Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Blissful Oblivion in Big Bend

As coronavirus continues to ravage our Nation, I pray that you and your families are safe, healthy, and staying sane as most States have now issued “stay at home”/”shelter at home” recommendations and have closed all businesses deemed to be “non-essential”.  The proverbial tunnel may be getting longer, but the light, though sometimes faint, is still there.  Please keep the faith. 

And now back to my regular ramblings, which reflect my adventures from March 14-21 and my thoughts as we learned of what was transpiring throughout the country with COVID-19.

After an enjoyable visit to Tucson, we began our trek to the Rio Grande Big Bend Region.  We stopped overnight at Escapees Dream Catcher RV Park, where we learned that New Mexico would be closing all its State Parks to all activities, including camping, effective March 16, 2020.  Refunds would be issued to anyone with prepaid reservations.  Wow, it seems like States are taking draconian measures.   Things certainly were not this crazy during the Swine Flu/H1N1 pandemic back in 2009/2010, which I remember vividly since it coincided with the custom-building schedule/delivery of Big Boomer, our medium duty truck.  Are folks forgetting that humans are exposed to germs, viruses, and deadly bacteria every single second, every single minute, every single hour, and every single day from the time they take their first breath (unless you live in a plastic shield like Seinfeld’s “Bubble Boy”).  Anyway…

We were on the road pre-dawn the next morning since we had quite a bit of mileage to reach the Big Bend Region (BBR).  It certainly helps that Mom and Dad share the driving duties.   It was smooth sailing along I-10 to US-90.    On US-90 near Valentine, about 20 miles or so outside of Marfa, TX, we spotted a DRV Mobile Suites traveling northbound.  Honk and wave, it is the Abbotts, with whom we shared communique via Facebook!  For those who love Americana, US-90 offers two roadside attractions.  The first is called Prada Marfa.  It looks like a true Prada retail outlet, complete with shoes and handbags in the fake “storefront” window.  (Dad and I are lucky Mom is not a “fashionista”—she doesn’t waste money on luxury shoes and designer handbags.  That means Dad has more money for “toys” and I have more money to buy cheese products!)  

The second is a wood billboard-style tribute to the movie “Giant”, which starred James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor.  Apparently, some of the movie was filmed on this very spot. 

There is also a natural rock formation called Elephant Butte Do you see the resemblance to its namesake? 

As we were driving along US-67, we spotted the Marfa Visitor Center.   So, we pulled over to collect some information for our BBR visit.  The Marfa Visitor Center has its own history:  it resides in the second USO ever to be built in the USA, circa 1942.  The “hall” had a very old-fashioned ambiance, but was in remarkably terrific condition for its age.  Its walls were adorned with local heroes who served in the U.S. military.   We learned more from the docent about the filming of the movie “Giant” and the Paesano Hotel, where all the cast stayed except for Liz Taylor, who insisted on more privacy.  (Mom, being of Italian heritage, found it amusing that a hotel in the middle of a small desert town in Texas had an Italian name.) I was intrigued by the famed Marfa Lights, thought to be caused by paranormal activities.   Gotta love small towns—they do what they can to promote tourism!  Unfortunately, Dad put me on notice that no way, no how were we making the 1.5 hour drive from our camping location back here at night on the remote possibility of seeing the Lights.   We passed El Cosmico, an enclave of alternative lodging, everything from safari tents to teepees, from yurts to retro trailers to rent.  It transports you back to the days of hippies, yippies, and dippies.

USO Hall inside Marfa Visitor Center

The last leg of our trek was along FM-170 (also known as the Texas Mountain Trail) which lead us to Fort Leaton State Historic Site.  The Site serves as one of three Visitor Centers for Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas’s largest state park, representing 300,000 acres of Chihuahua desert.  As we approached the facility, two Rangers greeted us.  We were told only one person from each party could enter the facility due to COVID-19.    So, while Dad registered us, Mom and I walked around the outside grounds.   When Dad returned from registration, I entered the Fort to take a look see.  I learned that in 1848 the site served as a home to the Leaton family and as a fortified trading post along the Chihuahua Trail on the US/Mexico border.   After Mr. Leaton died, the Widow Leaton remarried.  She tried to continue the business, but was unsuccessful, landing the property in foreclosure to a Mr. John Burgess.  Despite foreclosure, the widow and her new hubby refused to leave the property and remained in the house 10 additional years.  Wow, that’s a long time to try to evict squatters.  A frustrated Mr. Burgess ended up murdering the Widow Leaton’s husband.  Now that is one unconventional way to evict a tenant!  The Burgess family lived at the fort until 1927.  The site was acquired by Texas Parks in 1967.

Exterior of Fort Leaton

Burial site of John Burgess on the grounds of Fort Leaton

Interior Dining Hall

View from the grounds of Fort Leaton

We reloaded into Big Boomer to head to our boondocking site at Big Bend Ranch State Park’s La Cuesta Campground.  The Park does not assign a specific site, but with only 4 spots that are all spacious and equally-sized, site assignment is unnecessary.  It was a long driving day with lots of pit stops, so we were glad to get settled.  The Campground offers one of the few areas within Big Bend Ranch State Park with access to the Rio Grande.  So, we took a short stroll down to the River to watch a stupendous sunset.

Looking down on our campsite from the hill

Sunset on the Rio Grande

We were in blissful oblivion, shielded from the harsh realities of COVID-19.  We were 15+ miles from “civilization” (Lajitas is the closest town), so we had no internet service, no cell phone signal, and no over-the-air television. (But we had plenty of solar energy, enough to run our air conditioner regularly, keeping the rig plenty cool for polar bear Mom).  Furthermore, we encountered very few people.  Presumably many tourists left the area already.  Perhaps some canceled plans to come due to the pandemic.  Or maybe Big Bend Ranch State Park is a hidden gem, with Big Bend National Park garnering all the attention and attendance.   Regardless, we enjoyed the solitude and what we had in abundance:  the unadulterated beauty of the BBR with its magnificent panoramic vistas.  The rich reds and browns of the mountains provide a sharp contrast to the vivid greens of the valley.  Though the blue bonnets already peaked, they were still pretty and widespread, and we were fortunate to see the beautiful blooms of the prickly pear cacti and yuccas.  It is when I am among nature that I feel closest to God, for only God could create such resplendent masterpieces.  Only God could get a delicate flower to flourish in the dry, rugged terrain of the desert.

For a cool video of some the magnificent views at Big Bend Ranch State Park, click below to my YouTube channel! 

We decided to combine two hobbies, our love of riding our motorcycles and hiking.  FM-170 offers scenic views along curvy, mountain roads.   We had decent weather overall, mostly overcast, but hey, no rain while riding!  We rode to the Rancherias West Trailhead.  Since it is designated as a West Texas Wildlife Trail, I expected to see some animals.  But because I spotted only a lizard and a roadrunner after traversing 2+ miles out, I voted to turn around.  These few miles were well marked with giant cairns that snaked throughout washes.   However, I learned later that this is a very long trail that takes you into the back-country and that the trek gets much more difficult.

We also visited the Hoodoos, walking the trail to the overlook as well as taking it down to the River.  If you have visited Bryce Canyon National Park like we have, you may find these hoodoos a bit anti-climactic.  Still, it is interesting to view the rock formations and imagine what the area looked like before the ravages of wind and water reshaped the lands.  Interestingly, we encountered about a dozen people during our time visiting the Hoodoos, more than we saw at any other time during our visit to the BBR.

We hopped on the bikes the next day to head to Lajitas and Terlingua.  This section of FM-170 takes you up and down a mountain with a 15% (that is NOT a typo!) grade!  I was riding shotgun with Dad, while Mom was following behind on her bike.  Dad passed up the first overlook, but decided to stop at the second one, right at the tippy top of the hill.    Mom was looking at the scenery and didn’t realize we were stopping.  Long story short, a combination of turning/braking too quickly, soft gravel, and the 15% incline resulted in Mom dumping the bike.  Fortunately, she realized she was going down, got her legs out from underneath, and jumped off.  Quite impressive tuck and roll, I must say.   But her side rib cage hit the ground pretty hard.  Mom, though, is a tough old bag.  She was in pain, but insisted she was fine, walking it off but crouching over.  As anyone who rides a motorcycle knows, the rider’s concern is never for themselves, but for his/her bike.  Dad got the motorcycle upright and inspected its injuries, giving Mom his medical report.  No scratches or dents, but the chain had loosened, making it unsafe to continue riding.  Mom insists she can get it back to the campsite—hey, its all downhill so just keep it in second and no problem.   Although Dad easily repaired the chain when we got back to camp, Mom’s rib cage wasn’t up to the task, so our plans of additional touring of the BBR via motorcycles came to an abrupt end.  But no problem, Big Boomer is fueled up and ready for adventure. 

Looking East from the Hill...

...and the view to the West

So about an hour later, we set out again for Lajitas and Terlingua.  Along the route, we stopped to see the Contrabando Movie Set.  Built in 1985 for the film “Uphill All The Way”, it has been used for several other productions.  Today, only 1 building, La Casita, remains from the original set.  The others incurred damages from flooding and were demolished in 2016 for safety reasons.

We passed the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, a lovely retreat along the River.  Supposedly, the 18th hole of the golf course lands in Mexico.  Lajitas is also home to Maverick RV Resort, where fellow full-timers and DRV Owners Debbie/John were staying.  We stopped by to introduce ourselves personally since all our other conversations with them were via our DRV Owners Group (DOG) Facebook page.  We learned that they had been staying at Maverick for the last 10 days, and in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, were looking to extend their visit.  The Park agreed, since they had several vacancies due to cancellations.  (Unfortunately, as you will see later in this post, this arrangement was short-lived.)

After chatting with Debbie/John, Mom and Dad decided we better park ourselves nearby and utilize the cell signal to catch up on the news and with loved ones.  We learned from Aunt Maureen, Mom’s bestie, that NJ had closed all schools with teaching being done “remotely”, shuttered all “non-essential” businesses, and issued stay at home/shelter at home orders.  The NJ governor was "strongly encouraging" a curfew:  no one should leave their home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless for essential business!  My Aunt Laurie had similar news from the nanny-state of NY.  It is surreal.  And quite unsettling that this could or would ever happen in the United States.  Yes, Rambling RV Rat understands this is a pandemic, but we have been through crises before.  The human body is quite resilient.   Regrettably, death is a part of life, a clause in every human life's contract that no one can escape.  All that is unknown about one's death is how, when, and where.  People die every day of overdose, suicide, accidents, heart attacks, cancer, etc.  Do government's actions, sometimes quite over-reaching, truly make us "safe" or do they just make us "feel safe"?  Is forfeiting Constitutional rights the only answer for reducing deaths?     These are things we all must ponder.  But for now, this rat and his family are thankful to be here in our home state of Texas, with its deep-rooted sense of independence and unwavering fortitude.  We checked email, Facebook, and phone messages.  We received a voicemail from DRV confirming our appointment in their plant in IN for April 1 for minor warranty work.  Seemingly, our lives were undisturbed by coronavirus.

We went back to enjoying ourselves, stopping inside the country market in Lajitas to get some refreshments.  We noticed many of the shelves were barren.  Like in Tucson, there was no toilet paper, and one lonely roll of paper towels waited for a home.  Outside we met the Mayor of Lajitas, Clay Henry. I must say, he was not your typical politician.  He was aloof and unapproachable. No pandering to his constituents for this guy.  Thankfully, Mrs. Henry was much more affable.  

Clay Henry, Mayor of Lajitas.  He was quite aloof--he wouldn't get my vote!

Unlike her husband, Mrs. Henry is quite personable.  She knows how to work the crowd.

We stopped at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center at the East Entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park.  Upon arrival, the gift shop was closed, but interior restrooms were open.  Park staff were outside the facility greeting people, answering questions, handling reservations, and "counting" each person with whom they came in contact.  We walked the grounds, making our way to an overlook of the famed Commanche Trail.   When we returned to the Visitor Center about 30 minutes later, it was all shuttered up, not a ranger to be seen.  It was 2:30 in the afternoon.  Hmmm….

A bustling mining town in the 1880s, Terlingua is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Terlingua is a snapshot of a moment in time captured for eternity, from the ruins of stone/adobe dwellings that were once home to mining families to the “boot hill” burial grounds with above-ground graves constructed of stones.  You can see some of the shuttered mines in the distance.  We visited the boutique/gift shop.  As we made our purchases, we discussed the virus situation with the shopkeeper.  Understandably, she is deeply concerned.  Her business does not fit the category of "essential".  Furthermore, she relies almost exclusively on tourism.  If states continue to enact stay at home/shelter at home orders and if Texas closes non-essential businesses, she will be bankrupt.

We arrived back at camp, ate some dinner, and went down to the River to relax.  Getting updated info on this virus earlier today and learning how things are changing hour by hour, we decided to forego visiting Big Bend National Park.  This would greatly reduce our contact with other people.  Furthermore, it keeps us more local (The gate to the National Park is 1.5 hours away from our campsite) in case Texas decided to follow the lead of other states and force campers to vacate state campgrounds.

The following day, we did some additional hiking, most notably along the popular Closed Canyon Trail.  It starts out as an easy trek along a wash/creek bed.  As you get closer to the slot canyon though, the step-downs increase. For short, stubby stuffed rats like me and vertically-challenged humans like Mom, this requires some rock scrambling and utilizing some of our unconventional hiking maneuvers (i.e., coming down on our arses.)  This brought great discomfort to Mom and her bruised ribs.  So, quoting Dirty Harry, her favorite Clint Eastwood character, she stated “a man (woman) has got to know his (her) limitations.” Dad and I pressed on without her for a little bit--until we learned there were 2 more 15+ foot step downs to maneuver.   Then you reach a cliff from which you must rappel in order to actually gain access to the River.  NO THANK YOU, time to turn around.   It is quite fascinating how wind and water team together in such destructive ways, yet the wondrous by-products the erosion leaves behind.  Because it is composed of different types of rock, the sunlight does not play off the canyon walls here the way it does at Antelope Canyon in UT.  However, Closed Canyon is still beautiful.  I find it amazing that a plant or tree or flower can grow in a tiny crevice within the rock wall.  Very cool stuff.


We returned to Big Boomer and headed to Presidio since we were halfway there already.   In Presidio, we waved hello to our Mexican neighbors as we drove near the border checkpoint.  No need for us to venture over though--we prefer staying in the good old U.S. of A.

While Dad stopped to fuel Big Boomer, Mom and I ran into Porter’s, the local grocery store, to case out their inventory.  Low and behold, they had tons of toilet paper and paper towels of an unknown brand.  They did not, however, have any bottled water, no hand sanitizer to be found, and few cleaning products were stocked.  No worries for us—we are all set.  We are not preppers.  But Mom despises grocery shopping, especially when we can be touring an area.  (She may dislike shopping, but my family sure LOVES to eat!)  Knowing we would be traveling from place to place for the next 7 weeks, Mom had our pantries fully stocked with toiletries, paper products, pasta, couscous, rice, beans, flour, sugar, cereal, and assorted other staples.   We always carry a full case of bottled water and keep a 7-gallon water jug filled (in addition to keeping our 100-gallon on-board tank full) in case of emergency.  Our chest freezer and refrigerator freezer contain plenty of foods that meet Dad’s plant-based needs:  veggies, fruits, tempah, tofu, and home baked goods (plus Mom snuck in some meat to satisfy her carnivorous palate.)  Fortunately, our DRV Mobile Suites offers plenty of storage (as did our two prior Montana units) to accommodate Mom’s shopping habits.  We left the store without any purchases, leaving the inventory for folks who may really need it.

Now that we were able to get cell phone service, we caught up on COVID-19 news.  As we learned of additional confirmed cases/deaths and more guidelines/closures/restrictions being implemented from various government agencies (Federal, State, County, Local) throughout the U.S., we decided we better gather some intel to make some informed decisions about our own travel plans.

After our departure from Big Bend Ranch State Park, we planned to visit 2 other Texas State Parks (Monahans and Lake Arrowhead), both of which were open still for camping and day use activities.  Thereafter, we were to go to Oklahoma City to visit its National Memorial and Museum which we knew now would be closed.  Mom retrieved a voicemail message that the Branson (MO) shows for which we purchased tickets were canceled and refunds were being issued.  Though DRV confirmed our March 30 appointment just 2 days ago, Dad checked back to see if that appointment was intact.   He learned that DRV was open still and would perform the minor warranty work, but now under the following conditions:

1)  The rig would be “under quarantine” for 5 days before any workers would enter.  My parents would be responsible for finding/funding alternate lodging for themselves, our tabby cat, our two fish, and yours truly, the stuffed rat.

2) After the 5-day quarantine ended, work would commence on our rig, which was estimated to take a minimum of 5 additional days.

So, that meant packing everything (the kitty kennel, litter box, cat food, clothes, laptops, fish tank, toiletries, my cheese snacks, etc.) we would need for a minimum of 10 days in a hotel room since we would not be allowed to re-enter the rig until after the work was completed.  This is presuming, of course, that we would find a hotel room in that area that accepts cats (and stuffed rats) as guests and that IN does not close down hotels like other states have done.

After our warranty work in IN, we hoped to go to OH to visit friends and tour the State.  Then we were going to do spontaneous touring as we made our way to ID for our volunteer gig with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) at Dworshak Dam/Reservoir/Recreation Area to commence on May 1 and end on August 30.  It was on to NM in mid-September to volunteer for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.  We had commitments back at home base in Livingston, TX in November.  So, if we did not get our warranty work done as scheduled on April 1, when would we have another opportunity to have it completed?  What if we get to Ohio and find no RV Park in which to park?

There was much to consider, and my stuffed rat brain needed a power boost to do so.  So, we grabbed some sandwiches and snacks in Presidio to eat as a picnic.  We popped into Fort Leaton again, only to find that now the site was closed down completely, a measure TX Governor Abbott put in place to combat COVID-19.    Boy, things were changing rapidly.  We were just here a few days ago.

We ate at the Park’s West Entrance picnic grove overlooking the Rio Grande.  Once again, quiet, peaceful bliss.  It is easy for forget COVID-19 here, but we would be re-entering the “real world” in just 2 days.  After much discussion, we came up with several alternatives—in our lifestyle, you always need a Plan A, B and C.   We decided we would refrain from making a final decision until tomorrow, when we return to Lajitas to obtain the most current info about coronavirus.

View from the Picnic Grove

We arrived home just before the rain showers started.  Later we had thunderstorms--watching the lightning and hearing the reverberating booms was both scary and cool at the same time!

The next day Dad loaded the motorcycles back into Big Boomer and we started to break down our site.  About midday we returned to Lajitas.  While I visited the local cemetery, my parents were like data junkies, trying to gather as much news as they could.  They were contacting friends and family to ensure they were safe and sound.  The more they learned of what was happening in other States, the more uneasy they felt.   Executive Orders to “stay at home/shelter in place”, RV parks and campgrounds not accepting any new arrivals, and in some instances, being shut down since government entities categorized them as “non-essential” businesses, restaurants closed down except for take-out/delivery, malls and schools closed.  It is unprecedented!

Lajitas Cemetery

As I rejoined my parents, Mom received a phone from the USACE:  our volunteer gig in ID is “on hold indefinitely”.    Well, that was the proverbial nail in the coffin.  My parents made the painful decision that we would abandon all travel and return to our long-term leased lot in Livingston, TX.  We are grateful that we have a home base to which to return, a problem that so many full-timers are struggling with right now.   From the time we entered this lifestyle 8 years ago, we planned for an “emergency exit” from the full-time lifestyle, putting our name on Escapees waiting list and eventually getting a long-term leased lot at their Rainbow’s End Park.  It is not our end game strategy, but an interim stop gap for an unplanned absence from the road, which is exactly what this coronavirus ends up being for most of us.

Dad got on the horn with DRV and explained we did not anticipate having another opportunity this year to come in for warranty work.  They agreed to extend our timeline until April 1, 2021.  We cancelled our TX State Park campground reservations (for which we received refunds), and our reservations at RV Parks in OK and MO (who did not take deposits).  It would take us 2 days to return to Livingston.  We tried to make a reservation at the Escapees Co-op Lone Star Coral in Hondo.  We were willing to boondock, since it was just an overnight stop and we are well equipped.  But alas, the Co-op was not allowing anyone into the Park other than actual lot owners.  Guess we will be utilizing a rest stop.

We departed the BBR with sadness.  It was a spectacular place to hole up, away from people, the stock markets, the media frenzy, and the effects of coronavius.

Despite traveling in pouring rain for the better part of two days, the eeriness of a very empty I-10 (particularly near San Antonio), and struggling with all the mud/soft earth and obstacles of fitting on our site, we were glad to be “home” at Rainbow’s End.

Ironically, by the time we returned home on March 21, Brewster and Presidio counties in the Texas BBR already issued executive orders that all “non-residents” must vacate the counties.  It shuttered down all RV parks (including Maverick Ranch were our fellow DOGS were staying), hotels and lodging, restaurants (other than delivery/take out), and non-essential businesses. Polk County, TX (where Livingston is located) issued their own executive orders for shelter at home/stay at home, too.   And effective April 7, Big Bend Ranch along with all other Texas State Parks were closed completely to camping and day use activities.  Guess we made the right call to discontinue our travel plans.

We would like to thank the following organizations for all the great service and support they offer to the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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