Adventures at Terlingua Ranch and Big Bend National Park
At about five in the morning, we loaded up our vehicles and got on the road. It had been ten years since I last visited Big Bend National Park. It's always been a tradition for us to go out to Big Bend in the spring. When I lived in Texas I went more often, but since I moved out to the west coast, I haven't been back in a while. I was very much looking forward to visiting one the least visited and most underrated parks in the National Park system. But we would only spend a day in the park on this trip, as now we had a place of our own in the area.
About a year ago Phillip told me he found some land in West Texas that was super cheap, and he wanted us all to go in on it together. For five hundred dollars a piece, it was hard to say no. Our friends Justin and Chris were also interested, so together we bought five acres on Terlingua Ranch, which is only about forty five minutes from the park. It's totally raw land, though it's part of a neighborhood with good roads and a small community center at the headquarters.
The others guys had all been out to the land a time or two before, and on their last visit they built a cedar pole shelter with a metal roof. This was to be my first trip out there, and I was glad to finally check it out. Justin was meeting us there, but Chris had some other obligations and couldn’t get away.
Phillip and I arrived on Thursday afternoon, driving in separate cars. I was going to keep going west after our camping trip, while he and Justin would head back to New Braunfels.
Driving into the Ranch, I was surprised to see that the roads were in good condition. Several houses had already been built, and while some were more like cabins, many of them were full houses, and quite nice. When we arrived at our spot I looked over the shelter the guys had built. It was just a pole frame with a roof, but that made all the difference out in the desert. After we wrapped some tarps around the windy side and set up a table and some chairs, it felt quite cozy.
We planned to double the size of the shelter, work we would be getting started on during this visit. Phillip and I had brought a truck load of juniper poles salvaged from the clearing we had done on his parents’ land, and Justin was bringing some two by fours and concrete. Without Chris we didn’t have the roofing or the generator to run power tools, but we would do what work we could with what we had.
After a quick meal, Phillip and I headed out on a hike. The full moon would be coming up soon after sundown, and the hill next to our camp would provide us with some amazing views of the desert sunset and moonrise. It was such an amazing night. The colors of that sunset were beyond belief, and then the soft purple blues of the moonrise came right behind it. It was such a magical experience. The stars came out, and my how they shone.
At one point both Phillip and I turned to the Northeast, where we started to see something in the sky. At first It thought I was seeing a satellite, but it was definitely not. We both saw the same things: lights swerving and dipping along the horizon, sometimes looking like fireworks being shot up, but instead of blowing up they just weaved around until they burned out. It went on for what felt like a minute or so, and it was astounding.
“We just saw the Marfa lights,” Phil said. I supposed that we must have. The Marfa lights are a famous phenomenon seen in the night sky near Marfa, Texas, which was indeed in the direction we had been looking. Nobody knows what actually causes the lights, though some sort of undisclosed technology seems to be the most obvious answer. But after seeing those lights... I don't know. It didn't look like vehicles, and whatever those lights were, it was hard to connect them with any kind of function. They seemed so random.
The sun was long gone when we started our journey back down the hill. The moon was up and brightly illuminated the desert beyond. We could no longer see our camp, but we knew it was just down the road. We started down and then saw a car coming up. It was a young couple who seemed surprised to see us wandering about, saying they didn’t see too many people walking out on that road at night. They said they lived ten miles further back. Ten miles! That’s way back there.
After they went on, we walked along the road for what seemed like a long time. At one point it seemed like the slope of the hill we were on seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Both Phillip and I thought we walked for a long time, but it was I who first openly questioned if we knew that we were going the right way. Most of our trip had been spent up on the top of a high hill with a commanding view of the whole landscape. And even after the sun went down, with the full moon the light was quite good. But once we were down on the road everything looked the same, and it was hard to tell which hill we had even come from.
It seemed impossible that we could get lost that close to our camp, but it had no lights to look for, and we came down from the hill using only the moonlight. It was dark, and it would be getting colder. Our camp was nearby, but we started to wonder just how exactly we would find it.
This was not a good place to get lost. We had a sense of where we thought the camp was, and one point we felt like the road was taking us in the wrong direction, so we we left it, b-lining it in the direction that we knew the camp was. We crossed one arroyo, and then went into another. I started to question the wisdom of leaving the road, and I felt a moment of dread that we might be in for a hard night if we got ourselves lost. We never panicked, but we started moving fast. After a while Phil said he thought he could see his truck. I couldn’t see it at first, but then it came into view. Was it a mirage? It was hard to say in the eerie glow of the moonlight.
We approached slowly, not sure if we had somehow come upon someone else’s place. We don't have a whole lot of neighbors, but there are other folks out there. The truck just didn’t seem right. But when we got to the pavilion, we realized we were home. We had found it! How, we weren’t sure. Homing instincts. It felt really good to be back. We had a good laugh about our little scare. We probably would have had no trouble getting from that hill top to our camp in the full moon if it had been an ordinary night, but it was no ordinary night. The moonlight reflected off the harsh desert rocks was enchanting, and purple glow of the moonrise seemed to linger for hours. What a night! We built a fire and talked about old times, as well as plans for our time on the land. We had three full days left out here, one of which we would spend in the park.
We went to bed late, Philip in his hammock and I in my tent. The next day we made a nice big meal and chilled out for a while. As we were waiting for Justin, we started feeling ambitious. Phil picked out a place near the creek bed where the gravel dropped off in a steep slope. He wanted to dig into the hill and build a little sunset watching shelter. We estimated the depth we would need to dig to get a decent roof height, and it seemed achievable. So we gathered the tools and started digging. When Justin showed up we had already made a good start. We took a break to greet him, but soon we were all out there, scooping out a section of the rocky gravel bank one shovel load at a time. We made good progress before quitting for the day, going back to camp to have a meal and hang out.
Early on Saturday morning we struck out for the park. We decided to hike up into Santa Elena Canyon, which is one Big Bend’s most spectacular attractions. After hiking up a path leading over the boulders on the American side of the canyon, we descended into the cooler canyon floor, where the sun only shines for a short window every day. A thick forest of bamboo like plant called giant cane, or Arundo donax, grows around the massive boulders that have peeled off from the thousand foot cliffs. Reeds and other shrubs cluster along the river, and the entire area feels green and lush unlike anything else you find in the desert.
Justin had never been into Santa Elena, and he was blown away. It’s beautiful enough hiking as far back as the trail goes, but it gets even more breathtaking farther back in the canyon. We left our shoes on the shore at the end of the trail, continuing along in the river. The Rio Grand is not very deep, and we managed to hike up a good ways without getting our shorts wet. Well, almost. A few times we got a sudden nip of cold water right at the seat of our hiked up shorts.
The water was cold, but the hike was absolutely gorgeous. We spent most of the morning there, taking breaks at nice sitting spots and stopping to frequently to soak up the towering views. Eventually we started back downstream, and as we were getting back to the beach where we left our shoes we could hear the sound of a large group of college guys who had hiked to the water’s edge and were looking out.
“How deep does that water get?” one of them asked.
“About balls deep,” Phillip said. We all had a good laugh at that. It was the literal truth.
That afternoon we crossed to the other end of the park to have a soak in the hot springs, stopping on the way to have a picnic at Dugout Wells, which is a small oasis in the middle of the desert where a spring gives life to a tiny little grove of cottonwoods, cenizo, and mesquite trees. An old windmill, leftover from when some pioneers had a small settlement here, still pumps up water that supplements the spring’s flow. It was a fine spot to take refuge from the afternoon sun and have a repast.
We continued to the hot springs, parking the car and then walking past the old resort that J.O. Langford opened in 1909 after securing the land through the homestead act. He had to leave for some fifteen years because of bandits making the whole area unsafe, but he came back in the twenties and rebuilt the place. It’s now part of the park, and thankfully they still allow soaking in the tub, which has been there for over a century. On our walk in we took a look at some of the petroglyphs left by the native people who frequented those wonderfully warm healing waters long before Langford arrived. The hot springs are consistently 105 degrees, and Langford claimed to have been healed of malaria by a special 21 day treatment in the waters.
We didn’t have twenty one days, but we were eager for a soak after three days in the desert with no running water. The hot springs were more crowded than they had been on my previous visits, but still there was room for us all. Even in the desert heat the hot water felt so wonderful. The pool of hot water is right on the river’s edge, so of course we also took cold dips in the Rio.
That evening we went into the town of Terlingua to eat at a restaurant and listen to some local musicians. It was a nice night, other than the fact that I forgot my poncho in the chair I was sitting in, and by the time I realized this we were well on our way home, with no cell service. My favorite poncho! The original poncho. I’d have to go back for it when I got my car, I figured.
Justin had to leave on Sunday, but we had half the day to get some more work done. We dug three more holes and sank posts to extend the main structure. Without power tools, there wasn't much more we could do on that structure. After Justin left, Phil and I sank some more posts for the dugout shelter, since we had plenty of juniper posts. We worked fairly long into the evening, getting the basic framing up as it was getting dark. It had no roof yet, but we carved a nice bench into the hillside and we gathered a good start on the rocks we would need to build the wall on the upper end of the shelter.
It’s fun to build shelters. That’s one of the main reasons Phil wanted to get the land - so we could build some stuff on it. Eventually we plan to build a nice off grid house, but first we needed some basic structures to make it easier to camp there. That desert sun is so brutal, and the winds are pretty crazy too, so having a roof and some walls is critical.
On Monday morning, Phil and I did a bit more work on the new shelter, but mostly we got things packed up. I wanted to get on the road by midday. Phil needed to go back to town to get gas before we went out to where I left my car, so I rode with him and we went by the restaurant where I left the poncho. I was quite surprised when they told me they hadn’t found it. Nobody had seen it or heard anything about someone finding it. They let me look around the place, even back in the office where they had a few random coats hanging, but no poncho. Phillip was waiting so I didn’t have time to do more investigation.
I later regretted that. I knew no one in that community that I could contact and ask to inquire around. I find it a strange irony that the poncho, which has been with me almost from the beginning of my adventuring career, would depart from my life on my first introduction to a cool community in my home state, in a place where I now owned some property. Even now I have not yet entirely given up hope of finding my poncho, as someone had to have taken it somewhere, and I don’t suspect any thievery in a small community like Terlingua. I made attempts to join their facebook group, but I was never approved. At this point, I simply need to go back out there and open up an investigation.
So for now, anyway, it’s goodbye to the poncho. Perhaps it’s time for it look after someone else for a while.
After I got my car I got on the road, sad but still on a mission. My journey west was underway, and I was about to embark on a rather whirlwind tour of the Southwest on my way up to Oregon. Next stop was Las Cruces.