We went to Big Bend National Park.
It is a full 10-hour drive from where we live in Texas (near San Antonio) to the park, which is also DUH still in Texas. This is a hard concept to grasp for some of you folks who live in little states (not that there's anything wrong with that). Texas really is big. And Big Bend National Park is big. It is over 800,000 acres. It is one of the largest, most remote, and least visited national parks in the Lower 48. It is also my spiritual "home". Because my mother's family established a homestead within the park in 1912, it is also somewhat of a physical home for me. My grandmother grew up out there, on a ranch in the desert where you could go weeks without seeing another soul. They had a large family and she used to brag that all of the children lived to adulthood. This was an accomplishment in that wild country where, if you fell ill, you were pretty much on your own, and raids from Mexican bandits were not uncommon. In fact, my grandmother told us that they kept a stocked cave in nearby Nugent Mountain, and they had to use it one evening when a neighboring rancher rode up on horseback to tell them that raiders were coming. They left dinner on the table and went by horseback to the cave, where the family spent the night. My grandmother's older brother was not home when they fled and she was terrified he was going to come home in the middle of the raid. But he came arrived shortly after they left, saw dinner on the table, and knew exactly what to do. So he met them at the cave and all was fine.
My grandmother's parents remained on the ranch until they were forced off by the government during the establishment of the national park. They were one of the last families to sell in 1942. I understand that the land was "sold" to the state for less than $2 an acre. They then relocated to Marathon, Texas, where they already maintained a home, and which is the gateway town to Big Bend National Park. But before the the exodus of the ranchers, my own mother spent her childhood summers visiting her grandparents out in the middle of that beautifully barren desert, and it was one of her favorite places to be (and still is, I like to think).
In the long run I believe that establishing the national park to preserve this beautiful area of the state was a great thing to do. I am thrilled to be able to take my children out there and find it just as it is. And the ranchers (including my family) did irreparable damage to the land through over-grazing.
We used to be tent campers/backpackers, then we moved to a small pop-up camper when we had our first child, then we moved on to adding a tent to the pop-up camper as we continued to have kids, and then we became total sell-outs and bought a travel trailer. And travel trailers come with, um....heaters. I know. I said we were sell-outs. Where we camp there is no electricity or water hookups. But we manage with these, our lovely solar panels.
There are several campgrounds within the park. The most popular with the non-sell-outs is The Basin. It is in the mountain area of the park and it is GORGEOUS. Here is a picture I took of "the window" with a storm moving in.
But our trailer is too long to pull up to the Basin. So we stay in Rio Grande Village which is close to my family's homestead of Dugout Wells. It is my favorite place and maybe that is because it is so close to "home".
This year Ellie slept in a tent because well...she really doesn't like being in the trailer with all of us. Go figure.
On our first day my dad whipped out a Herb Alpert CD. The kids had never heard of Herb Alpert. After the initial groaning, they took to him very well...almost too well. "The Lonely Bull" was definitely the theme song for this trip.
Our first day out was spent going on an off-road excursion. The van/bus we currently drive is not a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. But we mostly ignore that. It has high clearance. So we headed to Glenn Springs and made it just fine, although we had a few rough spots to conquer. Glenn Springs was a settlement with a post office and there was a cavalry stationed there to protect the settlers from the Mexican raiders. During a shoot-out between said bandits and cavalry soldiers, one of my distant cousins was killed in the crossfire. He was an 8-year-old deaf child who had wandered out during all of the excitement. There is a small cemetery on top of a hill and one of the graves is supposedly his. We can't be sure which one, but there is a small grave and we treat it as if it is his.
From the graveyard we could have hooked up with a road called Black Gap. We did it the last 3 years, but Jeff felt that we had used up all of our luck in that regard. It is a truly treacherous and wonderfully fun road - but it is really stupid for us to take it in the van. Stupid stupid stupid. Here is a pic of last year - you know, of reattaching our cargo carrier after going through a particularly rough spot.
So we took the River Road instead and drove on over to Mariscal Mine, which is set into the side of Mariscal Mountain. A ghost town lies scattered about its base. Mariscal Mine is haunted. Because I say so.
Back at camp we had a perfectly lovely and terribly cold, night. You have not seen stars until you have been out in the desert with absolutely no light pollution. It is so beautiful it hurts. And it really hurts to know that the same stars are shining, totally hidden, over our house every single night. It is nice to go out in the desert once a year to be reminded of what our sky "really" looks like.
The next day was a hiking day. We went to the kids' favorite spot of Cattail Falls. This is a awesome hike that takes you through hard desert until you come to a crack in the mountainside that holds a totally different little world. As soon as you enter the temperature drops at least 10 degrees, there are pools of water and fern and trees growing everywhere....and occasionally....a gigantic waterfall. This year we enjoyed but a trickle. But a couple of years ago we were able to see the real deal...here is a photo of what we saw that day.
My dad will be 80 years old this year. He hiked most of the way; but decided to stop at the gigantic boulders rather than attempt to climb over them. We were all fine with this until a dude showed up who was 85! He was a great guy. I wish I had gotten to talk to him longer - he was truly amazing and inspiring. So speaking of amazing and inspiring, old Eugene (my dad) is stuck back at the rocks, right? Well, we're nothing at all if not a little competitive so I said to Jeff, "Go get the old man. For God's sake he's being outdone by an 85-year-old!" So Jeff went and got Eugene and helped him over the boulders and our family pride was spared.
A couple of years ago when we were walking back to the van on this trail, we heard a mountain lion roar. How do I know it was a mountain lion, you ask? Because every little bit of my DNA knew. My cells were shouting, "Predator! THAT is a predator. And you are FOOD. Run! No, freeze! No, run! No, wait, don't move an inch..." etc etc. It was an awesome sound in the way the word awesome is meant to be used. It echoed off the canyon walls (you know, just like on TV). We had seen big tracks and little tracks together. So we knew this was a mama. And she had most likely been watching us the entire time. We hiked back in the best way a blob of terrified people clinging to each other (there were 10 of us) can move down a trail that is meant to be taken single-file....
Back to current trip: The following day was another off-road day. We took the Old Ore Road, stopping at the graveside of Juan DeLeon....a man who was murdered by in a long-standing feud between two families. As is the custom, we left pennies on his marker. We continued on until we came to the Ernst Tenaja, where we enjoyed a short hike to the "hole" (or tenaja).
We are very small on top of a ridge leading down to the tenaja, which is full of water and very deep. You don't want to slip and start that slide...And here is some camera-schmoozing among the amazing rock formations.
I know. He's cute. But he's about to throw that rock he's holding....
Later on, we drive along a plateau with a steep drop-off on either side. Here is Joel, using his little video cam. I'm yelling, "Don't step back! I mean it! Stop! NOW."
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the drive back to a paved road, and we made a stop off at Dugout Wells (our family homestead) to enjoy dinner. This is a great night for us, and has become a family tradition since my mom's death. Dugout Wells is considered a desert oasis, and there are large trees growing there (planted by settlers - probably my great-grandparents) and a picnic table, windmill, nature trail etc. But the best part about Dugout is the view. In the distance rise the majestic Sierra del Carmen mountains, in Mexico. As the sun sets, they turn brilliant shades of pink and orange. My mother used to sit on her grandparents porch and watch this nightly entertainment the way my kids might watch a TV show. Later, it was the spot where she and my dad would enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sunset. My dad still loves to quietly watch the mountains turn. We can't see her, but I know my mom is by his side. These mountains are etched by laser into my mom's tombstone. And turning the other way, as the sun sets, we see lovely silhouette of the windmill (I love windmills, don't you? When I see this windmill from miles away, it says, "You're home!") with Nugent Mountain in the background.
We built a charcoal fire (no wood - fire hazard) and heated up "footballs" (my mom's recipe of pastries stuffed with cabbage/meat/mushrooms),...and sat around trying to stay warm and listen to the night and watch the stars....We also toasted with some tequila and even summoned the spirits of the ancestors by name...We believe they joined us. They were a quiet bunch even in life - so it was hard to tell.
When we were leaving, the moon was just starting to rise. Fabulous. After it was up we all broke out into applause...for which my dad called us "lunatics". Get it?
Back in the van, we popped Herb Alpert back in, just in time for "Rise", where we sporadically clapped like white people to the approximate fourth beat of every measure...all the way back to our campsite.
The next day (are you still with me?) started with a gourmet breakfast made by Jeff, which included homemade camp bread cooked in a dutch over over the coals (in my grandfather's dutch oven that used to be used on trail drives and hunting excursions).
Camille got a little sketching time in before we headed out.
And then we were off for another hiking day. And this was MY favorite trail. This is my favorite trail not because of what rests at the end of it (I don't always even go all the way to the end) but because of what rests about 3/4 of the way down. My rock. It is totally My Rock. It is a big, flat rock that juts out over a valley. If I were a Native American, this is where I would sit to receive visions. This is the rock I go to in my mind's eye when I meditate. It is what I think about when I need a sense of peace. So you can imagine how it feels to actually physically sit on it once a year. Beautiful. Here is the path leading down to my rock. You can hardly see it - it is pretty rugged. You have to WANT to get to that rock.
Jeff understands my need to commune with this rock and he took the kids way up ahead of me on this trail, so I got a solo hike, for the most part. I thought about so much on this hike. As with most moms, the passage of time is so painstakingly present for me from year to year. All I have to do is look at the faces of my children. They change so much and so quickly.
I walked this path as a teen. I walked it as a childless woman. I walked it as a pregnant woman (more than once). I walked it with a nursling or two strapped to my chest, struggling along behind the love of my life and whoever he was currently carrying on his back. And this year I walked it as a mom of five, one of whom is growing steadfastly into an adult, one of whom I barely recognize because he has changed so much in the past 2 months....there was no baby in my womb and no more babies on the way; there was nobody to nurse, no warm bundle strapped to my back or chest. Before me lay an empty trail and I found myself utterly alone for the first time in a long time....on this trail of mine. Every now and then I glimpsed a sight of Jeff up ahead, wearing a backpack baby carrier....and it was empty. The "baby" walked beside his dad. The last baby. The carrier was symbolically and physically empty.
My soul felt trapped and freed at the same time in taking in this sight. My head spun with the speed of time and its relentless passing. But then I looked up. And the scene before me - the mountains, the rocks, the blue sky, the cliffs - it was all the same as it had always been. Stable. Locked down. I had to touch it and smell it to remind me where I was in all of this. And then I was able to walk along quite peacefully with all of the ghosts of "me", reminded that change is but an illusion created by the things that flow erratically across the earth - and the physical part of our existance is merely one of the "things". The real part of us is the bigger part. The part that is as big and unchanging as the mountains, rocks, and sky. My children and I are not changing. Not really. In some part of me I have known them forever, and forever reaches behind and ahead, simultaneously. We just are. And always will be.
I know. Pretty deep. See why I like my rock? It makes me smart and stuff.
Finally, we arrive at our last day. (Thanks for making it this far - the best part is coming). After a leisurely day spent driving around the park, taking a really short hike, and picnicing in the Basin - which is totally NOT desert and has a high elevation with junipers and pines and all of that stuff (this contrast is one of the things Big Bend is known for)...we ended up at The Best Place On Earth. It is also called the Hot Springs.
The Hot Springs are just that. Hot Springs. In 1909, J.O. Langford travelled out to the Big Bend Country because he was in poor health from bouts with malaria and had heard about the hot springs and their curative powers. After 21 days of taking daily soaks in the springs, he found himself cured. He decided to open up a "spa", if you will. He and his wife and their daughter, (named Lovey) built a motel and bath house. And people came! It became quite the spot for awhile. You could pay 10 cents/day or $2 for the 21 day plan. The store and post office and motel still stand, as do remains of Langford's home. To get to the springs you walk down a path that follows the Rio Grande. Along the path are petroglyphs, reminders that the springs were used way before JO Langford ever set foot there.
Some years, the river is too high and it overflows the springs (all that is left of the "bath house" are some tubs and the ruins of the walls - so if the river is high it simply overtakes it). You can't get into the springs when that happens, and you wouldn't want to soak in the unfortunately polluted Rio Grande, anyway. Sometimes the path itself is too water-logged to make it down to the springs. So you never know what you are going to find and when you are able to walk down there and actually soak in the springs it is quite a treat. Last year the Rio Grande's level was just a few inches below the remains of the wall. In the picture of the springs from my previous post, it looks as if the river is right to the top, but it isn't. This is a picture from last year, I didn't take my camera down to the springs this year.
This year, the water was probably 3 feet below the walls. You can see a small portion of the Sierra del Carmen mountains from here, while soaking next to a small section of rapids, a mere stone's throw from Mexico. You also never know who you are going to find soaking in the springs. During Spring Break we are told the springs are often full of drunk college kids. We avoid all spring break dates (another great thing about homeschooling) so have never had to suffer through this. One time we witnessed a Mexican family carry an ailing elderly man to set him gently into the springs while praying....we prayed, too. Another year I had a lovely conversation with an old-timer who finally said his goodbyes and then stood up to reveal he was totally nude, of course. Last year we're pretty sure we soaked with a fugitive who had come across the river. He was American but looked pretty rough and definitely was not a tourist. Was not chatty. He was there for an honest-to-god bath, which he enjoyed and then quietly went back across the river. This year we met a lovely couple from Sweden, who left shortly after our arrival (we tend to scare people off). They did tell us that the genetleman they had been soaking with previously had been nude. This was not alarming news for us. If there is any place on earth where a man should be able to take his clothes off and soak as God intended, it is here at The Hot Springs on the Rio Grande in the company of fugitives, Mexicans, Swedes, timeless spirits of those who have gone before, and the occasional large homeschooling family.
We soaked for an unbeleivable 1 1/2 hours. The water temperature is 105 degrees. My dad, who sat outside the springs in a chair, was wearing a coat and hat and was mildly chilled. So we're talking a nice, steamy soak. Due to the recent flood, the silt levels were high, so I had to repeatedly remind the little guys to sit quietly and not stir it up. They kept having to sit out on the sides when they became too red in the face, and their skin would steam. The sun set on us, the darkness came up fast, and we found ourselves struggling back up the path (still steaming) with a little flashlight. This is my other spot I go to in my mind, so to soak for an hour and a half in the real thing was a dream come true.
Back at camp it was downright cold, although I was so heated up that it took awhile for me to feel it. Once I did, I was quickly inside my favorite wool poncho. The wool poncho was bought about 30 years ago in the town of Ojenaga, Mexico. Ojenaga is not a tourist destination, it was a place we just ended up, once. And bought this poncho. It is like wearing a wool rug - it is actually thicker than a blanket. It is soft and WARM. It is one of my favorite things :). We had a few more tequila shots and built a charcoal fire to roast marshmallows. The problem was that the little kids were so pooped they missed the marshmallow roasting, entirely. Sitting in that hot water can zap the energy right out of you. For the little guys, it was basically their life force energy. For me - it was strictly negative energy. All the yucky stuff just washed right out, leaving me almost high. Ahhhh....I'm missing it, already.
Anyway - so that was our last night and it was a cold one. It got down to 21 degrees. The next morning we packed up uneventfully and headed home. As soon as we left the park boundaries, the electrical gadgets came back on. We stopped for dinner in Uvalde, Texas, where my mom went to high school and where we were only 2 and a half hours or so from home. I had on my bandana and couldn't really take it off since it had been on my head all week. Ellie had one on because she was covering up dirty teenager hair, and Camille had one on because Ellie and I had one on. Jules and Jasper were wearing pants at least 5 inches too short - Joel had terrifying hair. Nobody knew we had been camping in the wilderness for a week. We drew stares. My bandana-clad teenager was mortified. She looked at me, her bandana-clad mother, and her bandana-clad sister and filthy brothers and said, "The Homeschoolers Go Out For Dinner". Yeah, we were a sight, that's for sure.
OK - well if you read this entire thing - that is really something. If you didn't, it was great to write it, anyway. Oh! And if you read the whole thing, you might as well go over to Social Skills - Who Needs 'Em? and read my blog there, which has nothing to do with Big Bend National Park and everything to do with lessons learned from Sex and the City. I have, so far, received two scathing comments from angry women who said I couldn't write worth a hoot. I'm not sure why they were angry about it :). So don't leave me hangin' with those!
Signing off from home is a More Relaxed Sardine Mama