Texas-El Paso to Del Rio
Our way into the city of El Paso was tricky. The ACA Southern Tier map showed a bike path along the Rio Grande which we had trouble accessing. After asking a few people about the path a couple walking their dog was familiar with the route and gave us clear directions that involved walking our bikes on the edge of a backyard and over a small bridge before we were on the path. The Rio Grande in El Paso at this time of year had no water and was a completely dry bed. We rode into town, stopped for burritos and moved into a motel so we could plan our next moves. It was cold, 26 F., and the Southern Tier route wound its way through the West Texas Mountains past the McDonald Observatory. We knew we wanted to see Big Bend but that was many miles south and considering biking to this area seemed impossible. It did not take long to make our decision; we called a few car rental places and rented a compact car. This allowed us to go see the McDonald Observatory and to visit the Big Bend State and National Parks at a modest price. The people at Enterprise were great and after taking all our packs and panniers off and removing wheels and pedals we managed to fit bikes and gear into our compact car with room left over for Mary and me. Inside our new mode of travel it didn’t matter which way the wind was blowing, or if we were going up or down hills, or if it was getting dark, and if someone said something was 30 minutes away, we were living the American dream and it was indeed only 30 minutes away!
The miles flew by as we cruised down Rte.10 and arrived in Van Horn where we rented a motel room. The price was higher than I wanted to spend and I started to complain and Mary said to stop. We turned up the heat, took hot showers, turned on the TV and cozied up. The next morning we woke up to find that we were in the only room in the place without electricity. I walked down to get the free coffee only to find it was cold because someone had forgot to turn the burner on. When I came back to the room I resumed my complaining again. There was a knock on the door and it was the management offering hot coffee and a total refund. After he left Mary turn to me and said, “Well, the free hotel is on the top ten of the hotel list!”
The next stop was the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas. The observatory is at 6,779’ accessed by traveling along steep winding roads. Along the way we commented how it would have been an impossible ride on our bicycles. Dan, our tour guide shared how this site is one of the darkest places in our country and it is why it was chosen as an observatory. Light pollution, created by today’s needs to light up the dark, prevents us from really seeing the starry sky. Our present day culture uses its vision capabilities to focus in on details in the surroundings. When focusing in on an object the cones, responsible for colors, are located more on the central portion of the retina, and requires a fair amount of light. Another way of utilizing our visual capabilities is using our peripheral vision. By practicing this, the person learns to use the rods which are located more on the outer part of the retina. It is true that the colors fade when using the rods; however one can gain night vision because the rods need less light. I love to see this in action. I often look at Pleiades, a small constellation also called Seven Sisters, and when looking straight at the cluster, it can be hard to see, however, when using my peripheral vision it becomes much clearer. If our culture could teach and embrace this phenomenon we could begin to turn out our lights and once again see the stars, along with saving vast amounts of electricity. The great increase in lighting, along with its use of vast amounts of resources, is actually decreasing our skills in visual capabilities. The most efficient light bulb that has been made or ever will be made is the one that is turned off.
Dan drove the six of us on the tour further up the mountain to the area where the main telescope was located and we entered the telescope dome. There was much to learn about the telescope but what really amazed me was that it took only a one horse power motor to turn this extremely well balanced, massive, scope. Our small group left the dome and walked to another telescope. This scope consisted of many mirrors which focused light to a central point. It did not look like a conventional telescope and instead of looking through it data is recorded and analyzed by astronomers, many times at other locations around the world. Building these huge telescopes is collaboration between universities and governments and when a new one is built it gathers information that the older telescopes cannot measure. The older telescopes do not become obsolete because the newer ones do not duplicate the capacities of the older ones. After the tour we went to a lecture on the sun which was held in a dark room, with comfortable seats, and soon enough Mary and I……ZZZZZ. Awaking to clapping and opening our eyes we left the observatory. I love science and my hope is, with all the resource requirements of our present day culture that we can still put aside enough to make profound discoveries. I believe humans have an inner need to explore and learn.
Leaving the observatory we headed out to Big Bend State Park, our next stop which was located near the small city of Presidio, along the Mexican border. We had called ahead for a campsite which we were unable to find so we set up our tent on a back road in the dark. As usual it was cold and right after the tent was up Mary said, “Look, there’s already frost on the top of the tent”. I replied that I thought that frost couldn’t form that fast but it was so. Would our cold sleepless nights ever come to an end? As soon as morning came we threw everything in the car and headed to town to eat a casual breakfast in a warm cantina. This rejuvenated us and we headed off to Fort Leaton which is located in the state park. The ranger was very helpful and informative but was not allowed to talk about anything that was remotely political. Later, off duty, when the time was his, he was allowed to comment on his thoughts. He thought the people who worried most about the border crossing were people who had never been to this border area. He said, just look at the terrain on either side of the Rio Grande. When a person does get into the US they cross the Mexican Chihuahua Desert, then cross the Rio Grande, and then enter the American Chihuahua Desert. It seemed to him if they could actually do this on very little food and water, then at this tumultuous time period, we sure could use people like that to help our country out.
We toured Fort Leaton then hopped in the car and drove to the Hoodoos trail head. Hoodoos are rock formations where softer rock is eroded away leaving the harder rock exposed. These formations have such interesting shapes. The Closed Canyon Trail was our next hiking experience with steep, 15 story high walls that were carved by running water over the eons. This canyon leads to the Rio Grande but we were unable to go that far because of the water on the trail.
The Big Bend State Park was just magnificent. We ended the day at the Grassy Banks Campground and camped alongside the Rio Grande, or known by its other name, Rio Bravo. This was a night to remember because the cold spell finally broke and the night…it was a new experience, it was actually warm and we could use the sleeping bag as a blanket.
The next day we traveled to Terlingua, a mercury mining town that had become a ghost town and has been revitalized as a low key tourist town full of interesting people. The town is full of ruins of mining houses made of adobe and stone, and some have been renovated providing very modest housing for the inhabitants. The locals seem to be more interested in artistic endeavors, good food and coffee, music, and meeting the fascinating people that come through, rather than owning stuff. Throughout our trip whenever we met people who found out we had stopped in Big Bend would ask, “Did you visit Terlingua?”
It’s easy for me to drift off and think about throughput whenever I visit an old mining town. Another phrase that describes poverty is the lack of resources to support the person’s needs. To really understand the issue of poverty we need to investigate resource access in depth. Picking up where we left off, let’s keep taking a critical look at the production of my bicycle. The life of the my bike includes: 1) the very beginning phase of exploration to find the rich veins of ore, 2) the development that includes the surveying, land clearing (deforestation) and the building of infrastructure, 3) extraction –the actual removal of the ore, 4) processing – in the case of iron ore, coke and limestone are needed, requiring further mining, and 5) mine closure. The last phase of mine closure is often not considered by our culture; however as of 2014 there were 1322 Superfund Sites with another 53 proposed to be on the list. In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency determined that present day funding will not be enough to mitigate the ever increasing Superfund Sites. The EPA is relating this shortfall in terms of money but the bottom line is; it is the ever increasing demand for resources to remedy the problem. If you take all of the resources needed to build my bike, it is known as throughput. Throughput is all of the resources needed to keep a system going. When truly thinking about this concept there is no end to it. Throughput is another environmental concept that is needs to be internalized before we start solving our complex global issues.
Leaving Terlingua and heading east to Big Bend National Park, we were surrounded by mountains and mesas, all with layers of different rock formations, each displaying the diverse shades of brown. Before I left for this trip a friend had told me that he had never seen so many variations of brown than in the Southwest and to me this was so true. We drove down rte. 118 and entered the park at the Maverick Junction station and picked up a map. Our next stop was the Burro Mesa Pouroff. A couple we had met earlier had recommended we had to see this pouroff. Later I asked Mary, what the heck is a pouroff? She didn’t know but said it sounded Spanish and we both agreed we should check it up. When we arrived at the trail we read the plaque describing the pouroff which explained it is simply where the water pours off from the top of a mesa, hence, pouroff. We walked back to the tall mesa and there it was; a dry, eroded area in the rock that had been carved over the years from the rush of water when it rained.
Following the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which was exceptionally breathtaking, we drove to the Cottonwood Campground to spend the night. When I turned 62, I paid the national park $10.00 which enabled me to drive a vehicle, with passengers, into any national park for free for the rest of my life. There has to be some benefits for growing old, don’t you agree? At our primitive campground there was nowhere to charge our devices and I had the bright idea to charge everything using the car battery. You guessed it; we had a late start in the morning because the battery was dead. The campground host was generous enough to jump our car so we could make our way through the park.
Our first stop was the Santa Elena Canyon. At first the trail into the canyon was hard to find. We had to wade down a stream and look for footprints leading out on the other side. As we entered the canyon we climbed steep steps built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) taking us to an elevated view of the Rio Grande which wound its way through the canyon. The sheer cliffs of different types of rocks included limestone with embedded fossils. The river and trail kept turning in different directions and it was hard to conceptualize that the other side was always Mexico no matter how we were facing. We hiked into the canyon as far as we could, then made our way back out.
We settled back into the rental car thankful for all the energy used to make and run this vehicle enabled us to see so much. We drove to our next stop, The Window, consisting of two rocky mountains which framed a mesa sitting in the background. Near this formation we entered the Cattail Falls Trail which led back to an oasis in the desert which was lush and cool. This trail was not on the park trail guide but we had happened to talk to a couple that was familiar with the trail so we asked a ranger to clarify how to find the trail and why the trail was not on the map. He told us that because the ecosystem there is fragile they don’t want the traffic of people that may not respect this. He asked us to stay on the trail and view the falls from the distance that is offered.
We camped for the night at the Rio Grande Village Campground. We met our neighbors, Andy and Julia, who live in Stockbridge, VT and just around the corner was a couple from Thetford, VT. It is truly a small world. Hiking up a small hill in back of the campground we experienced a sunset with a spectacular view of Sierra Del Carmen. The next morning we hiked up the hill early, this time to view the sunrise lighting up Chilicotel Mountain. Atop the hill we met Willard, a Floridian who had been visiting Big Ben for over twenty years, who told us not to miss Chisos Basin. Since we were heading out of the park that day, and with so many miles to drive, we were all packed and ready to leave. We had planned only one more stop, the Boquillas Canyon. We asked Willard about the trinkets, little animals made of twisted wire, woven bracelets, and walking sticks that we saw on the ground with a jar nearby. He told us that Mexicans came across the Rio Grande and placed them there with a jar for money to fund their schools. Wow, no one guarding the money, how trusting! Together we watched the sunrise and Willard made a sad face and said we would not see and understand the diversity of the park unless we went to the Chisos Basin. We hiked down and added another stop!
We broke camp and drove to the trail head to the Boquillas Canyon, where the Rio Bravo River winds through. Along this trail you could point to Mexico then turn 180 degrees and point to Mexico again! After 65 years of pointing south to Mexico this was hard to wrap my head around. Before we reached the canyon we ran into the “Singing Mexican” who was selling bracelets and trinkets, and told him we would stop on our way back. Because of the turning nature of the river and the trail it was hard to see the canyon until you were right in front of it. Again there were steep cliffs with colorful rock formations. On our way out we stopped and visited the Singing Mexican who had been selling his wares in this spot for 17 years. There was an old pair of binoculars hanging in the tree and Mary asked him if he was a bird watcher. He replied that he used them to spot the border patrol and when they came he could walk down to the river and get in his boat where he was legal. I have the feeling that the border patrol know about the Singing Mexican. Is this man really a threat to national security? Mary and I bought Christmas presents and then Mary asked for a song and he sang for us. We continued out, reached our car and set off, well, not really. We made a quick decision to stop by the hot springs on our way out of the park before heading to Chisos Basin.
We ended our tour of Big Bend at the base of the mesa seen at “The Window” in Chiso Basin. The area was lush with trees and vegetation and is the source of the Cattail Falls that flows into the dry desert. It was true; without these extra stops we would not have seen such diversity at Big Bend, one of the most diverse areas in our country. Now, how and when to return?
Casa Grande at the Chisos Basin can be viewed through an opening between two rock formations called The Window
Leaving the park we drove east toward Del Rio where we had to return our car and pick up the Southern Tier Route again. Sanderson was the small town where we ended up that day and as we rode in we saw many rundown and boarded up buildings. The owner of the motel that we stayed brought us a tray of food containing a small bag of Jalapeno Cheetos, a package of mystery cookies – or were they crackers, two bottles of water, and a granola bar. We were looking for more substantial foods and these snacks just didn’t look appetizing, so we headed to Dairy King, the only open restaurant in town which was advertising “Authentic Mexican Food”. We both ordered tacos and if we had not been so hungry we may have passed them up. In the next morning I suggested going back to the Dairy King for breakfast but Mary nixed that saying we’ll eat in the next town, Dryden, which was 50 miles away! I agreed; I could wait an hour to eat. In Dryden there was only a small store with a post office. They did have coffee, but we could not find anything we wanted to eat so we continued onward in search of food. Miles later we came to Longtry the town where Judge Roy Bean, the hanging judge, became famous. The Judge named the town after a famous actress of that time period. Again we stopped at a small store and I could only find a Hostess apple pie. By now the Dairy King and the motel’s tray of snacks were looking good. When I start eating the apple pie I found out it must have been on the shelf for years. It was completely dried out. What can I say, I was so hungry I ate the pie and hoped that I wouldn’t get sick. We stopped at the Judge Roy Bean Museum and Arboretum and then, tummy grumbling, we made it to Comstock were there was a diner-bar with food.
This was a first-hand food desert experience. A food desert is an area where nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to availability and/or affordability. Fast foods and snack foods are cheaper than nutritious foods which lead to the increase in numbers of convenience stores in food desert areas. Many studies have shown that nutritious foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, etc.) are needed for proper health and brain development in children and proper health and brain function in adults. Can an area such as this have good educational results if right from the beginning of child growth, proper brain development cannot occur? There is evidence that convenience store foods and fast foods lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. These ill effects require an ever increasing amount of resources to mitigate the health issues, another example of throughput. If the population living in a food desert lack in brain development and function due to the lack of nutritious foods can we expect people to make educated decisions needed to solve today’s issues?
A few miles from Del Rio we camped at the Armistad Reservoir and hiked around the area. Our week with the car had come to the end and we drove to Del Rio, did our laundry, visited a winery and returned the car.
Amistad Reservoir outside f Del Rio
What a wonderful time we had in this part of West Texas. The car was key in being able to see as much as we did, however, the one on one meeting with people decreased. It took more effort on our part to make these connections. For me, making these connections is so important. Traveling by car also is not as interesting. When bicycling the traveling from point A to point B is part of the experience of the trip whereas in a car the trip is mostly only experiencing point A and point B. Another concern for both of us was that we may have lost some of stamina needed for the pedaling up and down the hills of Texas. I guess we’ll see.