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:

Ice house P1060098

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:

Shell P1060102

Shell P1060103

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:

Ice road P1060101

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:

2013 july 1

2013 july 2

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:

2013 july 4

2013 july 5

2013 july 6

2013 july 7

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

2013 july 3

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:

2013 july 8

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:

2013 july 9

2013 july 11

2013 july 10

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.

2013 july 12

2013 july 13

2013 july 15

2013 july 16

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.

2013 july 14

2013 july 17

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:

2013 july 18

2013 july 19

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:


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:

004 003

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

005 007 009

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

010 008

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:

013 014

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:

015 016

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:

017 018 019

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

020 021

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:


022 023

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:



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


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:

Tarantula Hawk IMAG0192

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:


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




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


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


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:


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:


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



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:


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



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


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



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


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:



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


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:



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:



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:


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:


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


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:


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


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.