Texas was great. I love Texas. I guess I can only really speak for West Texas.
The Chihuahua Desert with it’s rocky ranges reminds me a lot of the Flinders Ranges. I hadn’t really considered before that this part of Texas has the extension of the Rocky Mountains running through it, and beyond into Northern Mexico, where there are range upon range of wild-looking mountains to be explored. We were heading to Big Bend NP for three days of sunny winter hiking in the Chisos Mountains.
We arrived in El Paso, on Christmas morning, at 2.30am (4.30 am NYC time). We staggered all of 160 yards to our hotel and fell into bed. Hours later we are driving aimlessly around a deserted El Paso looking for somewhere to have a birthday breakfast. Even after being in the US for 6 months now, I still imagine that I am going to get Melbourne-style breakfast. It never happens. Especially not on Christmas Day. A is ecstatic when we stop at a Mexican diner. We are, after all, on the edge of Mexico. A sighting of a guy in tradies overalls, with cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat, walking a tiny chihuahua makes us inordinately happy.
I drive because A’s license expired and the new one has not yet arrived from Australia. It is a long and boring road. We’ve had to justify our presence to a burly-looking border patrol officer, and our progress has been captured by about 20 cameras from every possible angle. A realises that that this will happen again when we return from Big Bend and enters a state of nervous anticipation that will last for the rest of the trip. I nap for 20mins at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
4 hours and 300 miles later, we arrive in Marfa. A small town that, unknown to us, is too cool for school. A hotbed of art and design thanks to artist and architect Donald Judd settling here in the 60s, it’s pretty funky in a mid-century, hipster-y way and I wish we had more time to explore. We stay in the Hotel Paisano, a nicely preserved hotel made famous as the base for Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean whilst shooting the movie Giant, and popular for weddings. And also for family christmases it seems. It is an oasis in the desert of nothingness we have driven through. And even though we haven’t had the foresight to book ahead for dinner, they can squeeze us in. Lucky, coz there’s nothing else open on christmas night. Perfect birthday evening.
There is a giant storm brewing to the north of us in New Mexico and it’s going to stretch south far enough to mean snow. And ice. So much for it being warmer in Texas. I’m not sure we thought that through properly. Whilst we did plan for cold camping, we are not properly equipped to have a good time camping in snow. Our plans need to change. We get lucky with a cancellation and book two nights in a cabin in another small town, Marathon. The hiking part of our trip is getting shorter by the moment. We hole up while it snows all Sunday. Books, movies. Lucky we changed our plans – the park is closed for the day.
Our fear of freezing whilst camping turns into a phobia and we book another night in yet another small West Texas town. As it turns out, we probably could have camped that night. But preoccupied as we were with the mountains, and their snow and ice, we forgot that the park extends down to the Rio Grande, where even though it’s not warm, it is sunny and snow-free. En route we take a winding drive through the park, stopping for a roadrunner, and soon after, ironically, a coyote. We take a hike to Boquillas Canyon where we are serenaded from the Mexican side by the Mexican Singing Jesus. The canyon acoustics are good but we don’t tip. We have a quick swim at a hot spring, with the cold Rio Grande rushing past beside us. We end up in Terlingua – a ghost town famous for a murder that coincidentally I had just read about. In fact, we spend the evening drinking at the scene, stepping where the body lay as we cross the roughly paved parking lot to descend the steps into the underground bar. LaKiva has only recently reopened and it has a nice vibe, but is not yet popular again. We have a good night.
Finally, we pack our backpacks, get up early, and drive back into the park. Our timing is good and the road up into the Chisos Basin is open by the time we arrive. But we forget an important lesson about hiking in NPs in the US – book early, like, yesterday. The good news is that there is exactly one backcountry camp left available that night, the bad news is that it is only about 45mins walk from the trailhead. Not to be deterred we hike in, set up the tent, stash our food in the bear box, and set off to walk the whole loop in one day. The difficulty of hiking here is usually the lack of water, but after snow that’s not such an issue. In fact the problem is the looong switchback climb in the shadow of the mountain, where last night’s snow has not seen the sun. Now ice, ascending it makes for a careful and delicate procedure and we are glad to have left our gear behind. I admire the snow cleats that more prepared hikers are using. The Chisos Mountains are an island plateau of mountains rising above the desert, and once the climb is done we hike through winding canyons past shallow snowdrifts and icy ponds. Sudden vistas appear below us as the path rounds a spur to skirt the edge of the plateau. I am reminded again that the effort to get outside is always worth it, even when it seems odds are against us. I’m refreshed and inspired but also notice how out of shape I’ve become in the big city. We have but a moment to sit and admire the panorama stretching away before us – the Chihuahua desert plains, the Rio Grande and the blue Mexican mountains beyond – before we have to return the way we came to be sure of descending the icy rock stairway before dark.
Next day, we are back at the car by mid morning heading towards Fort Davis. Border patrol interview us and let us pass, A’s fears of being detained alleviated for now. We care less about the historic fort, and instead head for the State Park to camp. After a little lie down in the hammock, shivering in my sleeping bag, we head to nearby McDonald Observatory to look at the dark sky through some quite large telescopes. It’s pretty good. But we haven’t eaten and when we make it back to town at 9pm there is nothing open. It’s freezing out, so we sit in the car and eat instant mashed potato before crawling into bed fully clothed. Life is good.