Monday, July 20, 2015

Seminole Canyon TX

The 3-4 hour drive from Big Bend to Seminole Canyon State Park is relatively short, especially by west Texas standards. This area is marked by vast limestone deposits which formed as the seabed of a  Cretaceous sea covering much of Texas. Today limestone is a commonly used building material. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather pointing out the fossils of sea critters that can be found in these limestones.

Close to our destination, we cross over the Pecos River, used by the Spanish in their explorations of Texas and the southwest.  "West of the Pecos" refers to the boundary of lawlessness in the Wild West as most law authorities stopped at the Pecos River. That is, as legend holds, until the arrival of the infamous Judge Roy Bean (aka the "Hanging Judge") who is reputed to have hung men for the slightest infraction of law.
Texas Hwy 90 runs over vast deposits of limestone

Pecos River


After paying for our campsite and tickets to the 3pm canyon tour at the Visitor Center, we set up for the night. The tours of the Fate Bell Shelter cost $5 apiece and are led by archeologists from the Rock Art Foundation. These tours are well worth your time and money, besides visitors are only allowed to enter the canyon on a guided tour.

As the day wears on, the clouds become heavier and darker threatening rain. We meet our two tour guides promptly at 3pm in the Visitor Center. Our guides tell us about Lower Pecos Archeology and the rock art found here. We then step outside and start winding our way down into the canyon.  The trail into the canyon is marked by a large sculpture modeled after a figure found in the rock art below. A little farther down the trail we stop at a Sotol plant. This plant was the mainstay for local native cultures for over 9000 years. The fleshy root was "baked" in the ground to form a carbohydrate rich energy bar. The roots were fermented into a beer-like beverage. The fibrous leaves were used for making rope, cloth, and sandals.  This one plant was one stop shopping for groceries, hardware, apparel, and liquor.
Flags by Visitor Center

Sculpture at entrance to trail

Sotol

Seminole Canyon (named for Seminole Indian scouts) only has a few pools of water left at the bottom, but the sky continues to threaten a quick change as we near the cave shelter. Once we arrive at the base of the shelter, we climb up ladders which are fortunately not as difficult as  Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde.
Water pool in Seminole Canyon

Look - there's the overhang

View from rock shelter

The first pictographs we see are individual beings painted in reds and blacks. 
This one looks like an accordion monkey

Coyote pointing to a paramecium?

Giant shrimp ?

Although no living person knows for sure what these images mean, several of the larger panels seem to suggest a ceremony or ritual. The archeologists once invited an elderly Huichol  shaman to view these images. He immediately recognized many of the figures and named them. The Huichols (known for their ritualistic use of peyote) believe the people who painted these images are their ancestors.
Panel detail

Panel of a dance ritual ?

Panel detail

Unfortunately, we don't have much time to appreciate fully the main panel as the thunder is getting louder, plus our guides have received a call for us to return to the Visitor Center as the storm is getting closer. We have just a moment to admire the last panel and sea shells embedded in limestone before leaving.
Fossils in limestone

Those clouds are getting dark


Back in the Visitor Center, we take time to view a replica of one of the more spectacular panels found in Seminole Canyon.
Panel of rock art at Visitor Center



Alto Safari camper neighbor
The sky is rumbling louder by the time we make it back to camp. We are attracted to an interesting trailer so we knock on the door. Turns out the owners are friendly and are more than happy to tell us about their Safari Condo. It's an intriguing teardrop design with a telescoping roof; all very light and aerodynamic. Plus it's amazingly spacious and private inside. 

We return to our camp and set up drinks and pupus at our covered picnic area.  Just then Matt, a bicyclist we met during the tour, peddles by. We flag him down and invite him to join us.  He's looking for a campsite sheltered from the impending storm.  Since we're sleeping inside the van, we offer the picnic shelter which will at least put a roof over his head. Turns out Matt is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and is now a graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at U of Texas at Austin. He's taking a few months off from his studies to pedal to San Diego and then on to the Bay Area.

Suddenly a big bolt of lightning strikes nearby followed by a loud clap of thunder and a strong gust of wind. We're left scrambling for bags of chips and crackers before all piling into the van for cover. Although our dinner supplies are a low, we are happy to share a makeshift meal as the storm rages outside and Matt entertains us with stories of his travels through the Middle East. After dinner is cleaned up, the storm stops as quickly as it came upon us. Everyone in the campground leaves their campers and tents fascinated by the brilliant double rainbow and scarlet sunset. Maybe these same brilliant colors has inspired Huichol Art over the ages.
Van with rainbows

Scarlett sunset

CU double rainbow

In the morning when we step out of the van, we discover Matt has already broken camp and peddled off westward. It was fun being "road angels" to such an interesting young man. One of the great perks of traveling is the people we meet.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Big Bend TX

After a wonderful time in the Tucson area, we hop on I-10 and head east towards the great state of Texas.



As in the days of the fabled Route 66, we pass multiple billboards announcing the upcoming roadside attraction - "The Thing." When I was a kid in the back seat of the family Chevy with my brother, we whined and begged our parents to please, please stop to see "The Thing," but cold hardheartedly my Father drove boldly by without stopping. Since it's time for a break and a DQ, we stop and I finally get  to see "The Thing."

Father knew best. It's just a shop selling trinkets to tourists. "The Thing" exhibit wasn't even appealing enough for us to shell out extra bucks to see it. Guess "The Thing" will remain one of life's mysteries after all. 
Can we stop and see "The Thing"?

Humm - lots of gifts but not much of a museum


We have miles to make before reaching our next major destination of Big Bend TX so we buzz right through New Mexico, which is unusual because it's one of our favorite states. Tonight we plan to spend the camp at Hueco Tanks State Park outside of El Paso TX. However, we arrive at the park gate to find it locked. It's only 6:30pm. We are shocked as we have never known a park to lock its gate so early in the evening. Then we notice small sign announcing the gates closes at 6pm.   We try boondocking just outside the park, but the area looks too sketchy to stay. Hummm... maybe that's why the gate gets locked so early.  Discouraged, we turn back towards El Paso in search of a quiet RV park. No such luck - so we keep driving. Finally we end up at a family run RV park about 60 miles south of El Paso with our heads a few feet away from I-10. It's one of the most miserable nights in our camping careers. Peter figures a loud semi-truck rumbles by about once a minute. I use ear plugs and cover my head with pillows trying to drown out the racket and get some sleep.
New Mexico sticks to a lot of people

Texas state line

On the way to Hueco Tanks State Park

In the morning we vow to NEVER try to camp around El Paso TX again. After groggily downing strong coffee, we resume driving towards Big Bend.  One town we pass through is Marfa TX. I was last here in the early 1970's and am astonished by it's transformation from an almost deserted dust bowl to an arty happening place. Everything changes - lucky for Marfa; change has been good.
Downtown Marfa TX

Public Radio in Marfa ?

Art sculpture of in front of a former car dealership

As much as Marfa is inviting us to explore the town, we've got miles to make before camping in Big Bend this evening. The next town is Alpine TX, reputed to be the center of the sprawling Big Bend area.  It's also the home of Sul Ross State University.  If you've seen the movie Boyhood, Sul Ross is where the main character, Mason, goes to college at the end. Although Alpine is considered to be the "center" of Big Bend, we still have at least a two hour drive before reaching camp. Even though Texas is only the second largest state (behind Alaska), driving distances can be daunting, especially in West Texas.
Onwards to Big Bend

Downtown Alpine TX

Sul Ross college students must be nearby

We first search around the old mining town of  Terlingua TX for campsites and find some possibilities, but going a little farther we find a real gem in Lajitas TX's  at Maverick Ranch RV Park.
Big Bend's ahead in the distance

Road around Terlingua TX

Entrance to Maverick Ranch RV Park

After a long drive and a bad experience the night before outside of El Paso, Maverick Ranch is just what we need. It's a modern full service park with nice views of the surrounding Big Bend landscape.  The community center has wonderful showers and a laundry room plus a swimming pool.
Camped at Maverick Ranch

View from campsite

Community Center

We wake up the next morning refreshed and are off to explore Big Bend Ranch State Park. As much things go in Texas, this state park is BIG, but most of the roads require high clearance or 4WD. Also, Big Bend is subject to flash floods. These areas tend to be identified by water depth gauges. Warning: pay attention to these gauges during flooding. It could save your life.

Texas is a land of extremes. "It's either too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet" I joke to my cousins when they ask why I don't live here. They nod with a knowing laugh and respond smiling "Just wait 15 minutes and it'll change."

Acting on advice from fellow campers, we drive the River Road Texas FM 170 half way to Persidio where there's a high overlook. FM 170 follows the Rio Grande along the US side of the border with Mexico and is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the United States.
FM 170 westward leaving Lajitas

Flood gauge

Rest area along the banks of the Rio Grande

Up to the overlook

View from the top

View back the way we came

View looking eastward to Big Bend National Park



The views keep coming as we descend from the overlook. FM 170 is definitely a scenic drive worth taking. Before leaving the Big Bend State Park, we stop at the Contrabando. It's move set built in 1985 for the western comedy Uphill All the Way. Since then the town gained more buildings as nine other movies were filmed here. Perhaps the most notable production was the 1995 TV mini-series Streets of Laredo.
Classic Rio Grande vista

Spring flowers at Contrabando

along the banks of the Rio Grande

Contrabando movie set



We plan to camp in Big Bend National Park (interactive map) this evening, so we enter the park using my handy Interagency Senior Pass (the best $10 you'll ever spend). First we try the Chisos Basin Campground as it's reported to be the most beautiful. It is indeed spectacular, but we can't find a site large or flat enough for the van. Moving on we settle on a nice campsite at Cottonwood.
Approaching Big Bend National Park

Road up to Chisos Basin Campground

Campsite at Cottonwood

This campground is a mixed blessing. As we set up we notice several tents standing in a campsite adjacent to us. We figure some sort of youth group is camping there. Around dinner time a rowdy bunch of college students (probably from Sul Ross) return and proceed to drink, eat, and make themselves merry. We wonder if they will ever quiet down, but just before the evening curfew at 10pm, they do. The rangers must have the Sul Ross students pretty well trained.
Some of our quieter neighbors

View from camp

Cactus and wildflowers in bloom

The camp host recommends visiting Santa Elena Canyon. On her advice, we break camp and park at the trail head. As we start down the trail we see a river trip forming on the banks. It appears the college kids from camp are going on a canoe trip up the canyon.  The rocky trail generally follows the river into the canyon. As we hike and gaze down into the muddy waters of the Rio Grande, John Wesley Powell's description of the Colorado river comes to mind "Too thick to drink. Too thin to plow."
There's the college kids again

Trail into Santa Elena Canyon

Muddy river water

The trail down the steep canyon is rocky and studded with blooming plants.
Rocky trail with flowers

I stop by the canyon walls


Ocotillo in bloom

About midway through the hike, some of the college boys catch up to us in their canoe. We watch as they hide behind a rock and then "attack" the girls as they come into view in their own canoes. Much fun and laughter is had by all. We chuckle to ourselves remembering similar river trip antics.
Hiding in ambush


The attack is on!

Overlook of the Rio Grande from the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon



Afterwards we drive to Rio Grande Village on the other side of the park to try another campground in the quieter "No Generator" zone.
Rocks by the summit of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Peter tries the outside shower

Camped at Rio Grande Village

After a good night's sleep, we drive a short distance to the parking area for Boquillas Canyon trail head. Not far on the Mexican side of the border we can easily see the small town of Boquillas Del Carmen. The border is very porous here as the water is quite shallow easily allowing passage. The town's residents set up displays of wire and bead critters for sale to  park visitors on a honor system. The park rangers caution visitors against buying these trinkets because they are bought without going through US Customs.  We shake out heads at the absurdity and gladly shell out the magnificent sum of $5 for the Singing Jesus to serenade us from across the river. While this canyon isn't as steep as Santa Elena it is backed by the remote mountains of the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Mexico.
Maderas del Carmen

Wire and beaded trinkets for sale

Trail up Boquillas Canyon

Singing Jesus stands on a rock across the river

with his mount not far away.

Singing Jesus sits waits on a rock for his next customers

We've had a great time in Big Bend and hate to leave.
Distant peaks as we leave Big Bend National Park



Oh but wait, did you hear about the wildflowers? For once we got lucky and hit a big bloom in Big Bend. Wildflowers are blooming everywhere. One visitor said he'd been coming to Big Bend every spring for many years and this was the best bloom he had ever seen. By the way, if you happen to be in Big Bend for the next big bloom, beware of tourists stopping and leaving their vehicles in the middle of the road while they go off and snap photos of flowers.








Beyond the boundaries of the park, we are once again in the wide open spaces of West Texas.
Los Caballos rock formation

Ranch lands of West Texas



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Retired and enjoying life.