Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Breaking at Big Bend

"Livin' on the road my friend is gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath's as hard as kerosene."

Considering how long I've live in Texas, I've seen relatively little of it. True, it's a honking big state with an endless, monotonous panhandle, a huge sweltering agricultural valley, dicey tourist towns along the Mexican border, chemical complexes along the eastern border and a good half year of ferocious climatic conditions unconducive to outdoor explanations.

There are cultural centers and scenic attractions in the Lone star State, and I've seen many of those, especial any within an easy day's drive. I've climbed Enchanted Rock. I've weekended in Corpus Christi. I've spent time in Austin and DFW. I've vacationed at the Riverwalk in San Antonio - remember the Alamo! In my corporate life, I attended business boondoggles on Lake Conroe, in Seabrook and Galveston, and at the company's dude ranch in Bandera.

I've ridden horses in the hill country. I've visited picturesque Fredericksburg and Kerrville, walked in Lost Maples, toured the Blue Bell factory in Brenham, enjoyed Shakespeare at Winedale and pie at nearby Royers. In my younger, stupider days, I sunned on the beaches in Port Aransas, sailed in Kemah, trekked the mission at Goliad. Close to home, I've enjoyed the zoo and free quality entertainment at Miller Theatre.

In 1983, less than a year married, my first husband and I drove to Santa Fe for Christmas, to meet up with friends and go cross-country skiing. This involved taking I-10 for 500 miles to Fort Stockton, then hanging a right onto US-285 for another 400 miles. It was the first time I'd seen tumbleweeds. I was so enchanted with them that we brought two home, where they blew around our back yard for the next several years. That was the only memorable thing about the drive.

With a probable move out of Texas within the next year looming, and Neil wanting to get some vacation plans on the books, Big Bend National Park made it to the top tier of my bucket list. I figured, if I'd never gone there in all the years I lived in Texas, it was highly unlikely that I'd ever come back to go there. So several months ago I did a little googling about best times to visit Big Bend and booked a room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for three nights in April. We're just back a week now.

I'm very glad we went. Neil had been there once before, doing undergraduate field work at Sul Ross State University to finish his BS in Geology. Most of his time was spent in geogolically similar terrain closer to Alpine, Texas, but he and his cohorts did make a field trip to the park. So he had the fun of seeing it from the vantage point of 35 year-old memory while it was all new to me and like nothing I'd ever seen.

The mountains of Big Bend are beautiful and breathtaking, but in a different way from the mountains of the northwest parks like Yellowstone and Glacier and Rocky, different from the California parks like Yosemite and Sequoia and Lassen, different from the western parks like Grand Canyon, Zion and Mesa Verde (all of which are different from each other too, of course). There's something more rugged and elemental in Big Bend, more stark, less green, more expansive and arid and terrestrial. Dinosaur bones have been discovered there and it seems like it would have been the perfect stomping ground for the big beasts, although I'm not sure what they'd have eaten. Cattle barely survive now.

The park now is inhabited by small numbers of bears, larger numbers of mountain lions and coyotes, purportedly plenty of javelina and jackrabbits, but we saw only birds, not even so much as a road kill.

And we either hit an unseasonably hot spell or I was badly misinformed about the best time to visit Big Bend, because it was blistering hot. Only the night before we left had I packed a couple of tank tops, thinking I'd layer them under my long-sleeved shirts and hoodies. Turns out I lived in them and wished I'd packed shorts or capris or lightweight pants. My jeans could have walked home on their own after 3 days of hiking in them. The wool socks and boots were necessary evils. I was too sparing with the sunblock and I missed a few tender places, so I had a nice red burn around the outline of my bra by day three.

Was it worth it? Oh yeah. It was beautiful and peaceful and exotic and ever since I discovered them at the old age of 20 years, mountains make me feel calm, almost blissful. Their very grand majesty puts things into perspective I suppose. Plus time away from the noise, from beads, from Facebook and email (except for a little sporadic internet when I actually managed to buy some earrings made by one of my customers), time alone with Neil, tons of Vitamin D and Vitamin L and clean air and unimaginably beautiful vistas and killer sunsets, visitor center gift shops, bandanas and ice cream - it was wonderful.

Just for fun, or because I'm an attention-seeking diva with divinity issues, I carried a slew of beads for Beads of Courage. A year ago, on our SoCal trip, I carried three huge focal beads for BOC; this year I strung up 21 smaller focals. My idea was to wear them as a necklace mostly, but the strand was heavy and I didn't completely trust the silk cord I used to string the beads. I should have knotted it between the beads; instead I used ceramic disk spacers in between, which proved to be a mistake. The disks kept breaking which was much better than the beads breaking of course, but I had a mini heart event whenever one popped and went flying.

I carried the string of beads wrapped in a bandana and stuffed into a fanny pack and all survived and will be sent to BOC to be distributed to the kids as "carried" Act of Courage beads. I'll type up a little sticker-size story about where the beads went and package each of them up with their story and maybe a photo.

Here's a quickie recap of where the beads traveled.

Day One, arrival day. We flew into Midland, had brunch (sweet potato pancakes) in Fort Stockton, and covered the 200 mile drive in something like 6 hours, thanks to stops and switchbacks. We had a great room with a little patio, no TV or phone or internet, but plenty of cool AC and well-above average hot water. Since it was only about 4 pm, we took a short hike, the Chisos Basin Loop trail, which was harder than it's easy rating and made us wish we'd booted up. We also got our first taste of the heat and the amazing sweat mechanism that cools our bodies. It felt good to rediscover some of my leg muscles.

After that it was time for a chapter (we finished Many Waters on the trip) and dinner at the lodge. I love staying at National Park lodges, whenever they exist. The Chisos Mountain Lodge is built at the high point of the paved portion of the park and faces west toward a formation called The Window, where we watched some glorious sunsets. Once darkness falls, the sidewalks are rolled up and it gets very, very quiet. We had early bedtimes and as usual I slept really really well, like I always do when I'm away from home.

Day Two began with a buffet breakfast at the lodge, then a short jaunt to the visitor center at Panther Junction. The park has five, count -em, five visitor centers, of which we visited four. Oddly enough, the one we missed was the one at Chisos Basin. We passed it daily but never went in, probably because it looked tiny and closed at 4 pm. None of the visitor centers were amazing. Panther Junction had some exhibits, none had movies, and all sold the same tired merchandise. I'd have loved a movie on the park history. In typical Liz Fashion, I don't get interested in things until I'm there. I did learn via Google that Big Bend is the 14th largest National Park, but since 7 of the top 10 are in Alaska, it ranks 7th in the lower 48, beaten only by Death Valley, Yellowstone, Everglades, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Olympic.

So, it's a big park and we sawed it sideways and up and down. We backtracked a bit and then took the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive through Castalon to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. Along the way we made hiking stops at the Burro Mesa Pouroff and Mule Ears Spring. Don't let the names fool you, there was no water in sight and the temperature hovered about 100 degrees. The scenery was ripping cool though.

I did the Vivian Maier thing.

At Mule Ears Trail. Can you feel the sizzle of the sun on my skin?

Eventually we wended our way west to the Santa Elena Canyon, with a stop for a Cherry Coke for Neil at the Castalon visitor center. I stuck to the Powerade we toted, which was about the refreshing temperature of hot tea by then. At the Canyon we got our first glimpse of the Rio Grande river and realized that the dark rock formations we'd been driving toward for the last hour were actually Mexico. No need for a wall right there (not that there's a need for a wall period, in my opinion).

In the park service newsletter that you get when you pay your vehicle entry fee, and in signage just about everywhere, there are warnings about swimming in the Rio. It's less about erratic currents (althought there's that) and quicksand bottom areas (although there's that too) but about the toxicity of the water, which in the park is a deceptive green that in the desert heat might appear cool and inviting. And of course, what do we see but families, kids, teenagers bathing in it. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I could smell the escherichia coli.

At least there was a bit of a breeze as we began the climb to the overlook. The hike is described as an easy, 1.6 mile, one-hour round trip, but the trail drops back down from the overlook to the river bank and goes on. I'm not sure how far because we finally found some real shade and (along with a surpising number of trail companions) we flopped down on the rocks and chilled for a while. Chilling being a relative term. Mid-afternoon temperatures were scorching. Only a sporadic breeze saved us from sheer misery. I'm lying. It was beautiful. I don't mind heat, I don't mind humidity, but the sun is not my friend. Next trip, lightweight cargo pants (already ordered from L.L. Bean) and much more sunblock.

Hot, sweaty and happy, we ended the day with a drive to the historic Terlingua Ghost Town and dinner at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon. We were back at the Chisos Basin in time to see the sun set through The Window. I imagine it's been photographed at least 12 million times. Here are my iPhone snaps.

On Day Three, we breakfasted at the lodge again. Well, it's really the only game in town if you want eggs and french toast and yogurt and fruit and oatmeal and bisquits. And yes, I ate all that, you hike, you get hungry, you need fuel. Then we took a long drive east, to the Rio Grande Village and on to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. Opposite ends of the park, the same river, two very different canyons. Almost as hot though. But since we got there earlier in the day, the hike was less brutal. I took some last photos of the traveling beads and purloined a small beach rock for a souvenir. I'm a rule-breaker, what can I say?

This time we made our stops on the way back, first at the Rio Grande visitor center for a Cherry Dr. Pepper for Neil and some shade for me. Then it was on to the Hot Springs for another hot riverside walk to a 105 degree natural hot tub. According to NPS dot gov:
Hot spring water is considered old water, fossil water, ancient and irreplaceable. Heated by geothermal processes and emerging at 105° F., the water carries dissolved mineral salts reputed to have healing powers. The therapeutic value of heat has long been touted as a remedy of both body and soul.
I couldn't resist taking off my boots and socks and wading in to the knees, jeans and all. The water felt really good, especially on my poor toes. I fear I need new hiking boots again. I didn't stay in the pool long, there were quite a few people and no shade, but I did enjoy the evaporative cooling effects for the next hour or so. Jeans in the desert are good for some things after all.

Fromt there went back to our room, enjoyed the AC for a bit, made a pot of coffee and sat on our little patio. At elevation, temperatures at the lodge are pleasant. There was one more hike we decided to tackle after the sun climbed down from its zenith, Lost Mine Trail. The full hike is almost five miles with an 1100 foot elevation gain, not for babies, but my goal was to hike up just one mile, where an opening to the southwest offered a breathtaking vista of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. My photos don't do it justice.

I have to say, I felt spent. I blame the sunburn, the too-tight boots, the cumulative effects of hiking when you only hike a couple of times a year, the lack of a breeze on this particular trail. Neil would have gone on but I was done. We'd climbed about 500 feet in a mile, and, counter-intuitively, down is harder than up. But dinner at the lodge was waiting and we had another sunset to watch.

So, those are the highlights, the lowlights and the in-between. Monday dawned cool and foggy and I didn't take any more bead photos, as I'd planned. We did have fun on Monday. We hit the road, opting for granola bars and skipping breakfast, and headed to Alpine. Neil got to walk down memory lane and I got a nice lunch at the Reata Restaurant. There was even a sort of gem and bead shop next door, where I didn't find any beads of interest, but Neil bought two interesting little geodes. I know, we are supposed to be in non-accumlation mode until we move, whenever that might be, but at least we came away without adding to our coffee mug collection. Neil got some soft pants at the Sul Ross bookstore, because, as I told him, he knows he will use them.

Because it was Monday, the Museum of the Big Bend was closed, and for unknown reasons, so was Ivy's Emporium, so we set out on the last 150 mile leg of our drive, to Midland. Neil had a free night at a very nice Doubletree hotel, which happened to be in walking distance of the very nice Wall Street Bar and Grill. Tuesday morning found us airbound home. Houston had massive flooding on Monday but it didn't reach Sugar Land and Chris was able to take care of the cats. Not that those bums would starve if they missed a meal, they's just think think they would. Heck, they complain enough when their bowls still have kibble left. I'm joking. I love them. Mostly. Even if Biscotti is an asshole and flinches when I try to pet him, just as thought we haven't had him since he weighed 0.6 lbs.

Kidding! They're ours, we love them, no returns.

Livin' on the road my friend is gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath's as hard as kerosene
You weren't your momma's only boy, but her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye, and sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boy, his horse was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know in the deserts down in Mexico
And nobody heard his dyin' words, ah but that's the way it goes

All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him slip away out of kindness I suppose

Lefty, he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows

All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him slip away out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell, and Lefty's livin in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold, and so the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old

A few gray Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him go so long out of kindness I suppose.

(Townes Van Zandt)

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Thanks for your comment! I will post it as soon as I receive it. Liz