Thursday, March 30, 2017

Terlingua, Texas and Big Bend National Park

March 21 - 27, 2017:

It is a simple trip on route 118 south for 80 miles to Study Butte, Texas.  The road traffic was light, but the road was rock and Roll’in rough in places.  The Chihuahuan Desert here is very desolate with far less vegetation as compared to the Sonoran Desert.  In fact I couldn’t argue much with people who call it a barren wasteland.  Approaching Terlingua there are many houses, really trailers, set in the desert with a ramada roof built over them for sun protection.  There are also signs everywhere advertising land for sale, but it doesn’t look very appealing to me.  

We have a reservation at the Big Bend Resort and Adventures in Study Butte which has a large RV campground.  It is a full hookup site which will be good as it is going to be hot, high 90’s, AC will be needed.  It is conveniently located 5 miles to Turlingua Ghost Town and to the Maverick Junction entrance of Big Bend National Park.

It's a dry desolate parking lot, note the dead tree
in the center

It’s only March, but they are having a serious heat spell, the jeep outside air temperature is reading 99 degrees.  We are happy to have a full hookup site and working AC.  Alice has finally gotten used to the AC noise and is now kinda liking it.  We are too !

Turlingua was a booming mining area in the early 1900’s, not for the usual gold, silver or copper, but instead for Quicksilver or Mercury.  The Mercury was extracted from a mineral called Cinnabar that was discovered here in the 1880’s.  It was in high demand in the early 1900’s and in particular during WWI by the military for munitions.  At its peak about 2,000 hardy miners lived in Turlingua, mostly Mexicans.  In 1942, the Chisos Mining Company went bankrupt, the mines closed and Turlingua soon became a ghost town.  The alternate life style faction (hippies) of the 1960’s moved in and brought the town back to life.  It remains an alternative life style haven with the economy now dependent on tourism and the Big Bend National Park.

That's the way most of the locals look

Local liquor store

Many mine workers here, the working conditions were
really bad as in Mercury poisoning

Beautiful painting of the Terlingua mine area, it was huge

The Starlight Theater

Inside the Terlingua church, there are birds flying inside
and even a nest above one window

The happening spot in Turlingua is the old Chisos Company Store which now sells tourist souvenirs, books, jewelry, etc.  The thing to do is to sit on the outside porch, with a beverage of choice, gaze at the mountains, catch the sunset, contemplate the meaning of life and possibly discuss it all with one the locals who frequently are there.  There is also the Starlight Theater attached which is a popular restaurant and music venue.

The Texas magazine describes it best

Four miles on, turn right at the sign for the Terlingua Ghost Town, where 2,000 people once walked the dusty streets. Now some 275 artists and other assorted desert rats and escapees from modern life live in trailers or the crumbling adobes of the long-gone miners. In truth, the individualistic and craggy locals mirror the terrain. The Terlingua Trading Company, at the end of the road, is a good place to meet some of them, as well as to buy local artifacts and beer and soft drinks. On any given weekend, you’ll find plenty of visitors at this gathering place, drinking beer, clanging horseshoes, inspecting the old cemetery, and just staring at the peculiar terrain. The jagged eastern horizon, with the mighty Chisos and Sierra Del Carmen mountains, looks like something out of a Flintstones cartoon; closer in are layered canyons, cracked limestone, old riverbeds, rugged outcroppings—it’s as if the earth couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be here. Desert? Mountains? Hills? Yes. Enjoy the confusion of Terlingua.

The famous Terlingua company store

Our first outing in the National Park was on the rough gravel road, the Old Maverick Road, from the parks western gate at Maverick Junction to Santa Elena Canyon.  It is 12.8 miles, very dusty and washboardy, crossing several rough washes and gullies.  It is usually passable with a 2 wheel drive car when the road is dry, but by the looks of some of the ruts, it can be nasty at times.  
We did a side trip to Terlingua Abajo which was definitely more suited to a high clearance jeep type vehicle.  Terlingua Abajo was a farming community at one time, back when water still flowed year round in the adjacent Turlingua Creek which was lined with Cottonwood trees.  Terlingua Abajo is just several adobe ruins now, the creek is mostly dry and the Cottonwoods are are long gone, that’s the price of progress.

Ruins of Terlingua Abajo

Old car at the nearby campground, there are several of
these wilderness campgrounds, that can be reserved, some
accessable for small RV's

The road passes the remains of “Luna’s jacal”  which is a primitive house shelter.  Gilberto Luna of Mexican and American Indian decent, lived here, raised a family and farmed the area for decades until his death in 1947 at the age of 108.  That’s one tough man !

View on the Maverick Road

View with the Santa Elena Canyon in the distance

Luna's Jacal

View from inside, how would you like to live here, for 
the rest of your life ?

Our destination, the Santa Elana Trail, is one of the most scenic attractions in the Park.  The Rio Grande River has cut through the mountain creating a narrow gorge with almost vertical walls rising over 1,000 on both sides.  The trail clings to the edge for about a half mile affording great views of the gorge.  The Rio Grande River is the official boundary between Mexico and the US.


Twinkles posing in front of the canyon

River view looking into canyon

River view looking in opposite direction

Helicopter flying through canyon, that must be a thrill

Next was a tour along the Ross Maxwell scenic drive to Castolan.  We stopped and explored the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, one wall of melting adobe blocks is all that remains, but the windmill still is spinning.  This was a self sufficient working ranch with cows, horses, chickens and they grew many vegetables and fruits.  It was a very comfortable homestead in it’s day.

All that's left of the ranch house

Another stop was at the Homer Wilson / Blue Creek Ranch site where we walked down about a 1/4 mile into the Blue Creek Canyon to the ranch house.  It is a well constructed large rock house and was the center of the Homer Wilson ranching operations.  They had elaborate water piping system from springs up in the canyon to cisterns and holding tanks on the ranch.

The Homer Wilson ranch house from the trailhead

It's remains a nice big sturdy house

The Sheep dip

The highpoint of our day was a mile long walk into a box canyon to the Burro Mesa Pouroff.  The views were incredible, although you might not want to be here during a heavy rain storm.

The impressive sight at the trailhead

Perfect Yucca blooming in front

Twinkles standing at the bottom of the pouroff,
must be crazy when the water is dropping off
from the top

The Castolan visitors center is also most interesting and historical.  The original building was initially a military barracks and then became a store and center of the La Harmonia Company.  The La Harmonia Company started a successful Cotton growing operation in the fertile grounds adjacent to the Rio Grande River.  The visitors center had lots of photos, history and information about the early settlers and farming operation.  There also much on the border situation back in the 1900’s when it was mostly open and how it has changed in recent times.


The old La Harmonia Company store

Cotton fields once extended from here to the river

Huge old adobe building

I did a solo adventure for a couple of hours just within the National Park in an area mostly overlooked by tourists.  I feel like I shouldn't be walking here, I see no signs of human intervention.  No cans, bottles, cigarette butts, paper, nothing !  All I see are volcanic rocks, ash, soil, petrified wood and hardy cactus.  I am stepping lightly like I am violating some primeval landscape.  I may be stepping on virgin Earth where no man has tread before, a sobering thought.  I better head back to the Terlingua porch and have a beer ?

Unique rock formation

Volcanic deposits are are around here

Ocotilla view

We went to the Starlight Theater in Terlingua Ghost Town for dinner, not expecting anything really good.  I did expect that it would have a rustic old west character to it and it delivered with its rough decaying adobe walls, original rough stone floor and painting of Poncho Villa over the bar.  Surprisingly, the food turned out to be very good and they have live music often during diner time.

Inside the Starlight Theater

Our table with a painting of the Rio Grande

On Saturday night, we returned to the Starlight Theater for the live music to hear a touring blues player Eric Sommer.  He was a weird character, perfect for Terlingua, who was a great blues slide guitar player and very entertaining.  The porch outside was packed in the evening, but surprisingly, few of the porch people seemed to come inside the for the free music.

Eric Sommer

The Big Bend National Park is not the only game in town, the Big Bend Ranch State Park is down route 170 west about 20 miles.  It is the largest State Park in Texas at 311,000 acres and runs for 23 miles along the Rio Grande River with many trails, picnic areas and campgrounds. It starts near the old town of Lajitas which is now an upscale golf resort and spa which the Terlingua locals hate, I tend to agree.    Route 170 from Lajitas to Presideo is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in North America.  It passes through mountainous terrain with many steep, curvy, roller coaster  segments.  We stopped for a couple of short but excellent hikes at the “Closed Canyon Trail” and the “Hoodoos Trail”  The Rio Grande River is beautiful throughout this area as well, winding its way gracefully with lush green grasses, trees and sandy beach areas.  Hopefully brighter minds will prevail and reject a stupid border fence in this area?

Heading west on route 170

Great views along the route

Also great river views

Hoodoos Trail view

The Rio Grande River

Into the Closed Canyon

Next stop is the Rio Grande Village area on the east side of Big Bend National Park,
Twinkles and Slick

Monday, March 27, 2017

La Cruces Walmart and Alpine, Texas

March 17 - 20, 2017:

It took considerable time to pack up the RV and get out of the Desert Trail RV Park campground with practically everyone in our row coming around to offer heartfelt goodbyes. It was wonderful, our winter friends are all amazing and will be missed, but adventure awaits.   

As Alice (our spoiled cat) would be riding in the RV for the first time, we decided to tow the Jeep so Twinkles could ride inside to comfort her.  Alice was pretty freaked out and hid under the bedroom pillows and then inside one of the bedroom cabinets for the entire trip.  It was one of our longer trips at 280 miles, but was all highway on route 10 east. There was one interesting scenic area at Texas Canyon, the rest of the ride was not so attractive, just typical highway driving with lots of trucks and RV’s.  The first time out in the RV is always somewhat nerve wracking, but after about a hundred miles (provided all goes well) you start to gain confidence and relax.

Interesting boulder covered mountain views at Texas Canyon
rest area

We arrived at our destination, the Las Cruces, New Mexico Walmart in late afternoon and slowly, cautiously, Alice came out and started acting semi normal.  This is a most convenient spot just off route 10 with many nearby restaurants and stores.  We didn’t frequent any of them, but of particular interest is a Cracker Barrel, within walking distance, which has designated free overnight RV parking spaces.

The bright lights, highway noise and constant traffic in the parking lot kept me awake most of the night, but Twinkles slept through it all like a log.  Regardless, we were back on the road by 9 AM heading for the Lost Alaskan RV Park in Alpine, Texas.  It is 260 miles on routes 10 and 90 and it felt weird to just blow through El Paso, Lordsburg and Deming without stopping, but we have toured these areas before.

I did take a short detour through the town of Sierra Blanca which had several interesting old buildings, ruins and signs which I could have explored for a whole day.  Another 20 miles brought us to the junction of routes 10 and 90 and the town of Van Horn with many more interesting sights.  Along route 90 we noted flat rabbits imbedded into the asphalt about every quarter mile of its length.  Why havn't rabbits learned after all these years how to safely cross the road ?

The old State Theater has seen better days

The Hotel El Capitan is still looking fine in Van Horn

Liked the pool table graphic

We arrived at the town of Alpine Texas in mid afternoon and were impressed with the downtown area, especially that great mural on the corner of 5th avenue.  After setting up at the Lost Alaskan Campground 2 miles from downtown, we did a short downtown walking tour and stopped for a beer at Harry’s Tinaja.  It’s a quirky small bar, that people today like to refer to as a dive bar, but actually is very friendly and loaded with character.

One of the most stunning murals you'll see anywhere

Another great one

Harry's Tinaja

A really nice store across the railroad tracks

The Amtrak station is rough looking on the outside

But kind of comfortable inside

We found a nice Saturday morning farmers market in downtown Alpine with lots of bakery items, especially Ma Brown’s coconut almond macaroons and shortbread cookies, yum !  It was then time for a few photos in the good morning light followed by the visitors center.

Another large amazing downtown mural

Alpine studio is another nice shop

Back yard of the Alpine Studio

The Alpine lumber company has a long history in Alpine and claim
to have put the "Pine" in Alpine

The Granada sign was a great one

We then went to our first museum of the year, the Big Bend Museum on the campus of the Sul Ross State University in Alpine.  It was a great museum with many exhibits from the Spanish conquistadors to the Buffalo Soldiers, the Indian wars, the Mexicans, the Cowboys to the coming of the railroad.

This exhibit documents a huge mysterious Indian rock
painting in the nearby mountains

You've gotta love those great huge Mexican hats

The friendly woman at the visitors center advised us to visit the Big Bend Brewery at 1 PM for a tour.  Being cheap, we declined the $10 per person tour and instead bought an $8 flight of sample beers to taste test.  They have an outside patio with nice music playing and it was all good.  Afterwards, in need of lunch we ventured downtown at 2 PM to find most of the lunch places closed.  We ended up at a food truck, “Cow Dog”, that turned out to be just perfect, Twinkles said it was cheap, good and cute, a high recommendation for her.


Their motto is "The beer starts here"

Cow Dog is a classy food truck

Alpine is a pretty cool town and actually does have a music venue of note, the “Railroad Blues” which actually is right next to the railroad tracks.  By the photos on the walls, many touring acts have performed there, it has a authentic road house vibe to it, but on this night there are only a handful of customers.  I expect they need the college crowd to stay in business and it is spring break, the University is now deserted.  On Saturday night they had a blues band called “158 Breakdown”, with a very good guitar player and a folksy bass player, but otherwise they looked and sounded more like country.  The other night spot in town, the Crystal Bar, is where the cowboy crowd with their tight wranglers jeans and cowboy hats tend to hang out.

The Railroad Blues fire truck, the lettering on the
hood says "putting out old flames"

The Crystal bar from the outside

It's a Lone Star Beer kind of place

The 158 Breakdown Band

We read reviews about Marfa Texas, 25 miles north, describing it as an artistic Mecca and went to take a look.  We found a main street with several beautiful buildings and others under renovation, but no open restaurants, cafes or stores, except for the incredible Hotel Paisano.  The rest of the town looks mostly poor and the highly publicized arts scene appears to have packed up and left town.


Many questions to ponder ?

Outside of town is this classic old gas station, my
1938 Dodge would love this place

Marfa has some impressive buildings

The Hotel Paisano

Inside the Hotel lobby

The most impressive court house

On Monday we drive to the other area town of Ft. Davis which was a military fort for protection from the Apaches after the Civil War.  It was named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis.  I expect they still fly the confederate flag around here. We stopped at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and hiked the 2 1/2  mile Outside Loop Trail through Modesta Canyon to Lions Head Hill and to Clayton’s overlook.  We then went to the greenhouse to see hundreds of unique cactus.

Jefferson Davis immortalized here

The Marfa Courthouse

Amazing flower clusters on the Yucca's

Ancient old tree on the edge of Lions Head hill

Lots of geology explained at Clayton's Overlook

That red is almost blindingly bright

So many types of cactus

The huge blooms on these small cactus are amazing

In the evening I went to the Crystal Bar, I just needed to see inside.  You won’t find much in the way of craft beers there, it’s more a Budweiser, Coors and such crowd.  As usual when you are at a bar drinking a beer that you don’t really even want, someone down the bar will buy a round.  Next these four hispanic guys sit next to me with the big burly guy deciding he wants to be my buddy.  He speaks perfect english and seems to be a nice guy, but is upset that they don’t have hard liquor and that the “hot” looking bar maid doesn’t want a drink.  She tells him that it is OK to bring your own bottle in and drink it, so he sends one of his boys, (that how he referred to them), out to the nearby liquor store to get a bottle of Tequila.  A few minutes later and we are all having a shot of Tequila. They are now discussing where to go, there bring no women in this place, with the local legion hall dismissed as too elderly.  I thought for a moment, This could be a wild, crazy fun night, but then common sense (adult behavoir) prevailed. I drank up quickly before another round could be bought and and said I had to go home to the wife.

As I was reading this very detailed sign on the rear of an
old gas station, now a pizza restaurant ...

The Amtrak passenger train came in, it still makes
regular stops in Alpine

The Holland Hotel is a beautifully restored Hotel in Alpine

I took a photo of this beautiful church in the evening
when a nice local couple told me to be sure to
come back at night when the stained glass windows ]
would be lit

The next stop is Turlingua, Texas on the western edge of Big Bend National Park,

Twinkles and Slick