Thursday, January 5, 2012

Days 25, 26 & 27: Redford, TX to Big Bend National Park, TX

Riding Day 25: Friday, December  9    Redford, TX to Lajitas, TX       Miles: 34       Flats: 0  Elevation: 2520 ft-2600 ft

After our lovely visit with Enrique and Ruby Madrid, we headed towards Big Bend National Park, passing Big Bend Ranch State Park on the way.  This drive along the Rio Grande is supposedly one of the most beautiful in all of Texas and I would not doubt it.  It was quite picturesque, travelling up and down over the mountains, right on the river bank.

We hardly saw anyone else on the road and, once again, I was just in shock at how peaceful this international boundary looked.  I just could not believe I was looking across the river at Mexico--where were the chain link fences, camera towers, Border Patrol blimps to spoil my view?  In terms of the actual borderline, this stretch has been most surprising to me.

When I lead immersion groups, almost every single student would say that the most astounding part of the trip was seeing and touching the physical border wall--before they arrive, they have no idea what it looks like or how it cuts an ugly scar between communities.  As for me, after 3 1/2 years on the border, I have been hardened--I am accustomed to BP being everywhere, I expect overpriced gadgets and fencing.  So, to look down the Rio Grande and just see the natural beauty was literally unbelievable.  It was so beautiful.

The scenery took my breath away, as did the hills.  It was up and down all day and we knew there would be at least one difficult stretch, one climb that is aptly called The Big Hill. 

We were warned miles in advance of the steep 15% grade that lay ahead of us, and as we rounded each bend, I would look ahead apprehensively. Enrique Madrid even warned us of the climb and encouraged us to walk our bikes down, saying a cyclist once died on the downhill.  I kept getting more and more nervous and finally, we saw it.

Katy on the Big Hill

And really?  It is not that bad. It is a Big Hill.  It is steep. That much is true.  But it is pretty short and there are extra wide shoulders that help when you are switch-backing your way up.

And when you get to the top, you can climb up 100 more feet to get an even more spectacular view.  We had our lunch there, followed by a nice nap in the sun.

We hoped to make it to Terlingua, but the wind was against us and I was still feeling under the weather.  We were shocked when we saw the little resort town that is Lajitas--we never expected to find such fancy little shops and condos in the Big Bend--but we were tired and in need of a shower, so we shelled out enough for an overpriced campsite at the RV park and watched movies in the TV room until it was time to crawl into the tent.

Day 26: Saturday, December 10     Lajitas, TX to Terlingua, TX       Miles:  13    Flats: 0   Elevation:  2600 ft - 2900 ft

We woke up to a cold, cloudy, windy day in Lajitas--potentially the most isolated place on our trip--and there were white spots on my tonsils.  We heard of an EMT in Terlingua and we weren't going to shell out $23 again for a campsite, so we packed up and headed east.

We arrived in the Ghost town of Terlingua and we went in the first business we saw, asking if there was an EMT in town.  The folks we talked to were super friendly, getting me phone numbers and lending me their phones, but no one I called answered.  We decided to find a place to camp and continued down the street when we saw a cafe with free Wifi.  WebMD was just as good as an EMT, right?  We got some hot chocolate, unsuccessfully tried to navigate the medical site on my ancient droid and chatted with some Terlinguans about our trip and desire for some medical advice. People were so friendly and they directed us just a few houses down where we were able to score some antibiotics and a free place to camp!  Really, I was still functional, but I just wanted to know if this thing was going to go away by itself.  We decided to stay in Terlingua for a night or two and make sure I wasn't going to need to be evacuated from Big Bend National Park (so dramatic!).  The closest clinic was 80 miles away in Alpine, and we were prepared to hitchhike up there and skip the park if we needed to.

Terlingua is an interesting place.  It is an old mercury mining town and though it was cold and dreary the two days we were there, it was very welcoming.  All the people we met were super nice and we were told it was because each person had chosen to be there--they weren't there out of obligation to family or for a job--instead, they had decided this is where they wanted to be.  We also heard that you have to be really, really strange to be rejected by Terlingua so it is certainly filled with interesting characters--lots of artists and musicians, perhaps a bit less pretentious than Marfa.  While there we watched a 30 minute documentary on the town which jokes that their social hierarchy is dependent on your housing--the lowest rung being a tent, moving up to a bus or RV, but I can't remember where living in caves or old ruins classified, but I know most folks aren't living in plain old houses.

We spent two nights in Terlingua and really enjoyed the personality of the town--relaxed and friendly.

Day 27:  Monday, December 12     Terlingua, TX to Big Bend National Park      Miles: 50   Flats: 0  Elevation:  2900 ft - 3750 ft - 1850 ft

Feeling a bit better, we decided forego the clinic and go ahead into Big Bend, the entrance of which was only 10 miles from Terlingua. I had previously told Eric that I wanted to bike up to the Chisos basin, a supposedly grueling 8 mile climb, but one of the top 50 bicycle rides in Texas.  However, I still wasn't feeling that great when we entered the park, so we just headed up about 20 miles to Panther Junction, the Park Headquarters, and reserved a primitive campsite near the river 20 miles south.

The ride to the park headquarters was cold and long, but we literally sailed down to the campsite from the junction, dropping almost 2000 ft in elevation.  The surprise waiting for us was that our campsite (in the gravel pit) was at the end of a 3 mile road of gravel and sand--not ideal riding conditions.  I may have cursed the poor volunteer from Panther Junction a few times on that 3 mile stretch, but we arrived and set up camp before the sun went down.

Our first sunset in Big Bend National Park

We spent three nights at the gravel pit and while it had been 40 degrees and cloudy our few days in Terlingua, the weather on the river was much warmer--It even got into the 70s one day we were there.

We intentionally wanted to camp near the Park's hot springs, but we realized after our 3 mile trek on the gravel road that it was going to be a bit of a ride and hike to get there.  Fortunately, as we sat around sipping coffee and hot cocoa the first morning, a fellow camper and cyclist came over, saying he had seen us on the road (We saw him too--he was half hanging out of a van, waving with both arms--potentially our most enthusiastic encounter with a motorized vehicle yet). He was from North Carolina and has been on the road over a year with his brother and they are making short films as they travel along. They were on their way out of camp and gave us the best gift they could have--a couple gallons of water, which allowed us to relax easier, knowing we weren't going to run out (the closest water was about 7 miles away). He also gave us a key piece of advice: just about 1/2 mile down the river, there was a small hot spring that wasn't on the map.

So, our first full day at the park, we packed a lunch and started down the river. I have to admit, I had never seen a real cowboy before coming into the Big Bend area. I didn't even think they really existed.  But since Presidio we saw men on horseback bringing their cows to the Rio Grande to drink and to a city girl like me, they looked like something out of a movie.

We found the hot springs and they were amazing--we heard they are about 109 degrees.  It was a small area, like just a few people had pushed the rocks up to make the pool which only fit 2 or 3 people.  It was really isolated with just a Mexican cowboy or a donkey meandering by once in a while.  We spent the whole day there, getting in and out of the spring, taking naps in the grass.  It was lovely.

The next day we headed the 7 miles down to the Rio Grande Village where the main campground is with the RVers and a store and such. After we filled our water bladders, we went down towards Boquillas canyon. Eric and I had heard about Boquillas and we were eager to see it. Boquillas is not only the name of the canyon, but also of the small Mexican town on the other side of the river which subsisted for many years off tourists visiting Big Bend. Campers would cross the river in a little canoe or on a horse or donkey and visit the town, buying cheap burritos, beer and Mexican crafts.  But once again, the strict border policy after September 11th stopped the illegal crossings and since then the tiny town of Boquillas has drastically suffered economically and many of the people living there were forced to move elsewhere.  Some of the folks that did stay, continue to make crafts to sell to tourists, crossing illegally and putting them on rocks on one of the scenic overlooks along with a price list and a coffee can.

Ignoring the park signs saying it was illegal to purchase or possess items from Mexican nationals, I bought a roadrunner and ocotillo made of beads and wire, dropping my money in the jar. Moments later, two men on horseback arrived, each assessing if they had sold any goods. They were both born and raised in Boquillas where they say only about 27 families are currently living. They told us that it has been really hard since the border has become more enforced, not only because folks from the Park aren't crossing, but because residents of Boquillas used to cross into Rio Grande Village to buy basic food staples like rice and beans. We learned that Boquillas is a 5 hour drive from the nearest decent sized town in Mexico--half of which is on a dirt road. There is a bus that goes to Boquillas, but only once a week. Every Monday, a bus weaves through all the teeny towns in the area, finally bringing them to the city of Musquiz, Coahuila. Then they have to wait until the following Monday to head back to their hometown. Can you imagine?!  It is funny to think that Big Bend National Park is the least visited national park in the country because it is tucked into an isolated little corner of Texas, but across the river, Boquillas is actually in the middle of nowhere in Mexico.

The really interesting thing about Boquillas is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seriously considering reopening the port of entry there.  It would be the smallest port and because it would be so slow, they are looking to make it the first remote ("unmanned"--though hate to use that word) station on the Southern border (they already exist on the Canadian border). So, there would be passport and luggage scanners and Customs and Border Protection agents would monitor the foot traffic via video from Presidio or Del Rio or elsewhere.  Also, Border Patrol would be standing by in the area in case they were needed.

We heard about this proposal a couple of months ago and it is currently under heavy scrutiny as this article details, but I recall just being really surprised. Why would they possibility care to open a 2.3 million dollar port there? Because people are suffering on the other side??  I still don't fully understand it, but I think:
a)  DHS has way too much money being thrown at them since border security is one of those issues touted by both sides of the aisle and
b)  because the park agents really care--about the people visiting the park (it is good for people to see Mexico), the people in Boquillas (it is good for people to make a living and have access to basic food staples) and in the conservation efforts in the area (rangers of the park are devoted to conservation projects and want them to be bi-national efforts, but currently, to meet with leaders on the other side, the one way commute is 16 hours)

See the city on the hill? Teeny Boquillas
Most the scrutiny of the proposed port has to do with the fact that it will be unmanned, and honestly, before I had seen it, I thought that sounded silly too.  But once you see how tiny the town is and realize how far away they are from anything in Mexico, it is easy to see that neither drugs nor people are going to start flowing through there.  As the article says, "People that want to be engaged in illegal activities along the border, ones that are engaged in those activities now, they're still going to do it, " William Wellman, Big Bend National Park's superintendent. "But you'd have to be a real idiot to pick the only place with security in 300 miles of the border to try to sneak across."

Tangent:  Citizens of the U.S. used to cross back and forth illegally to Boquillas on a regular basis without punishment and without being branded ILLEGAL. I just can't believe our country regularly calls people who cross an invisible line illegals, like that invisible-line-crossing is the only characteristic to their person. Entering the United States not through a port of entry is an administrative error--it's paperwork.  Yet, we brand people because of this one action.  Have you ever gone over the speed limit?  ILLEGAL.  Have you ever rolled through a stop sign?  ILLEGAL.  I am going to forget your name and just call you the illegal from now on, okay?

Boquillas canyon was beautiful and there we met another man from Boquillas attempting to squeak out a living from the Park tourists.  His name was Victor and he would sing from his little perch across the river, his voice echoing through the canyon.

We sat on the edge of the river by the canyon and wished we had strapped a kayak to the back of our bikes. Someday we will have to go back and paddle down the Rio Grande.

While we can always find something to get political about, Big Bend was lovely and we really enjoyed relaxing in our isolated little campsite with only a little kangaroo mouse visiting us each evening at dusk.


  1. Oh my gosh I want to go NOW.

  2. Great story--and the photos are terrific! Thanks so much for posting this for the benefit of us all!

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