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Diary of a Desert Trip

Thursday, January 17th, 2002

(The following Note was found in my tablet. Dunno how it got there. The author is obviously under a great deal of strain. I'm afraid he may commit normalcide. That, of course, is when you bump off your normal life and go looking for a new one. Can't have that, now can we?)

"To Whom It May Concern:

Well, I was all winterized.

I bypassed the heater, cleaned out the black tank, drained the fresh tank, pumped in the pink stuff, hauled most everything back into the house until, say, May, when all the other buds are blooming.

Then my stepson and his new girlfriend went out to Big Bend for a few days, and returned with tales of cool nights and limpid days trolling the back roads, sleeping under a million stars, and not a line to stand in for a hundred miles or more. There's no one there, and it's a day's drive.

I can't stand it.

So tomorrow I'll flush the tanks, top off the propane, grab a handful of clothes and groceries, and on Saturday I'm long gone for a week or so at the Bend.

If anyone should ask for me, just tell'em I'm the one that got away.

Bye now,


Saturday, 19 January

In what is apparently becoming a tradition, I didn't get away till after 4 PM. It is hard to fathom why I couldn't get the trailer washed and packed a few days before I planned to leave. It just doesn't get done. I find other things to do.

Once finally started, perversely, I feel the need to make up for "lost" time, and try to get as far as possible. I am reluctant to stop the first day. That's odd, really, because some of the prettiest country in Texas is within 200 miles of Austin. Black Rock Park on Lake Buchanan, for instance.

Anyway, I made a fuel and smoked sausage stop in Mason, then drove till around 10 PM, listening to the audio version of "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose. I pulled in at a nice little rest stop on a bluff above Iraan. The only other car was a late model blue Ford pickup with no visible occupants and the windows rather steamed up. I cut the lights, and resisted the temptation to introduce myself.

Every trip, it seems, has it's own lessons. I encountered the first one this trip when, tired and ready for sleep, I opened the trailer door: Always, always, always listen for that definite locking *click* when closing the fridge door. What greeted my sleepy eyes in the open door was a shallow sea of broken eggs, broken glass, and beer, all over the floor. There was also an empty gallon of spring water sliding around in there, and an amazingly unbroken bottle of white cabernet.

Thank God I don't have carpet. As it was, it took about 15 minutes and a roll of paper towels to clean up.

Another handy thing: In lieu of an outside shower, I installed a long hose on my shower head that will reach out the front door. That's really useful when you need to wash beer off shoes, folding chairs, or anything else you have stored on the floor of the trailer.

Wind rocked the trailer all night. I found it oddly comforting.

Sunday, 20 January

To Big Bend via Marathon. More undaunted courage: I picked up some "home-made" ,"muy bueno y rico" tamales at a Sinclair station in Marathon. And ate them. Regular gas @ $1.29.

My first plan was to hike around the Basin right away. I never got up there. No RVs allowed over 22 feet. So I drove straight to Cottonwood Campground near the mouth of Santa Helena canyon. I was told at the visitor center that several of the old trees had been cut down, and the park management was considering cutting down the rest because they were "not native". My first reaction was that 40 foot trees had to be more "native" than some bureaucrat with a chain saw. These fine old trees have provided more than one generation of campers with some respite from the desert heat.

Then I got there and saw the place with my own eyes instead of through 15 year old memories. There are maintenance issues. There has been no rain in Big Bend since August. The sites around the cottonwoods are built up high, as is the road, because of the need to flood the area from the Rio to a depth of a foot or more, every few days, just to keep the trees alive. The effect is to isolate each site on three sides within it's own private pond, the water partially hidden beneath a thick ragged blanket of small butterscotch leaves.

It is delightful.

There are about 30 sites, about 10 of which are under the big trees. While I was there the place was practically empty: 10 sites were occupied by some sort of RV, and there were a couple of tenters. There's drinking water and porta-cans, but no electricity and no generators allowed at all.

It is unearthly quiet all day. When the wind picks up of an evening, the leaves still in the trees give up a whispery susurrus, a sort of feathery music. Occasionally the native turkeys will fly up to the tops of the cottonwoods with an explosive flapping, like the sound of sheets being shaken out.

These turkeys are ungainly creatures on the ground. With wings folded, their bodies look like an outsized grey football, maybe 18 inches long, supported on ridiculous Leggo limbs that move in a slow, tentative, languorous manner, testing the ground. Attached at one end is a sinuous neck, ending in a head about the size of one of their eggs. The eyes are large, fierce, and piercingly focused, the head restless, moving in short quick arcs and unexpected directions, as though constantly revising its take on the world. A couple of these creatures have claimed the campground, and wander around presumably cleaning up the bugs to be found in the damp ground.

They are fearless opportunists, and will snatch a sandwich right out of your hand.

There was a couple from Olney, Maryland, across the way from me. They had been traveling in a small 1999 Winnebago called a Rialto. Theirs was a tale of woe. They bought the motorhome used, and began traveling in August. In September their transmission went out, at 44000 miles. It took a couple of months for Volkswagen to fix it under warranty. At loose ends, they went to visit their daughter for a few weeks, then retreated back home when it became apparent this was going to be a long drawn out affair. They got the Rialto back, appropriately, in time for Thanksgiving.

The Olney couple, in the short while I knew them, seemed irritable and sort of spiritually short of breath. They were uncertain whether this traveling thing was going to work out. They said they weren't "stayers", usually moving on after a single night, which was certainly the case in Cottonwood campground. They were hungry for news from home, or national news, or any news at all. They devoured a newspaper someone gave them, and were glad to get a scrap of the Sunday NY Times I had not thrown away.

Amazingly, when I came through Panther Junction Sunday afternoon, the filling station had a variety of Sunday papers. Later in the week I stopped by, and the same papers were there. Perhaps I and the Olney couple are among a very few willing to pay $6.50 for the weekly ritual of the Sunday Times.

Monday, 21 January

I've been sick all day. Great timing. It started as I entered the Park, with a sore throat that now feels like a sinus infection. I lay about and slept in the trailer most of Monday. In lieu of exploring I finished the Lewis and Clark book. Maybe it's an allergy. The cliffs across the river are hazy with dust. Or else my brain is.

I hate it when the interior landscape can't match, let alone perk up, the exterior. I've always been impatient with illness, even when there is no choice.

Doesn't bode well for growing old gracefully, does it?

That's the only problem with traveling: Wherever you go, there you are.


Tuesday, 22 January

Desperate to get out of the campground, I noticed on the map an old dirt road along the river between Santa Helena and Boquillas. The "River Road". Surely I could handle riding in the truck.

The road stretched 57 miles, took 6 hours to traverse, and in all that distance I encountered only 3 cars.

One was near the beginning, a truck camper who didn't camp quite far enough from the road to escape traffic.

One was coming at me in the middle of nowhere, an SUV being driven by guy who looked just like Popeye, if Popeye were 70 years old and wore a goatee.

The third was an empty pickup, parked by a zipped up tent near the abandoned Mariscal cinnabar mine. This one was notable for the tallest antenna mast I have ever seen on a passenger vehicle. It looked like fiberglass, constructed in tapered sections, and rose from behind the cab to a height of at least 35 feet.

I stopped for a while to look at it, but didn't get out. It occurred to me the guy might be returning from target practice amongst the mesquite, and might take offense at someone poking around his stuff. But that antenna was waaaayy up there. Imagine coming way out here and feeling the need to talk to Russia. Or Mars.

Don't try this road in a new pickup, or one you're too proud of. Every plant out here has thorns on it. God only knows how often this road gets graded, and the lanky mesquite bushes lean in from the edges, giving you the benefit of a little instant pin-striping. Slowing way down doesn't help. It just lets you hear the faint high skriiiiiikkkk of the paint screaming as you pass through.

Did I mention it hasn't rained in Big Bend since August? This is January, so the temperature only gets up to maybe 80 in the afternoon, and down to 50 or so at night. But man, is it dry. The roadbed is very soft in places. I stopped in the middle of the road to pee. No one for miles. The little bit of flow I managed dug a trench 6 inches deep and a foot long. Imagine what a quagmire the lightest rain would produce.

When I think of living here, I am reminded of that Hollywood philosopher Stepin Fetchit: "Feets, don't fail me now."

I don't know what would motivate any creature to settle here, if it had the means to leave. Why try and make a living in this spiny place? But someone always does. I turned off on even less of a road to visit the Woodson and Pettit homesteads, about a half mile apart along the river. At both places there were the roofless ruins of stacked rock houses, maybe 15 feet square.

At Pettit's there was also the rusted remains of the body of a 20's model Ford. The chrome door handles were holding up, but the rest was slowly subsiding into fertilizer. Someone salvaged the motors long ago.

Deserts are so called, I think, because they are places out of kilter with human needs. I've heard Maine referred to as a Spruce desert, the "mature" forest of one tree crowding out all others, until Nature provides a corrective conflagration. The ocean surface is certainly a salt-water desert. Sometimes L.A. seems like a human desert.

But Big Bend is the classic kind, defined by seasonal heat and the dearth of water. Imagine the hardship of living here, bringing water up from the river in buckets. The rare floods would keep you from building right on the river.

The Apache were driven here, for a while, by their enemies. What harried European settlers into this sere narrow corner of life? Too little imagination? Too much?

Towards the end of my ride along the River Road, I was getting a real bear of a headache. The bumps were beating me up, and I just wanted the trip to be over. Then suddenly I realized I had been riding through the desert for 5 hours, and hadn't had a drink since breakfast. I cracked a gallon of spring water, and drank about a third of it over the next 15 minutes. Headache gone.

So, another lesson in humility: You don't have to do anything to get dehydrated in the desert. It can make you sick just sitting there.

I rewarded myself for this providential insight by jumping in the hot springs near Rio Grande Village. There I met Mark from Detroit, who travels extensively each winter from December to May. His job, putting in lawn sprinkler systems, encourages just the opposite schedule from a high school teacher. I asked him why he didn't take up a side line in snowblowers in the winter.

"I ain't that hungry," he replied.

When I got out of the springs, I was feeling much better. I took a turn through the campground. The "full service" parking lot was full of Motorhomes, each hermetically sealed against the perfect weather, satellite dishes all aligned. The campground proper was pretty full, too, though there were a few slots left. I saw 4 Scamps (or maybe Casitas) of various sizes, which is two more than I ever saw in a campground at one time before. Those little fiberglass eggs are cute. If I was under 6 feet, I would buy one, and a Ranger to pull it, and never look back.

Alas, I am gratuitously vertical in a world made for shorties.

I decided to drive into Study Butte for supper, and thus passed by my second chance to go up into the Basin. About 5:15 pm, I pulled into Mrs. Bogart's Café, and when I got out I heard hissing. Turned out my right rear tire had a 3/8 inch stove bolt driven into it. Apparently I picked it up right there in the parking lot, since the tire had plenty of air left in it, and the bolt wasn't too beat up. I got directions to the tire shop, and hurried over there, leaking all the way. It was closed since 5:00. I went next door, and asked if there was another place.

"Nope. Archie's got the only compressor in town."

"How about in Lajitas?"

"Nope. Maybe Presidio."

"Guess I'll have to change the tire and come back in the morning."

"Welll, you be careful. Archie's got the only wrecker round these parts, and he's awful proud of it."

"It's only 5:30. Think he'd open up for me if I called him.?"

"Nope. When Archie's closed, he's closed."

I went back to the café, ate supper, and changed the tire. I decided to try and plug it myself in the morning. But a bolt makes a really big hole. On the way out of town, I stopped for gas. While I was paying, I asked the guy if he knew anyone who would fix a flat right then.

"Well...." He looked around. "Maybe that fella right there..."

He left me standing there, and walked back to the beer cooler. I could see the flash of irritation the other guy gave him as they talked. They both walked back to me. When the man with the six-pack stopped at the counter to pay, I could see the name GARCIA stamped into his belt. Then he turned around and looked me up and down.

"Follow me."

"Oh. OK."

He led me back into town in the dark, past the tire store, down an even darker side street on the left. He parked in front of a half finished metal building connected to an old adobe structure. No sign. A jeep and an old car inside. Didn't look like a business at all. But he dismounted the tire, carefully patched the hole, and charged me $10.

It was around 8 pm, and the town was about asleep. I paid it gladly. All those Archie warnings had me scared.

Guess I could have plugged it when I first heard it hissing at me. But I was too lazy for that. And anyway I'd much rather have a patch on the inside where it belongs.

Wednesday, 23 January

In the morning, predictably, after 3 nights in place, my trailer batteries were down to 12.4 Volts. Since generators are verboten here, I left Cottonwood CG to go find a turnout where I could have breakfast while the generator did it's thing. The one I came to had a nice view in the distance of the mouth of Santa Helena canyon.

While I was setting up, a little girl about 6 years old was watching me through binoculars from maybe 20 feet away. I waved at her.

"Hi, man."

"Hi, girl."

She came walking towards me, still looking through the glasses. When she was about 6 feet away, she stopped and studied me with them, like I was miles away.

"Hunh." She sounded disappointed. I grinned at her.

"Yeah, I know. I get that a lot."

"Wanna see somthin' innerestin'?"

She was a sober child. She took the glasses off her neck and held them out to me.

"They're making a movie."

She pointed toward the canyon. I looked around for her parents, who were having a discussion some distance away. I took the glasses. Sure enough, there were maybe a hundred tiny people strung out along the trail at the mouth of the canyon, along with a small crane and a plethora of blue tarps.

"See?" she said. "It's Spy Kids 2."

I gave the glasses back to her. "Cool." I said, "But I never saw the first one."

"Oh." She considered this gravely. "It was pretty OK."

Right about then Mom came over.

"Elise, leave the man alone. He's trying to get something done." She nodded at the generator. Her voice was full of fond exasperation. Evidently Elise picks up strangers the way some kids pick up rocks. No doubt she's a handful.

But definitely a charmer.

It's not just kids. There's a lot of instant anonymous friendliness on the road. Grown men will tell strangers all about their divorce, their finances, their businesses, their in-laws....even their RVs. Details of their lives they wouldn't tell their best friend come spilling out easily to someone they just met.

Why not? They'll never see you again. It's a pure relief.

When I got back to the campground, I found that the world's biggest conversion van had parked in the space I had paid for. I forgot to leave some marker. I just moved down a couple, to number 17. Once I got parked again, I noticed the fella was sitting outside nursing a drink, so I went over to say hello.

"Bruce" was 62, and had retired 10 years before when some megacorp bought the hospital x-ray equipment business he had built up over 25 years. He quickly told me the whole story, from learning the basics in the Army, to borrowing $50K from his recently retired Dad to get started, to selling out while the getting was good.

"Couldn't do it these days," he said, rattling the ice in his drink. "The big guys would squeeze you out. There's just no neglected markets anymore."

Bruce told me his wife had died a year ago, and he was on sort of a nostalgia tour of places he had been with her. Del Rio was next on the list.

He showed me his Chinook. A one ton Ford van, 10 feet tall, very plush but cramped. Looked to me to have about the same room as a truck camper. This was his second. He said he had over $100K in it, including $10K just for the aftermarket 4WD. He liked it because he could pull a 27 foot boat between houses in New Mexico and San Carlos down in Mexico.

He claimed to get all his best financial advice from AM talk radio. "Saved me a fortune," he said. "But there's no use hanging on to money now." He gestured at the Chinook. "It's 4th quarter. Got to get going while I've still got the ball."

Works for me, Bruce.

I've disguised this guy a little, so as not to betray his confidence, but in fact I never learned his last name. This kind of casual anonymous intimacy in campgrounds is nothing unusual. It happens over and over, every night if you let it. There's a million stories out there, and while you may hear a whopper now and then, you can usually tell when it happens.

Mostly people tell the truth. What's the point of deception? You'll never see this guy again. Besides, like Bruce said, it's 4th quarter. Too late for lies.

Our conversation was interrupted by a sudden flood of golden light. Everything around, the cottonwoods, the road, the floating leaves, the clouds, the cliffs across the Rio, all glowed with a color like fresh custard.

"I wonder if my camera would capture that?" Bruce said.

"I don't see why not," I replied. "But you better hurry. It won't last."

While Bruce foraged for his camera, I walked back toward my campsite. It was a little like walking through white wine and honey, and before I had gone fifty feet the effect began to fade and redden. Coming towards me on the road was a young woman walking a cat.

"Now that," I told her, "is something I don't see every day."

"Yes, isn't it wonderful?" We stood and watched the top of the cliffs glow pink.

"Actually, I meant a cat on a leash." She laughed.

Rosalind was about 30 years old, traveling with her cat in a Ford Ranger with a camper shell, sleeping in a tent. She said the cat had turned out to be a good companion, once they came to a mutual understanding about the leash, and about not jumping out the moment the door was opened. Rosalind is an obvious body builder, and a manic hiker, and while she was out doing all that stuff the cat stayed zipped up in the tent, with a sleeping bag thrown over the tent for protection from the sun.

"The cat's happy with that?"

"She seems to be. She just sleeps all day. She sort of burrows down into her blanket."

I told her the bad news. On Tuesday I had noticed a large gray fox with a broken tail nosing round the tent. I didn't know the cat was inside. Rosalind was not happy to hear this.

"There's foxes and pigs hereabouts. They aren't afraid of people, and some of them may see your cat as a meal."

She sighed.

"I guess it's back in the camper shell for kitty. I thought the tent would stay cooler."

I asked her if she ever had trouble taking the cat into a campground.

"Only in Florida, in the state parks," she said, "and that's why I won't set foot in Florida again."

I went to bed wondering once again if having a pet on the road was such a good idea. It's sort of an irrevocable choice. Might as well adopt a kid, if it weren't for the high cost of college.

Thursday, 24 January

I got up early and loaded up. I have waited all week for whatever is slaying my sinuses to move on. It won't, so I will have to. I suspect the creosote bushes. I drove through Study Butte and turned left on the road to Presidio. In Lajitas I ran into a bunch of construction and dump trucks. I pulled into the HQ of the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

There's a free dump station there, right in front of the main building, in a crowded parking lot. Sometimes I wonder about the people who lay out these things.

I learned at the desk that the whole town of Lajitas had been bought for $4.5 million by a man named Smith. He was bent on building a golf course, and advertising the place as the "Palm Springs of Texas".

Now I had just driven through 75 miles of country that hadn't seen the slightest rain in 6 months. The top couple of inches of the landscape hung floating in the morning air like fog. The idea of a golf course seemed ludicrous.

"I know," the lady behind the desk said, "everybody round here is just waiting to see what happens."

"So," I said, "where's a good place to camp?"

"My favorite place is in Junction." I waited a beat.

"That's 300 miles east of here."

"I know, honey, but it's real nice. Try the City Park. It's free, and you can stay right down on the Llano River. Real pretty."

"What about around here?"

"Wellll...." She proceeded to describe various turnouts along the road to Presidio. The road itself is free, but step off to either side and you owe the great State of Texas $6 for an entry fee. There are only primitive campgrounds. There is a working ranch to the north of the road.

"Sometimes, for a small fee, you can help us round up some of our Longhorns..." The lady was smiling, but you could tell her heart wasn't in it.

I thanked her and drove on, sans permit.

The Ranch might be a fun thing if I had kids with me, but my bulldogging days are long gone. In fact, they never were.

The drive to Presidio is quite scenic, right along the river. I was tempted to get out once, at Closed Canyon. It looks extremely narrow and picturesque, and it's only a half mile hike. But then there's that thing about the permit, and having to drive back to Lajitas to get it.

In the end the only stop I made was at the top of the tallest hill on the road, where the road opens up to a vast arid vision of "God's Country", and where a large Terex crane had turned over and lay crumpled down the cliffside. This was part of the movie "Spy Kids 2", and Elise's mom had told me to stop for it.

The idea was, they were going to dangle some child actor out over the canyon for a special shot. But when they were setting up, pre-dangle, the crane got overextended and collapsed.

I took several pictures of the remains. Very impressive. I am told the operator was not seriously hurt.

So the next time you see something incredible in the movies, and the guy behind you whispers to his sweet baboo: "How do they do that?", you can turn to yours and say, "Sometimes they fail."

I drove on to Presidio and turned north. For a while I considered going up to MacDonald Observatory, and maybe Fort Davis. But what the lady said about Junction kept running through my mind. The audio book "Murder on the Orient Express" was playing. The cooler was full of my favorite beverage. I pulled into Junction about 9 pm.

The desert was behind me.

That's the RV life. This week, anyway.


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