Thursday, February 24, 2011

Farewell to Big Bend

Afternoon temperatures approach ninety degrees finally got to us and as much as we loved the spectacular scenery of Big Bend National Park, we decided to move north to slightly cooler climes.

It was also frustrating to be constrained so much with the dog -- since she could not go on trails even with a leash. And, the long drives and gas at $3.75 got old after a bit. Still, it was a wonderful place to get to know a bit - and well worth the drive. (The photo of Mary was taken at Sotul Point, and also shows the gap for the Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande far off.)

Right across from our campground is the Mexican village of Boquillas Del Carmen -- a very small community that is quite isolated. Years ago, before 9/11, it was a common practice to cross the river and have dinner in one of the informal cafes -- usually in people’s homes -- and get a taste of authentic Mexico. Now, the closest legal border crossing is 100 miles away or so.

Mexicans -- probably youngsters -- cross the river nightly and leave items for sale on rocks where Americans will see them -- usually with a note listing suggested prices and a small jar for money. Carved walking sticks, simple jewelry -- all illegal as can be. It’s tempting and as Mary said, she’s tempted just to leave some money. We bought our walking sticks, from the town through some special legal arrangement by the Park Service, at about three times the price on the rocks. If only the extra money went across the border. (The sunset photo shows some of the items in the foreground.)
We left Big Bend and drove close to 100 miles before leaving the park -- then headed north through some tough country up to Alpine -- where the famous Cowboy Poetry Festival is taking place this weekend.

Just twenty miles north is Fort Davis, named for Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War when the fort was built back in the middle 1800’s. It’s a cow town -- the largest community in the county -- but likely not an Obama hotbed. We are camping at Davis Mountains State Park, which is just out of town and at elevation 5,000 or so, is ten to fifteen degrees cooler than big bend. Some good birding here and it should be a good stay.

In a “small world” happenstance, we are camped next door to a couple from Barre, Vermont who we briefly met at Big Bend.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Big Bend Adventures

As Big Bend State Park visitors know, it’s about 70 miles of desolation from Marathon down to the park headquarters, and then another 20 miles of desert to the Rio Grande Village campground. But what amazing vistas as you head south -- just breathtaking. Photos don’t do the landscape justice. Geological features - incredible formations - give a real sense of the millions of years of history that precedes us.

Yesterday’s high was 96 degrees and we arrived, hot and dusty, and set up. There’s no air conditioning (no power or water) but we were doing fine -- until I learned that I had set up on a site already reserved by someone else. So, it was stow things, hitch up once again, and move about 100 yards up the road to another site. I wasn’t a happy camper and Mary was overheated from the heat and dryness. Great start -- Big Bend.

Once things cooled down, it was a lovely evening. It went down to 44 this morning and we ran the heater for a bit while having morning coffee. I found out that the little store here has WiFi (you can forget AT&T coverage for cell phones) so we could get email and post stuff. Still, with no electricity, battery usage for the computers needs to be monitored as well.

I took a little hike this morning on a short trail and saw a few birds, the Rio Grande, some cool rock formations, the Rio Grande, and Mexico. Above is an early morning shot of the campground and the scenery.

They warned us about wildlife here -- particularly coyotes. Well, as we were leaving this morning to do some sightseeing in the truck, what should wander right in front of us, in the middle of the campground, by Mr. (or Ms.) Coyote. Took the picture through the windshield.

We drove up to the Chisos Basin which is just about impossible to describe. It’s high elevation for down here and has some spectacular mountains and vistas. I’ll get some shots next visit -- we just took a “I’ve Been There” shot at the visitor center.

We have hung out reading this afternoon underneath the trailer’s awning. It’s about 88 degrees but there’s a nice breeze. I had Penny’s leash anchored by my chair leg. I left to fix a couple of seltzer drinks and from inside the trailer heard a bark, a yell from Mary, and a upsetting of the lawn chair. Mr. Coyote (or a sibling) had just crossed our road about 25 feet away and Penny was in attack mode. Fortunately, the leash got caught -- or she got smart -- and I grabbed her and all was well again -- once Mary’s heart rate settled down.

This is a tough place from noon to five or so -- you can see why siestas so popular in the Southwest. After May, things essentially close down here due to the extreme temperatures. However, we saw scenery today that just blows you away. Now, to keep the coyotes, mountain lions, and javelinas where they belong.

P.S. On guidebook we have, in talking how park animals have gotten too used to human foods, said that the crinkling of a potato chip bag opening can draw javelinas. I knew junk food was not good for you.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Seminole Canyon State Park

Less than an hour away from Amistad National Rec Area, where we stayed two days, is Seminole Canyon where we have enjoyed a couple more days enroute to Big Bend. Seminole -- I thought they were Florida tribe. Well, they were until they were moved west, along with the African-Americans who had assimilated into their ranks, in a “Trail of Tears” forced resettlement. The U.S. Army formed a unit of Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts who protected this area from marauding bands of Apaches and Comanches. Four scouts earned the Medal of Honor. Thus the park name.

There are some nice bike/hiking trails out to the Rio Grande which Penny and I have taken advantage of. It’s rocky or dusty but pretty flat and dry. I carry water and we stop every so often. They cloudiness of the last couple of days helped a great deal. What amazing vistas along the canyon -- well worth the ride. Penny sleeps well at night.
Today, Mary and I each took a tour (hers was in the morning and mine in the afternoon) of the prehistoric rock art -- rock painting called pictographs. This two-mile, guided, walking tour descends into a limestone canyon where we saw Lower Pecos River Style pictographs. We went up to the Fate Bell Rockshelter (named for a former owner) which contains pictographs which are 4,000 years old -- among the oldest, most colorful, complex and distinctive ancient paintings in all of the Americas. It was educational and thought-provoking.

Of course, my small tour group included two instructor pilots from nearby Laughlin AFB who were camping with their young sons. They were both former F-15 pilots and humored a former Naval Aviator as we talked about their T-6 trainers, their students, and other aviation stuff on the way back. Nice guys -- and their sons running along ahead up the steep staircase reminding me of our two guys years ago.

We had snacks this evening looking west as the sun was setting with Lark Buntings and Black-throated Sparrows hopping around the picnic area. A Sage Thrasher commenced a wonderful series of songs and calls. It was a nice Saturday evening in West Texas.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?

Today was a “round them up, move them out” travel day through hot, dusty Southwest Texas.  If I never see another thorn shrub or natural gas pipeline, it won’t break my heart.  Of course, the speed limit is often 75 mph but I keep below 70 while hauling the trailer.

Laredo was awful -- traffic lights, depressing fast food joints and rundown businesses -- and Eagle Pass and Del Rio were not a lot better.  It’s interesting -- you can look up ahead near the border and see this massive Mexican Flag just across the border.  We had at least two situations where you needed to turn right to stay in the U.S. and not head to the International Bridge.  

Of course, have two American immigration guys shot yesterday adds to the “stay out of Mexico” mindset that most of us have.

Just west of Laredo were these amazing highway overpasses, all stucco-colored and lovely looking.  I was trying to figure out which Congressman/Senator brought that pork home when we came to the Laredo Welcome Center.  It makes the Williston and Brattleboro sites in Vermont look like poor cousins -- to say it was ornate is an understatement.  Here’s a picture of Mary in front of it.

I got to watch a Border Patrol stop at the site.  They had a pickup hauling a trailer stopped and were apparently also using it as a training because four or five extra guys were there.  The interesting thing was the Xray truck -- a big van which slowly drove closely past one side of the stopped trailer and then past the other side.  Obviously, they have gear that can look through metal side of vans.  I think they let the guys move on after going through the items in the trailer.

Shortly thereafter, we went through a Border Patrol stop.  Of course, Penny saw the drug dog, a Doberman, and started to go nuts while I reached back for her and her collar came off -- all while trying to talk sanely to the young guy asking me questions.  We’re pretty white bread tourists -- he just waved me on.

We are at Amistad, a national recreation area on the shore of Lake Amistad which is formed by the dammed Rio Grande.  No one here besides a host camper and one other family.  We have a site overlooking the water and while there’s a little noise from the highway not too far away, it’s a nice location.  We are going to a “Cowboy Coffee” in the morning where they make coffee the old way, over a campfire -- and the park superintendent is going to talk some about border issues.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remembering Falcon

I’ve talked about the people of Falcon State Park and their cordiality. We will recall with fondness Bud and Charlotte from Enid, OK who befriended us last year and were our neighbors again this year. Married 64 years, they are a wonderful couple - who also love Penny.

We’ve met a number of Canadian couples, including Bert and Maryanne -- fellow beekeepers and many mid-Westerners. The people are a big part of the attraction of this facility.

The sunrises and sunsets are often spectacular -- especially the sunsets over Falcon Reservoir. We went down tonight to watch it and see how fast the sun moves as it approaches the horizon. Western skies are just amazing to Easterners like us. I recall years ago when I was flying in the Navy out west and returning to Vermont briefly for an event. How closed in I felt -- in spite of being a Vermonter I’d gotten used to the openness.

Falcon is one of the top fishing lakes in the country. With hundreds of miles of coastline, it attracts many bass tournaments -- from local clubs to national events. It’s not unusual to see fifty or more truck/trailer rigs in the parking lots and they fish from sunrise to twilight.

And of course, the birds here are wonderful. A western birder told me yesterday, “I’ve birded throughout the west but never down here. I’m amazed at all the different species.” We tend to get a little blase’ about one more Green Jay or Altimira Oriole. While we didn’t have the rarer birds that sometimes frequent this place, it’s easy to pick up 40 species or more in an hour walk.

So we leave what has become one of our favorite places. It was in the 80’s today but has cooled down with a nice breeze this evening. The coyotes tuned up a while back and the three-quarters moon and starlight will light up this place tonight. I’d hate to be here in July but it sure is nice in February.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Heading Westward

Last year, we stayed here at Falcon State Park for some time and then, because of issues with trailer lights, decided to forego going out to Big Bend National Park. This year, figuring we are this far and may not get here again, we are pressing onward in a few days. We'll go to Amisted National Wildlife Area (Del Rio), stay a couple of days at Seminole Canyon, and then hit Big Bend.

The stay at Falcon has been great. The weather has finally warmed into the 70's and we have enjoyed the birding and the campers. This is quite unique - many folks come here for a month or more - and have done so for years. There is a very active recreation center with many social and education activities. Neither Mary nor I am big on sitting around talking about whatever, but we have gotten to know some of the regulars. We went to a Valentine's ice cream social/ Yankee swap (they had some other name for it), and actually danced a little. The kids think we're losing it.

A highlight of this stay is the puma I saw the other morning while walking the dog - the big cat was just sauntering across the road. I had binoculars but no camera with me.

The night sky here is amazing. There is no air traffic at all - which is too remindfull of the post-9/11 days. We get nothing but Mexican TV and radio but keep current with our iPhones. The campground is very quiet - all I can hear as I write is a coyote. Sounds like a young one trying out his voice. Penny gives a little growl just to let us know she's on top of things.

So we've got some laundry and camper stuff (propane, parts, etc) to do before launching Wednesday morning. Got a couple of birds I'm looking for as well so Penny and I will be out looking for the Say's Phoebe that's supposedly here. Weather up ahead looks great so Wagon's Ho!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What’s That White Stuff?

They say that the last time this area had snow was five years ago on Christmas Eve. Somehow, we didn’t find the snow/ice mix covering the roads and ground this morning that exciting. It was 85 degrees a few days ago -- WTF?

We’re already dealing with frozen water pipes back home in Vermont when the furnace was off during the -25 degrees spell. Now we have to worry about the lines in the Airstream freezing -- and keep a little water dripping.

Of course, there’s no sand or salt trucks in the County so it’s a good thing that the winter sun was strong and melted the coating by about 10 AM. The wind was strong last night and our trailer temperature, in spite of the heater, was 50 degrees this morning. We do have an auxiliary propane heater we lit off to raise the temperature this morning and all in all, have been very comfortable. Just whining.

I know how much other parts of Texas and the country got whacked with this system. We know that in a day, temperatures will be back in the 60’s -- that we wait a couple of days instead of a couple of months, for shirtsleeve weather.

Of course, after we hit about Mississippi, we put the parkas and warm mittens in plastic bags and tossed them way up front in the the truck cap, along with the snow scraper. They would have come in handy.

We had Cabot Cheese for supper tonight -- would you like a little whine with that? Our neighbors here are from Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. We are all taking heat from family and friends for whining -- and look forward to the weekend and normal Texas temperatures.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nature Encounters at Falcon

The first afternoon at Falcon State Park, I was reading in the shade (it was 85 degrees) with Penny lying next to me. Suddenly, she exploded into barking and lunging on her leash, startling me. I looked at across the road and a mama wild pig and six piglets were trotting through the underbrush, driving our Vizsla nuts.

We’ve seen feral pigs down here before and seen the amazing damage they cause with their rooting and trampling. They are a major nuisance in much of Texas and some, with their nasty tusks, are pretty mean-looking critters.

The first night here, the coyotes started yowling just after dark -- that eerie sound that make you glad you’re not sleeping out in the open.

This park is looped with nature trails that provide a wide variety of flora and fauna. You never quite know what you are going to meet around the corner. We’ve seen a number of rabbits that drive her crazy -- forcing me to put a harness on her instead of just a collar.

Yesterday, after spotting several deer, we came upon a roadrunner who, in “beep-beep” fashion, kept running up ahead to where the trail turned, waiting and running again. Penny was going nuts and I was trying to hold her, and the camera -- this going on for a bit. I dropped the leash and stepped on it while taking the photo, but must have missed it for Penny was off like a flash, as was the roadrunner. I’m sure it flew for she came back shortly, panting, and we continued our walk.

Last night, we took a walk late on the roads and it was black. I had a small flashlight but remembered, about half way around the loop, of the pictures of puma-like cat that has been spotted around here recently. I thought, if I see two glowing eyes up ahead, I’m out of here. The walk turned out to be uneventful although the night sky was spectacular.

Today, we rounded a bend on the trail and came upon an armadillo. Penny saw one in Louisiana last year but this one was right in front of her, waddling away. She lunged as I shot the picture but never got loose.
Tonight, she is “hunting” inside the Airstream -- fixated at an opening under the stove where I suspect a mouse is residing. It may have ridden from Vermont or joined up here in Texas. If it reads the forecast for the weather ahead (nothing like the north or northeast but still below freezing), it is looking for a warm abode.

The other “nature” factor here is the small thorns that are everywhere you walk. I usually ride the bike so that Penny can run on the greenery beside the road. I noticed that she stopped running and was limping and checked her pads, finding many of the little thorns. They hurt just brushing them off. I’ve been wearing sandals and they wedge into the space beneath my feet, and smart. It’s just part of the exercising in the Southwest.

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