Saturday, December 25, 2010

Big Bend again, the trip that almost didn't happen

Christmas break couldn't come soon enough as I planned my second trip to Big Bend. I gathered gear, watched the weather, added gear, subtracted gear, and jotted down various itineraries.
What I hadn't planned on was a trip to the ER three days before my trip. I'd had a episode the day before; felt like someone was sitting on my chest and my heart beating like the proverbial big brass band. It passed quickly and I made a mental note to call my doctor the next morning. I'd no sooner walked into work the next day when it happened again, this time the pressure went down my left arm.  I thought I might be having a heart attack, although I really didn't believe it, but I thought to myself, "this is how people die, they think it's nothing, it'll pass and then they pass." I wasn't ready to die so I let a co-worker drive me to the ER.
 They wasted no time in getting me hooked up to all kinds of stuff, throwing baby aspirin in my mouth and asking lots of questions. Well, I hadn't had a heart attack, the EKG, blood work, and chest X-ray all came out fine. I had to wear a heart monitor for 24 hrs to see if they could "catch it doing it again." Whatever "it" was. They had me lined up to see a cardiologist the next day, but because of a mix-up, that fell through. Thursday came and  I waited for the doctor's office to call. Friday morning I finally got the call, a stress test was in order, but they couldn't see me that day...could I possibly postpone my trip and come in Monday?  She put me on hold, then asked if I could be there in an hour.  ABSOLUTELY!

They'd just hooked me up to the monitor, when the tech exclaimed "yep, she's doin' it, no need for a stress test, go get the doc." By the time the doc walked in it was back to normal, but not before registering on the readout.  Ah, she said, SVT, then explained and said it was easily controlled with medication.  "So I can go to Big Bend?" I asked.  Yes!!!  Music to my ears!!!  She did however say I had to give up coffee. NO problem I thought, just get me on the road.
By the time I left town, got the prescription filled and made a quick trip to REI to pick up and extra platy, it was 5 PM and I was smack dab in the middle of MetroStress. It took me hours to get to the west side of Ft. Worth, and I didn't think I would ever get my neck muscles to relax.
Finally, I was heading toward Abilene, sweet Abilene, the song bouncing around inside my head.  It had been a long day and around midnight I pulled over at a rest stop just east of Big Spring. I slept three hours then headed west again.
I arrived in Marathon just as the Marathon Coffee Shop was opening, so I decided to give it a try.  Taking a seat close to the heater, I couldn't help but overhear a woman, possibly the owner, the sheriff, and a deputy all discussing the arrest of a man found the night before in the woman's house!  He had apparently been very drunk, became disoriented and had no idea where he was. It was quite entertaining, but I had permits to acquire, so I finished my coffee and headed out the door.

Day 1 Sat. Dec. 18th  Permits, Hot Springs Canyon Rim Trail and  K-Bar

When I arrived at Panther Junction, many back road sites were taken, so I chose K-Bar 2 for the first night, had to bump to K-Bar 1 the next night, Ocotillo Grove for  the next two nights, and Rattlesnake Mt. the last night to put me closer to Terlingua.

I headed down to Daniels Ranch to the Hot Springs Canyon Rim Trail. This area warms up more than the rest of the park and the weather was comfortably in the mid 60's but forecast for 80's the next several days. This trail has stunning views of the river, canyons and mountains. I arrived  at the springs, shed my boots and soaked my feet in the warm water.  I met a nice couple from Austin by way of Lafayette, La., and having lived in Austin, and spent a great deal of time in south Louisiana, we had a great conversation. Other than a few people at the springs, I didn't pass anyone coming or going. I hadn't taken my camera so before I left the area I drove to the springs and hiked up the trail to get some shots. It had been a beautiful day, albeit a long one. I drove to my campsite, fell asleep shortly after sunset and slept 10 hrs.

There was a full moon for this trip which meant the stars would be washed out, but what I didn't count on was that by camping on the east side of the Chisos, the moon would set behind the mountains long before daylight. I woke at 5AM and was treated to a Big Bend Sky after all. The stars literally twinkle like diamonds, and the shooting stars are too numerous to count. Words just can't describe it, it brought tears to my eyes.
Mileage hiked for the day 6.6

Day 2 Sun. Dec. 19th Banta Shut In,Windows Trail, lunch in the Basin and K-Bar 1

As the sun  rose and the stars faded, the birds began their day. K-Bar 2 is nice in that it's at the terminus of the road and Banta Shut In trailhead.  I lingered in camp, having my one cup of coffee and a bagel and cream cheese, then headed out for a morning hike. The silence is what I love most about Big Bend, and I stopped several times just to take it in.  Finally at 9:45 I head toward the Basin to hike the Windows Trail. Last year I didn't even make to the mountains to hike, so enamored with the desert was I. I ran into the couple from Austin again as they were finishing up the trail.

I have to say, having never eaten in the Basin restaurant, and hearing mixed reviews I was hesitant, but hungry, so I gave it a try. I had a veggie burger that was really very good and an equally good cold beer to go with it.  I noticed the couple from Austin on the patio and decided to go out and enjoy the warm sun as well and ordered another beer.  We got to talking about cougars and bears and our past trips;  it was a nice way to pass the afternoon. The were leaving in the morning, we said our goodbyes and I headed back to K-Bar 1. I vaguely heard the occupants of K-Bar 2 pass by after dark, but then all was still again.

Mileage hiked for the day 8.6

Day 3 Mon. Dec. 20th Lost Mine Trail, lunch in the Basin and Ocotillo Grove

I woke early, enjoyed the stars again, had breakfast, and headed back to the Basin to hike another trail I didn't get to last trip, the Lost Mine Trail.  It was a beautiful day to hike in the mountains, with beautiful vistas and cool temps.

I hadn't planned on it, but ended up back at the Basin for lunch, this time having the soup and salad bar, and again it was fresh and tasty.

I headed toward Castalon, stopping to visit with the ranger and have a look around. The parking lot at Santa Elena Canyon was swarming with people so I headed to my campsite.

I arrived at Ocotillo Grove late afternoon, and discovered mosquitoes, but it didn't take long for things to cool down and they disappeared. I wandered around the desert looking at all the animal prints, javelina, rabbits, bobcat, birds and mice. I sat and watched the moon rise over the mountains, enjoying the desert silence but for the occasional bird call and the hum of insects as night overtook day, then crawled into my sleeping bag for the night. About 2 AM I woke to nature's call and discovered it was strangely dark, then it occurred to me, the eclipse was taking place. I'd forgotten all about it. It was a great opportunity to view the stars in all their splendor but I was back asleep before the moon reappeared.

Mileage hiked for the day 4.8

Day 4 Tues. Dec. 21st Blue Creek Trail, lunch (you guessed) in the Basin and a late afternoon hike HSCR

I rose early to make the drive to Homer Wilson Ranch by sunrise to hike the Blue Creek Trail out to the Red Rocks and beyond. I was unprepared for the amount of traffic this trail gets. First I headed up to the ranch house and discovered a tent pitched on the porch. I slowly backed away, turned around to head down the trail and ran into a backpacker from Ohio, working in Houston, who hadn't wanted to pass up the opportunity of being relatively close. Not long after that I passed two more guys, one hiking my direction, and another that had just broke camp, and on the way back passed a group of kids heading to do trail maintenance, bless them! I only hiked a mile or so before turning back; this is an area better photographed for sunsets, and the gravel of the creekbed really calls for gaiters, which I did not own....yet. By the time I returned to my car the day was already heating up so I decided to forgo the Ward Springs trail until the next morning and once again headed to the Basin, with a cooler Laguna Meadows on my mind. It was almost noon when I hit the trail, and had only gone about a half mile when I decided it was just too hot to hike, it was almost 80*. Instead, I headed back for lunch...this was becoming a habit!  I relaxed in the shade on the patio for a while waiting out the heat and planned what to do with the rest of the afternoon.

I hadn't planned on going back to Rio Grande Village, I'd considered Grapevine Hills, but as I lounged on the patio with its view of the mountains, I started thinking about how nice the river canyon vistas on the Hot Springs Canyon Rim trail would be in late afternoon light. I drove back down and hit the trail at 4:30, giving myself an hour to hike out and another hour to hike back before dark. I hadn't been on the trail long before a couple of young guys, somewhere between 16 and 20 (gets harder for me to judge the older I get) passed me on the trail. One had a huge telephoto lens on his camera. Turned out he was a birder.  They asked me if I happened to know what time it got dark and about the length of the trail, we talked a bit and I told them I was only going as far as 5:30 would take me, then turning around to get back by dark. We swapped lead several times as we each stopped to take in the view and get a few shots. Finally I turned to head back. They kept going toward the springs, and I asked them if they had a headlamp, well my exact words were "you guys do have a headlamp right?" No.  I joked, not wanting to sound motherly, "well there's a full moon tonight and no eclipse, so you should be fine, just watch out for rattlesnakes." It wasn't too long before they caught up and passed me going back. They stopped for a while to call owls, and were successful. We listened for a while, making it back to our cars just at night fall.

It was a loooonnnggg way back from there to Ocotillo Grove, but with the a huge moon rising over the mountains and seemingly changing places as I rounded each bend, it was quite a show, and I saw a couple of gray foxes along the road as well. It was about 9 PM when I made it back to camp. I was asleep almost immediately, deeply satisfied by another day well spent.

 Mileage hiked for the day 5.5

Day5 Wed. Dec 22nd   Luna's Jacal, Chimneys Trail West, Rattlesnake Mt., The Starlight, the Wind from Hell, and the Border Patrol.

I roused about 2 AM a little cold, added some layers, including my down booties, zipped up the bag, burrowed in, cinched the hood over my head and almost slept past sunrise! I woke with a start, jumped up, grabbed my camera with tripod attached, sans eye glasses, left the car door wide open, as I would discover upon return, and started walking out across the desert toward Santa Elena Canyon. It was cold and I was grateful for having added the layers. I'd gotten "the shot" last year of sunrise in the canyon, but thought a shot from Ocotillo Grove would be a pleasant reminder of my stay here. I didn't get "the shot" because "the bird" sidetracked my attention. Oh well, I was standing in the desert, the sun rising on another beautiful morning,far away from the madness of civilization, it was all good.
I walked back to camp, had a leisurely breakfast, enjoyed the birds and the warmth of the sun. If not for the impending midday heat, I could have sat there all day!
I had planned to get up early and hike to Ward Springs but decided instead to relax and enjoy my campsite since I had not seen it in daylight except the first evening I'd arrived. (This is the problem of having only 5 days and so much to see and do.) It was so peaceful, and after 4 days of hiking and photographing everything in sight, I was ready to slow down a bit.  I sat a while longer, then headed up the Old Maverick Rd toward the Chimneys Trail West. It was a lot closer than Ward Springs. I'd hiked it from the east to the Chimneys last year, so I thought it would be great to hike it from the west, even for just a few miles, since it was going to be warm and I wasn't exactly getting an early start. I stopped to get some shots of Luna's Jacal, and then headed to the trailhead.

It was 10:30 and I figured I'd hike out an hour and back to return by 12:30. The mid-morning sky was bright and clear with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance as I walked and reveled in the silence. As I looked down as I stepped down into a draw I was mildly puzzled as I noticed the sand was damp, then I looked ahead and saw WATER! At first I thought it was just pooled, but on closer inspection realized it was flowing. I was surprised since the guidebook states that "depending on rainfall the springs water sometimes runs down the draw"...a running stream was the last thing I expected to see since there had been no rain since September! I hiked out a little longer, then turned around.  I stopped at the draw to soak my feet in the cold spring water and wet my bandana. The day was not destined to get as warm as the previous and a faint breeze kept things cool on the way back.  I made it back just a little before 1 and headed to my campsite at Rattlesnake Mt.

When the weather is cold, as it was last year I didn't even consider bathing, just used my wet ones, but with the heat, and the fact that I was planning on going to the Starlight that evening,  I'd filled my water jugs at Rio Grande Villlage the day before. After a quick bath and clean clothes I let the sun and breeze dry my hair and headed toward Terlingua.
I'd planned to putter around town before the Starlight opened, have an early dinner and head back to camp since I would be leaving at daybreak.  The Leapin' Lizard had a sign on the door saying she was closed from Dec 20-27.  I was disappointed as I had heard that Thomas Avery had some of his photography displayed there.  I headed over next door and milled around in the book room and contemplated buying a beer and sitting on the porch.  Instead I drove to the Barton Warnock Visitor Center.  They had a wonderful interpretive exhibit and a lovely desert garden area.
By the time I had completed the tour it was time to head to the Starlight.  I got a table, ordered the guacamole and a beer. When the waiter brought it out he mentioned that Butch Hancock was planning that night.  Well, I hadn't heard him with or without the Flatlanders in a long time, but I'd arrived too early to hear him play, even if he was to start at 7.  I told the waiter I'd work on the guac and the beer and maybe order something else to eat later.  I walked down and had a look at the art exhibit.  I'd brought my notepad to catch up on my journaling, and about an hour later finished the beer and guacamole and ordered a margarita and dinner. About this time the restaurant got slammed. A large party of 30 had to be set up on the dance floor since they already had an 18 top in the middle of the dining room.  I'd just placed my dinner order when it all hit and I figured my meal would come out cold and wilted since it would likely sit in the window in the kitchen until the poor only waiter in the place finally got to it.  What actually happened impressed me and reminded me of my own table waiting days long ago.  From what I could see, there were only the following: one waiter, one manager, one bartender and two cooks. From this ensemble they worked like choreographed dancers. The manager helped take the orders on the 30 top, as well as other tables; thankfully as the restaurant began to fill, the 18 top didn't materialize, and those tables were quickly separated back into 4 tops. The bartender picked up tables without hesitation, and one of the cooks delivered food to was a beautiful thing! My second margarita arrived, and my food followed shortly, everything perfectly fresh and delicious!  I remembered the reviews I'd read about the restaurant, some good, some not so much, and thinking that I'd have to write a review on this night myself.  The meal wasn't the end of my night though. By the time I was finishing my dinner, about 6:30, in walks Butch, his wife and teenage kids in tow....well hell, I thought, I can't leave now. He started promptly at 7 and I promised myself I would listen to one set. I moved to the bar and was enjoying the music when a gentleman sat down next to me. He shortly asked if I lived in Terlingua, I said no, I was just visiting the park. He and his wife had moved from Asheville, NC to Texas some time back and had built a solar home sans telephone, tv, and computers, north of town. They also had a home in Cristoval, south of San Angelo, since we old farts need to be less than 100+ miles from a hospital. He mentioned the Black-Eyed Pea Cook Off on New Years Day, and that he'd won first prize the last two years, but figured he'd lose his title this year. We talked a while longer and eight o'clock finally rolled around with the end of the first set, and it was time to go. I shook hands with my new acquaintance and headed out the door.

When I reached camp, the wind was howling (I'd recalled then a comment at the headquarters about the wind here) it had even ripped my permit from the post which I had carefully attached by the wires. I felt terrible, me with a Leave No Trace bumper sticker!!!! I had left a trace and it was, in all likelihood, already in Mexico by then. I briefly considered wandering around the desert to hunt for it, then thought better of traipsing around amongst the rattlers.

I woke up at 3 AM, unable to go back to sleep, and decided to get an early start on the trip home. As I exited the Old Maverick Rd. I passed a Border Patrol, which promptly pulled in behind me and followed me (all the while checking my plates, no doubt) and soon the lights flashed and I pulled over. The woman was cordial, but not smiling. She asked me where I was going, and why I was coming off the OMR at 3 AM....Well I could see her point, as I explained I had camped at Rattlesnake Mt. that night. It then dawned on me that I had no permit to prove this. Fortunately I didn't need it. I told her I had a long trip home she asked if I was leaving the park via 385. I thought this was strange since that was the only route I was aware of out of the park, since I'd long passed the west entrance to the park. She let me go, telling me to have a safe trip, but I was imagining as I drove that she'd probably radioed ahead and they were just waiting to turn my car inside out. Instead, the young man  greeted me with a smile, asked me how I enjoyed the park, asked me to roll down my back windows, we chatted about the park for a moment and I was on my way.   I made the drive home in 12 hrs, collected the dog and headed to the house.

Mileage hiked for the day 4.0
Total miles hiked for the week 29.5

First, I want to thank everyone on Big Bend Chat that have generously shared their experiences, pictures, and  information. Without their guidance my trips would not have been nearly as wonderful. Because of them, I hope to spend a lot more time in this amazing place.

This being only my second trip to Big Bend, I'm still moving too fast, trying to see too much.  Part of it's my obsession to hike,  part of it's just the wonder of the place. I look forward to future trips when I can spend more time in one place. There's just so much to explore.

What I learned from this trip.
There's no need to buy souvenirs, Big Bend pinstripes are all the reminder of my trip I need.
Note to self: pay attention to where you are driving when gazing upon handsome buck muley's on the road to the Hot Springs (left side).
Second note to self: pay attention to where you are driving when looking over your shoulder out the side window to see if Santa Elena Canyon is in position for the "perfect" morning shot (right side.)
During a full moon camp on the east side of the Chisos.
Buy gaiters.
Bring the backpack.

Link to a few of the many pictures I took.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Little Missouri Trail & Tall Peak

Nothing takes the edge off the daily grind like spending time in the woods, which is why I decided at the last minute to take Friday off and head back to Arkansas. I got up at 3, left before 4 and 200 miles later at 8:45, was heading across the upper Little Missouri Trail where it meets the Athens Big Fork. It was 33*, but was forecast to climb to the mid 60's.

I decided to try out my new water crossing shoes. They're AquaSprints and they worked perfectly; easy to get off and on, a sole thick enough to be comfortable with good traction, and they were $3 and weigh about 2 ounces. I am not a gram weenie, I am not a gram weenie, ok I am, but I have to be, I'm getting old :) I carry a small square of quick dry camp towel to dry my feet, put shoes and socks back on, slip the shoes and towel back into the side pouch of my pack, and carry on.

The weather and the scenery was beautiful and I stopped a number of times just to listen to the river, or the quiet, or the trees, or the birds. The river, while narrow up this far, is clear and beautiful, and I could sit beside it for hours.

There are several campsites along this section and one in particular caught my eye, as someone had set a large flat rock atop an tree stump to make a lovely table.
I hiked through the rec area to the falls, then back to a picnic table next to the river to have lunch. I did not see or hear another soul the entire day.

Driving back down the road to the falls rec area, my path was blocked by a beautiful rat snake sunning itself in the middle of the road. I got out of the car and had to gently prod it with my hiking pole to get it to move off the road. I love snakes and spent a few minutes photographing it.

I stopped at the falls to get a few pics as I didn't take the camera on this hike, and headed back to Dierks Lake and a night at Tom and Janet's campground. I enjoyed a nice chat with them then excused myself to go try out the hot showers Tom had promised...ahh, was he right!! I hope they never get the idea to put a timer on it! After reading a few paragraphs I was out for the night. My only regret was that it was dark when I finished my shower and I left before light so I didn't get to really take in the campground which sits on the Saline River just below the dam.

Day 2 and a peek at Tall Peak
The last time I did this hike the mountains were shrouded in fog, so there were no views of distant peaks. It's nice to hike in different kinds of weather and get a different perspective. It was 8:00 and 44* when I started up the trail. The campground is closed for the season so I began across the bridge from the last river crossing.

Hiking in the Ouachita's means hiking over rocks, Arkansas Novaculite to be precise, "razor stone" in latin. The rock was chipped for arrowheads and is a source for whetstones. For a solo hiker this means paying very close attention to where you step, especially with drifts of fall leaves layering the ground. It does present a wonderful lesson in geology though, and it's fascinating what you see along the way. Since you have to have your eyes on the ground it's nice to have something cool to look at!

As I made my way up the trail the vistas that were hidden before were now popping up everywhere. One thing that shocked me was horse manure on the trail...I can't believe someone would risk injury of an animal to go up this trail, especially toward the end. Even with a mule I wouldn't attempt it. But that's just me.

Hiking back down I stopped to have lunch at an outcrop, taking in the views and watching in awe as leaves floated up and down, caught on the thermals. It was like a watching a bird.

After relaxing and literally staring out into space, I continued down the mountain and back to the car, to make the drive home. As I drove past the campground I watched as a flock of wild turkeys made there way through the woods.

As I drove home, I was already planning where to hike next when I make it back to Arkansas. I think the Buckeye/Caney Loop is next on the docket :)

link to photos