Big Bend National Park
Round America travels from Big Bend National Park, Texas to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico via Marfa and Wink. Marfa is a lovely artist’s community with the spooky Marfa Lights. Wink is the birthplace of Roy Orbison and home of the Roy Orbison Museum.
The BADlands Hotel was B-A-D. As I reported yesterday, the hotel was cheaply built. For $195 a night, I expected top quality, but there was NO quality in the room. In fact, there wasn’t even electricity, running water, or telephone service — though all were supposed to be provided. The service was poor from the time I dropped in to book the room, to the time I checked in later that night, to checkout.
The only thing worse than the lack of speed with which the checkout guy handled checking me out was his complete void of personality. When he handed me my bill, not only was there no adjustment for the lack of electricity, water, or telephone service in a room with the windows caulked shut, they had tacked on a $15 “resort fee.” Words cannot express….
Let me just say to Steve Smith, the “Austin billionaire who has bought Lajitas, Texas and has turned it into a resort” as I was told is the case. If the rest of Lajitas is like the BADlands Hotel, you should have stuck with whatever made you rich. I felt completely, totally ripped off by the BADlands. And to take a lovely, old town that dates back to an ancient Rio Grande River crossing first recorded by Spanish explorers in 1588 and completely convert it to a modern-day tourist trap resort should be a crime punishable by extended imprisonment in room 216.
You have to blow off steam every once in a while; I’m glad I got that off my chest.
Despite my eye injury, I got up and out before the sun came up as I wanted to see the sunrise at Big Bend. I hiked a ways off the road to an area that Yvette, the bartender / waitress from last night, told me would be the best spot. I sat on a rock in the cool morning air and saw a beautiful sunrise out of my right eye. I got several excellent photos, even though I am now having to modify my photographic efforts as I have always been a left eye shooter. I’ll be doing right eye work for a few days.
I started meeting interesting people bright and early with “Dr. Kathy” and “Dr. Doug Blackburn” of the Phillips 66 station in Study Butte. I picked up a Visine product, but when I told Kathy, the Phillips 66 store manager, about my eye problem, she knew I had the wrong stuff, so she became Dr. Kathy as I was directed to get something that was not limited on the amount of daily use. Visine Tears was the right product for me, and it gave me some relief, though my eye hurt badly throughout the day. I felt bad about complaining during the first few days of the trip about having to take my glasses off to be able to take photographs and not seeing as well as I used to. It could be worse.
Dr. Doug Blackburn is a real character. He came up and knocked on my window as I was organizing myself for the day’s drive. He was wearing hospital scrubs with an impressive-looking hospital-like photo ID pinned to his blue scrub top. But he had on a “Study Butte Store” baseball cap, and when I looked closer at the ID, it said “Doctor of Boarderline Psychology.” We talked about the trip, Terlingua, Study Butte, and Lajitas…and some of the characters who lived around there. I asked: “May I take your photo, Dr. Blackburn?” He said: “Oh, I’m not a real doctor; I’m just one of the clerks at the Study Butte Phillips 66 gas station and store.” I didn’t want to tell him that I had long since figured that out. He proudly pulled back his jacket so his ID would be clearly visible in the photo. Nice guy and obviously a lot of fun! The Round America sign on the car was very effective as it pulled people to me, and I met far more people as a result.
The Study Butte Mall aka Phillips 66 station has a stoplight in the front of it. It’s the only stoplight in the town. It’s on their property — not on the road. Pretty cute.
Since I drove back and forth between Big Bend and Lajitas several times, and Terlingua is the town in between, it will probably be the town that was most visited on the trip. I went to or through Terlingua five times.
Driving back and forth in Big Bend and at a few other points during the trip, I realized that you see a different view just by traveling in the opposite direction. Maybe we’ll take this trip “backwards” someday — do the same route, but head north from Savannah rather than south, and just travel “backwards.”
Blue sky today, so I was tempted to stay and repeat all the photos I took on overcast yesterday. But at 8:15, I pulled away from Study Butte and drove to Presidio Texas, which may be an even more beautiful drive than the drives I took through Big Bend yesterday. The sky was blue, so the pictures are pretty good, though I didn’t stop as much as I would have because my eye was just killing me.
I saw a lot of faces in rocks today. I swear I saw Bob Hope’s face in a rock. I may have gone too long driving alone in the car. Come back Bozzie Jane! On another trip, I’d like to try photographing the faces that I see and then using PhotoShop to alter the images so others can see what I see.
Right outside Lajitas, the Big Bend Ranch State Park begins. Gorgeous views. Many more “oh ****s” today. I stopped at the “Contrabando” movie set. At several points, I stopped for a photo, and then turned around to see another stunning view. Sometimes we never turn around and miss the good stuff.
Because of the eye problem, I skipped a few things today that I otherwise would have done.
Presidio is a small town, but bigger than most I have seen lately. I stopped briefly at the ghost town of Shafter, Texas. Fort Shafter was a defense against the Apaches. Someone there has a sense of humor as there was a makeshift “roadside park” set up in Shafter — two folding stools and an umbrella. At least I think it was to be funny…maybe just a way for the one or two folks living there to meet the occasional tourist who stops by for a photo.
I landed in the delightful little town of Marfa, Texas at noon, and I spent much longer there than planned as it proved to be a special place. It seems that a wealthy artist and/or art lover, the late Don Judd, was originally the person who decided to restore Marfa’s buildings. Then along came Tim Crowley to continue the process. The result is that virtually all of the great old buildings in the center of the town have been restored. Marfa has a significant artist’s community, and judging by the number of airplanes at the airport in this small town of 2400 people, there are a lot of folks with some money in and around Marfa.
The largely non-commercial restoration of the buildings in Marfa has made it a really special place. Undoubtedly a place that the artists would love to keep a secret. I thought of all the small decaying towns that we’ve seen. Every town needs a wealthy art lover, but few have one. Marfa is so fortunate to have had two.
The old military base was turned into a HUGE art museum by Mr. Crowley. It encompasses many of the military buildings, and there are a lot of them. I found out about the Chinati Foundation and museum from skateboarders Erik, Jerek, and Anthony. I asked where I could find the world’s largest horseshoe, and Erik said it was at the Chinati Foundation, and he directed me there.
The Chinati Foundation looked like it might be some kind of cult place, and when the two nice young men inside, Tim and Jason, said I could not come in, I really started to wonder. But they told me it was an art museum, and two Austin artists outside, Scout and John, confirmed it. Tim and Jason said they did not have the authority to let me in to photograph the horseshoe, so I headed to town for lunch.
I turned down a side street looking for a restaurant with pickup trucks. That’s a great way to find a good restaurant in Texas. Another great way is to look closely at the civic club signs at the city limits as many will say where the club meets for lunch. Chances are, they meet at the good places. On this street, I saw two great 50′s-era motels, the Capri Inn and the Thunderbird Inn. I had an excellent T-Bird Club Sandwich at the Thunderbird Restaurant. The waitress, Rose, is definitely in the running for best waitress on the trip. She has a great smile, and we had a delightful conversation. She also was an invaluable resource about Marfa. She told me several sights to see; told me about the Marfa Lights; and explained how I could take a photograph of the horseshoe without permission. I loved that part.
I put on my shades and my secret undercover mission began! I followed Rose’s directions and drove down the road and took a left just past the Laundromat. Then I drove for a mile and a half and began looking to the left for the museum buildings at the old base. Once I saw the buildings, I was to turn into the area with several homes and go in the backyard of the one closest to the horseshoe. I found the closest house, and I pulled the car around a barn on the side. I got out, tiptoed through the horse pasture, zoomed the camera in as far as it would go, and snapped one photo. Then I ran back to the car and started to pull out when the lady of the house caught me. She asked: “what in the world are you doing in my yard?” I replied: “Just taking a photo of the horse shoe.” She said, “the horse sh**?” I said “no ma’am, SHOE. Sorry to have troubled you,” and I sped off as I had when I spotted Fast Freddy with the giant hedge clippers. I mentally thanked Rose, and enjoyed a nice sense of accomplishment from having managed to get a photo of the forbidden horseshoe (even if it was from 100 yards or more away).
Back into the center of Marfa, I began to see that Marfa has quite an artist’s community. There’s a great flag sculpture next to the courthouse, and there are a number of galleries. I understand there is a lot more hidden from view. Kind of like those rattlesnakes Dr. Dan told me about in Lajitas. I met and spoke with Belinda and Kim — two Marfa artists. I learned a lot more about the art activity in the town.
The Marfa Lights are an unexplained phenomenon that causes lights to appear in the sky. According to Rose (who I would trust with my life), it’s no hoax. A number of scientists have been in to try to figure it out. There are several theories, but no explanation. I was sorry I couldn’t stick around to see if the lights came out that night. But Boz and I will absolutely come back to Marfa and spend a day or two. If one wanted to live in a town of 2,400 people, Marfa looked like it would be a dandy. It’s hard to believe that we lived most of our life in Texas and had never really heard much about Big Bend and had heard nothing about Marfa except the spooky lights.
I stopped briefly in Fort Davis, Texas. It had a lot of tourists. After seeing Big Bend, I saw no reason to take the scenic drive through the Fort Davis Mountains. That would have been like going to the carnival after having just been to Disney World. If Barbara had been with me, we would have seen the doll museum there. I can’t figure out how Fort Davis had so many more tourists than a lot of other great places I have been. Perhaps because it is easier to get to.
Not far outside Fort Davis, the land flattened, and I began seeing terrain similar to what I grew up with in West Texas — flat and dusty. There was a good old West Texas dust storm blowing, and this was the last thing my eye needed. Then a lot of oil wells appeared, so it was flat and dusty with oil wells.
I was taking this route so I could hit Wink, Texas to see the Roy Orbison Museum. Roy Orbison had such great songs — Pretty Woman, Only the Lonely, and others. A very unique voice. Roy is Wink’s claim to fame. There actually is one other claim to fame there — the Wink Sink — a giant sinkhole. They do have a red water tower and formerly had a Pink Panther Bar.
I snapped a few classic small town photos in Kermit Texas, and then I boogied for the New Mexico line. The time changed there, so it was just before 5:30 Mountain Daylight Time. The scenery changed almost immediately as well — greener, some hills, and mountains in the distance. New Mexico, “the Land of Enchantment,” is a very beautiful state, but you gotta like mountains.
I passed through Loving New Mexico, and I was hoping to get some love-oriented pictures, but I didn’t see any businesses to speak of, and nothing was love-related. We’ve seen way too many adult businesses in tiny towns; if there had been one there, I would have photographed it. What I did find is that a great salesperson once visited Loving. Might be the same guy who made such a big sale in the country of Belgium where all the highways have street lights every 50 feet or so. Same deal in Loving. There were street lights every 50 feet from one city limits sign to the other. I hadn’t seen anything like this anywhere else.
I pulled in to Carlsbad Caverns National Park about 6 pm. I saw a sign that said “Eat 750 feet underground.” Not me. Both Boz and I are quite claustrophobic. So, I took a picture of the sign, and called it a Carlsbad’s Caverns.
I was much more excited to see White’s City. White’s City uses Burma Shave-like billboards to advertise for many miles. It’s an OLD souvenir shop tourist trap (and I say that in a good way). I wanted to see their Million Dollar Museum. I paid my $3 and went in. I’m sorry to report that it was a little better than Sponge-O-Rama, but not much. Then again, Sponge-O-Rama was free. The Million Dollar Museum was 11 rooms in the basement filled with old displays of “antiques,” some of which were in poor condition. I’m afraid White’s City was a disappointment — not what it used to be. If I hadn’t been so tired of driving and my eye hadn’t hurt so badly, I probably would have found it entertaining in a camp sort of way. Attitude is an amazing thing.
As I drove back to Carlsbad (Carlsbad Caverns is about 20 miles outside the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico), Gutter of the Brotherhood of the 74 motorcycle gang waved for me to pull over. Three weeks ago, this would have scared the dickens out of me, but it was a busy street, and he looked nice. Big on that big Harley, but nice. He was no weekend biker (and we’ve seen a whole lot of them); his jacket and doo-rag were the real stuff. We had a nice talk, and he agreed to let me take his photo. He wanted to be sure I told everyone that the Brotherhood of 74 does a lot for charity. I overheard him speaking to someone on his cell phone as I drove off; he told them he was going to be in a book. Folks really like that!
I chased the sun once again, but I was smack dab in the middle of Carlsbad. I tried to get to the outskirts of town, but I had to settle for sunset at a temporary storage facility. Not every sunset can be a Big Bend masterpiece. Gotta take ‘em as you find ‘em and learn to enjoy what you got.
The restaurant on my list for Carlsbad was Casa de Cortez. I found it on the highway. The place was filled with older locals, so I knew it would be great, and it was. If their hot sauce had been more to my taste, I probably would say their Mexican was the best yet…but I’m sticking with Rosita’s as best so far. I never got the name of the waitress. She was busy. I was tired.
I spotted the No Whiner Diner just before Casa de Cortez, so I backtracked for dessert. Alyssa recommended the apple pie with ice cream, and it was very good. In the parking lot, I met an interesting young woman named Alma — from Wisconsin. She said she was trying to get away from the guy she had come to Carlsbad with and was trying to get home, but AAA was not answering the phone…or something like that. I asked if I could do anything to help, and she said “pray for me.” I asked permission (as I always do) and took her photo. I asked if she had any money, and she said no. I gave her $20. If she was a hustler, she had the best approach I have ever seen as I never felt hustled. I hope she was just a young girl who needed to get home to Wisconsin. It’s so much more gratifying to look at things positively.
I met Cody and Erica at a Chevron station. Cody was born here, and Erica got stuck here. From what little I saw, Carlsbad wouldn’t go on my list of favorite cities.
Just outside of Artesia New Mexico, I had my first truly scary experience on the trip. I watched as a car pulled out of a parking lot, and I thought for a split second that I had gotten confused and was somehow on a one way road going in the wrong direction as the car came straight at me. No, I was in the right place; the car had turned into the wrong lane and was heading straight for me. Fortunately, I saw it all happen and had the time to maneuver off onto the shoulder and out of harm’s way.
I was relieved to reach Roswell, New Mexico. I had never planned to stay at the far south end of Big Bend, so I was on the road for 100 miles more than planned today. Too much. Then I spent several hours in Marfa (which will be in the running for Best Small Town). I was tired, but Roswell appeared to be a very thriving city of 47,000, and I was anxious to see all the UFO stuff.
I met Becky, Bill, and Fletcher as I checked into the Comfort Inn. They each confirmed that they felt UFO’s exist and are real. Bill had seen lights. I was delighted to fall asleep with this important issue put to bed.
One of the most asked questions is “where are you from?” I started the trip saying “Atlanta.” Now, I say I am from the town I last slept in, but tonight I will be from the town I will next sleep in. This usually starts an interesting conversation.
History is good and important and to be treasured. I wish things could be more like Marfa and less like Lajitas. Restored rather than overly commercialized. I never even thought about being a “preservationist” before this trip, but I am one. I also learned another important lesson: to enunciate more clearly the next time I get caught with my camera in someone’s horse pasture.
For the last two weeks, I have rarely known what day of the week it was.
Here are all the photos from Day 19 of the Round America 50-State Trip.
Round America visits Big Bend National Park, and along the way, Bill Windsor meets the Floating Neutrinos on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The day ends with incredible sunsets and dinner in Terlingua, Texas, chili cookoff capital of the world.
Big Bend is incredibly beautiful (even on an overcast day), and it is the ultimate sunset spot, as you can drive from location to location while the sun is setting and see a variety of spectacular sights from heights that provide the ideal view.
I met some really interesting people on Day 18, including a Jehovah’s Witness at a gas pump (Ricky Bowman); a Border Patrol officer (Officer Hart); five fine young missionaries (Katy, Pete, Claire, Chris, and Katie) who I met at a gas station and then saw down the road when they had a blowout; two delightful ladies running a gas station in Sanderson Texas (Gennie and Deanna); a man who went to Texas Tech the same years I did, and his wife (Dalton and Pearl Hobbs); five park rangers (Ranger Rob, Katrina, Ranger Don, Casey, and Anita); the Tulane University tennis coach and her husband (Mary Lee and Brian); a former missionary and his wife – a Harvard-educated attorney (Ruben and Karen); a nurse/pilot and her doctor husband (Britton and Dan); Mike the night manager at the Study Butte “Mall;” a great bartender/waitress (Yvette); a couple who are in the unconventional lapidary business (Cindy and James); the Floating Neutrinos (Poppa and Aurelia); and several others (including tourists Carol, Duane, Stan, and Roma as well as Jeannie and Steve). While I enjoyed meeting all of these folks and learning a little about most of them, the Floating Neutrinos may be the most interesting people I have ever met.
The day began in Del Rio, Texas at 8:30 am. 69-degrees and dusty. I met Ricky Bowman at a gas pump. Ricky’s a big barrel-chested 100% Texan-looking man. He saw the sign on the car and asked what I was up to. He is fairly new in Del Rio — moved there so they could be near their grandchild. We figure that’s about the best reason to live anywhere! He told me the sky isn’t always gray there. We talked for quite a while before he said he would like to give me something. He went to his pickup and brought me two magazines — “The Watchtower” and “Awakenings.” Ricky is a Jehovah’s Witness. I’ve never had a real conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness, so I asked about how and why he chose that religion, and I asked what his view is of the war in Iraq. He chose the religion because of the warmth and sincerity he felt from the members of the group. That sounded like a good reason to me. As to the war, he informed me that the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe we are “at the end of our days.” (I don’t believe I will join up as I would much prefer to look on the bright side.) We talked a little more about this, and Ricky admitted that the “end of our days” could be a period of a million years or some such huge number. Ricky asked if I was going to Hawaii, and I told him it would be the 50th state to visit. He said the first Kingdom Hall (aka church) was in Hawaii, so I promised to go see it and get a photo for him. I wished Ricky the best for his grandchild and for our own and for their grandchildren and their grandchildren and….
I ran into Officer Hart of the Border Patrol at the mini-mart. He confirmed that the Border Patrol needs more people.
Not far outside Del Rio is the Amistad Dam and Reservoir. The terrain became pretty — going from flat white desert to brown to green with some hills and gullys (Is that the right term for a small canyon?). There wasn’t a safe place to pull off for a good photo.
26 miles from Del Rio was another Border Patrol Checkpoint. I guess I don’t look like I’m smuggling any illegals in the little white car as they just waved me through.
Not much in the little town of Comstock, Texas. I did see a deer storage place. The terrain is so flat and barren in this area that it just doesn’t seem fair to the deer.
When I reached the Pecos River, I realized I missed a bet when I didn’t pull off at a “roadside park” that wasn’t billed on the highway as one of the best scenic overlooks in the state. U-Turn (what the car now does best), and I found myself at the top of a little mountain meeting Dalton Hobbs and his wife Pearl. Dalton had a double T on his shirt, so I assumed he went to my alma mater, Texas Tech. He did. And we were there the same 4′ish years. He was in advertising, and I was in marketing, so we probably had classes together. I’m counting it as the second meeting of “an old friend” in two days! The Pecos River Bridge is the highest in Texas, and it is really an impressive sight, especially after several days of choking on the dust in the border towns.
Mountains appeared on the horizon as I took Loop 25 off the highway and headed for Langtry, Texas. Langtry was the home of Judge Roy Bean, and his courtroom, saloon, and pool hall have been maintained by the state. Judge Bean is well-known to Texans and anyone interested in the Old West as he was a notorious judge who dispensed his own brand of justice and profited from his position. In addition to the building, there is a very interesting Cactus Museum on the grounds. I never stopped to realize there are so many different varieties.
I wrote two days ago that I was in the wide open spaces. I wrote yesterday that it was wider and opener. Today it was the widest and openest. It was 265 miles from Del Rio to the entrance to the one million acres that are Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, and there are only four towns on that route. The four towns are tiny, and only two had anything that I could see (Sanderson and Marathon). Look on your road atlas, and you’ll see a huge area in Texas with not much in the way of dots.
Outside of Langtry, the speed limit increased to 75, and so did I. There just isn’t anything to see alongside the road. I did pass an RV at one point.
I reached Sanderson, Texas at 11:30. The sign says “Cactus Capital of the Southwest.” I didn’t see any increase in the amount of cactus that had been for as far as the eye could see for 125 miles, but I mentally applauded Sanderson for “celebrating what they got” — something we have noted numerous times on the trip.
Inside the gas station, I met Gennie Merrifield and Deanna Seager, two delightful ladies. We had a nice talk about the trip, and Gennie suggested that I go see their train depot. She thought showing it in the book might help them raise money to restore it as the city was having trouble getting money. I enjoyed it and a few other things I saw due to that detour, and I hope I might help them raise some money as great old buildings like this need to be preserved!
My lunch consisted of a Goodarts Peanut Patty. Those babies are good! If you’ve never had a peanut patty, you’ve been missing a great Texas treat. A high school and college friend, Robert Taylor, used to own Goodarts, and I toured the factory a few years ago.
As I started to pull away from the gas station in Sanderson, I noticed a group of young college-age-looking folks. I asked which way they were headed, and they said Big Bend. I walked over and met Katy, Pete, Claire, Chris, and Katie. They are all missionaries working in the McAllen area. These seemed like really fine young people, and it was so great to hear about the good they were doing. It struck me that there is a lot we can all do to help others, and it doesn’t have to be with money.
In this part of the country, there are all kinds of things that you don’t see elsewhere. For example, I drove over “Three Mile Draw,” as well as places called gulch, arroyo, bend, creek, and many others. Not many rivers, but a lot of gulches. You see windmills from time to time; these are kind of like lighthouses in that both are a sign of life. In the desert, the windmills provide the energy to pull the water out of the ground, and where there’s water, there’s usually life.
I was just doing my thing at 11:45 am. In this area, I’d go for long stretches without even seeing another car. “My thing” consisted of driving as my eyes scan 180-degrees ahead enjoying the view and looking for anything that my mind considers especially interesting at that point. I came across a car that was moving slowly on the two-lane road, so I spent pass #8 to get around them. As I drove by, I saw a long web address painted on the side of the car. I thought to myself that this was very interesting to see on a passenger car, and I wanted to know what it said. So, I pulled off the road to take a photo just so I could read the web address when they passed me. They passed, but there was no web address. Uh oh, 18 days on the road and I was beginning to hallucinate. I felt sure I saw a web address, so I spent pass #9 to go around them again. It said “floatingneutrinos.com,” and there was some other writing on the car that I couldn’t make out. Floating Neutrinos??? I wondered what in the world a Floating Neutrino was! I was anxious to get to a hotel so I could check out the web site.
I motored on, and it was several miles before I saw something that I wanted to photograph. So, off the side of the road I went and out of the car with the camera. A few minutes later, I saw the Floating Neutrinos car approach and pass. As the car drove by, I was able to see an Ernest Hemingway-looking driver, with a woman riding shotgun, and a dog in the back seat. They drove slowly past, and the woman’s arm was sticking out of the passenger side window gently waving Mardi Gras beads. They stopped 50 feet ahead of me, and I walked up to the car; and I met Poppa and Aurelia and the dog, Buckaroo. They gave me the beads as a gift. How special was this. I knew from looking into their eyes that this was going to be interesting. I can’t remember everything that was discussed as I kind of felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Buckaroo kept barking, and Aurelia told me to avoid eye contact, as the dog would not bite me unless I looked him in the eyes.
We began to talk as I tried to remember to avoid making eye contact with Buckaroo. As I recall, they were especially enthusiastic about my odyssey, but we very quickly began talking about them. I learned, among other things, that Poppa Neutrino and Aurelia (aka Captain Betsy) took a trip from New York City across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland and then down to Spain. Many people have taken a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, but Poppa and Aurelia did it floating on a RAFT! The Floating Neutrinos. Poppa reached into the back seat of his car, and he pulled out a yellowed laminated newspaper story from the New York Times with their picture and a picture of the raft (that looked like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie). What an amazing adventure, and what stories they have to tell. I tried to remain focused, but I just kept thinking how incredible to be on my unique journey by land and to be on a highway in the middle of nowhere and bump into two incredibly interesting people who risked their lives while making an incredible journey by sea. Going to the river with Fast Freddy paled in comparison.
Poppa said he wanted to give me a song that he had written. I noticed a guitar case in the trunk. (And after Fast Freddy and the giant hedge trimmers, I’m sorry to say that the thought of there being a machine gun inside rather than a guitar did skate through my mind.) Poppa gave me a photocopy of the words and music to “Thanks to the Yanks of the USA.” He asked if I would like to hear him sing it, and I said absolutely! Poppa played the guitar and sang; Aurelia smiled; Buckaroo barked; and I thought how sweet and what a truly unique experience…while I scrambled to get a photo of this as no one would ever believe it. otherwise.
When the serenade ended, I had to ask Poppa his views of the Iraq War. I anticipated that Poppa and Aurelia would be anti-war. His response was fascinating. Poppa and Aurelia are not “meat eaters” and would not even kill a mosquito…and though President Bush is a “hunter” and eats meat and hunts and kills, they both support the President, voted for him, and believe his actions would dramatically change the world for the better. I didn’t expect to hear that. Poppa talked about a lot of things that I didn’t fully comprehend there on the side of the road, but I was anxious to explore the web site. The back of their car has this painted on it: “Let those who know tell those who don’t know.” The front of the car has a symbol about the “seven levels” that I believe conveys their philosophy of life.
Before we parted, Poppa and Aurelia gave me a videotape of their raft trip across the ocean and a CD of great jazz music by their children, the Flying Neutrinos! The CD is excellent; I’ve played it several times, and we will continue to enjoy it. Boz and I watched the video, and it is better than many of the movies we have seen. I could have stood there for hours, but I had a long way to go and no hotel reservation, so I said goodbye. I just kept thinking about what an amazing encounter this had been. To see and learn more about Poppa, Aurelia (aka Captain Betsy), and Buckaroo, see www.floatingneutrinos.com.
15 miles further down the road, and I saw a car with a blown out tire. I put the car in U-Turn mode, and there were my five missionary friends. All they had was a little donut spare, and it was 25 miles to a town. I had learned that the three young ladies were on a year-long program that paid them $60 a month, so I felt good about giving them the money for a new tire. After I reached the next town and saw how small it was, I hoped the money was enough. I can see how they might not have been able to find a tire for 150 miles. But they are all good people, so I figure the Big Guy was watching over them and Marathon would have a tire to fit their little car.
If this book does well, perhaps I will follow it up by just returning to this stretch of road and write another. I’ll just get a couple of lawn chairs and put up a sign that says “Writing a Book — Stop to Chat.”
Marathon, Texas is a neat little place with a very impressive restored hotel, The Gage Hotel. I met Carol, Duane, Stan, and Roma out front. Roma frowned and asked where my car was from. I told her I was sorry to say it was a German car with French tires. I pledged that both will be my last!
At this point, the scenery was great. Flat land on both sides of the road with mountains surrounding me miles back from the road. When I saw a sign that said the entrance to Big Bend National Park was 72 miles, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Talk about the middle of nowhere! The scenery was wonderful. I passed a ranch entrance with nothing but three stars on the entrance gate; I figure a general must live there, or maybe someone who rates movies, hotels, or restaurants.
Most days, I would see roadside memorials. I saw one on this really remote stretch of road, so I hooked a U. It said Aguilar. There were flowers and beer bottles and money and a stuffed animal and more. I had no gift to add, but I took a photo.
At 2:30, I reached the entrance to Big Bend National Park. I was greeted by Ranger Rob. He looked like an actor — tall, tan, big smile, enthusiastic greeting. I told him that I was thoroughly enjoying Big Bend…that the scenery was fabulous. He informed me that I was just entering Big Bend and that all the really good stuff was inside. Was he ever right!
I later met four funny Big Bend ranger-like folks at one of the few visitor’s centers in the park. Katrina, Ranger Don, Casey, and Anita. As I approached the Ranger desk in the Big Bend Welcome Center, they all looked at me and said, “How was Mardi Gras.” I responded that I had been to New Orleans but not for Mardi Gras. They then asked where I got my beads. That was the first time I realized that I was wearing the beads that Aurelia gave to me on the side of the road. With my hands full with my camera and tape recorder, Aurelia probably just put them over my head. At the time, I did not appreciate what a huge factor the beads would prove to be on the rest of the trip.
I wore my green, purple, and white beads every day on the road since I met the Floating Neutrinos. The Floating Neutrinos have to be really lucky to have survived their float across the ocean on a raft, so I considered the beads a good luck charm. The beads added a whole new dimension to the trip. Women would smile, and many men would look at me with a “can you believe that ‘weirdo’ look.” Kids would stare. I met far more people with the beads. I felt I needed a gift for people I met, though I will say that most of the people I met seemed surprisingly excited about having their name in the book. While the business card and a little fame may be gift enough, I ordered a case of beads. I am very conservative, so the beads were a walk on the wild side.
Photographs simply cannot do justice to Big Bend. The views are 360-degrees. I’d get out of the car to take a picture of a beautiful sight, and as I turned to get back in the car, I’d be knocked over by something equally beautiful. It was an “oh ****” day. I don’t cuss much, but when I topped a hill to see one breathtaking sight after another, I realized I was saying “oh ****” out loud again and again. I drove for hundreds of miles in Big Bend. I had not yet been to a place that I had found to have scenery as spectacular as Big Bend. Since volcanic activity was responsible for much of the landscape, the diversity was what really got my attention. You could look in four directions and see four totally different types of terrain. I think Big Bend is probably the best kept secret in the United States.
I drove to Study Butte and Terlingua but I didn’t see a motel that appealed to me, so I drove on to Lajitas. Lajitas, I later learned, is being developed as a “resort town.” I stopped at the first place that appeared to be a resort hotel, the Badlands. There was one room left. I was relieved to know I would have a room for the night, and it was 4:45, and I had just three hours of time to see more of Big Bend, so I took the room even though I was shocked to hear $195 for a room in this dusty middle of nowhere spot.
I did meet a very nice young lady while waiting for service at the Badlands. (And you can wait a looong time for service there.) Britton is a nurse/pilot, and she introduced me to her husband, Dr. Dan. Britton told me a number of places to go, and Dan said the area was filled with great characters. He said they are like rattlesnakes; you may not see them, but they are out there. Britton told me a great story about a man who moved to Lajitas from Chicago. When he moved to town, someone asked his name, and he said “Jake.” They said “Jake what?” and he replied “Just Jake.” He died after 20 years or so there, and when they buried him, no one knew his name, so the gravestone says “Just Jake.”
I asked everyone I came in contact with where was the best place to see the sunset. I was surprised that no one had a particular spot. Most said to just walk outside.
I raced back to Big Bend and took the drive down to the very end of the park at the border of Mexico. Just fantastic. When I got to the end of the road, the wind was really blowing. When I began hiking down to the canyon and river, I was in the middle of a sand dune when my eyes became absolutely filled with sand. My left eye was badly scratched, and tears were streaming down my cheek, but the sun was starting to set, so I pushed on.
On the climb up the side of the mountain, I met Ruben (a former missionary) and Karen (his Harvard-educated attorney wife) as my prized one-of-a-kind Round America cap blew off and disappeared down the side of the mountain. That made me unhappy, but the sun was starting to set, so I pushed on.
A little further up the mountain and I met Mary Lee, the coach of the Tulane University tennis team, and her husband, Brian. Very nice folks, and I had a chance to chat with them for a while after I came back down the mountain.
I got some photos, but the wind was blowing so hard that it was impossible to hold the camera still. There wasn’t as much water at that spot as I had pictured in my mind’s eye. Had I known that and that there would be a gale-force wind in the middle of a sand dune, I wouldn’t have gone. But ya pay your money and ya take your chances. Sometimes ya win, sometimes ya lose, and sometimes ya get rained out.
When I returned to my car, my cap was under the windshield wiper. I know Ruben was my good samaritan! It was so refreshing to meet so many nice, kind people.
I spent the next hour chasing the sun. I couldn’t believe that none of the people I had asked about the best place to see a sunset had suggested that I go to Big Bend and drive from point to point to see 50 different sunsets. I cannot envision a better place to see the sunset than Big Bend, due to the ever-changing terrain. The beauty of sunsets is the combination of the color in the sky and what it is framed against on the ground. Big Bend just can’t be topped in the sunset department! The wind continued to blow hard, and I was disappointed to later see that many of my photos were too blurry to use from the wind making it impossible to hold the camera still. But I thoroughly enjoyed the sights I was able to see with my right eye! My last sunset of the day was at 8:36.
Big Bend is humongous. Over one million acres! It was at least an hour’s drive out of Big Bend and back to Terlingua where I had my heart set on a big bowl of chili. I began to panic as I was running low on gas; I wasn’t sure I could make it out, but there were no options.
I made it. I met Jeannie from Arkansas and Steve from Austin as I stopped at the Study Butte Mall for gas and several soda pops. I should have asked whether they had anything for my eye!
Terlingua is the home to the mother of all chili cookoffs. I went to the Starlight Theare Bar and Restaurant. The chili was good, and the Dos Equis beer was too, though I drank about five glasses of water since I failed to do as I knew I should and had no water heading into Big Bend and no place to stop to get any). I tried Dessert Nachos — nacho chips covered with dessert sauce and a big scoop of ice cream in the middle. Different, but I bet the homemade cobbler would have been better.
Yvette was my bartender/waitress, and she was one of the best yet. She told me several places to go for great sights, and she has the vision! She educated me to the beauty of both the sunrise and moonrise in Big Bend, and said, “You know, the great thing about Big Bend is that you can see so many different views as the sun and moon look different depending on where you are at on the ground.” She knew what I had just learned and that so many others apparently never stopped for a minute to consider. Yvette told me exactly where to go the next morning to see a great sunrise near Lajitas.
At the Starlight Theatre, I sat next to two couples. The first couple didn’t say boo, and the man overtly turned his back to me when I was exchanging stories with Yvette as if to say, “get out of my life buddy.” Perhaps he was anti-bead. The second couple was delightful. Cindy and James are “unconventional lapidarists.” I learned this means they create unusual cuts of various rocks and gemstones. Nice people, and we had a great time talking. They enjoyed a chance meeting that day with a world-renowned lapidarist, and they were overjoyed that he invited them to join him on a dig at a ranch near Terlingua that is known to have incredible gemstones. This was to them like finding and seeing the Perky Bat Tower, meeting Fast Freddy and going to the river, bumping into the Floating Neutrinos, or happening upon Harry and the Natives is to me. Cindy and James gave me a beautiful polished gemstone to have made into a ring for Bozzie Jane. It was an imported stone, not something they found on the side of the road. I again wished I had a gift other than my business card and camera lens, but I arranged with Yvette to pay for their margaritas without them knowing.
I finally pulled into the parking lot in Lajitas around midnight. Man it was dark. When I say black, I mean black. When I managed to stumble up the stairs to the front desk at the Badlands to get my key, I learned that the electricity, water, and phones were all off. It took four people with zero personality forever to figure out what room I was in, etc., as I stood there with my eye hurting much worse than it had at the Starlight. I was escorted to my room by flashlight.
The hotel was cheaply built. For $195 a night, I expected top quality, but the room had hollow-core doors with dents and veneer peeling off. The shower was a prefab tub/shower like you would find in a very inexpensive apartment. The chairs were poorly made western-looking reproductions that felt like they would break as I sat down. There was no AC, no water, and no phone service, but this place probably would have seemed worse if there had been power. The lobby was nice — always a good trick. The window was caulked shut, so it was hotter and stuffier than necessary. I could go on. I cried out of my left eye and tried to sleep. I couldn’t set an alarm since we lost our battery-operated model, but I hoped I would eventually fall asleep and hoped I might somehow awaken before sunrise so I could go see what Yvette had promised — a fabulous sunrise.
Day 18 was PHENOMENAL! Best day yet for me; I regret that Boz was in Atlanta and missed it. It’s interesting that I can consider it the best though I had three significant problems and one big travel disappointment: (1) I found the BADlands Hotel to be BAD and the top nominee for worst use of money on the trip. (2) There was neither electricity, nor water, nor telephone service at the BADlands Hotel. (3) I seriously injured my left eye. (4) It was an overcast day (only thing worse is rain when you are going to see beautiful natural sights).
The lesson for the day. Man, that’s a tough one as there are so many options. I guess the lesson is that an awful lot can go wrong, but we can make the best of every situation if we focus on the good.
Here are all the photos from Day 18 of the Round America 50-State Trip: