Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17, 2009 Beautiful Big Bend

What can I say about Big Bend? I NEVER expected to fall in love like this with Texas. And I never EVER expected to fall in love with the desert! The more you look at it, the more you realize that it is totally alive. Not barren, not scary, not nasty. It is beautiful and magical and filled with the most incredible living things that have managed to figure out the rules and learned to do what they must to endure the heat and cold and lack of moisture. The colors are intense. Rocks change with every minute, as the sun moves and the light changes. You can smell the creosote bushes, the junipers, the acacias and the mesquite. We wind our way to the very base of the Park, very near the Rio Grande, to Rio Grande Village campground. We are "dry camping", which means we have no hookups. We use our own water tank, our propane stoves and heaters, and our propane generator for charging our batteries to have lights at night. I am much more comfortable with this way of living, now ... had practice in Corpus Christi. It is a pain to wait for the coffee maker until 8AM, when we are allowed to start our generator ... next time I won't forget the coffee press!! But the real beauty of this place is the Sierra del Carmen Escarpment that is just over the hill at the base of our campground. It is so beautiful! It glows magenta and purple every evening when the sun goes down, and just doesn't look real. More like something from those good old View master toys I always got a Christmas when I was a kid .... you stick in the round card with the color slides and pull the little lever down while you look at the light. These cliffs are actually in Mexico, but we get to see them for breakfast, lunch and diner from our picnic table.

It is a 30 mile drive to the main Ranger Station and Park Headquarters. That is also the place where we can sometimes get a phone signal in one corner of the parking lot. So ... no phone and no Internet. (Also no TV, because there is a tree over our RV ... and the DirectTV satellite is VERY hard to find in this latitude, anyway. the guys with portable dishes are going nuts trying to pick up a signal! (So much for Mr. Wonderful's fancy schmancy rooftop dish!!)
We spend a day resting and getting settled, than start driving around to places near by. Big Bend is a little over 800,000 acres... the second largest Nat'l Park ... and the least visited. You don't come here by accident! You have to WANT to come here. You have to work to get here. The nearest airport is more than 100 miles away. You don't just jet in for the weekend. But once you come, most are hooked. We have met several people who are in the same situation that Jeff and I are sampling. They travelled around the Country for several years after retirement, and then found an area (or areas) that they really loved. They have settled in to a pattern of volunteering or "work camping" in State or National Parks for several months at a time. Winter in the South, Summer in the North and many of the folks in Big Bend have been coming here for years.

One woman told me that big Bend was like an onion ... you kept discovering layers and layers the longer you were here. We spent 6 days driving and hiking and looking ... and we "experienced" a small part of one quadrant. The Hot springs (real hot springs that you can sit in .. that have been used for thousands of years), Dugout Wells (an abandoned spring that was once a "cultural center" with families, a school and a store), abandoned mines, nature trails where you can come face to face with a mountain lion or a bear!!, areas that teem with birds ... song birds and raptors (hawks, owls, ospreys, falcons, eagles, buzzards), huge cliffs and stretches of desert. And then there is the Rio Grande. Not always GRAND, but a real reminder that we are at the very edge of our country.

Mexico is just a stone's throw. BUT ... there is no legal point of exit or entry WITHIN the park. Presidio to the west, and Del Rio to the east are the two nearest border crossings... each a very long trek. For years and years and years, the town of Boquillas del Carmen welcomed the folks from the US ... and depended on being able to sell their crafts and serve the customers in their restaurants and bars that came over from the Park. They also depended on being able to travel up Rt 118 through the Park and get groceries, work, seek medical treatment, etc. BUT ... one day in 2002, the US decided that the Border had to be closed within the Park boundaries. All the contact was severed. It is now a drive of more than 100 miles to get to a point of entry. The town is disappearing as the people leave to find work, but there are a few who try to sell things illegally to the tourists of the Park.

When you get close to the River, you come across piles of walking sticks made from mesquite or ocotillo ... painted and carved, scorpions and beetles and roadrunners all fashioned from copper wire and beads, necklaces, bracelets, big chunks of amethyst or quartz crystals .... all with price tags and a crudely lettered sign asking for "Donations" for the school children of Boquillas. There will be a jar with a few rocks in the bottom to weight it ... but usually no sign of a person. You learn in the ranger stations that it is "Illegal to purchase anything that has not been legally imported into the US, and a fine can be imposed upon anyone who violates this policy". Now, they sell the same trinkets in the Park stations .... at 3 times the price ... with disclaimers that these things have been brought in through legal channels and the artists are paid fairly for them. Whatever. I think that secretly, the Rangers are sympathetic to the plight of the people in Boquillas, but they have to give the official "line".

One hike we were determined to complete was the one into Boquillas Canyon. Up a fairly steep rise, and then down into the canyon of the Rio Grande. There are great, flat areas of rock where there is evidence of ancient occupation. You can see the holes in the rock that were chipped there by the Indians who used them to pound and grind the acorns, mesquite beans and Juniper berries into flour.

Farther down the canyon, there are people on the other side, waiting with horses or burros. A little boy is calling "Hello!" and singing songs in Spanish. There is the display if walking sticks, hand crafts and crystals ... all with the sign asking for "Donations". Rangers all say they "don't know" how the folks get across to get their money ... I think they just don't look.

The real star is a guy named "Victor". He sits on the top of a large rock along the water and sings in Spanish, song after song. In between songs, he tells you he is the best singer on the river and he will sing songs that make you happy and bring you joy. His grandson is "fishing" in the river in a beat up canoe (he uses a plastic soda bottle to wrap the line around, and something to cast the bait out.)... never too far away and always ready to beat it over to the Mexican side if anyone important comes along ... but always ready to scoop the money out of the jars and collect the goods that are displayed for sale.

victor shouts,"Hey, Amiga! In the red sombrero! (That's me!) I sing a good song for you! What you like to hear?" I ask him to sing me his best song, and he obliges. "You will be very happy! I sing you anything you want to hear!" He has the best stage in the world, and his voice echoes off the incredibly high rock walls of the canyon. He yodels and sings and I put $10 in his coffee can. "Gracias, Amiga!", he says,"You come again to hear me sing." "Gracias, Senor. Vaya con Dios.", says I ... feeling very happy. And we hike back out to our car. One of the better days in my life.

We go to a program one of the Rangers is giving ... "The Night Sky in Big Bend". Cool! Lawn chairs or recliners, blankets to keep warm ... sounds relaxing. We are all gathered in a circle by 7:30 and the sun obligingly goes down. The night gets darker while she is beginning her talk. Venus is so big and bright it is like a floodlight on the neighbor's garage. Orion is wheeling across the sky with Betelgeuse and Rigel, and he is chasing Taurus the Bull with the two dogs Canus Major (with Sirius the Dog Star) and Canus Minor at his heels. (Did you know that Betelgeuse translates to "armpit of the central one"?) The Milky Way is like lace ... and I only remember seeing it like this when I was a very little kid. We can see the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), the Dippers (with Polaris at the tip of the little one), The Gemini twins with Castor and Pollux, Cassiopeia and the Andromeda Galaxy ... a blur of light that only appears when you don't look directly at it. There is no flight path across the Park ... so the things whizzing across the sky in every direction are satellites. My wish on the brightest shooting star I see is obvious ... I want to come back.
Leaving Big Bend is very sad, but I have to remind myself that there is always something unexpectedly delightful around the next corner. I just have to drive there.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16, 2009 Stillwell Store & Ranch

There was moisture in the air when we left Ft. Clark Springs ... but it was not enough to need the wipers. Just something you felt on the air. This area of Texas had severe floods in September of 2007 ... nothing since. The drought is evident everywhere. Water restrictions are commonplace in restaurants and everything is sere and dusty. We drive through the questionable town of Comstock and into the Seminole Canyon State Park. It is a scenic drive and we are in no hurry. The Pecos River is fairly big and at the bottom of a large chasm. I love looking at the striations in the rock walls along the road. We stop in Langtry, Texas .. home of Judge Roy Bean. It is really just an intersection where the main draw is the Judge Roy Bean visitor center. It is a recreation of the store/saloon/seat of justice that the "Judge" ran in the late 1800's. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Pecos County and was the only law "west of the Pecos" for quite a bit of time. When an accused was brought in to his store he took off his apron, hauled out his law book and notary seal, and assembled a jury from his customers. Sometimes he actualy used the law book, but just as often he based his rulings on his own sense of "frontier justice", backed up by the six-shooter he kept on the "Bench". There is little evidence that he ever hanged anybody ... the harshest punishment was to fine a horse thief every cent and valuable he owned (including his horse and gun) and then expel him from Langtry under the threat of a noose. The hazards of trying to get to "civilization" when you are on foot with no money and no gun are enough to make any tough guy see the error of his ways. There is another cool thing here at the Center ... a self-guided "Cactus Garden" that has examples of cacti and shrubs that are found in the area. Yucca, Prickly Pear, Agaves, Saguaro, and more .. so many of them also have the medicinal uses noted ... pioneers and the Indians before them had a whole pharmacy at hand.
We keep looking for a spot to have lunch. Sanderson is a bit larger than Langtry, but the only place we see is not inviting. One of the beautys of Texas is that there are these little areas every 40 miles or so for folks to pull off the road and picnic or rest and get out of their cars. The beauty of travelling in an RV is that you have your kitchen with you! We can stop, make lunch, fire up the generator and brew a pot of coffee and discuss the route. While doing all that, I called ahead to a place we picked at random out of a guidebook and secured a place for a few nights. We want to camp outside Big Bend at first. It is a good 50 miles or so into the National park to a campground. We don't want to get there and find that there is no room!

So ... we find the Stillwell Store and RV Park. Now ... when I call this place a lady answers and says, "Sure! I got plenty of room! Y'all come on down here! But fill up your tanks at Sanderson! They charge too much for fuel and propane in Marathon, and you will pay even more in the park!" Sanderson is this little town that looked like something out of the TV version of Stephen King's "The Stand". We saw NOTHING alive except one dog. It was the middle of the day ... there were cars on the street .. STREET (just the one) ... and not one human being. Eerie. but we trundle on another 40 miles or so on I-90 and then turn south at the town of Marathon onto Rt 385. This leads directly into Big Bend Park and we are deep in the Chihuahuan Desert. It is barren and dry and harsh and very, very beautiful. 46 more miles of nothingness on 385 and we turn off onto FM2627. The "FM" designation is something peculiar to Texas, I am told, and it stands for "Farm to Market". Kind of like "RR" or Rural Route, elsewhere. 6 more miles of nuthin' and we are suddenly at the Stillwell Ranch. We see a low combination of buildings and trailers on one side of the road, surrounded by a conglomeration of campers, 5th-wheels and motorhomes. Across the road is a very large parking area with more hook-ups and a few more trailers, and the gates to the "Stillwell 4 Ranch". This place is a testimony to one family's effort to hold on to their land and ranch no matter what. We are greeted in the store by "Nan", who tells us to "Pick our spot" and gives us a brief history of the ranch.

Her grandmother "Hallie Crawford Stillwell" came to the ranch as a new bride in 1918. In 1916 she was a schoolteacher in Presidio, just across the Rio Grande from Panch Villa's stomping ground. Her family was upset with her decision to be independent and follow the profession she prepared for, but she had a very determined streak. After she fell for Roy Stillwell (20 years her senior) and told her family she was going to marry him, they tried to talk her out of it. They felt he was a reprobate who drank too much, gambled, and was just not suitable. She told them "I'd rather be an old man's darling than a young man's slave!" and they got hitched. Her family relented, and off she went. She lived to the age of 99 .. 2 months and 2 days short of her hundredth birthday. she is almost a legend in South Texas. Her obituary was carried in the New York Times.

Look at the kind of thing you can stumble across when you roam around the Country!!! We stayed there 2 nights ... enjoying live music in "Hallie's Hall of Fame" (a museum full of artifacts from Hallie's life on the ranch) and beautiful, starry skies that had us sitting out in our recliners with blankets until very late ... just looking at the heavens. These folks don't live lavishly, but they are rich in scenery and rightly proud of their heritage.

We drove into the Park. Jawdropping. Found 2 sites in Rio Grande village campground and we head there tomorrow. We are stepping into a magic land.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15, 2009 Brackettville, Texas

Sunday, February 15, 2009

.... heading north out of Crystal City for Uvalde, then west to Brackettville and Del Rio. These are the "Texas Badlands". Uvalde has the attraction of a Super Walmart ... a mecca to any RVer. The hawks out here are amazing. Huge birds (of several varieties) that are perched along the road. One every couple of miles. They just look at us as we drive by, as is to say we are interrupting their concentration on lunch. One day last week I even saw a bald eagle! By lunchtime we have found Brackettville. There are 2 things of interest here ... The Alamo Village and Fort Clark Springs. We need to do something "touristy", so we drive directly to the Alamo Village just outside of town .. this translates to 7 miles of very bad road that are about to get worse. We find the entrance gate and pay our $15.00 and drive onto a washboard of dusty, rocky, rutted tracks that lead off into the scrub. We are now "off roading" in a 23,000 pound RV while towing a jeep. Nice! We crawl along at about 5 miles an hour and wind and wind and wind. Up a rather interesting rise and around and around. Will it ever end?? Will there be room to turn around?? Are we totally screwed?? Why didn't the guy at the gate say anything? Too late now, we are past the point of going back. The dishes are vibrating out of the cupboards. My fillings are coming loose. The Jack LaLanne juicer just hit the floor (and didn't break)! Actually, the ground around us looks so hard, we could probably take off across country and not get stuck. Saints preserve us.

Finally we see the Alamo and town recreation. This is the first movie set actually built in Texas. John Wayne had been trying to make the movie "The Alamo" for at least 15 years. He was using his own money and kept running out of funds. He was using land that belonged to his friend, Happy Strahan, and had constructed the facade of the Alamo when, once again, he ran out of money. Happy offered to find the rest of the investors and chip in himself, but he had certain conditions ... the buildings had to be more than just facades (he wanted all 4 walls and roofs) and the buildings could not be destroyed in the filming. The deal was struck, and the movie "The Alamo" with John Wayne, Richard Widmark and a host of others was finally made in 1959. It was a huge hit (still a popular film) and everybody was happy. The story takes some liberties with the truth, but that's Hollywood. This place had been used for outdoor locations a few times in the early 1950's, but after Wayne's movie, with the addition of the recreated town, it has been used continually for movies, TV,Commercials, documentaries and even some music videos. Roy Rogers filmed here, "Bandolero" with Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin & Raquel Welch, "Lonesome Dove", some "Gunsmoke" episodes, History channel series, the list is pretty long.

There are a group of dedicated volunteers that love the Old West and staff the stores and Cafe that are open to the public to keep some cash coming in between films. Having seen the "real" Alamo in San Antonio ... which is a rather small stone building that is surrounded by a smallish town square and dwarfed by the much taller buildings in Downtown ... it was really interesting to see a more accurate replica of the actual compound, as it looked in 1836. It was a dusty little church with connected outbuildings and a very poorly maintained walled compound of about an acre, well outside the town of San Antonio de Bexar. Seeing this, you wonder how they managed to defend it as long as they did ... no surprise that Santa Anna clobbered them in the end. The exit from the village is not nearly as exciting, as we know what to expect, but we backtrack to Fort Clark Springs to the RV park for the night. This was an Infantry post in 1857, with an additional command of Cavalry soldiers. It guarded the border with Mexico and the town of Brackettville grew up around it. After the Civil War (when it was occupied by the Provisional Army of Texas, as they had seceded from the Union) it was returned to the US Military and most of the buildings that remain today were built. They were Indian fighters and had a very rough life. The fort was home to the 5th Cavalry Regiment and Colonel George S. Patton, Jr. was the Regimental Commander in 1938. Many units trained here before their deployment overseas and this was one of the last horse-cavalry posts in the nation when the cavalry became fully mechanized in 1944. Today, it is a cluster of historic buildings that is also a private recreation and retirement community. There are neighborhoods that have the names of the original "camps", bird trails, fishing, hiking, camping and a host of other areas. the RV park has lots and lots of folks who come for the entire winter ... but after the experience we had a Triple R, we feel like we are packed in like sardines. Glad it's only one night.

We are off to Big Bend area in the morning. There is enough moisture in the air that you can feel it on your face, but it just doesn't rise to the level of mist. This area has not had a real rain in about 18 months. It is truly parched. Back on the road!!!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

February 7, 2009 Heading west to explore

February 7, 2009

OK .... another change of plans. The idea of going south to Mission and the land of endless RV parks has been replaced by a trip west. We have decided to head for Big Bend National Park (thanks to me and my constant nagging) and some real adventure. But we are in no particular hurry to get there. We are going to take 2 or 3 days to straggle across Texas and then find our way farther south towards the Border. We do our normal "Laurel & Hardy" routine of bungling the proper on ramps and run around in circles while calling each other on the walkie-talkies and laughing. I would be very disappointed if we ever got off to a smooth start. We get out of Corpus and into some very barren looking territory on a little highway numbered "44". Very flat country, the winds we were getting in Corpus are still strong, but beginning to diminish. We go through Robstown, Banquete and Agua Dulce (Sweetwater) ... population 737. Tiny tired bungalows with bare yards and dusty mesquite trees that have lost their leaves. I would be surprised if more than 10 families in these towns had a yearly income of more than $20,000. Very poor places. Alice, Texas (population 19,010) boasts a row of franchises. Holiday Inn Express, Chili's, Walmart Supercenter, LaQuinta Inn, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's, Dollar General, Whataburger, RadioShack, Little Caesar's, Dairy Queen, Church's Chicken, Walgreen's. Yeesh! There are 2 automobile dealers, a hospital, an airport (of sorts) a bank, a bowling alley and a Beall's department store. This is truly a metropolis. It has 5 stop lights! But then ..... nothing. South Central Texas. Nothing. We stop for lunch at a Dairy Queen in Freer ... the very heart of freaking nowhere. I have heard that the DQ elipse is called a "Texas stop sign"! More nothing. Texas scrub. All of a sudden you pass a drive with massive gates and flags flying ... the Tillman Ranch!! Antelopes and exotic game for hunters to come and pay big money to climb in a stand and wait for these things to come and eat corn and present themselves as targets. BANG!! .... trophy on the wall. Then more nothing ... 50 miles of nothing. Wait! ... here is the town of Catarina (pop 80!) with a church, a post office and the Catarina One-Stop. Truly one stop ... gas, groceries and a bathroom .... then 30 more miles of nothing.

Carrizo Springs is actually a county seat. It has a Court House, what looks like a jail, an Ace Hardware. Also the smallest Walmart I have ever seen. We had determined that there were 2 RV parks in the next tiny town and we did an eenie, meenie, miney, mo to pick one. Found out later that the one we DIDN'T pick was a real dog .... and we stumbled on one of the best kept secrets in Texas. A place to Rest, Rekindle and Restore. Crystal City is a pimple on the map of Texas, but it has a statue of Popeye in the center of town and proclaims itself to be "The Spinach Capital of the WORLD".

The Triple R RV Resort 5 miles outside Crystal City, Texas is a sweet, quiet place on the Nueces River that is part of a working ranch. It was privately owned until a few years ago, when some rich oil man (Chase Oil) from Arizona decided he wanted to buy up property along Rt65 and anything with water. So he makes the folks an offer they can't refuse and keeps the RV park for a write-off and because he can afford to do what he wants. (At least, that is the story I heard.) It is small, immaculate, quiet, private, full hook-ups at each site and very reasonable.

Our site is next door to a guy named Fred. He feeds the birds, and every morning I watch an amazing number of brilliant red cardinals argue over who is going to eat first.

There are lots of huge, old Live Oaks for shade, hot days, cool nights and socializing with the other people if you choose. We stayed for the Valentine's Dance at the pavilion ... where the men all cooked whatever meat you brought, we all contributed side dishes and there was a campfire and dancing to a live performer (who was really very good!) until the wee hours.

We have made a reservation to stay here again next year . It's a very cool place. We came for 2 days and stayed for a whole week! But now we are ready to make the trip farther west and south to the desert. First stop will be Brackettville, I think. Onward!