Over Land & Sea

Freedom Weekend in Big Bend

Hello friends, foes, and folks yet unmet!

The following is our fledgling blog post recounting a four-day Fourth of July jaunt out deep into the barren desert plains of west Texas to Big Bend National Park. This is Aaron’s perspective on the trip. Allie has compiled a complementary culinary chronicle, separate from this particular whimsically rambling recount. If you’re wondering who Aaron and Allie are and why they have a blog, you can get a quick rundown at our About page.

It seems you are still with me, dear reader, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

July is, if not my favorite month, at least a close contender.

It’s the time of year when the sun has really gotten its feet under it and is attacking the earth with gusto, before the cool night stops reeling and starts to re-enter the battle in Septemberish. July is the month of Aquatic Sanctuaries, the month of Cold Beers, the month of Grilling Things, the month of Nostalgic Freedom remembering bygone summer days of youth. The Fourth of July takes all of these things, tints it with an aggressive red white and blue, declares a three-day weekend filled with small-town parades advertised on cheaply made, garishly designed flyers, and throws some semi-legal fireworks in for good measure (buy one get 11 free!). And it is good.

Freedom weekend 2014
Aaron celebrating Freedom Weekend 2014

We decided that we needed to celebrate Freedom by running away from the dead humid heat and nagging responsibilities of Houston. Flights were too expensive, Mexico had too many warnings, the Texas hill country was too crowded, Arkansas was too flooded, and everything else was too damn boring. Big Bend was a hefty but doable drive and the summer heat had scared the crowds away from all West Texas destinations. We blasted west at high noon on Thursday, barely escaping the perma-traffic that crept up around us like floodwaters and threatened to hold us captive in Houston.

We were residually stressed but still free, and we chased down the sun going eighty whenever we could.

Excuse me while I take a mathematical tangent.

Once when I was driving for a while by myself I realized that I could figure out how much quicker you’ll get somewhere by speeding you take the reciprocal of the fractional difference in speed and multiplying your expected time by it. Like, if you’re going 77 when you should be going 70 you’re going 11/10ths of the speed so you’ll get there in 10/11ths of the time. But there’s a point of diminishing returns where you have to factor in increased time and cost for stopping for gas. For example, in my Subaru I get about 25 mpg when I’m going 80 but about 20 when I’m going 85. That’s a 20% decrease in efficiency, thus a 25% increase in number of stops I need to make. So this particular trip would require about four stops at 80, but would take five if I push that extra 5 mph. Extra 5 mph = 80/85ths or 16/17ths of the time, meaning I would probably save about an hour in driving time on the 20-hour round trip while adding 30 minutes in the gas stop time needed for another refuel. I’d be paying for a full tank of gas just to save 30 minutes of time. Not worth it. Hence eighty, not eighty-five, mph.

Long car trips do strange things to the mind.

Nine hours and many similar conversational ramblings later (Allie is the most patient of people), we pulled up to the rustic Maverick Inn in the small oxymoronically classified Texas mountain town of Alpine. Our room was well-priced and well-furnished and well-distanced from “downtown” Alpine, which we walked to almost immediately. It surprisingly had the familiar small mountain town hippie-ish feel, except heavily cross-pollinated with Texas. When I asked a bartender what he thought about living in such a small town, he responded, “It’s great, I don’t have to deal with lots of people I don’t like every day.”

Everything about this place just felt right.
Their tagline: A Roadhouse for Wanderers.
At 5,786 people, this former cattle campsite is large enough to entertain west Texas tourists like us but small enough to still walk everywhere.
At 5,786 people, this former cattle campsite is large enough to entertain west Texas tourists like us but small enough to still walk everywhere.
We wandered into this coffee shop on their first day in business, which was an unexpected glimpse into the two young owners making a big life leap together. Great coffee and tastefully decorated.
We wandered into Cedar Coffee Supply on their first day in business, which was an unexpected glimpse into the two young owners making a big life leap together. Great coffee and tastefully decorated interior.

Big Bend was a stark contrast to the surrounding desolation. The mountains are old, towering, and dark, made of strangely shaped igneous rock (formerly magma) that jutted up rudely from deep millenia ago and has been since chipped away by the grinding desert sands. The landscape slowly gained greenery as we gained elevation, peppered with hordes of exotic species of yucca in full bloom, fields of what we referred to as woobley gooblies, and bundles of the largest prickly-pear-producing cacti I’ve ever seen.

Slowly atrophying volcano skeletons.
The Century Plant is a type of yucca that grows for as long as 30 years before shooting up a huge stalk like this, sending a long-range signal to desert pollinators to pay it a visit.
These stalks can reach nearly 30 feet and are the last thing the plant does before dying . This tactic has enabled them to become one of the most successful of desert plants.
Each Wooblia gooblus, common name Woobley Goobley, is almost certainly the remains of a space octopus who has fallen from orbit and entrenched itself in the desert sands and no amount of science will convince me otherwise.
The last time we picked deliciously tempting wild prickly pears we were pulling microscopic spines our of our hands for the next day and a half so we steered clear this go around. If you’re willing to risk it and have proper de-spining tools and/or techniques, they are reeeeally good.

There are basically three areas of Big Bend: mountains, desert, river. Night one was the Chisos Mountains. For reasons of isolation and general adventure we opted for camping backcountry , so we got our permit from the park ranger office, chose a site along the South Rim Trail (described by our guidebook as “the quintessential Big Bend hike”) that would face due sunset when the time came, and loaded up our packs. It’s worth noting that we used the Falcon Guide to Big Bend for this trip, and they’ve really upped their game since the last time I bought any sort of guidebook and seem way above the competition from the others in the bookstore. Topographic maps, elevation charts, tons of succinct and relevant information. Just generally well done, definitely going with their guides in future endeavors.

The hike up was a nice reminder that we hadn’t seen any sort of real elevation since the last time we flew to the Rockies, but the day was still young, the temperature was beautiful even in the middle of the summer, and several winded hours later we had gained all of the elevation we were going to.

A good backpacking rule of thumb when planning hiking excursions: with a full pack on you can usually hike 2 mph at a comfortable pace, 4 mph if you’re really booking it, and every 1,000 feet of elevation gain adds roughly an hour to the trip.

This trip was 7 miles and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain so we planned for a six hour hike, factoring in rest stops every hour or so.

The view from 7,000 feet. Also pictured: Jazz.

The foliage that had greeted us as we entered the park only got more surprisingly rich as we climbed, and soon we were surrounded by an unexpected full-on pine and hardwood forest, infiltrated by the occasional yucca and dastardly woobley gooblies. The Chisos Mountains are essentially an island of cool temperatures and moisture surrounding by a sea of slowly baking sands. Starting around 9000 BCE, the then much cooler and wetter climate started shifting to the scalding desert that defines much of west Texas today, and much of the denser vegetation scurried to higher elevations. With it scurried the wildlife, and its lofty peaks are home to distinctly non-desert denizens such as mountain lion and black bear. It’s easy to see why this area has attracted nomadic folks for 10,000 years. It’s much nicer than everything around it.

Frolicking in mountain meadows
Frolicking in mountain meadows
The Manzanita's reddish hue, smooth surface, and high density (with a specific gravity of 0.92, it nearly floats in water!) make it an unusual resident.
The Manzanita’s reddish hue, smooth surface, and high density (with a specific gravity of 0.92, it nearly floats in water) make it a notable resident. Plus, it’s a really fun name to say with gusto. MAAANZANITA!
Surprising plants such as junipers, oaks, and even douglas firs frame the rocky trails
Unexpected varieties of hardwoods found nowhere else in Texas such as junipers, oaks, and even douglas firs frame the rocky trails
Black bears are indeed about, fortunately they're more afraid of us than we are of them
Black bears are indeed about, as we discovered when we awoke and found these prints near our tent! Fortunately, black bear attacks are extremely rare and with the proper precautions the odds are virtually zero.

The general deal with Big Bend backcountry camping isn’t really conveyed well on their website but here’s the quick and dirty: they have lots of backcountry sites along the trails and along the roadsides (the ranger we talked to said that even on their busiest weekend this past year they weren’t at capacity but some of the more popular areas do fill up) that you can only reserve in person less than 24 hours in advance for a minimal fee. This one-time fee gives you the ability to reserve backcountry campsites for up to the next seven nights. So if you plan things right you can stay in the park in pre-reserved campsites for a week for $12 plus the $25 park entry fee. What we did was show up Friday morning, reserved the South Rim campsite of our choice (SW-3) on Friday night and a roadside campsite of our choice (Ernst Tinaja Campsite) on Saturday night.

It's up near the top of the image.
Our Friday campsite, SW-3, is up near the top of this topographic map of the Chisos Mountains. Maps like these are a must for any backcountry hike. This one is available for $1 at the Ranger Station.
Y'know, decent.
The campsite was, y’know, decent.

Huge slabs of rock overlooked the winding features below, and the crisp mountain air was a stark contrast to the muggy Houston heat we’d gotten so used to. It’s always important to bring certain creature comforts to such occasions, so we cracked the Real Ale beers I’d hauled up with us and relaxed in Allie’s camping hammock (best purchase ever) until it was time for enjoying her cooking mastery while watching the sunset.

Have you ever noticed that green is the only color not present in sunsets and is also the only color present in nearly every plant species? It’s not a coincidence.

Here’s the gist of how it works as far as I can understand it.

  • Plants with chlorophyll almost always look green due to its functional light absorption tendencies.
  • Humans (and many other animals) evolved to see green as a unique color because green generally equals vegetation, water, food, shelter, etc.
  • Despite its presence as a primary light color, true green is actually a narrow strip of wavelengths. Mix it with red, it comes out yellow/orange. Mix it with blue, it comes out cyan.
As you can see, true green is a pretty tiny sliver in the middle.
As you can see, green is a pretty tiny sliver right in the middle.
  • When the sun sets, the ozone layer scatters the light from the sun almost at random. Let’s call every type of light that we see a balance of red (R), green (G), and blue (B), with the intensity of each given a value of 0 to 10. So pure white light would be R-10, G-10, B-10. Invisible light (think blacklight or UV light) would be R-0, G-0, B-0. So one angle while the sun is setting might yield R-7 G-4 B-10 and the next angle something like R-3 G-8 B-5. Hence the different sunset colors.
  • However, since green is such a small percentage of the overall, the chances of randomly scattered light being R or B is much higher than G because sunlight doesn’t really care about the limited range of light that is visible to us.
  • THEREFORE, it’s extremely improbable that an angle would cause both R and B to be dialed down to nearly 0 while G was still going strong (remember that G combined with R or B yields colors very typically seen in the sunset).
  • It does sometimes happen, though, it’s called a green flash and it’s a really rare occurrence.
No green flashes, still strikingly beautiful.
No green flashes but we’ll let it slide.

The next morning was a bright and early one, and we wasted no time packing up and hauling it down the mountain. Since we had already conquered the most daunting task of the trip, it was all both physically and metaphorically downhill from here. The clear choice of activities was a scenic drive down to the Santa Elena Canyon, stopping at every scenic overlook, informative stop, and historic building along the way like the super tourists we’re rapidly and unabashedly becoming.

More ancient magma action combined with the sandpaperlike quality of the Rio Grande has formed sheer 1500-foot cliffs overlooking the slow-rolling, mud-laden Rio, the barrier between Tex and Mex. Apparently back in the day the border was much more nebulous and several small outpost towns frequently exchanged goods and cultures until the reactionary xenophobic immigration crackdowns of 2001. We resisted the urge to swim across to Mexico (a friend was almost swept away by the current when she tried a few weeks ago) and instead went on a nice short hike directly into the canyon.

Sheer awesome.
Sheer awesome.
In places the walls can get as close as 30 feet. I don't want to go to those places.
In places the walls can get as close as 30 feet. I don’t want to go to those places.
The thick mud of the RIo Grande tried to take my sandals hostage.
The thick mud of the Rio Grande tried unsuccessfully to take my sandals hostage.

Coming out of the canyon, we could see serious stormclouds gathering in the distance, angry dark hordes of atmospheric disturbance. It only rains fourteen inches a year in big bend, less than half the national average, but most of it comes in torrential summer downpours that sweep across the parched land, leaving flash floods in its wake. Storms always tap something primal, so we cranked some blood pumping bluegrass (Spotify playlist here) and howled as we drove.

Serious walls of rain.
Walls of rain like this are best accompanied by squealing banjo.

The storms never hit us, just morphed the distant landscape into a battlefield between earth and sky, so we headed to the hot springs. It’s an area of the Rio Grande that, through a combination of geothermal activity and witchcraft, constantly bubbles up at a temperature of 105 degrees Farenheit. “But Aaron and Allie,” you are likely thinking or speaking aloud to your computer, “Going to a hot springs is surely a fall or winter activity. During July seems like an activity that can only be described as balls-to-the-wall bonkers.” It was indeed warm. But the sun close to setting in all of its green-absent glory and we certainly needed some healing properties so we relaxed, slowly boiling alive, and played with the incredibly lucky cures-what-ails-you magic mud. The placebo effect can be a powerful medicine…I like to encourage it when I can.

It occurred to me while we sat there, watching chatty groups and silent loners cycle through what was objectively a poor substitute for a hotel hot tub, that luxury is what you make it, and learning to enjoy yourself anywhere is a skill that will save you more money than the ones we go to school for will ever make you. So, having saunaed ourselves out, we asked the bar to charge the hors d’ouerves (trail mix) and mud therapy to the room, took the complementary shuttle (my car) back to our luxuriously scenic and spacious Presidential Suite (Ernst Tinaja campsite). The bellhop (jackrabbit) was skittish but gave us a friendly greeting, and our personal chef (Allie) started whipping up another delicious meal while room service (Aaron) made sure everything in the suite was tailored to our personal needs. Beds were fluffed (inflated), our belongings were closeted (tented), and our beverages were whipped up (beers were cracked). They even left the little chocolate mints (rocks from the mountains) on our pillows! If check-out tomorrow goes this nicely, we’ll have to leave a glowing Yelp review!

The bartender at the sauna really knew what he was doing.
The bartender at the sauna really knew what he was doing.
Witch mud working wonders.
Witch mud working wonders.
The suite was magnificent!
The Presidential Suite was magnificent! Worth every penny!
He was the hairiest bellhop I've ever seen. Must have some sort of gland issue.
He was the hairiest bellhop I’ve ever seen. Must have some sort of gland issue. Friendly guy, though.

The stars at night are certainly big and bright in the heart of Texas, but they are colossal and brilliant in the southwestern corner of it. Big Bend is considered one of the premier places in North America to stargaze, and has the least light pollution of all the national parks in the contiguous United States. Easily identifiable constellations are as follows:

  • Big Dipper
  • Little Dipper
  • Orion’s Belt
  • Some sort of zodiac sign….no, wait, that’s just a random cluster of stars
  • Ok, we don’t know stars

Despite this glaring lack of knowledge, we lay there on our queen-sized inflatable air mattress (the luxury is real this time) in the midst of our lonely desert outpost. The vast chorus of stars twinkled into view as the sky slowly darkened, accompanied only by the wind, still carrying the scent of far-off rain, and thousands of glittering spider eyes that shone like diamonds in the sand around us whenever they caught the reflection of our headlamps.

Somewhere in towns of unimportant name and unimportant location, people were shooting twelve bundles of colored flame into the air for the price of one, drinking Cold Beer and Grilling Things and remembering Nostalgic Freedom. We didn’t say much as we enjoyed the evening’s critically-acclaimed entertainment, just agreed to start this blog and start exploring the Freedom that only comes from aadventuring.

Hopefully it treats us well.
Hopefully it treats us well.

2 thoughts on “Freedom Weekend in Big Bend

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