Days 85-87: Big Bend National Park

Saturday 2016-11-19: Boquillas Canyon & Hot Springs

I follow the canyon road, paralleling the Rio. Across the water, just a couple hundred feet away, men on horseback wander around a completely different world. I watch as one man mounts his horse on the US side of the river and fjords the shallows, rejoining his brethren in Mexico.  To be so close to the far shore yet seem infinitely far away because of legal borders…I know I could swim across and back just fine. What is border patrol here? I continue into the canyon, an amazing sight and a fantastic place to sit, write, and enjoy the tranquility of the river.

I return to camp for lunch and pull my bike out of the trunk and reset it to riding conditions. I set off for the nearby Hot Springs, just 4 miles down the main road, armed with snacks and wine. I let air  out of my tires as I hit rocky dirt road. Everything rattles but surprisingly nothing comes loose as I cover 1.5 miles to the trailhead. At the springs I join other folks in the 105 degree water, relaxing until a younger crowd arrives and we chat about San Antonio and Austin. I enjoy myself, rejuvenated by the social setting. I stay for almost 6 hours, leaving after darkness falls.

Eventually I leave, grateful at times like this that I publish posts well after the events. I ride the narrow dirt road back from the hot springs in pitch black, save for my small bike lights. Lights off, I can only see my hand in front of my nose when I look to the sky and its outline blots out the stars. There are eyes – just one set, fairly large. Too high to be a rabbit, to small to be a mountain lion or bear. Probably a coyote. They gleam like floating orbs. Watching. Eventually I make it to the main road and race back to camp, enjoying the wind in my face as I fly downhill, happy to ride after so many miles in the car. I am the picture of a free spirit, riding the wide-open Texas desert in the pitch black of night, wearing adventure sandals, a beanie, and with a box of wine strapped to my bike. I feel good. In fact, I feel great. It won’t last forever, but I am re-energized since the first quality social activity since Albuquerque, almost a week past.

Sunday 2016-11-20: Mexico! And the gorgeous Santa Elena Canyon.

Last night I learned about the Mexican border crossing at Boquillos, just a few miles from my campsite at the Rio Grande Village. I pack up camp and take the short drive, walk through the US Border Patrol checkpoint, and buy a 1 minute rowboat trip across the Rio for $5. On the other side I rent a burro for the mile long trip into town, another $5. I ride with others, slowly moving along as a guide motivates the burros whenever they slow. I have not ridden a horse since grade school, let alone a burro, but I want the guide to leave us be so I can communicate with my burro and try to form a basic bond between rider and steed.

In town I make my way to the Mexican checkpoint – just a small trailer with one guy and a computer. For most folks he barely even looks up – just a quick stamp in the passport and off you go. I breeze through in ten seconds and continue into town. Our burro guide follows, treating me and the others as one family – always trying to wrangle us together. We walk through the tiny town of about 100 people in just a few minutes, Along the way I ask our guide some basic questions, practicing my Spanish speaking skills and Spanglish listening.

We continue on to their version of hot springs – a small hole in the ground large enough for 3-4 people to sit in at once. An old pair of jeans acts as a stop to let the water pool instead of draining into the Rio. I talk to my guide a little more, eventually asking him and another guide about Trump’s wall idea. They turn it back on my – “We don’t know – you’re the American, you tell us!” I communicate my thoughts and when I ask them about Mexico paying for it, they replay with a laugh. “With what, burros?”

Back in town we stop at one of the two restaurants where share cheese enchiladas, beef tacos, and tamales with the family I’ve been stuck to. They cannot compare to my dear Cafe Quilombo in Seattle, but what can? I return to the U.S. and use some weird electronic system at the border to call a remote border agent. He asks me a bunch of questions that I feel will get me in trouble – where is home, why did I go to Mexico, where am I going now? I swear, they design these questions to make the weird traveler like myself uncomfortable.

The Grapevine backcountry campsite is down another unpaved dirt road. It is fairly well maintained for the first two miles but a bit further along I stop at a pretty rough spot with some deep holes and one big rut across the entire road. I feel confident and, reversing for some speed, I tackle the obstacle with a bounce, surviving on a mix of savvy navigation and momentum. Well, this is fun. In that adrenaline-inducing “Oh shit, what if I get stuck or break the car!?” kind of way.

After setting up camp I return to the main road, confident having mastered the Grapevine. I head southwest on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive where I discover Tuff Canyon, my favorite location of the desert lowlands. It is a deep dry wash with an overlook above and a trail leading down into the wash. I walk in the wash observing the layers of ash on the canyon walls. I can literally bang on the wall and watch it crumble – no wonder the seasonal rains have carved such a deep trench! Further up I find a field of boulders, demonstrating the massive power of the seasonal floods ripping through this canyon. I think of my college geology professor who would love this place – I miss you Professor Principato!

I arrive at Saint Elena Canyon and hike about 1.5 miles across a creek, through a muddy wash floor, up into the riverside reed forest, over the canyon’s large rocky entrance, and into a 1500′ tall canyon carved by the incredibly silty Rio Grande. The river is so full of sediment the park rangers describe it as a continues liquid sander.

Magnificent. Grand. Humbling. I sit on the banks of the Rio Grande, walls of rock 1500′ towering above me on both sides, the canyon glowing with the pinks, oranges, and reds of sunset. The water is peaceful. The birds trill quietly far overhead. I look up, endlessly captivated by the magnitude of the canyon. It’s sheer faces divided by striations – layers of rock describing not only the history of the Rio Grande, but the history of the Earth. Did you know this was once an ocean? Marine fossils embedded in the rocks bring life to a history beyond the scope of mankind. Cacti and other desert plans grow on the rocky cliffs, only meters from lush riverbank reeds, grasses, and willows. The greenness almost hurts my eyes, accustomed to the soft yellows, browns, and grays of the desert. Two worlds so close, nothing but a wall of rock separating them, yet infinitely separated. Magical.

Monday 2016-11-21: Chisos Basin, You Are Beautiful.

I set off from camp this morning set on a 12+ mile hike around the Chisos Basin. I start with Laguna Meadows, a steady ascent up the western side of the Basin. Looking back I watch as I gain elevation, first looking over the lodge, now over the basin. I keep a strong pace, eyes and ears aware for the sounds of animals around me. Birds scream from their hidden perches in the trees and bugs hop about along the increasingly green plants along the trail. Desert grasses dominate the floor with small, semi-arid pines and shrub-like trees shooting up here and there. Cacti dot the landscape, the most common being the Prickly Pear that feeds so much animal life in this region. A lunge awkwardly as my foot almost comes down on a massive brown spider calmly crawling in the center of the trail.

After about 4 miles I reach the meadow, an open expanse of grasses and cacti underneath a sprinkling of small trees. The meadow exists in a relatively flat valley near the western edge of the basin. The trail morphs into a soft dirt path as I slow to a calm walk and take in the tranquility of the meadow. I smell the freshness, feel the soft breeze on my face, listen to the soft rustle of the grasses all around me. Paths branching off from the main trail lead to numerous backcountry camps. I think of Scott, Andrew, Danial, and Nick as I explore a site easily large enough for 6-8 people. How nice it would be to come here as a group and do a backcountry loop for a few days, plus some lowlands off-roading!

I decide to nickname this place Bastion Basin because it is a small bastion of life and diversity amid a sea of harsh, dry desert. It is lush and home to rare species, some of them known nowhere else in the world. For other species this is the very edge of their domain, the varied ecosystems providing shelter for animals adapted to all walks of life. I find a place to sit in the sun, snacking and looking out over the desert to the southwest as I consider the incredible ecosystems around me.

I continue along, taking the South Rim Trail above Boot Canyon where I will be later this afternoon. On the far side I revel in the distinct erosion patterns of windy desert mountains, smashed between the wind-swept forest above and the lush, protected basin below. I come to a rocky cliff with a sheer face 2000′ above the southern hills below. I look out on a massive landscape, hills and valleys dominating the foreground with the desert extending for miles in every direction. A massive rock wall looms to the south, the backdrop to the Rio Grand at Santa Elena Canyon. Here the wind rips over the rocks from the west, drying my sweat-soaked body and supporting the birds supporting above. I eat a simple peanut butter and jelly lunch with some not-so-crunchy pretzels, the taste fulfilling more than it should be considering the food. Everything always tastes better at elevation!

I sit for a long while, contemplating, before exploring the rocky edge’s many views to the south. Finally I continue on, winding along the ridgeline of the Eastern Rim Trail. My eyes are peeled for the Peregrine falcons that nest here. Another hiker tried to describe a dive he witnessed last night but words fail him – The Peregrine Falcon can reach speeds of almost 250mph in a dive, rushing out of the sky to snag its prey. 250 MILES PER HOUR! It is the fastest bird on Earth!

Unfortunately I see no Peregrines but the trail is alive with life. Here, on the eastern ridgeline plants receive some wind protection from the rocks to the east but a steady wind inhibits large tree growth – grasses dominates the forest floor. Amid these I I discover a deer as it darts across the trail, stopping in the distance and allowing me to sneak up for a better look. I watch its floppy ears bounce as it chews away,seemingly unphased by my proximity. Further up the trail I discover some sort of rodent on the rocks below the cliff edge, screaming with a high-pitched screech that reminds me of a jay’s call. I watch for a while, wondering its purpose as it wanders about screeching.

My eyes continue to scan my surroundings for the charismatic megafauna known to inhabit the basin as I return west, looping down into Boot Canyon. Two mountain lions and about the same number of black bears are known to live here, the bears only recently returning via Mexico after having left the park entirely some time ago. Fellow hikers tell me of reports of black bears along this trail today so I am hopeful. I slow my pace, taking in the small pools of water dotting the southern end of the canyon. Coming around a massive rock wall, I am blown away by the scene before me.

Where am I? Is this Texas, or Pennsylvania? I enter a cool, dark, and damp glade in the canyon bright with the astounding reds, oranges, and yellows of fall. Moss grows on the rocks around a small spring trickling water down the canyon to the north. I never would have expected to discover such a landscape among the rocky, dry desert of southern Texas. Yet here I am, walking through the fall, looking at large boulders and a little creek. For a moment I let myself travel back to Pennsylvania, to Hawk Mountain, to French Creek, to days as a boy hiking with my mom and uncle. I breathe deeply, taking in the cool, earthy, refreshing smell of home.

Unfortunately, I see no black bears as I pass through the canyon. On the far side some hikers tell me of the bears they spotted not more than 30 or 40 feet from the trail. I lament my misfortune – timing and my desire to take in the canyon at a slow pace let a couple pass me – and they walked and talked loudly, hoping NOT to encounter a bear. I see more backcountry campsites here, joining the more than 50 sites scattered around the Basin. I will definitely return here for an extended backpacking trip – I want to see the bears, the falcons, watch the fall colors. I even want to see a mountain lion, though I know such a sighting is very rare in the back country and not altogether a good thing…

Although I come to Emery Trail with enough daylight to make the ascent, I decide to pass the 1.5 mile climb to the highest peak in the park. I am feeling satisfied beyond my expectations, and do not mind savings something for a return trip. Plus, nature calls! The descent along the Pinnacles Trail is steep and rocky for the first mile or two, swiftly dropping me back into the basin where I walk through more grassy fields so unlike the country I have been traveling through for this entire trip. Eventually I return to the visitor’s center and make my way back to camp. What a day! I am unsure of my exact mileage but I know I did about 14 miles of hiking today. This once again tops my list of longest solo hike, a record I enjoy breaking on this trip!


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