big bend national park

Into Big Bend

Written October 23, 2015

Leaving Seminole Canyon, we headed west on Hwy 90.  This is hard, dry country.  Thin soil over thick rock.  Hot and dry.  It’s always nice when we can start the day out in minimal gear, but we know that it means we’ll be hot and thirsty in the afternoon.  Even in the cool morning, we’re sucking water frequently.  We both carry CamelBack waterbags on the bikes, and can grab the drink tube any time we like while riding.  On days like this, we’ve learned not to let ourselves get behind on hydration, as one pays for it in the afternoon with a headache, irritability, and poor thinking.

A high bridge took us over the canyon of the Pecos River far below.  At first glance it appears a big river, but then one realizes it’s backed up in a pool here, and looking downriver you see just a thread of water continuing along under the cliffs.  Looking further downriver, the confluence with the Rio Grande is just visible, with the cliffs of the two canyons forming a sharp prow.  Looking upriver there is a high railroad bridge, otherwise you are alone on an empty road in a desolate land.

Moving west, the road eases away from the Rio Grande, and passes through a few small towns but mostly cattle range.  Sources I read stated that one head of cattle per 128 acres is about right for this country.  Very little grass, mostly just weeds and scrub and rocks.  Windmills provide some water for what cattle are here, but I suspect the local lizards and such benefit just as much from that.  Fortunately for us, it was a calm morning with little headwind or crosswinds to bother us.  We just rode along and soaked in the scenery.

Marathon, Texas was the lunchtime goal before heading down into Big Bend National Park.  We began seeing Border Patrol presence regularly, and they had made a bare area, a small road, running along the paved road that they kept smooth by dragging tires behind their trucks.  Patrol trucks drove slowly along this strip, with an officer looking down out the window for, we guessed, footprints or other evidence of crossings.  Who knows what other technology was being used.

Marathon is a cool little town, with enough traffic from the Park to sustain two gas stations, several small hotels, a few stores, and The French Grocer.  We stopped in to gather supplies for a few days.  The pre-made sandwiches were a major cut above what is usually sold in grocery stores, and we had a great lunch at the tables outside.  Fed and fueled, we turned straight south and rode 69 miles to Big Bend.  It cost us each $20 to get into the park, which I thought was kind of steep for motorcycles.  We picked up maps and decided to try Chisos Basin campground.  Once we got down to the center of the park (which is huge, by the way), we turned off on a road and climbed over a short but very fun set of switchbacks taking us over a low pass into Chisos Basin and down into the campground.  Here at 5100’ elevation, the air was cooler but still quite warm, and we were glad to get one of the few remaining campsites with a shade built over the table area.  No power, and campers are limited to 5 gallons of water per day, but for $14 these sites are a deal.  We were all set for about 3 days rest, or so we thought.  That’s when I spotted the oil coming from the new water pump I’d just installed on Jalene’s bike.  I don’t generally get emotional about machines, it does nothing to help, but this time a few choice words came out.

There was nothing I could do about it at the time, so we spent the next few days exploring the park, riding down to the Rio Grande River and along it, then coming back via a good dirt road that had just enough rocks and sand to be a challenge and confidence booster for Jalene.  She did well, staying up on the pegs and trying to be loose and let the bike do its thing.  The following day we rode down to the Rio Grande on the east side of the park, as they had showers and wi-fi there.  While cleaning up and using the computer, three guys rode in on motorcycles and of course the talk started flowing.  Turns out they were from Austin, and recommended we get ahold of Woods Fun Center for another water pump for Jalene’s bike.  They also offered garage space if we needed it, as well as help finding places to stay and things to do and see while in town.  After exchanging contacts, we took off back to camp feeling like we had a plan.

It was in Big Bend, thinking we were giving ourselves a break, that we realized our error.  We were exhausted from traveling for 2 months straight, and just staying in a campground wasn’t going to give us any rest.  We had been spending our days riding, finding food, finding places to camp, figuring out maintenance opportunities, figuring out routes, you name it.  Our brains had been going round the clock without a break.  I was having a hard time sleeping because of worries over bike repairs.  We needed a place where we could fix Jalene’s bike, do maintenance on both, and then set everything aside for a few days and not travel.  No camping, no riding, no wrenching, just chilling out with nothing to do and no challenges.  We made a plan to head for Austin for parts, repairs, and then personal R&R.  Both of us immediately felt better.

Next morning we took off for Del Rio, where we got a very nice, cheap Motel 6 (only our second motel of the trip!), then headed northwest into the Texas hill country, an area that lies generally west of Austin and San Antonio.  As we began to feel the ground rise and fall a bit, we had a beautiful surprise when who should we see approaching us on bicycles but Jean-Francois and Marie, whom we had met on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi!  (These were the bicyclists from Montreal we had shared the rainy afternoon with in the bar at Bay St. Louis)  They had just spent time in Austin, and serendipity placed them on the same little road we were riding.  It was lonely and empty, so we spent 20 minutes or so standing in the road, catching up on where we’d been and what we’d done, and then it was time to part.  Jean-Francois and Marie were buoyed by the thought of the Motel 6 with the pool 3-4 hours ahead of them, and they suggested Lost Maples campground, where they had stayed the night before.  I was only sorry that our meeting had to be so brief, and was very sad to say goodbye again.  I sincerely hope that someday we can all spend time together again.

Now, after a day of riding through loopy and twisty roads through the hill country, we’re camped at Lost Maples Natural Area.  This is a lovely park, with nice grassy campsites and shade.  But I’m getting sleepy after a dinner of corn with chicken-and-rice soup that Jalene whipped up out of leftovers.  She’s getting to be quite the one-pot cook these days.  Right now the cook has assigned me to keep an eye on a hand-sized tarantula that’s crawling through our campsite, steady on a line taking it down toward the nearly-dry creek bed.  They are really quite beautiful animals in their spidery way, and it’s easy to see all the intricate parts when they’re this big.  We spotted it about 30 yards back, and it held to a beeline that took it right through our camp.  A bit of herding guided it around the tent, and it continued on its way.  If you stomp your foot on the ground, they run.  We’re far, far from home, aren’t we?