March Means Spring Break Along the Border

March is a warm month in the desert. It means time for hiking, stargazing, and sidestepping all the “Spring-Breakers” that flood into the Big Bend, first from Texas schools, then from the northern colleges as the month wears on. It was during this time that two good friends from the Dallas area made the trip to do some “star-trails” and night sky watching. We had a forecast for clear skies, and so we pulled our off-road Palomino Banshee popup camper to the park and made base camp in the one of my favorites, Chilicotal. The first day we hit a few familiar sites, including these:

Inside the ranch house on Blue Creek:

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An old cemetery between Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon:

2 Grave

 The ruins of an old homestead dating from the early 1900’s along the River Road:

3 Homestead

The sun making its way behind the Mesa de la Anguila at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon:

4 Santa Elena

And then there was some starry night photography. The Milky Way was visible, but not as spectacular as usual due to some haze caused by blowing dust, but it was nevertheless worth the late nights:

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After a day and a night of photographing and hiking, we decided to take a trip across the river to the little village of Boquillas, Mexico. This was a popular watering spot for decades until 9/11, when our government decided that this hamlet was a foreign threat and locked the border, an effective blockade to starve out the desperadoes. It worked, for this village nearly dried up to nothing in the 12 years of quarantine. Last April, U.S. Customs build a port-of-entry facility within the Big Bend National Park just across from Boquillas, and once again U.S. citizens were able to move across the river for a little taste of Mexico. The last time I was there was in 1989 with my daughter, and many things are the same as they were. To my surprise, there has been an infusion of capital into this little town since the border reopened, and the homes and businesses are sporting new paint, and even a few new businesses that were not here 25 years ago. It is here that I should mention that in 1989 you didn’t even have to show identification on either side. Now, YOU MUST HAVE A PASSPORT.  

A look at Boquillas from a hill on the U.S. side:

9 Boquillas

You get instructions about what you are allowed to bring back across, and the closing time of the Customs kiosk. Then you walk about a quarter mile to the shores of the Rio Grande River and wave to the flat-bottom rowboat on the other side. You must get a $5 ticket at the Rio Grande Village Store for the boat ride, or swim across. We chose the boat. Prepare to be serenaded by Victor, the Singing Mexican (self-proclaimed) as you are rowed across (tip jar waiting). Once in Mexico, you have a 1-mile stretch of sandy twin track road between you and the town. You can opt to walk, ride a donkey, or ride in a pickup. Walking is free, the donkey or truck are negotiable. I would plan on $5-10 depending on supply/demand for the day. We walked. Upon climbing the last little hill into the edge of town, you find the Mexican customs facility on your right…a trailer with two agents…one to hand write your passport information, and the second to scan your passport and enter you into their computer:

10 Boquillas

The Falcon family has several businesses that are very clean and have excellent food. The Falcon Restaurant sports a couple of gift shops with an open-air, shady eating area and excellent Mexican favorites. We had tacos and burritos. The tortillas were magnificent. Total cost for 3 burritos and 2 beers: $7:

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Just across and up the street is the Park Bar, an institution in Boquillas. I bought my 18-year-old daughter a beer here in 1989, and it looks the same, except now a green front instead of white:

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A look up the street lined with houses, with the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains framing the background:

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The Catholic church has a new coat of paint, inside and out. Doors are open for worship:

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Inside the famous Park Bar, nothing has changed in 25 years…or perhaps 50…except the price of pool. The beer is cold, $2 per, and the hospitality is warm. Two college girls on spring break from Illinois were sampling the local tequila, one shot at a time:

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This is a sign of generations:  a house with a 40 year old horse, a 30-year old satellite dish, a 20 year old pickup, and a new internet dish and solar panel. Could be Mexico, South America, Africa, or India. But you see it here:

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To return to the U.S., you check out through the Mexican customs trailer, walk back to the boat (or ride a donkey if you had one too many tequila shots), and present your boat ticket to Victor. We made it back by 6:00, the cutoff time for U.S. customs, to avoid spending several more days there until customs reopened (although we had already figured the swim would do us good).

And so, our last night was a starry one, with star trails above our campsite, tucked neatly into safe, secure Big Bend National Park:

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Beneath the Sierra Maderas del Carmen

This weekend I revisited one of my most favorite places on earth, the Marufo Vega Trail, in the far eastern drainages of the Big Bend National Park. This is a favorite for many reasons, among them the solitude, the scenery, and, oh yes, did I mention the solitude? This is a land not to be taken lightly. People die out on this trail every year, mostly from dehydration and exposure from lack of water, lack or preparedness, being lost, or any combination thereof. I have made this trip many times, sometimes with friends, mostly solo. This weekend was just such a solo trip, nearing the end of the season when the temperatures are mild enough to allow comfortable backpacking on this trail.

The trailhead begins near the end of the road that leads down to Boquillas Canyon, at the extreme eastern end of BBNP. There is a small parking lot, and no other comfort features, such as toilets, shade or picnic tables. Just a dirt parking area. I reached the trailhead with great anticipation, as this is my first backpack trip of the new year, and I am a victim of “cabin fever” of the first magnitude. The trailhead:

Marufo Vega Sign

If you are camping on this trail, it is considered “zone camping,” which means that you have no designated campsites. You go until you decide to set up camp, and try to find a flat spot devoid of cactus and rocks, no mean feat. I have a couple of camping spots that are never occupied (again, due to the solitude), so even though you cannot reserve any camping spots in the zone camping areas, you never have to worry about being the first one there. You are always the first one there. Along the way, you pass the remnants of cable towers, much like ski-lift towers, that were used to haul cinnabar ore north from Mexico to ore terminals in the northern part of the present Big Bend National Park, in the early part of the last century:

Ore terminal

In three hours I had hiked the 5.1 miles back to a bench that sits at about 2000′ altitude, just before the trail drops down to the river nearly a thousand feet below. Here, there is a wonderful campsite, just large enough for a 2 person tent, that looks downriver into the lower canyons upstream from the Black Gap Wildlife Refuge, and is dwarfed to the south by the Sierra Maderas del Carmen Mountains just beyond the Rio Grande River in Mexico (usually referred to as the Sierra del Carmen). These mountains rise to an altitude of 8900′, with the front escarpment rising up from the river immediately to 7000′. The face of the Sierra del Carmen can be seen from just about anywhere on the eastern side of the park. This was my campsite with the mountains rising in the background:

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One of the wonderful vistas on this trail is looking back downriver at the lower canyons. In this view, Mexico is in the right and Texas is on the left, the Rio Grande River shows in the center of the image, 1000′ below:

Downriver canyons

 

The Sierra del Carmen at sunset is one of the most spectacular sights anywhere. The solitary pointed spire in the rt. center of the range is El Pico, which stands at 7000′, nearly a mile above the location of my tent:

 

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The panorama of this imposing wall of granite and limestone is amazing at sunset. In this Chihuahua Desert, this island sustains large conifer forests at its highest altitudes:

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Sunset across the mountains back to the west was nearly as spectacular:

 

Sunset

 

Which gave way to the stars. I have been experimenting with some “startrails” photography, so what better to do but experiment on this 70-degree night:

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The sunrise was its usual magnificent display, with the sun rising directly above the Sierra del Carmen:

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Sunrise downriver canyons

 

After breakfast, it was time to break camp and head back to the trailhead, but not before a few minutes of solitude (there’s that word again) with my flute

Flute

 

A glimpse of the flora and geology along the trail:

Yuccas

Trail in drainages

 

From a ridge just before you drop into the drainage that leads the last mile out to the trailhead, you overlook the little town of Boquillas, Mexico. This was once a favorite destination of park visitors until the liquid crossing tradition was eliminated by 9-11. Just recently, a port of entry has been build on the U.S. side of the river, and a Mexican POE on the opposite bank, so you can pay your $5 for the rowboat ride across to the Mexican town for lunch, a beer at the Park Bar, or just to explore this little piece of history. Be sure to bring your passport, or you will not be allowed back onto U.S. soil:

Boquillas

 

With the rest of the country gripped by the Arctic Vector, you can understand why a backpack trip on a 91 degree day made me glad to be in this little patch of Paradise. If you’re planning a trip here, be sure to contact me for details. We now have a “Starpark” in Marathon. It’s the Marathon Motel, with accommodations for stargazers and astrophotographers, in the most accessible Class 1 Dark Skies in the lower 48. Come see what the excitement is all about. Thanks for visiting.

The Great Sand Dunes of Texas

Didn’t know that Texas had sand dunes?  Well, yes, there are a few dunes on the Gulf coast, but we’re not talking about the beach. At least not a beach as we know it now. But a few hundred million years ago, a shallow sea covered what is now west Texas, the the sands created from the limestone left behind are now shifting and blowing across an area of the Permian Basin near the town of Monahans, Texas. There is a small and lesser known state park there, the Monahans Sandhills State Park, which is one of those places you need to put on your bucket list if you’ve not been there

This week Jodie and I decided to go shopping at the nearest cities with the usual name brand box stores, and a great place to set up base camp seemed to be this little gem of a state park. So, we spent two nights there and captured a few of the magical evening light shows as the setting sun dances across the dunes, creating textures not seen in the flat light of day.

A few of those images:

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While I was out running around the dunes, Jodie took her camera and captured a few spectacular shots of the west Texas sunset:

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Monahans, and the state park, is located right on I-20 between Midland/Odessa and Van Horn. The town itself is worth a stop, if only to pick up some of the best barbecue in west Texas at Pappy’s, right on Hwy 18 a block off the interstate. The original downtown Monahans died in the 50’s when the interstate bypassed the old highway, but the ruins of a few of the old “Route 66-style” motels remain in testimony to a once busy railroad/highway stop in this oil-driven part of the state. The state park is seldom crowded, and all or our neighbors on this trip were from Canada…every one of them. Not a bad place to go to avoid the snowy winters north of the border. And by the way, the days we were there, it was 91 degrees. So, Y’all come on down and enjoy our west Texas beaches.

 

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:

2013 Dec 1

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:

2013 Dec 5

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.

Wind Rivers and Bridger Wilderness

In our previous post we briefly outlined the 12-day trip in a couple of pix from each day. Here are a few more of our favorite images from this trip. The lower elevation lakes are more heavily vegatated, with grasses and lillies adding a tanic color to the water:

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The “high meadow” plateau gives stunning views of the peaks of the continental divide of the central Winds as you approach:

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We had spectacular sunsets every evening:

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026 Sunset Day 11

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A very unusual phenomenon, Sandpointe Lake, features a sandy beach:

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We found butterflies and moths abounding wherever there remained blooming flowers:

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One of our favorite high-altitude flowers, still in bloom are the “Elephantheads,” appropriately named:

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Great views of Middle Fork Lake:

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Some images taken from passes and saddles overlooking valleys created by the continental divide, or lesser saddles:

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A couple of views of Glacier Lake and Mt. Victor:

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Long Lake, a formidable barrier between Europe Canyon and Glacier Lake:

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Some reflections on the mountains:

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