Saturday, February 26, 2011

Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is in west Texas on the Mexican border.  The two countries are separated by the Rio Grande, which you'd expect to be a huge river but is really more like a wading pool and only with a distance of about 20 to 30 feet across.  We experience an intense heat wave while we are here.  The hottest day hits 110F in the sun, 96F inside our trailer as we can't use our air conditioner since we have no electrical hookup and it's not worth running our generator for long enough to cool the whole trailer down.  Thankfully we can run our ceiling fans off our batteries using our solar panels.  During our second day, we are evacuated from one of the trails (we were driving down the road from the trailhead) as the rangers are expecting a helicopter to land to airlift a hiker in distress.  We learn a few days later that it's due to a medical emergency, perhaps a heart attack.  Our initial guess is heat stroke as I myself experience intense heat reaction while we are hiking even though we drink plenty of water and I have a wet scarf around my neck to help keep me cool.  Fortunately, the days cool off while we are here, but the sun is still intensely hot.

Mexico on the left, Rio Grande, our campground on the right
 Our first hike is a nature trail that leads off just across from our campsite.  At the beginning of the trail is a small lagoon full of turtles, both soft shell and red-eared turtles, as well as ducks and fish.  We return here on our last day in the park and there are also two Great Blue Herons.  The trail leads up a small but steep, rocky hill that provides us with a nice view of the Rio Grande.  A wild horse wanders down onto the beach and drinks from the river.  We watch as it rolls around on its back in the sand, obviously enjoying the day.  We also see a roadrunner perched in an ocotillo plant (no small feat as roadrunners are a fairly large bird and the ocotillo has very tall, spindly branches) holding a lizard in its mouth for several minutes before eating it.  Interestingly, the roadrunner makes a cooing noise like a mourning dove while the lizard is dangling from its mouth.  Some Mexicans are also on the beach with their horses and we watch as they cross the river to the American side, then back to the Mexican side and ride to the small Mexican town called Boquillas (Bo-key-us).  Even though this hike is short, about two hours, I am extremely hot and exhausted when we return to the trailer.

The Mexicans with their Dr. Pepper

On the next day, we hike the Boquillas Canyon Trail which follows the Rio Grande downstream into a narrow canyon.  At various intervals, Mexicans have left small trinkets - roadrunners, tarantulas, cactus, etc. made of wire and decorated with beads - for tourists to buy by leaving a "donation" in a jar.  The Mexicans are watching from the other side of the river.  The rangers and park volunteers who work in the Visitors Centres have warned us that it is illegal to purchase these items.  Prior to 9-11, tourists here at Big Bend were allowed to wade across the river or go across in boats supplied by the Mexicans and shop in stores in Boquillas and eat in restaurants.  This was the main livelihood of the town.  But since 9-11 and the paranoid fear that has swept through this country, the border has been closed.  The Mexicans are not supposed to cross, but they do.  Tourists are warned not to cross the river as there is no Point of Entry - no customs officer with whom to make a claim for purchases or to identify your citizenship upon return to the US.  So the population of the town of Boquillas has decreased from 200 families to 30 families.  Everyone else has left.  Once a week, one of the town members drives 160 miles over a dirt road to the nearest town to get groceries and supplies for everyone in the town.  It is a tough life for those families who have remained and our hearts go out to them.  They cannot grow crops here as it is too hot and dry - it hasn't rained here in some parts of the park for over a year.  Or the river floods and washes everything away.  Brad asks one of the Mexicans "If I can give you anything besides money, what would it be?"  The response?  "Dr. Pepper!"  What a surprise.  They miss soda pop!  So Brad buys a few six packs of Dr. Pepper the next day and takes them back to the Mexicans.  Are they ever happy to get them and they're ice cold still.

We also drive out to the Hot Springs which used to be part of a resort before this was a National Park.  The Springs is right on the Rio Grande nestled at the end of a canyon.  The road to drive there is intriguingly dangerous - it's a built up one way road which drops off into a wash in the middle, with rocks jutting out from the sides of the cliff.  No large vehicles are allowed, including dual wheeled trucks which would be too wide to make some of the turns.  It's a little nerve-wracking!  The hot spring itself is about 105F, too hot to sit in during the day, although people do.  We think about coming back at night, but we'll have to see how tired we are.

Brad & Marilyn in the Chisos Mtns, Lost Mine Trail

Another hike we take is in the Chisos Mountains where it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler - we hike the Lost Mine Trail, which has an elevation gain of 1,100 feet.  The trail is almost 5 miles round trip, but gives us unbelievable views of both the mountains and the desert below.  Even here on this mountain trail, it is hot in the sun, but in the shade the breeze is cool and refreshing.  There are warning signs that mountain lions and bears frequent the area, but we see neither.  Climbing the final peak at the top makes me feel like I'm climbing the Matterhorn.  It is a solid rock peak and when I peer over the edge, I can see straight down the cliff on the other side to the valley below.  It's another photo that will freak out my sisters.  This hike leaves us exhausted some five hours later, but the views are worth every step.

Marilyn in Santa Elena Canyon

Our last hike is at the western side of the park (we are camping at the east side); it is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.  Here there is another campground, but it is a generator-free zone, and well, we like our generator to run our microwave and my hair dryer!  I live the way the I live, okay?  There is also a campground in the Chisos Mountains, but the road leading up to it is limited to vehicles of 20 feet in length or less, and we are about 50 feet with the truck and trailer.  We'd never make the hairpin turns.  Back to the hiking trail.  Santa Elena Canyon is an incredible gorge where the Rio Grande has eroded into the canyon leaving walls on either side of the river towering 1,500 feet!  It's an amazing sight.  We can see the gap in the mesa wall from a distance of about 10 or 15 miles away, and from there it doesn't look that impressive.  But from the river bed looking up the sides of the walls, we feel unbelievably insignificant.  We keep telling ourselves that the other side is Mexico; in fact half-way across the river is Mexico, and the river is only about 40 feet across.  We see no Mexicans here.  The trail rises from the river at first, switching back and forth up the cliff wall, and then makes a slow descent back down to the river.  We expect it to be clean and clear, but the water is brown, muddy and silty.  The grasses are 10 to 12 feet high; and the rocks that have fallen from above are huge and smoothed from the rushing water when the river is flowing at its peak.  We see some canoeists.  The canyon is 8 miles long, so perhaps they have run all 8 miles of it, although we read that there is a very dangerous section of rapids several miles upriver.  We see no wildlife along the trail, although we can hear small animals (rodents or birds likely) in the underbrush.  This is another amazing hike, in (finally) comfortable temperatures.

There is a lot more in Big Bend National Park to explore, as the park measures about 60 miles across from east to west by about 50 miles across north to south, meaning many miles of hiking trails yet to discover.  But I think we'll leave it for future years, and hopefully for cooler temperatures.

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