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Big Bend National Park, TX - Part 1
October 27-30th, 1998

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Campsite (Paint Gap #4)

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Santa Elena Canyon (mouth)

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Me in Santa Elena Canyon

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Accross the Rio Grande (near Santa Elena)

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Mule Ears (front)

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The Sky before Sunset

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The Mountains after Sunset

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Rio Grande River

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Hot Springs

I arrived at Big Bend just in time to make Panther Junction (Park Headquarters) before they closed (around 6pm) and reserved my campsite (Paint Gap #4).  Over a desert mountain pass and very isolated from the rest of the desert or park.  The picture you see shows the view north, out of the park towards Terlingua Ranch.  (My hood is open because I'm dealing my my battery isolator problem; see below).  I could see just one light from the ranch at night.  The moon was at waxing at half and lit up the surrounding mountains as the sun set while I made camp.  When I woke up in the morning before the sun rose to "take care of business" (don't you hate when that happens!), the moon was gone and the stars were amazing.  Desert skies are always the clearest, but Big Bend does have a few air quality problems (from industry many miles away).  They didn't show this night!

October 28th - I stopped in the office the next morning.  The campsite was so nice, I decided to spend my second night there and registered myself accordingly.  I had decided to take a 3 day backpacking trip.  So I talked to the friendly park folks about backpacking starting on October 29th.  It was then that I discovered/recalled that you need to carry ALL of your water in.  That'd be about 4 gallons for 4 days/3 nights (1 gallon a day).   Heck, I don't even have something that carries that much water!  I decided to regroup and try to bump the backpacking down to 3 days/2 nights.  Finally, I asked where a hardware store was so I could fix my battery isolator (see below). 

Off I went to Lajitas to find a hardware store.  I found exactly what I needed and headed into Lajitas to pick up some groceries.  I simply wanted to throw together a trail mix.  No problem right?  WRONG!  There wasn't a REAL grocery store for miles.  I stopped everywhere I could, but no go.  Alpine was the closest town and that would have taken me another hour to get to.  The most I could get was peanuts and raisins.  And I was REAL lucky to find raisins.  No 1lb bags of M&M's!  Oh well, no M&M's this time.  I guess I should be thankful for what I got.  I used to think areas of Southern Georgia were in "the middle of nowhere".  This area of the country redefines that phrase!  Two hours to a real grocery store with a recognizable produce section... wow!

I headed back into Big Bend and took Old Maverick Road (gravel) south by Luna's Jackal.  It was interesting to see the construction of this abode considering how little they had to work with.  It basically consisted of rock walls, large straight poles to support the ceiling (not sure where he got this from!), a lattice work of plants to support the ceiling, and then a whole bunch of mud on top.  It was surprisingly cool in there.  This is where Luna lived.  I continuedon the road until it ended right near Santa Elena Canyon. 

Santa Elena Canyon is hard to put into pictures, much less into words. Let me put it this way... in Georgia, we have Cloudland Canyon which is beautiful in its own way.   It is one of my favorite places to hike with beautiful waterfalls and canyon views.   But Santa Elena dwarfs Cloudland Canyon BIG TIME!  I try not to be too judgemental when comparing places.  Cloudland Canyon is indeed beautiful and will always remain one of my favorite places to go, but Santa Elena is definitely awe-inspiring.  The walls are 1500 feet high.  (I think Cloudland Canyon walls are at most 300 feet high).  Santa Elena is a canyon of extraordinary magnitude.  And creator has my gratutude.  (See Kentucky Fried Movie if you haven't heard this line before!) :-)

On the way out, I got stopped by road construction.  I guess you can never really escape it!  I eventually made it to Castolon.  This used to be an old army camp when things weren't very politically stable in Mexico.  There wasn't much of note here except for a few adobe structures and an old store.  (That's why you don't see any pictures).  I did manage to snap some shots of the sunset and the Mule Ears (twin peaks).  I decided that hike out to the Mule Ears was in order and filed that away in my head.  After mule ears, I came to Burro Mesa Pulloff and decided to hike in to the canyon to check out the echo and play my Native American flute a bit.   The sun had set, but I decided that the moon would give me enough light.  I headed off the trial.  About a quarter mile in, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and heard a buzzing sound.  About 5 feet in front of me, underneath a prickly pear cactus, lied a rattlesnake.  Right next to the trail!  Had I not known what a rattlesnake sounded like, I probably would have gotten bitten while walking past.  I nearly jumped out of my skin!  I literally ran back about 10 feet.   I then decided to check him out a bit.  I got closer until he rattled again and then I decided that this was a sign not to go on... there wasn't really a good way around him anyway.  So I settled for some flute playing by my car in the dusk sky.  Then it was back to my camp at Paint Gap.

October 29th - The following morning, I fixed up my battery isolator, downloaded some pictures, worked on my computer, and took it easy.  I figured that I would have enough time later in the day to check out Mule Ears.  Well, later in the day came sooner than expected.  I managed 2 mile hike to Mule Ears spring and about a mile beyond (6 miles round trip in 3 hours).  Then I decided that hiking around in the night wasn't my idea of fun, especially with that rattlesnake incident earlier in my trip.  So I got as close as I could on this hike and turned back before it got too late.  My timing turned out pretty well and I caught a nice sunset by my car. 

It is really funny how these things happen.  In a way, I came out here to avoid constantly being rushed around.  I find it fascinating that I manage to do it to myself.  One of the most incredible things about Big Bend is the silence in the desert during the day.  It really is peaceful.  Now if I could just make myself find the time to enjoy that silence.  After this hiking experience, I decided to get up before sunrise every morning and get as much out of the day as possible.  This decision seemed to help me a good bit with the lonliness.  When I left for Big Bend, I left a number of dear friends (as well as my family) behind.  I do miss them, but I guess keeping busy and trying to get the most out of each day, really helps with this problem.  This is really my first time away from home by myself.  Who wouldn't get a little lonely?! (oh, and talking with them on the phone helps too!)  Tom Brown Jr. once said "There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely."   I'm starting to agree!

By the way, on the way back to my car on my Mule Ears hike, I did notice a path that seemed to head straight for Mule Ears.  Of course, it was blocked off with rocks (probably by volunteers trying to keep you on the proper trail), but armed with a GPS and map, or a map and compass, I might try it again... (The book I have says many hikers get lost here.)  Next time, I'll get an early start.  You are probably wondering what is my fascination with Mule Ears.  The pictures again, don't do Mule Ears justice.  These peaks jut out of the desert floor and they are absolutely huge.   Very odd looking... they seem to defy gravity and they fascinate me.  Big Bend was a big volcanic activity zone many billions of years ago.  Mule Ears is an area of molten magma (volcanic rock) exposed after it's outer was washed away by years of erosion.  

At Sterling Commerce, where I used to work, Don Hinds (my boss) knew I was leaving for this trip.  On my Quarterly Performance Review, under goals for next quarter, he put down: improve picture taking.  Don, I want you to know, I have discovered some definite quirks about photography... but what I discovered here at Big Bend, is that NO camera can take pictures here that can accurately represent the landscape.  There are two reasons for this.  The landscape presents stark contrasts... cameras want it either light or dark in a single photo... it can't show both very well.  This goes for digital cameras as well unfortunately.  The second reason is the vastness of it all.  Between both of these reasons, I can't tell you how many times I've looked at something and said to myself... "Gosh I'd like to capture that on film, but it simply won't come out."  With the shot below, you can see I was able to partially deal with some of the vastness of Big Bend.  By taking 3 shots and using Photoshop, I got about maybe 100-110 degrees out of the picture.   This is the best way I can show a typical view at Big Bend:

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"Panorama" shot from Mule Ears hike (click for detail)

Big Bend has programs just about every day somewhere in the park.  One program I wanted to attend went off at 8:30am and was near Rio Grande Village.  I camped out at Gravel Pit #4, about as close as you can get to Rio Grande Villiage without having to pay a fee for the campground.  The campsite was right next to the river.   While I made dinner, I saw some serious lightning.  The beautiful ground to air lightning.  It was then that I noticed that the place I was camped was about to turn into a mud bog.  I HAVE gotten my truck stuck before in the mud and considering I had an 8:30am program to make, I figured an ordeal in the morning was a bad idea.   So I drove up to higher ground... Gravel Pit #1, in the "rig," for the night.  No one showed up thank goodness.  (I had registered for GP4, not GP1).   The next morning, I was up at 7am and out at 8:10am with breakfast.  I guess I'm finally figuring my rig out.

October 30th - The program was great.  Only two "students" (including me!)...  The other "student" was a ranger though.  (I didn't find out that he was a ranger until later).  I guess people don't like to get up this early.  "Knowledge Not Lost:  Life in the Desert" was the name of it, led by an SCA (Student Conservation Association) representative.  He was my age and we hit it off pretty well.  Afterwards, I demonstrated fire making and managed to give myself a blister trying the hand drill.  Again, no coal.  I will eventually figure out my sotol hand drill... eventually, I'll also have some callouses.   We exchanged some information too about outdoor schools.

Afterwards, I checked out Boquillos Canyon.  I'm sure this canyon is nearly as impressive as Santa Elena, but you just couldn't get the angles needed to produce the great views.  But the 2 mile hike was easy.  I climbed a steep sandy embankment up to a small cave and got a good shot of the Rio Grande.  The consistency of the sand reminded me of my mountaineering experiences with the Colorado Outward Bound school.  I actually had to kick steps into the sand in some spots.  But the view up there was worth it.  After sliding down, it was off to Boquillos itself.

Boquillos is a small impoverished town just over the Rio Grande in Mexico.  You pay $2 to take a boat over.  Consdering that I'd never been to Mexico before, I decided to give it a shot.  I didn't actually snap any photos over there.  It just didn't feel right.  These are people trying to live their lives and taking photos of them simply for taking photos seemed akin to being in a zoo, and the inhabitants of this town are the animals.  Perhaps to most modern men, this would be an accurate description of the situation, for they are quite impoverished.  In some ways, I envy them though.  They live much closer to the land than all of us folks who are viewing this website.  I did managed to brush up on my spanish (2 years of it in high school!) and purchase a few items.  It was interesting to see how others live their life, but I think I like the natural beauty of the country side better.

After Boquillos, I relaxed a bit out of the sun.  After helping a man and his family put a spare tire on the car (his jack actually broke!), I dropped into the Hot Springs.  Big Bend, like I said, was a volcanically active area and the hot spring is evidence of this activity.  100 degree water a silty pool right next to the Rio Grande.  This used to be a little resort and the "hotel" and store are still standing.  Then I hit the Dugout Wells, a small desert oasis with a nature trail and windmill (to bring even more water to the surface).  Finally, I camped for the night at Grapevine Hills #4.  Next, it's on to the Chisos Basin and 3 days/2 nights of backpacking the Chisos Mountains.

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Luna's Jackal

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Me in Santa Elena Canyon

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Santa Elena Canyon (mouth)

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The Mountain and I

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The Mule Ears and I

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Mule Ears (side)

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Mountain View from Mule Ears Trail
(Santa Elena Canyon in distance)

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The Rig and Sunset

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Boquillas Canyon

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Dugout Wells

Technology Update

October 27th, Disaster strikes!  Well, perhaps not a disaster... Things could have definitely been worse.  While attempting to use my dehydrator to make some jerkey, I noticed that the dehydrator quickly drained my accessory battery.  I started my engine and the accessory battery still had no power.  If the diode in the battery isolator was working, it should have been drawing power off of the alternator for charging and for running the accessories.  I wasn't really sure what was wrong until I attempted to modify some connections at the battery isolator.   When I attempted to screw on the nut for the alternator connection, I noticed the bolt spinning in place.  The plastic around the bolt should have held the bolt in place.  It turns out that the plastic around the bolt had melted/cracked as you can see in the picture.  In retrospect, I had parked for the night and left my engine running for a while to charge my accessory battery.  Without the airflow through the engine compartment, the battery isolator couldn't sufficiently cool itself.  This is probably how the meltdown occurred. 

The fix?  I connected my accessory battery to the cables connecting the main battery to the alternator.   After a short (1 hour, one way) drive into Lajitas, TX, I purchased a 15amp 120v light switch which should handle enough amps at 12v.  I placed the switch at my seat.   Now, whenever I start up my engine, I simply flip the switch, allowing my accessory battery to charge.  (My main battery is hardwired to the alternator now so it always charges when the engine is running).  Some electical tape, duct tape, blood, and tears were all that were needed to fix things up.  ("If you can't fix it with duct tape, it ain't worth fixin'!")

Overall, I think this might be a better solution than the battery isolator.   I always had a bad feeling about that component... especially after Phil explained that adding a diode (battery isolator) also causes a voltage drop... so my batteries weren't charging at 14 volts like they should have been, but were charging at 13 volts.   Now I get the 14 volt charge... I just have to remember to flip the switch!

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Can we say, meltdown?

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The fix? I am now the Battery Isolator :-)

Once again, if you know of anyone in Southwestern Texas (or around Carlsbad New Mexico) who might let me use their landline for updating my web pages, please let me know.

Coming Next...

In Texas... More of Big Bend National Park, Guadelupe Mountains National Park, and in New Mexico... Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

More Information on Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park has nearly unlimited opportunies for hiking, backpacking, and camping.  Cycling is allowed on all of the roads, but not on the trails (no single track).  The place is absolutely huge and remote.  The closest "real" town is Alpine, TX about 110 miles away.  There is a gas/service station in the park, and they have limited food supplies... if you want fresh veggies, you've got a 110 mile drive! Lodging is also available in the park.  The park has it's own post office.   Back-country camping is free.  The campgrounds charge a fee, but there are free drive-in backcountry campsites.  The views of the desert and mountains around the park are spectacular... this is simply a place you should visit in your lifetime!  For more information:

Big Bend National Park
PO Box 129
Big Bend National Park, TX  79834-0129
(915)477-2251
http://www.nps.gov/bibe/

My E-Mail address is: andrew(at)koransky.com

Copyright (C) 1996-2008 Andrew Koransky

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