On the Trail of the Bluebonnet

It’s that time of year again…when the bluebonnets begin to bloom…at least, in this part of the Big Bend of Texas. We headed south and west of Big Bend National Park to the small gathering of buildings on the banks of the Rio Grande River called Lajitas, Texas. History has revealed that the first of the huge Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) appear along the river road that runs from Lajitas to Presidio, Texas. These are not the same as the famous Lady Bird Johnson bluebonnets that are famed to bloom in central and north Texas in April, but a much taller strain of lupinus that grow to heights of 3-4 feet and bloom much earlier down here in the Big Bend. 

Jodie & I set up camp at the Maverick RV Resort in Lajitas. This is a wild place right down on the border with Mexico that has seen its share of history, including a raid on the trading post by Pancho Villa in 1916 that brought General Patton and his cavalry here to rout the Mexican rebels and restore order. The first time we visited here 30 years ago the trading post still exibited bullet holes from that raid. W. McGuirk, the leading citizen of Lajitas from 1902 to 1917, operated the store-saloon, farmed, and helped manage the Terlingua Mining Company. He also funded the construction of a church and a school, the church still standing and restored to its original condition:

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Just 10 miles up the River Road from Lajitas is the abandoned Contrabando Movie Set. This is a fantasy town built on the banks of the Rio Grande River specifically as a set for the movie Uphill All the Way, a 1985 movie starring Roy Clark. Eight other movies have been filmed here, including a 1996 movie Lone Star, starring Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey:

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 Inside the saloon, site of a major shoot-out in Lone Star:

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A few miles further up the River Road we reach Colorado Canyon, a beautiful slot where the Rio Grande cuts through sheer granite walls. This was the unfortunate spot where a couple and their guide paddling the river were shot in 1988 by Mexican teenagers, who were subsequently caught and prosecuted. One of the victims died of gunshots. There have been no other similar incidents on the river since:

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 Finally, our goal, the early blooming bluebonnets:

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Even though the river is only 120 miles south of our home, sometimes it seems like another country. The ecology, the people, and the history are steeped in the tradition of a borderless region, where families and culture flowed seamlessly across the Rio Grande River for generations. It’s truly one of the few remaining wild places left in our country. Come visit…the flowers ain’t bad either.

Just a Cakewalk

Last year, Ken, a good friend and former resident of Marathon, TX, suggested that we do a backpack trip…something known as the “Desert Mountain Loop.” This is the most difficult trail in Big Bend National Park, actually a combination of 6 different trails covering 32 miles over 4 days and 3 nights, ranging from an elevation of 4000 feet to over 7000 feet, and passing through several micro-zones of plant and animal environment, from desert to alpine meadow. The main reason this is such a difficult hike is the nearly total lack of water along the route. There are only two dependable springs along the 32 miles, so you must carry a lot of water, 10-15 pounds, plus all your camping and hiking gear. Plus, it is not unusual for temps to hit 90 degrees in February out on the desert, combined with a relentless desert sun. In short, it is deadly. People literally die on this hike each year. It is not for the uninitiated or unprepared, that’s for sure. And so, it only made sense that at age 68, it should be a “Cakewalk.”

Ken is a volunteer ranger in Big Bend National Park, and he spent his first day in uniform to fulfill his duties along the trail:

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From the trailhead in “The Basin,” the trail works its way up switchbacks to gain 1300 feet in altitude before cresting at Laguna Meadows:

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Here we encounter our first deer, a Del Carmen whitetail buck, a subspecies that only exist here in the Chisos Mountains and in one part of Chihuahua, Mexico:

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Soon we intersect the junction with the Blue Creek trail and head down the Blue Creek drainage, a descent of over 2000 feet in about 5 miles:

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As you reach the lower elevations of the drainage, you begin to encounter wonderful red “dikes,” igneous intrusions from prehistoric volcanoes that have formed imaginative “hoodoos”:

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At the lower end of the canyon is the Homer Wilson ranch, a historic ranch from the turn of the last century, still preserved in the desert:

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Our campsite was very comfortable, and we slept under a canopy of brilliant stars, including one “shooting star” captured in this image:

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Next morning, the clouds moved in right on cue. It was to make for a perfect day of hiking. Unfortunately, as we prepared for breakfast, a fellow park ranger passed our location on his way to a rescue…a backpacker had sent out a distress signal via a rescue beacon that is monitored by the Air Force, and they were on their way to locate him. Fortunately, he was dehydrated and out of water, but able to walk out and was sent to a nearby hospital for care:

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The desert is not flat, and the first obstacle is a 1000 foot climb to a saddle, skirting drainages such as this beautifully colored escarpment:

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A look from the saddle reveals “Mule Ears Peak” and the mountains of Mexico beyond, across the Rio Grande River:

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Soon, we get our first glimpse of the South Rim of the Chisos, at 7200 feet, overlooking the desert below, our final destination two days from now:

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Our source of water in the desert, Fresno Creek, a mere trickle flowing through the narrow channel in the rocks, but nevertheless, lifegiving:

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Along the creek, an unlikely resident, the mountain laurel, in all its blooming glory. Hard to explain its presence here in the desert:

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On our way to Dodson Ranch we get our first sighting of “Elephant Tusk,” a prominent landmark in the desert. Clouds are forming up and rain is falling nearby:

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A wonderful landmark for me, I passed this “gate” 25 years ago, the entrance to the historic Dodson Ranch, another ranch that eeked out an existence here in the desert in the late 1800’s:

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The remaining ruins of one of the two ranch houses, here exposing the fireplace and an old iron headboard and footboard of their bed, along with other everyday items, such as pails and cans. When I camped in the ranch house 25 years ago, a little gray fox jumped up into the window of the house, an occurence not repeated on this trip:

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After setting up our tents, the clouds began to thicken, and after dinner, a light rain began to fall. If you’ve never smelled the desert after a rain, you must add it to your “bucket list.” There is no sweeter smell in all the world:

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The morning greeted us with dense fog, like a heavy, wet blanket:

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A beautiful example of purple prickly pear cactus, guarded by the ominous lechuguilla:

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Pretty typical of the first 6 miles of today’s hike, Ken makes his way along the trail through the fog, really a blessing instead of the 90 degree heat and sun that you usually get out here:

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One of the most beautiful and unusual plants we encountered in the desert…I cannot identify it, but I can enjoy its beauty:

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The next four hours were spent “slogging” our way up the 3000 foot ascent from the desert floor to the crest of the Chisos Mountains, finally punching through the clouds into bright sunshine and warm temps:

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After 8 hours of hiking, we reached our campsite for the night, a designated site atop Juniper Canyon:

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Our last morning on the trail, we were visited in camp by two Del Carmen whitetail deer, a doe and a buck:

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Our final day on the trail was an easy one, joining the Boot Canyon Trail, which is known for its namesake, the “Boot:”

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One final look down Juniper Canyon, from whence we came some 3000 feet below:

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The view from atop the Pinnacles Trail at 7000 feet, looking north from the Chisos Mountains to the country that lies in the northern part of Big Bend National Park:

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You cannot do justice to the beauty and extreme wildness of the Chihuahua Desert in pictures. You must get down there and crawl in its dirt to appreciate its majesty. Thanks for taking time to endulge me by pouring through an unusually large number of pictures for this experience.

 

 

A Blooming Desert

While winter rages out of control in the northeast, we must take time out to bask in the 80 degree temps of the Big Bend in February. We hooked up the camper and set up camp for 3 days in the Cottonwood campground on the banks of the Rio Grande River, just a stone’s throw from Mexico. We had a great spot just a short distance from a pair of great horned owls who were setting up housekeeping in a tall cottonwood tree.

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We decided to drive the 52 mile primitive 4 wheel drive road that runs along the Rio Grande River across the width of Big Bend National Park, a road that gets you into the interior of the park and into some of the wildest, most scenic and least visited areas, full of history. The dirt trail leads us to the southern boundary of the United States, the other side of the river being Mexico:

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Remnants of early vehicles that didn’t survive the rigors of many miles of back-country labor lie abandoned these 75 years or more along the route:

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We soon come upon the remains of the Johnson Ranch, which was actually built by the U.S. government during World War I as an airfield and retreat for pilots, all officers, who would fly here in their early bi-planes and land, anticipating several days of relaxation, which really meant drinking, partying, and enjoying the pleasures of the local ladies, mostly from across the border:

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The bones of the rusting automobiles are not the only ones left forgotten in this harsh, remote and forgotten end of the country:

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We soon arrive at the site of the Mariscal Mine, a smelter for mercury, or “quicksilver,” which was the source of several large mines in the area, none so remote as this one:

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The view of the distant 8000′ high ridge of the Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico, seen through the eyes of a miner’s home, built from the flat limestone slabs so prevalent in this area. Did this laborer even have time to notice the beauty of the desert, or was it merely something to be cursed, laying down a bone-weary body on a tiny bed in a one-room rock hut:

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The real purpose of our journey is realized soon enough, as we begin to encounter many fields of endless blooms, the fragrant bicolor mustard, which carpets the desert floor as far as the eye can see in some places. We can’t recall a winter that has been as wet as this, with monthly rainfall between 1-2 inches, during a time of the year when we rarely see rain. With the windows down, the fragrance of the blossoms is almost overwhelming, like driving through a perfume factory:

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Back at camp, the night settles in as we watch a setting sun, then the waning moon, then the stars of the outer bands of the milky way, a sight rarely visible during the winter months when you can only see the distant bands in the darkest of skies:

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A piercing quiet, found nowhere else, then sleep.