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


  1. This reminds me of the girls' and my trip through Death Valley last summer, 119, dead of July. The Balanced Rock hike looks awesome!

    1. Holy cow! We met someone who was going to Death Valley in the heat this summer. We are glad we went in March on Spring Break several years ago!