Saturday, November 28, 2009

Terlingua/Big Bend, Day 3

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We awoke to a slightly deflated air mattress this morning. It must have a pin hole leak in it somewhere. Oh, well, no time to search for a leak now. I just pumped it up again, and hoped for the best.

We had breakfast with our fellow Margarita Hill campers. Steve and Christie had showed up from Dallas this morning, which brought our number up to seven. They were not camping on the hill with us, but had secured a hotel room at the Big Bend Motor Inn. We were expecting one more couple, Mike and Maria. They would not make it 'till Friday afternoon.

Ok Hwa and I had planned another day of exploring in the park, and the rest of the group were planning a hike to the top of Casa Grande Mountain. Ambitious indeed!

After breakfast, Ok Hwa and I set off in the Bronco with no real plan in mind. I asked her where she wanted to go today, and she said to the Hot Spring. The Hot Spring is in the east end of the park, near Rio Grande Village. This area is also where the old river crossing into Boquillas, Mexico is located. In earlier years, it was almost a rite of passage for Big Bend visitors to cross over to Boquillas, for and afternoon of drinking in the cantinas there. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. authorities closed the crossing until further notice. It remains closed to this day.

Last summer, there was a tremendous amount of rain in northern Mexico, which caused a breach in a dam on the Rio Conchos, a tributary of the Rio Grande on the Mexican side. Water from the lake there poured out over the dam, and down the Conchos, and Rio Grande for weeks, causing much flooding in the Presidio, Texas area, and downstream along the river in the Big Bend area. When we were there last year, the Santa Elena Canyon area was closed to the public while crews cleaned up, and rebuilt the facilities there. I made a solo hike down there to view the destruction, and it was bad. The river had deposited about six to eight feet of silt over the entire area. The clean up crew had a motor grader scraping it up, and a front end loader scooping it into a line of dump trucks. They worked for weeks there to get the area back to it's former self. They had to rebuilt the restroom building from scratch. Across Terlingua Creek, I saw a crew of volunteers cleaning up and rebuilding the lower portion of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. I took some pictures, then hiked back out to the Castolon Road to join up with Ok Hwa.

So, that was the river last year. This year we had just seen the Santa Elena Canyon area the day before, on Wednesday, November 4, and it looked good, all cleaned up. Now we wanted to see if there was any lingering damage over on the other side of the park, at Hot Springs.

The drive over to Rio Grande Village from Terlingua is fifty miles. It's a beautiful and interesting drive, skirting along the northern flank of the Chisos Mountains. The highest point along this drive is at the Chisos Mountains Basin Junction, at about 3800 feet, then it's a twenty mile gradual descent to 1850 feet at Rio Grande Village. A few miles before arriving at Rio Grande Village, the road takes a broad, sweeping turn over a long curved bridge at Tornillo Creek. Looking north from the bridge you can see for miles up the wide Tornillo Flat. Ahead of you in the distance for the last twenty miles, has been the massive geologic formation called Sierra del Carmen, looming ever larger in your windshield as each mile passes. The first time we saw it, years ago, we were amazed by it's sheer size. The Sierra is not in the park, or even in Texas, but, across the river in Mexico. The high point there is at 8921 feet, more than a thousand feet higher than the highest mountain in the Chisos, Emory Peak, at 7825 feet. Sierra del Carmen is part of the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Area, and it, along with the Canyon de Santa Elena Flora and Fauna Protection Area in Mexico, and Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in the U.S. make up the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert.

We went on down to Rio Grande Village to have an ice cream at the campground store there. Rio Grande Village consists of the store and gas station, an RV park with full hook-ups, another campground without hook-ups, and a visitor center. There is a trail from here to the Hot Spring, three miles upstream to the west. A few miles to the east, the Boquillas Canyon overlook and a couple of trails up into Boquillas Canyon offer some interesting diversion.

We headed back up the road, and a couple miles before the Tornillo Creek bridge is the turn off to the Hot Spring. Many years ago the Hot Spring was a resort, with a small stone hotel building to house the visitors. The building is still there, protected and maintained by the park service. The store here also held the area's first post office. This stone building is also still here, and also protected and maintained by the park service. Pictures of the old stone store and post office, with it's iconic palm tree are a Big Bend post card favorite. We made sure to get a picture of it for ourselves (pictured above). We went down to the banks of Tornillo Creek which joins the Rio Grande here, and followed it downstream to the confluence, taking pictures along the way.

Next was the short hike over to the Hot Spring. The clean up from last year's flood was almost complete here. The crew was putting the finishing touches on the area around the old hotel and pathway. The path follows close by the the river, under an overhanging cliff. Along this cliff are some ancient Native American pictographs, clearly visible. We also came upon a display of Mexican handicrafts for sale. The folks in Boquillas del Carmen, on the Mexican side, who used to depend on the American tourist trade for their livelihood, now sneak across the river and leave these things for sale. They leave an old coffee can to put your money in, next to some very nice little hand crafted pieces of art, bracelets, walking sticks, and rocks painted by their kids. We left a five in the can, but took no merchandise. The park service discourages this unofficial trade, but sells the same Mexican hand made merchandise in the park store at Rio Grande Village.

The Hot Spring bubbles up out of the ground about three feet from the fast flowing Rio Grande. The water is about 110 degrees. Back in the thirties, the resort built a square pool of rock walls around the spring, and upon this foundation there was a building of some kind. All that's left now is the pool foundation. It is directly adjacent to the flowing water of the Rio Grande, and when the river is swollen after a rain, it spills over into the pool of hot water.

I took off my boots and socks for a short wade in the pool. I wish I'd brought my swim suit so I could get all the way in. Next time for sure.

Back in the Bronco, we headed up the two miles of dirt road to the main park road. I took a short video of this drive which I present for you here:

The fifty miles back to Terlingua was broken only by our usual stop at the Big Bend Motor Inn and the coin-op showers.

Back at the Chili Cook-Off, the evening's entertainment was Terlingua's own Pinche Gringos. What a great band. I was able to capture them in a video of a great song, "El Gallo Prieto". Here's the video, which closes another great day in Terlingua:

A short slide show of photos from this day:

Official Website of Big Bend National Park:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Terlingua/Big Bend, Day 2

Wednesday, November 4, 2009.

After a great night's sleep on the air mattress, we woke up at 06:30, ready for adventure. Since we were invited, we headed back over to the Conejos Cowboy Camp for breakfast. We had another nice visit, and some eggs, sausage, and potatoes on tortillas. Thus fortified, we climbed into the Bronco, and headed for the park.

The western entrance to Big Bend park is a few miles south east of Study Butte. Highway 118, which turns into the main park road, runs down to the south east area of the park, to Rio Grande Village. I asked Ok Hwa where she wanted to go, and she said to Santa Elena Canyon, and the Castolon Store. These are in the south west end of the park. That meant taking Old Maverick road, a dirt road short cut, that turns off the main road just inside the park entrance. It's thirteen miles down this road to the canyon. I shot a couple of videos while driving down Maverick road, and they are here:

and here:

Santa Elena Canyon is a very dramatic canyon that the Rio Grande has cut a couple hundred feet into Mesa de Anguila. Since the river is the international boundry, Mexico is one side of the canyon, and Texas is the other. The mouth of the canyon is where Mesa de Anguila ends, giving way to the much lower desert floor to the east. Terlingua creek, flowing down from the north, joins the Rio Grande at this point. There is a parking area there, with pick nick tables, and restrooms, and a short trail up into the canyon. You have to cross Terlingua Creek to get up into the canyon, and the trail heads up the low ground at the base of the cliffs for about three fourths of a mile. There, the low ground and the trail ends, and there is nothing except sheer rock walls and river. It's canoe, raft, or swimming only from this point. Sometimes, from the trail here, you can see people in canoes, or rafts floating down from upstream, to the take out spot by Terlingua Creek. I took a video of the hike up Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and present it for you here:

After soaking up the view of The Rio Grande, Santa Elena, and Terlingua Creek, we headed the eight miles over to Castolon Historic site. We always go to the store there for an afternoon ice cream in the shade of the front porch. Castolon is the site of an old trading post. The Mexicans would come across to buy things from the store there, and there were food crops being grown in the lower Terlingua Creek valley. The wagon loads of wood to fire the mercury smelters in Terlingua came across from Mexico here, also. The store here was operated by the original owners for several years after the National Park Service bought up all the land around it for the park in the early nineteen-forties. Those folks eventually gave up their rights to the property, and the Park Service now runs the store here, in the very same building.

We wandered about here for a while, taking more pictures, then it was back into the Bronc, and on up the road. We were headed back to Terlingua now, but, by a different route. This time we went up Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This is one of the best roads in West Texas. It runs from Castolon twenty-two miles to the junction at the main park road, and passes by the western base of the Chisos Mountains, the heart of Big Bend Park. From the junction, it's thirteen miles west to Study Butte. I took a short video of part of the drive up Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Sotol Vista Overlook. Here it is:

Back in Study Butte, we hit the coin-op showers at the Big Bend Motor Inn, our daily stop on the way back to the campsite. Mark, Barbara, and Scott were due to arrive at the camp around five p.m., so we went on back over there to wait for them.

They arrived as the sun was going down, and we all pitched in helping them get their stuff set up. Barbara had pre-cooked a great evening meal for us, and we had that after warming it up on the campfire. We settled in for drinks and conversation, watching the stars come out. About an hour later the moon came up over the mountains, to bathe us all in her glow. The full moon was two days prior, so it was still very large and bright. It was a great evening spent around the campfire, with that big ol' moon shining down from above. Terlingua time at it's best!

Here's a short slide show of images from Santa Elena and Casotlon:

Official website of Big Bend National Park:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Conejos Cowboys Camp

After we were done with our visit to The Field Lab, we drove on down to the Chili Cook-Off campground behind the Terlingua Store on Highway 170. We set up camp, and I laid down for a much needed nap.

I woke up from my nap around five p.m., and we set off in search of something to eat. We thought of going into Terlingua, or Study Butte to a restaurant. As we were heading towards the highway, I thought I'd swing by the Conejos Cowboys Camp to see if they were there yet. They set up their camp in a little arroyo to the south of the stage. Sure enough, they were already set up, and had been for a couple of days.

We re-introduced ourselves, and they invited us to have supper with them. We went about making ourselves comfortable, and chatting with them for a while. Pretty soon they rang the dinner bell and we set down to eat. They were serving chicken and dumplings, and frijoles, and we dug right in. We'd had lunch with John Wells earlier that day, but we were sure hungry again.

After eating we helped them clean up a bit, then hit the ice chests for some beers. They were mighty generous to us. I decided to go over to the car and get out my old guitar, and play a bit for them, seeing as how they had fed and watered us. I always wanted to sing for my supper, and here was my chance!

I played and sang a few songs for about thirty or forty minutes, while they made the camp ready for the night. As were saying our good-byes to them, they invited us back for breakfast. They said that they'd be cooking dinner and breakfast every day, and that we were invited to join them every day. What generosity. What a great group of folks.

We joined them for breakfast the next morning, and for dinner on Friday night, and they were always welcoming, and friendly.

The Field Lab

Back around February of this year, 2009, a friend told me about an episode of "Texas Country Reporter" that he'd seen, about a fellow living out in the desert near Terlingua. This fellow had built himself a little house out there, and was attempting to live an "Off The Grid", self sustaining lifestyle. He runs a website that tells the basic outline of what he's doing, but the real action is on his blog, which he is very good about updating every day. I've been checking in with him just about every day since I first heard of him.

John Wells if the man's name, and what a resourceful fellow he is. He comes from a professional photography background, and so the daily posts on his blog usually include some great photos. He also seems to know, or quickly learn, how to do or build almost anything. He's built a miniature evaporative cooler for his little home, four wind turbines, and two solar collector arrays to generate what electricity he uses, and is in the process of building a greenhouse for growing his own food. He has set up rainwater catchment systems for collecting, and storing the water he uses. He has built a solar oven, which he uses to cook most of his meals, and to bake bread which he gives away to friends, and visitors. He has built a solar hot water heater to supply his hot water. Now, he's setting up web-cams so that his many followers can check in on him for a live view of what's going on at The Field Lab. I can hardly wait for the next interesting thing he puts together!

A visit to The Field Lab was high up on my list of priorities for our trip to Terlingua this year. After an all night drive from our home in Dallas, we arrived at The Grub Shack on highway 118 at around ten o'clock Tuesday morning, November 3. We met three motorcyclists there, and they mentioned going out to visit John. I inquired if it was the famous John Wells, and they said yes. They agreed to lead the way, and so we followed them the last few miles out to John's place.

John was waiting for us, and greeted us warmly. It was a busy visiting day there at The Field Lab. In addition to myself and my wife, there were the three motorcyclists who were local friends of his, and, then, pretty soon three photojournalists from Fort Worth arrived. John spent some quality time with all of us, and showed us around the place. He even introduced us to his pet longhorn cow, Benita. We got to see the greenhouse, still under construction, the famous solar hot water heater and shower, and the solar oven with a loaf of bread baking inside. John presented Ok Hwa and me with a loaf of beer-bacon-cheese bread that he'd baked earlier. Next we all got a turn posing on his front porch for the famous visitor photo. He even honored me by naming the blog post for that day "The Allen Hare Show", and featuring us on the live web cam. What a great guy!

We all got a chance to wander about the place, taking pictures to our heart's content. I had a special request in mind, and had prepared for it in advance. In many of the daily photos on his blog, John is seen wearing a grey t-shirt with "The Field Lab" stenciled onto the front in red. I had brought two new grey t-shirts, and asked him if he'd do the red stencil job on them for me. He kindly agreed, and said that they'd be ready in a couple days. Great! That meant we'd get to come back for another visit later in the week.

We came back for our follow up visit two days later, on Thursday, November 5. He had the first shirt done, and waited 'till we got there to peel the stencil off the second one. They both looked great. We had brought some sandwiches to share with him, and we ate them on his front porch. That gave us a chance to talk with him some more, and get to know one another.

So, Mr. John Wells, what an intelligent, and friendly guy. I really enjoyed spending some time with you. My wife was so impressed with your whole operation, that she's still talking about it. We look forward very much to the next visit.