Tracking back through Lajitas and Terlingua into the Maverick Junction entrance of Big Bend National Park took us an hour, and put the time at 3:00 pm. Opting for a backcountry tour of the Chihuahuan Desert, we turned south onto Old Maverick Road, and turned up the dust behind our wheels on our way to scenic Santa Elena Canyon.
Two miles into our 13-mile drive, a Chevy 4X4 approached us head on. Rather than play a game of off-road chicken, I pulled over to allow him right-of-way. When the truck stopped parallel to me instead of passing, and the driver, a middle-aged graying male signed his interest in communicating, I lowered my window to satisfy my curiosity.
“I wouldn’t go down there, if I was you,” he advised.
“Is there something wrong with the road?” I asked.
“Well let’s just say that I been on this road for over an hour already, and I can’t wait for it to be over. It gets much worse down there, and I don’t know if you wanna do that to your truck. This here Chevy is for work, so I don’t give a shit what happens to it, but it’s your call,” he said.
“Thanks for the warning,” I said, and he drove away.
After the encounter, Leah and I sat in silence for a brief moment. “Wow,” I exclaimed, “Do you believe that? He thinks we should turn back.”
“I’m not gonna say,” Leah offered. “I’ll do whatever you want to do. At least we know how long it will take”
“Then fuck it! We’re moving forward,” I declared. “I’m not turning around because of him. Let’s see what this truck can do! All I ask is that you turn off the alarm (see: Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part One).”
“I can do that,” Leah promised. “But we’re on a mission and we’re running out of time, so you need to limit your stops.”
I wanted to agree in principle, but it seemed so unreasonable to pass up so many photo opportunities.
However, Leah had a point. We still had a canyon hike ahead of us.
The road was as pitted and rutted as expected, but not the deterrent we anticipated. The truck suspension was very forgiving, and handled the rocking and swaying without a slip. What took the Chevy over an hour to travel, took the F-150 only 45 minutes to complete. (This testimonial should in no way be considered an endorsement for Ford, unless Ford is willing to pay me. I hope you are reading this, Ford!)
We arrived at Santa Elena Canyon parking when most visitors were leaving. A slotted boardwalk led us to the river flats where the canyon opened into an expansive arroyo,
where only a trickle of the Rio Grande diverted around a sandbar merging with the Terlingua Creek.
The hike into the canyon along the northern wall follows an observation path of concrete-slab switchbacks outlined with occasional handrails. The vista at 100 feet is sufficiently rewarding to most visitors who tend to take a few snapshots before returning to their cars.
But the true reward awaits the hiker who takes the trail deeper into the canyon for a more immersive experience,
and a greater appreciation of the scale of the 1500 feet sheer walls,
and the house-size rocks that have tumbled from the clifftops.
We took shade whenever we could, and drank the requisite gallon of water per day to avoid dehydration, yet we always seemed to be thirsty. By the time we reached the trailhead out of the canyon, we had drained our resources, but felt confident that the 13 miles to the store at Castolon Visitor Center—on the way to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive—would allow us to resupply…or not.
The store was closed more than an hour before we arrived.
Disappointed and thirsty, we climbed into the truck, and drove the 22-mile route around the backside of the Chisos Basin to admire the ever-changing landscape. If we weren’t so parched, we might have lingered longer to take in the views, but I drove as fast as the hairpin turns would permit.
Not that I was completely indifferent to scenery. There were a few occasions that demanded I stop and allow the natural beauty to wash over me.
Another 13 miles past the junction intersection, and we finally completed the western loop around the park. While Leah napped, I struggled with the final 20 miles from the park gates to Lajitas. It took every last bit of will power to make it home, knowing that a well-deserved ice-cold Dos Equis would be waiting in the fridge, demanding I “Stay Thirsty”.
It was 7:00 pm when we finally opened the Airstream door, only to collapse.
We had completed 10 hours of non-stop activity, gratified by the experience, overwhelmed by the grandeur, and elevated by the notion that two old farts could still last the whole day.