Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Sunday, 30 October 2022, Big Bend
On the road again, for the final parks trip of 2022 - one that will bring me to the half-way point of my challenge: 31½ parks down, 32 to go. This go-round takes me to Texas and New Mexico, visiting Big Bend,
Carlsbad Caverns, and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.
Travel has become de rigueur by now - plod through the airport, worry about making a connection, politely decline the up-selling at the rental car desk. The Midland Air & Space Port was underwhelming, only five gates -
even smaller than the airports in Memphis and Columbia. (My friend Ron, now fully recovered from the Cinder Cone hike, texted me to ask if the Space Port "could join with the Space Force and send someone somewhere." I replied, "In the galactic transportation system, Midland is only a dusty border town.")
The long (2½ hour) drive south to Alpine started out with flat-as-a-pancake West Texas scenery (desert scrub brush, oil wells, and cows) before mountains in the distance cropped up mid-way through.
When I left Alpine this morning, it took an hour to reach Big Bend's park entrance, then another half hour to reach the Visitor Center. Once there, I got recommendations for seeing the park. With the park so large, the ranger encouraged me to break it into chunks. I would tackle the eastern edge today (another 30 minutes away), saving the Chisos Mountains (in the center) and Santa Elena Canyon (west) for the next two days.
First stop: pop into Mexico! During the day, you can cross the Rio Grande (which provides 118 miles of the park's southern boundary) and visit the small border town of Boquillas del Carmen. The friends I made at my Great Basin talk encouraged me to visit - they planned on doing so (again) when they visit the park the day later in the week.
This was NOT the typical crossing such as I had seen in Tijuana so many years ago - think low-traffic and low-budget. The dirt road ended at a small parking area for maybe 30 cars, with 15-20 there when I arrived. A tall fence blocked the way, directing me through a small customs office. The ranger on duty gave me the low-down: "Walk the dirt path down to the river; the rowboat will take you across.
Then you can either take a burro ride or walk the 0.7 mile road into the town.
When you walk up the hill and round the curve into town, look for the white building on your right. You have to stop there to register and pay your $3 fee."
At this point, the Rio Grande is only about 50 yards wide; when the water level is low (not the case today) people can choose to wade across. Instead, I waited for the rowboat to return from the opposite bank. After disgorging his passengers and picking up new ones, the rower would wade upriver pulling the boat, then hop in and row across, while the current carried him downstream. With me and four other locals on board, he repeated the cycle, pulling upstream and crossing. Well worth the $5 round-trip charge.
With an abundance of caution, I had left my wallet locked in the car, taking only my passport, keys, camera, and $20. On the Mexican shore, children hawking souvenirs welcomed me to Mexico. The words "Hola!" and "No, gracias" quickly ran on an endless loop from my lips.
I opted out of the burro ride (another $10), anxious for exercise after two days of driving. As I walked along the dusty road, I tried to take note of mileposts for my walk back, since several other lanes split off from this one - and of course, no 'Exit 5A to Sandy Path 202 and Boquillas' signs helped define the way. Just look for evidence of recent burro hooves chewing up the ground.
Boquillas could have served as the dusty border town setting of numerous movie westerns: unpaved main street, open air taverns, adobe hovels, massive mountain cliffs for a background.
Of course, add in the modern touches of telephone and electric wires, and a display of trinkets outside every home. Children excitedly came out when they spotted you, hoping to 'smile' you into a sale. "Hola. No gracias."
The main drag ran less than a half-mile. After going end-to-end, I sauntered back. A café owner beckoned me to have a seat on his patio, so I obliged.
"Today, we have three items: a taco plate, cheese enchiladas, and chicken tamales. They are each $8." Tack on a bottle of water, and I had a $10 lunch. I ate leisurely, watching as the kids in the street ran up to newly-arrived visitors, practicing their winning smiles. Life in a border town.
Time to head back and see more of the park. But first, that last $2 was burning a hole in my pocket. Ah, maybe limiting my cash had a benefit! Instead of haggling over the price of trinkets, I stepped up to a seller and said, "I have $2 left. What will that buy?" There - now I have my obligatory souvenir.
I retraced my steps to the edge of town. Okay, go straight here. Now the road forks - right or left? I thought I remembered right, and plied the path for a few minutes. Wait, I don't recall that bright blue house. I returned to the decision point, and took the left fork instead, ignoring other paths spinning off. Five minutes later - I KNOW I didn't pass this city dump before.
Oh, great, the intrepid adventurer, lost in Boquillas. How Will I get back home now? Of course, I'll head back to town and hire one of the kids to guide me. Except... I have no cash to pay him.
I trudged back to town, wondering how to solve this conundrum. At the edge of town, my solution appeared in the form of burros arriving from the first road I skipped. THAT's the road I needed! Now back on track, I saw the milestone sites I'd taken notice of earlier. Whew.
Back at Customs, a new ranger was on duty. "Do you have anything to declare?" Sure, a $2 trinket so my wife can call me a cheapskate. He took my information, scanned in my passport, and had me step up to an electronic lectern. "We're not official Customs and Border Patrol officers here. This video link will connect to a remote CBP officer, who will officially ask you if you have anything to declare. It should be up soon. Okay, any second now...."
As we waited several minutes for the CBP to come on line - "He'll be able to see you on video, but you won't see him." - we chatted about the parks. "I've worked in parks all over - Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, New River Gorge, Ozark Riverways, Everglades, and more."
My challenge impressed him - especially my plans for dog sledding in January. "Are you going to go to Gates of the Arctic?" I told him about my hopes for a Voices of the Wilderness position, and working side-by-side with a ranger in one of the northern Alaskan parks. "Hmmm... I've never heard of that program," he confessed. Musing on adventure, he added, "I'm a pretty basic guy. I could see myself finding a remote job, off by myself, miles from other people, and I'd be happy. Not so much my wife, though."
Finally the CBP agent virtually arrived, and sent me on my way. Next up: drive a few miles further to the end of the road, to where the Rio Grande enters the narrow Boquillas Canyon.
I stopped first at the overlook, where a trinket seller had arrayed a large selection of her goods - honor system, where you would insert your cash into a secure container.
As I wandered, doing the looky-loo thing, I noticed a man walking his cat around the grounds. When I asked the pertinent question, he responded, "Actually, we were amazed at how well she adapted to traveling. We wouldn't think of taking a trip without her." I suppose I could imagine taking Rafiki places, but Pepper and Birdie wouldn't hear of it.
In another mile, the road ended at the Boquillas Canyon trailhead. This short trail began by climbing up a small knoll, then back down and across to the canyon entrance. You couldn't enter this slot canyon, as the cliff walls dropped to the water, but you could go a distance. Along the way, I passed several more small trinket kiosks in the shade of trailside trees, glittery wiry replicas of roadrunners, scorpions, ocotillos, and more. At one point, a Mexican horseman sat on his steed, selling 6 tamales for $10.
I walked to the end, then headed back, when I noticed a group of people excitedly pointing at the water. Wildlife sighting! a turtle lolled amongst some branches.
Sure, worth a picture. I then surveyed the goods at a couple of trinket kiosks, debating whether to spend $10 on something we'd likely never display anyway. In the end, frugality won out, and I moved on from the final display.
Now, where's that trail? This looks like footsteps - no, dead end. How about over these rocks - nope, wrong again. As I grew peeved at having done it again, here come two women looking also. Together we scanned our surroundings, but came up blank. One of them finally called back to her partner, "We can't find the trail!!" Came the reply: "That's because you passed it! It's right here." Sure enough, there it was, in plain sight. If only I had looked over my shoulder when I passed the last trinket kiosk. Sigh...
Time for one more stop, for refreshments at Rio Grande Village, before the long drive through the park, out the west entrance, and twenty miles up the road.
A search on trivago.com had unearthed a bargain cabin (offered through Vrbo) at Eco-Ranch. Plugging the address into Google-maps had pinpointed 400 N. Smiling Dog Ln a few miles off the main highway, so I wrote down directions coming from the north and south as a fall-back option.
It did not surprise me that my Garmin knew nothing about a Smiling Dog Ln. Okay, my first set of directions had me turning off on Terlingua Ranch Rd - which DID show up on my Garmin. Except... it showed the road heading east, and my directions took me west (into a great void on Garmin) on a severely eroded dirt road. It's still passable, I convinced myself, as long as i slow down. However, my directions called for a right turn at 1.5 miles on Lavaca Rd, but no side road appeared.
Turn around, take the highway north a couple miles to Agua Fria Rd, a gravel road in far better shape. Those directions called for a left turn on Lavaca Rd at 1.9 miles. By now, I'm sure you've figured out that no such turn presented itself. If only I could call the host, but I haven't had a cell signal all day. This is west Texas, remember?
With my stress level soaring, I returned to Hwy 118, headed south, and pulled into the first residential driveway I found (ignoring the 'No Trespassing' sign). A wary-looking homeowner met me. Once I described my predicament, he ducked inside, and came back with a wireless handset. "I called that number. It's ringing."
Robert Earl answered the line. When I gave him my name, he apologized. "I emailed you directions, but I forgot to send them out until late this afternoon. You were probably already in the park by then." As he explained, no GPS system will guide you to his door - the roads aren't on the grid. "And there IS no Lavaca Rd anywhere within 100 miles of here."
Armed with new directions, I again headed down Terlingua Ranch Rd. Twenty minutes later, I finally arrived. (Thankfully the sun will still up - I could never find this in the dark.) As we chatted, Robert mentioned how the younger generation couldn't handle written directions - if it wasn't on GPS, forget it. He did admit the difficulty of getting here. "The easiest way by far is to take Agua Fria to that road there" - he pointed to his right - "but 50 yards of it is claimed by a landowner." He switched to a gruff voice. "'You can't use it, that's my property.' That road's been there for fifty years, but he won't budge. I could take him to court, but why bother spending $5,000."
He shook his head. "Man, I hate Texans! I'm gonna sell this place and move to a place where they're more civil - and the politics are more to my liking."
He showed me to my spartan quarters - a cabin with two futons, a small table, and a propane heater. Since the other cabin is vacant right now, the full and half baths adjacent to the cabins were all mine, as was the kitchen (with only three walls). "Help yourself to whatever's here. There are farm-fresh eggs in the frig, some canned veggies that previous renters left, spaghetti noodles. In the corner are the pots, pans, dishes, and utensils."
Too many adventures for one day! I scrambled up some eggs, and warmed up a can of peas for my dinner, then used his Wi-Fi to reconnect with the world at large. As the sun set on my humble abode,
I said a silent prayer that tomorrow will be a better day!