The Great Texas Camel Experiment

Given the warmth of an Indian Summer week, Jodie and I set out this morning for our monthly “road trip” around our backyard, the Big Bend loop from Marathon through Big Bend National Park to the “ghost town” of Terlingua, then through Lajitas, along the River Road up to Presidio, then northward through Marfa, Alpine, and finally back home, a trip of about 275 miles. There’s always something new to see, no matter how many times we make the trip, and this day was no exception.

Passing the old cemetery in Terlingua, Jodie noticed a view of the rock columns marking the entrance to the turn-of-the-last-century graveyard, with the Mesa de Anguilla and some of the old mining ruins in the background:

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We planned to lunch at Kathy’s Kosmic Kowboy Barbecue, a “sometimes open, sometimes not” aggregate of mobile eatery and schoolbus just north of Terlingua, but alas, the KKK barbecue is gone…as in, gone. Not a sign of the place. So, we headed off to Lajitas, on the Rio Grande River, the last sign of life for the next 50 miles as the little road follows the Rio Grande River northwest toward the border town of Presidio, TX. About 17 miles out of Lajitas, just past the “Big Hill,” a steep climb that the highway takes to get up and over Colorado Canyon, we find a turnoff and a trail into the land of “hoodoos and balanced rocks.” We’ve passed here dozens of times and never stopped. What a great sight, where the Rio Grande River cuts through an area where rocks and pillars are left precariously perched upon one another, with the river framing the backdrop, and the forbidding outback of Mexico beyond:

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If you find yourself hungry in Presidio, a port-of-entry border town on the Rio Grande, stop by El Patio Mexican restaurant. Noone there speaks english, at least not today, so my attempt at my best Tex-Mex got us a meal ordered and paid for, and out the door with full tummies.  Between Presidio and Marfa, sight of the filming of the famous movie “Giant” in the 1950’s, we pass the remnants of “The Great Texas Camel Experiment.” Yes, camels in Texas:

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As the story goes,

After his proposal to build a transcontinental railroad along the line of the thirty second parallel had been blocked by sectional politics over slavery in the territories, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, an experiment to solve the need for transportation across the “Great American Desert” to the new state of California and to the intervening army post, introduced in 1856 and 1857 seventy five camels into Texas. Although many Congressmen considered the camel plan unrealistic and fantastic, an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars had been made for the purpose. After all, were not camels the logical beast of burden with which to cross the desert?

The first of two shipments was landed in Indianola on May 14th 1856, and then was moved to Camp Val Verde, the eastern terminus of the projected camel route, located just south of the preset day Kerrville. Test were begun immediately to determine whether the camels or the tried and true mules pack mules were superior modes of transportation in the Southwest. One test was the reconnaissance expedition of Lieutenant William H. Echols in the summer of 1860 into the perilous Big Bend Country. There were also other trips, some extended as far as California; but with the outbreak of the Civil War the military personnel were recalled from the Texas frontier, and within a few years the abandoned camels had vanished.

Well, not totally vanished:

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And so, add camels to the list of strange critters you just might have to dodge around dusk when driving in this wonderful and strange land. And, oh yes, we nearly hit a very large cow elk (yes, elk) on the highway just west of Marathon on our way home…so busy spotting for red-tail hawks, I didn’t see the 500#, almost camel-sized elk trying to hitch a ride on my bumper.  You just never know.

So, to all our friends sitting out the latest snow and ice storms rolling across our great land, Merry Christmas from sunny, warm (75 degrees) west Texas. Happy New Year y’all.

Winter Storm Boreas

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Ghosts of the Past

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:

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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:

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Nearby, a graveyard lies in mute testimony to those who spent the last years of their lives along this border struggling to survive:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

The Chisos Mountains South Rim Trail

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:

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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:

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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:

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As I climb through the high desert to sub-alpine terrain, a few more of my favorite friends come to visit:

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Some of the more elusive critters, a tarantula, and a desert toad brought out of hibernation by the recent rains:

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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:

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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:

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Due south lies a landmark peak, Elephant Tusk, framing a century plant agave in bloom, hanging on precipitously to the cliff face:

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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:

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The moon is late to rise, and late to set, as the morning light dawns soft and warm over the desert floor:

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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:

 

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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:

 

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While temperatures in most of Big Bend National Park reached 104 at headquarters and 112 along the river during the past few days, the temps I encountered on the South Rim Trail ranged from a high of 79 degrees during the day to a low of 63 degrees at night, hard to believe, but a fact of hiking the High Chisos Trail Complex.  No excuse to stay away.

Tarantula Hawk

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I knew nothing about the tarantula hawk.  I have seen them around the yard for years, and even though they make a fearsome showing with their blue-black body and bright red wings, they never seem aggressive, and we leave each other alone.  Until yesterday.  I was hiking with my pack along a county trail near my home, and noticed a tarantula hawk dragging a tarantula across the trail.  I’ve seen video of this behavior a time or two before, but never in person.  With no camera, I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get close enough for a pic.  When I get within about 6-8 feet of the subject, the wasp left the tarantula prize and flew directly at me, very menacingly.  It turned out to be a warning, or a bluff, and when I jumped back to the proper distance (according to the wasp), she returned to her quarry and continued on across the trail:

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Back home, I did some quick research.  Seems these are critters you don’t want to mess with.  First, it’s the female that does the hunting, so that’s reason enough to leave it alone.  Second, they don’t actually kill the tarantula, but merely paralyze it and drag it back live to their nest, where they lay an egg into the abdomen of the tarantula.  When the egg hatches, the larvae has a ready and fresh food source.  Very macabre.

Now, here’s the interesting note that concerns us all:  the sting of the Tarantula Hawk is the most painful of any sting in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Bullet Ant anywhere in the world, according to the Schmidt Pain Index.  It is not fatal, nor particularly dangerous, but it is excruciatingly painful for many minutes, described as “…simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”

Seems like a good reason to give them plenty of space and simply observe from a distance.

Big Bend National Park’s Black Gap Road

It’s April in the Chihuahuan Desert, and that means road trip.  Jodie and I hooked up the Palomino Banshee popup camper to the Jeep and headed off into the backroads of Big Bend National Park, down one of our favorite, although less traveled roads, the Black Gap Road.  This is the toughest road in the park from the standpoint of technical offroad travel, although it is very tame compared to many other routes we’ve navigated throughout the country in the past.  So, we took off for three days of solitude, seeking the colorful variety of blooming plants found this time of the year in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Our first encounter was an old friend of the desert this time of the year, a snake called a red racer.  They are a bright copper-red color, and this one was about 5 feet long:

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Some of the cactus in bloom are the claret cup, cane cholla, and strawberry cactus:

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Our campsite on the Glenn Springs primitive road, on the way to Black Gap:

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One of the many small, unnamed side canyons along the road:

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The Black Gap Road is barely a road in places, as it snakes across dry creekbeds and into and out of drainages that run from the Chisos Mountains to the Rio Grande River.  Elephant Tusk peak and the Chisos Mountains are in the background:

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The road gets its name from the “black gap,” a cut through the volcanic intrusion that separates two drainages.  The old surface through the “gap” is crumbled away and users of the road keep the drop-off filled with loose rocks to form a ramp to keep your rig off high center.  It’s a very easy route, but requires high clearance:

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The remnants of the Mariscal Mine, an old mercury mine from the early 20th century, provided a nice backdrop for a break:

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We join the River Road, and pull down a side road to an old fishing camp/campsite along the Rio Grande River…U.S. on the left bank and Mexico a stone’s throw across on the right:

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Prickly Pear cactus blooming with the Chisos Mountains in the background:

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When Jodie tells me to “go fly a kite,” I take her literally:

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Nearly full moon over our camp, and Orion setting in the west with the last glow of sunset:

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We awoke the third, and last morning, to a beautiful sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico:

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