Padre Island: Drive it Like You Stole it

A marine shipping container; double-click to enlarge.

A marine shipping container; double-click to enlarge.

Padre is an island off the southern tip of Texas.  I set up camp a half mile down the beach and went into town for dinner.  Returning in the dark, I opened my tent to find the interior covered in sand thanks to a strong wind from the Gulf.  This became a hallmark of Padre camping:  nothing could stop the sand.

Early the next morning, I met an older man who had visited Padre several decades prior.  He said that the island and the resort town 15 miles inland were far nicer now than they were back then.  The ranger told me that since I drove in after hours, I could pay on my way out – whenever that happened to be.  Our conversation convinced me to drive the entire length of the beach, 60 miles – few people go that far, etc.

Sunrise on Padre Island. Double-click to enlarge.

Sunrise on Padre Island. Double-click to enlarge.

Padre’s beach resembled a garbage dump.  All manner of junk washes in from far-away parts of the world.   Lumber (with nails, of course), decomposed animals, medical waste, giant shipping containers, crates, buckets, furniture, plastic bottles, balloons, tropical fruits, and dead trees were strewn across the entire 60 miles of shoreline.  The key in camping was to find a clean patch of sand surrounded by only harmless trash, not the disgusting stuff.

A sign warned that four-wheel drive was henceforth mandatory, and that many hazards were present.  A rising tide and prevailing trash deposits led me to set a course close to the dunes in soft sand.  The tires cut a 3-inch deep track as I slalomed through at 15-20 mph, the engine growling in a pleasingly deep pitch.  This was great fun, and as advertised I saw very few people.

Sunset near mile post 54. Double-click to enlarge.

Sunset near mile post 54. Double-click to enlarge.

Upon reaching the southern tip of the island, I met a man and his son who were camping there while Mom and daughters had a “girls’ night out.”  In an extremely rare event, I turned down their fajitas in the interest of setting up my own camp before dark.

The return drive the next morning was cake.  With a fallen tide, I cruised the shoreline a few feet from the waves at 30 mph with pelicans and shore birds out in force.  As I left, the friendly woman staffing the ranger station turned down my attempt to pay.  “That’s a nice gesture,” she said, but it’s not necessary.”

Additional photos below.

Double-click to enlarge.

Double-click to enlarge.

A lost buoy. The circular top is about 7 feet in diameter. Double click to enlarge.

A lost buoy. The circular top is about 7 feet in diameter. Double click to enlarge.

The "backcountry" campsite near mile post 54. Double click to enlarge.

The “backcountry” campsite near mile post 54. Double click to enlarge.

Guadalupe Peak Ascent: Highest Point in Texas (Traveled Feb 2013)

Rising to 8,700 feet from the desert floor, Guadalupe Peak is a worthy mountain and a challenge to climb.  The ranger

From Guadalupe Peak, TX

From Guadalupe Peak, TX

explained that most people complete the hike in 5-7 hours, round trip.  He was an older man with a big belly and a thick Texas drawl.  “It’s awful windy up ‘ere today, but I wouldn’t let that stop me,” he said.  We chatted for a few minutes before I made my way to the door.  “Take plenty a’ water up ‘ere now,” he said in a warm fatherly tone.  With these encouraging words I set out on the 12-mile trek, water duly packed.

I made the round trip in 3 hours, 17 minutes, including the time it took to sign the log book and eat a power bar on the summit.  I did not aspire to smoke anyone when I started.  My plan was to take it easy with a slow and steady pace, and I stuck to it.  The first 20 minutes or so of the trail was well protected and I barely felt a breeze.  When I rounded the next switchback, the driving wind instantly pushed me backward.  For the next 15 minutes I plodded up the hill fighting the wind the whole way as it froze my face.  Then I was back into a mild breeze.

El Capitan, viewed from the summit of Guadalupe Peak

El Capitan, viewed from the summit of Guadalupe Peak

I passed two married couples who had started out before me, then caught up to a third.  This third couple was dressed in the latest technical clothing and seemed to consider themselves the fittest on the mountain.  As I continued my steady plod up the trail, the woman seemed annoyed that I was passing them.  After some cheerleading from the wife they stepped up their pace and I let them by.  When I started catching up again, they drove themselves to the point of gasping to stay ahead of me.  In the end they beat me to the summit by about 200 yards and 3 minutes.  “That wasn’t so bad,” I said as I made the top.  “Oh, no, not at all,” the woman barked.  The couple had stopped short of the summit to rest and drink.

I walked directly to the summit and signed the record book.  Signing ahead of me was a young Canadian law student.  I ran much of the trail on the way down, finding this easier than walking on the downhill slopes.  Contrary to expectation after such a hard day, I barely slept

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

that night.

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

Big Bend National Park 5: Terlingua Ghost Town (Travel Date Feb. 2013)

Terlingua is a ghost town in name only.  Scattered outside the stone ruins of the original town and its historic cemetery are what seem to be a couple of hundred squatters, campers, and even some bona fide single-family homes.  The rural areas surrounding Terlingua are also populated.  Terlingua claims to have invented the chili cook-off, now ubiquitous throughout Texas.

Entering Terlingua

Entering Terlingua

Walking a path through the historic ruins I meet a cordial middle-aged man called Clam.  He lives in an old Airstream trailer next to the community vegetable garden.  He’s built a 6-foot wooden privacy fence with an electronic security gate to form a small yard around the trailer.  When I ask him about recycling some plastic water bottles, he suggests I make fly traps out of them instead.  “I could use that in camp,” I reply.  He escorts me through his gate and shows me several such traps.  “This one must have 10,000 flies in it,” he says, as I avert my gaze from the pile of insect carcasses.  His yard smells like stale beer, which he uses to bait the fly traps.  Along the fence sits a row of rabbit cages, and the rabbits appear to be wonderfully cared for.  I don’t want to ask what the rabbits are for, so I go on my way.

Feeling under-fed after several days exploring the desert, I stop into the Mexican restaurant for a late lunch.  It’s me and one other lone traveler, but from his complaints the kitchen seems to be behind.  The waitress’ assurance that I will get timely food is enough for me to order the highly recommended fajitas.  For a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, this place delivers big time.  I soon receive a huge plate of fresh, tasty, food, and in the meantime I’ve joined the waitress in conversation.  She grew up in the Terlingua area, left for 15 years or so after high school, and has returned.  “Locals can’t afford prescription medicine,” she tells me.  Instead, they use creosote bush extract and colloidal silver to heal wounds and aches and pains.  I’m suspicious about the silver, but there is a store in town advertising it.  I stick with my Advil and ice.

A school bus converted into an income-generating  rental property

A school bus converted into an income-generating rental property

I head down the road to the regional auto mechanic to see if he can double-check the tightness of my truck’s skid plates, just to be sure.  They have just closed when I arrive.  The front counter area is adorned with memberships and awards from the National Rifle Association and a Texas state shooting association.  The friendly owner and I chat for several minutes, and I decide not to worry about the skid plates.

After a two-hour scenic drive west out of Terlingua, I return to the combination gas station/restaurant for fuel and ice cream.  I observe an energetic party in the restaurant, and the cashier informs me it’s a couple’s 60th wedding anniversary.  It doesn’t seem right to just buy gas and walk out, so I enter the room and ask for the guests of honor.  I introduce myself to the gracious elderly couple and congratulate them on their anniversary.  “Sit down,” the lady said.  “Have a piece of cake.”  I did, of course.  As we talk I tell them this is my first time visiting the state of Texas.  The lady’s face lights up as she takes my hand in hers and exclaims, “Well, you are blessed!  Have another piece of cake!”  I don’t argue.  I talk with several more party guests, and the few Terlingua natives in the bunch are thrilled to be living here, working in the mine.  Overall they are one of the nicest and happiest groups of folks I have ever met.

Terlingua sculpture garden; double-click the photo for best effect.

Terlingua sculpture garden; double-click the photo for best effect.

Historic stone ruins of the original town of Terlingua

Historic stone ruins of the original town of Terlingua

Big Bend National Park 4: Hot Springs Encounter (Travel Date Feb. 2013)

I decided to check out the park’s famous natural hot spring after dinner.   It was pitch black by the time I started walking to the spring around 8 pm.  Shining my headlamp in all directions revealed 40+ foot tall palm trees, a concession (closed), a bath house, and the hiking trail.  I walked for 10-15 minutes before reaching the spring.

Mexican Souvenir Stand along the Rio Grande

Mexican Souvenir Stand along the Rio Grande

Along the trail I found self-service souvenir stands placed by Mexican nationals who illegally cross the river.  Park Service literature conspicuously warned visitors against buying these items, as both the Mexican and the US citizen can be prosecuted under federal law.  There seemed to be no enforcement, however, as even minimal effort by the Park Service or Border Patrol could eradicate these little stands in a hurry.  Price lists were written on cardboard in misspelled English.  Scorpions, walking sticks, spiders, and snakes made from wood, pipe cleaners, and other improvised materials were displayed next to a money jar.  The brightly colored rocks fetched the highest prices.

Passing on the useless knickknacks, I stepped into the warm, clear hot spring pool.  After a few minutes I noticed a

flashlight slowly descending the river bank on the Mexican side about 100

Mexican Souvenir Stand along the Rio Grande

Mexican Souvenir Stand along the Rio Grande

yards downriver.  The light disappeared when it reached water level.  Perhaps 10 minutes later a barefooted Mexican appeared on the trail and stopped in front of the hot springs.  Not knowing who I was dealing with, I switched on my headlamp at high power, deliberately shining it in his eyes so as to put him off balance, size him up, and let him know I would not be intimidated.  We then exchanged friendly “hellos” and he went on his way, checking the souvenir stands.  I never saw him again.  About 20 minutes later 4 flashlights momentarily came on from the top of the high cliff overlooking the hot springs.  The lights were pointed toward me, but not powerful enough to reach me.  I wondered who I would run into on my way back to the car, but saw no one the rest of the night. 

Big Bend National Park 3: Travel Date Feb. 2013

I decided to take it easy and drive a Jeep trail today, after pounding my feet into misery with 14+ miles of hiking the day

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja

before.  I drove the Old Ore Road from north to south, this direction having been recommended by the ranger for an easier angle on the rock ledges.  Said ledges turned out to be a non-event, but the thought was appreciated all the same.  The trail took me through 3 distinct types of desert terrain over its 32 winding, rocky miles.

The Ernst Tinaja is located along the southern part of the road, and I arrived at the Tinaja trailhead in late afternoon.  This is a series of 3 natural, circular deep water pools formed by red and white rock within a chaparral canyon.  The hike to the tinaja itself is one-half mile up a wash peppered with large boulders.  I climbed up the ledges on the canyon wall to access all 3 pools.  During my time there, a bat kept me company as he darted through the air catching bugs.  All 3 tanks were more than half full of water, though 2 were deep enough that I could not see the bottom.  The Park Service asks visitors not to make

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja

any contact with the water in the Tinajas, as these are a vital water source for many of the animals that populate this hot desert.

Sunset was approaching as I came out of the canyon, captured in photo below.

Sunset from Old Ore Road

Sunset from Old Ore Road

Old Ore Road

Old Ore Road

Big Bend National Park 2: Travel Date Feb. 2013

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

I began Day 2 in the park by hiking the Upper and Lower Pouroff Trails.  These were mostly walks through dry washes with some light bouldering mixed in.  The soft sand surface added a challenge and left me with a large blister at day’s end.

The Upper Pouroff trail started at the top of the mesa.  I walked down the wash on a noticeable descent for about 3 miles before reaching the Pouroff itself.  The Pouroff is a steep rock drop-off about 40 feet high, polished to dangerous slickness by torrents of water over time.  It “pours off” onto the desert floor below.  The rock was a pretty blue-gray color and sloped off the wash at about a 70-degree angle.  I tried for over 15 minutes to find a way to climb down it, to no avail.  I encountered no other hikers on the trail.

The Lower Pouroff was a more dramatic sight.  This trail led from the

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

desert floor to the bottom of a 200-foot tall, 90-degree sheer pouroff made of black and red rock.  I saw only one other hiker on this trail.

Down the road from the Pouroff trails I did the 6-mile round trip hike to The Chimneys, a group of rock formations resembling fireplace chimneys which are also adorned with ancient petroglyphs.

My final destination on Day 2 was Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande flows through a pair of rock walls several hundred feet in height.  I took the best photos I could, but this canyon must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.  I arrived shortly before sunset and walked across a roughly 100-yard wide sandbar in the river to a trail which leads up the north wall and back into the canyon.  The south wall and the south river bank belong to Mexico.  One could see the footprints of Mexicans and their horses along the

south bank and in the sandbars within the flowing water.  The water level at this time was very low, such that the river itself was only about 12 inches deep.  There were two horses grazing among the 6-7 foot tall grasses along the bank.  I descended the trail to the river bank and barely made it to the end of the canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

in the remaining 30 minutes or so of daylight.

On my way out, I saw a somewhat older looking black man dressed in a suit, expensive wing tips, and smelling of aftershave walking the wide sand bar between the canyon and the parking lot.   We waved to each other from a distance and, as I approached, he said, “Amazing!”  as we watched the sun set behind the canyon.  “Yes, it is,” I said.  As we shook hands he said “Have a good one, man,” and walked toward the parking lot leaving me on the river bank.   He was using a cane, and ascended the 3-foot tall embankment as if it were nothing.  I assumed he was just someone out enjoying the park with his children.  But when I arrived in the parking lot two minutes later, he was surrounded by an entourage of escorts/guides, all talking in British accents, in total occupying 3 brand new Suburbans.  My acquaintance was being driven limo-style.  The group departed up the Old Maverick dirt road at high speed, and I never saw them again.  To this day I wonder who the man was.  Only after the encounter did it occur to me that he’d introduced himself and talked to me without giving his name.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Big Bend National Park 1: Travel Date Feb. 2013

Big Bend campsite: behind the tent is a dry tinaja that was handy for showering.

Big Bend campsite: behind the tent is a dry tinaja that was handy for showering.

Upon arrival at Big Bend National Park, two top-notch rangers set me up in the centrally located backcountry camp named Paint Gap 2.  My neighbors in Paint Gap 3 and I became fast friends, talking away the mornings as they fed me a gourmet home cooked breakfast each day.  Kel would walk over and wake me up around 8 am, and tell me to head over in 10-15 minutes when Julie would have the spread waiting.

Julie wondered if I was sleeping alright, given that I was going to bed earlier and waking up later than they were.  Sleep was in fact a challenge sometimes, as it is at home.  The campsite was 3 miles down a dirt road, the perfect combination of seclusion and accessibility.  On the first day I hiked another 2 miles to road’s end and toured some old ranch ruins.  There were historically 3 different cattle ranches within the park boundaries.

The road into Paint Gap backcountry campsite.

The road into Paint Gap backcountry campsite.