off_road_adventure_in_big_bend_national_park_texas

by Anna Krecicki

 

A couple of months ago my brother excitedly said to me, “I’m going to Texas off-roading in the desert!”

If anyone can take care of himself, that’s most definitely my brother. Still, upon his announcement, the thought immediately ran through my head like lightning that going by himself is just not a smart idea. So without further contemplation, I responded, “No, you are not – WE are!”

Not that I was particularly interested in going to Texas, nor was I looking forward to a road trip, since anyone who knows me well enough knows that I can’t stand long-distance traveling. My limit in the car before I get fidgety and uncomfortable is about an hour (not to mention my need for frequent bathroom breaks). So the thought of a twenty-some-hour ride in the car all of a sudden didn’t feel very appealing. But the more I learned about the area he planned to visit, the more convinced I became that he should not go alone.

The destination was the Big Bend National Park which is located at the southwest tip of Texas by the Mexican border. It is a huge and absolutely gorgeous park that seemed like the perfect place for a backcountry fun trip. Yet I felt that hiking, camping, and off-roading in a location so close to the border might not be very safe for anyone by himself. So volunteering myself to join him was the smart thing to do, while my brother clearly had no desire or need for company.

I convinced myself that this trip could be an excellent opportunity for me to take a break, also for being in nature, taking photos, and for some well-needed rest. It was going to be my ‘walkabout’ in the desert.

In the following weeks my brother planned the trip, outlined the trails for hiking and off-roading, packed everything we would need for the ride as well as the days in the park, and was getting his vehicle ready. In the meantime I was mentally preparing myself and had assembled a full arsenal of crystals, rattles, and essential oils for our protection. We even received a travel blessing  from the Shaman Lady the day before we left. We were ready for the adventure!

Needless to say, the approximately 1700 miles to our destination did not feel like a joyride to me with the frequent rain storms, construction zones, accidents, and my struggle to hold out (well ‘in’) until the next pit stop.

But we made it to Texas, and almost to the park when the back brakes started squeaking. Apparently, all the weight the car was carrying for all those miles had taken a toll on the brake pads. At the next sleepy little town we stopped to have them checked out. At the first shop they said they might be able to look at the car on Friday; (this was on a Monday). They told us that all the shops in town were busy. After calling a few others where they said the same or “Maybe next week”, my brother decided to keep going and hope for the best.

The park was about 100 miles away. After the distance we had already traveled, that seemed like nothing. So we got back on route, riding (and squeaking) along a desolate road, headed towards the mountains in the distance. The road was bordered by rolling hills, old Sucker Rod Pumps, and majestic wind mills. We didn’t see many vehicles, only a few cows on the surrounding fields trying to hide their baby calves from the sun, and some tumbleweeds rolling around – just like in the old western movies. We were a long way from Florida.

After about a good 2-hour ride we arrived at the Big Bend National Park. We purchased an entrance ticket and headed to one of the Visitor Centers located high up in the mountains where we were going to get the permits for the campsites. We almost made it there! Just about a mile away from our next destination, the car was having difficulty going uphill. The transmission was overheating and by this time the brake pads must have completely disintegrated. The sound of the squealing noise of metal on metal echoing off the mountain sides was unbearable. So with a quick turnaround, my brother announced that we were going home!

Luckily there was a small inlet nearby where we stopped and took a break to assess the situation. We unloaded the cooler, set up the chairs and the canopy, and had an ‘emergency picnic’. With a full stomach, everything seemed less complicated. Fortunately, we were close enough to the visitors’ center, so there was cell phone reception and we were able to call a few more repair shops. After the third call, we found a tire place in the same town we stopped at on the way, where they said they could look at it the following morning. With the feeling of new-found anticipation and determination, we packed up and left the park.

Two hours later, we were back in the ‘nearby’ town and found a little inn to stay for the night just across from the tire shop. First thing in the morning, my brother rushed the car over to be the first in line. After having to wait for the mechanic to show up, then for numerous calls to find the right brake pads and have them delivered, the car was finally being fixed. A kind-eyed older Mexican man who didn’t speak a word of English other than “okay” very slowly and carefully replaced the brake pads and unknowingly saved our trip!

By early afternoon we were back on the road again. We passed the rolling hills, the old oil pumps, the wind mills, and the cows with their calves. After another two-hour ride, we reached the visitors’ center, purchased the permits and some ice, and were headed for the first dirt road outlined on our travel map.

My brother couldn’t wait to finally go “off road”. The park had many off-road tracks and he planned to drive on a lot of them. They were unsurfaced dirt roads, mostly unmaintained and often made up by rocks and riverbeds. The worst they seemed, the more fun we’d have! The adventure in off-roading is merely testing the vehicle’s (and the driver’s) ability to drive on these roads – and the passenger’s capability to take pictures from a wobbling car while fighting motion sickness.

It was adventurous indeed. After a nice overnight rest and equipped with fresh brake pads the car was handling the road well. Even though our teeth were rattling and occasionally our heads would hit the roof, we were having a blast. The one thing we didn’t exactly calculate was that by averaging 5 to 10 MPH on these roads it would take us more than five hours to get to our campsite, which was not enough time to get there before sunset. After a few miles we turned around once again and decided to drive to our first campsite on the main paved road.

Since we made excellent time on the smooth surface, we could make a quick stop at a hot spring by the Rio Grande River. The approximately two-mile gravel road leading to the Hot Springs Historic District was narrow and rather scary at times without any railing present. I could swear that one or two wheels were hanging over the cliff at certain points. The hot spring was a short walk from the parking area with a hiking trail  enclosed by tall rock formations on one side and serene bamboo plants along the river bank on the other side. Ancient pictographs decorated some of the slates along the way.

A long time ago a bathhouse used to stand where the spring is now, contained by the remains of its foundation. The water was crystal clear and somehow felt ‘sacred’. Heated by underground geothermal processes the spring had a temperature of 105° F. The dissolved mineral salts are believed to give it “healing powers”.

When I said that the spring was by the river, I meant it literally. We could step into the Rio Grande right from the spring! (Well, as it turns out, one could also fall into the river gracefully if he didn’t watch out for the slippery moss growing on the edges of the foundation.) We soaked in the spring water for a while and listened to the sound of the Rio Grande rushing by. The landscape was just spectacular with the giant rock formations on one side and Mexico just on the other side of the river.

After enjoying the quick rest and the healing powers of the spring, we headed to our first campsite. As we were driving again on a dirt road, we saw lots of lightning-fast jackrabbits and tiny ground cuckoos (which we both remembered from the old cartoon “Roadrunner”).

Our primitive campsite was marked by a couple of wooden beams lying on the ground and a little hand-carved sign reading: “The Gravel Pit”. It was located by the foot of a smaller hill that was part of a chain of several rolling hills. Before we even set camp, we went to explore our hill. To our great surprise and amazement, we were welcomed by an abundance of crystals sparkling all over the hillside. It was as if a carpet of crystals had been rolled straight down just to greet us. It looked like the hilltop had opened up and spat out its dazzling treasures, landing right at our feet. I was in ‘crystal heaven’!

The majority of crystals seemed to be some sort of quartz and others included calcite and chalcedony. So we collected a bunch with the intent to bring them home as gifts, then we set camp. I used a lot of our new found crystals (along with the ones I brought from home) as part of the protection grid I built around our campsite. After that, we just enjoyed the beauty and peacefulness of this perfect little spot we had to ourselves for the night. We watched the sunset from the top of the closest hill and took some photos of the surrounding area. Then we made a small campfire, burned sage and incense, and ate dinner under the night sky. Despite my fears before the trip, it all felt safe and serene.

I was still somewhat anxious about snakes and possible four-legged intruders, so I chose the safety of the car and made it my sleeping quarters, while my brother was enjoying the boundlessness of sleeping under the stars on a camping bed. The next morning I made Turkish coffee that somehow just tasted better than any coffee made with a machine.

After breaking down our camp, cleaning up, and collecting some more crystals, we set out on a full day of off-roading across the southern part of the park. Tons of fun and teeth-rattling followed, until we reached an abandoned old mine site that we decided to investigate. After a small hike and some exploring, we took cover under the canopy by the car and had lunch gazing at the surrounding mountains and enjoying the deserted yet beautiful scenery. We got back on the road heading towards our next campsite up in the Chisos Mountains. We drove for hours on different and sometimes challenging terrains.

But we made it to the campsite called the “Twisted Shoe” just before sunset and had enough time to take some photos, unload the car, build a crystal grid, and set up for the night. Just as the sun was setting, we heard rumbling behind the mountains. We could see some storm clouds collecting in the distance, but we were hoping that they wouldn’t reach us, since the weather forecast predicted a rain-free week during our trip. Well, the forecast was wrong. The storm was getting closer and the wind was getting stronger by the minute, so we decided to break our camp down and put everything back in the car. Just as we tossed the last things in the car, the first drop of rain fell and we jumped in.

Sitting in the only metal object around, high up in the mountains, we were definitely concerned as lighting was non-stop hitting the peaks surrounding us in each direction. Even though the car was grounded by the tires, I wasn’t convinced about our safety. The thunder sounded louder and somehow scarier than in Florida as it echoed among the mountain tops. It rained heavily and it seemed that lightning hit almost every other second lighting up the sky almost continuously.

Strangely enough, we both could see a flickering light through the car window — even through the heavy rain, on the mountaintop across from us where lightning hit several times. We weren’t sure if something caught on fire or if it was someone trapped up there. We even tried to joke that perhaps something or someone traveled down via the lighting bolt, basing the idea on some alien movies. The night just got more interesting.

As the storm turned worse, ensconced in the back of the car with my rattles in hand, I was concentrating on the protection grid I built around the campsite and was ‘holding the energy bubble’ around us. I was rather petrified so I closed my eyes and prayed that somehow we would make it through the storm in one piece.

Quite unexpectedly, I had a vision. With my eyes closed, I ‘saw’ what I thought to be four Native American spirits on top of four peaks in four directions. They were just standing there, so I asked them for protection — as if it was the most natural and ordinary thing to do, given the situation. The one on my left seemed to have answered me and granted us protection. I only ‘heard’ him as a thought in my head, but he pointed out quite clearly that “the crystals belong to the land”. I was puzzled for a second, thinking how that could be relevant, but then I remembered — and immediately felt ashamed for collecting so many crystals earlier and not thinking of that, as we were on land that once belonged to Native Americans. So I promised to leave the crystals behind the next morning as a form of offering and apology.

After the storm passed and we apparently lived through it, my brother and I looked at each other and started laughing. “Wow, what the heck?” we asked at the same time, still in a shock. Then I told to him that he may not like the ‘price’ we had to pay for the extra protection, and he instantly knew: “We are leaving the crystals behind, right?

So the next morning, without much talking, we climbed up the nearby boulders and carefully placed all the crystals that we collected the previous days on top of the rocks in many different grids and formations thanking the four spirits for their protection. After another delicious Turkish coffee and some cleaning up, we left our campsite and started descending from the mountains on the muddy road, hoping not to get stuck.

Our next destination was the Santa Elena Canyon. We drove for hours on many different roads and terrains with occasional stops to take photos and to explore. I suspect that we were tested even a couple of times, because wherever we stopped, there were crystals lying around, sparkling in the sunshine. After the previous night’s learning experience, we mostly observed them, and asked permission before taking one or two small pieces, leaving offerings in exchange.

When we reached the canyon, we decided to cross the shallow stream that ran into the Rio Grande River, and took a short hike following the path on the other side. The hiking path climbed high up on the rock wall offering incredible views of the river and the surrounding areas, then it lead back down to the river bank encompassed by lush vegetation and peaceful, majestic rocks. In spite of the heat, the scenery was well worth it!

After the hike, we got back on the road and found a great shaded picnic area nearby where we ate lunch and then set out to find our next campsite. After hours of more off-road driving with some occasional stops to explore, we found the location, but surprisingly we didn’t like it. It just did not feel ‘safe’ for some reason. Probably because it was in the open, with no hills to provide a sense of security — and just maybe because we saw a bright red snake sunbathing not too far from there. We even checked out the neighboring campsites, but neither of them felt right. So with a unanimous vote, we decided to head back to the first night’s campsite.

To save some daylight, we turned around and drove on the paved roads to the other end of the park instead of cutting across on the rocky and slower off-roads. We stopped at the hot spring once again for a quick healing mineral soak. After the previous night’s rain, the river was rushing by the spring quite forcefully, but the sound of the water was relaxing.

The crystals welcomed us back with intense shimmering in the sunlight at the Gravel Pit. The energy of the place felt amazing; I felt very safe and at peace once again. Setting camp and building a protection grid went smoothly by the third night, almost like a ritual, and soon we were eating dinner by the campfire. That night we had clear skies and my brother was able to take some photos of the Milky Way – which was one of the must dos of the trip.

The next morning, after my last Turkish coffee in the desert, we packed and cleaned up after ourselves one last time, waved good-bye to the crystals and the hills, the bunnies and the roadrunners, and then we left – both of us with a long face. On the way out of the park, we stopped at a couple of rock formations for quick hikes and photo opportunities, trying to postpone the inevitable departure from a truly beautiful and one-of-a-kind place we fell in love with during such a short period of time.

Needless to say, the following hours of driving home were not my favorite part of the trip. Except for a couple of hours when we stopped at an incredibly beautiful cave called the “Caverns of Sonora”, located about half-way between Big Bend National Park and San Antonio, Texas. We took a guided tour and I just was in awe of the stunning array of calcite crystal formations. Once again I was in ‘crystal heaven’!

After this amazing experience, it was almost completely nonstop driving until we got home as my brother only stopped to get gas. Out of courtesy, I tried to stay awake, watch the road and make conversation, but by the time we reached the bayou of Louisiana in the middle of the night, I finally fell asleep. The last thing I remember is that I was concerned staring at the foggy road, thinking that a werewolf or a vampire, or perhaps a witch could jump out of the swamp in front of us any second. (Apparently, I watch too many movies and shows on Netflix!)

I woke up in Northern Florida with bright morning sunlight in my face when we stopped in a McDonald’s parking lot. I got a coffee that didn’t even come close to the Turkish coffee I made in the desert. Nevertheless, I was awake for the rest of the way, which seemed like nothing after the many hours we had traveled. I still don’t know how my brother managed to drive all the way without sleep, but we finally made it home!

The day after our return home, my brother called to check on me to see if I had recuperated from the trip. Still worn out, but full of exciting stories to share with our loved ones, we both agreed that it was a lot of fun and we felt that we were ready to go back right away for more exploring and more off-roading. If only it wasn’t for the 1700 miles in between!

Looking back, I’m glad I joined my brother for this adventure in Texas. Although I planned for this trip to be my ‘walkabout’ in the desert, it became more like a ‘drive-around’. It was much too hot to go on the planned hikes, so we only did easy climbs and short walks. But even those proved to be exhausting. However, we enjoyed the off-roading tremendously and by the end of the trip, I got quite used to the wobbling and the teeth-rattling (and I even managed to take decent photos from the moving car).

Revisiting the Big Bend National Park is definitely on the Bucket List!

 

An Off-road Adventure – with a Few Twists