If you’ve ever wondered what a sunset view of the mountains in Big Bend looks like, well, here it is.
The evening before we are due to leave the national park, we take the half hour or so drive from our campsite at the Rio Grande Village, over to the main Chisos Mountains Lodge to visit the ‘The Window’ overlook. While the sunset was pretty, the bugs that congregate at the site and annoy the heck out of you while you are trying to enjoy it, slightly kill the mood. Additionally, a recommendation – if you want to see wildlife easily within Big Bend, drive this main road both day and night. Along here we spotted a variety of birds (including an owl), jackrabbits, a snake (which was lying right on the blacktop sunning itself, looked slightly reddish in colour and I think was a rattlesnake) and the bottom end of a coyote as he scampered off into the brush.
The morning we are set to leave, Loops and I have made a pact. I want to hike at least one ‘decent’ trail while here at Big Bend. I can’t have all of these mountain trails and not try at least one of them, so we have agreed that today, the day we leave, Loops will get Belle packed up and moved out of the campsite which we must vacate by 12, and I can take The Beast and go hike the Lost Mine Trail back near the lodge. Once I’m done, we will reconvene and head out of the park.
If you are looking for a short but satisfying trail here in Big Bend, the Lost Mine Trail is it. The trail is 4.8 miles round trip with an 1100ft elevation gain. That basically means it will get you puffing, but not exhausted, and feeling that you had put in some effort for the view, meaning that you have definitely achieved something. According to the ranger who recommended the hike, this is the second best view in Texas (the first is apparently on the south rim trail in the park which is an overnight hike).
There are two signs displayed prominently at the start of the trail to warn you to keep an eye out for both mountain lions and bears.
While that is obviously a good safety tip, just to put it into perspective, for a park that covers over 800,000acres, there are estimated to be 15-20 bears and approximately 24 mountain lions. So your chances of seeing one are pretty slim, especially on a high traffic trail such as this one. Still, I keep my eyes peeled, but that’s because I’m a scaredy cat.
So, what can I tell you about my hike?
Well, I huffed and puffed. Though in my defence, I am hiking in a dry desert environment don’t forget, which makes it pretty darn hard to breathe normally in the first place. The trail was clear and easy to follow with numerous overlooks and benches to sit on if you wanted to stop. There were also plenty of switchbacks, so with the exception of the very last part of the peak, there weren’t really any tough ups or downs at all. All in all, it made for a good hike for me.
And personally, despite my lack of fitness, I feel I crushed it. I can’t tell you how many people I passed going both up and down which was a much-needed boost to my ego.
I’ve just realised that it’s hard for me to comment on the view from the peak, because it’s only just dawned on me that I’ve actually climbed a fair amount of mountains in the past and after a while, well, dare I say it, in some cases the views just start to look the same. Obviously this is a desert mountain and not at all the same as the mountains on the Appalachian Trail, but still, it is a view over a landscape with mountains in it. Personally, it’s not necessarily a view I will always remember (unlike some on the AT).
Mostly though, this morning is about the achievement of completing the hike and to know that I’ve made the effort to enjoy some of what this park environment has to offer; and from that point I have succeeded.
The next leg of our travels takes us to the town of Presidio, but first we have to endure our worst travel experience yet – climbing mountains with an exhaust leak.
Now, I’ve made mention of the leak a few times I think, but I honestly can’t recall if I’ve fully explained the problem. If I have, my apologies, but if I haven’t, here’s the issue we seem to be experiencing…
When Loops bought Belle, she came complete with a straight-pipe exhaust. This meant an exhaust pipe with no baffling inside, which resulted in an extremely loud and obnoxious sounding bus. We would roll through town and people would look at us in disgust at the noise we would make, let alone the roar that would accompany our Jake brake any time we tried to use it (I thought we were going to cause a rock slide last year in the Smokey Mountains).
While in Michigan last year, Loops had the opportunity to change the straight-pipe for a normal, quieter exhaust – hurrah! All problems solved we thought. And for quite a while, they were.
Neither of us can quite remember when the smell started to appear – a slight exhaust fume odour emanating from the bedroom, which was annoying and frustrating making me wrinkle my nose, but not a huge concern at the time. And neither can we agree on when that smell began to silently creep forward, stealing its way through the bathroom and into the kitchen area, now making me feel very upset and worried. What we can agree on though, is that now that it has reached our seats and causing us headaches and the inability to breathe, we have finally reached a point where we really need to address the problem before it kills us. Seriously.
The drive from Big Bend was overwhelmingly and phenomenally beautiful along Highway 170 through Big Bend Ranch Park, with the sparkling Rio Grande and its lush river banks following on your left the whole way. It is quite possibly the one place in Texas you would want to live the rest of your life in and never have any regrets about not leaving.
Sadly our drive through this was, in part, marred by the fact that every 10-20 minutes we needed to fully stop, throw open all of the windows, turn on the bathroom fan and air conditioning and sit and wait until the smell of the exhaust fumes cleared out. Given that this whole area comprised of steep hills and declines, where the engine was working overtime to push us up and over, the exhaust was just unbearable. It makes me want to cry. Having a broken bus in this way is just a wrench on the heart, it really is.
We finally, quite late in the afternoon, managed to limp into an RV park just outside of Presidio.
Presidio is pretty much as close as to Mexico as we are going to manage to get. Despite my slight whinging and then an outright plea, we won’t be crossing the border. Loops is adamant that The Beast doesn’t have insurance coverage to cross and in no way, shape or form is he willing to cross on foot or bike. Part of me grumps about this, but when we go into Presidio that evening to sample their Mexican food at El Patio Restaurant, I don’t feel so bad. Really, this town could be in Mexico. Once upon a time I’m sure it actually was, before the Rio Grande became a defined border for the USA, and it basically has a sister town directly across the river called Ojinaga.
Practically everyone we met in the town was Mexican or certainly of that descent. The lady who served us in the restaurant spoke not a jot of English and had to call a younger lady out to help when we had a question about the different types of salsa available. We shopped in the local grocery store and a large proportion of the goods were either imported from Mexico or had the flavour of Mexico about them i.e. large selections of varieties beans and rice, almost a whole aisle dedicated to hot sauces and salsa, empanadas in the bakery (I gave a pumpkin one a try, not my thing though). And of course, they all spoke Spanish. I’ve done a very brief bit of research and according to the 2010 census for the town, 94% of the town’s population were recorded as Hispanic or Latino. I can concur that it certainly appears not much has changed in the seven years since then. The buildings here had what I’m sure would be seen by many Americans as having an ‘air of poverty’ about them, most were a basic adobe type structure, plain in design , neutral in colour. This gives them a feeling of being run down, but I don’t think that’s fully the case, I think that’s just what the structures look like in general, even when newly built; they are just economical, functional and practical. And yes, from what I can see across the river, this is what Mexican housing looks like (and most of south Texas, to be fair).
Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but I am aware that some people may be bothered by this concentrated diversity spectrum. I know some people are heartily troubled by the fact that a person would come and live in a country with a different language and culture, and instead of learning and changing and becoming part of that society, they would simply bring their own culture and language with them instead.
Let’s face facts, this is a huge issue in America right now, and not only that, but of course is spreading across the world right now in terms of mass immigration issues.
I don’t have the answers of course, but I do have my own opinion. And personally, I liked Presidio. The people seemed friendly and courteous. There were people out on the streets that evening, walking happily and safely down the streets. There were kids playing late night games of tennis at the sports complex. It seemed just a small town getting on with life. Like everyone else in the world is trying to. This is a place that sits within spitting distance of Mexico, a lot of its residents have come from there at some point and historically, this land was once part of Mexico. So in this case, I would find it hard for anyone to really bluster about the fact that the people here, in what is technically the USA, speak primarily a foreign language, are Hispanic or Latino and live a Mexican culture lifestyle. I would simply say, apply some common sense.
As for others, who would call for those in a new country to ‘assimilate’, I would say this.
I am a dual citizen. I have the utmost privilege of having been granted both American and British citizenship. I consider myself British, having spent over 30 years of my life living in England, being raised in its culture; despite not being born there. I have come to the US to try and live with my American partner. I speak English. I can read, write and I hold a degree. I consider myself engaged enough to have tried to learn about aspects of American culture; its customs and politics, the working world.
I have now been here for a year and despite my ‘leg-up’ on many of the people who may be trying to do the same thing, from different countries and more vast cultural differences, I can tell you I have not managed to ‘assimilate’.
I may speak the same language, but I still feel an outsider every time I open my mouth and say something in an accent people can’t understand or use a word they are not familiar with. It grates on me every time I have to write the date or a word in an American spelling and have to mentally force myself into a correction that goes against my whole lifetime worth of vocabulary and common sense. It frustrates me almost to tears to not be able to have my favourite foods that I crave from home and secretly have to stash away, so I can eat a familiar tasting chocolate or biscuit or have a calming cup of tea. I miss the British accent so much that any time I hear one I stop dead still, just so I can listen and be reminded of what ‘my people’ sound like. I still have not made a single new friend since I moved here. I don’t want to be American, I just want to try and live here the best I can while being who I already am.
I can understand and empathise with anyone trying to settle into a new country. It is hard enough to try and deal with the small stuff that I battle with (which may seem totally ridiculous and innocuous to you), let alone to be a person being told to strip themselves of their language, potentially their religion and dress customs, to leave behind everything that up until that point has been their life, their routine, their culture, their identity and being told to take on a completely new one. Some of these people may not be here by choice. These people may not be coming here because they want to ‘be American’. Maybe they are just simply searching for a safe place to be themselves. And I can understand, at least in a small part, how difficult that must be.
Well, that was a tangent and a half, eh?
OK, so let’s dust ourselves off and shift back to the travels in hand shall we?
Right, so Presidio – I will consider the town my little piece of Mexico, anyway, as close as I’m going to get.
We leave the town the following day, having talked Loops into taking a little bit of a detour I’m not sure he was planning to take. Once again being on my mission for NPS Passport Stamps, I have cast my eyes across a map and decided that really, it would just be a crime to not take the opportunity to just ‘pop up north’ across the state line into New Mexico and visit Carlsbad Caverns. On the way of course this means that we also can ‘swing by’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the border and, closer to where we are right now, pass through Fort Davis.
Fort Davis really is a pretty little area with an impressive historical fort within it. It basically makes up 90% of the reason to come to this, the highest mountain town in Texas, in the first place.
Wait. Did someone say mountains?
Yes. More mountains means more hard work for the engine, means more suffocating for us. That’s it. Loops has had enough and makes an executive decision. Once we are finished with the detour, we are heading to El Paso, the biggest city around these parts, and we won’t be leaving until the exhaust is fixed! I can only manage to cough my agreement at him.
The road leading to Fort Davis provides a welcome change of scenery. The higher we climb the less scrub and more grassland we see. And for the first time since San Antonio, I think, we actually see cows and horses in the fields. The landscape has softened for sure. We also begin to pass mammoth greenhouses on the road, no less that four of them, producing vegetables and fruits to be sold.
We reach Fort Davis and spend the night at the Prude Ranch, a working horse farm that has not only RV spaces, but also runs riding groups and hosts educational activities – in fact, one of these visits is in progress when we arrive; a couple busloads of school children being lead around the site, laughing and sounding very jolly about the whole adventure.
The ranch has a lovely atmosphere to it, welcoming and laid back. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, for really we are in a paddock with a couple trees, over six miles from the local town. It would be considered by some, I’m sure, as too rustic, but it does have full hook-ups and a friendly ranch dog who hangs out just in case you’d like to pet him. It’s certainly MY cup of tea.
We only spend a single night here though, and not an overly pleasant one at that. Loops and I manage to have a rather large disagreement and I feel my time would be better spent away from the bus and needing to hear a calming and familiar voice. I spend the evening sitting in the local town (the only area with phone reception) catching up with my mum, who I suddenly realise I miss very much. It’s just what I need at times like this when living in a (relatively) small RV, full time, 24 hours a day, with one other person starts to just feel like a really confining and poor life decision. Hey, nobody said life on the road was a picnic all the time, right? To cheer me up further, on my drive into town I did spot, grazing calmly by the roadside, a javelina. In case you’re wondering, that’s the local name for a Collared Peccary. And if you don’t know what that is either, I’ll let you Google it. Consider it a lesson from me as part of your wildlife education.
We change locations the following day, to just three miles down the road, to stay at the Davis Mountains State Park. I personally think it’s because Loops felt the Wi-Fi would be better here, but overall it does give us a couple better opportunities to walk and bike.
We decide to spend the afternoon visiting the actual historical Fort Davis itself. Despite the fact Loops inadvertently forgets his seasonal NPS pass, the gentleman at the park surprises us by being beyond kind, letting us in for free anyway and taking Loops’ word about his pass.
The fort is absolutely excellent. I can only apologise profusely that I was simply worn out and wanted to have the day without taking pictures of stuff, and that’s why I can’t physically show you here what it looks like apart from this picture from the NPS guide…
However, let’s try to use our imaginations shall we?
To give you the background, Fort Davis was once an active frontier military post. It housed members of the army and their families (if you were an officer) and was positioned to provide protection to people emigrating west, any freight wagons passing through and postal coaches, during the mid to late 1800’s.
The people who look after the site today have done an excellent job in rebuilding and maintaining the structures so you can walk in and really take in a feeling of what it must have been like to live there. They even have a tannoy system that, at regular intervals, plays bugle calls and the sound of a sergeant giving orders to make it seem like there is still an active military unit there. And, although this wasn’t the case for us while we were there, there are times when live demonstrations take place where they fire weapons and things with re-enactors.
The fort consists of a large open area which contains a variety of buildings in various states of repair. There are two main areas of barracks, which would have housed the soldiers, that you can walk inside and they are all set up with bunks, uniforms, weapons and even personal artefacts sitting in open trunks; making it appear like the soldiers have just popped out on duty and you are looking at their left-behind belongings.
Opposite the parade ground from the barracks are the officers housing, two storey buildings, which again are set up in the style of families living in them, right down to the toys in the kids rooms and the hair brushes in adults bedrooms. It has all been very well thought out and done with as much authenticity as possible.
At the far end of the parade ground is the commissary area set up as a store where again, it looks like the person on duty has just stepped outside for a moment. There is a board explaining the rations of the day, what each man was allowed, and a price list for extra goods people might wish to buy. There is also information in the commissary officer’s office which explains how they had to plan what rations to order for the Fort to make sure they didn’t run out, given the fact it took so long for the wagons to make it this far into the wilderness to resupply them.
The final building is still in a state of being set-up and that is the hospital, but there are a few items in there already showing the medical procedures available at that time in history.
The whole site had plenty of educational information; a number of the exhibits are actually personal to some of the soldiers who served there, as well as stories of the Indians native to the area at the time, which was a nice touch I felt.
Out of all of the National Park Service sites we have visited so far, this is certainly one of my favourites given the depth of the experience I think you can have here. We certainly both enjoyed the couple hours we spent walking about.
To top off our day, on the way back into the small town, we stopped at the Fort Davis Drugstore and treated ourselves to handmade milkshakes with Bluebell ice cream. This is the first time I have ever seen cinnamon ice cream anywhere on offer and decide I can’t pass up the opportunity to have a milkshake made out of it. Top choice!
So if you are ever in the town of Fort Davis, now you know the two top things not to miss out on.