Visit to Big Bend National Park

This trip took place in November 2009, I memorialised it in a series of blog posts at the time.  This is an attempt to bring it all together and make it cohesive.  I hope to do the same to my 2010 Everglades trip soon.

I had recently returned from canoeing the Missouri River and re-assimilating into daily life was hard.  As October wound down I decided that trying to mesh into my old life was futile and that I was better off hitting the road.  Since Autumn was ending and Winter was about to begin, my options for camping travel were limited.  Brief pondering led me to decide on Big Bend National Park in West Texas, just over 1600 miles away to the Southwest.  After only a couple of days to plan and stock up on supplies I was nearly ready to hit the highway, but first I spent some time trolling Craigslist for riders heading that way.
Going near the Mexican border is always a gamble as it has become a militarized police state. With check points and areas of the country “closed”, armed paramilitary patrols and the works.  It has been almost 15 years since I have been down there.  It was bad then and that was before all the hoopla of 9/11 and the following of tightened border security, minute men, etc… I think it will be good to see what we are up against…since we let it happen there, how can it be stopped here?  My hope was to not end up in a third world jail cell in Texas or Arizona.  How does the Hell’s Half Acre song go… “If you’ve got long hair and hippy beads don’t get off the interstate.”
I know the local areas down there thrive on making examples of folks like me…let’s hope we come through unscathed.

A New Mexico Mountain Pass        From 2009 Big Bend NP

My flaky riders caused me to leave 2 hours late, but finally got rolling with 3 riders (found via Craigslist). Out I-580 then South on I-5 to CA58 East then East on I-40. Out of California into Arizona. I dropped 2 riders in Flagstaff (I hope they did not freeze on the mountain where I dropped them off). Then further East on I-40 into New Mexico and South to Ramah where I dropped off my other rider at a wolf sanctuary. Smokey, never having met a wolf before, got them all stirred up. The sound of 20 excited wolves is something to hear…unbelievably beautiful. Then secondary roads across New Mexico to Alamogordo where we got a motel and had a chill evening.
Got up early in the morning and did a quick visit to White Sands National Monument which was really nice although not as grand as I had expected.  The entire visit only took about 4 hours.

They plow the sand like snow.     From 2009 Big Bend NP

Then East out of Alamogordo into the mountains where we took time to play in the snow (photo above, some of us played harder than others). Two hours later we were in Artesia and it was 85 degrees and getting hotter.
We headed down to Carlsbad Caverns but it was too hot to leave the dogs in the car so we skipped it.
When we got to the Texas border we found the road closed due to an accident, the police said it would be hours and offered up a 120 mile detour We decided to wait it out, but after an hour and a half the police said the equipment to clear the road was still at least 2 hours away…so we set off on the 120 mile detour which brought us to Pecos Texas. Since we were worn out from playing and driving all day we got another hotel.  Motel 6‘s policy on allowing dogs really makes traveling with the four footed companions convenient.  Of course they only allow one dog, but it isn’t hard to get the second dog in.
Hit the road early the next morning and headed South toward Mexico.  Coming in to Big Bend you are struck by the vastness of it all.  A vast and stark landscape, reminiscent of some of the best scenery in Death Valley.  My intent was to stay a week and explore everything possible with two dogs in tow.

Big land, big sky         From 2009 Big Bend NP

We first stopped at Panther Junction, the central visitor center and hub of the park, where we got a permit to camp at Rattlesnake Mountain, a back country campsite.  Then we went West to Rattlesnake  Mountain and set up camp.  As it got dark the sky lit up with the Milky Way like I have never seen it (although I seem to recall that the sky was like this as a child).  The first night we caught about 6 shooting stars, peek viewing of the Taurids were in the early morning after moon rise, so we were happy with seeing any.  I could clearly see the space station as it made its periodic passage over head.  There were more stars than I have ever seen, even with no moon the desert was lit below us.  I spread a blanket on the ground and just stared (gaped) up at the sky.  We went to bed at 7 and were up at 3 AM, a pattern that would repeat itself our entire stay.  The biggest problem with Winter camping is the short days.  Getting up, the moon was bright and it was easy to see to make coffee.  Hunched over the stove with a steaming mug in my hand, I wanted nothing more.

St. Elana Canyon     From 2009 Big Bend NP

After it was light we headed down to the Rio Grande where I hiked into Santa Elana Canyon and a refreshing hike it was.  After this we simply drove a big loop and took in the scenery.  We spent the rest of the day in the shade of the van reading The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot (an analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.)
The next day we drove up into the Chisos Mountains , where we drove and took in the sights (much of the trip was sight seeing from the car–dogs are not allowed on the trails).  After this we went up a four wheel drive trail as far as our trusty steed could take us, then got out to hike further up.

Shadow with the Chisos Mountains       From 2009 Big Bend NP

Almost immediately I realized I had locked the keys in the car.  I was in disbelief.  Miles from the road, no cell coverage and all of our water in the car.  I felt like banging my head on the car.  Instead I judged the back drivers wing window to be the cheapest to replace.  I took a rock in hand, turned my head, and bam……bam…bam…bambam…bam.  Nothing, just small chips in the glass.  I got a bigger rock and stood back 5 feet and lobbed it at the window…bang, it bounced off leaving a larger chip.  Angry, I picked up the rock and winged it at the window…bang…the rock bounced off…and…the window popped open.  It had busted free from the motor that controlled it and allowed me access to the car.  I still had to tape it closed but it beat the hell out of covering a hole with plastic.  I felt like the luckiest man alive.

Smokey with the Chisos     From 2009 Big Bend NP

We spent another afternoon lounging and reading.  The next day we did the same drives that we had done previously but did them at different times of the day to get a new view of things.  Big Bend is full of wildlife…we saw road runners, numerous birds, javalina (collared pecaries), mule deer, hawks, and a coyote that I mistook for a wolf (a ranger set me straight later on).
The next day we moved camp to the other side of the park (Candellila camp) and did more driving and sight seeing.
Big Bend was my first introduction to the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have spent much time in both the Colorado and Mojave deserts and once spent 3 weeks camped in the Sonoran desert (these are the four desert types in the US).  That was the main thing that had brought me to Texas, to finally get the chance to engulf myself in this alien terrain.  The dominant plants were creosote, ocatilla, yucca (agave and sotol), and various cacti that were new to me and I didn’t bother to learn the names of.  The Chihuanhuan has more cactus species than any other desert and I saw and noted maybe 15 of the 65 that reside there.  The main cactus was like beaver tail but it grew much larger and the spines were red, this gave the plant the appearance of having a red halo in the sunlight…a pleasing chimeric quality.  The rocks and mountains are a mix of sedimentary and volcanic…they are very old and much worn down.  The Rio Grande cuts a canyon that is the Southern boundary of the park.  The river is a quarter mile wide oasis in the desert.  This time of year (Winter) that is where most of the action is with the park having two major installations near the river (stores, campgrounds, visitor centers, and interpretive trails.)  During the Summer the action moves to the Chisos Mountains where the park maintains a restaurant (pretty decent breakfast buffet at $8.50) and a lodge as well as the customary store, campground, visitor center, and interpretive trail.
That night I am reading by lantern light when I feel something brush my hand…i glance down…it is the biggest tarantula that I have ever seen, easily 2x the next biggest one that I have seen.  I scream and jump up, throwing my book…I am watching the spider and at the same time dancing and brushing at the imaginary spiders that I conjured up.  Shadow got behind me and Smokey went to investigate the spider.  I don’t know what the tarantula did but Smokey jumped and moved away.  I stomped my foot and told the spider to git and it ran under a rock about 10 feet from where I was sitting when I first spied it.  Well I had the heeby jeebies and was pretty much done sitting on the desert floor in the dark for that night.  So I stepped out of the lantern light to stand and gape a while at the sky.  As my eyes adjusted to the night, the path to the road became visible and I decided to go for a walk.  The dogs trailing behind, I left the lantern burning in camp and walked out the trail about 100 yards to the four wheel drive trail and then started up hill (whenever hiking I will always go uphill…when I get tired it is an easy saunter back to my starting place.)  We followed the road up and around to the left where it passed above camp.  And right there, running with its lights off, is a park service truck.  WTF?  As I approach I see the word volunteer on the side of the truck and leaning out the window the driver is scanning my camp site with binoculars.  I am walking toward the front of his truck and he doesn’t see me until I ask, “Is there something I can help you with?”  He starts like I had caught him beating off, and says, “No, no…I was just doing the final road check.”  He continued, “You need to get them dogs on leashes.”  “Yeah, I’ll do that”, I said just as sternly as I could and then stepped back.  He turned on his lights and left.
Even though he had left, I couldn’t shake him.  What was he doing?  Was it that I had made an illegal crossing into Mexico earlier?  Was it that I am a chronic pot head and pretty much commit a walking felony every time I leave California?  Was it the dogs and the leash thing?  Was he just curious?  A pervert?  A thief?
I got in the tent and read by flashlight, what with tarantulas patrolling the desert floor there would be no rest outside.  The next morning I got up and broke camp, things were weird and I don’t do weird.

West from the park.       From 2009 Big Bend NP

I drove across the park and out the West side along the Rio Grande on Farm Road 170 toward Presidio.  The road follows the river for about 40 miles and it is beautiful.  It is curvy and mountainy with many short 15% or better grades and all the while the green oasis of the Rio Grande is off to the left in a picturesque canyon with a beautiful South Western back drop that leaves you stunned…like some one had punched you in the stomach.  The dogs got to wade and frolic in the river and there were lots of turn outs.  I sat upon a huge boulder high above the river with ravens cawing in the background and smoked a number and counted my blessings which are many.  We visited an old movie set, a fake ghost town now…overrun and abandoned and a picture perfect day to enjoy it in.  We went to Presidio a border town with a legal crossing.

Smokey with the Rio Grande       From 2009 Big Bend NP

I browsed a few clothes stores and discovered, much to my delight, that they stocked clothes that fit me…they even had clothes 2 and 3 sizes too small for me.  It was a joy to shop for clothes and be able to buy what you happen to like as opposed to scrounging for stuff that fits.  I bought a couple of pairs of jeans that I really didn’t need just to experience the joy of it all.  And I realized that they had my size because they were catering to wealthy Mexicans who are regular sized people too.
Then we drove the two and a half hours up to Van Horn across the rolling Texas hills and got a room to shower and prepare for the next leg of our trip.  It wasn’t until I was back in civilization that I noticed that I had not seen an airplane in five days, no contrails, no annoying buzz, nothing.
After a rest and a shower in Van Horn, we headed West on I-10 up through El Paso, through New Mexico, and finally to Tucson AZ. We got a room for two days near downtown, with our plan being to spend a day at Saguaro NP and Ironwood Forest NM. But those plans were changed when we discovered that Tucson is a major shit hole.
The worst urban sprawl that I have seen, poor traffic management, and a stench hanging over it all. On top of that our room was a dump. I drove 8 miles to a park to let the dogs play and it took half an hour to get there. The town is like 40 miles across with stop and go traffic all the way. It seemed as if a 4 year old had laid the city out, but more probably nobody laid it out–and that is the problem. The city tries to present an environmentally caring attitude–but there is no city in the desert that can pull that off. Building a city in the desert is the anti-thesis to caring. And to allow it to sprawl to all ends of the earth only adds to the perception. There were bill boards displaying all the things that Tucson is doing to conserve water and they erected them right next to golf courses. The city had a physical stench and it left a mental stench in my mind. I decided I did not want to stay there. I asked for and received a refund on my second night in the hotel.
I spent that evening on Craigslist trying to drum up a rider or two, I was trolling both Phoenix and Tucson. I had a few responses, one wanting me to pick her up in Yuma and go to Southern California (I declined as I wanted to get away from the border area), another wanting me to wait a few days (I declined as I wanted out of the shit hole of Tucson), another wanting a ride to Reno (I declined as there was no direct way to get there).
The next morning I checked out of my room and headed North toward Phoenix. As I drove I decided I would offer a ride to the guy going to Reno as I was ahead of schedule, he seemed like he needed it, and I felt like doing a good deed. Going through Reno only added 120 miles to the trip but it added about 6 hours as the most direct way to get there was all secondary roads. So I phoned him up and told him if he could be ready in an hour I would take him to Reno.
The rider didn’t know how to give directions and it took about an hour and a half to go the 30 miles out of my way to pick him up, but he turned out to be a good rider–a good driver, ok conversationalist, and we had similar musical tastes. So we set off out of Phoenix for Reno. All secondary roads…the whole way. North on route 60 to route 93, up through Kingman AZ and across the Hoover dam into Nevada, get on route 95 in Las Vegas and up to Alt 95 to 395 and into Southern Reno. I dropped him off at two thirty in the morning and headed up to I-80 to go up over Donner summit for the 200 mile shot home. As I dropped him off it started to rain…and I knew that rain in Reno meant snow on the mountain. I got to Boomtown near the NV/CA border and decided to nap a couple of hours, I did not want to get tired on the mountain and have to sleep in the cold.
I awoke at six thirty to the sound of a steady rain. I jumped up and hit the traffic station only to hear that the chain requirement had went into effect for I-80. I drove the 60+ miles down to route 50 and got there just in time for the announcement that chains were required there too. I have never used chains, I have no intention of using them as my owner’s manual says not to. So I settled in to wait it out. Fortunately that was only 4 hours and we were on our way.

Dashing through the snow       From 2009 Big Bend NP

When we got up around 7000 feet I went up toward Wright’s Lake to find a place to let the dogs play.. After an hour of playing and romping, we shot across 50 to Sacramento, got on I-80 and went home.
It is always good to arrive home…it’s a good feeling (almost as good as leaving home). Since I am a few days early I don’t have anything pressing to do and can do an easy decompression before getting back into the swing of things.

Postscript, or My Border Experience and What it Means for Immigration Policy

The US can not stem the flow of undocumented migrants into this country, by some estimates the flow is almost one every minute…drip…drip…  All of our efforts in stemming this flow, have thus far, been largely ineffective.
My first intimation that things were not the same along the border as in the rest of the country was an impromptu stop by a Border Patrol checkpoint.  A friendly Hispanic male in a sharply creased uniform approached my window while 3 well armed white males stood back and watched.  “Where are you coming from,” the officer asked as I put down my window.  My hackles were raised by this invasion, but I held it in check and told him.  Next he wanted to know where I was going, which I told him.  Then he wanted to know my citizenship and what I planned to do at my destination.  I was mad, but I played along.  “Alright, you can go,” he told me.  Mad now that it was sinking in how invasive this experience had been, I told the officer that he should look for a new job.  When he asked why, I told him that “when the Constitution is restored he would be out of work.”  I held back on adding, “those of you not hanging from telephone poles, anyways” as I drove away.
I was angry.  This had obviously been a search of my vehicle, it had also been a detention of myself and my vehicle.  All with no probable cause.  Therefore extra-Constitutional.  It was a checkpoint in my country by my government to determine if I could freely travel…this is not a part of the America that I know and love.  This invasive behavior is one step away from requiring travel documents to move around.  And what if I wasn’t white?  What if I was brown and spoke broken English, like so many of my fellow American citizens, what would my experience have been then?
I went on down to Big Bend National Park.  Big Bend is a large desert park with the Southern boundary consisting of over 100 miles of Rio Grande River/Mexican border.  There is no border crossing anywhere near but there is an isolated Mexican village across the river.  The park’s newspaper is called the Paisano.  Paisano translates from the Spanish as countryman, loosely it means country folk.  What got me is the extent that the paper’s editors went through to make the reader fear those country folk from across the river.  Almost every page contained an admonition to fear those folks across the river.  And for humans, fear easily turns into hate.  And while avoiding explicit warnings to hate the brown people across the river, the paper’s editors still managed to evoke this message at every turn of the page.  Am I accusing the paper’s editors of being a bunch of racists?  No, but I am saying that their attitudes and words tend to increase–and are in fact indicative of–the racism already present in those who visit the park.  Fear the brown man, if not he will be arrested and deported to some place far away, your property will be seized, and you will be fined $5000.  It is this sort of incendiary writing that we refer to as fear mongering.  And, like Lou Dobbs, these folks will claim that they are not trying to incite hatred of the other, but the results are clear to anyone lucid enough to step back and critically view the situation.
When I left the park, I traveled along the border to the West about 75 miles to Presidio, TX.  This drive contained an estimated 70 miles of Rio Grande/border for a total of almost 200 miles of border.  Not a fence in site, the river is some places shallow enough to wade across.  Running in and out of canyons and weaving its way through the desert it showed to me that there is no way to “secure” this area, it is too open, too vast, too isolated, and too barren.  Terlinqua to Presidio was about 50 road miles, there is nothing in between.  Not a town, not a retail business, a couple of ranches near Presidio and that was it.
When I headed North out of Presidio, and then twice more as I paralleled the border on I-10, I ran into border patrol “inspection” stations.  Always it was either a woman or a Hispanic that approached my window and always armed white guys stood around watching in their para-military garb.  I did my best at these encounters to be both non-cooperative and non-antagonistic, not an easy fence to straddle and I was successful to varying degrees.  “Where are you coming from?”  I am coming from the South I would reply.  “No, where have you been?”  I have been in the South.  “Are you a US citizen?” Yes.  “Where are you going?”  I am going to the North.  “What, do you have a problem?”  “Am I being detained, am I free to go?”  With this last I would repeat, “Am I being detained, am I free to go?” to any question they asked.  At some point Smokey would start barking (her barking annoys me to no end but in this case I was glad to hear it) and they would eventually tell me to go ahead.
A couple of more observations to round out this account.  In Arizona on I-40, many miles from the border, I noted many SUVs of different colors with whip antenna patrolling the highway.  Sometimes two or three of these vehicles were parked together in the median.  I noted many Border Patrol vehicles sitting along both the highways and the secondary roads monitoring traffic, these vehicles were seen as far North as Kingman, AZ.
I made a similar trip to Glacier NP on the Canadian border.  I noted no such activity, no inspection stations,  no Park Service exhortations to fear our neighbors, nothing at all like the atmosphere created at our Southern border.  Despite the fact that terrorists have been caught trying to get in from Canada, but–to my knowledge–never from Mexico.  Still, the two borders of our neighbors are treated far differently…and the only difference that I can see is the color of their skin.
These events and observations illuminated two things for me.  First, the border is indefensible with anything but the most intensive and invasive measures.  And, two, the border area is a de-facto police state, essential liberties have already been surrendered in a no-win attempt to thwart these erstwhile migrants.
So the question becomes, how far are you willing to go to secure the border and which liberties are you willing to give up to do so?
For certainly, we have the means to secure the border, should that ever become our passion.  Here, for instance are some steps that would realistically secure the border:
Institute a national biometric based ID to be used for obtaining employment;
Make a stiff penalty for employing undocumented workers, say 5k for individuals and 50k for businesses;
Wall off the urban areas, perhaps a 20 foot wall separating the two nations;
Build a fence half a mile on our side in the rural areas and place land mines between the river and the fence;
Deport immediately any undocumented person who shows up at a school or a hospital;
Increase Border Patrol check points and patrols; and
Run ad campaigns offering rewards for any tips that lead to deportations.
The above is not very realistic, yet is, never-the-less, doable.  Still, I don’t know how you feel about it, but that is not the nation that I want to live in.
With that said, something needs to be done with the immigration issue.  Having 12-20,000,000 undocumented, unlicensed, uninsured, unprotected people in our midst is obviously not a good thing.
I would argue that far more benefits could be gained by abandoning our present course and adopting a course of investment in Mexico.  Jobs, education, and health care should be the objectives of these investments..  By raising the living standards of Mexicans living in Mexico we avoid having our living standards fall to their levels (Which present trends make seem inevitable).  With education, jobs, and opportunity, the pull of the North would decrease drastically and would eventually balance out with migration to the South.  As more balance is achieved we could give logistical and military support to help Mexico seal its Southern border.  As Mexico becomes more stable and secure in its borders we could begin dismantling the barriers between our countries.  After all, goods and services already flow freely across the border, is it not time for people to join in that?
I see no one in leadership with the political vision to give us real immigration reform.  Instead, incremental changes will be made that does nothing to stem the flow and leaves millions upon millions out in the cold while depriving the rest of us of our liberties, one at a time…drip…drip…
Disagree?  Got a better plan?  Leave it in the comments.  But remember, my idea requires that WE GIVE UP ZERO CIVIL LIBERTIES, be sure to list which liberties you are willing to give up to implement some other idea.  To state, “build a fence”, is jingoistic nonsense; anyone who spouts this has either never been to the border or is stupid.

There are a few more photos here.


2 thoughts on “Visit to Big Bend National Park

  1. Nice recompilation. An intense and interesting piece, with dog photos. I hope we can go to Death Valley next Christmas, it made me nostalgic for the desert and winter camping. Hope to take a day float in a couple of days. Looking forward to your Florida mash up.

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