Big Bend Day 1: The South Rim in a Shutdown

Miles hiked: ~13

It’s quite cold when we drag ourselves out of the sparse hotel room just at sunrise, ready for a 45-minute drive through winding desert roads to Big Bend National Park. This was to be our whole trip, this park — four nights on the Outer Mountain Loop, the major backpacking trail there, a special winter hiking trip to celebrate Cyn’s 40th birthday. Yesterday we took two airplanes and then drove southwest out of Midland-Odessa. Over the four-hour drive we watched the landscape shift from bare, flat oilfields to layers of mountains all around us, at last arriving in the tiny town of Terlingua. [We also get the most dramatic (re)introduction to the weather of the region — driving out of the airport in sunny skies with some pretty serious blowing sand, into a wall of dark clouds that unleash a downpour, the combination of which causes it to basically rain mud onto the car for a couple of minutes. –Cyn] Now we’re headed for even more remote surroundings, following the curves of the mountains.

We can’t do our planned hike, because of the government shutdown that began a few days ago. The national parks are technically open, but unstaffed; there’s no way to get a backcountry permit for our trip. [Not that it has stopped a few pairs of backpackers we see this day. But we are nothing if not rule followers where these parks are concerned. –Cyn] So I’ve hastily put together a backup plan: a day hike up into the Chisos Mountains out to the South Rim and back, and then a multi-day backpacking trip in Big Bend Ranch State Park nearby (exact itinerary to be decided on the fly when we talk to the rangers tomorrow).

At the park’s entrance, we find a closed ranger cabin and a large electronic sign that flashes two alternating messages: GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN and NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING. We drive on, the Chisos coming into view, and turn off the main road, into the Basin. It’s around 8.30am when we reach the half-full parking lot by the park’s main lodge. Cyn waits in line to use the flush toilet — there are signs everywhere about how the shutdown means no maintenance or custodial work, and the facilities have not been cleaned for five days now — and I shiver next to our car in my fleece jacket, adjusting my trekking poles and ready to get moving.

We make our way to the trailhead and immediately begin climbing, taking the Pinnacles Trail up on big stone steps. We’ll climb about 2000 feet, up and over the Chisos to the South Rim. It’s cold out. For much of the morning we hike in the shade of the mountain, looking ahead to when we might hit a patch of sun. A little over a mile in, we stop near the first backcountry campsite and have a quick snack on a bench, taking in the views before continuing our climb. We hit the side trail to Emory Peak, and I would climb it if we had more time, but we just stop briefly to gaze out across the mountains in the clear morning air, and begin a brief, gentle downhill on the Boot Spring Trail.

We’re in and out of sunlight now. We pass the unmistakeable Boot Rock/”The Boot,” and head down through trees into Boot Canyon. Two hikers traveling in the opposite direction tell us to keep an eye out for deer ahead, and just around the corner we find them. Five of them nibbling on the brush, the ones with horns scratching their heads against the trees. One stands just a couple of feet away from Cyn, unperturbed by our presence here. We stand and watch them for several minutes and then as we begin to walk on, they lightly trot deeper into the trees.

There’s lots of water in Boot Canyon, much of it covered with a crust of ice. I’m carrying four liters for us, and now realize it was hardly necessary to pack so much, with all of this flowing water ready to filter. We take another quick snack break near the Juniper Canyon Trail junction, a turn we’d have taken if we were doing our originally-planned backpacking route, which travels east and then south, down out of the Chisos and across the lower desert before climbing back up. Instead, we continue on the Boot Canyon Trail, which emerges out of the trees, the cold wind rising as the trail gently ascends.

Just as we’re both beginning to feel hungry and tired, the trail pops us out at the South Rim, and the wind whips across our faces. I find a little spot on the edge of the rim that’s backed by a cluster of rocks and some brush, just enough to provide a windbreak, and when we crouch in front of it we’re treated to warm sun and quiet air. We divide our lunch items and sit in silence, contemplating the dry desert spread out below us, the Sierra Quemada and other mountain ranges behind it, knowing the Rio Grande is just beyond. After many long moments, Cyn says, “Borders are so fucking stupid.” Her words hang in the air, unarguable against this landscape. There is a special gravity and urgency to being here at this particular political moment, on this land — land stolen from the Mescalero Apache tribe — that has already been the site of so many violent struggles over borders and sovereignty, including its designation as a U.S. national park, history I am still learning. The view south here is both beautiful and sobering, and we speak very little as we eat.

A small group of dayhikers arrives at the South Rim, and we pack up and move on. We walk west along the rim for a bit, but Cyn is starting to feel anxious about timing, knowing that we have to retrace our 6+ mile trek back down the mountains to the car. [It’s taken me a lot of backpacking experience to learn that going downhill sounds like it will be faster than going up, but it almost never is. Especially when you’ve reached middle age and are preoccupied with the possibility of spraining your ankle on a loose rock. -Cyn] So we begin our return trip. Only little patches of ice remain on the water sources, and the Pinnacles Trail is mostly in sunlight now. We stop at the Emory Peak junction so Cyn can use the pit toilet nearby. [A composting toilet with a stash of dirt in a bear locker and a sign that asks you to sprinkle dirt into the toilet after you’ve used it. I am so fascinated by the various kinds of pit toilets in the world. –Cyn] While I wait, I eat a snack and give the stink-eye to a large assertive blue jay who’s clearly enjoyed hiker food in the past. After that it’s a long downhill to the trailhead, observing Toll Mountain to the east as we go. We’re in the parking lot around 4pm, feeling accomplished after thirteen good miles for the day and now very ready for dinner.

And what a dinner. We’re delighted to find that the highly-regarded BBQ place in Terlingua is still serving. It’s a permanently-parked food truck situation, with some outdoor tables under an overhang nearby. We feast on incredible brisket and sausage, beans, potato salad, sodas [I don’t even like brisket and this brisket is AMAZING. I am so glad we made it here before they sold out. –Cyn] This is “in town” but around us we mostly just see desert and mountains, almost as if we didn’t quite leave the trail. (Unfortunately we must also listen to a textbook case of mansplaining between the two other sets of diners. [Seriously, a random dude tries to instruct a woman who is an actual nurse on how cholesterol works, and uses the phrase “Well actually” several times. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. –Cyn]) Then, bellies stuffed with legit Texas BBQ, we stumble back to our hotel room and pack our packs for tomorrow, when the real adventure begins. –Toby

Morning views in the shade.
Climbing the Pinnacles Trail.
View near the Emory Peak junction.
In the Chisos Mountains, and our first view of “The Boot.”
Cyn on the Boot Spring Trail.
Deer in Boot Canyon.
Icy water in Boot Canyon.
My feet at the edge of the South Rim.
On the South Rim.
No borders, no wall.
Boot Rock (obviously), on our return trip.
Cyn with giant boulder on our way back to the Basin.
Seriously good brisket, the best way to end a hike.

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