Big Bend kicked my butte today, but it also offered the perfect remedy.
Part One: “Ouch!”
Just beyond the Chisos Basin turnoff, I pulled the F-150 onto Grapevine Road, a rocky and powdery six-mile approach to the trail head of our next adventure: Balanced Rock. Far from smooth, but never boring, the ride to the trail head was a struggle between watching where I was going and watching the ever-changing landscape through the driver-side window.
“Watch where you’re going,” Leah warns. To my ears, it sounds more like an admonition.
Over the past two month, I believe I’ve finally adjusted to driving the F-150–becoming more comfortable with its size; more reliant with its ability to haul and tow; and more familiar with all the technology built in by Ford. However, unknown to me at the time I bought the truck is a pot-hole alarm that keenly scans the road terrain and sounds off when approaching a rough patch ahead; it’s a cool feature that’s intended as an alert to slow down and avoid the upcoming ditch when needed. While it’s worthwhile and dependable most of the time, the only way to disable it is to tell Leah to close her eyes.
Even through we’ve been off-roading for over a month now, I have hoped that Leah’s anxiety and criticism about my driving would have subsided by now. My defense is always the same.
“You’re welcome to drive anytime you like,” I offer, knowing how intimidated she is of the rig size.
“That’s not my job, that’s your job,” she always counters.
“So why are you complaining? We always manage to make it back alive, and in one piece!” I protest.
And her familiar rejoinder is always ready. “Well, maybe you won’t be so lucky next time!”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” I say to myself.
Nevertheless, the ride is distinguished by all the outcropping of rocks so close to the road. There is so much to see that is awesome, that awesome becomes the new ordinary.
We soon arrive to a smattering of 4 X 4-worthy vehicles parked on a plateau beside the road. Not wanting to crowd the trail, I elect to drive by and continue on Grapevine Road to see where it leads.
“You missed the trail head,” Leah advises. Her tone now borders on admonishment.
“I know, I answer, “I just want to explore to the end of the road. It’s not that far from here.”
“How are you gonna turn around if the road’s too narrow?”
I am completely unaware of the “narrow road alert” feature on the truck until now. “I’m certain there will be a turnaround at the end of the road.”
“But you don’t know that for sure,” Leah continues.
“Just a little bit of trust, please,” I manage, “and a little bit of credit to the civil engineers who built this road.”
When we get to the turnaround at the end of the road, we notice an occupied campsite with a blue pop-up tent and a folding chair. We both agree that this kind of camping is far too remote for the both us, and just like that, we’re on equal footing again.
I’m pleased to see that trail head parking has thinned out upon our return. The hike is considered moderate—a mild incline of desert terrain with a steep eighty-foot ascent at the end—but my right knee is acting up from a twelve-year-old skiing accident, and two subsequent arthroscopic interventions. All I can do is keep pushing forward, watching where I step and how I step.
“I thought you were gonna take some Aleve before you left,” Leah offered.
“But that’s not an option now, is it?” I say to myself. I never realized until now that the truck’s warning system comes with a mobile app extension. “I’ll just have to manage,” I reply aloud.
We arrive at the uphill finale, which is not as terrible as I had imagined. While rock scrambling is inevitable, the footing is reasonable.
Interestingly, the pain seems more tolerable the closer I get to the hike’s payoff, which in this case is spectacular—a distant mountain vista framed by a window of balanced rocks,
…and a new twist on an old cliché: NO GAIN, NO PANE!
Stay tuned for Part Two: “Ahhh!”
Today I met a national park service ranger by the name of A.L. Weimer who wore a bulletproof vest and carried a police-issue sidearm. While there are daily sightings of mountain lions and black bears throughout Big Bend National Park, I think his handgun has less to do with keeping the animals in line, and is more intended as a show of force in case any renegade Mexicans or Islamic terrorists get any big ideas about invading the U.S. through Mexico.
If so, Ranger Weimer, who manages the Boquillas Crossing, then becomes our first line of defense. Of course, thanks to our 2nd Amendment, I’m certain that many park visitors would rally in defense of our great nation, and arm themselves with the requisite arsenal of spatulas and Swiss army knives, or whatever else they could muster from their tents and RVs to hold off a foreign attack on American soil.
Leah and I decided that a reconnaissance mission was in order. To get to the other side, documents are first presented to Ranger Weimer, a dour-faced, no-nonsense bulldog, who makes sure there is no misunderstanding about the prohibition of alcohol or tobacco from abroad.
Walking through the customs house gate to the waterfront along a garden trail takes only five minutes.
The trail ends at a sandbar where eager Mexicans negotiate with Gringos to ferry them across the river by rowboat. Five dollars is generally the agreed upon price.
However, with the Rio Grande water levels so low, Leah and I found it cheaper to wade across fifty feet of knee-deep water to the other side.
Land transportation comes from Uber burros, charging five dollar fares to cover the dusty and shit-laden ¾-mile trip…
…to a white trailer check-point surrounded by cyclone fencing on the edge of the village. It was a treat to sit in Boquillas’s only air conditioning for a few minutes to escape the 100◦ heat, while our identities were checked against a drug cartel database.
Once Leah and I were cleared as respectable American citizens, we opted to lunch at the Original José Falcone’s Restaurant and Bar, the largest of two eateries in town…
…with an overlook of the Boquillas Canyon.
Mama Falcone was sitting on the patio in her kitchen apron working on a future needlepoint tapestry that would soon display in the family curio shop next door, while her nephew Renaldo brought us menus and took our order—chicken quesadilla for Leah, and beef burrito for me. Meanwhile, a family of three from South Carolina sat at a nearby table chatting it up with Mama’s daughter, Lillia.
Lillia was explaining that her father opened the restaurant in 1973 after a pickup truck accident put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The restaurant was a big hit among locals and tourists, with Mama serving bean tacos and burritos, and Papa schmoozing the guests. Thanks to the unofficial crossing, villagers were accustomed to serving up to 200 Big Bend visitors a day—mostly tourists looking to enhance their park experience by buying food and souvenirs.
After Papa died in 2000, Mama and Lillia continued the business until the U.S. closed the border in May, 2002 in response to 9-11. Consequently, the town’s tourist trade dried up, and businesses failed without customers.
The town population shrank from three hundred to one hundred adults and children, with many leaving for Muzquiz—the nearest Mexican city, and a seven-hour bus ride away. Eventually, Mama and Lillia found work in the States, but returned home to the restaurant after the crossing officially reopened in April 2013.
They are hopeful for an economic recovery, but the town is in shambles, and it will take many more Americans to salvage Boquillas’s economy.
After lunch, Lillia volunteered Chico to drive us back to the landing in his beat-up Chevy Silverado. Chico was born and raised in Boquillas, and although his two brothers have moved on, he has never left.
“I like it here,” he admits. “It’s very quiet.”
When Chico isn’t shuttling visitors between the restaurant and the water, he bartends for the only bar in town, usually serving up beer to the locals. “Cervezza is cheap, but gas,” he explains, “is very expensive and hard to come by since Boquillas has no gas station. However, American friends are willing to fill five gallon containers from the park store, and send it over by boat.”
It occurred to me that Chico was giving us good intelligence about his situation, which would be useful should tensions ever flare between the U.S. and Mexico. And I believe that given the chance, Carrie Masterson and I could turn Chico into a valued asset. We tipped Chico five dollars for the ride and the invaluable information.
Leah and I crossed back the way we came—by wading through the Rio Grande. We acknowledged Ranger Weimer upon our return, who ushered us to a virtual customs station, where we submitted our credentials electronically and spoke by phone to an invisible agent who scanned us by remote camera.
“Take off your hat, remove your sunglasses, and stand behind the yellow line,” barked the long-distance voice.
After answering a few routine questions, like “Are you bringing any raw fruits or vegetables into the country?”, we were safely readmitted to America.
Turning to Ranger Weimer, I asked casually, “So how do you feel about Trump building a Wall down here?
He looked at me sternly, and answered in a stoic voice, “Sir, we’re not allowed to express an opinion about that matter.”
But I wasn’t done yet. “But do you think these people are dangerous?”
He was becoming annoyed, answering more emphatically, “Like I said, sir; I have no opinion on the matter!”
I left Boquillas Crossing completely satisfied by our cultural exchange, and reassured that we would be safe from bad hombres from the other side. Fortunately for us, the citizens of Boquillas del Carmen are hard-working people. They are a small and subdued militia of struggling entrepreneurs who depend on us, and are more interested in fighting for their livelihood than picking a fight with their neighbor.
I have met the enemy face to face and I do not fear them. Their rowboats and mules would be no match against our ships and tanks.
After spending the day roaming through wide-open spaces at Big Bend National Park, we returned to our relic of an RV park at Stillwell Ranch–just outside the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center–to cool off under a revitalizing blast of AC running inside the Airstream.
The glaring sun and punishing heat of the day had taken its toll on us, although we were grateful for sustained winds of 20 mph, which seemed to make the temperature more tolerable. By 7:26 pm, temperatures had cooled down to 91◦, and we were ready to explore the road less traveled.
Earlier in the day, border patrol had sped past our campsite from the southern border, causing us to speculate whether an ICE officer had just interdicted an illegal border crosser. And so, with the sun at our backs, and our batteries recharged, I fired up the F-150, turned right on Texas FM (farm-to-market road) 2627, and headed due south in search of bad hombres. The radio god immediately synchronized his playlist with our mission, and delivered David Byrne belting out the lyrics to “We’re on the Road to Nowhere”.
From Stillwell Store, the 22-mile trip to the Rio Grande passes through Black Gap WMA (Wildlife Management Area), a 100,000-plus acre expanse of back-country wilderness—desolate and barren to the eye, but home to wandering black bears, mountain lions, white-tailed and mule deer, and javelina (think desert pig). The dusty two-lane road dips and pivots like a rickety roller coaster as it hugs the rugged foothills of the Sierra Larga range across the vast Chihuahuan Desert, until the DEAD-END sign appears.
Just around the corner lies an impassable single-lane border crossing known as the La Linda International Bridge, doomed and defunct for the past 20 years. Broken pieces of barricade and rubbish line the roadbed, with a reinforced batting cage wrapped around the guard rails. It looks like a free-standing prison door resting on a concrete pile.
Historically, the bridge was constructed by Dow Chemical in 1964 to transport fluorite from Coahuilan mines across Heath Canyon to America. But U.S. and Mexican authorities shuttered the bridge in 1997, suspecting drug smuggling. Other reports cite the murder of a Mexican customs official as the reason behind the bridge closure.
The setting surrounding the bridge is eerily reminiscent of any post-apocalyptic scene from “The Hunger Games”. Except for a few pesky flies, the area is lifeless, and the quiet is disturbing.
Across the border stand the remnants of a faded factory.
Broken buildings and slanted warehouses survive in silence against a brown mountain backdrop.
Yet in the distance to the right of the river, La Linda mission stands alone—its double towers dwarfed by nature’s majesty, and its church doors removed for a purpose higher than God.
There are those who would welcome a return to the border crossing.
Committee meetings and feasibility studies on both sides of the river argue the benefits of potential tourism and ease of crossing without traveling to either Del Rio or Presidio. Currently, a legal crossing to La Linda would take nearly 10 hours by car versus 10 minutes by illegal foot path. But there are no travelers today, or at any other times. It’s just too remote.
The thought of running a wall through the middle of La Linda International Bridge brings a smile to my face, knowing that in securing our border, we would be protecting and defending America against Mexican solitude and desolation.
David Byrne’s prophetic words still echo with irony:
“They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right.”
If you love the smell of ammonia (and who doesn’t), then Stuart Bat Cave in Kickapoo Cavern State Park should be on your bucket list. When approaching the entrance, the acrid smell of guano is omnipresent, and for good reason, since Stuart Bat Cave is home to 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats from spring through fall.
Each day at dusk, a stream of bats can be seen circling the mouth of the cave– approximately 25 feet across–around and around and around, accelerating to speeds of 60 mph until they explode from the darkness…
and into the twilight, fluttering en masse, up and over the trees.
A continuous and frenzied swarm pours from the cave in a procession that could last up to two hours.
With the exception of some rogue bats that fly off in scattered directions, the mother lode hooks right and follows a path 50 miles due east to Uvalde in search of mosquitoes and corn earworms, a tasty moth that wreaks havoc on a number of Southern crops.
By the time they return at dawn, each bat will have eaten up to three-quarters of its body weight, which is collectively equivalent to 10 tons of insects, and easily explains the pungent odor by the cave.
Historically, the Sergeant family, who farmed this property from the early 1900’s, protected the cave entrance with fencing in order to mine the accumulated guano, which provided important income to the ranchers until 1957 when sold as premium fertilizer and an explosive constituent.
Having over-nighted for three days in the park, I can testify that there is no shortage of annoying bugs here. Not to be selfish, but I’d like to propose that some of the bats stay behind and clean up inside the park’s perimeter. If the bats only knew that they could dine closer to home–forsaking the 100-mile round-trip–then I could better enjoy my outdoor dinner plans as well.
BREAKING NEWS: Three days at Kickapoo Cavern State Park in Brackettville, TX without cell service or WiFi signal…
“Really?”, I asked the ranger upon check-in, afraid of her confirmation.
“That’s right,” she responded. “Who’s your carrier?”
“Does it make a difference?” I didn’t want to belabor the point. “Verizon?”
“Then you’re screwed,” she said emphatically. “The only reason I asked,” she continued, “is if by chance you had AT&T, then maybe there’s a slight chance that if you hike to the ridge, you might get a weak signal.
“Great!” I conceded with resignation. I noticed a “FREE WiFi” sign by a monitor playing video of the park’s activities, and I think I felt a bit of a rush.
“What about WiFi?” I asked eagerly.
“Well, yeah, there’s WiFi here during the day when the ranger station is open and it’s not raining. Otherwise, you can probably pick up the signal at the bathhouse, and nowhere else,” she proclaimed.
My heart sank. The purpose behind this trip was to enjoy the outdoors when the weather allowed. But after learning that the park’s internet connection would be available at precisely the same time when I should be out experiencing nature, I am left to choose between which of the two necessaries is more meaningful. While not as devastating as “Sophie’s Choice”, I know I must surrender one for the benefit of the other.
I had psychologically prepared myself for this situation; it was inevitable. I knew that once we headed into wide-open spaces of rural Western states, there would be limited or no service. And where we are now certainly feels remote. After 40 miles on a winding road without traffic, we reached the park’s welcome sign. Another four miles in and we reached our true destination. This place is a rolling bust-line of shrub and sagebrush-covered hills. But best of all–for the first time in a month there is ABSOLUTELY NO SOUND OF TRAFFIC!
As I type this on my laptop on a picnic bench in view of the Airstream, I glance at the WiFi icon sitting on the left side of the task bar. As a lark, I position the cursor over the icon, and up pops the message, “WiFi connections available”. Incredulous, I click on it and sure enough, I have the option of opening a channel called “TPWD—PUBLIC”.
I waste little time activating the signal. I am immediately redirected to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Wireless Acceptable Use Policy (Effective date: December 15, 2005). I am ordered to read the entire policy before proceeding.
Accordingly, in order to utilize wireless services, I must hit the “I Agree” button at the bottom. Criteria to consider before agreeing are: Content Prohibitions, Content Harmful or Offensive to Third-Parties, Unlawful Content, Infringing Content Impersonation, Content Interference, Deceptive Content or Spam, Unapproved Promotions or Advertising of Goods or Services, Off-Topic Content, Content Harmful to Other Systems, Network Usage.
After perusing all the “CYA” jargon that Texan lawyers are obliged to disclose, I hold my breath and push the “I Agree” button. I figure if Trump can get elected, then surely I can get a connection to internet. By the way, wasn’t that part of his platform–improving infrastructure across America?
Behold! The clouds part, the planets align, the angels sing, and a faint and intermittent internet connection is born! Hallelujah!!
So what’s the point of this post if I no longer have to measure the merits of being cut-off from the main-streaming world?
A lot! I NOW HAVE CONTENT TO PUBLISH!!
April 20 represented a milestone in my life. It was officially the first day of my retirement. It also coincided with a counter-culture connection to cannabis consumption (known in hippie parlance as “420”), and it was the carnival kick-off for Fiesta San Antonio. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a celebration without participation in both events, all topped off by fireworks.
I have worked at many jobs spanning many different careers and found all of them gratifying in one way or another. Each job seemed to prepare me for the next one, even though the steps in-between were uneven and varied, or complete leaps of faith. I suppose I attribute my jack-of-all-trades mentality to a restlessness that overcame me by travelling throughout Europe the summer after my sophomore year in college.
When I returned to school, I abruptly changed my major from political science to sociology and photography, hoping that an understanding of people and pictures would carry me to different places.
My last job/career as a special education teacher in New York City’s high schools for the past eleven years came close to realizing that dream, as I taught inner city teenagers about the world around them through words and images. But the time was right to put it all behind me, and resume my quest for some kind of redemption by reducing my footprint and refining my senses. It was time to travel again… although this time, in style.
At precisely 4:20 pm, the ceremonial lighting of a glazed metallic iguana pipe set the mood for what was to become an epic evening in downtown San Antonio, made easy via a VIA bus shelter conveniently located directly across the street from Traveler’s World RV Resort. (The bus runs every half-hour, and costs just $1.30 a piece to carry us to the party zone.)
Once there and navigating through the thick stew of resident revelers, it becomes apparent that three things matter most to fiesta folk: medals, eggs and hats. Sashes, vests and tallis-like scarves provide opportunities for collecting even more medals and pins on an already crowded chest. Bragging rights belong to the San Antonians who would collapse under the weight if wasn’t for the support of others to hold them up.
Equally as important are confetti-filled eggs (drained and decorated cascarones) available by the dozen for the sole purpose of smashing them over the heads of adoring neighbors, and showering them with good luck. Even the cops showed signs of confetti dandruff, making police assault okay for the day.
Lastly, thematic hats of all shapes and colors are easily the most conspicuous sign of extroverted behavior at the Fiesta with a special nod to “size matters”. This is a post-Easter parade gone sideways, where the most ridiculous rule. Carmen Miranda awards for the day go to the following:
Food is also an important part of any fair. Vendors with tents and trucks tempted the hungry with long lines for tacos, tamales and turkey legs.
Yet somehow, Leah and I managed to circumvent the lines by inadvertently crashing the Taste of Texas, a VIP event for those willing to shell out $100 per ticket for tasty tapas.
We noticed a sophisticated crowd of people in a courtyard behind a hedge who were enjoying themselves, and thought to check it out, unaware–until we crossed over an ivy walkway–that wristband entry was required. It was easy pretending that we belonged with our hands in our pockets.
We even got the chance to mingle with Fiesta royalty.
The evening ended with a fireworks display in the presence of the Tower of Americas, San Antonio’s tallest lookout, which dates back to the 1968 World’s Fair. It was definitely the icing on the cake, and the cherry on the sundae.
It was Alamo à la mode!
Hundreds of people are standing on or below the South Congress Bridge in Austin, TX and waiting for sunset, which is expected at 8:20pm tonight. Most are tourists with cell phones or bulky cameras, eagerly anticipating the torrent of bats soon to emerge from their roost under the bridge.
The atmosphere is circus-like. Everyone is talking excitedly about the upcoming attraction. Young and old stand shoulder to shoulder;
or find a blanket-sized parcel of grass to relax and watch the sun go down;
or pull up in a boat to wait for showtime.
One fellow standing behind me seems to be mystified by the whole experience. “Are they gonna fly outta that sewer hole over there?” he wonders out loud.
His misconception is immediately corrected by a 10-year old standing nearby. “Hey mister, this isn’t Batman, y’know! They come out from under the bridge where they live,” says Einstein boy.
“I hope they don’t come around me…that shit is poison,” says sewer man.
I too am excited to catch the bats in flight, but I’m also interested in doing something different with my Lumix, which I’m still learning to use. I’m determined to capture the bats in motion!
As twilight approaches, the throng fills the empty spaces of lawn and becomes more animated.The moment arrives when the first bats emerge, and the crowd gets giddy.
And moments later, the floodgates open, and the bats streak across the night sky by the thousands–
a migration wave of epic proportions that approaches a feeding frenzy.
I confess that the photos are experimental. However, I understand that there are traditionalists who need to see things as they are, versus my interpretation of the event. So, in fairness to those whose vision is less oblique than mine, I’ve increased the camera’s shutter speed to give a more accurate representation of the bats’ flight path…
such that even Meat Loaf would be impressed.
Driving across vast terrain of boring interstate highway can easily give rise to a semi-serious anxiety disorder called scenery-itis. It can make a person wistful and cranky after extended exposure, and at worst, it can turn other drivers into road toads–a chronic condition of a different sort, where motorists believe they can leap and fly.
Researchers have been studying this condition for as long as Sears & Roebucks have been offering driving licenses to the blind, yet they have very limited data to advance the science. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating behaviors they have chronicled to date.
For instance, three tell-tale signs commonly associated with scenery-itis that can trigger an onset are: disinterested animals grazing on roadside pastures; personal injury lawyers predominating the signscape with same-number telephone numbers (call me at 666-6666); and pecan pie outlets competing with beef jerky huts as the only available proteins.
Symptomatic drivers should pull off the road immediately after experiencing bouts of excessive yawning, blurry vision, and an inclination to count the bugs that kamikaze into their windshield.
There are two known variations of the disorder. One is called Buc-ee’s-osis, which is a knee-jerkey fixation with gas station mascots when your vehicle needs fuel.
The other condition is a more common affliction commonly known as drifting-into-ditch-itis.
Unfortunately, the only known cure is driving through Utah, which does little good for a driver in Texas.
Donations are now being accepted at this blog to get me to Utah as soon as possible.
Down on Avery Island–in the thick of Cajun country, just up some from the Atchafalaya Delta–is a place where mosquitoes explode if they bite you. At least, that’s what they tell you on the company tour.
It’s where the McIlhenney family has been making Tabasco Sauce the same way since 1868.
It’s an interesting process that has much in common with fine wine or Kentucky bourbon, but doesn’t require an ID to buy it or try it. Although, some common sense should dictate how much you pour to invigorate your étouffée or gumbo.
The sauce begins with a special strain of tabasco pepper seed that sprouts in a greenhouse nursery before it’s transplanted into rich and fertile alluvial soil.
A graduated color stick determines the precise shade of the ripened red pepper before it’s properly picked by Peter, and crushed into a mash mixed with salt mined from the family property.
Company coopers prepare and sanitize 60-gallon white oak barrels reinforced with forged iron bands…
where the mash is stored and sealed with crusted salt, and left to age for up to three years for the traditional heat, and between eight and ten years for the “reserve” collection. It was dizzying, just standing by the storage shed to take a photograph and inhaling the pungent aroma of fermenting peppers.
When the mash is “ready”, it’s sent to the production floor free of peel and seeds. then combined with pure white vinegar, and monitored for three weeks before quality control personnel determine that it’s ready for the bottling plant.
Automation will carry out the packaging under watchful eyes at a rate of approximately 220,000 bottles per day to keep up with world-wide demand,
and a very demanding clientele.
It’s been 150 years since Edmund McIlhenny poured his potent pepper sauce into recycled cologne bottles, but the five generations that followed have been loyal to the original recipe, and have grown accustomed to the savory taste of success.