This was the day we were to go to the Big Bend National Park, the entrance to which is some 110 miles or so south of Alpine. While Sandy was getting ready, I spent a little time downtown this morning trying to get some help with my computer’s photo uploading problem. I found a guy named John who runs a Pack and Mail/Computer Repair business just south of the courthouse. He was about my age, friendly enough, and quick to tell me that his store was the only source of computer assistance for a 150-mile radius. I didn’t have any reason to doubt him, and the appearance of his store led me to believe that he was much more into computer repair than Pack and Mail. There were derelict computers and pieces of computers strewn everywhere, obviously waiting for repair, with no discernible means of identifying the respective owners. I thought of the epitaph on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “known only to God.” In the case of the owners of this equipment, they are probably “known only to John.”
Near the front door was a geeky young man of about 19 who obviously worked for John and was engaged in an animated conversation with a woman who had entered the store just ahead of me. She was a pleasant, grandmotherly type who looked to be around 70. She politely asked the lad a question about computers (I couldn’t hear what she said). He introduced himself as a Sul Ross student and immediately began a lively monologue that was uninterrupted for the entire period of my stay, which was about 20 minutes. The young man seemed to be regurgitating everything he knew about how computers worked, and he knew a lot. His enthusiasm for his subject was so great that the formation of his words couldn’t quite keep up with his thought processes, and he truncated some of them as they spilled out. It was almost as if he were speaking in acronyms. The woman just stood there, mouth agape, as if she were in the presence of an alien from another galaxy.
About this time, John advised me to fire up my laptop, disable my wireless air card and plug in an Ethernet cable that he handed to me. He fiddled with my computer for a little while, and I could tell that he didn’t know much more about computers than I did. The geek talking to the grandmother was obviously the resident expert in his business. John said that my problem may be caused by my use of the air card to do the photo uploads. After bringing up the internet on my computer, I was surprised to observe that his wired internet service was actually slower than my air card! Meanwhile, John had disappeared into a back room shop area, where he was engaged in conversation with several local citizens, obviously friends of his, who had just come in and strolled past the counter where I was standing.
At this point, I knew I needed to move on, as the only two obvious sources of assistance were otherwise engaged, and Sandy and I needed to get going on our long drive to BBNP. John was more interested in the morning confab with his buddies, and the Sul Ross student was not yet finished with his lecture, even though the grandmother was now looking furtively from side to side, as if trying to determine a swift means of escape. I unplugged the cable and quietly left, oblivious to John and his friends in the back room.
Even though I didn’t get the computer assistance I needed, I must confess to having enjoyed my observation of this little vignette of small-town life, where business takes a back seat to relationships. Perhaps this is as it should be; it seemed entirely appropriate for Alpine.
Before leaving on our long trek, we had to have provisions—something high in calories and carbs, so we could keep up our energy for, uh, riding. We stopped by the Bread and Breakfast Bakery and Café in downtown Alpine. This was a storefront opening to the eastbound lane of U. S. 90, near the historic Holland Hotel. (U. S. 90, the main thoroughfare through Alpine, splits into one-way lanes, a block apart, near Sul Ross University on the east side of town and then rejoins at the western edge of the city.)
Bread and Breakfast Cafe
Placed in the window at the front of the cafe was a large blue sign that read, “Hippies use the back door. No exceptions.” I rather liked that, so my opinion of the place was already positive before we entered. They appeared to be between the breakfast and lunch service, and there were quite a few patrons seated around perhaps ten tables in the room. We ordered some doughnuts, cookies and a pecan roll, surely thinking that we would run into some homeless person with whom we would share our excess. Didn’t happen.
While waiting for our order, we took note of the fare going out of the kitchen to the diners and were very impressed with what appeared to be some well-crafted sandwiches and hearty soups. Although we were saving ourselves that day for another of the wonderful hamburgers at Alicia’s, we made a mental note to come back to this place for a meal. We’d have to make it breakfast or lunch, though, because they close at 2:00 p.m.
As I mentioned, we had some more wonderful hamburgers at Alicia’s, and this time we were seated next to some Brewster county sheriff’s deputies. These were classic western lawmen, dressed in blue jeans and starched uniform shirts, displaying a round badge with a star in the middle. They were wearing wheat-colored cowboy hats, which they didn’t remove during their meal, and what appeared to be .45 caliber pistols holstered on tan leather gunbelts. They were very friendly and talkative, and told us how much they appreciated our visiting their town. We greatly enjoyed this chance encounter and the feeling that criminals don’t get away with much around here.
The 80 miles to Terlingua went by quickly on the wide and smooth highway 118. As usual, there was very little traffic. We noticed, however, that the visibility was markedly decreased because of dust in the air from a strong cold front that had blown through the area in the early morning. This was a disappointment, because we had gotten used to the wonderful long views across the vast landscape. It wasn’t too bad, however; the visibility was maybe 35 miles rather than the usual hundred or so.
We filled up with diesel in Terlingua (Beware: it’s about 20 cents higher than in Alpine) and motored on down to the park entrance a few miles away at Study Butte. The fee for a seven-day pass was $20.00. Past the park entrance was an excellent two-lane road over relatively flat land dotted with millions of cacti for about 20 miles before reaching the boundary of the Chisos mountains, which were very imposing and rocky, formed by volcanic activity some 30 million years ago.
Desert Beauty in BBNP
Colorful Cactus Blooms
We turned off the road when we reached a sign pointing to the Chisos basin and began a long climb up the mountain that was surprisingly minimal in the use of hairpin curves and switchbacks. At the upper elevations, pine trees began to appear, increasing in number to where the area appeared quite forested. This was a real change from the scrubby desert vegetation that was prevalent below for hundreds of miles in all directions.
Trees Begin to Appear on the Climb to Chisos Basin
Beautiful Forested Area Near Chisos Basin
The drive up the mountain was lovely, and it culminated at a ranger station where there was a hotel, store and café (but no fuel). The main attraction for this area was a void in the moutaintops ringing the basin that revealed a breathtaking view to the northwest toward El Paso. The void, which is a v-shaped opening that frames the view, is famously known as “the Window.” A paved circular pathway invites visitors out to two viewing areas, and the view is indeed worth the short walk. On our walk, we even paused to let a family of deer cross the path in front of us.
Another View of "The Window"
This is an area much used for hiking, and there are many marked trails of every length and difficulty described on a panel nearby. We also observed perhaps a dozen vehicles carrying hikers in their gear. If you’re into hiking—or even walking—this would be a perfectly beautiful place to do it, as you could choose a path that would easily match your ability.
Soon, we started back down the mountain to the turnoff, where we could have chosen to turn right to the park headquarters and Rio Grande City, the only other visitor venue in the park. However, time was becoming an issue, and we decided instead to go back the way we came to another cutoff that would take us to the Castolon campground and Santa Elena Canyon. We had no idea what to expect at Santa Elena Canyon, as I had not been diligent in reading ahead in my “Roadside Geology of Texas.” I was wondering if it would be worth the trek, which wound about 30 miles to the canyon and 30 miles back. It turned out that it was, as the scenery along the way was gorgeous and rich with geological formations that are so well explained in the book. (We had the book open by now, reading about the fascinating remnants of the volcanic action so long ago.) If you don't have such a book, there are several turnouts along the way with narratives that describe what you’re seeing. The road was in excellent shape, and there were almost no other visitors to bother us anywhere. It was almost as though the park was there just for us.
On the road to Santa Elena Canyon, eroded volcanic hoodoos appear to be sentinels encircling the rock.
Santa Elena Canyon was something else to see. The canyon itself is an aperture in an immense monolith of limestone that runs for miles on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. This plateau is probably 2,000 feet high and has flat sides that made it appear like a sheet cake that had been laid on a dining table. This plate was heaved up over millions of years at the Terlingua fault line, which runs along the riverbed.
Limestone Uplift at the Terlingua Fault; Rio Grande is in the foreground.
The Rio Grande cut a fissure into the monolith and left Santa Elena Canyon, which was breathtaking in the shadows created as the sun sank in the late afternoon. At the very end of the road, there is a nice turnaround with restrooms, and visitors can walk out onto a huge beach-like apron of fine white sand that will take you right down to the river and some spectacular views of the canyon. We thought this was well worth the 60-mile round trip, and we highly recommend it to anyone.
Distant View of Santa Elena Canyon
White Sandbar at Santa Elena Canyon
Multiple Volcanic Eruptions Created Colorful Striations in this Rock (Photo doesn't do it justice.)
Volcanic Ash Deposits Near Santa Elena Canyon
After this, we drove back the way we came, out through the park entrance at Study Butte, and found ourselves back in Terlingua at dinnertime. We stopped at the Chili Pepper Café, another hole-in-the-wall joint that we tend to favor. Here we had another good meal! Sandy had beef chalupas, and I had a combination of chicken and beef fajitas. These were really good, with some excellent guacamole, chips and salsa and homemade flour tortillas. Yum! Well worth the stop. Toward the end of our meal a group of about 15 upscale bikers came into the restaurant. These were clearly not bikers of the longhaired, tattooed and dirty variety, but professional-looking folks who just liked to ride Harleys. They were very friendly and talkative, and we learned that they, too, were from the Fort Worth area. They looked like they were having a good time, so we wished them safe travel and went on our way back to Alpine.
I had wanted to pick up a few large rocks as souvenirs to take home for our xeriscaped yard, but signs in BBNP forbade any removal of rocks or plants. However, not too far north of the Chili Pepper café, we noticed, at a cut through one of the hills, that part of a rock face had collapsed, spilling some very colorful rocks onto the shoulder of highway 118. We stopped, and I picked up four very nice sandstone specimens which will adorn our yard on Sunday.
This seemed to put a period at the end of our trip, and I felt we had done a really good job sampling this wonderful place called Big Bend. We didn’t see absolutely everything we could have seen, but we are very satisfied that we saw the best of the best. What a place and what a great experience! I can’t believe we waited so long.