Texas (West)

23rd February - 1st March 2011

As we headed south towards the Mexican border, our surroundings were definitely getting more arid.   Miles of deserted scrub was livened up by the occasional roadrunner.   Now and again a road kill skunk added to the ambiance.     We made a stop at the border town of Del Rio to stock up on provisions before heading west until we reached Seminole Canyon State Park.

Route 90 had taken us away from the Rio Grande and the border for a while but constant Homeland Security patrols and checkpoints were a reminder that it wasn't far away.     By the time we reached the Seminole Canyon Park, we were right back in border territory again.

The park was famous for its pictographs or cave pictures, painted by the canyon's early indigenous inhabitants.     We showed up for the three o'clock guided tour to find we had the guide all to ourselves, which made it a very informative experience.

Beep, beep! (Roadrunner)

Sherry walked us down in to the canyon explaining the ancient populations uses for all the local vegetation, what there was of it in the harsh, dry conditions.    One plant made acted like soap and was used to bind oil paint pigments together.   The sharp pointed tips of the leaves of another and its fibrous leaves made ready threaded needles.     As we approached the cave dwellings containing the paintings, we were told how the relatively recent damming of the Rio Grande had raised local humidity greatly, causing the paintings to deteriorate rapidly.    Scientists were still trying to find a way to preserve them. 

Pictographs in the present day......

.....and how they appeared in the 1930s, before the dam.

The tribe had used the large caves in the side of the canyon as temporary shelters.    We were shown mounds in the cave, which were a series of abandoned baking ovens.     At one point our guide picked up mysterious looking brown object and handed it to Phil, asking what he thought it was.     Turned out it was ancient caveperson poo!     "Would you like to hold it too, Christine?"  Sherry asked.    "Er, no thanks...." came the reply.

What became of the tribe was a mystery.

Early next morning we decided to take the six mile round-trip trail down to the Rio Grande, before it got too hot.     It was quite surreal plodding through the desert, alone.    We stood for a while looking at Mexico before heading back to Harvey and hitting the road west.

At least somebody in the campground had a smaller home than us!

Phil with Mexico behind him.    Hold on to that hat, I'm not going over there to get it back!

About 130 miles lay between us and Marathon, where we planned to stop for the night.     No worries, we'd filled up in Del Rio about 65 miles earlier and there were four towns marked on our map between our location and Marathon.     We glibly drove past the first town, thinking we'd stop at the next.    It turned out the next town either didn't exist or was nowhere near the road.    Unperturbed we pressed on, didn't really have a choice.     The next town was bound to have a gas station, after all lots of big trucks kept passing us.....

The next town turned out to be a ghost town, with only empty, derelict buildings marking its location.     By now we were beginning to panic.    Harvey's tank is small, luckily it turned out to be just big enough.     We filled up, wiped the sweat off our brows and checked into our campground in Marathon.

We decided to see the sights of the town.    It didn't take long, the population was only around 400.    It did boast an historic and attractive hotel in the centre.    After this we checked out the Post Office (well as they had one, we just had to mail something).    We then spotted the sign to the Museum and Library and eagerly set off in their direction.    Turned out the Museum was closed but the ladies in the library kept us entertained for quite a while with local tales.     

We were bound for the Big Bend National Park the next day.     This park was nestled in a remote corner (literally a corner) of Texas, a modest 70 mile drive from Marathon to the visitor centre.    

The 70 miles took us through more empty but stunningly beautiful desert.


Harvey looking small and alone, very alone.

We drove up to the Chisos Basin Campground to the spot we'd reserved.     It was hard to judge on the internet which site to pick.  Our random pick turned out to be one of the more level sites, needing only a couple of our leveling blocks to straighten us up.    It also turned out that we had our own huge rock, which we christened the star-gazing rock and put to just that use.     Way out in the desert, far from any sizeable population meant little light pollution and great star-gazing, reminding us of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!   

The Chisos Basin was actually a basin surrounded by high mountains.   This turned out to be fortuitous.    The weather forecast for Sunday was for 70 mph winds, with gusts up to 90.    We were nervous and decided to hike on Friday and Saturday, so we could stay near Harvey on Sunday.     As it happened the Basin gave great protection from the wind.    We later learned that outside the basin area, the high winds caused major dust storms whilst we'd been snuggly settled in our campsite.

We took advantage of the calmer days to hike, firstly up to the visitor centre and ice-cream shop, which was a major uphill hike in itself.    From there we took the Basin Loop trail which gave wonderful views around the basin and through a gap between the hills out over the desert.    Our second hike took us down the canyon bed to get up close and personal with the gap. 

The window looking from up the mountain and close up.

We left the Big Bend N.P.  from its western end, meaning only a 78 mile drive to the next town.    We were sure to fill our tank first, just in case.     Passing through the town of Alpine, collecting provisions on the way before pushing on to the Davis Mountains State Park.      By the time we reached the park's neighbouring town of Fort Davis, we needed more gas.    The first gas station was closed, permanently.    The second gas station was closed because the operator was sick.   Fortunately we found a third hidden alongside a supermarket.     It was then that we discovered our gas cap was back in the second gas station and had to go back for it.     Finally we were ready to fill up but struggled to get the pump to work.    Finally the manager came outside and fixed it for us.     Fuel was becoming traumatic for Harvey.

We'd picked the Davis Mountains State Park for its proximity to the McDonald Observatory, which we planned to visit the next day.    Here in a sparsely populated campground we were again allocated the worst campsite in the place by the campground office staff.    With dozens to choose from, we were baffled as to why we'd been given this ugly, bare site, where the services were so far away that our hose and cable wouldn't reach.    Was it us?    We headed back to the office where we were allocated number 29 instead, which was a lovely spot.

It turned out the park had its own special residents, the rare Montezuma Quail.    After taking a hike up the mountain to enjoy the view, we returned at the appointed time, when the birds were alleged to visit the bird watching station, to enjoy the seed there.     We waited and waited, with a couple of more serious twitchers, sitting motionless, for fear of spooking the birds.    Christine was the first to fold, heading back to Harvey and a more comfortable seat.    Phil finally did see a couple of the birds in the far distance but headed home to light the fire for our dinner.     

Whilst cooking we had visitors, first a deer which just hung around for a long time hoping for a handout.    It was disappointed.     Next we spotted a Javelina, a type of wild pig.   It boldly came right into our campsite and stole a waste broccoli stump, left over from preparing dinner.   (No Mr Ranger Sir we didn't feed the wildlife, it was a case of grand theft broccoli!)   Obviously very short-sighted, it tracked down it's illicit treat purely by smell and then spent a long time going round and round our site, hoping to find something else tasty.    After licking the grill in the fire pit clean, it headed out, looking quite pleased with itself.  We were glad we'd already eaten!

Walking in the Davis Mountains

The phantom broccoli thief.

Next morning Harvey crawled up the mountain to the McDonald Observatory.     Here we indulged in a spot of live solar viewing, which was fascinating.    Our guide gave just the right mix of information and entertainment and we learned a lot about our big star.     We were then taken on a tour.    First we visited the massive Harlan J. Smith telescope in it's chilly dome.    The temperature inside the dome was kept a nighttime outside temperatures, presumably to stop the telescope from misting up.    Fortunately the astronomers had a "warm room" in which to work.     We got to move the giant telescope and rotate the dome in which it lives for ourselves.

Next stop on the tour was the Hobby-Eberly research telescope.    It was fascinating to learn how the telescopes' mirrors were cleaned and even recoated on site with new reflective materials.  It was a pity we weren't there for one of the Observatory's famous evening star parties but there was only so much science we could take in one day!

View from McDonald Observatory

Harlan J. Smith telescope - can I drive???

Space Age Style home of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope

We headed north from the Observatory, our drive including the empty 55 mile stretch of route 54, to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.     Here we spent the night in a campground which was basically a car park but at only $8 for the night, who was complaining.     The wind, however, whistled down the canyon all night, giving us a noisy and restless night.   

We'd changed time zones during our drive the previous day and our bodies weren't adjusted, so we set off on our hike into the Canyon at 8 am.    We'd finished the four mile round trip by 9.20 and were back on the road and headed for New Mexico.

Phil heads up the canyon

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