Me on a horse? Like John Wayne in Rio Bravo? Hardly. More like Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles. Except heavier with straighter hair. And less talent.Photos of Katherine on the horse came out much better than the ones of me. Either I’m a better photographer, or she is a lot cuter. What do you think?
As you may have gathered from the intro and photo, the featured activity of our third day was a horseback ride on State Park lands adjacent to the National Park. The horses, lunch, and Armando, our guide, were provided by Big Bend Stables. The scenery was provided by God, god, Yaweh, Allah, the forces of the universe, or whatever, depending on your beliefs. I didn’t bother with that. I just gawked and hung on for dear life.Later that day we eased our sore butts onto bar stools at the Starlight Theater Restaurant in the ghost town of Terlingua to drink tequila and eat outstanding roast quail and BBQ Texas brisket. Terlingua is an interesting town, if you can call it that. It was a thriving mining town in the early part of the 1900s that fell on hard times and abandoned in the 1940s. Its fortunes were revived in the mid 1970s when it became the home of the annual Terlingua Chili Cook-Off, arguably the prototype for all chili cook offs, including the amateur ones like the one I ran while I was a dean at a graduate school in the 1990s.
Since then it has turned into a quirky refuge for artists, hippies, bikers, survivalists, itinerant river guides, 9-11 conspiracy theorists, snow birds, tourists and other “free thinking individuals” (quoted from the Ghost Town Self-Guided Walking Tour available at the Terlingua Trading Company), many of them living off the grid.
The Starlight has the best food, drink and atmosphere in Terlingua. Of course, there are only a few eating/drinking establishments in Terlingua, but I would probably say the same if there were many more. We ate there two nights and had some of the best Texas BBQ brisket, roast quail, and chili I have ever eaten. We also drank a lot (an excellent local draft IPA was only $4!) and had a great time talking to some of the locals, including the bar tender, as well as tourists passing through. Terlingua seems to attract more than its share of interesting, friendly people. Definitely a place I will come back to next time I’m in the area.
We spent the night, the first of two, just down the road (good thing — I was a bit lit after eating, drinking and schmoozing for 2-3 hours) at the Big Bend Casitas at the Far Flung Outdoor Center. Another good thing — these attractive, roomy, quiet and comfortable cabins were next to the 7:45 am pick up point for our canoe trip the next morning, run by the people at Far Flung.
The canoe trip was great. After an hour shuttle to the far eastern edge of the park, the 8 customers doubled up in four canoes (the two guides paddled their own) and slipped (metaphorically) into the shallow, slow moving river formerly known as the Rio Grande, which is now mostly made up of water from the Mexican river, the Rio Conchos. This was a very mellow paddle through great scenery. I am sure that my blood pressure, which was already pretty low from several days in the park and sitting on the bar stool at the Starlight, dropped several more milimeters. Except when the canoe in front of us got stuck in a particularly shallow stretch of river, precipitating a three canoe pile up. The last of the three canoes went over and the two occupants had to get out and walk a few feet to shore in a few inches of water. If they walked the 10-20 yards to the other shore they would have been in Mexico — illegally, of course, but it didn’t seem like a big deal either way. (As a side note I think that that there is a lot to be learned about border hysteria by spending a few days in Big Bend.)
There were a few spots with enough ripples and obstacles to make things interesting, but for the most part it was a very relaxing several hours. About half way through we stopped for a long lunch near an historic hot springs. We had enough time for a good hike with great views up and down the river, as well as a long soak in the hot springs. On the hike, one of our guides did a great job of pointing out the many different desert plants and cacti indigenous to the Chihuahuan desert. Another evening at the Starlight and another night at the Big Bend Casitas and our five day Big Bend adventure was almost over.
But not quite. The drive from the park along the river road, Highway 170, NW to Presidio is one of the most scenic drives in North America. From Presidio we headed north and stopped for an hour or so in Marfa, an unlikely center for minimalist art (that’s an art installation, not a store). Marfa has its historic charms as well. We stopped in Van Horne, on the I-10, for the night, staying at the historic El Capitan Hotel, then headed to Guadalupe Mountains National Park for just enough time to take the 2.3 mile trail loop to Smith Spring. Guadalupe Mountains NP is even less known than Big Bend, but its rugged desert mountains and empty trails were definitely worth the side trip. And worth another, longer trip if I ever get back to this part of the world.
The adventure wasn’t over. The road from the park to El Paso is one of the loneliest roads I have ever driven on. And there are no gas stations along the way. We had to take a 20 mile side trip along even emptier farm roads to Dell City to the only gas station for almost a 100 miles. It was a self service station — no one was there — and I spent a few anxious moments hoping that my credit card would work in the pump. It was Sunday and the town looked shut down so I’m not sure what we would have done if our credit cards or the pump didn’t work. But it did. We made it back to El Paso in time for an excellent Mexican dinner at the L&J Cafe.
It was a short trip, only 8 days total including travel time, but it was jam packed. Too many Californians look down on Texas as an unsophisticated, unattractive place with little to do with way too many Republicans. I’m not sure how many of the people we met were Republicans. I didn’t ask. And it didn’t matter. They were among the friendliest people I have ever met. Plus the food was great. But most important of all, the part of the state we visited was beautiful and uncrowded and offers a diversity of activity that rivals most destinations. And all easily accessible via a short flight and a long drive on empty, dreamy roads.
At age 73 I’m not sure if I’ll get back this way again. But if I do, you can bet that I’ll be sitting at the same bar stool at the Starlight. My knees will probably be titanium and my arteries will be even more clogged, but I hope that my digestive system will be good enough to drink the local IPA and eat another bowl of their award-winning chili.
(Don and Katherine’s trip was hosted by the Brewster County Tourism Council. For more information on Big Bend travel, see Big Bend Texas Travel Company)