We had been on the road for nearly six hours, having eaten only a couple of mini bagels several hours ago. Marathon was the last populated area that stood between us and the hour and a half long drive to our lodge in Big Bend National Park.
With dwindling cell phone service, I looked up restaurants in Marathon. There were less than a dozen, and almost all were small, local joints. Since we didn’t want to go out of our way, we decided to stop at the closest, a pizza place, since it had good ratings.
We pulled up to what looked like a stucco house, half finished with a myriad of metal objects and old cars in front. We almost did a double take, but being in the middle of the desert there weren’t even any other buildings nearby to mistake it for. Sure enough, there was a weather-worn sign outside that said Big Bend Pizza. We walked inside, not knowing we were about to meet some of our new favorite people in west Texas.
The small interior was lined with random desks, tables, folding chairs and rolling office chairs that made the dining area feel almost more like a flea market. A couple was sitting at a table in the back eating. The woman finished her lunch, stood and greeted us. We ordered and she stepped back into the kitchen, where we could watch her making the pizza through a large opening.
Soon, the man who had been sitting in the back finished his lunch as well and he asked us where we were from. It didn’t take long for us to find out he and his wife were the owners of the spot.
Susan and Wesley moved from Kansas City to Marathon 10 years ago to work on “papercrete” houses — a lightweight, insulating, low cost material made from paper pulp and a small amount of concrete. Wesley said he just thought it would be fun to build paper houses.
After several years of building houses in the Marathon area, Wesley said they wanted to slow down a bit and do something more relaxing. They found an old pizza oven in a field and took it as a sign. With no culinary experience, they decided to open a pizza place in 2014. By this point in their story, I knew I liked these people.
“My kids said, ‘Mom, you’ve never cooked in your life,’” Susan said, laughing.
“She learned a lot,” Wesley added. “We spiced up our sauce and learned how to make our own dough.”
The couple hates wasting food, so their daily specials tend to be whatever they have on hand. Often, they make a big batch of soup and salad for lunch and serve the leftovers as the specials.
In his spare time, with no rush or deadline, Wesley is working on designing a new entrance for the restaurant, with wood and metal works. The sign out front is one he made for his sister who used to own “Big Bend Salon,” but she later moved out of Marathon. He reused the sign for the pizza place — giving it part of its charm. For Wesley, perfection and business success aren’t his goals.
“Success isn’t in a big house or business,” he said. “You don’t take that with you when you die. Success is who you are. That’s what you take with you.”
Though he’s humble, Big Bend Pizza is a hit. Wesley said they’ve never advertised — good reviews on sites like Yelp keep bringing people in. It helps that it’s the only pizza place around, but their signature spicy sauce is what makes you want to go back.
Before we left, Susan offered us a map to Big Bend and they both shared their favorites stops. We asked if they went to the park very often.
“Not anymore, we’ve been so busy with the pizza-” Wesley started and abruptly cut himself off. “No, that’s just an excuse. People make so many excuses, but you’ll always find time for what you love.”
Now I knew I really liked Wesley and Susan.