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.
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 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!
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!