Hiking Hat Trick–First Goal

At the risk of becoming too comfortable with scheduling only two activities a day during our destination stay, our last full day before moving on from Big Bend presented an opportunity to squeeze in three. That’s right…we were going for the hiking hat-trick!

By rights, we were being overly ambitious—biting off far more than we should ever chew—but as we’ve found since starting out, time is not our friend. Not to be melodramatic, but we may never pass this way again…and if we do (whether in this life or as Shirley MacLaine), it may not be with the same get-up-and-go. So, while we still can, we will continue to fool our bodies into believing we are first-round draft picks.

Typically, before dropping anchor, we’ll have researched most meaningful possibilities in our area. Then we’ll cherry pick around our common interests based on associated cost (we’re on a budget!), reasonability (is it safe and sane?), and time (is there enough of it?). By adopting this strategy, we’ve managed to stay focused and in sync.

But on this particular day, we agreed, “Who cares what it costs! This is totally insane! We’ll never have enough time! So, let’s do it!” On this day, we would canoe down the Rio Grande and hike through Slot Canyon while at Big Bend Ranch State Park, then return next door to Big Bend National Park for a backcountry drive to Santa Elena Canyon, hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and return through the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Two days earlier, we reserved with Angell Expeditions for a Sunday float. For many, the holy grail is to raft through Santa Elena Canyon in the shadow of its 1500 feet canyon walls while attacking Class IV rapids. However, local outfitters were eschewing the Santa Elena junction put-in due to historically low water levels.

waders vertical

Instead, we agreed on a canoe trip through Dark Canyon in the State Park—not nearly as dramatic as the former—but at least we’d be floating on water, rather than pulling our boat across it.

We put in at Madera Canyon at 10:30 am.

River access

Angell ExpeditionsAnd found we had the whole river to ourselves.

3 tps in the distance w canoeIt was Mike, our river guide in one boat and us—with Leah at the bow and me at the helm—in the other.

Mike on the riverThe air temperature was equal to the water temperature at about 75°, and the wind was at our backs. It could not get any better, or be any easier…until we reached the first of three technical skill zones.

While not exactly Class IV water, the rocks and current still made the run challenging and fun. To avoid tipping the canoe, Mike had us stop each time to survey the water. We walked the shoreline, and watched how the fast-moving water was running in order to plan our route. After easily demonstrating the turns in his own canoe, Mike ceded the river to us to try for ourselves.

First time out, Leah panicked. “I’m not doing that. It’s too soon to go swimming. I’d rather walk it.”

“C’mon, Leah,” trying to encourage her. “It’ll be fun.”

“Not with you steering, it won’t!” she bellowed. “I’m not getting wet. Why don’t you do it with Mike.”

Mike agreed. With me in front, and Mike at the helm, we glided between the rocks, and sailed through the water effortlessly.

“See,” I crowed, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“Sure thing.” Leah was unimpressed. “I’ll do the next one,” she offered with uncertainty.

After 30 minutes of lazy floating, it was show-time yet again. We repeated the same set-up procedure as before, and Mike made it look just as easy as before, but these rapids were faster and rockier, and required more finesse.

fast water“With this one,” Mike warned, “it’s very easy to capsize, so if you feel the boat tipping, just step out onto the rocks.

“No problem,” I mustered.

“Yeah, right!” Leah mocked.

We valiantly headed into the white water, picking up momentum, and following all of Mike’s directions perfectly.

negotiating fast water“I don’t know about this,” Leah yelled.

“Just keep your paddle out of the water, and I’ll guide us through,” I yelled back.

Neal Leah rapidsI zigged when and where I was meant to zig, and zagged at the appropriate time and place, until…

“LOOK OUT!” Leah screamed.

…a very large boulder suddenly jumped directly in the path of the canoe, spoiling my perfect run. The boat got caught up on the rocks, turning it sideways just as Mike predicted, and the rushing water was forcing the boat over.

“DO SOMETHING!” Leah screamed.

So, I stepped out as instructed—keeping the boat steady—and pushed it through the last turn, while Leah traveled like Cleopatra.

“I’ll have you know that I had nothing to do with that. You told me to keep my oar out of the water, so it’s not my fault.” she gloated.

“It must be nice to be blameless and dry,” I said to myself.

With the wind gusting at 20 mph, we were quickly approaching the take-out area, yet it was only 12:30 pm. The tailwind had cut our expected float time in half.

Fandango location

Basking turtles“Is that it?” asked Leah.

“End of the line,” confirmed Mike. “This is where the truck is parked.”

Feeling badly, Mike added, “I know it seemed like a short trip, but if you’d like, we could head up to Slot Canyon and do a hike. It’s not like it’s out of my way.”

Leah and I exchanged glances. We had intended to hike the canyon on our own anyway.

“Absolutely,” said Leah.

So, we got in the truck and followed Mike over the mountain, on the way to our second goal.

 

Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part Two

*For those who are reading postaday blogs, please see Part One first to follow the narrative. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Previously on Streaming thru America… (see Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part One, previously published)

Neal and Leah were both feeling the effects of the heat–both inside and outside the F-150. Temperatures had climbed to 103º on the trail, while the mood had turned icy in the truck. Additionally, Neal had aggravated an old knee injury, and Leah was feeling tired and dehydrated.

And now, Streaming thru America is pleased to present…

Part Two: Ahhh

After the hike, it became necessary to regroup at the Airstream. It was our last day in Big Bend and it was only 4 pm. Both of us agreed that we weren’t yet finished for the day. If we could rally after our siesta, then we could pull off one more hike.

But we needed a rejuvenation tonic—a game-changing elixir that would fuel our core and boost our disposition. And given the state of our limited supplies, it had to help us clear our head, yet give us the false sense of security we needed to fool ourselves into thinking that we could endure another adventure. Bottom line—we made frozen strawberry margaritas. Who knew they could be so energizing?

Timing was everything. With the sun expecting to set at 8:30 pm, a light dinner got us out the door and back on the road towards Hot Springs Trail, part of our Big Bend bucket list. Thankfully, not a long drive, it was only ten minutes to the turnoff from Rio Grande Village, and another four miles in to the trail head, but what a drive!

Halfway through the white gypsum track, the road split into two extremely narrow one-way hairpin switchbacks that hugged a striated canyon wall for the balance of the journey.

rock strata

It was a race against time. With the sky expecting to produce a saturated sunset, and the time it would take to traverse this obstacle course, I folded my mirrors in toward the truck, and held my breath as I cautiously moved forward.

It was harrowing yet exciting. The view out my window was nothing but air, while Leah, if so inclined, could reach out her window and file her nails against the cliff. But to her credit, she never said a word about my driving, as she braced herself against the armrest, in anticipation of a catastrophe. Or maybe her silence was driven by my encouraging words as we approached the switchbacks:

“Don’t say another word,” I loosely suggested, not trying to control her.

I successfully negotiated the F-150 into a parking lot occupied by other three cars. Wanting alone time with Leah, it was a bit of a letdown seeing company, but my new objective was to catch the sunset. I sprinted up a small hill with my camera swinging, to gain enough of an advantage over low rising trees just as the sky exploded into colors. I took in the view and my knee didn’t hurt a bit.

 

sunset

I also had time to capture the ruins of a limestone block cabin, that once served overnight visitors who had come to benefit from the healing properties of the mineral waters that Leah and I were about to experience.

Langford House

“Now the trail to the water will be dark,” Leah lamented, “because you had to take so long taking pictures.”

“I have a remedy for that,” I declared. I switched on the flashlight and lit our way down a lush reed-lined path, half a mile along the river, until we stood at the fallen foundation of a bathhouse spa built by J.O. Langston in 1912.

We eased ourselves into the 105º water currently shared by four other visitors. Everyone present had finished a hike in the blistering sun earlier in the day, and was eager to soak their aches and pains away in a hot oasis of salts and minerals.

Langford Hot Springs1

Langston had reported in his autobiography, “A Homesteader’s Story”, that by bathing in the spring water, and drinking it as prescribed by local Indians, he had completely regained the strength he lost from several debilitating bouts of childhood malaria. Claiming deed to the spring, he eventually moved his family from Alpine, TX and developed the property into a successful health attraction and trading post.

The remains of the bathhouse only adds to the character and allure of the location. While the Rio Grande flows on one side of the foundation wall, a floor vent on the other side is releasing over 200,000 gallons of geothermal water a day, pushing the overflow into the river–perhaps, an early rendition of now-popular infinity pools. Strategically sitting in the cool river while leaning against the hot spillover produces the strangest sensations and the best “Ahhh” results.

A break in the trees along the trail to the parking lot revealed a quarter moon and a black sky accented by millions of stars. Our fellow hot-tubbers neglected to bring a flashlight, so they followed our flashlight beam as we all walked back together. A college coed from the pack identified herself as a Langford, and thought she might be somehow related to the spa patriarch, thinking she could claim the spring for herself.

“But it’s a National Park, dear,” I reminded her. “It belongs to all of us.”

It was a perfect finish to a long day, and I had to admit that my knee never felt better.

*For those who are reading postaday blogs, please see Part One first to follow the narrative. Sorry for the inconvenience.