Never pass up a chance to sit down or relieve yourself. -old Apache saying

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend

Tuesday, October 20, means we're off to the Big Bend.

But first, breakfast! Since choices are quite limited on Monday and Tuesday mornings in Marfa, Texas, you can still count on the Mexican-Americans. They may close on Sunday to go to Mass and spend it with the family, but the rest of the week they work hard. Meanwhile, the gringos are snoozing.

So it was back to Carmen's Cafe on West San Antonio for a hearty breakfast and enough coffee to kick-start an elephant.

Another beautiful morning. We checked out of the Hotel Paisano around 10am and headed east on Hwy 90 (West San Antonio) towards Alpine. Quick trip, only about 30 miles. From Alpine, we'll hook up with Hwy 118 south and within a hundred or miles or so, we'll be in the Big Bend National Park, where we have reservations for two nights at the Chisos Mountains Lodge.

Our plan was to hit Alpine around lunchtime (funny how so many activities are planned around mealtimes; surely it's not just me).

Our Marfa pal told us of a good spot in Alpine for lunch, the Bread and Breakfast Bakery and Cafe.

He wasn't kidding. Breads, muffins, bagels, cinnamon rolls and several kinds of sandwiches, all made fresh at the bakery daily. Highly recommended. It's located on West Holland Street (aka the "Main Drag" aka Highway 90), facing the Amtrak train station that we had arrived at the Saturday before.

We had an outstanding pastrami & swiss and BLT. But rather than Mexican-Americans, all the employees here looked to be college kids. And mostly young. College. Girls. (sigh) Oh yeah, Sul Ross State University is up on the side of the mountain over there.

They had a funny sign outside. Uh, and what about ex-hippies?

After lunch, we had one more stop in Alpine: find some tennis shoes for the wife. For some odd reason, she came all the way out here wearing only Crocs, knowing full well that we're going to be in the Big Bend, in the mountains, and after that, in the desert.

I guess I should have made sure that she brought some closed-toe shoes like tennis shoes or hiking boots (both of which she has in the closet at home), but I didn't think about it. Next time. It reminds me of when we got married back in 1981 and I relied on her to pack for both of us for the honeymoon, and she didn't pack any pants for me. On purpose? Maybe. But that's another story.

Once we got to Fort Davis on Saturday, she suddenly realizes she didn't have the right kind of shoes for hiking in the mountains (or desert), so we needed to get her some before getting to Big Bend.

But tennis shoes in Fort Davis? Not likely.

Marfa? Ha ha. No way.

Alpine? It's a college town, so there was a much better chance to find some shoes there.

We stopped into the Alpine Visitors Center and the guy on duty suggests two places: Beall's or Johnson Feed (and Western Wear). Beall's was just down the street, and sure enough, we stumbled into a giant sale. Good variety of tennis shoes, and a lot of other clothing.

One last thing to do in Alpine before heading south into Big Bend: GAS UP. In this area, you should take the opportunity to fill up your gas tank whenever you can. Gas stations can be few and far between.

Ready for Big Bend? Not yet.

Months ago, while planning for this trip, I came across some info about Woodward Ranch, about 18 miles south of Alpine on Highway 118.

They specialize in agate. In fact, West Texas has quite a variety of rock types. At Woodward Ranch, you could hunt for your own agate or shop in the rock shop. Agate is gorgeous stuff, so we planned to include a stop there during our trip, on the way to Big Bend.

It was not, however, meant to be. All the literature I had read to date had said, "18 miles south of Alpine," but what they didn't say was that you had to turn off of Hwy 118 onto a gravel/rocky road, and they didn't say how far the Woodward Ranch was FROM the highway. I didn't think anything of it at the time. Maybe the Ranch was right on the highway. Uh, no.

So...driving south on Highway 118, here comes the sign for the Woodward Ranch. Hmmm... it's just a sign, and there's a dirt/gravel/rocky road leading away from the highway. Our rental is a compact car. I had agreed not to go "off-roading." I didn't think we'd need to, but here is a road that looks pretty "off-road" to me, and the Woodward Ranch is nowhere in sight. How far on this rocky road is it? Who knows. I mean, it IS a road. Sort of. We decided to give it a shot. There's no going over 10 MPH on this road. I checked the odometer when we left Hwy 118. After a few twists and turns and over a couple of rises, still no Woodward Ranch in sight. When the odometer ticked off 1.0 miles from the highway, and the Ranch was still nowhere to be seen, I stopped. The road was getting worse.

I did NOT want to get a flat tire on this rocky road, and I'd noticed that we were also out of cell phone range. Flat tire? No phone service? Not a good idea. So we turned around. After ten more rather tense minutes, we got back on Hwy 118 and headed south towards Big Bend, tires intact.

Maybe we'll make it to Woodward Ranch someday, with a four-wheel drive.

The scenery is pretty austere out here. Lots of mesquite, like the southern Rio Grande Valley where the wife is from. She said the landscape reminded her of the valley, except for the mountains. Yeah, just that one small difference. Except for
the mountains, it's identical.

It doesn't take that long before you hit the outskirts of
Terlingua. For such a small town, it covers a lot of territory. I'll bet Terlingua has more scorpions and cactus than any other town in Texas. Maybe the U.S.

Just south of Terlingua you hit the border of the Big Bend Nationa
l Park. Our entry fee was $20 for the one car and two adults.

The ranger on duty kindly told me where my turn-off for the Chisos Basin was going to be, around mile marker 3.

There are over 800,000 acres in Big Bend National Park. That's big. The ranger shack was at mile 22, I think, so we had about 19 miles before our cut-off. A 45mph road with no other traffic in sight? It's very peaceful.

Once we turned south at mile 3 towards Chisos Basis, the road begins to climb. And climb. You pass through a number of different ecological zones on this road on the way to the Chisos Mountains. It's only six miles from the cut-off to the Chisos Basin, but it's packed with awesome scenery. Some of the twists in the road are hairpin turns that can be taken only at 15-20 mph. There are quick climbs and steep drops. Somewhere around mile five, I noticed a flashing light on the dashboard of the car. Catastrophe #3 was upon us.

The flashing light became fixed and it read, "POWER STEERING." Instantly, I realized that the wheel was becoming more difficult to steer. The road continued to hairpin, and I slowed down to make the turn and give me time to steer. I decided not to tell the wife about this. It would have totally freaked her out. I was starting to really strain at the wheel. Fortunately, a short, straight piece of the road.

The wife was still gazing out the window, oblivious to the situation. A pretty hard turn was coming up and I really strained to turn the wheel. By this time, it felt like there was no power steering left at all. Just about when I started to panic, not knowing what was past the next rise in the road, we came to mile 6 and the entrance to the Chisos Mountains Lodge at the Chisos Basis.

I slowed the car to a near-stop and told her that, "You know, it's a good thing we made it here, because the power steering has gone out." "WHAT?!" she croaked. Fortunately, I could (barely) steer the car around the Registration Office of the Chisos Mountains Lodge to a parking space and parked it, heaving a huge sigh of relief, but realizing that, there is no way in hell that we would be able to drive this car out of these mountains with no power steering, thinking about that wild road on the way here.

There wasn't much to do except go ahead and check in, so we went to the Registration Desk, and the young woman behind the counter, Lee Ann, was very nice and allowed us to use the office phone to call Alpine Auto Rental to tell them what had happened. Lee Ann got an electric cart and helped the wife get our bags into our room while I called Armando at Alpine Auto Rental. She also summoned Donny, the restaurant manager, who summoned his chief mechanic, Michael, to help us check out the car.

You know these newer cars have fewer and fewer user-serviceable parts these days. Everything is controlled by computer. I pulled out the cars' owners manual and learned that the power steering was electric, which meant that it could have a fuse. Sure enough, Michael found a large fuse box and we determined where the fuse to the power steering was. Michael replaced that fuse - which looked ok but could have been "blown" - with the defrost fuse. After all, if one thing has to have a bad fuse, which would you prefer, the power steering or the defrost? It was good thinking. I was very impressed with the help at the Basin.

I started the car back up and the "POWER STEERING" light was now out. I drove it around the parking lot and it worked just fine. Still, I wanted a replacement car. I did not want to be driving this one around and have it happen again on a dangerous stretch of road.

I have to give Alpine Auto Rental some credit here: they did the right thing and replaced the car, with no hassle. Granted, it had to wait until Wednesday, the next day. We had arrived at the Lodge around 3pm on Tuesday, and Armando said that "the owner is out of town, but will be back this evening." And he had to have the owners OK, but he was sure it wouldn't be a problem. Ok, no problem. I was just glad to be alive and not at the bottom of a ravine somewhere, crashed in a car with no power steering.

Besides, it's at least a two hour drive from Alpine to the Chisos Basin, so I didn't give them a hard time by insisting that they bring me another car, NOW!! No, that's not me. I was relieved that Armando was quick to say that they would bring me a new car, so that I didn't have to chew him out, or worse, sic the wife on him.

So we rested easier and went to our room, knowing that the next day, we'd have a new car.

The Chisos Mountains Lodge has four overnight options. Five, actually, if you count pitching a tent. We were lucky to get two nights at the Casa Grande Rooms. The others are the Rio Grande Motel Rooms, very similar to and right next to Casa Grande Rooms; up the mountain a bit are the Emory Peak Lodge Rooms, again similar to Casa Grande; and finally the Roosevelt Stone Cottages, built by FDR's CCC.

This place books up fast, especially on holidays. If you want to go here, and who wouldn't? plan far in advance. As it was, I could not get the two nights that I originally wanted, but called back a few days after making the first reservation, and was told they'd had a cancellation, and now I could get the two original days. Lucky again.

A nice aspect of staying in the Chisos Basin is the restaurant on site. It's the only restaurant in the National Park. And it was only 300 yards from our room at Casa Grande. There is also a good gift shop adjacent to the restaurant. Like many government functions, the operations of the Lodge and restaurant have been contracted out to a private company. A company called "Forever Resorts" operates all of the buildings in the Basin, and they do a pretty good job. The restaurant has a good selection of food items and a decent buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at reasonable prices. All-you-can-eat, which for us, is never all that much.

Speaking of food, DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS. Signs are everywhere.

...and plenty of signs to not walk here...

There are lots of deer, foxes, mountain lions, black bears, and javelinas in the Big Bend, not to mention the millions of bugs and insects. The deer were very tame, and were all over the area. While we didn't give any of the wild animals any food, I'm pretty sure others are not so good about following the rule.

We didn't see any bears or lions either (a good thing, I think), but we did come across one fox who was just sauntering down the middle of the road, no doubt looking for some food. I have a feeling that someone helped him out.

So the first evening we had a relaxing dinner in the restaurant. Service was excellent. The restaurant's two-story-tall windows face "The Window," so it is just an all-around beautiful spot. It feels like vacation.

After dinner we had time to take the short "Window View" trail, found a bench and watched the sunset. Hurricane Rick was threatening the Baja in Mexico while we were there, and clouds were streaming over the mountains all the way to where we were. Wasn't the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen, but it was up there.

The clouds from Hurricane Rick obscured our view of the stars Tuesday evening, but we hardly noticed. We were alive and on vacation, and nothing, short of dying in a ravine, was going to bum our trip.

Forever Resorts, and the federal government, are cooperating to be as "green" as possible. It's nice to know that government, at least, is taking the lead with major recycling programs, programs to reduce energy and water usage, and other sustainable practices. It does seem like an area where the government should lead.

Day 6 dawned with even more clouds from Hurricane Rick, as it made its way towards us into Mexico. Clouds were creeping over the mountains, slowly rolling down the sides towards us. We are, after all, already at 6600' elevation at the Chisos Basin. There are some hikes here to the tops of the mountains which go as high as 7800'. Here
's one shot of the approaching clouds, somewhat illuminated by sunlight.

And one without ...

After a very satisfying breakfast in the restaurant, I walked back to the Office around 9am and sure enough, Armando from Alpine Auto Rental had just called the office (there are no phone in the rooms - no TV either) and a replacement car was on the way and would be here by 11am or so.

It's a good thing that we had not planned to wake early on Wednesday and drive to another area of the park, such as Santa Elena Canyon or the Rio Grande Village. With my somewhat questionable feet, we had never intended to take any long, strenuous hikes. We thought maybe we'd drive to Panther Junction - the Park's main HQ - and take a short interpretive walk where they explain all of the flora and fauna of the Park. No problem in waiting till 11am to do that.

The restaurant will pack a "hikers lunch" for you if you're planning on being out, so we had them fix up two for us, picked it up, picked up the new car, and drove over to Panther Junction, only about eight or nine miles away. There we had our hikers lunch, checked out the HQ/Visitors Center and took the short interpretive walk. Very nice.

Casually we ambled back to the Chisos Basin. The clouds were getting heavier and it was actually starting to rain, so we hung out in our room, reading and ... you know. The sunset would be obscured tonight by all the clouds and rain, but hey, "Baby, the rain must fall..." And it's a good thing to have rain in the Big Bend.

After two nights here at the Chisos Basin, the last two nights of our trip were going to be spent with some friends of ours who live in Houston but also have a "ranch" outside of Terlingua. So, around 8pm, we went to a pay phone at the small convenience store (also very close to our Lodge) and gave them a call, just to see if all is still well.

All was not well. His wife had gotten ill on the drive up to Terlingua, and suddenly the last two nights of our trip were in doubt. He wasn't sure if she had the flu ... didn't think so ... but do we want to take a chance and stay with them for two nights if she has the flu?

Was this the next catastrophe on our trip?

To find out, go to Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua. (Ok, it's not ready yet. But it will be.)

To read Day 1 - Amtrak, click here.

To read Day 2 - Observatory, click here.

To read Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX, click here.

To read Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.

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