The Last Places

Place: The Last ones:
Hot Springs, Chisos Basin, Ernst Tinaja
Book: Breakfast With Buddha by Roland Merullo
Tip of the Day: Camping isn’t for everyone, but it is worth the try to see if it fits!
Note to Self: Self-limiting is good – do you really need 6 pair of long pants? And yes, you really do need 12 pair of underpants. Washing machines are not everywhere and contaminating river and ground water is frowned upon.

Hot Springs
The Hot Springs is a short drive and hike from RGVC and so nice to plan for in the evening. And of course, this is everyone’s best thought so there are generally lots of people there. It is like trying to find a place in the Jacuzzi at the gym on a busy day and maintaining personal space is critical. The relaxation factor at the park is substantially greater than at the gym, simply because there isn’t a person there who has to get out, shower and get back to work. At least not that day anyway.

The hike into the spring is another beautiful one with massive rocky overhangs and it follows the Rio Grande all the way. If the 105-degree temperature of the water is too much you can spill over the cemented edge of the spring and be out in the much cooler water of the river. Everyone makes those sounds that come with easing pain and achiness that is part of what you do at Big Bend and pretty much it is a real perk.

This park in general is amazingly oversized and under-visited. The window for ‘best’ weather is narrow and few people are drawn to the stark and barren landscape it seems to provide. Many RV-ers however return every year and stay through the winter to pass up whatever they left back in the north. Once the April and May blooming time passes, the temperatures go up and stay up and few search it out as a respite. The subtlety of the desert landscape opens up the creative ability to feel ‘struggle’ in a good way. Talking with a woman I met in the shower she put it well when she said, “It is not my favorite but I am glad I did not miss it.” She is from Washington state and the absence of tall trees and the color green struck her most deeply I think. Like her, we visited 10 years ago and after this visit, I think I can go at least another 5 or maybe even 10 before I come back again.

Chisos Buffet

Chisos Basin: This is probably the most visited part of the park. There is a cluster of peaks in the middle of the park and you drive up through a winding mountain road that moves you from desert scrub to real forestation. The Madrones, Pines and Huisache are taller than the tents. It is no Sequoia Forrest, but it is not your 3’ basin scrub either. There is a lodge and restaurant there and the hikes are invigorating and can be as long or short as you want. The Window Walk is the most famous – a short hike (3 hours round trip) and you truly do come to what might be seen as a massive cathedral window that looks out over the valley.

Fortunately we did the hike on our last visit. The wind seemed to be following us around and we stayed one night before we decided to head back into the valley. The night temperatures were going very low for those living in fabric homes. We had had 3 nights in the low 20’s and felt like the 40’s were downright time for naked sleeping! The continuous windy conditions seem to be an anomaly but I was not feeling the love at being able to be part of this uniqueness! The prime event here was the buffet breakfast at the lodge restaurant where for the first time in my life I ate my full money’s worth of the spread. We had wifi (no phone service) but we were catching on to the weird access technology was offering and were grateful for it. Our waiter, Ed was generous in letting us hang out at out table since the turnover was done and lunch service was 2 hours away.

Our phones would occasionally pick up “extended service” and randomly bring in mail. Sometimes we could send and receive texts, but we never did get to make a phone call. Peter had our International Phone for emergencies as it makes contact everywhere, but at a hefty price. It is to be used for the death and destruction moments. The craziest connection came when we were at our last and most primitive site. We hiked to the top of an overlook for the Ernst Tinaja Basin and suddenly little beeps and chimes and drum-rolls started coming from our pockets and packs. We got mail! It did make us chuckle and we did sit down and send out a text or two.

Ernst Tinaja: This was our last adventure and we did it per Peter’s memory of it in travels with another of the lovely women who have traveled with him in his life. The name means Earthen Vessel. Getting there takes some healthy vehicle clearance so the pop up was not going along. It probably would have made it, but this was a vast open space and of course there was wind to contend with by the time we left. Being in the van worked out perfectly. We both slept well. There is space for sitting and playing rummy without having our heads hit the roof. You will see later in the photos how isolated the camping was and how very tiny the van looked once you started hiking away from it. After about 10 minutes of our first hike, we could no longer see it. And the landscape looked deceptively flat, so that surprised me in that not so good way when I turned back and couldn’t see it.

This uneasiness I am speaking of comes out of real experience and well-earned self-knowledge. Peter and I are very directionally challenged. We can get lost very easily, even with maps. Some of our poorest communication comes with figuring out how to get from one place to the next. The GPS on our phones seems to be mending this problem significantly. We both agree that we are in fact “the little blue ball” and if it is not on out designated road, we need to go back without any discussion, and obey robo voice Siri!)

As we were wandering in search of our path on this particular hike, Peter gave me his rationale for the direction in which we should return. I on the other hand, with compass built into the top of my walking stick, had another perspective. He struck up his phone compass and we began our discussion. (There are no little blue balls or Siri voices for hiking remote paths) As we continued up the elevation the van came into site again and even with both of us using the same instrument and having the same visual pathway, we could not come to agreement as to the return directions. It stayed on the discussion level (did not elevate to even ‘bicker’ range) and we finally agreed that we would be aiming for the crotch of a mountain range we were both identifying that was in line with the van. I know this was flawed planning since we could possibly weave into a new direction and lose the bead on that touch point, but we did what we do best and we stopped talking about it and kept looking for the real path.

We found it and it took us back home very easily with many real Cairns marking it. We just couldn’t figure out why we didn’t see them as we left the campsite in the first place. Mystery in this realm abounds!

The Hole

The Tinaja

Careful in Ernst

This hike took us to the crest of the hills that surround the basin and the push to make it over one more ‘summit’ was really worth it. You could see where the river had flowed and where it would come down again when the rains returned. The deposits of iron ore were the primary interest in this section of the land. I have no notes about when or how it was mined. The flow of the water however has created a canyon/basin that really was my favorite place. The overhangs are more craggy and dramatic. The colors are rich and more diverse. The palette includes red and purple, ochre and orange There is a convergence of two vastly different geological formations that you see clearly when you reach the actual tinajas. One of them seems to be fed by underground springs because it has never dried up, but the others are rainfall dependant. The water is stagnant. The rock going steeply down to it is slippery and many animals fall and are unable to get back out. I am sure this could be true of tourists as well.

In this hike, my ongoing encounter with the Great Horned Owl came to a truly awesome culmination. I had been able to see them clearly in Cottonwood and even saw a pair mating in the tree just above our camper (a slam-bam-thank-you-m’am event after which I heard no “Was it good for you honey?”) In this canyon one flew in above our heads – he was leaving the inside of the canyon as we were coming in. He was kind enough to land and perch on the side of the rocks so we could see him from a distance. This is when you start thinking about going to Amazon and finding some REAL binoculars or chastise yourself for not letting Peter put the REAL telephoto lens on your camera. But I was working with what I had and could see him in the vegetation. I knew he wouldn’t stay long, so my camera was at the ready and sure enough, he turned and took off with his perfectly soundless flight and I was able to get some shots that are of course blurred, but are really the way it looked. He took my breath away and left me in that awed place you only get to enjoy if you take the steps along the way that are not particularly comfortable but get you to where this is possible.

We still had the rest of the canyon to explore and had a picnic to enjoy. The photos are stunning and the rock formations amazing. Leaving to head back to camp, we knew we had done what we set out to do. We had a few more days to putter around the valley campground before we headed home. Bike rides, hikes and more pictures. Not too bad.

And so it came to its end and both of us high-fived the whole thing as we headed east on Hwy 90 aimed for a stop at Seminole Canyon and then home to Pipe Creek. We both had had a really wonderful vacation and we had it together. We will do it more. Driving away with a real sense of joy was what we had hoped for – and we had it. And we will let you know when we start planning the next one. Any one of you out there could join us if you want…Really!


Nearing the end

Places: Several
Book: Breakfast With Buddha by Roland Merullo
Tip of the day: Not all “eco-friendly” toilet paper is equally operational or effective
Note to self. Test tensile strength of TP before using. It should not dissolve before a full wipe has been completed.

As I mentioned in my last post, we have been using the Rio Grande Valley Campground (RGVC) as a base camp. From here we have made it out to other special places without having to make the Camper set-up and tear-down efforts each time. Our discovery in the midst of the dusty wind scene in Terlingua Abajo – that we could sleep and make the van work for eating, etc – gave us a whole new perspective of moving around. The spaciousness of the camper is luxurious. But Peter has reworked the inside of the van to let him camp at his shows and the well placed cabinets, tables and pullout bed make the van more than functional. This was most significant in allowing us to stay longest in one of the remote campsites we were interested in and enjoy it.

Boquillos Canyon
Our first of the four final adventures was to Boquillos Canyon. In a short hike up the hill behind RGVC there is an overview of the desert floor and the horizon is edged by a sculpted stretch of cliffs with strong dark gray and shades of white to reddish striations. This is the arc of the canyon. Viewing it from far away and imagining how the water sculpted it and then gouged out the basin – how the sea life once flourished and how we might have enjoyed snorkeling this same place had we been around 90 million years ago – just blows my little mind! I just know we could have had some equally cool diving and snorkeling stories! For now it is about a starker, more barren experience that has the most unique significance imaginable.

Having viewed the canyon walls from afar, we now set out for the up close and personal view of it. It was just a few miles driving to get to the hike entrance and we were there for what I learned is called the ‘golding’ light. It is the time at sunset when the angle of the setting sun turns everything to a rich, orange-washed color. It is soft and welcoming and dramatic. This time-slot is short and moves quickly enough that we need to plan for what we want to photograph and the time it takes to get from one point to the other. The walls of the canyon were one aspect. This was followed by the magnificent colors of the setting sun in the desert sky from the top of the ridge. It takes some deft footwork and quick climbing to get it all and sometimes that slight fraction is under-planned and the light just merges with night in a heartbeat. But then it does all come back in a new arrangement 24 hours later so the missed moments might be reclaimed in some way…you just need to make a note to come back.

Boquillos up close is massive and powerful. The Rio Grande wanders through it and its banks are dry and wider than ever with places where the flow of the river has completely dried up. The hardy Yuccas have died back more than I have ever seen them and yet they still make an effort to throw up some green spikes from the center and signal their hope for some rain sometime and an eventual chance to push out into public view their exuberant creamy white flower, reminding viewers that the desert’s beauty can also be lavish and delicate and exquisitely detailed. And each of the blooms in all of the species is protected with thorns from hell to make sure they are protected and serves the part of the cycle they play in other than impressing tourists. Patience and hope are the deserts primary features of desert survival (also crawling faster than hungry vultures.) Unfortunately this year the flash of spring beauty will be very limited. A phenomenon known as Desert Snow will not come. It is a spring flower event that is the sudden blooming of widespread little dusty, sage colored plants that are barely noticeable because they grow tightly to the ground until they are ready to flower. When the do bloom, it is a single event and the white flowers appear like a coat of soft snow on the desert floor. They are pungently fragrant – almost overpowering. It is a short-lived event but a spectacular prelude to the blooms of the Yucca and the cacti. This year the smattering of blooms will hardly be noticed, but the Yucca buds are beginning to show anyway. Every day more come out and as we are leaving, we are quite sure the visitors coming in are headed for a real treat.

Back to the canyon hike, we quickly made it to the entrance of the canyon from the trailhead. It is much smaller that Santa Elena, but it is majestic in its own right. People were coming out after a day of swimming in the river and sledding down a set of sand hills. I imagined their discovery of sand in personal places they might never have imagined, but this did not deter any of them. They rolled, tumbled and slid down the hill with notable speed and great shrieking laughter. Jumping up when they hit the bottom, they just had a short hundred yard dash to the river and a crisp, chilling rinse.. I was enjoying their joy without the least need to experience it in person.

I had my camera around my neck and my binoculars as well. I have worked out a layering here so that I can pop either one to my eyes depending on the need at the moment. I have begun to understand more how bird people get magnetized into their ‘sport.’ I have picked up a book and a waterproof card and berated myself for leaving the real bird book at home…not as bad an oversight as leaving the pillows! The Great Horned Owls have dominated my experience but I can truly say I have also seen and honestly recognized a Scarlet Tanager, Vermillion Flycatcher, Coot, Pie-billed Grebe and two others that I sketched out so I could look them up later – they aren’t in my ‘Beginner’s Bird Guide.”

Deeper into the canyon mouth, the overhanging rock shelves held mud bird nests waiting for their owners to return later in the Spring. None of the birds are there now and I wonder if there is “home ownership” in all these structures and everyone comes back to the same address. And do they have the same kinds of homes wherever they go in the meantime? See, I can just feel myself infecting you with curiosity and desire to join the adventure. The real deal is that Birding is the number one ‘sport’ in money spent. Hauling around these lenses is no feat for the faint of heart or the whiney. These are some big pieces of equipment. And birds require a lot of flight time for the watchers as well…you need to go where the birds are and apparently they go all over the place! But I need to leave that alone to tell you more about Boquillos and I will not be distracted again!

The boulders and rocks along the climb into the narrowing canyon are not sheer but they require wide stretches with both legs and arms and delicate balance. This skill is less prominent in the over 65 crowd and at times my walking stick seemed more like a weapon than an assistant – a weapon that might actually put my eye out.

Peter gave me a wonderful lens that allows for both wide-angle shots and some telephoto as well. For him, he says it is a little soft and doesn’t let him get the fine detail he looks to capture in his work. I am not in that league and for me; the softness is probably a nice dose of ‘forgiveness’ in my overall results. Mine will neither sell nor be offered in competition! Peter on the other hand has taken some very amazing shots. We call some of them The Money Shots they are so good.

I still like to look for the perfect compositions and make my best effort to get light in the right way. In doing so on this hike, I had lagged behind Peter and was focused on a beautiful line along the river. The embankment had two distinct colors – beige and a light red. It was all delicately fine sand – smooth and looking equally dry, just subtly different shades and colors. There were no boulders to contend with but the soft sand banks led directly into the chilly river water. Not so deep, but definitely chilly. In my composition, I hoped for a shot of the contrasting colors of the sands next to the darkening water with an edging of the rushes growing to the left. As I slid carefully down toward the level sand bank, trying not to damage all the grasses along the way, I stepped onto the lighter sand and decided I needed to move out onto the darker, reddish sand to capture the descent of the bank. I am on flat land now so I am feeling more confident as I stride forward.

I leave a shoeprint in the sand at the edge of the embankment, but trust that my big feet will distribute the weight better and not only keep me stable, but give me nice entry out to the place for my perfect photo. The second step went a little deeper. I decided, as I usually do that faster is better and so I took two quick steps forward out onto the bank and on the third there was a loud slurping sound as my right foot went ankle deep into wet red silt. I called out to Peter, thinking that the canyon would echo my voice back to him and he would immediately to return to attend to my needs and assistance. Not so much.

Two more steps with a purposeful redirection back to the ‘drier’ soil and I was now knee deep. I hated the sucking sound a lot and as I tried to pull my foot up the mud tried to keep hold of my shoe. It was a Merril for God’s sake and one I had grown to love. I slowly worked it up to the surface. I was trying to remember something from physics about broadening the mass on the soft surface to stabilize the load, but started to imagine at the same moment, my whole body going down, flailing ungracefully, like the really terrible old jungle movie scenes. I called out again, trying to keep an edge out of my voice. I had my camera held above my head nicely and figured the binoculars were cheap by real standards and they could be let go. This camera was, however, one Peter had given me and I seemed to recall that while he did not LOVE the lens, he still really liked it and used it as well. This should not go down! (I felt the same panic that I had felt when I carried his iPad to France and knew too well how many places I could find to lose it!) My walking stick should have had a cloth on it. That would have given it a more flag-like look since that seemed to be my best way for using it at the moment. It was stabilizing nothing and was low on the list of things I was working to save even though I knew it too was a pricey little item. Next time I would go out with a second-hand point and shoot camera and a stick.

I slurped my way back to the rushes and kept calling out intermittently for Peter whose own safety I was now questioning. I had put all real equipment back into my little bag and was able to throw it up onto real shore – and was scrambling in that really ungraceful way one does when life images are flitting through consciousness. I kept hearing the line from the movie Pollyanna when the tyrannical preacher yells down from the pulpit, “Death comes unexpectedly!”

mud could suck you in

Of course Peter showed up unharmed and thoughtfully did not ask me first if I had dropped the camera in the mud. We headed back downstream to the gravelly more stable shoreline and I washed the silt that was really heavily caked one me and my shoes and socks. Peter was pretty quiet and took a few pictures. There was some mirth that he was thoughtfully not expressing out loud, but I could hear it and really was not ready to ‘hear’ it. The only thing that might have possibly turned me toward ‘killing’ once again was when he said so very softly, “And you just kept on moving forward! That amazes me!” I was too tired to get nutty and recognized myself too clearly in the statement anyway. I actually made a ‘note to self’ for later on when to move forward and when to move back.

ready for the runway

ready for the runway

mud removal system

mud removal system

The sunset was priming the sky and we needed to make quick time back up to the head of the ridge to capture it. I sloshed along behind Peter. We made it in time and his pictures will reveal yet again the drama of a desert sunset! I was on the other hand not feeling the need to capture anything else at the moment.

Place: Rio Grande Valley, Big Bend Natnl Park
Book: Devil in the White City, Eric Larsen (Excelletnt Book!!!)
Tip of the Day: It is good to give thanks to the creation of hot running water.
Note to Self: when I think I need a shower, I REALLY need a shower

We are actually spending our last day here and then I am going to do some recall writing on some other highlight trips to catch up after I finish this brief overview of our ‘rest place.’ We have been using the campground here (RGV Campground) as a base point and have been here over a week in the same site. During that time we have hiked and biked all over: The Hot Springs that abounded with young and old folks desperately trying to heal whatever aches and pains brought them there; Boquillas Canyon where I almost became hopelessly mired in a quicksand/silt embankment while Peter was out of shouting range finding artful shots of timeless beauty; and our peak moments when we took off in the van to do a 3day/2night stay at Ernst Tinaja a basin where ore was mined and erosion has created some of the most magnificent rock formations we have ever seen! I will give them their just due in separate sections in the writing later and will just reflect on this location a bit.

RGV is the Big Mamu campground central. Any size RV could fit here in select sites with all the amenities…tall trees, water and electricity. They are on a large asphalt parking lot area and the trees and grass surround the whole thing – a really upscale Walmart lot setting, in our perspective. There is a store and the dearest to my heart item – the HOT SHOWER where you don’t want to be without an extra round of quarters. When your 5 minutes runs out it is OUT. The store’s produce section is a little wanting. Potatoes, apples and oranges are it. The frozen burritos can be microwaved in their oven in the store, but they are not for the faint-of-heart or the weak-of-bowel. The frozen beef is interesting and has a fat contact high enough to cut your uncooked burger size in half and then some after grilling it. Enough condiments and it rose in pallet-ability from a hockey puck to a chewable piece of ketchup-mustard char. Hunger level is the driver here.

Back in the middle and lower class camp sections, there are sites that are nicely kept, have been flooded by nature more than a few times which leaves a lot of trees pretty dead, but fighting onward and upward with tender new shoot growth trying to make it through the stony soil. There is space back in here for the renegade RV as well as clear little spots for the tent crowd and the roads that connect it all are asphalt but not massively overdone. We have the pop up in a little nested area with privacy around our table. The actual camper is flanked nicely by scrub trees. These are actually taller than what we have seen in a couple of our stays, and they are all budding out for a nice spring showing. The drought is still severe here and no rain has fallen during the past summer, fall or winter. None yet this spring either.

rgv our rig

The cottonwoods that spring up close to the river and along some run-off irrigation areas are not native and they are truly invasive. I think they are kept up for the shade they afford the visitors. There are several signs that state clearly that without the purposeful irrigation the park provides they would die off and so I am sure, would a large part of the touring crowd.

In historical summary, 90million years ago this was ocean floor. About a hundred years ago, the regions along the river were cultivated farmland. A gravity feed set of reservoirs was used to hold water and a series of sluices were created to bring the water directly into the farmland. Cotton, corn and beans were grown. I think these are actually the same guys who planted the cottonwoods, knowing they would grow fast and shade even more. Yucca is plentiful and the bland taste of Yucca root, which we have eaten in a number of countries, does not ‘wow’ the foodies among us. Milking cactus for water has never intrigued me and only comes with imagery from stories I associate with crawling on ones belly along the gravel and sand with the shiny black vultures hopping alongside the ‘crawler,’ just waiting for said guy or gal to be still long enough to start their meal. Secret here would be to make sure you don’t take long breaks in your crawling.

The photographs of the farmers from the historic logs of the time do not reflect the gentlemen farmer group common to the southeast, no siree. This was a group of shorter people whose skin wrinkled about the age of 20 and that condition compounded with their increasing ages. Racial profiling would be difficult – anyone here longer than a month would tan to the darkest skin tones possible. Everyone who lived here was brown!

When gazing at the pictures, thoughts of prunes and raisins come to mind immediately. Even with my plentiful stores of hyper-enriching skin moisturizers I have yet to commandeer the scales that have replaced my epidermal layer. I have dry skin in the most humid of conditions – in this dryness I would fast become a long lean wrinkle wrapped in scales and not a cheerful or attractive one at that!

Dentistry did not make a place for itself in the region, also evidenced in the photos with broad smiles not showing teeth as a feature. I have to honestly say that this is a region and an era I do not feel I need to participate in. I am an enthusiastic visitor, but give me more than 12 hours of wind and I am no longer human. The being that replaces me at that point should not be approached without this awareness. If it is not made clear by the crazed look in my eyes, I will most likely start pelting you with rock-hard sand boogers and you will need to turn and run.

More later. My washing machine has finished and it is time for a Chipwich.

rgv store

Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend Natnl Park

Place: Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend Natnl Park
Book: Into the Beautiful North (wonderful book) Urrea
Tip of the Day: Total inactivity is sometimes the best activity
Note to Self: Do this more often

Peter’s friend and fellow-photographer, Jack, arrived yesterday afternoon having really driven through his pain (a little more than 7 hours) to get here and optimize his visit/photo time. Since we still had light, we hopped in the car and headed to Sta Elena Canyon. Better to photograph in the light and cook in the dark. I took my chance and hiked the full on hike into the canyon while the guys ‘worked’ at the entry to the canyon, on a much higher level of photography than I will achieve. They were planning to return for their own full on photo expedition into the canyon the next day and I was not so they were patient with me.

We got back to camp and made dinner. Food is always so delicious when one is camping. BBQ chicken and a salad and a plan for the guys first full day out. I would not be joining them and was completely looking forward to a day of rest. Antibiotics have been on my menu since right before we left SA and they are not an easy thing on my body. So I felt like the rest-up would be perfect.

They got up before sunrise and were on the road by about 6:45am. I closed my eyes as I listened to the car depart, sprawling out over the whole bed and murmuring that little purr-like sound that comes when you can just “rest your eyes” and really don’t have to get up. I eventually unzipped the window beside me that faced the rising sun. The view was spectacular and I decided to wait for the morning chill to ebb a bit more before getting up to a cup of coffee and decisions about the necessary thing that I had to do – go to the store 1/2 mile from the campground and get ice.

Technology is available at different levels throughout the park. Sometimes you are able to get and send texts, but unable to make calls. The service comes and goes and suddenly after a long quiet spell, the ‘you got mail’ chimes rings and there is news and noise from the outer world. The ads for Redoute and World Market have no appeal at all!

I reviewed my own photographs, took some of the Javalenas browsing in the campsite and saw a Vermillion Flycatcher, the resident woodpecker and a Cardinal pair with their little one. Wrens and chickadees flitted in and out and in between and I heard a hawk, but could not find him. I was not getting out of the chair at all – if I couldn’t find the source or sight of something from my red nylon reclining chair, I did not get it. The amazing Great Horned Owl was gone before dawn. I was certainly hoping that the evening would bring him back. He had perched very pompously in the cottonwood tree just behind our campsite and was apparently carrying on some conversation with another one that I wasn’t able to find and I was actually walking around ant trying! I suspected it might have been his girlfriend. In the distance I heard another very small owl song that I identified and confirmed with some real birders – an Elf Owl. He just sang off in the brush however and never showed up to show off for us.


If the guys get home in time we can BBQ steak and they can regale me with tales of adventure. In the meantime I decided a nap was in order.

They came home in the late afternoon and had used every meaningful moment of the day up to then. If they wanted to do some light painting, we would need to go for a quick rice dinner and get going so we could greet the sunset and welcome the dark. We went to the Sta Elena canyon opening and set up for the shoot on the beach there. Peter and his group had done this before in Pipe Creek and he was recalling what to do next as the next thing came up. His recollections were good and it took a couple of tries to get the process the way they wanted it. I was the official light painter. This meant that I turned on the million-watt light when Peter counted to 3 and they opened up their lenses while I ran the light all over the canyon wall. It needed to be done with a nice rhythm and I gradually got better as we continued trying. There was a lot of laughter and teasing – particularly as regards whose stuff was best and how it worked better than the other. While Jack won on the photo equipment side of the equation his weenie-flashlight and its weakening batteries could have given us wide berth at causing him some real pain! The darkness in this park is so profound that you cannot adapt to it with any safety without a light. Seeing your feet is a feat – get it? Locating the attacking mountain lion who may be stealthily tracking you down as his evening entrée is just plain impossible. Signs advise standing together in the group, trying to look big to cause the attacker some fear and hesitation. Gotta love that image…I planned to stun the guy by shining my million-watt light in his eyes as he lunged, causing confusion and fear in him that might hopefully exceed mine.

The photographs were just stunning in the end and we will be able to follow up the blog with a pictorial tour once we get home and download the few thousand images we will come away with by the end of the trip. If you think my writing is long, wait til you tune in for the picture show!

PS No mountain lions were dazed, confused or stunned in this process.

cottonwood trees

Teralingua to Cottonwood

Place: Teralingua Abajo, Big Bend

all the tall trees TA

Sta Elena from TA

Book: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Tip for the Day: Layers always matter.
Note to self: (there are 2 today)

1. Hair that has been through a dust storm never responds well to a brush. Don’t even try.
2. Peeing into erratic gusting wind is dangerous and should not be done prior to going out into close company, since you have probably peeed onto your own clothing. That will leave you smelling badly if you don’t already.

The gusting wind that started yesterday afternoon did not die down at sunset per the speculations we felt seemed most logical in our vast meteorological knowledge stores. Peter estimates it was around 1am that it finally stopped but I am guessing more like 3am based on time I got up to pee. When we finally woke to greet the morning however, it was calm and sunrise was coming along nicely. There was no wind but the morning chill kept us from leaping out of bed to greet it. Before I engaged in any conversation that would come close the making the next best decision, I needed to reflect and find my calm, gentle, thoughtful and loving voice before I entered the problem-solving discussion for today. This “self” had disappeared some time before 9pm last night, just before I fell into a coma-like sleep.

As I came into that first stage of foggy wakefulness, lying in the shoulder-width passage on the floor of the van between the bed legs and the bank of cupboards I was lying on my back staring at the ceiling of the van. I had rolled up the ‘featherbed’ into a long narrow mattress. I was using the sleeping bag I had decided not to wash, as my cover – it smelled like mildew. It was a bit warm when I had crawled under it so the smell was nice and sharp.

My choice of sleeping spot was not an act of subservient submission – in this case, size mattered. Peter just didn’t fit there so he got the nice wide bed above me. I was staring up at the laundry baskets perched on the shelves. Their overhang was not life threatening. If they had tipped during the night they would have become too tightly wedged in the narrow passage just above my body to maim or suffocate me. One must be grateful for these things.

Peter had tried so hard last night, in our frenzied effort at cramming things into the front of the van to clear out two sleeping areas, to bring lightness to the matter. I was however simultaneously just grimly trying not to shriek and rage like a crazy woman. There was no Pact that could stop me if I crossed that line. (For a similar experience, I suggest going into the closet you never cleaned and sleep in it, with a companion beside you who has a bad cold and long-standing snoring patterns.). Sometimes, there is “crying in camping” but I was desperately trying not to let this be the moment.

all the tall trees TA

Just to try and hook this story together in sequence, when we arrived in Big Bend all excited about our return to a favorite back-country campsite where virtually no one goes, the Big Bend Hostess gave us all our entry information, confirmed our ability to meet back country requirements: independent toilet; gray water catch system, water, fuel, etc. We were stoked and ready. Her final shrug and casual statement “Oh there is a wind advisory for tomorrow so if you are leaving the site, you may want to lower your camper sites” was not the least bit daunting. In the words of Aldo’s life companion, Louie, “how bad could it be?”

We drove very cautiously over the rough road. What we lacked in clearance, we had replaced with positive attitude. The sharp bends came back through our memories, but we conquered them as well. We pulled into our assigned site made it nicely through set up and gazed out over the flat, shrubby, treeless landscape that stopped at the cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon. It was breathtaking. We dined, played cards and smiled ourselves to sleep. Actually Peter fell asleep. I had one of those nights where there was just no place to go to get away from the snoring sounds and I had not fallen asleep first which usually allows me to get into sound sleep before Peter begins. With the entire night at my disposal I did get to finish the book I had started the night before in Amistad, and dozed for about an hour before it was time to get up.

Not a wisp of wind had come along and through the course of the morning, we rode our bikes a little bit, walked some and photographed and ate well. That was all before 1pm. I kept assuring myself that the windstorm had been a weather mis-diagnosis. I would not be called on for any critical thinking, calculation or judicious thought and any exercise would just be added guarantee that the upcoming night would be sleepfully happy!

1pm: An immediate shift – gusting winds start to whip up dirt devils. The flapping sides of the pop-up make a really sharp and dreadful noise. Sitting in our red nylon recliners, slowly being covered with fine sand and grit, we finally agree that sitting in the camper – or the recliners, or the van – for the rest of the day waiting to see what disastrous thing might happen next was not a good plan. Everything that was just lightly coated before was now totally and thickly encrusted in reddish desert dust. I am now asked what I think about tearing down the camper or leaving it up. In my book this is a ‘critical decision’ and I was not supposed to be called on to make one. OK. I rally under pressure and concede that we can tear down and this is probably the best idea.

So now there is a cooperative tear down to be done as 50mph gusts rise with greater frequency. Set up and tear down are processes we are still working out logistically and psychologically. We are still operating on theory and recollection of what is to be done vs our mutual reality of working together under stress to really get-er-done. Enter – organization of all our shit – as yet another issue in the fog of my tired-ness. We made it through and literally battened down its hatches. If it should fall, it would do so as in one solid box- like lump rather than taking off like an ill-formed paraglider with its canvas sides flapping even more wildly than they had been – AND if the propane cylinder ignited in such a catastrophic lift-off it might even be seen briefly as a hot-air balloon!

To pass the time from 2:30 pm to our theoretical wind-die-down time of 6(ish) pm (sunset-ish) we get into the van to do some sightseeing. We move somewhat energetically through one turn-out after another, climbing in and out of the huge, high step-up van, walk up and down stairs and small hills. Finally at the canyon mouth, I declare “exhaustion!” I generously encourage Peter to take as much time on the hike into the scene as he wants. I sit in the parking lot, start reading a new book and eventually push enough stuff aside on the van bed to allow me to lie down. It is a narrow space but if I am perfectly still, I will not fall onto the mess of hastily crammed piles of stuff we so critically need to have with us on such a trip. I do not sleep – I might wreck a good night’s sleep later. I reflect on my sleep obsession, but have come to recognize that it is part of who I am and so I turn my thoughts to the wind stopping and read a little more.

Peter comes back to the van thoroughly excited about his walk. He was energized, having slept quite well and along the beautiful hike, he had also taken some lovely pictures. In that same interim, all semblance of life had ebbed out of my body and my soul. I suggested that silence was the most apropos mode for me and we quietly drove back to TA.

As it approached 7:00pm and dark was dropping like a rock, we realized we would not be putting our luxurious, spacious pop-up up. This was when Peter casually said, “Well I guess we’ll just have to sleep in the van.” He had no idea the turmoil – no, the calamity – he had evoked in my every cell with that statement and it’s subsequent image! I wondered at what point sleep deprivation might become threatening to our health and safety – mostly my health and then his safety. With every fiber of my dwindling being, I helped us move into our sleeping spaces. When he offered me a tangerine and asked if I would like to play cards, I just shook my head. I laid down flat on my back, breathed in the musty smell and remember closing my eyes and hating wind.

The next thing was that point when I began this entry and was in search of the kind self I knew was still in there waiting for a chance to speak again. We talked softly and agreed that after breakfast we needed to hitch up and head out. It would work best for meeting Jack, Peter’s photography friend who was going to join us for 2 days and if the wind did return, the sites were not quite so exposed. We had a plan and no one had lost their life, our “stuff” was safe if not a bit dusty and the sun was bright.

On the Road Again – Amistad

Place:Amistad State Park
Book: The Forgotten, J Baldacci
Tip of the Day: Beer is NOT the drink of choice for someone treating a yeast infection
Note to self: No off-road biking without a bra!

After driveway dry-runs at things to be done and life to be lived in the camper, including practice in the travel sport we have long practiced – Card Playing – we moved out of the driveway and onto the road. We arrived in Amistad after about 3 hours. Enough! The campground was almost totally unpopulated, and the lake was receded almost to the drought level we had seen when we did this same route 10 years ago.

Set up was uneventful and relatively smooth. I had forgotten a few key things, like the pillows. We would hope for something like a Walmart en route…the letters for the upcoming towns were in big enough letters on the map for us to hope. Salt, Paul Newman’s salad dressing and possibly a tarp when we really thought through our stay in Terlingua Abajo where there is nothing but scrub that grows about 4′ tall at best. We were working on how we could rig something up. It would all work out, IF we found that Walmart.

We took a short evening walk down to the dried up run-off beds and made it to the edge of the sad remnants of Lake Amistad. I was beaten at cards and we called it an early night.

We took down and voted unanimously for a restaurant-breakfast. As we passed through the first town outside Amistad, there were only closed up remnants of tourist food stops that had not made it. The town name was however, written in little letters on the map and we knew from the Visitor’s Center that Langtry, also in small letters and just 20 minutes up the road, had one – at least the lady in the Visitor Center thought so. On arrival, that proved not to be true. There HAD been one but it was shuttered up. A hopeful sign suggested a store with the possibility of burritos or at least some BBQ. It was 10:30am and we could go with the BBQ.

The place was under new ownership as of about a month ago and was being rennovated. The waitress, at a spry 89 years, told us we were family and in no way could we consider ourselves customers. She told us stories about when, long ago, Willie Nelson and Ray Price used to stop at their place and stay overnite. “We told them, “Willie we know all about you and the drugs, but there won’t be any drugs at our place!” He honored that.” Alcohol apparently was not on the ‘drug’ list as she went on to tell us stories about finding him asleep up in a tree the next morning, not really sure of how he had gotten there.

The breakfast burritos were delicious and we promised to stop on the way back.

In spite of the big letters on the map, Marathon and Alpine did not have a Walmart, probably to their credit. There was a big ‘bargain’ store in Alpine and we found pillows, Kraft Thousand Island dressing, a tarp and a few extra propane canisters at the high prices one would expect to find out in this stretch of the world.

We arrived in Big Bend later than we expected and were told of wind advisories the next day. For $5 we had a backcountry camping space for 14 days. We also had pillows. Life was sweet.

The road down into the backcountry sites is gravel and stone. There are tight turns that we seemed to remember from the last trip. Peter appeared confident. We arrived and with mild lack of complete synchronicity, we got parked and up.

Set up in our spot, dinner served and eaten, the tiredness set in. The sound of the music and the fact that I had just been routed at rummy in 3 hands was becoming a bigger irritation than it should have been and I sensed the need to climb directly into bed. And so I did.

On the Road Again


We are taking a camping vacation! The thing we have done both better and worse over so much time together – camping was the thing that actually brought us into each other’s lives. And something we have not done for too long. About 10 years ago we went to Big Bend National Park and camped for 6 weeks. This time we are going for 3, but it is a good start at renewing this possibility for us. During the past 2 years we have taken our vacation time for ‘dream’ trips that were a ‘dream’ for one of us but not the other – and a fairly pricey one! So with blessings and assistance for the other, we each facilitated the other one and some great things happened. It is however time for a joint trip and what better than one in this southern most part of Texas where the desert is just starting to come to its Spring life fullness.

The pop-up has been shut down for about 6 years and opening it up was the first part of the adventure. The canvas sides had dry-rotted. The roof had a leak that had produced a tumor-like swelling at one of the corners of the roof. It had been parked in the shade, but come on – 6 years sealed up in the recurring summer heat of south Texas…yikes! I feared it had become a habitat for more varmints than I appreciate…that would be none. Amazingly none were in residence. The overall discouragement over the sides and roof damage moved us to hit Craig’s list to see about just replacing the whole camper. Our assessment results were dismally expensive and the one camper we looked at that we hoped could be whittled down to our price range, made us see our own in a new light. We had loads of space, a much more substantial framework, good tires. So Peter priced the sides – not too bad – and we placed the order! On, hand, available in our size and free shipping. Good juju.

While we waited for the delivery of the sides, we did the roof repairs and sealed all the leaks. We even painted the replacement areas with a nice neutral color and decided that we would go a step further once we got home and get an air-conditioner onto it. With me joining in for more KPE shows, traveling to the shows together and staying for longer times in some of the really beautiful Texas parks is like returning to where we were when we first started the business and had made it more of a lifestyle.

The setbacks and planning glitches were workable and of course there was one at every turn. We seem to be getting more flexible in this realm of patiently discovering solutions when all else about us physically is getting less so. Peter needs to return home in time to prepare for his first shows, but take-off felt like it could be adaptable. Several recollections came up as we moved from project to project to prepare. As we worked to get the tail-light hook-up working, I remembered when we first did this – with a 17’ hard body Monitor – so we could take it to Rockport and camp for a show. That was not such a smooth operation. It was Peter’s first time rigging and connecting something like this. We were stressed by just putting this Big Mamu into operation anyway and I had vehemently insisted that all the work on Hwy 10 was complete and the entire set of road limiting barriers had been taken down so that using that route would be ‘Just fine.’ I will just say that the Non-Cranky Pact was definitely not in place back then (description of said pact in the next post. If it works we will fwd a copy to the State Department for a Palestine-Israel peace solution.) Prior to take off on that adventure, we had exceeded all limits by working too long up to departure, packing with too much frenzy and failing to eat or rest sufficiently before we took off into the late afternoon traffic clog. The barriers were still up and the crowding was intense and we felt way too big. We did not know then what we do know now about stabilizing a vehicle in tow. The electrical connections from the truck to the trailer were crossed so that when the turn indicator was on the brakes were applied in the same rhythm as the blinker. Closing things up, backing them up and hauling them out was a world of unknowns. My ability to give my husband directions and his ability to know what I was saying were not in synch. This was the same night that I watched him lean his head into the trailer standing on the ground at the open door and I simultaneously reached behind him and slammed it shut – on his head. But we finished off the night in the same bed and I am sure at least one of slept til the next morning.

This time, when Peter inadvertently locked the camper only to discover that the one key in the key-keeper was not the key to the lock, we pulled up 2 chairs, Peter got the Drill and I got a couple of Dos Equis and we finally got it open, ruined the lock of course (but what’s to steal in it anyway) and high-fived ourselves for not hurting each others feelings or bodies. As is noted so well in Life of Pi, never give up hope! In the meantime it is time to head ‘em up and roll’em out…yeehaw…and it is day 1 of Rodeo San Antonio too! Big goings on in the world.