Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bargains To Be Had: A National Park Odyssey Day 10

This is the place for bargains!  When we visited in October, this area outside the store was filled with winter coats and boots.  I bought a full-length black dress coats with a fox fur collar for less than $100.  This time it was swimsuits, but the piles of boots were still there.

Today was to be a transit day with one planned stop.  Josh and I had come out to Phoenix for a conference last October, and while there, we had heard about a store called Last Chance.  It’s the clearance center for Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack stores all across the country.  Leftover merchandise and some returns from all over the US ends up here, and the prices reflect the company’s eagerness to get rid of the leftover stock.  People evidently come from all over in hopes of scoring designer goodies at discount prices.  Josh and I had scored such great deals in October that we decided to check it out again, this time with the kids.  Kinley was excited.  Knox was not.  But he brought a book to read and found a place to camp out while we looked around.

Digging through the boot table isn't easy, but for 75% off the already-reduced price, I'll suffer through.
This was completely random.  They had three of these Purdue toasters for $6, but I couldn't think of anyone to give one to.  They had no other teams - just Purdue.  Go figure.

Here are a few of the deals we scored - Kate Spade white flats and white heels for Kinley, Geox loafers for me, and a Ted Baker bag for us to share

We found several great deals and noticed a Staples in the same shopping center.  Josh was not looking forward to rearranging our baggage for the next 5 weeks to accommodate our loot, so we decided to take it all inside and ship it home.  As a bonus, the samovar we’d been given by our friend Alan fit nicely in the box as well surrounded by our new purchases serving as padding.  For $47, we didn’t have to deal with finding a place to fit our new purchases in the back of the Volvo, and Josh was practically giddy with excitement.

Because he had so patiently endured more than 2 hours of shopping and shipping, Knox got to choose lunch.  He chose a local place nearby called the Armadillo Grill based on nothing more than the sign outside, and I called to make sure they were open for lunch and to be sure the place was family friendly.  When we walked inside, we realized that even though there was back-room seating for families, it was really an off-track betting bar.  Regardless of the place’s real purpose, the food was good, especially the Thai chicken skewers.

We climbed back in the hot car and noticed that the thermometer inside registered 131.  It was miserably hot again, and we assumed it would feel that was all the way to our motel in Holbrook.  Fortunately, we were wrong.  A couple of hours outside Phoenix we saw a sign that told us to turn off our A/C for the next 6 miles to avoid engine overheating.  We warily rolled down the windows and were glad we did when we saw 2 RVs and 3 cars pulled off on the side of the road over that same 6 miles.  Apparently those drivers have issues with following directions.  Or maybe they just didn’t see the sign.  A few miles later, another sign informed us that we were 5,280 feet above sea level.  It was still sunny but the temperature was dropping. As our friend Andrew said about days this hot, “Altitude is your friend.”

Within minutes, we understood what people who live in Phoenix must do to survive the summer.  They come to the mountains around Payson, Arizona.  We drove through this haven high in the heavens and marveled when the car’s thermometer registered 78.  78!  We hadn’t seen temperatures so pleasant in days!  The landscape was completely different with tall pines and vistas that looked more like the Tennessee hills than the Arizona badlands.  We saw a herd of elk, noticed several charming restaurants and hotels, and decided to add this to our growing list of places to return.

We took advantage of the temperatures and turned down the A/C enough to be able to record an episode of our podcast without the extra noise of the blowing cool air.  After dark, we pulled into Holbrook which was a major stop on Route 66 in its heyday, and we were instantly in love with its old-fashioned motels, vintage trading posts, and kitschy cafes.  As we drove through town, a group of local Native Americans were having a traditional dance in the local park.  It was unexpected and beautiful and charming, and it made me understand why people go so far out of their way to visit towns like this today.
The sign for our motel was straight out of the 50s.

We checked into the Globetrotter Lodge which Josh had chosen because of its high TripAdvisor ratings since Petrified Forest National Park has no lodge of its own.  It was exactly like you’d expect a Route 66 motel to be, only cleaner.  And bonus!  We were assigned room 3 which came with covered parking that would protect our car from the blazing sun the next morning.  Feeling nostalgic once again, we turned in for the night, ready to tackle Petrified Forest on Day 11.

Tuckered out travelers

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Do People Live in Tucson?: A National Park Odyssey Day 9

SaguaroNational Park

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Don't let my smile fool you.  It was miserably hot.
116.  That was the forecasted high temperature for Tucson for the day we were going to be hiking through the Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park.  And, unlike our day in Big Bend, Arizona’s bizarre refusal to go on Daylight Savings Time meant that sunrise was going to be at 5:17 that morning.  There was no way we were going to be up and at ‘em to beat the heat by then.

We were actually pleased with ourselves for getting up, grabbing a quick Starbucks breakfast (since breakfast at this JW wasn’t included, even for Marriott Rewards Gold members..Grrrrr), and made it to the King Canyon trail head by 8:00.  By then, the temperature was about 100 degrees.  And, let me tell you, 100 Sonoran Desert degrees is NOT the same as 100 Chihuahuan Desert degrees.  The higher elevation of the Chihuahuan Desert where Big Bend is located makes the heat much more tolerable.  There are occasional cool breezes, and being under even a small amount shade makes a big difference.  But not here.  Not in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.  The breeze that blows in this desert feels more like you’re standing fully clothed in a sauna with a hair dryer on its hottest setting churning super-heated air straight into your face the entire time.  It’s miserable.

But we are Boyds, and just visiting the air-conditioned visitors’ center and calling it a day isn’t what we do.  So, there we were, starting a 2.2-mile trail in heat that would keep us inside all day if we were at home in Indiana.  We each had water, and Kinley sweetly volunteered to carry the backpack containing the back-up water.
Kinley takes a water break on the trail.
The first part of the trail was an ascent that gave me flashbacks to Carlsbad Caverns minus the dark and the cave-swallow stench and with the addition of sweltering heat.  We had to stop every hundred yards or so for me to catch my breath and take a drink.  I like to tell myself that the rest of the family needed to stop, too, but I’m definitely the weak link.  I am not ashamed.
Frequent water breaks were a necessity.

I spent most of the first part of the trail looking down at my feet and the path in front of me, trying not to trip on the stones that made up the old CCC road that we were following for the first mile.  We were surrounded by massive saguaro cacti, and we amused ourselves by imagining them as people – the one with the perfect dance hold that we decided would be on DWTS (Dancing With The Saguaros), the ones that looked like twins, the ones that looked like a little family.  Josh and Knox also had some fun naming the varieties of cacti that weren’t familiar to us. 
Even Len would give a 10 to this cactus's dance hold.
This MASSIVE saguaro caught Knox's attention.
We saw several lizards that ran away, tails curled into the air showing stripes that were only visible as they ran.  From the trail, we noticed that most of the saguaros had red fruits growing out of their tops bringing vibrant color to the otherwise brown landscape.  Many of the prickly saguaros had visible gashes and holes that provided shelter for birds and other creatures.   Standing guard along the path like sentinels on a 200-year-long watch, the aged plants rarely looked as regular as cartoonists and old western movies would have us believe.  Few of them had one large central shaft and two shorter arms reaching upward on each side; they were as different from each other as we humans are.  Saguaros don’t start growing arms until they are about 65 years old in this area of the desert, and the ones with multiple arms were probably about 150 years old.  Can you imagine surviving those harsh conditions for so long?  God is so creative.
Typical saguaros were far less common than you'd expect.
There really is a lizard in the middle of this picture.  I promise.
Turning onto the Gould Mine Trail, we ended up back at our car by 9:45.  A ranger who had noticed our car in the parking lot and was worried about us hiking in the heat walked over carrying a backpack full of Gatorades and protein bars.  Kinley was feeling nauseated and overheated, so she and Knox both took the ranger up on the offer of electrolyte-replacing liquid.  The ranger wouldn’t accept any payment and assured us that she was just glad we had gotten an early start.

Next we drove to the visitors’ center so that the kids could do the Junior Ranger program, and a special ranger-led program about the harvesting of saguaro fruit was starting.  Native peoples still have permission to use the traditional long cross tool made from dried saguaro ribs to collect the fruits within the park, and we got to taste a sample from the small cactus garden just outside the visitors’ center.  The fresh pulp was tasteless to me but it had the consistency of poppy seeds.  We tried a piece of the fruit that had been sundried next, and it was sweeter.
The fruit of the saguaro is ripe when it's red.
A rib from a dead saguaro is used to harvest the fruits.
The inside of the fruit is a beautiful pink color.
The dried fruits could be found on the ground and were much sweeter.

Once the kids finished their badge requirements and recited the pledge, we asked a ranger if the trail to the petroglyphs was too long for the current temperature.  A white-haired man behind the counter gave us a confused look and said, “It’s just two blocks!”  We took that as permission and drove to the Signal Hill Trail.  Kinley stayed in the car since she was worried that she’d start feeling icky again, but the rest of us traipsed down a few rock stairs and then up a hill on another trail constructed by the CCC.  Thank you, FDR.
The meaning of these ancient symbols is unknown.
This one made up of concentric circles was my favorite.

As we passed the sign warning of rattlesnakes, we took care to scan the dusty path leading up to the rocky area where ancient peoples had carved symbols that had survived for untold years in spite of the harsh desert conditions.  The images were simple and strange and beautiful, but it was far too hot to do much more than snap a couple of pictures before heading back to the car.
We were given fair warning!
What followed was quite possibly the hottest drive of my life.  A friend of a friend recommended Rosa’s for lunch, and it was about 45 minutes from the park through Tucson traffic.  The A/C was on full blast the whole time, and yet every part of me, even the backs of my knees continued to sweat profusely as we made the seemingly-never-ending journey toward sustenance and shelter from the sun.  We straggled into the restaurant looking so pathetically hot and bedraggled that heads turned to stare.  The man behind the counter wasn’t sure whether to seat us or offer us a handout.  I’m fairly certain people were talking about us, but we hardly cared. 

Cooled and fed, we returned to our hotel for showers and rest.  Once the sun set the kids enjoyed the pool, and we joined them in the lazy river.  It was still 107 degrees at 9:00, so the cool water was a welcome change.  At 10:00 the pool guys were ready to close up shop, and we returned to our room wondering why in the world anyone lives in Tucson in June.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Water is Life: A National Park Odyssey Day 8

Carlsbad to Tucson via Guadalupe Mountains National Park

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Park #4 - Guadalupe Mountains - is one of the more obscure national parks.

Water is life, and never is this more evident than in the desert on a hot day.  We planned to get a relatively early start so that we could hike in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park before the heat got too bad and then start our long drive to Tucson.  But our morning started later than we’d planned since the air-conditioned comfort of the Marriott Town Suites convinced us to sleep in and then enjoy the included hot breakfast.

Josh had initially wanted to get an earlier start and do a 6.8 mile hike, but I put the kibosh on that. So instead, we chose to do the 2.3-mile Smith Springs Trail.  We pulled into the parking area at about 9:45, and Josh filled out the honor-system registration form that was to be displayed in our front dashboard.  There was a $5 per person fee for visitors 16 and older, but we had bought a National Parks Pass for $80 at Big Bend which we can use for the rest of the summer to get in to all the parks for free.  There was a spot on the form to write in your pass number, and adding this savings to the Carlsbad fee of $30 and Big Bend’s $25 fee meant that we were only $10 away from paying for the pass in savings.  And we still had 19 parks to go!

We slathered ourselves in sunscreen, put on our wide-brimmed hats, and took off down the trail.  The Frijole Ranch was positioned at the trailhead, and two lonely-looking rangers stood up and looked at us expectantly as we walked up.  We hadn’t planned to stop to tour the little museum at the ranch, but the rangers looked like little lost puppies hoping for some attention so we reluctantly wandered over to check it out. 
The ranger was happy to take a family picture for us in front of the farmhouse, parts of which date from the 1870s.

The rangers were super sweet and told us the history of the ranch including the gurgling spring that bubbled up from the earth right there in the front yard.  The rock house dated to the 1870s, and a one-room schoolhouse was also on the property.  Standing under the towering shaded trees – a complete anomaly in the stark desert – I could finally understand why someone would want to live out there.  It was peaceful and cool and beautiful.  The little stone house had a nice cross breeze, and the spring house was big enough to store lots of food for the family.  No wonder this spring had been attracting animals and people for centuries.  It was life-giving and idyllic.  
Inside the little schoolhouse out back

We pulled ourselves away and started on the loop trail, more aware of the wonder of water as we walked the rocky footpath toward another of the six area springs, Smith Spring.  We had picked up a trail guide at the ranch that gave us information about the surrounding landscape including Nipple Hill.  (You can imagine the conversation as we passed this, I’m sure.)  We continued down into a dry riverbed, climbing out and then ascending the hills of the Guadalupe Mountains, eventually coming to the welcoming shade of the natural spring. 
Inside the farmhouse were trail guides that provided information about the path we'd be walking.  I stopped to read a part of it aloud to the group.  Nipple Hill (chuckle,chuckle) is in the background.

It was cool and beautiful, more like something you’d see in the Smokies than what you’d expect in a west Texas desert.  A placard reminded us to stay behind a railing and to leave the pool on the other side for the wildlife to enjoy.  A little stream flowed out of the pool, under the railing, and down the hill, so I took off my sock and boots and put my feet in the cold, cold water.  We rested for 20 minutes or so and then continued on the loop back toward the ranch feeling much more lively than we had before.
The cold water on my feet quickly cooled me off.

Knox and Josh soak their hats before hitting the trail again.

Soon we came to a vista with a low plateau on our left where Apaches had camped year after year until they were forced elsewhere by pioneers, and later the path became crusted with flat, green stones that were the remnants of prehistoric volcanic ash.  It took us about 2 hours to do the trail and another 45 minutes to go through the museum at the ranch, and I’d highly recommend the experience.
Josh and Knox with the Apache camp area in the background

We left the ranch and went to the visitors’ center to let the kids finish their Junior Ranger badges.  From there we took off for Tucson which ended up taking far longer than it should have because of a sandstorm that closed I-10 and required us to take a 30-mile detour on Arizona back roads.  As a result, we didn’t get to Tucson until 10:15 when we checked into the JW Marriott, a different kid of oasis in the desert but one no less welcoming than the ones we’d found in the Guadalupe Mountains earlier that day.  It was still 100 degrees in Tucson, even at that hour, but just standing on our balcony gazing at the lazy river and fountains below reminded me once again - water is life.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Bear, Some Bats, and a Poorly-labeled Trail: A National ParkOdysseyDay 7

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On Day 7, we woke up early again, packed the car, and readied ourselves for another long drive.  As we went in and out of our little cabin at Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park, the spring on the old-fashioned screen door meant that we made more noise than our fellow guests appreciated.  I started thinking about how long it had been since I had stayed anywhere with a real screen door - not the soft-close, partially-glass versions you see today, but the ones your great-grandmother’s house had.  I realized then that I’d never told my own kids, “Don’t let the screen door slam!” as they ran outside to play, bare-footed and laughing. 

I spent a nostalgic moment longing for simpler times.  But then I remembered that I’d spent the night with no covers on, half-clothed, trying to stay on my own side of the bed since it was far too hot to be touched and decided that modern A/C trumps screen-door nostalgia every single time.
Early morning sunlight on the Chisos Mountains

With the car packed, we began to make our way out of the park and down to lower elevation.  Just as we left the lodge area, we were shocked to spot a small Mexican black bear by the side of the road!  These bears only returned to the park from Mexico in the 1980s, so we didn’t expect to get to see one.  (Incidentally, the Mexican black bear is evidently ursus americanus.  My friend Andrew made fun of me for calling it a Mexican black bear, asking me if I checked his passport or if he spoke with an accent.  But I promise that the rangers and placards in the park called it a Mexican black bear.)
The bear conveniently appeared right beside the bear crossing sign.
I took many crappy pictures of this bear.  This one was actually really good and has Casa Grande in the background!
We were surprised that this bear was so slender.

Anyway, no one else was around, so we took lots of pictures and some video before leaving the little guy alone and driving away, thrilled with our luck.

About an hour and a half from Big Bend is Marfa, Texas, an art enclave in the middle of nowhere.  Several New York artists moved here and started their own little piece of awesomeness in the west Texas desert, and I wish we had had time to explore it more thoroughly.  I’ll just add that to my list of places to come back to sometime.
An art gallery in an old gas station - just one of the may Marfa art galleries

Outside Marfa is the area’s most famous piece of art, Prada Marfa.  This installation was the brain child of artists Elmgreen & Dragset and is not an actual store though it displays a wall full of real Prada shoes (all European size 37) and six bags (with the bottoms cut out to discourage would-be thieves).  Beyonce made a pilgrimage here with her entourage in 2012, lighting up Instagram with her photo, and the little building has been pictured repeatedly in countless fashion and art magazines including Vogue
Me in front of Prada Marfa
Spotted windows, dusty bags and shoes, and even dead moths on the floor inside are all part of the art of this installment.

Not to be outdone, a tongue-in-cheek Target appeared recently nearby, evidence of the wit of the locals.  Leave it to Texans to hold their own with New Yorkers.
A recent addition to the local landscape

About three hours later we arrived at our third park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had bought our tickets in advance about two weeks earlier, so we had to arrive by 12:30 to check in for our 1:30 King’s Palace tour.  We were early, so we decided to grab lunch before descending into the cave.  There is a snack bar down in the cave that serves pre-made sandwiches and salads, but the restaurant up in the visitors’ center had more interesting options.  Josh and I split the Mexican pork adovada, slow-cooked pork in chili sauce over Mexican rice, and Kinley had a burrito.  The adovada was delicious, and we finished with plenty of time to change into jeans, hiking boots, and sweatshirts before taking the elevator down 850 feet into the perpetually-56-degree cavern to meet our tour group.
Park #3 - Carlsbad Caverns
In addition to being a national park, Carlsbad Caverns is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Josh would like to visit as many of these sites as we can.

Our park ranger tour guide tells us about the King's Palace.

Here’s the thing.  The King’s Palace tour was an hour and a half long and you get to see parts of the cave that you can’t see without a ranger.  But I have to say that you probably don’t really need to do a tour.  The Big Room is accessible without a tour, and it is, frankly, beautiful.  And huge.  Like, it took us an hour and a half to do the Big Room, and that’s without the $5 audio guide.  There’s just so much to see!  Granted, we didn’t take any of the shortcuts that are available, we read every placard, and the kids worked on their Junior Ranger booklets as we went, but I’d still say you don’t really need a separate tour.  That said, there is one candlelight tour that tends to sell out weeks in advance.  I haven’t done it, but if ticket sales are any indication, it may be really special.  But, I’m telling you, the Big Room is plenty special.
There were many different types of formations in the cave.  This one is elegant draping.

We’ve done all the caves in the parks system – Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mammoth Cave, Oregon Caves, Russell Cave – but this place is more impressive to me than all the others.  Mammoth Cave is impressive because it is the largest cave system in the world, but this place has the largest cave room in North America and it has eye-popping formations in every room.  Mammoth Cave just doesn’t seem as Mammoth after seeing this place.
The rooms were full of formations.

After we finished the King’s Palace tour and our own tour of the Big Room, the line for the elevator to return to the surface 850 above was at least an hour long.  We decided instead to take the Natural Entrance Trail and climb our way out.  I had been assured by a young, perky ranger that it wasn’t stairs and that the paved trail’s switchbacks were her favorite area of the cave, so we bypassed the elevator line and made our way toward the path.
Our family, before the hike out of the natural entrance

People, do yourselves a favor, and take my advice.  Walk down.  Ride up.  The trail really is well-maintained, and there really are only 10 or so stairs.  But that 45-minute walk was not easy.  I made it, but I was huffing, puffing, and sweating most of the way. 

Near the mouth of the natural entrance, a colony of cave swallows has set up camp, and you could see their frequently-falling poo in the darkness-piercing sunbeam that actually resembled an alien ship’s tractor beam, if the tractor beam were also laced with bird crap.  Which, now that I think of it, would bring an interesting element to the next Star Wars movie.  You’re welcome, Disney.

Anyway, I found myself huffing, puffing, sweating, and now trying to dodge falling bombs of bird excrement as my children shrieked with horror and ran ahead, abandoning me to save themselves, just to escape this 850-foot-deep tunnel of darkness.  And did I mention the stink?  Surely I mentioned the stink.  Because the last 50 yards smelled of untold eons of fowl foulness that had me pulling my shirt over my nose and now huffing and puffing into my own sweaty chest.

Eventually, I stumbled out into the harsh light of day, grateful for the heat and blinding desert sun, only to find that it was still another 1/3 of a mile to the visitors’ center.  And then, at the door to the visitors’ center, was the stupidest sign I’ve ever seen on a trail.  Why in the world would you put the warning sign at the point where hikers are going down?????  Why in the world wasn’t this sign down in the cavern at the point where you decide to go UP????  What is wrong with these people??!!  I mean, aside from dodging poop and holding your nose, going down isn’t hard!!  Coming up is hard!!!  I just don’t get it.
Really??  One the way DOWN you assess your fitness????

Shaking my head with bewilderment, I went inside, ready for a bathroom and some water.  Our lunch had been so good that we decided to have dinner in the restaurant as well which would give us time to check out the gift shop and bookstore before the bat flight program began at 7:30.  Josh and I shared The 1923 Panini (named for the year the caverns became part of the NPS system), and, truthfully, I could have eaten another one.  The kids’ choices were just OK, and we decided that we’d recommend lunch there over dinner.
No pictures are allowed during the flight, but we snapped this one before the bats began trickling out.

Every night from sometime in March to sometime in October, about half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns in a mass exodus that people travel from all over the world to witness.  We had been told to be at the amphitheater by 7:00 to get a good seat, but it seemed to me (after a few minutes of embarrassing my children by checking out various options) that all the seats were pretty much the same.  A park ranger gave a very interesting and informative talk starting at 7:30, and we saw a mule deer and a swift fox on the hillside behind him as he talked.  The cave sparrows continued to swoop and poop until, at about 8:15, some sixth sense told them to go to their nests to get out of the way of the swirling bats about to exit the cave in search of water and food.

Another ranger signaled that the bats were beginning to form at the natural entrance, out of view of those of us in the amphitheater, so the ranger giving the talk sat down to watch.  We all held our breath, waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting. A couple of bats flew up.  Then a handful more.  For the next 45 minutes, we watched as bats emerged in groups of 3 or 4 at a time, but they never took to the skies in massive tornadoes of blackness as we’d expected them to. 

Evidently, the wind had gusted just as they were about to take flight, and, weighing just a few grams each, they didn’t want to take their chances against the breeze tonight.  As we watched other people trickle back to their cars, we eventually decided to do the same.  As we left, a ranger told us that the flights are much more predictable in August and September, so remember that if you ever plan to go.

We were disappointed, but we remembered our early-morning surprise bear encounter and reminded ourselves that bats are wild animals and not a circus act, ready to perform on cue for an amphitheater full of gawking humans.  We quietly walked to back the car, looking at the stars and carrying new memories as souvenirs.

Day 7

+2 for a bear sighting
+1 for thought-provoking art in the middle of nowhere
+2 for the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen
-1 for inadequate trail signage
-1 for unexpected avian fecal matter
+1 for bats that live on their own terms
-1 for sitting on rock benches for two hours

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

But It’s a Dry Heat: A National Park Odyssey Day 6

Big Bend National Park

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I haven’t been sleeping well on the trip so far, so getting up at 5:30 for a sunrise hike wasn’t as hard as it could have been.  It was going to be another scorcher in Big Bend National Park.  And by a scorcher, I’m talking 115 degrees.  I know, I know.  People always say, “But it’s a dry heat!”  But I don’t care.  115 is hot, dry or not, so we decided to get up and going early to beat the heat and squeeze in a hike before the blazing heat made us want to do nothing but retreat to our air conditioned car. 

I’ve had more soft drinks on this trip than I usually consume, so I’m guessing that the extra caffeine is messing with my sleep.  Add to that an alarm that went off 30 minutes early by mistake and a night with no air conditioning in the west Texas desert, and you get a room full of grumpy Boyds.  But Boyds we are, and foul moods are no reason to deviate from the day plan.  So we piled into the car before sunrise and headed to the Grapevine Hills Trailhead to hike to Balanced Rock in hopes that a little time out in nature would perk us all up.
As the sun came up, Kinley was not at all excited about being forced to wear a hat for sun protection.  Knox, on the other hand, loved his.

The drive on the six-mile gravel road to the trailhead was slow going, so the sun came up before we started hiking.  But the rays of sunshine made vibrant orange streaks that lightened the sky and our moods.  The trail was just 1.1 miles each way, so finishing before the heat became unbearable wasn’t going to be difficult.  We began spotting desert flora and fauna almost immediately.  The vibrant blooms of cacti competed with skittering lizards for our attention while birds soared overhead and the rising sun changed the colors of the surrounding mountains from brown to rust to burnt umber.  Grumpy Boyds slowly began to transform into goofy Boyds as the kids playfully jostled to see who could lead our little troop up the trail.
Ready for some early-morning hiking!

Most of the trail was an easy walk, but the last bit required climbing over some boulders and an 80 foot change in elevation.  The trail ended at balanced rock, so named for obvious reasons.  The commanding view of the surrounding terrain was worth the climb, and we sat enjoying together, bad moods completely replaced with an appreciation for creation. 
We made it to Balanced Rock!

Before heading back, Josh wanted to try a shot of the kids and me holding up the rock, further proof that our attitudes had shifted.  On the way back out, we passed one couple just getting started, but otherwise, we had the trail to ourselves.

Heading back to the visitors’ center to do the nature trail for the kids’ Junior Ranger requirements, we passed a tree with mistletoe!  Where I’m from in Tennessee, mistletoe grows parasitically on trees, but it’s always clustered high in the tops of the trees, out of reach of those of us hoping to use it for decorating at Christmastime.  The Tennessee solution to this problem?  Shooting it out of the trees with a shotgun.  (Yes, I’m serious.  And I have the video to prove it.)  

But the mistletoe in the stubby trees here could easily be reached without the help of a firearm.  Of course, then you’d also miss the fun of letting your inner redneck out for a holiday romp.
I could have easily reached this mistletoe without a ladder.

The nature trail was very short, but the heat was growing more intense, meaning that we would be spending the rest of the day in the car, driving through the park and taking advantage of the A/C.  Originally, we had thought that we would hike in the mornings and evenings and then hang out in our hotel room during the heat of the day.  But those plans changed when we realized our little cabin had no A/C.  And the swarms of gnats that seemed to come out just before sunset each evening meant that our late-afternoon plans for hiking had to change, too.

Outside the park, Terlingua, Texas, and its nearby ghost town were going to be the first stops on our little driving tour, and we planned to eat lunch there before driving to gaze across the Rio Grande into Mexico.  (You can cross into Mexico at Boquillas, but we hadn’t brought our passports.)  In Terlingua Ghost Town, we had heard that the lone coffee shop served sandwiches for lunch, but we (again, stupidly) expected it to be air conditioned.  When we pulled up to La Posada Milagro /Espresso...Y Poco Mas, we were bewildered to see several patrons eating on the patio.  At this point it was 100 degrees!  But where else were we going to find something to eat?  We climbed out of our air conditioned oasis and joined the group.  It actually didn’t feel that bad under the shade of the canopy, and the iced mochas, milkshakes, and chicken salad sandwiches were surprisingly good.
We enjoyed our lunch in spite of the heat!

Back in the car with temperatures continuing to climb, we intended to drive straight to the river, but our progress was impeded by the sight of a ramshackle building with hand-lettered signs and piles of rocks outside, just perfect for a 10-year-old boy with allowance to spend.  We looked around, impressed not only with the rocks and cacti but also with the prices, and soon we met the owner, Ring Huggins, a character ready to share a story or two with four hot tourists looking for a bargain.  His place did at least have fans, so we browsed for quite a while, each finding things that interested us.  We’re pretty sure Ring (we were on a first-name basis by this time) undercharged us on purpose, and we all walked away with something we didn’t really need but that we were excited to take home.  If you’re in the area, stop in.
I love that Ring will let you buy his rocks and cacti even if he's not there.  Just put the cash under the door.
His cactus gardens were made from rocks that he hollowed out himself and were very reasonably priced.  Sadly, they're far too bulky to haul around for six weeks.

By the time we reached the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon overlook, our car said it was 115 degrees.  When we drove down to the River Trail a few minutes later, it read 122.  But we had come to see the river, and we are Boyds.  So out we got, quickly making our way down the short trail to the silty green water.  Josh and the kids picked up rocks, trying to throw them into Mexico, and then we returned to the car which now read 125.  What now?  We were tired of the car, but it was too hot to return to our hot cabin.  We decided to go to the visitors’ center and finish up the kids’ Junior Ranger badges.
Looking across the Rio Grande

Our car registered 125 degrees
Two new Junior Rangers are sworn in!

The lodge restaurant wasn’t good enough to merit a second meal, so we made peanut butter sandwiches on thoroughly smushed bread that we’d hauled from Indiana and waited for the sky to get dark enough to see the stars.  Big Bend boasts the darkest night sky of all the national parks in the lower 48, and we enjoyed looking at the heavens both nights we were there.  After marveling at the beauty above us, we turned in, happy to welcome the slightly cooler evening temperatures and ready for another day of adventures.
Looking at the stars with Knox at Big Bend

Day 6

+1 for early-morning hikes
+1 for cheap rocks and fossils sold by an interesting storyteller
-2 for extreme heat
+1 for the darkest night sky in the lower 48