Five days in West Texas
Months in the making, the day finally arrived. Dad and I were to meet up at the Peter Rabbit at 7 a.m., top off the tanks and head north. Man I had a lot of crap loaded onto the bike!
Although born and bred in Texas, and with no intention of living anywhere else, there are still a few places in the great state that I've never spent a lot of time. Far West Texas is one of them. Last time I was here, it was the early 80s, and I was laid over for an hour or so in Van Horn, 17 years old and alone, standing outside a closed convenience store at midnight waiting for the bus to come haul me and my suitcase to Midland. Greyhound Buslines has its place, and that trip taught me that that place was somewhere far away from me.
This time I was on my 2004 R1150GSA Adventure, Pop was on his 2009 Wee, and we were NOT going to Van Horn. With the routes decided and the itinerary loosely drawn, we launched a bit after sunup.
There isn't a whole lot of scenery to look at in south Texas, I suppose, so I set in for a long ride.
Lake Amistad, in Del Rio, is huge and a real treat for this part of the world. The railroad bridge runs alongside the highway bridge.
Here's a shot off the Pecos River Bridge, the highest highway bridge in Texas at 273 feet. It's over 1,000 feet long, two lanes and no shoulder.
See the Border Patrol? I easily must have seen 15 to 20 of them on the way.
Somewhere along here, things started to jell, and artists named Jobim and Gilbert started to samba through my head. It was kind of weird like that for the next few hours.
We passed Seminole Canyon State Park, which has some indian rock art and cave dwellings, and the small town of Langtry. Langtry is the home of a Texas Legend: Judge Roy Bean, and we stopped here on the way back. More on that, later.
The crosswinds were horrid and the winds would clock one direction and then the next. Most of it was coming from the left side and you had to lean into it to keep going straight. This went on for miles.
We grabbed a bite to eat in Marathon, the site of the second largest earthquake recorded in Texas. One look at the Marathon Coffee’s menu, and the Reuben on Rye was calling my name. It's not so much that I'm a connoisseur, but that, now, I can say it has been done.
While we were there, we saw the Law pull over a cadre of Harley riders--not a single helmet in the bunch, but plenty of black and chrome. Marathon, like most small towns, put its school next to the paved road, and Deputy Dog is on the prowl. Got a postcard for the wife and kids and placed it into the capable hands of the postmistress.
We headed south out of Marathon, toward the Ranger Station at Persimmon Gap. On the way, we learn about Santiago Peak. Apparently it is named after some poor bastard who got cornered and killed there by a marauding band of Indians. Must have been some sort of local celebrity to have gotten a whole mountain. Was it poetic justice, karma, bad luck? I’m not sure, but whatever it was, it probably included poor planning and this reminded me that bad things do happen out here. Santiago Peak is the mountain with the flat top, to the right, and that’s where good old Santiago lies, today.
Texas does a pretty good job of giving the traveler a bit of local history through historical markers laid out along the highway, usually out in the middle of nowhere. This one talks about this site being a natural water hole in prehistoric times. The Spaniards used it, too. When the water hole finally dried up due to development of a creek, some enterprising fellow named George dug two wells in 1900 and put up two windmills. The site served cattledrivers from Mexico and the Chizos mountains on their way to the railroad at Marathon, as well as for men hauling ore from the mines, and US troops on border duty.
At Persimmon Gap, we get our campsites and permit lined up. Dad got a Senior Discount card for $10 and now has free admission into any National Park. While we were waiting our turn I perused the bookstore and, with the ghost of Mr. Santiago floating in my mind, decided on "Death in Big Bend."
The weather forecast posted at Persimmon Gap is promising: tomorrow the temperature will be cooler and there will be much less wind.
Finally, about 6 or 7 hours after starting, we hit the Old Ore Road. The wind was strong, the temperature hot, the sky big, and the ground hard–unless you got out of the tire tracks where you found several inches of sand, gravel, and loose rock.
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It looks worse than it was only because I didn’t crash.
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Time to rest; a victim of the edge of the road and three failed attempts to save it.
As with anything, it happens in an instant.
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Even the Wee takes a nap.
Very interesting terrain, but hard and savage, and I wonder whether Mr. Santiago ever stood here.
“R.I.P. Juan de Leon, Born June 24, 1906, in Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila. Died July 10, 1932.” http://www.nps.gov/bibe/historyculture/juan-de-leon.htm Travelers offer bottle caps and coins in exchange for blessings from the shrine’s occupant. There were several quarters. Someone with great reverence for the lost soul glued glass beads and pennies to the cross, and I think I even felt the spirit when I saw the glimmering globs glint sunlight in gorgeous shades of green and blue. Good old Juan. He’s probably got more fame and money, now, than he did while he was alive. His family would be so proud. (It may be the family who has done all this, since Boquillas del Carmen is pretty close, but I got the sense that it was being treated like a wishing-well you find at a mall)
Finally, we get to Camp De Leon. The wind has died down, the temperature cooled, and we settle in for a quiet night, blanketed by a sky full of stars.
Dang! The scenery was so nice, I almost forgot you were in Texas! Even some peaks in the background. Nice report. Thanks.
MUD - Be careful out there. I was born and reared in that desert and this time of year you can get a "gully washer" 30 miles away and not even know you're in danger until flash wall of water hits. If camping out I'd stay high and avoid any low ground.
Great shot of the west Texas night sky! :thumbup
Mad Kaw, Having never seen it I can only imagine. :eek1 The Park Service does have a spot next to a huge arroyo with a sign that discusses that very thing, and I did find myself looking around for thunder clouds. Some of the arroyos we went through on day two were exceptionally large.
All the campsites in Big Bend are designated by the Park Service, but to be honest, I never considered whether they might be subject to flooding. Camp de Leon is on higher ground, tho.
Nice videos! Really gives a good "description" of what the path is like. Thanks!
Thanks for the report, photos and videos. I'll be out there at the end of this month with two other guys and just today I was wondering what the conditinon of Old Ore Road is. Now I know. :clap We'll all be on R1200GS-Adventures, so it's most likely going to be a challenge. I rode my black '04 R1150GS-Adventure to Big Bend several times, and they are great bikes!
Big Bend -- Life in the Desert
Thanks, guys. I'll have an installment on the River Road, too, as well as the old Maverick Road. The adventure has just begun.
After 11 hours on the road, we were pretty beat, but we started dinner immediately and rehydrated. We'd brought about 10 liters of water, and as soon as the helmet came off, the hat went on.
The evening was so pleasant that we decided to skip the tent and spread our bedrolls onto the tarp. Looking up, the Milky Way was a sight to behold. (My pictures of it didn’t take–all I got was a black screen.) While we were winding down, discussing the vagaries of life that only a father and son could find interesting, we saw two satellites and one shooting star. I made a wish. Before long, Dad was asleep.
Alone with my thoughts, they took me to the father who, two weeks earlier, used his pocket knife to rescue his son from a mountain lion attack here in the Park. I located the scimitar Dad had set down between the bedrolls, stuffed my flashlight under the front of my knit cap, and grabbed my new book to occupy my mind while I stood guard with 20 lithe moths. I couldn't swat them, and I couldn't squish them with a finger, but a quick closing of the book usually took care of four or five of them.. :rofl .
Life in the desert is rough–really rough. Mr. Santiago and Juan de Leon met their fates at the hands of other men. The people in the book, for the most part, delivered themselves to their fate, one decision at a time. I really recommend the book. It is a collection of third-person accounts of death and rescue in the Big Bend over the last 30 years. It tips you off on some of the mistakes people made, but it also gives you some insight into the heroic work of the Rangers. Those guys are champs.
That night, I read about four deaths in the area we’d traveled just a few hours before. An American couple that got in over their heads when they tried to walk out after breaking down. The other three were Mexicans–one of whom was a local from Boquillas.
I half expect an overweight, middle-aged American smoker, dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap to go toes up in the desert, but one of these guys cashed it in only 20 miles from home. Not much of a home field advantage. The only survivor from those two events was a lady with a big hat, long sleeves, and long pants, who made a wise choice after her friend went over the edge. Although she was in flipflops, exercised regularly, and didn’t smoke, she decided to stop moving until it cooled off. I guess when you’re dodging bullets, a quarter inch is as good as a mile. For many, perhaps, our quarter of an inch is technology and our machines, and I kind of wished that we'd brought a bit more water.
I passed through that area in December of 2011 on Amtrak. We crossed that bridge over the Pecos and also that bridge over the lake. The whole time, I had my faced pressed up to the window just dying to get out and ride them roads I could see passing by and by.
Thanks for the free trip back home. I have read your story and looked at the pictures over and over. West Texas is in my blood. I grew up in Odessa "go Bronchos." I moved to South Carolina in 1989 with plans to move back in 5 years. Well 23 years later I'm still here in SC with no regrets. My children grew up here and now I have Grand children so SC is where I hang my hat. I still visit once a year because my parents will always live there and are healthy and doing good. My dad says the only way he will leave West Texas is in a wheel chair when someone wheels him away against his will. Anyway thanks again this was a real treat.
Big Bend -- Big Wind
The sound around me shook me from my sleep. It was about 1 a.m., the wind had returned, and a thick blanket of clouds smothered the Milky Way. The night was much darker, and I looked for the moon while the wind whipped the tarp at my shoulder. I pulled my bedroll bag out from under the tarp, stuffing a large rock and everything else nearby into it, and used it to anchor the tarp.
It was cold and the wind made it a lot colder, but I was cozy in my mummy bag. The distant sound of the wind reminded me of a little place I like to visit near Marble, Colorado. Up the side of a mountain, there’s a good-sized stream that cascades down the steep and rocky walls of the mountains lining each bank. You can hear the water as it crashes against rock, hollow, and limb on its way down to Beaver Lake, and the constant rumble of the wind in the distance reminded me of that water, but the feeling was a world away.
The gusts announced themselves before they arrived. As the force increased, so did the hiss and rumble, but this time with whistles and roars from the wind forcing its way through wiry scrub brush and thorn. It approached in steps and turns, and sometimes I could hear it scream past me in the desert, but when it hit, I could hear nothing else until the assault subsided twenty or thirty seconds later.
The clouds had been little cause for concern until Dad asked whether I had been feeling the drops. I had, but just a few, and I hadn’t been ready to convince myself that it would rain. Now a convert, I jumped up, grabbed the tent bag, and with my back bearing the brunt of the gale, started fumbling with the string, while scattered drops fell all about. Dad yelled to leave it, and I climbed back into my bedroll, folding half the tarp over us. Whistle and the hiss was replaced by crack and pop as the wind whipped the plastic tarp into a frenzied dance about my face and ears. At least we were dry, I thought, as our breath collected in the folds of the tarp and chilled our cheeks whenever it touched. The last time I looked at my clock it was around 4:15.
Breaking camp was tough, since the wind was still very strong, and cooking bacon and eggs is tougher. Next time, the eggs go into a sanitized bottle before we leave home, and we cook in the arroyo. A couple of hours later, we were off.
How you park your bike is as important as where you park your bike.
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And I’m replacing the bushing in the sidestand.
The store at Rio Grande campground has gas, supplies, recycling boxes, and a place to clean up. You pay twice as much as the gas pump reads. Aaah, the good old days. The video is just of the building as I drive up.
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A short way away is Boquillas Canyon. I didn’t have the camera on and didn’t realize it until we’d driven away from it. Here’s a shot from a distance:
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With Boquillas Canyon behind us, we skipped the hot springs and headed straight for River Road East!
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The lady ranger at Persimmon Gap said that they'd just finished working on the River Road East and that it was smooth. She was right, and it was hard to keep from opening up the throttle. There's a speed limit for a reason. It didn't happen often, but it happened more than once, and each time it was unexpected.
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The landscape was very interesting. Vast open space separated us from the mountains in the distance.
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We stopped at the Mariscal Mine for lunch, but we didn't go up to the mine itself. Instead, we ate on the porch of one of the old houses that dot the landscape at the base of the hill and looked up at the mine, about halfway up the side of the mountain. The mine was operational at the beginning of the 20th century. Sitting there, eating tuna salad and crackers, I had a hard time imagining life 100 years ago for those who scratched their existence from the toxic red soil of the cinnabar mine. Humans are resilient and all that good stuff, but did these guys complain about their lot in life or were they happy to have a job?
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After the mine, the terrain seemed to alternate between long flat stretches between wide and dry washes lined with sand, rock, and gravel. First, you'd go down into a wash
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and then you'd come out of one
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Sometimes you'd see sand, kitty litter, gravel, and rock all in a few yards of trail
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Sometimes you'd find just a lot of sand.
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Some of the washes were very wide and had steep sides. Made me think that a lot of water might have crashed down that, before.
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Some of the entrances to the washes were pretty steep: The first half of the video is me going down into the wash, and the second half is a recording of my pop coming down the same course. It seems I talk to myself a lot more than I'd imagined.
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Finally, after a whole day of offroad riding, we arrive at Santa Helena Canyon, about 65 or 70 miles for the day, and 11 or 12 hours after starting the day.
And then we head to our campsite at Terlingua Abajo.
It was a good day, and I'm not going to read my book.
P.S. After my spill on the the Old Ore Road, I lowered the windscreen, and my riding improved greatly. I recommend it to all.
In the next installment we'll slab it up the Rio Grande to the Pinto Canyon road, where we hit the dirt again and head to Marfa. :clap
Great job! Was part 2 published?
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