The resistant traveler to Big Bend: Unfounded fear overcome while the pandemic emerged


For years I resisted a trip to Big Bend. It’s hot, even in February, so I’d heard. Wild animals, steep roads and heat don’t appeal to me. We might get lost in the desert. Where would we stay?

Finally, my husband Ted talked me into taking two days there and two days back for additional scenery besides desert and mountains. He selected the first week in March. Why would we travel then? Some universities and school systems would be on spring break. The crowds might be awful.

When I discovered one of our sons, his wife, their 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son would camp nearby, it sounded like more fun. Their trip was delayed; I never saw them, but I’m here to report that resisting the trip was a waste of time. We made reservations in January. From Katy, just west of Houston, we headed to Fort Stockton for one night, and three nights in Terlingua (outside the national park) in a slick, silver Airstream trailer.

A view of Mexico just across the Rio Grande River during a stop along the trip to Big Bend and other locales.

Another night we’d stay in Marfa, especially so I could visit little shops and galleries, and see the Marfa lights. Friends told me how cool Marfa is. Then we would travel home through Del Rio for a different perspective.

The green, gold and beige fields, rimmed with barbed wire, waved with the new growth of spring. We passed through small towns with sparse traffic, despite spring break season. As we approached Kerrville, I persuaded Ted to drive through the town “just to see it.”

I had heard about Kerrville’s unique art and music festivals. The town is quaint: old brick buildings with restaurants and historic venues. Antiques stores on many corners. Let’s hope COVID-19 is no longer around for the rescheduled Kerrville Folk Festival, Oct. 8-18.

After dinner in Stockton we returned to the motel bar for an after-dinner drink. When I ordered a pinot noir, the bartender’s eyebrows rose to his missing hairline. Wisely, Ted ordered a beer. A sun-drenched man with work boots and jean jacket sat next to me, and we began a friendly conversation.

He explained his job in the oil patch is to find “junk” or “trash” in the pipe going into the ground. His title: a “fisher.” So I learned about West Texas fishing, which is not about walleyes. No, he doesn’t go down in the pipe but somehow removes unnecessary items in the downpipe.

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Rabbits were plentiful to find and most weren’t shy, either.

Scenic Route

We left Fort Stockton with a drive through Alpine, population 6,067. Sul Ross University looms large along the main drag through the town. I noticed people scurrying to gift shops, resale shops, several restaurants, banks and the university.

Marfa, 26 miles down the road, offers a distinctly different atmosphere: classier, artsier, and touristy. Established in the 1880s as a watering stop for the railroad, the town became an artists’ haven in the 1980s. Festivals for art, music and cultural events happen when the country isn’t besieged by worldwide shutdowns due to a vicious virus.

On this Monday, streets were empty. But, the town thrives on the weekends without the virus. Great food at the Water Spot. It seemed like the only restaurant open for lunch that day. We would return later in the week to see the mysterious Marfa lights.

We chose the scenic route to Terlingua, through Presidio along the Rio Grande River with Mexico across the water. The high cliffs and mountains from the road showed the power of mammoth volcanoes from long ago. Green along the river with short trees, cactus and red tipped sticks waiting to burst into small red flowers, called ocotillo. The mountains and cliffs flew by the windows with glorious shades of beige, brown, burnt sienna and sand under a clear, radically turquoise sky.

The wall wasn’t visible on our trip along the river, but the beauty of the trees and green oasis between Mexico and the Presidio would be ruined with an extended wall.

We pulled into the parking spot for “Ella Mae,” the Air Stream trailer that would be our home for the next three days in Terlingua. I found the owner, who happened to be working on a painting, in her small, nearby gallery. Mildred got the keys and took us for a tour of our 1960s vintage trailer.

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“Ella Mae” was the nickname for the Air Stream trailer that served as home for three nights in Terlingua.

The trailer was clean, had a coffee machine, a few dishes, a refrigerator, a little table and two cushioned chairs for it. We left our suitcases in the living area as the queen bed exactly fit the bedroom space. Thankfully, the sheets gleamed on the comfortable mattress.

The shower was good news/bad news. If someone died in the shower, the individual would not fall: it was that small. The water pressure was excellent. I wondered if I could manage with limited lighting and no place for a toothbrush. But there was nowhere else to go. Everything was booked. We managed.

The view from the front door offered sunrises and a bird feeder, plus almost-tame rabbits arrived for their dinners. Daily the owners filled the bird-feeder and threw food for the bunnies to devour. We walked across the two-lane road to the Mexican open-air restaurant for a delicious taco dinner and the best tres leches cake ever.

We relaxed in lawn chairs where the birds flew and fought while their songs whispered in the evening air. The red finches, the gray wrens, the brown bunnies, all good and glorious. As I looked towards the mountains of Big Bend in the background, I kept repeating to myself, “Why was I fearful of coming here?”

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Finches flock together in an ocotillo shrub. The shrubs dot throughout the Big Bend area.

Desert Dirt Road

The next morning, we walked up the hill, past the taco restaurant to a small coffee shop for strong lattes and breakfast burritos. The sunrise took my breath with its plethora of colors: deep purple, salty blues, pewter, peach, lavender and gold. God stayed up late with his paintbrush for that morning.

Ted decreed he would wow me with venues from his prior trips to Big Bend. The scenery filled my palate for beauty. The sun played with hues of reds, browns, grays on the cliffs and canyons of the Chisos Mountains. The yellow and red flowers and a million sizes and shapes of green cacti waved in the sunlight. The peaks (one called Mule Ears) and valleys raised their points in the cloudless azure sky.

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Mule Ears Peak is appropriately named as it rises amidst the Big Bend landscape.

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Mexican-made jewelry and art pieces were available to purchase while placed on rocks along the roadway. Tourists are trusted to leave money for the items in a carton or bottle.

Mexicans across the Rio Grande create small pieces of jewelry and artwork. They place them on rocks along the road for tourists to buy. Visitors drop cash in a milk carton or bottle, trusting people not to steal the products. I treasure the koozie with an embroidered cactus on it that I purchased.

Each stop for photos seemed different, more beautiful than the previous location. Ted wanted me to see the Santa Elena Canyon, but cars, SUVs and trucks stood idle, waiting in a line longer than one for free tickets for a rock concert. He’s not patient sitting or standing in long lines.

“A road nearby will take us through the desert with a view of the mountains,” he said. “Let’s take it back to Terlingua. I think that road will exit where we entered this morning. The road may be dirt part way, but it’s a pretty straight shot.”

Never trust a man who says this. It was the bumpiest, rockiest road in my life. If car trouble or a health issue arose, we could have died. We passed a few trucks and cars. I feel sure they turned back. We would not have been found for hours with no service on our phones.

Thank goodness Ted’s truck is tough and well-maintained. At least it was in shape until we went over the rough roads and through gigantic arroyos and gulches. The other day I heard him mumbling, “I need to get the tires aligned again.”

After seeing the numerous deep and wide gullies, I understand how a bad storm might sweep away vehicles. I could not get angry as I didn’t want him to abandon me with the snakes and javelinas as dusk approached. We returned to civilization in time to stop at a small Mexican restaurant with delectable quesadillas between Study Butte and Terlingua.

Ella Mae’s manager had told us to top off the tank whenever we passed a filling station. I urged Ted to return to the café/gas station/convenience store we noticed the previous day.

Gas stations are sparse. After a late start, Ted pumped gas at the Alon gas station. We ate a belated breakfast and wandered through the supplies before we returned to Terlingua.

Our son, his family and his friends with kids would arrive in Big Bend this day. They would set up a huge tent far into the backlands after driving 10 hours from Houston, arriving late afternoon. Ted was eager to see them. Me, not so much.

I settled into the evening in the lawn chair to watch the myriad of birds and the bunnies graze and to read a good mystery. As the blazing red sun fell quickly into the scenery, the fragile trees filled with songbirds cooing and chirping. The white tails of the café au lait-colored bunnies hopped near me, and all was well in the world. I walked across the street for the third time for a takeout dessert, this time a 4-inch high walnut cream cake.

As dusk descended, and the stars started to pop, Ted returned from his visit with the kids, while they continued to set up the campsite.

Marfa Again

We headed out the next morning, allowing time for shopping in Alpine and Marfa. I enjoyed the boutiques in both towns: lots of gift shops, antiques stores and clever boutiques.

Our Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) in Marfa was “kool.” I loved the glitzy, shiny photo of The Beatles hung in the bathroom. The cowhide rug looked fabulous with the two antique beds and 7-foot high painting of a guitar player completed in black and white. I listened to a Bob Marley song on their record player on a vinyl album.

Because of the virus, many restaurants and retail shops began closing. We asked our innkeeper, a contemporary hippie, what might be open. We did not understand the severity of the crisis.

We had hamburgers and fries at the Lost Horse Saloon where their bar dog ran freely to find new friends and food. The outdoor patio fit the scene perfectly with its sandy desert floor. We all patted our toes to the tunes. The tables began to fill as the music started long before dusk. The band, local amateurs, performed country and western songs.

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The bar dog at the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa was on the outlook for new friends and any food they’d spare.

After eating, we moseyed outside town to see the Marfa lights. No one knows what the lights are or what causes them. The topography around us lay flat with the colorful tiny round circles blinking on the sides of the faraway mountain range, which turned from dark blue to purple to black. I thought the winking red and white lights looked like tail lights.

I had no idea that people were isolating themselves and dying in massive numbers in New York. Life changed dramatically while we enjoyed the peaceful night.

Store of Everything

Time to head home through Del Rio. Never did I imagine I’d see a two-story dark green and yellow dinosaur and a truckload of Mexican pottery on our trip. By the time we reached Sanderson, about a hundred miles from Marfa, we had passed Alpine and Marathon.

As we drove sedately into Sanderson to avoid cops stopping speeders, I saw an antiques store with a dinosaur rising to the second story of an old brick building. I begged, “Stop! Please! I need to walk around that store. It looks as if it might have hardware, too,” He complied, to my amazement. The Z-Bar Traders Company is high on my list of “trip favorites.”

I worked my way through the huge store with narrow aisles, which carried a variety of everything. In the rear of the store I found unusual and unique household items. Anyone for a retro ice cream maker? Placemats? Set of skillets? The hardware section of the store held every kind of nail, hammer and “guy” thing anyone could need.

Antiques with reasonable prices. Mexican pottery. Outside on the sidewalk stood my new, orange dog, along with pottery frogs, pots and other wonders. I named him Sander. We stayed over an hour, chatting with the owner and his wife who migrated to Sanderson for retirement. I wanted to stay longer, but my driver stood by our truck scowling.

The skies became overcast with periodic mist on the windshield. The Border Patrol followed us for miles. We noticed signs appealing to people to heed the need for water to cross the desert. It was disturbing, but we saw no immigrants beside the roads.

When we arrived in Del Rio the crowded Walmart parking looked chaotic with people stuffing groceries and paper products for their families in their trunks and truck beds. President Trump declared the shutdown the previous day.

We traveled away from the mountains and desert to flatlands and rolling hills. The bluebonnets bobbed along the road. The red Indian paintbrush wildflowers that Lady Bird Johnson planted long ago beautify our Texas scenery.

Upon return to our community of Katy, I called my 6-year-old grandson.

How was your trip, Honey? “It was great.”

What did you like best? “I got to see the North Star in the sky. And I liked the hot springs by the river.”

Were you scared of anything? “No!”

What will you tell your teacher about Big Bend? “I got to talk to the Ranger guy. He gave me a book so I could identify things. I saw donkeys and cactus and roadrunners, and I saw fossils.”

What’s a fossil? “It’s like a really old brown dinosaur tooth.”

The vicious virus will pass, but the world will never be the same. The tiger will be tamed within the scientific world. Sunrises and surprises await us: it takes a concerted team and hard work to make this colorful world a better place for all.

May Big Bend be a symbol for us of better times in the future. Regardless of the changes we see today, Big Bend remains an icon.

My reticence was baseless. Go. Overcome any obstacles. Manage the possible fear to experience one of the greatest places on earth. Even resistant travelers find it peaceful and majestic.

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