Monday, November 26, 2007

Big Bend to Del Rio

November 18 to November 22, 2007

The drive from Big Bend National Park to Marathon was pretty routine—it was a nice morning to be on the road. The drive through rolling countryside was pleasant and we saw several mule deer near the road. The stop in Marathon provided us with a few hours of internet service to download our messages and to pickup messages left on our cell phones. We were without the use of both services during our week in Big Bend.

Marathon’s name was suggested by a sea captain who said the area reminded him of Marathon, Greece.

Winnie 2: Now I’ve never been to Greece, but I can’t imagine it being like this part of Texas with its rolling hills and desert landscape.

The town used to be a mining and cattle shipment center but is now a tourist crossroads and a gateway to Big Bend N.P. Ranching is still a major factor in the local economy.

We spent the night at Marathon Motel and RV Park, a delightful place. We had a light dinner at the Gage Hotel which is the most noteworthy establishment in town dating back to the 1920s A step into the hotel is an experience of days gone by when all a cowboy needed to feel alive was a breath of fresh air and the magnificent night sky filled with stars. The hotel has been restored and still has the original pine flooring and woodwork, along with heavy-duty ranch-style furniture in the lobby.

The other draw to this small town was Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery. Early Monday morning that was our stop before leaving town. As we enjoyed our baked goodies and coffee, the waitress took our picture. The sign on the wall says: “If it ain’t burnt, Momma didn’t make it”

Marathon to Seminole Canyon State Park

We drove Highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park on Monday, November 19, where we stayed two nights. This was a very pretty drive through rolling country and over some mesas. We spotted a large buck near the road—we were surprised to see such a large one next to the road in late morning. Numerous other deer were seen during the drive.

As we came over a pass west of Sanderson, we drove out of clear blue skies and into the humid, low-hanging, cloudy skies indicating we were now in the area of TX where weather is influenced by the Gulf of Mexico. The change was as if a curtain had been lowered as visibility went from very good to just a few miles. The days we spent at Seminole Canyon S.P. (about 40 miles northwest of Del Rio) were similar—mornings were foggy with skies clearing at midday.

A stop at Langtry, Texas, introduced us to Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos”. He was a Justice of the Peace and was the only “law” for miles around that part of Texas. He must have been a colorful character and his style of enforcing the “law” didn’t exactly follow the established legal codes in effect; however, it seems the consensus was that he treated people fairly and his style of meting out .justice worked well in the rough and tumble Southwest Texas country of the 1880’s and 1890’s. The Visitor Center in Langtry has excellent dioramas about Judge Bean’s life and is co-located with his home and saloon-courtroom which have both been restored. A very nice cactus garden is also at this location. All in all, it was a good place to stop and take in some of the local history.

Seminole Canyon State Park is near the mouth of the Pecos River where it flows into the Rio Grande. The area has numerous canyons with fairly flat land between them. It is in a semi-arid climate so we have seen a variety of Chihuahuan desert plants along with oak, juniper and other vegetation normally associated with less arid areas. There are some nice hikes in the park—the two Carols took advantage of the time here to explore on foot and enjoyed seeing the effects of wind and water erosion in the deep limestone canyons as well as some different birds residing in the area.

The last morning all three of us took a guided hike to the Fate Bell Shelter, a large cave dwelling in Seminole Canyon used through the ages. The Pecos River area is noteworthy for ancient pictographs and those found in Seminole Canyon are representative of the best of them. The pictographs are believed to be between 3,000 and 4,000 years old and have been described as being in the top 1% of pictographs in the world. They are very well preserved and, in some cases, very intricate. The Park’s Visitor Center was also well worth a stop. Their displays showing movement of various animals and people through the area from the last ice age to the near-present were superb.

Del Rio

It was on to Del Rio where we spent Nov. 21 and 22 (Thanksgiving). We had made the decision some time ago that we weren’t going to “slave” over a stove preparing Thanksgiving dinner, so a stopover in a larger town was in order. We got a couple of bike tires fixed and a “Wal-Mart fix” upon arrival.

Side trip to Acuña

Thanksgiving morning we woke to 44-degree temps with a stiff breeze that made it even colder. With dinner reservations made for 2 p.m., we headed to Acuña, Mexico (population approximately 120,000). We walked the nearly one-mile bridge over the Rio Grande for some shopping and to check out the city.

The part of the city we were in was much cleaner than other border towns so we were all pleasantly surprised. Since we didn’t have dinner reservations until later in the afternoon, we stopped at Crosby’s in Acuña for early Happy Hour; had some nachos and margaritas to hold us over.

Soon it was time to recross the river and get ready for our dinner. We agreed we all had a lot to be thankful for—especially to be together and to be able to enjoy the countryside in our Winnebagos.

Since leaving Las Cruces, we’ve driven 700 miles in 15 days!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

One week in Big Bend National Park

Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007

It was an easy drive from Fort Davis to Terlingua/Study (pronounced stoo-dee) Butte at the west entrance to Big Bend National Park. Since we wanted to check into a float trip on the Rio Grande, we decided to stay overnight at Terlingua. After checking with all the local outfitters, it became evident that the water level was too low for a good trip. We drove into the park in the late afternoon and took the scenic Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in the western part of the park.

Winnie 1: Carol R. was hoping for some rough rapids; she’s rafted before. Myself, I wanted a gentle ride since it would be my first. But there wasn’t enough water for any kind of raft trip.

Winnie 2: The drive from Fort Davis to Terlingua is an interesting drive through Chihuahuan desert landscape. It is open country with broad mesas, buttes, and mountains rising up in every direction. I couldn’t help but think about the people that settled this country and have tried to make a living off the land through the years. You have to be hardy to live out here miles away (frequently 100+ miles) from telephone, mail, and medical service, food and clothing stores, service stations, etc.

Terlingua would be our last cell phone and Internet service for our week in Big Bend.

Week #2 was in Big Bend National Park

On Sunday morning, we drove our motorhomes into Big Bend National Park, stopping at one of the Visitor Centers for information and more brochures. Then we went to the Rio Grande Village Campground for full-hookup RV parking.

Big Bend National Park is in an area where the Rio Grande makes a U-shape, turning from running generally southeast to running northeast, cutting through three mountain ranges and forming deep canyons in the process. Volcanic activity many years ago formed the basis for the interesting and varied landscapes found in this part of Texas. Park elevation changes about 6,000 feet from the river’s edge to the highest point in the Chisos Mountains and includes the best-preserved example of native Chihuahuan Desert anywhere in the U.S. or in Mexico. As you climb into the mountains, you encounter thick conifer forests mixed with high desert scrub. The Chisos Mountains are dominated by pinon, oak, and juniper, along with ponderosa pine, Arizona Cypress, Douglas fir, maple and aspen at the higher elevations. The desert floor contains many kinds of cacti; in fact, over 70 species have been identified—more than found in any other national park. Animal life is varied and includes species such as the Mexican black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, mule deer, Sierra del Carmen whitetail deer (found only in the Chisos Mountains in the U.S.), javelina, along with many reptile, amphibian, fish, and insect species. Well over 400 bird species have been recorded, more than in any other national park. Some bird species are only found here.

Winnie 3: There are three distinct eco tones in the park: River (near where we are parked), desert and the mountains. All are fascinating and hold a unique beauty. I must say I have found an extra special joy in the river areas where we walked and rode bikes. (My new recumbent bike is quickly winning me over.)

During the week we took quite a few hikes: Hot Springs (the long, difficult one), Sam Nail Ranch, Rio Grande Nature Trail, Boquillas Canyon, Window View, The Window, and Dave’s Cattail Falls. We drove several park roads: paved, well-maintained gravel and one intended for high-clearance/four-wheel drive vehicles. Note: Carol R’s car has 4WD, but not high enough clearance for these unmaintained trails. At one point, as we went down and up a fairly deep wash, Carol A. got out to take photos.

Boquillas Canyon

Soon after we started up the Boquillas Canyon trail and had rounded the bend to look up the canyon, we heard singing in the distance! Mexican songs, male voice. And a wondrous echo from the canyon. What? Next we saw someone in a red shirt on the Mexico side of the river. The singing continued. When we were fairly close, a man was waving to us and calling out: “Hello, I’m Victor the singing Mexican!” Then he continued singing until we were opposite him. He assured us he was friendly, and that he had operated the ferry between the village of Boquillas and Big Bend. We certainly enjoyed his singing. Here is Victor, the singing Mexican.

The residents along the Mexican side of the river had a lot of interaction with the Park and with Park visitors prior to 9/11/01 with people from both sides evidently crossing uninhibited. A Texas guidebook published in 1998 describes where and how to cross the river to get to the villages on the other side—with the crossing generally done in rowboats manned by the Mexican natives at a cost of $1 or $2 round trip, payable on the return trip. Businesses there depended on park visitors for their business. The border is no longer open and American dollars no longer flow into the communities. The nearest legal border crossing is well over 100 miles away and would require a ride of 150+ miles over dirt roads in Mexico to get to Boquillas which is located across the river from our campground.

Some Mexicans make decorated walking sticks from Sotol cactus, wire scorpions, and other trinkets and place them along trails in the park, along with a donation jar. They ask $5-$6 for the walking sticks and other items are priced accordingly. The Park Service has posted signs in many places warning people they will be prosecuted if they are found in possession of this “contraband”. To buy the same walking stick “that has been imported legally”. you pay $18 at one of the stores in the Park, where signs are posted next to the displays indicating that all proceeds “up to the wholesale price” goes back to the villagers…

Dave’s Cattail Falls

The trail sign says just Cattail Falls, but another camper – Dave – told us about it. The trail is no longer in any park brochures because it ends where the spring water (that originated above the pour-off) is pumped into the park for use. Dave asked if we wanted to hike the trail with him and the two Carols eagerly accepted. It was a great hike and beautiful scenery. Photos just don’t do it justice. The man in the photo is "trail guide Dave".


As we get ready to leave in the morning – headed for Marathon, Texas – here are our parting thoughts.

Winnie 1: The entire Big Bend National Park was beautiful with surprises around every bend. As we drove into the park on the first day, I didn’t think I would like it – too much of the ‘same old’ desert setting. I’ve definitely changed my mind! With the exception of one windy evening and night, the weather was perfect. It is worth a return trip or two.

Winnie 2: This park is definitely a place to return to. I feel like I have hardly scratched the surface after having been here for a week. The hiking and the scenery is spectacular and I can hardly wait to float the river through the canyons! I have read that Indians say that the Great Spirit placed all the leftover rocks in Big Bend after creating the earth. That seems to describe the area very well.

Winnie 3: I'd like to come back to Big Bend, this time visiting in the spring time.

We are now (Nov. 18) in Marathon, Texas.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

And we're off to Texas!

Four Winnebago motorhomers are spending winter in Texas – to the locals they are considered “Winter Texans.” The Texas adventurers are:

Winnie 3 – Elizabeth Baldridge from Alamosa, Colorado. She travels with three cats: Tux, Cady, and Sunny. Her comments will be RED

Winnie 2 – Carol Rayburn from ‘where my motorhome is parked’ but her mail goes to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She travels with Zia, a cat. Her comments will be BLUE

Winnie 1 – Carol Anderson from Rio Rancho, New Mexico. She travels with Cat. Her comments will be GREEN

On December 1, they will be joined by Winnie 4 – Roberta Cox, from ‘wherever she is parked’. She travels ‘pet-less’—well, no not quite. She has some bobble-head birds on her dash that she counts as her pets when the pet subject comes up. Her comments will be VIOLET.

These first three Winnies met up at Las Cruces, New Mexico on Sunday, November 4, at Sunny Acres RV Park. They were joined by three Las Cruces friends for the evening Happy Hour.

Here’s a photo of (left to right) Carol Rayburn, Carol Anderson and Elizabeth Baldridge. It was taken near the mouth of Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park.

General Plans

The loose plans are to wander around southern Texas, including the Big Bend area, San Antonio and Fredricksburg before arriving in the Corpus Christi area by the end of November. Never have been to south Texas, this would be a ‘first’ for two of us. Itinerary would be worked out along the way – the only ‘for sure’ thing is to have short driving days, keep speed under 60 mph, and have Happy Hour each evening.

Starting December 1, the four Winnie friends will be spending December and January at Driftwood RV Haven in Fulton, Texas, a couple blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. The goal is to avoid harsh winter, have fun, take pictures of the interesting sights, and explore the Gulf area – oh, yes, also to continue Happy Hours.

Winnie 1: When I was asked to join the Winter Texas trip, I didn’t have to be coaxed. As the motorhomer with the least experience, I looked forward to this opportunity. Last winter I had spent two-plus months at Pancho Villa State Park as a volunteer; it was time to explore Texas.

Winnie 2: I had been to far southern Texas once as a youngster so I don’t remember much of it. I have also explored some around the “Hill Country” and San Antonio areas, but know there is a lot more to see there. One place I’ve wanted to see for years is Big Bend National Park which is in our plan. I’ve spent winters in Arizona and southern New Mexico since retiring, so this trip is an opportunity to really delve into the southern parts of Texas that I haven’t fully explored. I’ll also find out if I can stand to be out of the Southwest desert during the winter months.

Winnie 3: I’ve been looking forward to winter travels in Texas since I returned to Alamosa in May.

First Texas stop was Mountain View RV Park in Van Horn, Texas

Winnie 1: What would have been a boring 160-mile drive east – from Las Cruces, through El Paso and into Van Horn – became entertaining as the ‘parade’ of NASCAR trucks passed headed west on their way to the next NASCAR race in Phoenix. The trucks were brightly painted with drivers’ names and sponsor logos. Winnie 2 was leading, Winnie 3 in the middle, and I was at the end. The three of us are communicating by CBs, using our Winnie designations. This route also took us through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Winnie 2 and 3 were waved through, I was stopped. The Border patrolman asked, “Are the three of you traveling together?” When I replied Yes, before waving me through, he asked, “By yourselves?” Even though there are plenty of single gals traveling in RVs, we still seem an oddity to many. The usual comment is: “You are so brave!” Or from many women, “I could never do that.”

I like the quote by Norman Vincent Peale: “People become really quite remarkable when they start thinking that they can do things. When they believe in themselves, they have the first secret of success.”

Balmorhea State Park (Bal – mor – ray)

Winnie 1: With a stiff headwind for much of the 70-mile drive east, the NASCAR parade continued until we left the highway. The overnight stop at this Texas State Park rewarded us with numerous bird sightings, including Green and Gray Herons, Swainson’s and Redtail Hawks, Cattle Egrets, both Gambel and Scaled Quail, and Marsh Sparrows at the nearby lake and the park’s wetland preserve. I’m discovering the benefit of having tow vehicles available: both Carol R and Elizabeth tow cars. On a drive into the tiny town, I was surprised to see the remains of this wooden vehicle. Was it an early, homemade RV?

Winnie 2: This state park was really a “find” and is convenient to I-10. It is said to be a desert oasis which it truly is. Native Americans camped in this area for centuries, followed by Spanish explorers, Mexicans, and finally by Americans.

Winnie 3: I’m planning a return to Balmorhea on my way back home. The pool is very inviting as are the paved areas for riding the bike. The birding is also spectacular.

Water from San Solomon Springs was the drawing card and is still being used for irrigation in the area as well as providing a wetlands area at the park. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed a large pool, several adobe cottages, a bathhouse, group shelter, foot bridges over irrigation canals, etc., during 1935-1940. These facilities are still in use.

Davis Mountains State Park just outside Fort Davis.

Winnie 1: After three days of driving – albeit short ones – it was time to settle in for a few days. We couldn’t have picked a better location than Davis Mountains State Park. After buying annual Texas State Park passes (reduced camping fees, camping coupons, discounts at park stores, entrance to non-camping state parks/attractions, and the Texas State Parks magazine), we nestled our motorhomes among the trees. A beautiful, serene place. Before we were totally set up, the ‘locals’ came to greet us. Numerous mule deer – mostly doe with this spring’s youngsters – came into our campsites.

Winnie 2: The bird watching was very good here. The park has a special area set aside for birders to sit and observe the numerous birds that come to the feeders. Zia was entertained by a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet that kept flying around the coach’s windows and mirrors. This park is definitely one that I could spend more time in—a very relaxing and beautiful location.

Winnie 3: I always am eager to see and experience area wild life. However, on one particular evening at Davis Mountains State Park, after enjoying a grilled chicken dinner with the Carols, I was quickly moved to jump upon the picnic table when seeing and hearing two wild “pigs” – actually javelinas – coming thrugh out campsite only a few feet away. The Carols were trying to corral their respective cats. Cat Anderson pulled out of her harness and ran quickly under her motorhome. Zia Rayburn stood her ground. With all the commotion of table stamping and cat calls, our uninvited visitors soon disappeared. The aftermath of all this we were hit with uncontrollable laughter over the to-do. We also decided it was time to learn more about the javelina.

They are not wild pigs, but rather a distinct species that have migrated north and have been in this area since the 1700s. O, yes. They will not continue to migrate to Alamosa because it is too cold. Darn!

They have a keen sense of hearing and smell, but very poor eyesight. Threre are many children’s books written about these distinct and unusual desert dwellers.

If you are not familiar with javelinas, here’s information we found. First of all, they are not pigs or hogs. They have large heads, delicate, slender legs, and relatively small feet. Their hair is wiry and bristly, some hairs reach six inches in length. Also called collared peccaries, they are near-sighted. They live in a word of scent and sound. And they also have a pungent, skunky odor. They can grunt, bark, woof, and growl. They have four toes on their forefeet, but only three on the hind feet, short tails usually hidden under their hair, and short, rounded ears that stand upright. They have 38 teeth – including two straight, canine teeth that protrude upwards from their lower jaw. Babies, called piglings, are one-pound miniature javelinas and trail mom like little stick-tights. What starts out as a cute, tiny baby will one day become a 40 to 50 pound adult with an attitude – and a javelina’s razor-sharp canine teeth inflict a nasty bite.

Winnie 1: An unwelcomed night visitor – one or more javelinas – was determined to find out what was in my heavy-duty plastic container. He left his teeth-marks on the lid.

The town of Fort Davis

At a little more than 5,000 feet elevation, this is the highest town in the state. Carol R and Carol A explored the one-street downtown area, and were amazed to find a broom maker at work.

The town is named for a frontier fort that closed in 1891 but has been restored and is open to the public as Fort Davis National Historic Site. Numerous buildings are open; there is a small museum and visitor center.

The McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis

The observatory is one of the major astronomical research facilities in the world. It has a major solar viewing program that includes interactive telescope views of sunspots, flares, etc. Check it out at One of the telescopes, the Hobby-Eberly, has the world’s largest telescope mirror with 91 hexagonal mirrors positioned over a 36 foot-wide surface. It is the 4th most powerful telescope in the world and, after the forthcoming upgrade is completed, it will probably be the 3rd most powerful. Construction and operation of this particular telescope has been a joint project involving three U.S. universities and two German universities. We had a wonderful guide on our tour who was able to make the technical information interesting and easy to assimilate.

Winnie 2: This is definitely a “do not miss” tour if you are anywhere nearby!

Marfa – and the “mystery lights”

Marfa, TX, is famous for two things—the 1955 filming of “Giant” and for the Marfa Lights. Since Marfa is only about 25 miles from Fort Davis, we decided to go down to see the lights. The “Marfa Mystery Lights” reportedly show up nearly every night and have been observed and reported about since the 1800’s. The lights have been studied extensively over the years; however, the source of the lights is as yet unexplained. We arrived at the observation area nine miles east of town just before sunset and saw a light on the far south horizon at dusk. It was a reddish color that pulsated occasionally, but did not seem to move. From our reading about the phenomena, we could identify the known lights in the valley—this didn’t fit the description of any of them. We watched the light for over an hour and took some photos. The light looks like a harvest moon in the photos—but it was a moonless night. Did we see a Marfa Mystery Light? The answer to that question is a mystery.