Sunday, March 31, 2013

More Big Bend NP

100_5308We made two more trips into Big Bend National Park.  The second time we went up into the mountains.  The highest mountains in the the park are the Chisos Mountains.  And the environment is very different up there.  There are many more trees and grasses.  It is not nearly so barren there.  We took a couple of trails in order to see “The Window” which is a view out between a couple mountains at some of the lesser mountains of the desert floor and the distant mesa at the Rio Grande River.

100_5325And here is our backpacker on the Lost Mine Trail with a mountain valley in the background.




100_5445Our last trip into the park took us to the Rio Grand Village area.  We took another river canyon hike, this time to the Boquillas Canyon.  There is a small Mexican village across the river, Boquillas del Carmen.  The town used to thrive on the tourist trade from Big Bend NP but after 9/11, the border crossing was closed indefinitely and still hasn’t been reopened.  The town has since lost a third of its population.  But at many places along trails in the park, the Mexicans from Boquillas bring over and leave their goods along the trail with a jar, can or jug for you to put your money in.  The Park has signs saying not to buy these things, but I couldn’t help buying a colorful walking stick.

100_5452We also drove this fairly short but scary gravel road trail back to the trail head for Big Bend’s Hot Springs.  These springs are right on the banks of the Rio Grande.  They were a tourist attraction on their own in the first half of the 1900’s before the establishment of the park.  The temperature of the springs is 105 degrees.  The spring pool is in the foreground of the picture with Rio Grande waders and soakers and then the shoreline of Mexico.  Crossing the border is that easy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Big Bend Ranch State Park

100_5339Gary’s leg is not too bad after the muscle strain from chasing the car, but we decided to take a driving day in part as a bit of convalescence time.  In addition to Big Bend National Park , there is also a Big Bend State Park here as well.  Within a limited amount of time, we generally might have ignored a state park in favor of more time in a national park, but in this case we feel that would have been a major mistake.   The drive through Big Bend Ranch State Park is spectacular.  Sure, it has the overall feel of the Big Bend region with the mountains, plains, canyons and the Rio Grande River, but one of the differences with this drive is that it follows along the river whereas in the national park you basically can just drive to the river in a few spots, not generally drive along it.  And because you are following along the river and along the walls of mountains and mesas, the road has a lot of character.  It is about like driving n a roller coaster track.  Virtually every up is to a crest that you cannot see over; you never seem to know which way the road may turn when you get to the top.  And every down goes all the way down into a gulch or a wash.  They couldn’t possibly build enough bridges to cross over all of these crevices so the road just becomes a part of the wash when rainstorms do pass through.  They even have flood gages anchored next to the road so you can know how deep the water is passing through the wash.

100_5387And of course in all of this uping and downing they can’t build the road to typical maximum grades in the range of 5-6-7%.  The real highlight of the trip is the 15% grade up and down in about the center of the drive through the Park.  Keep in mind that we have that manual transmission that got Gary in trouble the other day and with which you either have to select a gear before going up the grade or downshift while doing so, and one doesn’t want to be doing a lot of shifting when on such a grade.  Gary hit the hill in second gear with high revs and was able to pull the whole rise without a shift and this is a pull of around half a mile.  Whew.


100_5382We still are more than a bit underwhelmed by the Rio Grande River as it seems almost like a glorified creek with the low volume of water presently passing through it, but following along it does make for an amazing drive.  The mountains along this drive on the Mexican side seem huge, even larger than all the ones on the Texas side.  And we found cacti with even more blooms than we had seen anywhere else.


Toward the western end of the drive we finally saw some farming apparently irrigated from the Rio Grande.  We had a late lunch in the dusty border crossing town of Presidio, Texas.  We didn’t cross over to Mexico; Ojinaga didn’t seem like it would have the tourist character of a Nuevo Progresso.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Oops–Is That Our Car Rolling Away?

On Sunday, we were driving through the national park and we were making lots of stops at the many turnouts along the road, looking at scenery and flowers.  At many of the stops Gary was immediately checking scores from the NCAA basketball tournament.  He wasn’t following his normal routine of stopping, turning the car off, putting the transmission in first gear (it is a manual) and setting the parking brake.  Well, at one stop I got out and he just kept the car running as he checked scores.  I spent more time at that stop than he expected and after he got the scores, he just turned off the engine and popped out of the car to catch up to me.  As I saw him heading toward me I also saw the car behind him starting to roll forward.  I screamed, “the car is rolling away”.  I watched as Gary broke into a sprint, or at least as much as that is still possible for him.  Thank God he had left his car door open.  Even though the car was starting to pick up speed, he caught up to it, made a reasonably graceful entry through the open door, into the seat, and applied to brake to bring it to a stop.  It had just about reached the speed at which he wasn’t going to catch up to it.  There were drop offs on both sides of the road right after that turnout.  It definitely could not have been driven back up onto the road.  Roadside assistance -- at best probably a hundred miles away.  And of course he strained a hamstring trying to commence a sprint and now we have to take it bit easier on our hikes as I am certainly not going to even try to carry him out.

Our First Foray Into Big Bend NP

100_5201Our son, Andy, got us a great Christmas gift this past December -- an annual pass into US National Parks.  But until this week, we hadn’t yet used it.  We were going to use it on the Texas Gulf Coast at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, but we found the whooping cranes we were looking for before we ever got there.  So we used it for the first time at Big Bend National Park.  The cheapest alternative they offered at the gate was a one-week pass at $20.  So yay; we started saving.

texasBBparkBig Bend National Park is huge.  It is larger than the State of Rhode Island. And why is it called Big Bend?  Well, it is bounded on its southern boundary with a big bend in the Rio Grande River. Immediately after entering the park, we made our first mistake.  The first major sight we wanted to see was the Santa Elena Canyon.  The shortest route included 13 miles of  “improved gravel road” , while the all-paved route was over 60 miles.  Suffice it to say we won’t be taking that route again.  We had enough ground clearance, but this road was a washboard.  We thought we were going to shake the car apart.

100_5223Santa Elena canyon was well worth the vibration.  It is the picture post card view of Big Bend.  It is amazing how that canyon was ever carved by the river in this photo – one you could easily wade through to Mexico right there on the other side. But there is not need to build a border fence here.  The territory on both sides is so inhospitable that no one would want to try to pass through here.

But the thing that amazed us most was how abloom the desert is right now.  It must be because it is Spring time as there hasn’t been any rain here this year.






Monday, March 25, 2013

On To Big Bend Country

100_5163From Sonora on to Big Bend, you quickly and ever more so come to understand that you are entering into the northern regions of the Chihuahuan Desert.  This is some of the driest, most desolate, and least populated area of the country.  Once we turned south off I10 at Fort Stockton, the land became more and more forsaken.

100_5193This was a big day of travel for us – nearly 300 miles, but we were up early and out quickly.  Big Bend National Park is about 150 miles south from the freeway and there isn’t much else down that way.  But it is one of the few parks Gary has never visited in all of his travels.  Even the wind farms we saw along the expressway were no more when we turned further south into the desert.  The two lane highway from Fort Stockton to Alpine was posted with a 75mph speed limit.  In that 50 mile stretch we saw fewer than 10 vehicles.  And south of Alpine, it becomes even more desolate, windy, and dusty.

100_5199But the backdrop for our campsite is awfully hard to beat!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Caverns of Sonora, TX

We left the San Antonio/Austin area on Friday and headed toward our next destination of Big Bend National Park.  But that is a journey of nearly 500 miles so we needed a place to stop for one night.  We never would have known about the Caverns of Sonora if not for a blog post from our fellow former Ford full timers, Sue and Paul.  They raved about this cave awhile back in one of their blogs.  We had not heard about it before then and if not for their blog post we likely would not have stopped there.

100_4990It was 200 miles down the road for us and gave us a chance to stop only for a night but still be able to do something.  We weren’t sure how the day was going to go as when we got up, we found that it was misting outside – most unusual for the San Antonio area and we had to drive in the mist for about an hour, something we really do not like to do as the moisture can bring up the oils from the road and make it slick.  But after about an hour, the sun had burnt off all the clouds and we had a perfect sunny day.  And although we didn’t see the 85mph speed limit on the toll road around Austin, the speed limit on I10 west of San Antonio is 80 MPH.

The caverns are simply fantastic.  There are formations everywhere and the trail is right on top of all of them.  Gary has visited Carlsbad Caverns two times and he was incredulous when Sue and Paul suggested this cave might be even better,  But we both walked away amazed at all the incredible beauty of this cave.  We will be in Carlsbad in another week or so, but this one is going to be hard to surpass.  We would highly recommend it to anyone.




100_5151There is a campground right at the caverns and we didn’t even had to unhook the car from the motor home.  It was a far better stay than a travel night at a Walmart.  And here is Sue and Paul’s report on the Caverns of Sonora.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

San Antonio

It got up to 95 here earlier this week – a record high for this time in March! 

We already visited the Alamo but little else in San Antonio.  This time we toured the Missions of San Antonio and the River Walk.

The Spanish in Mexico employed the Catholic Church to help in its northward expansion.  Franciscan Monks, along with a few soldiers and traders, walked from Mexico (they could not ride on horses or in wagons because of their vows of poverty) to Texas to establish Missions.  The Missions quickly became community centers and the Monks had a bit of success in converting some Indians from certain tribes to Christianity.  The earliest Missions were in east Texas but they did not thrive for a variety of reasons.  A few of these Missions were then relocated to the San Antonio area and others were also established nearby.  Why San Antonio?  Well, in a word – water.  There is a very large artesian aquifer in this area which is the water source for San Antonio and the San Antonio River.  The Missions were all located very close to the San Antonio River and the Monks were skilled at building aqueducts that allowed for irrigation of their crop lands which in turn lead to more community at the Missions and more converts.

The success of the Missions led to the influx of settlers from areas of the United States and to waves of immigration such as those from Germany which all provided the historical core of what is now modern day San Antonio.  But the success bred by the Missions is what ultimately led to the loss of the Texas territory by the Spanish and Mexicans.  The first Mission in San Antonio was the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.

The San Jose Mission was next in the region, established in 1720.


It’s success led to the relocation of the Eastern Texas Missions of:



San Juan


And Concepcion



100_4977After touring four Missions we were hungry so we visited San Antonio’s famous River Walk and had some excellent Mexican food seated right next to the San Antonio River.  A major flood of the River in the 1920s led to the development of a flood control plan for the River.  An upstream dam was installed and a new channel was dug to bypass a big big bend in the river in the downtown area, But instead of turning the old bend into the originally planned storm sewer, a shrewd individual won support for another downstream dam that would basically create a complete loop of water that is now the River Walk area.  It is San Antonio’s signature attraction and it is an amazing collection of hotels, restaurants, tour boats, and gardens all one story down from the street level of the city.

The River looked quite green and our server told us that there was still residue from the River having been dyed green for the St Patrick Day’s celebration and boat parade.  Now why didn’t we know about that at the time?

Monday, March 18, 2013

World’s Largest Convenience Store?

2013-03-18_13-45-39_281We know, we know, “everything is bigger in Texas”.  And yes, we also know, “don’t mess with Texas”.  But does Texas really have to lay claim to the “world’s largest convenience store”?  Why yes it does.

2013-03-18_13-46-45_547Right here on the outskirts of New Braunfels on that I35 corridor is Buc-ee’s.  This place has 60 gas pumps, 80 soda dispensers, and 84 toilets.  It won the coveted America’s Best Restroom award in 2012.  The building is longer than a football field.  There are 1,000 spaces in the parking lot.  It employs 250 people.   And they had the best gas prices in town with no penalty for the use of a credit card.







They sell a bit of everything here including BBQ and Jerky.  We passed on the “beaver nuggets”.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


100_5635We made a couple trips up to Austin.  The first time we took in the LBJ Presidential Library.  We had been there once before in about 1985 and essentially had no memory of it.  We like to visit presidential libraries.  During our full timing travels we already had visited the Clinton and Kennedy libraries.  Before we started full timing we saw the Nixon and Ford libraries and Gary had been to the Eisenhower one on a trip with his parents.  These libraries tend to feature a lot of the culture of the era and we always marvel at the displays of gifts the presidents have received from visiting world leaders.  The Johnson Library was no exception.  We were surprised to see how frankly the Library dealt with the unpopularity of the Viet Nam war and what a toll it had taken on Johnson and his Presidency.  The Clinton Library just quickly glossed over President Clinton’s failings but the Johnson Library took head on the tragedy and heartache of the war.

100_4924On our second trip, we did another LBJ thing.  This time it was the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Our anticipation of this one got the best of us.  Being the middle of March, we had visions of fields and fields of wildflowers and especially bluebonnets.  This place was a huge disappointment for us.  We saw one small bed with a few blooms and that was it for the bluebonnets.  This facility is dedicated to the preservation of wildflower species and native Texas plants more than it is to the display of them.  With all the work Lady Bird led on highway beautification and wildflower planting, we just expected so much more.  After visiting the Duke Gardens in North Carolina and the US Botanic Gardens in Washington DC to name two, we were less than whelmed to say the least.  This was one of the very few times where we wondered aloud if we should ask for our money back (but we didn’t).

100_5641Austin isn’t an easy city to get around.  The traffic is horrendous even at off peak hours.  And while we were there it was during the SXSW (South by South West) Music, Film and Interactive Conference which made it even harder to navigate the city.  We wanted to go to the entertainment district and see the “City of Live Music” up close, but there were just too much traffic, too few places to park and too many people on the streets even to try.

Friday, March 15, 2013

New Braunfels, Gruene, San Marcos and the I35 Corridor

We are camped in the town of New Braunfels, Texas.  We decided on this location as it is between San Antonio and Austin, just off the Interstate that runs between them -- I35.  New Braunfels was established in 1845 as an area to receive German immigrant settlers to Texas.  New Braunfels retains some of its historic charm and German heritage with a German Bakery, advertised as the oldest bakery in the state of Texas, and with an attractive sandstone courthouse.  There are German restaurants.  We went to one and enjoyed our respective meals of rolled beef and schnitzel, with the schnitzel being Texas schnitzel which means it had jalapenos in the gravy.  While not authentic to German traditions it was tangy and tasty.


100_5652Nearby within the greater New Braunfels area is the historic district of Gruene.  There is reportedly the oldest dance hall in the state of Texas and still in operation.  Back in the day, Gruene was a center of cotton processing.



100_5621A bit further north on I35 is the town of San Marcos.  It also has a vintage courthouse and a vibrant downtown eating and entertainment district.  It is the home to Texas State University.  President Lyndon Johnson graduated from there when it was known as Southwest Texas State Normal School, a college to teach teachers which was LBJ’s first profession.  The campus is set up on hills overlooking the rest of the town and I35.

We are a bit worried about just what is happening to the quaint towns along the I35 corridor.  Not only does I35 connect San Antonio and Austin, it continues on south to Laredo on the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico.  It is the major truck and train route for any goods that are moving in or out of Monterrey and Mexico City, the two major industrialized cities of Mexico.  This area is growing rapidly.  Austin has been the fastest growing city in the country for the past three years.  San Antonio’s growth rate puts it in the top 10 also.  I35 between these two cities is three lanes each way and constantly busy with traffic.  There are also two lanes each way of “frontage roads” running almost the entire 75 miles from downtown San Antonio to downtown Austin.  As such, virtually the entire corridor has been built out with commerce of all kinds including more shopping than you can imagine.  It is easy to see the day when San Antonio and Austin will be just one giant metroplex with everything centered off of I35.  The freeway is so congested that a new toll road has been opened up to bypass Austin with a speed limit of 85 MILES PER HOUR.