LAST WEEK I introduced our two children, Mia and Max, to those of you who are readers of my article. Mimi and I started camping with them when they were babies, and as soon as they had their footing, we began taking longer journeys. One Christmas Day we packed up for a seventeen day road trip towards the west. Our first stop was Austin, Texas, to spend a couple nights with a friend who was doing some very cool architectural stuff around Austin. We try as hard as we can to spend time in other places with people that are from those places. It offers an insider’s view. Those visits are so rich. Instead of driving aimlessly around Austin, we were shown a side of the city we’d have never found.
WHEN WE LEFT THERE, we headed even farther south, toward Big Bend National Park. We love the desert, especially the American desert. I had never seen the desolate area we were careening into. This was the real deal… tumbleweeds blowing across the highway, roadrunners skittering around everywhere. We expected to see Wile E. Coyote setting up a trap any minute. We could see that December is not a big time for tourism down there. We were in a reliable suburban with all the seats laid flat in the back, so the kids could spread out and make their fort while they watched the desert scene go by. I think Mia was 6 and Max was 3. At that age this kind of trip is like being in kid paradise. We found campsites along the way that were loads of fun to play around in, full of boulders and sand and dust. We hiked to the top of Lost Mine trail. Upon reaching the top of the 5 mile round trip hoof, we burned a smudge stick to bring in the new year. We started a small fire up there in which we each threw in a tiny piece of paper on which we had each written one thing we wanted to give up or give away from the previous year, as well as a prayer for the upcoming year. From the top of this mountain we could see the Rio Grande river snaking its way through the desert. Mexico is on the other side, so we made it a mission to get closer to the Rio Grande in the next couple days and swim across, so the kids could say they’ve been to Mexico. We were in the Chihuahuan Desert surrounded by the Chisos Mountains which get up around 7800 feet. It looked like we had climbed into a Clint Eastwood movie. We had to get on some horses and experience this up close and personal. Every time we get this romantic idea about renting horses, I wind up on the horse that had already been put out to pasture. My horse just plain didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual. The plant life in the Chihuahuan Desert is amazing, and I believe it’s where a lot of our inspiration to cultivate agaves, cacti and euphorbias comes from. We were seeing Prickly Pear cactus, Mules Ears, Ocotillos and old, bent over, wind swept Mesquite trees and so many other cactus varieties that we’d never experienced. So, I really didn’t care how ornery my horse wanted to act, because it gave me more time to look at the desert floor.
WHEN WE GOT BACK to our camp there had been a wild javelina invasion! They were wandering through our campsite and were absolutely not scared of us. They would back off some, but then would just stand there and stare at us until we turned our backs, then they would move in a little closer. They were weird little pigs with very bristly hair. The short, grey pig herd just eventually moved on. I guess we weren’t really that interesting to stare at, but the kids got a big laugh out of the whole thing. That night we cooked a wonderful stew over the fire and bundled up to watch America’s best star show. Big Bend is known as the darkest place in the United States. It’s the farthest place from any light pollution, making the stars as bright and beautiful as some of the night skies we had experienced in the Sahara Desert. The kids were mesmerized by the beauty and the sounds of the owls at night as they drifted off to a worn out slumber… mission accomplished! Big Bend is a bird watcher’s and sky watcher’s paradise. It’s on the way to absolutely nowhere, so the few people that were down there were very purposely there, which made for a very quiet, spread out group of people that generally kept to themselves… again, mission accomplished.
THE NEXT DAY we met a river rat who would guide us down the Rio Grande. The limestone cliffs went straight up into the blue sky and hosted some kind of birds that built mud nests attached to the walls that were flitting all about. They reminded me of our purple martins. We pulled over to a flat area to enjoy a picnic lunch that the guide had prepared for us. One of the kids asked if it was ok to swim, he said it would be chilly but it was ok with him. I used that opportunity to ask him if he minded swimming across with us to Mexico, he laughed and said he was up for it if we were up for climbing up a waterfall to get up the steep cliff. We all agreed that it would be worth it for the adventure. Once we got up the waterfall by passing the kids up from person to person, it got easier. As we leveled out, we were walking on bare, white limestone. The limestone walls and passages were so surreal that we stayed and played around until the guide said we’d better get going so we could get back before dark and cold took over. I’m guessing we might be some of the few Americans to sneak into Mexico! We made it back to our camp for another fun night around the fire and the light show up above.
THE NEXT MORNING we bid adieu to our javelina friends that were still just staring at us. We were headed for the desert town of Terlingua, where we would treat ourselves to a hotel and a meal at the one restaurant. The hotel is still a story that still brings laughter to our family whenever it comes up. We’ve stayed in some crazy places before, but this one took the cake! The floors were so uneven that you had to stay close to the walls so you could keep your balance. It was so bad that there were four rocks under one of the legs of the bed and two rocks under another leg just to get the bed somewhat even. It was so funny we decided to just make the most of it. At least it came with a shower! Terlingua is the ghost town in the desert that you envision in your mind, complete with a cowboy graveyard full of tombstones inscribed with very interesting words and dates on them. There was a general store where the hippie river guide leaned up against the wall loitering around while he waited on another gig. We had some laughs and bought him a six pack of his favorite beverage as we left him to do whatever it is that he does.
THAT NIGHT we went to the one place that offered a food menu. The place was actually a bar in a cave with a crooked door that you had to duck under to get through. The bartender/chef/crossdressing owner and artist was very entertaining, and I’m sure, left the kids with an indelible memory of that place This desert area bordering Mexico was just wacky and seemed to have written its own rules…and, to us, way better than Disneyland. The next day we headed even farther into weird. We went to a place called Marfa, Texas. Marfa is a place that Mimi had always wanted to see. It’s famous for its minimalistic architecture and the strange lights of Marfa. Marfa was also made famous by the classic movie filmed there called Giant with young Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean and Dennis Hopper. It’s a great movie that also shows the desolate area. You should look this place up if you get a chance. It’s so weird I can’t describe it in this small of a space. We didn’t stay the night here, although I will always wish we had, just to see what goes on in this off-the-grid place and to possibly experience the colored lights that appear fairly frequently in the night sky.
WE KEPT ON trucking through the Guadeloupe Mountains and all the way to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico… again, on the way to nowhere. Carlsbad Caverns is the ultimate kids playground. The caverns are hundreds of feet underground. The park service has lit the stalactites and stalagmites as you head farther and farther towards the earth’s core. There are rooms down there that are close to 4000 feet long, offering endless exploring and playing. There are water pools down there that are lit so you can see the perfectly clear water; it’s totally mesmerizing. There is a huge bat community that departs from a different cave on a nightly basis. I guess there are tens of thousands of bats that take off at the same time every evening to fill their bat bellies with insects and fruits. I remember being here before, when my Mom and Dad lugged us four kids out there in a Winnebago back in the 70’s. It looked exactly the same in my memory.
That was as far from home as the suburban we named “The Beast” was going on that grand adventure, and at that point, we turned her south and east. We beelined home with some fantastic memories that we still talk and laugh about today. It was a great tester trip that led to many other camping and backpacking excursions that I’ll tell you all about when I get a chance. Until then, stay safe and take care yourself and your people. In the end, that’s all we really have.