The Big Bend is in Bloom!

After two years of drought, following severe freezes of 2010, the desert is finally recovering.  This week, Jodie and I hopped on the motorcycles and covered 550 miles over two days to capture the Texas Bluebonnet, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, and myriad of wildflowers reaching peak bloom at the lower elevations near the Rio Grande River.  Here are a few pictures reflecting on the changing of seasons, and also the recovery of the blooming wild after a dormant period of “sleeping.”

The Big Bend bluebonnet, Lupinus havardii, is a much taller and showier cousin of the more familiar bluebonnet that was designated as the Texas state flower in 1901, although all lupinus in Texas are now recognized as the official state flower.  The Big Bend bluebonnet grows to a height of 3-4 feet.  The tallest of these were over 3 feet in height:

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In one spot we found a white mutation mixed in with the traditional brilliant blue groups:

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On the way to the “ghost town” of Terlingua, TX, famous for the Wick Fowler International Chili Cookoff, we began seeing large groups of prickly pear cactus flashing their brilliant yellow/orange blossoms:

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Also, the brilliant red seed pods of the ocotillo, not a cactus, but common to the Chihuahua desert of the Big Bend, wave like flags in the wind:

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As we travel beyond the last parcel of civilization, and the last gas station, in Lajitas, TX, we follow the Rio Grande River, the international boundary between Texas and Mexico (assuming as most Texans do, that Texas is a nation unto itself), and stop for lunch along the river near a pool formed by the narrow constrictions in the river, and are treated to more bluebonnets:

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This belies the actual volume of water flowing down this mighty river, because just around the corner it is obvious that our borders are separated in many places by a mere trickle of water.  If you look closely at the narrowest constriction of the river in this photo, you will see that an adult can easily step across the Rio Grande here without getting feet wet.  Here, the U.S. is on the left bank and Mexico is on the right.  The flow on this day was only 24 cfs, whereas normal flow on this river used to be around 400-500 cfs, and sometimes approaches 20,000 cfs after periods of hard rain:

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Bluebonnets abound everywhere, another group along the roadside, some of these nearly 4 feet tall:

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Here, from a hill overlooking the Rio Grande, you see more bluebonnets in the foreground, with the Rio Grande separating Texas on the left and Mexico on the right bank:

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From a similar vantage point, more prickly pear cactus “just showin’ off” along the border:

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In most other parts of Texas, the wildflowers reach peak in early to mid April, but down here the growing season starts early, and early March to late March is the time to catch the desert in all its splendor.

The Old Ore Road

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Today, it was time to ride!  I just didn’t expect it to be 90 degrees in this part of Big Bend National Park, out on the “Old Ore Road.”  This is one of the least-traveled, most secluded, and most often hottest parts of this huge desert environment.  In a new book, “Death in Big Bend,” several fatalities due to heat stroke are chronicled when unfortunate, and unprepared people, find themselves stranded on this 26-mile-long 4-wheel-drive dirt, rock and boulder-infested historic road.  It’s not unusual for temperatures to reach 90+ degrees in January and February out here, but today was a departure from recent trends this winter.  With that, I set out on a “shake-down” ride after a tune-up to my old Trek 7000 aluminum mountain bike, which included new shift-grips, new tubes and tires, and a new trip computer.  

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After about 4 miles of technical sand, rock, and rutted off-camber climbs and descents, I turned around and headed back to Jodie and the waiting Jeep.  I had not figured in the 30-40 mph headwind that I would be fighting all the way back, and on a technical rock-infested climb, I stalled out.  Usually not a problem, but I had not switched out my pedals to my mountain bike pedals, which I had cannibalized onto my recumbent last fall, so my shoes did not release from the clips and I planted myself and bike into a thorny mesquite tree, complete with a lechugilla cactus at its base.  Nothing unusual out here, but it’s not only painful, but dangerous.  Lucky this time, I came away with only a small loss of blood, and a larger hurt pride.

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The trip home included a stop at the Stillwell Ranch, where I found that Jasamine, the girl I met on the bicycle two days ago riding from Florida to California, had stopped there for 2 days and had a great time.  As the dust storm increased in direct proportion to the increasing speed of the wind, we rode the tailwind home, taking time to photograph a dust-filtered sunset over Santiago Peak.  Another —— day in Paradise!

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Jasamine, Coast to Coast

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Out on my bike this morning for my daily ride, I came upon a girl just leaning her bicycle against a highway sign.  Suspecting possible bike trouble, I stopped to offer help.  She was talking on the phone…bluetooth earbuds.  She politely signed off and greeted me.  Her name…Jasamine.  She informed me she was from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, cycling coast-to-coast from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Jose, California.  She works for a bike shop in Minneapolis, and had pedaled about 1700 miles so far.  Just had to spend a week in Austin to wait out the snow, and after two days in Marathon, was headed through Big Bend NP, then on to Terlingua, TX.  I told her she should stop at Stillwell’s Ranch, RV Park, and General Store for the night and catch the free concert of cowboy music put on by the Whitfords in the Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame Museum every night until March.  She said she would head that way, and with that, she was off.  What a great adventure.