About once a year I look at my husband and say, “We need to go to Big Bend.” He looks at me like I am crazy and says, “I am not going to Big Bend. There are no trees.” “Trees would ruin Big Bend.” I say. He counters with, “It is faster to get to Arkansas. Arkansas has trees, and it is green. Not to mention it is mostly civilized.”
I get it. I really do. Big Bend has that type of terrain that either speaks to you or it doesn’t. It is rugged, hard, lonely and unforgiving. I love it. Just as trees would ruin Big Bend, so would civilization. I went once with my best friend when we were too young to even rent a car. Thankfully her Mom signed for us. We had just enough money to make this our first official vacation after graduating from college and becoming contributing members of society. Off we went in our rented Jeep Cheroke, borrowed tent in the back, and a hibachi, we were ready to explore the West.
Of course getting to the West takes awhile and since we left after work, we planned ahead to stay at whatever motel was available in 1991 in Big Springs or Sweetwater Texas. My memory fails me. The only reason I even mention it is because the town had a pleasant name but a horrible smell. They say smells stay in your brain and apparently it is true. Some twenty plus years later, my nose remembers very well the offensive foul egg smell and headache that accompanied our first night of vacation. The great thing about being young is enthusiasm. We were simply amused that someplace which smelled so bad would lure us into staying the night because the name was charming; a good lesson at an early age that a town by any other name would smell as……well, not sweet.
The next morning we were off towards Midland and Odessa. We needed to stop for socks. Okay, WE did not need to stop for socks. I needed to stop for socks. I am pretty sure all of mine were dirty and I had not gotten around to washing them before the trip. This is where I should probably mention that my super power is having really responsible friends who get me through life. Michelle found out all the information about Big Bend. This was pre-internet. She had to send off for maps, things to do, park hours, campsite availability through snail mail and actually call on a landline, long distance to make reservations. She had discovered that you had to be 25 to rent a car and arranged for her Mom to rent it for us (thanks Barb, I never sent you a note but that was instrumental to one of the best trips of my life). She had reserved our Santa Elena raft trip and horseback ride on the Southern rim. I am pretty sure she was the one who suggested cooking meals ahead of time, freezing them and storing them in a cooler. We had a borrowed tent that we practiced setting up in her parents backyard so we would know what we were doing once we arrived in BFT. My contribution, not washing my socks so we had to make an unplanned stop. Michelle did not make me feel like an unsocked heel, she turned this into a good thing saying we could get a few more supplies. Another super power, my responsible friends are extremely understanding.
The super market we go into amazingly has socks. Again, 1991, there is no Super Target or Wal-Mart with groceries. Apparently these Western outpost towns are use to irresponsible travelers. We get in line and the power goes out in the grocery store. All 10 people in line with us know each other, which by default makes us the most interesting people to talk to. They ask where we are from and we answer the Dallas area. We might as well have said NYC or Hollywood because this knowledge suddenly causes great embarrassment that our encounter with their town involves a power outage. They simultaneously agree that we must be allowed to go ahead of all of them to the front of the line to offset the humiliation. Michelle and I reassure these people that we are not upset or in a hurry, we are on vacation and we are simply impressed by strangers going out of their way to accommodate us in the grocery line. This would NEVER happen in Dallas. Well, we have said the magic words; we are now like family. I am sure if this happened today we would all be taking selfies together and becoming friends on FB. Instead, these women start telling us the story of a friend who lost her giant diamond ring in the produce department. A few days later when it was found in the lettuce, someone turned it in. It is not everywhere that a $10,000 ring finds its way back to the rightful finger. The power comes back on. We all celebrate and Michelle and I are back on the road with a new found love of West Texas.
The day got sucked into the realm of weird travel time. Even though we started off in the morning, we did not get to our campsite until dark. Part of it is due to the fact we had no idea the scope of Big Bend. Once we made it into the park and received driving instructions from the ranger, it seemed to take 2 hours to weave our way to the camp spot in the Chisos Mountains. And, we were not yet acclimated to real darkness. My apartment was next to a grocery store, right off south cooper. I don’t think I had seen a star in 6 months. Suddenly, we were driving on a road, steadily up a mountain where the only light was pouring out of our headlights. We finally got to the stick that had the number we were given. We looked at the rocky campsite, lit by our car and walked around figuring out the best location to pitch our tent. It was windier and colder than we were expecting. We found what we thought was a pretty protected spot. The back of the tent set almost against a bolder with thorny scrub trees on either side. We set to work, confident because of our practice run. What we hadn’t done was set the tent up in the dark, in the wind, with solid stone to hammer the stakes in. Crap, we had not even thought to bring a hammer. We wandered around looking for caveman tools. Finally the right rocks presented themselves. It took a good bit of work to drive in the stakes. We were shivering and sweating when it was finally done. There is nothing quite like completing a difficult task, the satisfaction, the feeling of woman over nature, the moment where you realize the door is facing the boulder between the two thorn trees. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There was absolutely no way to get in the tent we had just put up. Again, thank God for youth and enthusiasm.
There is something about going to a new place, arriving in the dark and waking up to the day. It is like Dorothy, opening the door to Oz. That is my exact memory of waking up in the Chisos Mountains. The day before I had been in modern day Texas, but now I had traveled back in time. I was in the Texas that most people expect but never see. Michelle and I looked around. Apparently this was not the busy season, we seemed to have the entire mountain to ourselves.
Everything Michelle had planned for us to do was perfect. We went on a horseback ride up the South Rim with a picnic lunch provided at the top. I have heard that horses don’t go up there anymore because it is so hard on the trail. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t be so sure footed on those rocks. The views were amazing. There is nothing to say when you have a view like that, the guides were telling us what we were looking at but I don’t recall much. I just remember the feeling of looking out so far that the sky touched the earth and not seeing a house, or a plane or a person.
Probably the best slice of info we got on that ride was from the other travelers who told us about a hot spring that looked out over the Rio Grande. After riding all day and sleeping on some pretty pointy rocks, a natural hot tub sounded great. Michelle and I are not known for our navigational skills so I have no idea how we remembered the instructions and found our way to the 2 mile gravel road, parked and walked to the trailhead in the dark. It was a really bright moon that night and about 10 million stars did give us a hand. There was the split second where we thought, hmm, we are two young women alone next to the Rio Grande, what on earth are we thinking….but right about that moment we found the Springs, climbed in and all concerns evaporated. In fact, we regretted being so responsible that we didn’t pack any beer. We were up above the river looking down on it dappled in the moonlight. I never knew until then there are a million shades of black.
The next day we took advantage of our jeep cherokee and went cruising across the Chihuahuan desert on a dirt road that would gobble up my mini van whole. Michelle pulled out a mixed tape she had made specifically for this adventure and popped it in. Thus began my best non-road trip ever. Perhaps Jacob’s Staff wouldn’t stand out in a field of wildflowers but in the desert, it seems so defiant against the monochromatic landscape with its red tips blazing, that I have spent years painting that image. I don’t know how long we drove, at a certain point we knew we had to turn around. The Chihuahuan desert is not a place to play chicken with the gas gauge. We headed to a place in the park where you could refuel and shower. We were staying in a relatively primitive spot. The ranger had given us a map to the showers the first day and after a horseback ride and the desert, you could smell us approaching. What we didn’t know is that the showers were coin operated. This like the hammer had not been planned for. We started scouring every crevice for quarters. Let me tell you, the car wash gives you a lot more time than the coin activated showers in Big Bend. None the less, we managed to get the big chunks off before heading back to our camp site. Ready for the night in with a gourmet meal of reheated spaghetti.
The wind never seemed to die down in our camp site. In fact, we gave up cooking every morning and opted to splurge and eat at the lodge down the road. That place books up months in advance but the café is open to cold campers who can’t keep the hibachi lit, let alone start a fire. The evenings we muddled through and fortunately on speghetti night the wind gave us a break while we sat at the picnic table celebrating our grand day. It was about this time that a beautiful deer walked nonchalantly through our campsite, followed by a very large slow moving skunk and finally a smart little fox. I think we would have reacted better to a rattlesnake than the skunk. We had both been Girl Scouts, we had been told for years how to react to a snake. No one ever said what we should do if a giant skunk decided to meander through our campsite. We actually got the nervous giggles as we tried desperately to be invisible and non-threatening. What on earth would we do if we were sprayed? We would be driving 10 hours back in a rented car. There would be no way to ever eradicate skunk smell from the car. Poor Barb, she would have to buy a stinky rental car and immediately send it to the landfill. Fortunately, we were of no interest to these characters. They walked through twice. Maybe we actually did make ourselves invisible.
All the essentials of a Big Bend vacation were completed but one. We had hiked it, hoofed it and 4 wheeled it. What hadn’t been done yet, was floating it. Out we headed to spend time on the Grand Rio herself. Somehow the rendezvous point was reached without missing the boat, or raft as it was in this case. This was not your Colorado white water rafting trip. We were in fact passed up by a 100 year old Mexican man, on a donkey, going uphill with a cart attached. This is not a colorful antidote. It actually happened. Once we got our minds around the fact that this was going to be a very, very slow trip powered by the paddling of our guide, we succumbed to the lull of the river and bigness of Santa Elena canyon. Everything on the river that day felt otherworldly. The old man on the donkey, the way the reeds swayed as we passed them, what appeared to be wild horses running free on the Mexican side of the river. Perhaps it was the absence of fences that made the experience so unique. I have often wondered if I only imagined the horses in the years since the trip; my mind conjuring the freedom that belongs to wide-open land. At the end of our journey, the river guide who was about our age invited Michelle and I to come see a band at a bar/restaurant called La Kiva in Terlingua. We went back to the tent and gussied ourselves up as much as possible; I think we even ventured back to the coin operated showers. I seem to remember going into the bar semi clean and bright red.
Never before and never since have I walked into a place quite like La Kiva. It left enough of an impression that I named a cat after the place. It is exactly the type of bar that should reside in a ghost town. It feels very much like a dirt dobber hole; a place under the desert where a fox or a snake would reside. Michelle and I walked to the bar, “What are you having?” There was only one answer, “tequila.”
Somehow this bar that felt miles underground actually opened up to a great outdoor patio. It had picnic tables around the parameter, a large area for dancing and a nice area for the band, which at that very moment happened to be playing a Rolling Stones song with an accordion. We hung out with the river guide and a few other people and proceeded to have enough tequila to warrant an epiphany. This was exactly how life should be. No pretense, no distractions, no veil between us and everything else. Even the graffiti on the bathroom wall spoke volumes. I was hovering the normal 6 inches over the toilet staring at the door in front of me. Exactly eye level to someone whose hinny was well above the seat read, “Don’t bother, crabs can jump up to two feet.”
There is no hiding from the truth in the desert.
We ended up spending the night in a boathouse. Our river guide accessed we were too full of tequila to make it back to our campsite safely and gallantly drove us or had us follow him back to the boathouse. Forgive me, this memory is a bit foggier than the rest. All I know was there was nothing nefarious in this offer, although I do remember him being rather smitten with Michelle.
This was the perfect ending to our adventure. Early the next day we pulled the stakes up from our tent and were shocked to see they were no longer straight. The Chisos mountains had left their mark. We left slightly different as well. Something awakened, a knowledge that had not been there before. A knowledge that will forever have me wanting to go back to a place where wild horses run free.