Chapter 35 South Texas & Big Bend National Park
Dave and Helen Damouth
April 2, 1999
3/4/99 Posada del Sol RV Resort has turned out to be a wonderful place which we can highly recommend to anyone. The park is several miles out in the country, south of Harlingen, and backs up against Arroyo Colorado with a nice trail along the water. On another side, the park borders a wildlife sanctuary. This immediate area is on the junction of two major bird migration routes, and has perhaps the highest concentration of bird species in the country. The trees in the RV Park are constantly full of birds. The park is managed by a resident couple who have been here for several years, and this on-site management shows up in a host of nice details including a computer desk in a quiet lounge, with power, modem connection, and even a laptop computer available for those who don't have their own. The park is nearly filled with long term residents. Many of these folks (locally called "Winter Texans") own a permanently installed trailer, park model, or mobile home here, and also own property somewhere in the north, spending six months in each place. A modest number of sites are kept free for overnighters. The park only has about 150 sites, making it a comfortable, cozy, size. Two of the long-term residents stopped by to welcome us within an hour of our setting up camp. A few minutes later, another resident came by to invite us to a "block party" potluck supper the next day. The recreation room has a large exchange library and several pool tables. The swmming pool is large and attractive, with a large hot tub adjacent.
Dave is spending much of his time under the trailer and out buying parts and materials to fix the grey water tank, which fell out of the trailer on the rough Mexican roads. One of our stereo speakers also fell off the wall the expensive mounting system broke in half. Never underestimate the power of a pothole!
3/7 I finally crawled out from under the trailer, having spent the better part of five days reattaching the plumbing connections which ripped out of the plastic grey water tank, and repairing a large hole in the tank, where one edge dragged along the highway for an hour or so. This was done with fiberglass and a special high-strength epoxy resin. It was a major challenge to get at the connections from the tank to the internal plumbing in the trailer. Two of the connections were directly beneath the bathtub, and I thought for a while that I'd have to completely dismantle the bathroom and remove the tub to gain access. I found a way to avoid that, but I have sore muscles and scraped skin all over my body, from crawling around under the trailer and from reaching deep into blind crevices to manipulate tools at arms length without being able to see what I was doing. Fortunately, I brought a fairly complete selection of tools with me on the trip. Also fortunately, Harlingen has Johnny's Hardware, one of those marvelous old-fashioned hardware stores that are huge, seem to have every kind of gadget, tool, screw, plumbing fitting, adhesive, etc, known to man, and also have clerks who actually know where to find everything. I believe that the tank, and its attachment to the trailer, is stronger than new (I reattached it with twice as many screws as it had originally).
I also fixed the refrigerator (I hope). Ever since we acquired the trailer, three years ago, the refrigerator has sporadically refused to operate on propane. I did all the standard maintenance things, and it generally started operating just fine. Then, it would fail again. At first, the intervals between failures were several months. Then, these intervals gradually decreased. Lately, we were lucky if it kept running overnight.
After scratching my head over the diagnosis for a year or so, I finally purchased and installed a new ignitor board. Installation was about a five-minute task, and the refrigerator has operated flawlessly ever since (which at this writing is only a few weeks of occasional use but I've got my fingers crossed). I wish all repairs were this easy.
For the confirmed technophiles, both of these repair jobs are described in more detail in notes in the "RV Stuff" section of our Web Page.
3/8 Today, we moved 130 miles north, to Padre Island National Seashore, on the Gulf Coast just south of Corpus Christi. The road was typical Texas straight as an arrow for nearly the entire distance. Plowed fields, with the first tiny leaves of corn appearing in neat rows, rolled seamlessly all the way out to the horizon on both sides of the road. I had visions of the farmer going out to his tractor in the morning, plowing his way out over the horizon to the other side of the field, stopping for lunch, then plowing his way back home, completing a second swath in time for dinner.
The spring flowers may be at their peak now. At one point, we stopped along the roadside and picked six different wildflowers within a few feet of where we parked. Further along, we saw several more species. Helen spent part of the trip poring through her wildflower field guide, identifying these unfamiliar species.
The National Seashore is a fairly new and not well-funded facility, with a small but interesting visitor's center, many miles of pristine Gulf beach, and not much else. A five mile-stretch of beach at the end of the paved highway is firm enough to be driven by large RV's, and is open to primitive camping. We chose, instead, to settle into a "developed" campground, which is located slightly above the beach in a flat spot among the sand dunes. We have a nice view of the Gulf, separated from it by 100 feet or so of low dunes. We were pushed north on the highway by a very strong South wind, probably getting record-high fuel mileage for the day. On the beach, this wind is almost overpowering. It's coming parallel to the North-South beach, but even so, there is a big surf and a steady background roar of waves breaking. Within a few minutes of arriving, we could barely see, and discovered that our glasses were densely covered with salt spray.
3/9 The wind died down overnight to a pleasant breeze, and it's more peaceful on the beach. This is supposed to be a premier shelling area, but there have been no major storms for a long time, and shells are almost non-existent. Portuguese Man O' War are plentiful all along the beach, however the first time we remember seeing these strange animals. They sail across the ocean a beautiful deep blue air sac floats the mostly passive animal, and the top of the sac is a raised sail that catches the wind. Stinging tentacles up to 60 feet long hang down into the water, and carry a venom that ranks with the more potent snake venoms. There are also quite a few toxic jellyfish. Swimming here could be dangerous to your health! Large amounts of Sargassum seaweed are also being washed onto the beach. A mile or so of the beach, from our campground down past the day-use area at the Visitor's center, is closed to vehicles and is quite peaceful - except that tractors and front-end loaders scurry back and forth daily, raking up huge piles of seaweed and stacking it back against the dunes.
In the afternoon, we drove a long loop north to Port Aransas at the end of Padre Island, then west along causeways to a small (free) ferry back to Aransas Pass on the mainland. From there, we headed south, across the big Harbor Bridge into Corpus Christi, and then along the waterfront back down to the causeway to Padre Island. Along the way, we stopped at The Texas State Aquarium. This is a moderate-sized and moderate-budget place nowhere near as large and fancy as the Monterey or Baltimore Aquariums, for example. But it focuses narrowly on the Gulf of Mexico and covers this subject quite well. Enthusiastic volunteers stand near many of the exhibits ready to answer questions, and they actually seem to know the answers. One exhibit that is unique among the aquariums we've visited contains several different varieties of large sea turtles, along with quite a bit of information about each variety and why they are all on the endangered list. This tied in to an exhibit at the National Seashore, describing the ongoing efforts to re-introduce Ridley's Sea Turtle in this area. We learned that during the last major ice age, the Gulf of Mexico was entirely dry land, except for a few scattered fresh-water lakes.
3/10 An early morning drive south along the beach was the final act of our brief stay here. We then hooked up and started west to Laredo, where our mail has been patiently waiting for us for a week at General Delivery (we hope). The drive is mostly two-lane and old divided but not limited access 4-lane roads (SR 44 then US 59) running almost due west. The first part of the trip was through huge farms some fields showing the first bright green sprigs of corn, and others still being plowed and planted. About half way across the 150-mile route, the land became much dryer, and farms gradually gave way to scrubby cattle ranches.
We stopped at Lake Casa Blanca State Park to get directions to Deer Creek Village, the only full-hookup RV Park we were aware of in Laredo, too new to be in our directories. (It is in the 1999 Woodall's directory, which we don't have yet.) It's a few miles northwest of Laredo. The road leads to one of the three International bridges in the area, and is lined almost solidly for miles with huge warehouses and trucking companies. Each time we drove this road, we found two almost solid lanes of big trucks in each direction. We presume that most of this activity is related to import and export from Mexico. (Later, I drove by a sign for another full-hookup RV Park. It's on the northbound I-35 access road (San Dario Drive), at the north edge of town. It's not in any of the directories we have. I didn't investigate, and don't know anything about this place.)
Deer Creek Village is a mobile home park, with a 28-site RV area tucked in one corner. It's brand new. Roads and utilities are complete, but there has been no landscaping. When the wind blows (which is frequent), the raw earth begins to move, and the interior of our trailer quickly began to feel gritty. The utilities for the RV's are high quality 50 amp service, cable television, six-inch sewer pipe, etc., but are laid out all wrong obviously by people who understood nothing about RVing. The office, in a model mobile home at the entrance, is staffed sporadically by a mobile home salesman. When he is there, he's happy to let me use a phone outlet and the dining room table to do my Email and some Internet browsing. Intuit has finally put the Turbotax update files on its Web Site, and I downloaded the things I need in order to proceed with tax filing.
3/14 We reported earlier that pawnshops are a good place to leave a gun while visiting Mexico (or Canada). I now have to qualify that statement. A fairly recent law requires an FBI background check when buying a gun, or redeeming any gun from a pawn shop. The check is supposed to take 10 minutes, but the system is new and apparently doesn't always work well. The law indicates that if a response to the background check query isn't received within three business days (not including the day the application is filed), the sale or redemption can then proceed without it. It appears that we will end up waiting the full three days! And since the three days spans a weekend, we'll actually have been in Laredo six days.
Fortunately, our schedule is flexible and the time isn't really lost. We've done laundry, washed the truck and the entire trailer, caught up on a variety of chores and shopping, and read through three weeks of accumulated US Mail and Email.
We visited the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, in downtown Laredo. It is a small house, the oldest part dating from 1823. Each room has been furnished in a manner appropriate to a particular period, all in the late 1800's and early 1900's. It's a low-budget operation, with most of the furnishings having been donated by local residents. Hence, the collection is spotty and inconsistent. We were disappointed that the museum did not include much information about the very complex and fascinating history of this region.
3/16 Finally underway again, headed northwest to Big Bend National Park. The road past our RV Park, FM1472, is an excellent 4 lane divided highway, and Street Atlas shows it paralleling the Mexican border all the way to Eagle Pass, where it joins U.S. Highway 277. It seemed to be the most direct route to where we wanted to go, so we took it. We should have known better! The divided highway lasted about 15 miles to the International Bridge from Nowhere, TX, to Colombia, MX. The road then became a typical Texas secondary highway narrow, but paved and smooth. This continued for another 20 miles or so, where the pavement abruptly ended. By now, we were quite committed to this route there was no escape other than going all the way back to Laredo and starting over. So we continued. The gravel road was fairly good wide and recently graded, so we moved along at a reasonably comfortable pace. After 20 miles or so, we came to a huge mine. The road turned abruptly to avoid the mine excavations, and simultaneously deteriorated becoming narrower and rougher, but still not too bad, so we slowed a little more and kept driving. Perhaps 20 miles later, we crossed into Maverick Country, and the road became little more than a jeep trail one lane, rutted, twisting down through every little arroyo. Tiny wood bridges at the bottom of the arroyos now displayed weight limits initially 15,000 pounds per axle or tandem no problem for us. Then the weight limits decreased to 10,000 pounds getting uncomfortably close to our 7000 pounds on the tandem trailer axles. Some of the arroyos had no bridges at all in the bottom just a steep little dip down through a dry wash. We crept through these slowly, wondering if the trailer would get through without hanging up on the steep lips of the dip. Speed decreased still further. We watched anxiously for the crossroad shown on our map, which would lead us east out of our way but back to a main highway. But the road didn't exist there wasn't even a break in the ranch fence at that point. So we kept going. Many miles later, the road began to improve slightly, and finally, at El Indio (a cluster of shacks) the road again was paved.
We ended up driving about 80 miles of gravel. Dust is layered thickly on every outside surface of truck and trailer. Even the inside of the trailer, which was tightly closed up, feels gritty. But as far as we can tell, nothing is broken, and we did see some slightly interesting scenery. We also saw more Roadrunners than we've ever seen before half a dozen of them ran across the road, usually close in front of us. One seemed to want to race running straight down the road in front of us for 100 yards or so, before losing courage and heading off into the brush.
At one point, we saw a huge blimp-shaped balloon, high in the sky, tethered to a cable a mile or two from the border. It appears to be an observation point for the Border Patrol. We couldn't tell if there are people up there, or just specialized cameras. At another lonely stretch of road, a helicopter showed up, flying low over the desert. It circled around us slowly, and flew off again we assume it was the Border Patrol. Nearing Eagle Pass, we were stopped briefly at a Border Patrol roadblock.
At Eagle Pass, we joined U.S. 277, and then turned onto U.S. 90 just after Del Rio, both excellent 2-lane roads. At about 4:00 p.m., we stopped for the night at Desert Hills RV Park at Comstock (full hookups for $12) not as far as we had hoped to get, due to the slow pace on the gravel. We might have driven further, but the next campground we could find in the various directories was nearly 3 hours ahead.
3/17 We continued toward Big Bend, arriving at the northern park entrance in mid-afternoon. The drive along U.S. 90 and then U.S. 385 was lonely little traffic, only one town worthy of the label (Sanderson). The National Park campgrounds are full, even including all the primitive sites. This is Spring Break week for the Texas universities, and many others around the country. We turned around and headed back out of the park, then 6 miles southeast to Stillwell Ranch, where we were assured that space would be available. We got the last full-hookup site (only 26 total), but they still had more electric/water sites, and apparently they will accommodate any number of tents and RV's for dry camping on the desert.
Stillwell's turned out to be an interesting place to camp. The 22,000-acre ranch (rather small by Texas standards) has been in the Stillwell family since before the turn of the century. Hallie Crawford Stillwell came to the area at age 13, helping to drive her family's covered wagon. After finishing high school, she became a teacher, working at a border town, wearing a six-shooter and frequently dodging Pancho Villa's raiding parties. Subsequently, she married Roy Stillwell, who was 20 years her senior. She moved to a one-room shack at the isolated ranch, and from necessity became an accomplished cowgirl, a crack shot with a rifle, and did much of the hunting to feed family and ranch hands. Her husband died in 1948 and she ran the ranch herself until 1964, when she turned it over to her two sons and "retired" to the town of Alpine, where she became justice of the peace and coroner for Brewster County (about the size of Connecticut). Later, having become a legend in her own time, she moved to a mobile home on the edge of the RV Park established on a corner of the ranch by her daughter, wrote an autobiography, and spent her time regaling tourists in a museum which the family built with donations from all over the country to preserve the record of her early life. She died in 1997, two months short of her 100th birthday. An extensive obituary appeared in the New York Times.
Her daughter, Dadie, still runs the RV Park, assisted by a couple of Dadie's children. Dadie is also an interesting character probably in her 70's, but still running around the RV Park in bluejeans doing much of the work herself.
3/21 We've been exploring the northern and western portions of Big Bend, by car and foot. The terrain is varied. The park is mostly Chihuahaun Desert, broken by several mountain ranges which rise to 7000 feet. Some of the mountains are upthrusts of bedrock. Others are volcanic. The Basin area in the center of the park is up in the Chisos Mountains, and is high enough to have significantly more rain, cooler temperatures, and pine and oak forests.
Portions of the desert are blooming. Torrey Yuccas are showing huge pink-tinged white flowers on tall stalks. Many of the roadsides are densely covered with attractive Big Bend Bluebonnets (a Lupine). At the lowest elevations, near the Rio Grande, one species of large Prickly Pear is coming into bloom some plants covered with dozens of 3" yellow/pink flowers.
The park has lots of wildlife javelina, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, a miniature subspecies of white-tailed deer, mule deer, mountain lion, bobcat, black bear, etc. We haven't yet been in the right place at the right time to see any of these.
The Rio Grande is a muddy, slow-moving stream. But Santa Elena Canyon is spectacular sheer cliffs 1500 feet high where the river has cut down through a limestone upthrust block. A trail goes just far enough into the canyon to get a view of the high cliffs.
Another trail we particularly liked goes through Dog Canyon in the northern part of the park.
3/23> We finally decided to canoe a portion of the Rio Grande River through Big Bend. We started at Rio Grande Village and paddled 33 miles through Boquillas Canyon, ending at La Linda, a Mexican ghost town a few miles downstream of the park boundary. It was two long days of paddling, with one night on the river. In retrospect, we should have taken three days. The river is low, and we often had to paddle slowly, dodging rocks and angling back and forth across the river trying to follow the deepest channel. So we averaged about 2 miles per hour, and had expected to move almost twice that fast. On quite a few occasions, we had to walk through shallow areas, towing the canoe behind us. There were many small class 1 rapids which we paddled through, acquiring quite a few new gouges in the canoe bottom as we scraped over rocks in the shallow water.
Boquillas Canyon is beautiful. The walls are hundreds of feet high 1300 feet in places. The rock varies from picturesquely eroded folded and faulted formations full of cracks and caves, to sheer cliffs of smooth uninterrupted limestone. The river bank was often lined with dense growths of giant reed and low brushy willow. In other places it was grassy or sandy, or sometimes with growths of mesquite and catclaw.
We often saw horses, burros, and cows along the Mexican shore. We passed several open-air "factories", where small groups of Mexicans were processing the candelilla plant to extract wax. Groups of burros wearing empty pack saddles were standing patiently, and huge piles of brown plant fiber were piled along the river or spread out to dry in the sun. After the wax is extracted (by boiling in water with a little sulfuric acid), the fibers are dried and used as fuel to boil the next batch. We have read that this is still a thriving cottage industry in this part of Mexico. The wax is of high quality, similar to carnuba wax but softer, and is used in blends with carnuba for polishing, and in other applications such as cosmetics.
While we were eating lunch on the second day, a group of Mexicans dragged a battered aluminum boat down to the water a few hundred yards upstream of us. They loaded bicycles, paddled across the river, dragged the boat up on shore on the American side, and peddled off up a jeep trail on their bicycles. We have no idea where they were going. The nearest town is 50 miles or more away, and the nearest store of any kind is at Stillwell Ranch, 25 miles north. There are a couple of isolated ranches within a few miles, but otherwise nothing. More canoe-specific details of this trip are here.
While our shuttle driver was returning our truck to the ranch after dropping us off, a passing car threw a rock into the windshield, cracking it badly. This windshield is less than a year old the same thing happened in Canada last summer. We'll have to stop for a few days in a city big enough to have a good glass repair shop.
3/24 Shortly after returning from the canoe trip, A guy walked over to us and asked if we were the Damouth's. Jim Ofelt had been aware of us from our participation in the RV-Talk Email list, had been following our travels via our website, and, amazingly, had recognized our trailer from the description on the website. Subsequently, he and his wife Karen invited us over to enjoy refreshments and an evening of interesting converstaion in their shiny almost-new Airstream trailer.
3/26 Last night, well after dark, I was sitting quietly at a picnic table in the campground enjoying the moonlight, and was startled by a loud scrabbling noise. I looked over and discovered an equally startled javelina, who had gotten within 10 feet of me before realizing I was there and then came to a screeching halt. It stood there glaring at me, shaking its head advancing a little, trying to intimidate me into leaving. These beasts have a unsavory reputation and I didn't really want it any closer, but two can play the intimidation game! I stood up, took a step towards it waved my hands, and stamped my foot loudly, and it backed off a step or two. After a couple of repetitions of this, the javelina finally decided that I was bigger, and slowly turned and walked off around a building. Having heard some stories about javelina occasionally being very aggressive made this a couple of tense moments. These animals are also called collared peccaries, and are in the pig family. They usually travel in groups. I was quite surprised to see just one but it was a big one.
3/27 We awoke to heavy cloud cover, which became darker and more threatening as the day progressed. Shortly after noon, we began to hear thunder and see brilliant lightning over the mountains to the west, and the wind increased to gale force. Shortly after that, heavy rain started, and then we were bombarded by 1/2" hailstones. The noise in the trailer was deafening (I wonder what it was like in the aluminum Airstream next door?) The RV Park soon had water running across it an inch deep, and the hail was blown into white drifts several inches thick. The intense portion of the storm only lasted about 20 minutes, with lighter rain for perhaps two hours. But the total precipitation was over an inch. After the rain stopped, we drove out to see what the roads were like. Water was running in the bottom of all the arroyos. The road was covered with water frequently, although never more than 3" deep. We drove up through Persimmon Gap into the park, and the view out over the desert and mountains was beautiful all trimmed with brilliant white drifts. We've heard of only minor damage from the hail. One RV had its plastic roof air vents shattered, and the occupants had to scramble to keep the heavy rain out. Our sewer hose was hammered full of holes by the hail. We may now have the distinction of having been rained on in every desert in the U.S. Perhaps we could rent ourselves out as rainmakers?
The water only lasted a day or two. The next day, only a few deeper creeks still had flowing water, and water was standing in isolated pockets. A day after that, there was almost no open water to be seen.
3/28 We finally decided to take the Stillwell Ranch tour. Doing it the day after the storm made it a little more exciting, and a little shorter than usual, since we struggled through wet muddy or sandy creek bottoms and couldn't get to a couple of the places normally included. The 6-hour tour is conducted in an old 4-wheel drive Suburban, by a couple of ranch employees, one of whom is an old guy who used to own his own ranch, just down the road. We asked him if he'd been in this area all his life. He said "Oh no - I had to go away for a few years during the war" (meaning World War II).
We saw Indian artifacts (a large pictograph, flint shards from tool manufacture, shelter caves, fire mounds, deep holes in the rocks where mesquite beans were ground into flour. We were told that back when the boundaries of the National Park were being decided, Roy Stillwell (Dadie's father), with shotgun in hand, kept Federal investigators off the ranch, which is probably the reason that this interesting area is not currently part of the National Park.
We drove through two picturesque canyons, although we only got part way into the second of these before being stopped by deep water. We saw the remains of a site where wax was rendered from candelilla plants, a subsistence activity by the ranch in the early 1950's, during a period when an extended drought caused great hardship for the local ranches. This site looked just about the same as the currently operating sites we saw along the river in Mexico during our canoe trip.
We also got some additional insight into what ranching in this area was like, both today and in the past. Apparently, modern ranchers all give their cattle some supplementary feed blocks of protein and mineral concentrates, - dumped from the back of a pickup truck. Do you know how a modern-day cowboy rounds up the cattle when necessary? He drives out into the pasture and blows the truck horn a few times. The cattle all come running!
According to these folks, the ranches in this area are money-losers, maintained because the people either like the life style or don't know how to do anything else. Stillwell Ranch survives because of the store and RV Park, with almost no revenue from cattle for the past several years because of the drought. Dadie Stillwell said earlier that the rains run in seven-year cycles two good years (meaning it rains enough to grow some grass), followed by five dry years, when the size of the herds must be quickly and drastically reduced (right at the time when beef is in surplus and market prices are very low, of course).
Stillwell Ranch is run by old people. Dadie Stillwell taught school for 30 years, before "retiring" back to the ranch to run the RV Park. There are no children at the ranch. The young families move away, to jobs and school in the cities. The long-term residents all seem to be enthusiastic about the area. Someone pointed out that the only people who are still resident here are the ones who love the area and really want to be here. Someone else said that the residents are sometimes people whose car broke down while driving through. It took so long for them to get repair parts shipped to this remote area that they had to rent an apartment and get a job while waiting, after which they never got around to leaving.
In the afternoon, we drove south then west through the park to the Grapevine Hills Trail. This is an easy one-mile hike, gently climbing into the hills. But at the end is a quarter-mile steep scramble up through large granite boulders to the crest. From the top, there is a lovely view to the east across the desert to the Dead Horse Mountains. At the end of the trail, a huge boulder has fallen on top of two others to form a large window through which to view the scenery. The hills were formed by an upwelling of molten granite, which pushed the surface limestone strata high in the air. The limestone subsequently eroded away, leaving the granite exposed. It was extensively stirred and folded while flowing up, and looks like badly mixed bread dough, with flow lines running in all directions. Spherical or cubical chunks of granite are defined by areas of flow crossing each other to form a huge gridwork. The boulders, having been formed by being swirled in the flow, are now disintegrating by exfoliating thin curved sheets of rock, along cracks which follow the flow lines. I don't remember seeing anything like this elsewhere.
After the hike, we drove up to Basin, and as we pulled off the road in front of the bulletin boards at the Basin Campground, another truck pulled in beside us, and someone yelled, over the noise of the two diesels, "is that the Damouth's?" Lee and Joe Belanger had recognized our truck and canoes several miles back and followed us until they could flag us down what a nice surprise. We exchanged many Email notes with them, starting 9 months ago as they prepared for their own full-time RVing adventure. We'd compared our travel plans with theirs over the past few months, and given up hope of actually meeting them this year but here they are! We stood in the parking lot and talked until the sun set and we all started getting chilled. They then headed off to their original destination, and we headed up to the Basin Lodge, to see if we could get a meal.
The restaurant was full, with a 20-minutes waiting list, (not surprising it's the only real restaurant for about 80 miles in any direction) but we decided to wait. The meal was mediocre, but seemed delicious after our long hike.
During the long drive back to the campground, we enjoyed the views across a desert transformed by a nearly full moon. It brought back memories of an old Bing Crosby recording of the cowboy song "There's Silver on the Sage Tonight". The shoulders of the highway were alive with jackrabbits, forcing us to drive slower than usual. But the rabbits seemed smart enough to run away from the pavement, not toward it, when they were startled by our headlights.
3/29 Window Trail. All the water runoff from the Basin area drains through a funnel-shaped hanging canyon, emptying through a gap high on a west-facing cliff face of the Chisos mountains. The trail descends this canyon, about a five mile round trip, with about an 800 foot elevation change.
Initially, the canyons are broad, and the trail runs through typical dry chaparral. Gradually, as the canyon drops and narrows, the foliage becomes denser and much more varied, apparently because water is held in the ground, above the impervious bedrock. The park literature describes 8 different kinds of oak trees, and we saw several along the lower part of the trail, as well as many things we couldn't identify. The rock formations comprising the canyon walls are unusual, varied and interesting weirdly folded granite, occasional granite spires, and near the end, cliffs of an attractive smooth reddish-brown rock.
At the end, the canyon is only 10 feet wide, with vertical rock walls and a water-carved polished rock floor. Walking out to the mouth is a very scary experience, because of the smooth slippery rock under foot, sloping slightly down to a sheer drop. I never did find just how far it drops I wasn't willing to go all the way out that slippery slope. On the way back to the campground, we passed a large mule deer with a full rack of antlers. It stood staring at us until we were almost adjacent to it, before bounding off across the desert, fully visible as it ran, since it was much taller than most of the desert bushes.
3/30 Lost Mine Trail: This trail is 4.4 miles round trip, and climbs from 5600 feet at the trailhead to 6800 at the end. It's a self-guiding trail, with a brochure available at the beginning, keyed to numbered marker posts along the trail. It was amusing to note how out of date the brochure has become, relative to the ever-changing foliage. For example, at one marker post, the brochure described the huge stump of a century plant which had bloomed and died, and mentioned a large live century plant 10 feet up the trail. But the stump had decayed beyond recognition, and the live plant had long since bloomed, died, and was now a partially decayed stump.
Because of the high altitude, the views along the trail and at the end are spectacular. Most of the trail is through a sparse pine/oak forest, but the trees and shrubs in this isolated high-elevation "island" in the desert are strange varieties, many of which grow nowhere else in the U.S. We saw at least four different varieties of small oak tree and three kinds of juniper, none familiar. At one point, a noisy and colorful family of Mexican Jays escorted me for several hundred yards along the trail.
3/31 It's too hot to hike today. We drove down to Rio Grande Village with the intent of doing two fairly short trails the self-guided nature trail by the River, and the Boquillas Canyon trail. We managed to complete the nature trail only half a mile but we were dragging at the end. A portion of the trail is on a boardwalk over a spring-fed marsh near the river. The marsh is maintained by low beaver dams, mostly built of mud, quite unlike the northern beaver dams we are used to, which are mostly wood.
Substantial numbers of a small interestingly-colored fish were conspicuous in this marsh. It turns out to be Tilapia, an important species we've read about many times. This fish, native to Africa, was farmed by the early Egyptian civilizations, and has been introduced to fresh-water fisheries in warm areas all over the world.
The temperature was "only" in the low 90's, but the Southern sun felt incredibly hot. So we skipped the other trail and spent an hour watching interesting videos in the air-conditioned Visitor's Center. They sell a variety of videos about Big Bend topics, and a copy of each is available for free individual viewing in the small auditorium.
We've commented before about desert campgrounds attracting large numbers of birds, because of the campground being an oasis of water and trees in a vast expanse of less hospitable desert. It's true here too. I've been kept busy with the bird book. The white winged dove has been very common here with an unmistakable call which a footnote in the river paddling guide translates as "who-cooks-for-who?" The park has a resident roadrunner. Last night after dark I went out with a flashlight to try to identify a bird that calls from the treetops most of the night. The bird flew past a few feet above me, but all I could see was a dark shadow I still don't know what it was.
4/1 We haven't used up Big Bend yet, but it feels like time to be moving on. We're getting very low on groceries and propane after 15 days here. The nearest real stores are in Marathon about 50 miles to the North. We've been purchasing small amounts of groceries from the convenience stores in the park but selections are very limited and the prices are about double what we're used to. We're heading north this morning re-stocking in Marathon or Alpine and then going to Fort Davis for a couple of days, where we'll visit the McDonald Observatory, and then on to Carlsbad Caverns and Guadaloupe Mountains National Parks.