Texas Traveler: Terlingua to the Park

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Ed. Note: This is the fourth part in a series of posts on traveling to Big Bend and back. Click back to read posts 1, 2 and 3.

Let me start off by saying that if you are a Big Bend virgin and you have the opportunity to visit the park for the first time with a seasoned veteran, jump on that chance. If the veteran also happens to be a professional geologist, you are in for a real treat.

And so it was that after almost a week of exploring West Texas, we finally made it to our destination, Big Bend National Park. We checked into Big Bend Motor Inn in Terlingua, Texas, a ghost town that now houses a few buildings and served as one of the northern entryway to the park. It was New Year's Eve, and our plan was to meet four other friends, so out for drinks, and begin exploring the park on January 1.

There isn't much in Terlingua other than a few overpriced supply stores. There isn't much anywhere in this part of Texas, which probably accounts for why BBNP, one of the biggest national parks in the country, also has the lowest visitor rate of any national park in the lower 48 states.

Our friends, who are driving in from Houston that day, haven't arrived yet, so we start the evening off with a fantastic (if overpriced) dinner at the Starlight Theatre, which is exactly what it sounds like -- an old movie theater turned diner. I eat an axis venison burger with raspberry chipotle mayo that pools on one side of my plate because, this being an old movie theater, the floor (and our table) incline downward towards the old screen and stage. Outside, hordes of people are gathered on the storefront's porch, sipping beers. There isn't much to do on New Year's Eve in Terlingua, and this is it.

Back at the hotel we rendezvous with our friends and head to La Kiva for the night. The legendary bar is built into the side of a creek, and like a cave, you must descend a series of steps below ground to enter. Outside, giant fire pits are raging, while inside, a bar band featuring the head botanist for BBNP is playing covers of The Talking Heads and Grateful Dead.

La Kiva is infamous for many reasons. On the wall there is a sculpture pieced together from the bleached bones of dead desert animals referred to fondly as Penisaurus erectus. In the men's room, a gigantic copper pot serves as a urinal. And the place is huge -- I'm led on a rogue tour, lighted only by cell-phone displays, of yet another level below the one we're dancing on, old dusty rooms filled with picnic tables, broken rows of theater seats and who knows what else.

The towns in this area have some archaic law that the bars must close at midnight. (We experienced this at Padre's in Marfa too), which means the band has to give an early countdown at 11:45 p.m. after which we are all unceremoniously kicked out of the bar. Not content with this toast, my friends and I stand in the parking lot, pouring cheap champagne carted in from Houston into plastic cups pilfered from the hotel, watching the satellite clock on my iPhone tick down until 11:59:59. We toast each other, and in a round we share our best parts of the last years, our worst parts and what we hope for 2010. It's a pretty awesome way to start the new year.

The next morning we get up super early and rive into the park, where we pay the $20 for a 7-day pass. Our first destination is Santa Elena canyon, an easy hike following a night of revelry. To get there, we take the most direct route, a primitive park road called Old Maverick. The giant gash, carved over billions of years by the now-dwindled Rio Grande, is visible in the distance. When we finally get there, we have to walk across a wide swath of sand to get to the trail that leads up the canyon.

Twenty feet in front of me is Mexico, and this is the closest I have ever been. The river is narrow and shallow here, and the temptation to wade across it is huge. I want to stand on the other side and have someone take my picture, but I do not dare risk getting arrested or worse. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the border between Texas and Mexico is the deepest part of the river as it flowed in 1848, the year the treaty was signed. So, in other words, the border doesn't exist anymore. At least not the physical one. I am still not willing to take my chances.

After the 1.7 mile hike into and out of Santa Elena, we drive to tuff canyon, and here is where my geologist friend really gets into things. He explains to us all about tuff, though he could be bullshitting and none of the rest of us would be the wiser. We hike into the canyon then hike out again by bouldering, good training for the following day's hike to Emory Peak.

Later, we eat a simple lunch in a circular drive that serves as the starting point for the Mule Ears loop, and visit the Panther Junction ranger's station, where we pick up handfuls of maps and pamphlets.

The campsite we have reserved is on the north end of the park, away from the Chisos Mountains, which has it's advantages and disadvantages. It's way the hell out there, but it will also be secluded. Just in case, our geologist friend goes to check on any open spots in the park's basin while we hike the Window Trail, a 4-mile walk from the center of the Basin down to the top of what become, in rainy seasons, a 200 foot waterfall. The view is spectacular, and the sun is beginning to set early behind the tall rim of the collapsed volcano that makes up most of central Big Bend.

In all of our planning for this trip we have read that black bears, once endangered, have been reappearing in Big Bend, and are often seen in the busy parts of the park where they can take advantage of the campsites of careless visitors. And so, on our way back to the basin after photo-ops at the Window, who do we come across but a black bear, slouching away from the honeycomb snack he was enjoying. West Texas Road Trip Wildlife list: black bear, javelina, fox, deer.

The sun is setting fast now so we pack the cars again and head north to Grapevine Hills, our campsite for the weekend. It is freezing outside and fires are prohibited (Big Bend is, after all, a desert), so after our simple camp-side dinner and a few glasses of wine, we crawl into out 10º sleeping bags and settle in for the night. The next day's hike will be a long one -- we're going to the highest peak in the park.

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