Big Bend Day 6: Last and First Day

Miles hiked: ~6

I wish I had figured out how to sleep while backpacking by now. I toss and turn a lot on the first night/morning of 2019, mostly listening to an audiobook (Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom because the only thing I love doing as much as backpacking is therapy — as the therapist I mean, though I am also a devoted therapy client. Yay therapy!! Anyway. . . ). So I’m dozing early in the morning when Toby pokes me and tells me to look outside. The sky is on fire with the sunrise. As usual I opt to stay in my sleeping bag and look out the tent door but Toby wants to stand outside and see the whole sky so he turns away from the sunrise to put on his shoes and stand up, and by the time he does the colors are gone. The sky changes so fast out here. [I’m disappointed, but try to be philosophical about it and take the lesson about change and being present in the moment. –Toby] Since he’s up and partially dressed, he says that he’ll be back in 40 minutes or so and takes off, trucking down the trail to the plateau we passed the day before. About 20 minutes later I check out the tent door and there is a tiny Toby, standing on top of the world. I wave my arms but I don’t think he can see me so I take a bunch of pictures and crawl back into my sleeping bag. [It’s a fun trek up to the top without my pack on. And once I’m up there, the whole desert is sprawled out forever. The land formations out here are incredible, and it feels like everything is just waking up around me. This is the best way to begin a new year. –Toby]

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View of the hiking/biking trails near Contrabando Dome, from the top of the plateau (our tent is down there, too).
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Another view from the plateau.
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Tiny Toby at the top.

He’s back and we eat and pack up and off we set on our last six miles of Texas trail. Today looks easy and it is. Part of the trail is specifically set up for mountain biking so it twists and turns around the hills and we think this would be fun but we’d also rather be walking. It’s grey and chilly today, with a good deal of wind. We find a sheltered little spot on a ridge and stop for a snack, waving at the only person who passes us and watching the big group of newbies hiking along a trail far below us. I wonder at how few people we’ve seen this week, even as this park has had a record number of visitors.

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View from our snack break.

We linger, knowing we only have about three more miles and not wanting to be done. But finally we are up and walking and start thinking about the sandwiches we’re going to eat from the gas station across the street from the ranger station. Somewhere along the way we start talking through our relationship, sharing the points where we’ve felt stuck, trying to figure out how to have more of this kind of connection in our daily lives (being a trauma therapist isn’t easy on a relationship, it turns out). It’s hard and involves lots of prickly feelings but we are also so grateful to have to the time and space to have them and soften the prickles together.

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We explored this dry creek bed for a bit.

We venture off on a side trail to visit the ruins of a homestead. It was built here in the 19th century next to a decently flowing creek, but all of the signs say that the creek “became poison” and killed all the cattle. We wonder about how a creek suddenly becomes poison and never find the answer.

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Ruins of old homestead (at the Contrabando Waterhole).

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Poison water, apparently?

Then two more miles and we are at the trailhead. We go back to the ranger station and check back in — we made it, no need to worry (they do not seem like they would worry much but they did ask us to check in). Then we head across the street to the gas station which also has a significant deli to order giant sandwiches and a bag of chips and soda. [Ever since last summer in Bridgeport, deli sandwiches have been one of my most-desired foods when getting off trail. This one did not disappoint. –Toby] We sit at the picnic table by the ranger station because we can’t check into our hotel for a few hours yet. Then with our bellies still stuffed we throw our stinky packs in the car and drive back to Terlingua.

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Near the end of our loop.

When we check in we learn that two of the four restaurants in town are likely closed for New Years so we drop our stuff and head for an early dinner to Starlight Theater in the old ghost town. We get there a little before six but the wait is already over an hour long. We order beers at the patio bar and try to huddle near the space heaters they have set up. It is winter after all. Why didn’t we really think about winter when planning for this trip? We greatly enjoy people watching — the locals are an amazing rural Texas version of hippies and artists — but we try not to make eye contact because everyone is drunk and talking to everyone else and we don’t have the energy.

Dinner for me is a huge burger drowned in chili, which I can only eat half of but it’s delicious. Stuffed again, we head back to the hotel and pass out. We wake up for the four hour drive to the airport at five in the morning, needing to leave by 6 for our late morning flight. There has been some weather overnight and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Everything is coated in a frost so thick it looks like it snowed two inches, but it’s coating every side of every bush and tree. It’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly scary — I have no idea what the road conditions are so I drive carefully, gripping the wheel harder than I need to, my knuckles a little white. This first hour is twisty and turny through the mountains and I have to remind myself to breathe regularly.

We pass a border checkpoint that is not near the border and get waved through with barely a look, our white privilege giving us yet another pass. And then it’s back to trying not to slip off the road, a possibility that becomes more real when 1) we stop for gas and I step out of the car and almost fall on my ass from the slick pavement and 2) we pass several trucks that have run off the road and through the barbed wire fences that line them. But we arrive at the airport safely for our long day making our way back to central Illinois, talking about the trails and parks we want to explore next, and figuring out ways to carry the good backpacking headspace back into our lives with the work and screens and Midwest winter darkness. Not a bad first day of the year. Not bad at all.  –Cyn


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