Big Bend

Gwen and I went camping in Big Bend from the 24th to the 29th. First off, some photos from the trip.

I had never been to Big Bend before. Gwen had been four or five times, and knew the place pretty well.

She had made reservations well in advance, which turned out to be a good thing.


Departure day. Gwen had checked the weather report the day before, and found that the overnight low this night was supposed to get down to a brisk 13°F. Brr.

We had been planning on bringing our road bikes, and changed plans. We were going to need more stuff just to stay warm, leaving inadequate room in the car for our bikes and related appurtenances. So we ditched the bikes, and packed a massive down comforter and all the warm clothes we could lay our hands on. I’ve actually gotten rid of almost all my cold-weather gear (I can’t remember the last time I had to spend a significant amount of time outside in 13°F weather), so I wasn’t really well-equipped for this trip.

Our preparations were somewhat desultory, and we didn’t get underway until 11:00 AM or so. We drove and drove and drove and drove some more. We stopped for dinner in Fort Stockton, the last good-sized town before Big Bend, at a Mexican joint called Bienvenido’s (adequate food, poor service). Gwen was in a bit of shock when a car pulled up next to us in the parking lot, covered in crusted-on ice. That and the blowing snow made us wonder if we were in for more than we thought. We filled up the tank in Marathon–Gwen recalled that gas at the filling stations in the park was outrageously expensive–but the Marathon Chevron actually had the most expensive gas I’ve ever bought (as it turns out, the stations in the park were actually quite a bit cheaper).

Driving into the park just after dusk, there was a little bit of light to see the scenery by. I couldn’t see much, but what I could see was very dramatic, and reminded me of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia.

After almost precisely 500 miles, we arrived at our campsite in the Chisos Basin at 8:00 PM–it was long dark and already quite cold. The basin is desert at 4800 feet, and the thin, dry air just doesn’t hold any heat. We leapt out of the car, pulled on as much clothing as possible, pitched the tent, rolled out our bedding, and jumped in without shedding a layer.

It was a difficult night. Though both Gwen and I have spent years living in cold climates, we’ve not only dis-acclimated to the cold, we’ve forgotten other side effects that cold can have. On vinyl, for example. We were sleeping on a PVC air mattress, which is normally very comfortable, but apparently vinyl loses pliability below a certain temperature, and we crossed that threshold. As we discovered the next day, there were a bunch of pinholes at creases in the air mattress, meaning our butts were on the ground within an hour or so. I consoled myself by thinking about the Shackleton expedition.


Got up late, stiff, and somewhat cross because of a bad night’s sleep. Observed ice crystals formed all over the interior of the tent. On getting out of the tent, we saw a family of deer foraging right by our campsite. I got my camera out of the car. Despite the fact that I had just charged the batteries the day before, it was completely dead. Same result when switching out the batteries. “Oh yeah, batteries don’t like the cold” I remembered.

This was my first opportunity to really take in the view. The thin, clear, and unpolluted air seems to improve one’s vision: everything seemed abnormally sharp. Mountains were all around us, in clear detail. Incredible.

Even in daylight, we felt it’s too cold to really enjoy hiking. It also happened to be Christmas day. We decided to drive into Terlingua. The drive there was interesting enough in itself. For one thing, it added to my understanding of just how huge the park is (about half the size of Delaware)–we were on the road there for at least 25 miles, and drove through a section of the park with a completely different geography and ecology.

Once in Terlingua, we spent some time exploring the cemetery there. A lot of the graves were very old, and little more than cairns with crude wooden crosses in place of headstones (or in many cases, collapsed or missing). Some were more elaborate rough constructions of rock and adobe in the shapes of churches, with nooks for offerings in the transepts. Some of the oldest graves had newly made granite headstones, and all the graves seemed to be tended in some way, with plastic flowers or other offerings left on them. Some of the newer graves were for Anglos, but clearly in a Mexican folk style.

There wasn’t much else to do in Terlingua that day–Ms Tracy’s was in fact open for business, but we didn’t stop in. We did stop in the world-famous and eponymous store in the adjacent Study Butte for coffee.

Driving back, we stopped in the Santa Elena Canyon, but didn’t hike it all the way because we would have had to cross water, and we were loathe to risk getting our feet wet.

After getting back, we went over to the camp host’s trailer to see if he had any supplies with which we could patch up our air mattress. His wife was there, and gave me a roll of duct tape and some glue that supposedly can join anything. We smeared glue over anything that looked like it might turn into a leak, and then laid a big strip of duct tape over that. And hoped.

That night, we made some salmon on the grill at our campsite. It’s an unfortunate but understandable rule that wood fires are not allowed in Big Bend. It would have been nice to have a big fire pit that we could sit by and toast our toes, but we had to make do with a little box grill on a post and charcoal.

The night was warmer than the night before, but still damn cold. We tried playing Scrabble while our salmon cooked, but it was too cold to sit still and concentrate. But I didn’t sleep in my coat that night, a major improvement.

Our air mattress repairs were partially successful, which was better than I expected. We turned the leaks into slow leaks, so the mattress could hold air for 4-6 hours. We still had to get up in the middle of the night to reinflate it, but that was manageable.


Considerably warmer in the morning, but still brisk. We were in a basin surrounded by mountains, and as as it happened there was one peak that obscured the sun from our campsite until 9:30. Since it wasn’t really warm until it was in direct sunlight, it was hard to get moving in the morning.

I don’t have a lot of camping experience, but based on my limited experience, the facilities at Big Bend are more primitive than at other state or national parks. No showers and no hot water at our campground. All cooking clean-up must be done at one sink (which often had a line), which was a numbing experience with the lack of hot water. I did a little checking, and discovered that the Rio Grande Village campsite supposedly had showers. I could already see that I’d like to return to the park with my bike someday, but I’d like to have easy access to showers when I do.

We headed out and drove to the Lost Mine Trail (has the mine ever been found?). This was quite popular, with wonderful views all along. We had packed a lunch, which we ate out at the very end of the trail, on a rocky, windy peak where nobody else ventured.

I discovered that once it warmed up, my camera worked fine.

Afterwards we went to the hot springs. We had packed swimsuits for the occasion. The drive in is on a rough road that’s precarious in spots–I would have been worried attempting it in a big vehicle (as almost everybody there was doing). The springs themselves are in the ruins of an old and very small spa. There are the remnants of a tiny hotel and store nearby; what’s left of the spa is just high enough to segregate the hot spring’s water from the Rio Grande. At one point, Gwen dipped her foot in the river to see how much colder it was than the springs. Quite a bit colder, but her skin was burned by the pollution in the river. On the other bank was a Mexican guy selling tchochkes. Now, to get these trinkets, you’d have to risk the $5000 fine from the feds and risk contact with the mutagenic effluent in the river. Not worth it. There were a few other people taking the waters with us, and we talked about how arbitrary the border seemed. Everybody present, including a couple of bubba-types, agreed it was ridiculous that people couldn’t cross. Of course the other topic of conversation was the cold nights, and ways to stay warm. We were astonished that two of the guys taking in the springs with us were actually using a propane heater in their tent.

The waters were warm, relaxing, and moderately cleansing. After a good long soak, we made our way back to the car and left. Since we were nearby, I suggested we stop by Rio Grande Village to scope it out as a future campsite, and check out the showers. Rio Grande Village actually had the same amenities as Chisos Basin, but was larger and seemed more orderly. We got a little turned around trying to leave, and spotted a bobcat on the prowl, looking for snacks. We followed along slowly in the car. At one point we pulled even with some old folks having a picnic by their RV; they were watching the bobcat too. Gwe called out “I hope your poodles are all inside” and one of them responded “Oh, bobcats come through here every day.” They seemed unconcerned. Which seems naive, but it was still interesting to see a bobcat up close.

We discovered the purported showers were just outside this campsite, at a small store. Which had air mattresses for sale. We thought hard about replacing our dud, but decided to put up with it until we had more options at our disposal.


This was the day that Gwen had scheduled for us to hike the South Rim trail. This is a long hike, and she was concerned that we might not make it home by sundown. We packed plenty of food, two camelbaks full of water, and headlights. We hit the trail at 9:00 AM. Although we did spy a couple on the trail far below us, we didn’t actually run into anyone until we were about 4 miles into the hike, at which point we ran into three parties, including a couple of guys who looked as if they had been given $1000 gift certificates to REI. They told us they had spent two nights on that trail already, and were carrying an amazing panoply of the newest, whizziest, ripstop breathable waterproof GPS-enhanced gear. I was tempted to snark “if you guys weren’t carrying so much gear, you’d be able to hike the trail a lot faster” but I restrained myself. They were having fun.

We powered along the trail, every view more amazing than the last. At some points we were probably looking 100 miles into Mexico. Midway along, we came to a fork where we could add a 1.5-mile detour around the East Rim onto the route; we did. Eventually, we started descending, which was harder on our poor joints than climbing. But we saw a hummingbird and some sort of bluebird along this leg. After 6.5 hours and 14.5 miles, we were back. We hung out briefly by the store near our campsite. We stretched in the sun, and Gwen discovered that her long hiatus from Coca-Cola was, well, over. We watched the people who were staying at the park’s hotel. A foursome so car-dependent (excuse me, SUV-dependent) that they actually drove from the store to the hotel, a distance of maybe 100 feet. An unlikely couple of an attractive 30something woman and a goomba type in his fifties with an all-denim outfit, flashy jewelry, shiny boots, and a rug that was practically wall-to-wall carpeting.

We went down to our campsite, cleaned up a little, and went back up to the hotel restaurant for dinner (tired enough after our hike that we actually drove the half-mile or so). Dinner was a disappointment. I guess one shouldn’t expect too much from federal food service, but it was overpriced and undergood. One’s better off with a camp stove and well-stocked ice chest. At the hotel front desk, we asked if the hotel rooms had kitchenettes; they do not, although the cottages do have micro-fridges and microwave ovens. Although cooking is prohibited in the rooms, if I were going to stay in a hotel room there for any length of time, I’d sneak in a self-contained gas ring, because there are no other dining options within 30 miles.

A British (?) family with two young boys drove up and staked out the campsite next to ours. The boys proceeded to run around like yahoos. I wished I had their energy–not just so that I’d have it, but so that they wouldn’t.

We retired to the tent and played Scrabble by headlight.


Our last day. We managed to sleep in, despite our troublesome flattress, and awoke with too many aches. After a leisurely cup of cofffee and general hanging around, we made our way down to the Window trail. The rocks were a bit tricky to navigate, and we were moving slow because of the prior day’s exertions, but the payoff at the end was worth it. This was a very popular trail (being right next to a popular campground), and the window view is at a point where the trail necks down to almost nothing, so we didn’t really spend much time hanging out there.

We would be leaving the next day, so we started getting our stuff in order to pack for the trip.

I improvised a sort of pasta for dinner with stuff I had remembered to bring and leftovers to make up for stuff I had forgotten. We played Boggle.


Time to go home. We were up at a reasonable hour, packed our stuff, and hit the road. On the way out, we discarded our defunct mattress with great glee. Filled the tank (we had driven over 250 miles in the park). Stopped in Marathon to get a snack and explore the Gage Hotel. Set the cruise control at 84 and got moving.

This from Gwen: Big Bend trips are truly getting-away trips for me. It’s a long and very empty drive out…plenty of time for contemplation. And then once you’re out there, there’s so much there out there. It seems endless, and full of huge edges with more endless over the edge. I always wonder how anyone ever had the gumption to cross that vast expanse of dry country not knowing when it would change into something more hospitable. I always come back feeling cleansed by the extremes — temperature, distance, landscape — all of it brings me back to a fresh place in myself.