- Where We Started: Fort Stockton, Tex.
- Where We Ended: Alpine, Tex.
- Miles Driven: 352 (5,927 total)
- New States: None
- State Tally So Far: 13 (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas)
THE DAY'S HIGHLIGHTS
As the FHMA quartet has moved west, the nature of the journey has begun to change. The days of short hops between multiple sites are largely over. Busy roads have been replaced with lonely, dusty stretches of highways. History has started to take a back seat to beauty, with all of our Civil War history and most of our presidential history behind us. That's not to say we won't be seeing historical sites out west, but for the most part, there will be more days like Sunday, where we devoted out first full day to a single site: Big Bend National Park.
Now, if you want to go to Big Bend, you don't have much of a choice to but to spend at least one full day there. One of the United States' most remote national parks, Big Bend is 116 miles from the nearest town with a fair number of hotels (Alpine), and 336 miles from the nearest city (El Paso). Because of this, even on a beautiful Sunday, the park was largely deserted.
"Big Bend" refers to the bend the Rio Grande takes near the park's location, and the park lies right on the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, there are a a few overlooks where you can look into Mexico. The park is also rich in topographical features, with the gorgeous Chisos Mountains and parts of four deserts -- the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan -- within its boundaries. Big Bend not only takes a while to get to, but at 801,163 acres, it takes some time to get through.
The park's location on the Mexican border does present additional challenges for park rangers. While we didn't see any U.S. Border Patrol vehicles in the park itself, there were many on the outskirts of the park, and both main roads leading into the park 24/7 Border Patrol checkpoints. All border crossings from within the park itself were banned in 2002.
We focused on three major areas of the park: Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin and the Santa Elena Canyon.
We started at Rio Grande Village, where, at the Bouquillas Canyon overlook, you can look across a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande into Mexico. And what an interesting sight it was: A man with a horse, and what appeared to be a small yellow boat, waiting while his drying clothes hung from a tree. He sure looked like someone poised to attempt a border crossing, though it seemed a bit too obvious to be standing right on the other side of an overlook at a U.S. national park. Then again, since no one on the U.S. side of the border had any jurisdiction over the land where this guy was, maybe it didn't matter. We're certainly open to a better explanation of this scene, but we could not come up with one.
Of course, just because we were debating the intentions of this man and debating the broader issue of illegal immigration doesn't mean we didn't have time to pose a beagle on the border.
From there, it was off to the Chisos Basin, which sits in the middle of the park. In addition to its rivers, canyons, deserts and mountains, Big Bend also features a amazing array of plants and animals. It's an especially wonderful place for bird watching if that were something that interested us. In fact, for a place that is supposed to be home to hundred of species of birds, we saw about five birds during our time there. Maybe that's because we weren't watching for them.
The last main part of the park is the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 31-mile journey into the Chisos Mountains and into Santa Elena Canyon. The best views we saw all day came from the Sotol Vista, about halfway through this trip.
Soon after leaving this overlook, we came upon Santa Elena Canyon, which cuts through the Chisos Mountains before connecting up with the Rio Grande. It was one of the cooler sites of the day, especially once we were able to get up close at the end of the scenic drive.
At this point, the sun was starting to go down, and we were faced with two options to reach the closest park exit: take a 13-mile dirt road, or drive 50 miles on paved roads. Now, on our 2003 trip, we got stuck in sand in Joshua Tree National Park in California. That incident occurred right about sunset, and we were stuck for three hours before we finally were able to get our OnStar to connect with park officials. So you can imagine the concern about heading out onto another dirt road at sunset. The park map made it clear this road was unpaved, but not a four-wheel-drive-only road. So off we went. And after all that buildup, we made it just fine. The Old Maverick Road was rough in some places, but we never were in any place where I was worried, and we even made it out before the sun went down. As we were pulling back onto pavement near the park exit, Joan turned around and saw a sign that said, "Four Wheel Drive Only." But, as I said, the park map was clear that this was a passable road by all vehicles, and just having driven it, there was no reason that road should have been four-wheel drive only.
As for the park, we liked it. It's beautiful, full of varying types of topography, temperate zones and beautiful sights. But it didn't move us the way that we were moved by the Badlands, Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, the Canadian Rockies and other wonderful natural sites we saw back in 2003. There was such a buildup for the trip to Big Bend -- we had to cancel our trip there in 2003 because we were running short on time -- that we'd have to say we were disappointed. But if you think we had a bad day, here's how the beagles spent most of their day.
Fred and Hank wait while we step out for a quick photo op at Big Bend National Park. Yes, we took them out of the car plenty of times, but the park doesn't allow dogs anywhere except where cars can go, so it was a pretty boring day for them. (Photo by Jim)
After dinner, we made another deadly drive, this one the 80 miles from Terlingua, Tex., to Alpine, Tex. The good news: The drive took only slightly more than an hour. On the entire journey, this is the complete tally of we saw: four cars coming the opposite direction, one car we passed going our direction, one boar, one deer and one U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.
- We are SOOO multimedia. We produced our first video on Sunday, which gives a brief recap of our day at Big Bend and let's you see some of what we saw. It's rudimentary -- remember, it's our first one -- and you can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct-292S5ijE. I will work on doing an embed next time, but my self-imposed deadline is approaching quickly.
- Some folks who commented on my Facebook status from Sunday apparently thought I was taking a shot at Texas when I talked about how boring the drive through west Texas is. We both happen to like Texas, but there's no debating how boring that drive is. Look, every state has its bad parts. New York has New Jersey, for example.
- The first human mini-meltdown occurred on Sunday mornng, when I lost about 90 minutes of work on my daily post when Firefox locked up on me. Of course, I'm an idiot for not saving during that time, but nothing makes me crazier than losing work. It's an unbelievably helpless feeling when you lose time you can never get back. So I threw my empty drink cup across the room, fired out some choice profanities and scared the bejeezus out of Hank. And Fred. And Joan. But I got my act together, went back and completed the blog post. But not before a lot of mumbling, harumphing, sighing and other noises a pissy, annoyed person makes. If Sunday's blog post wasn't funny, blame Mozilla.
- Interesting fact: Mobil Speedpass -- a brilliant marketing scheme, in my mind, that allows you to get gas without even having to use a credit card-- is very hard to find once you get off the East Coast. I'm so used to it at home, but only one of every 10 Exxons we've stopped at on this trip have had it. By the way, we've even seen a lot of gas stations out west that don't even have credit-card swipers. Honestly, I'm so spoiled that, when we've encountered those, we've just left and gone somewhere else. Our lives are so hard.
- We experienced the highest temperature of the trip so far at Big Bend: 92 degrees.
- A thanks to reader John McCarthy, who corrects me and tells me that Sitorsquat.com -- a site where people can report and rare public bathrooms, and which I mentioned in Saturday's post -- does indeed have a mobile site. A big thanks to John for the john update.
- One leftover from Saturday. In San Antonio, we passed a wax museum right across the street from The Alamo -- which seems inappropriate enough. But here is what they put forth to try and attract people to come in and check it out.
Now, I am relatively sure -- because of the clothing and hair -- that these are intended to be Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Cash. But how good can a wax museum be if they've turned Sarah Jessica Parker into Melanie Griffith, and Johnny Cash into Dudley Moore?
- Random iPod shuffle song of the day: "Twang Bar King," by Adrian Belew. While this is not one of my favorite Belew tunes, I am a big fan. His solo work is certainly a bit oddball, but then again, so am I. Belew's best work came when he was part of what I consider the best King Crimson lineup ever: Belew, Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin. "Discipline" is an amazing album, and the best of the three albums this quartet made. "Three of a Perfect Pair" is also excellent, and "Beat" the least compelling of the three but still with interesting moments.
- While driving through Big Bend, we decided to experiment with some ambient music to try and set the scene properly. We didn't have much success, as we didn't like The Orb's "Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld" and found Tangerine Dream's "The Private Music of Tangerine Dream" to be hit or miss. Eventually, we worked our back to more mainstream stuff.
- Most appropriate song of the day: Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone," which turned up on the iPod during our ghostly night drive on Texas 118 from Big Bend to Alpine.
- Lunch: KFC/Taco Bell, Fort Stockton, Tex.: Because of my computer issues and my mini-meltdown on Sunday, I was not done with the blog post before we had to leave our hotel, so we needed to go some place I could log on with my wireless card. And there are not a lot of options in Fort Stockton, especially on a Sunday morning. So we ate like crap -- again -- at this schizophrenic fast food joint, while I finished the blog post. We both had one piece of fried chicken, and two unhealthy sides. Jim Nutrition Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5). Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Why any stars, you ask? I only had one piece of chicken. Restaurant Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).
- Dinner: La Kiva, Terlingua, Tex.: After leaving Big Bend, we found ourselves in the unenviable position of being starving and 90 miles from the nearest town of any size. But, hey, the people who live in the Terlingua area have to eat too, right? After all, isn't this the town that hosts two of the world's largest chili cook-offs every year? On the outskirts of town, we spotted this odd place, and decided to get a taste of the local flavor. And what flavor it was. The restaurant/bar is built into a cave, and is wicked-cool on the inside. We walked in, and for the first time on the trip, felt like we'd walked into someone's living room. Despite the fact Terlingua has a lot of tourists passing through, thanks to Big Bend, this felt like a very local bar. When we walked in, a few of the folks bellied up to the bar were collectively belting out Dylan's "LIke a Rolling Stone," with one particularly intoxicated woman continually belting out the chorus at the wrong time. When I went to the bar to order a beer, the bartender picked up a small animal toy he'd just received, pushed the button, and it said, "Go fuck yourself." He then laughed, apologized and said he couldn't stop playing with this new toy. Despite all this odd behavior, the place had more the feel given off by jolly drunks than than anything else. As we ate dinner, we listened to the drunks mangle the lyrics to The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times." Jim Nutrition Rating: I had a BBQ plate with pork, chicken and brisket. The brisket was excellent, the chicken was very good and the pork ribs barely edible. Joan, sadly, got only pork ribs, and declared them merely "fine." Restaurant Rating: 3 stars (out of 5). An extra half-star for the ambience. The most unique restaurant experience we have had so far.
- Best Western Alpine Classic Inn, Alpine, Tex.: After the bad experience at the Best Western in Fort Stockton, we were not itching for another Best Western. In fact, we were even more worried we would end up itching if we slept at another Best Western. But, in west Texas, beggars can't be choosers, so we ended up at the Alpine Classic Inn. The parking lot of this hotel had three types of cars in the parking lot: Border Patrol vehicles, motorcycles and our car. The room was surprisingly nice and roomy, but after Saturday, we knew that the devil was in the details. Thankfully, at this hotel, the amenities all checked out. The double-lock to our door worked. We were both able to shower in hot water. Joan adds a half-star for big, fluffy towels. Only slight down side: the wireless is a bit spotty. Hotel rating: 4 stars (out of 5). Finally, something that doesn't qualify as a Worst Western.
COMMENT OF THE DAY
- Today: Fort Davis, Tex., and then into New Mexico.
- Tomorrow: White Sands National Monument, and Tucson, Ariz.
- The Day After Tomorrow: Tucson, and then on to Phoenix.
JOAN PIC OF THE DAY
Because of my computer issues on Sunday morning, I forgot to put in Joan's pic of the day. Here, a Muslim husband and wife watch the Cesar Chavez March for Justice in San Antonio on Saturday.
BONUS BEAGLE PHOTOS