This is a post of a different nature. The Big Bend region of Texas is usually known for its mild weather, due to its southern latitude and relatively high elevation. We see thunderstorms and the occasional snow, but are usually spared a lot of the more severe variety of weather, such as tornadoes and ice storms.
This past weekend was the exception. Winter storm Boreas paid us a visit on its way east, and the result was somewhat inconvenient. The temps were in the 80’s on Thursday, then they started dropping. By Friday the temps were below freezing, and then the rain and sleet started. An inch of precipitation later, our back windows and small trees were sagging under the weight of the frozen rain:
By Saturday afternoon, the weight of the ice had brought down the power feed coming across the mountains from Alpine, and noone in Marathon had power. Fortunately, we have a small 3500W generator, because our house is 100% electric. That means no heat, no lights, no cooking, no hot water…no nothing. We ran a line in through the back door and powered up two space heaters in the den, plus the refrigerator. Power outages in this part of the country are not at all unusual, and they are normally caused by the wind, and power is normally restored within an hour or so. And so we “hunkered down” with a good book. Then, the cell tower went out. No phones, no internet, no power. And no end in sight.
The next morning, Sunday, still no power or cell service. I was running low on gasoline, and was certain that the only gas station in town had no power to pump gas, so it was time to siphon some out of our vehicles to keep the generator running. Thanks to anti-siphon “improvements” to our modern autos, my siphon hose would not penetrate into the gasoline in our tanks, so our supply was limited to the gasoline in our motorcycles. A few mouthfuls of gas later, we had a resupply of gasoline for the generator. I decided to see if perhaps the gas station had a generator and was pumping gas, and discovered this:
Overnight (Saturday) the gas station caught on fire, and without cell service, the volunteer firemen could not be contacted. Without electricity, the community siren could not be activated to call them in, so the station just burned down. So, the only solution was to make the 30-mile drive to Alpine in hopes of finding electricity and gasoline. It was a gamble, because with no cell service, we had no way to call Alpine and find out about the roads, or availability of gas.
The drive to Alpine was treacherous, even for our Jeep. I think we were one of the first to venture out on the frozen highway, and as we approached the pass over the mountains, conditions worsened, but we crept on:
In Alpine, the roads were solid ice, and the parking lots were like skating rinks, but we succeeded in buying two 5 gallon gas cans and filling them up for the return. On the road home we passed many downed power lines, the ones feeding power to Marathon. There were two lonely trucks out in the field trying to re-hang these downed lines, but it was obvious it would be quite awhile before we had power again. As it was, power was finally restored on Monday night, and cell service was restored shortly thereafter.
Usually you have to lose something that you take for granted, to realize how much you are dependent on it. In this case, electricity and cell are the lifelines to basic warmth and outside contact with the world. Taken away, we are without the alternatives that were so much a part of the frontier west: log fires, community and family interaction. For one weekend, we experienced some of that by being denied media entertainment…and it was not so bad. I think we’re going to plan one “media-free” evening each week in honor of the closeness it brings. Why not try it yourselves.
On a recent visit by friend Jeffrey R, an excellent amateur photographer, we made a swing through Big Bend National Park to document a few of the artifacts of an era of frontier life that is way in the past. Only remnants remain to testify to the harshness of the land and the reality of survival in this brutal environment.
First stop was at the Homer Wilson Ranch. This was a line cabin located in the Blue Creek drainage. The ranch and cabin were in use until World War II, then abandoned prior to this ranch becoming part of the new Big Bend National Park:
Closer to the Rio Grande River, an old homestead looms above the desert near the outflow from Santa Elena Canyon. Settlers farmed and ranched this fertile floodplain of the Rio Grande until the 1930s:
Nearby, a graveyard lies in mute testimony to those who spent the last years of their lives along this border struggling to survive:
Just upriver from this homestead looms the opening of Santa Elena Canyon, a canyon formed when the land on both sides of the river was uplifted along a fault clearly defined by the 1500-foot high mesas, which were formed when the fault slipped and uplifted. The result is a canyon popular with boaters who put in at Lajitas, Texas, and float the shut-in canyon until it exits the uplifted slabs here at the confluence with Terlingua Creek:
The “ghost” town of Terlingua, TX, lies just a few miles to the west of Big Bend National Park. It was a mining town, established by the Chisos Mining Company, and flourished until the demand for mercury subsided after World War II. The cemetery consists mostly of graves of Mexican laborers who worked the mines, with as many as 2000 workers living in the area in its heyday. Many of these graves are dated 1918 and 1919, the result of the great influenza epidemic that ravaged the United States in those years. There are hundreds of graves here. Pictured are a notable few:
Howard Perry formed the Chisos Mining Company and the town of Terlingua sprung up and grew as a result of the jobs it provided. The original school was housed in a tent, then the permanent Perry School was built in 1907. The multi-room adobe building has seen considerable deterioration in recent years, and will soon be gone without considerable restoration, something unlikely to happen.
Howard Perry build “The Mansion” for himself and his wife on a high spot on the “anglo” side of the town. After the mine was established and the mansion built, Perry’s wife came from Chicago to join him, stayed one day, and headed back to Chicago, vowing never to return…and she didn’t.
The church seems to be undergoing a much-needed restoration, and appears to be in use again as a church. Through the years it had fallen into disrepair, had the steeple shot off by drunks from the chili cookoffs, and lived in as a shelter by various people. The exterior and interior both reflect the efforts of a major restoration effort, something very welcome to see:
Many of the images on today’s blog entry have been produced through the use of HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging, the technique of combining multiple images of different exposures to create an image with more detail in the highlights and shadows. The software used here is Photomatrix Pro. You can get a free trial version to play with, and the results are astounding.
If you are a hiker, a trip up to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is a must. This is a great hike any time of the year, but it is one of the few that are comfortable for hikers and backpackers during the summer months, due to the altitude (7300′ on the south rim) and the extreme heat at lower elevations near the Rio Grande River (2000′). The Chisos Mountains contain several ecosystems found in this part of the park only in these mountains:
The trail to the South Rim is a strenuous, 14 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin at 5,400′ to the rim at 7,400′. The only way to get there is to go UP:
Along the way, I encounter a pair of Chisos Whitetail Deer, so named because this sub-species of the whitetail deer is found only here in the Chisos Mountains, having evolved on this eco-island:
As I climb through the high desert to sub-alpine terrain, a few more of my favorite friends come to visit:
Some of the more elusive critters, a tarantula, and a desert toad brought out of hibernation by the recent rains:
Finally, after 3 hours of climbing the 2,000′ and 5 miles to my campsite, I am alone at 7,300′ overlooking the Chihuahua Desert nearly a mile below, and Mexico 30 miles to the distant south:
The views from the South Rim Trail are spectacular, looking southeast past the annual nesting cliffs of the peregrine falcon toward the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico:
Due south lies a landmark peak, Elephant Tusk, framing a century plant agave in bloom, hanging on precipitously to the cliff face:
Back at camp, sunset is often spectacular, and this evening did not disappoint. Sunset is late up here, coming at 9:00 p.m. this close to the summer solstice:
The moon is late to rise, and late to set, as the morning light dawns soft and warm over the desert floor:
On the way back to the Basin, I pass one of the few blooming plants still showing its splendor so late in the season, and a critter I have yet to identify, but probably a skink of some type:
One last look to the southwest, down the Blue Creek escarpment, scene of a massive fire in March, 1989, with a lone burn remnant of that blaze: