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Van-Tramp adventures 2017
Terlingua Texas

Texas…. The last time I was here it was not all that to me. It has been a while (just over 4 years) and I’ve changed a lot since then, but I still wasn’t looking forward to Texas again. Maybe it was the bad experience in Carlsbad, but entering Texas actually felt good this time around. It helps that Big Bend National Park was on the immediate agenda as well. Big Bend has been on my park-bucket-list for some time, but due to it’s proximity to… well, nothing… I’ve never made it all the way out. This time around Big Bend will be visited.

Any time I bring up Big Bend to another RV’r that has been out here, they seem to all bring up the ghost town of Terlingua. “It is the place to stay… and be sure to visit the Starlight Theater” they all seem to say. Who am I to ignore good advice? So Terlingua it is – not far outside the Western entrance to the park – for our first week’s stay in Texas. It is a quirky place; hippy and artsy with a lot of booze mixed in. An old mining town from a whole different world, it now inhabits only a few dozen year round folks. Folks, I might add, who build pirate ships and large metal bugs in their front yards… good folks.

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The “theater” is not much more than a bar with a few tables that a family can wait for an hour in hopes of getting a meal (it can be very busy at times) but there was live music each night of the week while we were here. That is saying a lot considering the town consists of only a few dozen structures, most of which are in decay of one degree or another. We spent our fair share if evenings hanging out in the theater; having a drink or two, watching the locals and tourists both, and just enjoying the vibe. If you can get in the door, it is good enough food/drink and environment.

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The local cemetery brings you back to how people were laid to rest in the hard, rocky, desert. Above ground and covered with a pile of rocks to keep the coyotes from digging up your loved one was the norm. Most of those buried here are the miners from the mercury mine. Again, even then graves were in a state of decay with most wooden crosses and head stones lost to the ages. Some new graves are there too, and they appear to be regularly visited by their friends or family who offer them a drink each time they visit. Many offerings of alcohol cans and bottles litter the cemetery.

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As it were, I like Terlingua even though both Kerri and I feel it reminds us – in parts – of Jerome or Bisbee Arizona, but without the over-done touristy garbage that both come with. Terlingua is a run down, dusty, dirty, angry, wrinkled, sun beaten, drunk, and still drinking town. Everyone should be required to ride into town, cursing and sweaty, on a very old mule who brings them straight to the Starlight Theater for a cold Lone Star beer. That’s pretty much what I imagine a great day in Terlingua to be.

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Big Bend – Santa Elena Canyon Hike

We finally made our move into Big Bend National Park over the weekend. With no requirement of Internet for 3 days, we could spend the entire time exploring and adventuring. Sadly, even though we tried to get one of the dispersed camping locations in the park large enough for the Airstream, none were available for this time. Instead, we jumped right to plan-B of camping at the Cottonwood campground on the West side of the park.

The first day, with a major wind and dust storm rolling over us, we decided to tackle the much praised hike into Santa Elena Canyon…. let me first explain what I failed to realize before visiting the area; The Saint Elena Canyon is the border between the USA and Mexico. The Rio Grande river runs through it, surrounded by 1500 foot cliffs on both sides. A trail leads about a half-mile into the canyon, after crossing the Terlingua Creek that connects to the Rio Grande at the mouth of the canyon. Approaching the canyon is surreal – something right our of a fantasy movie. Climbing into it double-downs on the amount of surreal.

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The mouth of Saint Elena Canyon for the overlook, a few miles away.
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Standing just inside the canyon looking back at the overlook position

Although the hike is only 1.6 miles round trip, it was very enjoyable. Even with the abrupt and anti-climactic ending to the trail, the initial joys of hiking into this monster made it one of the best. I am not easily wow’d in my travels anymore, but Saint Elena Canyon did just that.
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Look closely and you can see Kerri ahead
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gargoyle (01-30-2017)
Big Bend – Santa Elena Canyon Kayak

Not happy just hiking the canyon, Kerri and I set out to kayak the beast once the wind died down. With referrals from multiple other couples, the kayak trip was on our agenda for some time. It would be our first time putting-in this  year. The wind (and Texas dust) scared us away previous. Two days later was perfect weather, with cool temperatures in the morning, no wind, and a gentle current to paddle against as we headed into the canyon.

But first we had to get the kayaks to the water. From the parking lot, the Rio Grande was still about a quarter mile away. The kayak wheels, once a piece of gear we would question if we needed for each trip, now stay in, or on, one of the kayaks at all times without exception. Rolling a 50lb kayak (and gear) instead of carrying it by hand is infinitely easier, and a lot less injuries and arguments occur.

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It took crossing some muddy areas, and shuffling the kayaks over a rocky area to get to the water, but we made it easy enough. Once at the water’s edge, we could see that the current was flowing faster than we anticipated. Kerri launched and was immediately being pulled down river. She tried to paddle back up but made no ground (do you “make ground” in the water?). I had the same problem when I tried. Through a bit of hollering over the sound of the river, we decided it would be best to walk the kayaks closer to the mouth of the canyon where the water was less forceful. This entailed a reverse trek through the mud and rocks, then the addition of twice as much including crossing the Terlingua Creek again. But, from this point, we could launch without being pushed down river.

It took no time at all for us to surpass the point in which we had hiked to in the days prior. In fact, it was not far into the canyon as it appeared when on foot. Even paddling against the current we could move faster then on foot, and within a few short minutes we were deeper in the canyon than any other person. All alone, with 1500 foot cliffs towering over either side. Again, it was quite surreal.

The realization that this side was USA and that side was Mexico hit me again. I paddled over to Mexico, then back to the US, then back to Mexico, and back again. Not once did I have to show my passport. We were told by the Rangers that barring any emergencies, were were not allowed to set foot on the Mexico side of the river. It was a technicality that I just had to fiddle with. I took the time to reach out and touch Mexico at one point… it was cold.

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I’m not sure how long we paddled up stream. Maybe two hours or so? Kerri’s phone said we went about 2.5 miles but GPS in this canyon was not very reliable. During that time we did have to struggle up a small section of fast flowing water which took most of the fight out of our muscles. We made it only another half mile or so before running into another that we did not make it up. We chose instead to park the kayaks on the only sandy – muddy as it turned out – bank on the USA side for a quick snack and a Lone Star beer. Sure it was only 11am, but in Texas you can start drinking Lone Star before crawling out of bed… perfectly acceptable here, even for children.

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The return trip seemed to take only a few minutes, and almost no energy at all. With only enough effort to keep the kayaks pointed in the direction we wanted to look, the current took care of the rest. It was a much easier time to snap a few photographs and to just take it all in.

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I am sure that the me from 7 years ago, who just started traveling, would have probably had a heart-attack with just how amazing this place is. Kerri and I both agree that we are a bit jaded now. Not only in our general travels, but also our hikes and paddles. Just because there is a trail, we do not often get the urge to tackle it unless the payoff is big… epic. And ‘epic’ is a moving target – harder to find even – and seems to get further away with each new place visited. Luckily, this canyon is one of those places that stopped us in our tracks. I am very thankful of those that gave the advice to come paddle this canyon.

PS – We were the only people in kayaks on the water. Solitude is always a bonus to any adventure for me.
Traveling since 2010 - My BlogMy Van
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JimMcBride (01-27-2017)
Ugh, Lone Star beer, yuk
Nice pics, though
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Van-Tramp (01-29-2017)
Great review and pics ! As always.
Happy Trails.................................................
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Van-Tramp (01-29-2017)
Big Bend National Park – West

Our time in the Western part of Big Bend National Park was spent camping at the Cottonwood Campground. It is a no-frills campground, but the only established campground nearby the Saint Elena Canyon which was our destination (twice over) for the weekend.

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On our second morning we were visited by the locals in the area. I’ve seen Javelina on TV and hear them from time to time in the desert, but I had never seen one up close and personal. A family of six or so slowly strolled through the campground, nibbling on the grass. I pulled out the big DSLR and zoom to get some photos of the cute ones. Surely Moose would have loved to have gone out and played with the group, but I doubt they would have liked it… Moose being so pushy and all.

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The only problem was that they spent much of their time just 20 feet outside our door, and we could not exit the Airstream to start our adventures. Once the Javelina family moved on we drove up the Old Maverick Road (dirt), following the Terlingua Creek, north to the western entrance to the park and pass by some back country camping areas as well as a few historic locations.

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Awesome stuff. I just started this thread from the beginning and really appreciate the time and detail you put in. It's a great adventure!
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Van-Tramp (01-30-2017)
Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico

It all sounded so inviting; crossing the river by row-boat to visit the town of Boquillas. We planned to spend much of  the day there so we set out early. We were the first to cross that day, made obvious by the dozens of empty 5-gallon gas cans came across the Rio Grande River with the boat. Those cans get filled in America, then sent back to the town of Boquillas for their every day use, at a fraction of the cost of gasoline in Mexico. Nevertheless, we gladly jumped in the small aluminum craft (we are accustomed to small aluminum crafts) and were quickly whisked away to a new land where donkeys are the taxi of choice.

I must admit that I may have fallen in a tad-bit in love with donkeys. Our two little guys (named “coffee and I don’t know, maybe blanca” said our guide, Eduardo) did not live up to the stereotype of being hard-headed and stubborn at all. In fact they were quite respectful and much smarter than I took them for. It was clear that they knew this path well, yet both were very thoughtful of each step they took. A gentle trot to get up that incline, and a slow crawl down the other side. They were experienced taxis for sure.

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The problem we found, once at the town, was that it consists of a few dozen buildings. Mostly run down residences, only three other buildings are for tourist use. The first is the immigration office where we were welcomed with the clu-chunk of a stamp to our passports. The other two buildings are both restaurants. That is it… nothing else to do or see in town.

What that means is, people… no, let me get this out properly… lazy, fat, Americans pay for a donkey ride (walking is too hard for us) to see how ‘those 3rd world people live’. Visiting Los Algadones has a purpose (dental/medical). Visiting Baja has a purpose (beach tourism). But Boquillas had only one purpose in our eyes; to insult these great people. Once we realized this, we were both sickened by it. We were one of those “Americans”, right here, right now, and it felt real shitty.

Even though we had just eaten breakfast, we felt obligated to get a meal here. Their entire lives are focused on our fat, lazy, butts showing up and spending our American dollars at one of the two restaurants in town. There was no better way – we could think of – to have said “we are sorry” then to spend some money. Following a fantastic meal, and two cups of coffee, and tips all around, we left knowing we would not make such a visit again.

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Big Bend National Park – East

Our final weekend in the area, I made sure to score one of the few back-country camping sites in Big Bend National Park (park #78 for me) that would fit the trailer. The NPS doesn’t make it easy by ignoring the existence of internet and telephone all together. The only way to snag one of these spots is to show up at the Visitor’s Center and talk to a Ranger. All fine and dandy, but it is an hour drive (give or take) from the park entrance and you must show up within a day of when you plan to start your stay; you can’t book the site to start your camping two days from now; tonight or tomorrow only. Once booked, you can keep it for 14 days though, so there is no guarantee when the site will become available or when it will be snatched right back up. A total crap-shoot, but I had a plan…

I called late Thursday afternoon to confirm if there were any sites available. After a bit of convincing about the plant and greenhouse gases produced during my 2 hour round trip drive, the Ranger finally told me that one site was available. I knew that it would still be available in the morning (barring anyone standing there in front of the Ranger when I hung up) so drove out first thing Friday morning – arriving before the Visitor’s Center opened – and booked that spot for our three nights we wanted to stay.

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Whew! It took some effort but we got our spot of peace and quiet in the park. A little over 1 mile down a thing gravel road that dead ended another half mile further down, we had no traffic, or company but the one other trailer at the end of the road. It didn’t take long for us to get out and start the exploring. Already late in the day, we decided to forego the trip into Boquillas until the following day. Instead we hiked the Bosquillas Canyon that looks over the Rio Grande River into Bosquillas, Mexico. While not as epic as Santa Elena Canyon, it was still worth the efforts.

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The next morning we woke early to travel into Bosquillas, which turned out to be a much shorter visit then we anticipated. Instead of heading back to the trailer, we went for a little drive… about 50 miles on 4WD-required roads through the center of the park. Way out here is the old and abandoned Mariscal Mine, as well as some spectacular views of the desert landscape. We did not make it back to the trailer until just before sunset.

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During our final day we opted to do nothing. Literally nothing. Instead of tackling a trail, or go soaking in the nearby hot-springs, we both stayed at home and relaxed (no pics, sorry). It’s a rare occurrence that we do such a thing, and it was needed.

Tuesday morning called for a 5:30 wake up time. We already had everything packed away, so it was just the not-so-simple task of hitching up the truck to the trailer, and even-harder-task of getting Kerri out of bed and into the truck. We were on the road by 6:15 and headed North to Fort Stockton where we would spend the work day at a city park before starting our multi day after-hours-only drive to Austin.
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AbuelaLoca (02-17-2017)
The long long drive

On Tuesday morning we made our escape from Big Bend and spent the work day at a city park in Fort Stockton, Texas. The night was spent another half hour down the Interstate at a rest area. In the morning we made the couple-hour jump to Sonora, Texas where we were going to spend the day and night at the local RV park. Instead, we opted for the rest area just one exit further down the road. Not only was it free, but they had Wifi, a nice area for the dogs, a free dump station, and we could be ready to go even faster the following morning. The dump station, however, ended up being my first ever dump-spillage-experience as the dump was full, so only a few gallons of our tanks made it in before percolating out the top.  While I caught it quickly, the need for an extra-effort hand washing was warranted.

The next morning was a jump to Fredricksburg, Texas where we decided to stay two nights at the Lady Bird Johnson RV Park. Here I got some errands done in town while Kerri put the hours in during the day. It was only at the tail end of my day running around town that I realized I knew this place… quietly exclaiming to myself, “hey, I know this place!” I came here with my Mother in 2012 on our way to the San Antonio/Austin area, and spent a morning walking around the downtown area. Soon, I wont be able to stumble onto places I’ve been too in my past. Once we get past Austin it is all new for me.

We didn’t make it too far down the road for the next night. Kerri found a Harvest Host winery to stay at just down the road, which became our home for that night – after a round of wine tasting of course. As a bonus, only three miles away was Luckenbach, Texas; a town with a population of only three, but nightly concerts in the barn. So I strapped on my boots and accompanied my girl to a barn-concert…. yeehaw!

The next morning, we were in no rush to get moving. Sleeping in until 8am, and taking a few more hours to get hitched up and ready to roll out, we were still going to arrive at our destination in the Austin area too early. Unknown to us, Lyndon B. Johnson (yes, that Lydon Johnson) would come to our rescue as we were driving right past his ranch, which happens also to be a National Historic Site. Who knew?! A quick hike out to tour of the historic homestead, and an auto-tour of the rest of the ranch (huge, by the way) soaked up a few hours perfectly.

Finally, after 5 days of hopping our way through Western Texas, we made it to our destination of McKinney Falls State Park not far our of Austin, Texas. Here we will be staying the week while we explore, work, and resupply.

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