underground bar La Kiva (915-371-2250) and at the tiny Phoenix Café (915-371-2251), where the Italian food is shockingly authentic. In the 1880s Terlingua took on international significance with the discovery of underground veins of cinnabar, an ore of mercury. Twenty-five mines were soon operating and the entire area stripped of trees to fuel the mines' furnaces, where the ore was vaporized into quicksilver. There's talk that Smith might reopen the Villa de La Mina mine as a tourist attraction, and I explored it with local cave authority Blair Pitman. Following narrow-gauge railroad tracks, we walked from intense desert heat into the cool depths of the mine. With veins of glistening manganese and red powdery cinnabar illuminated by our flashlights, we headed farther into the mountain. After long minutes when I stooped in low-ceiling tunnels, my back and my soul were uplifted when we came to natural caves that soar like cathedrals to ceilings lined with crystal formations called dogtooth spar, whose thousands of crystal points reflected our lights in all directions. How strange it must have been, I marveled, to mine poisonous mercury in such a beautiful place.

After a long and exhilarating day, I headed back to Lajitas and the casual Candelilla Café (915-424-5030), where I dined on a perfectly grilled T-bone with garlic smashed potatoes and blue-cheese chipotle butter. Were there meals here like this in Pancho Villa's time, his raids would have been nightly. Afterward, I moved to the porch of the neighboring Thirsty Goat Saloon (915-424-5033), where the heat of the day was rapidly being banished by cooling thunderstorms rumbling in from the mountains of Mexico.

As I drank in the night and another cold cerveza, I plotted how to avoid the pitfalls of the Ambush tomorrow. The sweet smell of desert rain wafted over me. Across the river in Paso, a few lights were starting to switch on. All I could think was, Butch and Sundance never had it so good.

Call 877-525-4827 or visit lajitas.com; for information on real estate at Lajitas call 877-424-3525.

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