Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Big Bend Country, TX: Where A Goat Can Become Town Mayor


Big Bend National Park is the temporary home for droves of snow-and-cold weary RV owners, decamping for warmer temps during the winter.  Basking in the sunshine while soaking in the river-side Historic Hot Springs is enough to make anyone forget the term "polar vortex"!  But more about the hot springs later. 


 It’s called Big Bend because it’s BIG …… bigger even than the entire state of Rhode Island!  ….. and it has a BEND ….. a 90 degree turn in the mighty Rio Grande River, which forms the western boundary of the park and the state of Texas in this area.  Big distances, as far as the eye can see!



Also, big scenery.  Big Bend is also the only National Park to contain an entire mountain range within its borders, in this case the Chisos Mountains.  It’s so big that desert, mountain and river habitats are all included here in its 801,000 acres!






Exploring the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, what looks from a distance like a simple notch in the rocks …


... turns out to be the huge and iconic Santa Elena Canyon.  On the right, Texas.  On the left, Mexico.


The mighty Rio Grande transports floaters and kayakers downstream.  Do you see them?  How's that for scale!


All political leanings aside, we found ourselves frequently musing about what Trump’s proposed “wall” (fence, slats, barrier, whatever) would do to a beautiful place like Big Bend, situated smack down the border of Mexico and the U.S.  Can you imagine a wall down the center of Santa Elena Canyon?


The park is full of wildlife:  collared peccaries (“javelina” to us simple folks), 450+ species of birds so colorful they looked like they belong in Florida, 31 special of snakes (we were cheerfully informed that “only” 6 of them are venomous), roadrunners by the hundreds, and of course where there are roadrunners … there must be coyotes!  And there were: multiple packs of them eerily and magically howling throughout the night from what seemed like the living room of our RV.  Coyote-snack below:


Elsewhere in the park, like hair in an old man’s ears, clumps of flowers burst from a seemingly inhospitable environment.


The wide-open spaces and car-going-by-only-once-every-30-minutes makes for excellent road biking for Philip.  Again, big distances, big views ... especially if you're on two wheels!


We were warned by the park rangers that the Lost Mine Trail was the most popular and therefore the most crowded.  By crowded, I guess they meant the maybe 25 people total that we encountered over 3 full hours of hiking.  If this is crowded, sign us up for more crowdedness!



The Big Bend Historic Hot Springs is a blissful 103 degree natural spring suspended above the edge of the Rio Grande River.  There used to be an impressive bathhouse/resort also located here, but now just the remote, unspoiled natural tub remains, ready to soak your cares away.


New friends from cold places like Michigan and Canada were all eager to tell stories of their traveling adventures.  RV'ers love to compare notes about where to go and what to do.


If the hot springs get too hot for you, just sit in the cool river and let the hot water flow over the edge and down your shoulders!  This is surely where the medication “ICY/HOT” got its name!  On January 31, Philip's LAST DAY of full employment, the water literally washed all his troubles away.  He turned 65 this month, and though he will remain with two projects for a while longer, he will no longer be managing ten land development deals simultaneously.


A mere 5 miles from our campground (which is 50 miles into the National Park) is the border crossing into Boquillas, Mexico.


IF you have your passport, and IF you are feeling adventurous, you can enter Mexico here and for $5 USD, get hand-pulled across a skinny portion of the Rio Grande in a rowboat, get put onto a donkey and take 1/2 mile into the dusty town of Boquillas, fed burritos and margaritas until you cry "Uncle" (or is that "Tio"?), and then they will donkey you back.  We didn't do it, but lots of Big Bend visitors do!  Those pastel buildings below are your final destination.


Prior to Big Bend National Park, we visited Big Bend Ranch State Park, with similar beauty and even more scarce crowds on the trails.





Here, the Texas Bluebonnet, state flower of Texas, blooms roadside like so many weeds.




In Lajitas, between the two Big Bend parks, the old cemetery manages to be both charming and creepy at the same time.


With the ground pretty much hard as rock (because it is rock), graves are above-ground with loose rocks simply piled on top.


Lajitas is best known for their esteemed mayor, Clay Henry.  What’s that you say???  You haven’t heard of Mayor Clay Henry?  Maybe that’s because he is a goat.  And yes, he really was mayor of Lajitas for one term.  


You might say he was the G.O.A.T. goat, ha ha.


Mrs. Mayor and Baby Mayor share the spotlight. Mama shares how she feels about politics.


Terlingua, on the western edge of Big Bend NP, is a reinvigorated Texas hillside ghost town.   Once a thriving mercury mine town, it is now most well-known for their annual Chili Cookoff, held continuously since 1967, which just happens to be the year I was born, which means it’s really frickin' old. Ten thousand people swarm for the event.



Terlingua has a lot of interesting places and even more interesting people, with a great similarity to Madrid, New Mexico, which we visited two years ago (read about it here).  The variety of roadside oddities and interesting things to see in such a small town is quite remarkable!







One of Terlingua’s main draws in the Starlight Theatre, a restaurant with shockingly good food (especially if you care to try Chicken Fried Wild Boar with Country Gravy) ...


... and shockingly talented live entertainment every single night of the week.


Once an old movie house, it was eventually abandoned and the roof caved in.  It sat there for a while before locals started gathering there at night just for fun, bringing six-packs of beer and guitars and tall tales.  With no roof, they called it the Starlight Theatre for the views, and years later when the roof got put back on and it became a real establishment again, the name stuck.  It’s just the kind of home-y, dive-y, quirk-y place we love!  



Philip especially loved hanging out on their outdoor patio!  The weather is good for a variety of clothing.


Cell service throughout this area is blessedly scarce and often the only reliable connection to the outside world is often to park next to the Coke machine wi-fi at the campground visitor center.  A gaggle of “digital refugees” swap horror stories of how long they have gone without checking in with work or check Facebook.


Without cable TV or satellite in our RV, we also found ourselves listening to the Super Bowl on Sirius XM Radio, while reclining outside and staring at the gorgeous starry sky.  I don't think we will be able to return to the TV version ever again, it was so fun!


Texas dark skies continue to delight and amaze.  We downloaded a really cool free app called Sky Map, which after a compass calibration procedure, allows you to point your cell phone at the night sky and it will give you the names of the stars, planets and constellations you are gazing upon.  Check it out -- we found it very easy to use!  Look for this logo at the App Store.

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Speaking of cool apps, "Just Ahead" is a audio tour program that works in Big Bend and lots of other National Parks (Arches, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and so many more).  If you download it over Wi-Fi, you can use it without active cell service or wi-fi.  It works via your GPS in your phone and as you drive pass certain points in the park, it gives you not only park info but also historical, geologic and other interesting tidbits.  Highly recommend, again grab it for free in the App Store.

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And so, as we depart Big Bend country, we have to admit that it is one of our MOST favorite National Parks thus far, for its combination of great views + fantastic outdoor recreation, with practically non-existent crowds!  Wahoo!  A BIG WIN for BIG BEND!