Monday, June 1, 2015

Weekends Across America XI - Big Bend National Park

Everything is obnoxiously huge bigger in Texas.
For someone who can't be in one place for too long without getting antsy, I sometimes find it hard living in the middle of Texas. Sure, Austin is pretty great, but it is a microcosm of greatness, surrounded on all sides by vast, dusty nothingness. Outside of a few Hill Country spots, driving somewhere new and interesting is downright impossible. Ok, maybe not downright impossible, but it takes a lot of commitment. West Texas, for example, has some fabulously tantalizing places to offer, but to get there from Austin without flying... well, load up your iTunes and get ready to incubate an impressive butt groove in your car seat. It's going to be a long, long, long drive.

West Texas scenery
For years we've heard friends talk about West Texas in wistful, dreamy terms that conjured images of a wild, mysterious and poetic place - wide open spaces with a smattering of tiny, rugged and bizarre settlements, ghost towns, hot springs, and mountains baking in the sun. I have long wanted to visit, long felt deterred by the drive, but we finally bit the bullet for Memorial Day weekend, and drove to Big Bend.

Despite its frustratingly gigantic size, Texas has only one National Park. But Big Bend lacks for nothing compared to its counterparts. It is a savage and majestic place, lush and blooming after the wet spring we had this year, a tapestry of green mountain slopes and valleys carpeted in wildflowers.

One of the things that attracts visitors to this remote part of the country is the almost total absence on human development over large areas of land. There are no cities for hundreds of miles, just tiny, quirky towns favored by artists and low-impact living enthusiasts. We stayed in the ghost town of Terlingua, a former mining town with a population that peaked at 2,000 inhabitants sometime in the last century, was abandoned and fell into disuse, but was later resettled and is currently home to a whopping 58 people. We rented a trailer on the outskirts, a small but cozy coop that served as a good homebase for our adventures.

Hiking is the best way to take in some of the grandeur and natural spendor of the area. Big Bend is so remote, that even on peak season weekends like Memorial Day, it feels strangely empty - something that's very rare for national parks.

One of the biggest highlights is the Santa Elena canyon, where the Santa Elena river runs through a  gorge in the mountains.

To hike the trail, you have to cross the river on foot. It's not deep, but the current is swift, the water is muddy, and the bottom a slippery pebble-studded clay, so it's just slightly unnerving. The hike through the canyon makes it all worth it though.

The slanting strata of rock gives an unsettling impression that the river is flowing up a hill.
After Santa Elena, we took in a few hiking trails that wind around the mountains among the alien looking plants, overlooking vast open landscapes as they slowly darkened with the coming of the latest storm. Luckily we avoided getting drenched, and managed to capture some wonderfully moody weather photos to boot.

We also dedicated a few hours to the famous "Window Trail" - a scenic 2-hour hike that ends with a beautiful surprise.

End of the Window Trail. No going further for sure, but a great spot to reflect for a few minutes amid the windy silence.

Big Bend comprises a good chunk of the US' border with Mexico, and there is a crossing point in the park where visitors can go across the Rio Grande into the village of Boquillas Del Carmen.

The whole thing is quite an odd affair. The tension of the US-Mexico border, something so supercharged and looming in our collective  consciousness, seems to be completely absent here, in this quiet, stuffy checkpoint where the only soundtrack is the whirring of crickets and buzzing of flies. You show your passport to a bored border patrol agent, then hike a few minutes down to the Rio Grande, where you gesture across the muddy water to a guy in a dinghy (who happens to be over in another country) to come get you. You give him 5 bucks (flat rate), and he deposits you on the other side. From there you can take either a donkey, a pick up, or a 15 minute walk into town.

This is where it gets trippy. To call it a town is to flatter it obsequiously, because Boquillas del Carmen has clearly seen better days. It used to be quite a popular little town, enjoying the patronage of Americans vacationing in the Big Bend and looking for a quick and easy cultural diversion. They sold crafts, maintained a small collection of restaurants and offered rides around their local natural landscapes and nearby towns. Then 9/11 happened and this border crossing was closed. Almost overnight, all business dried up, and the town essentially died.

The crossing was reopened in 2011. It seems like life is slowly, tentatively coming back. You can tell by the simple and unassuming handicrafts that hang off every fence, the newly installed solar street lights, the few humble but presentable cafes offering very simple, but wickedly satisfying Mexical food along with sucker-punch margaritas. But overall, there is still a ghost town odor to the place. The townspeople are at the mercy of global forces entirely outside their control, it seems. There is a steady, if minute trickle of visitors coming and going today, but is it enough to sustain this marginal community? Can Boquillas ever exist as more than a fleeting footnote?

Something to ponder, under this star-spangled banner.

On our return drive, we took a detour to Balmorhea, and ended our short tour with a splash in the impeccable blue and green shades of the enormous, spring fed Balmorhea State Park pool.

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