Driving down the road in Big Bend National Park, we saw a tarantula crawling across the road in front of us.
That’s right, a spider big enough that we could see it from 20 feet away at 60 miles-per-hour.
I kind of forgot they actually lived out in nature and had pleasantly decided that they only existed behind glass in pet stores and zoos. We saw a total of 7 tarantulas along the roads in Big Bend and while spiders and bugs don’t normally bother me, these did.
The minute I saw it, I felt a scream building up inside of me down in my gut. Like a Marv from Home Alone kind of scream.
When we stopped the car for me to get out and take a photo (you knew I had to get a picture!) the scream continued to bubble up into my stomach and chest. Every step I got closer, the scream got louder and closer until I could almost hear it in my ears. I snapped the picture and I’m still convinced if I had gotten any closer, the scream might have come out of my mouth.
The rest of West Texas was much less terrifying. Here goes:
From New Orleans we plowed west into and across Texas. The most memorable stop on the way west, was a stop at Buc-ee’s. As I mentioned on our last trip to Texas, Buc-ee’s an aggressively advertised mini-chain of convenience stores in East Texas with clever signs like “Clean bathroom, 83 miles — You Can Hold It!” When we finally stopped at one on this trip, we were completely overwhelmed. It was a convenience store the size of a small grocery store. We wanted to buy some snacks and cheap gas. The gas was no problem, but they had so many kinds of food, we couldn’t decide what to get. Eventually, Jess gave up and I grabbed a brownie. Then we took a selfie with the statue of Buc-ee.
We spent an unremarkable night at a Thousand Trails campground outside of LaGrange, Texas (like the ZZ Top song) and then headed farther west for Amistad National Recreation Area, where things got significantly more remarkable.
Amistad is a lake on the Rio Grande that includes a dam with a unique marker at the border. My mom had taken pictures of the marker years ago on a mission trip and I wanted to see it for myself — especially before somebody builds a 25-foot wall through the lake and across the dam. Who knows, Amistad, which translates to “friendship” may have a new name in a few years.
We got to the border patrol station sometime around 5:30 p.m. and learned they close the gate at 6 p.m. The border agent said we probably had time to take a photo if we drove down to the last turn around, hopped out to snap a shot and then drove back. Jess mentioned something about this not being a good idea, but I was driving. Unfortunately, we didn’t know which turn around was the last one and we parked about half a mile from the border. We hustled to the marker, past the last turn around and past one razor wire gate just in time to be stopped by another agent. We told him the other guy said we could take the photo and he let us by. Jess (already having proven to be the more sensible of the two of us) turned around. I got to the marker just in time to see the first agent zooming down the road with his lights on and stopping to talk to the second agent and then Jess.
I snapped four photos of the eagles monument and then began walking back. The first agent zipped down to me and said it was after 5:45 and he is supposed to lock the gates at 5:45. I apologized and started walking briskly back toward the RV. When I paused for one more photo of the river, he calmly said “Sir, I need you to move as quickly as you can.” I jogged through the half-closed gate and he locked it right behind me. As I continued to jog the half mile back to the RV and he caught up with me. As I ran, he rolled forward and we joked about how much smarter Jess was than me. To his credit, the guy was firm, but super polite. We cranked the RV and hauled tail out of there back to the border station. We rolled through at 6:01 and apologized to agents who didn’t even check our IDs. A third agent laughed and told us to be safe. A fourth agent scolded us and said to drive faster because they were already on overtime because of us.
In retrospect, I should have listened to Jess. She’s right about a lot of things including the actual time it takes to do things. Being an optimist, I always think I can fit a few more things into a given time window. This is why I’m late for things sometimes — and why I almost spent a night on a bridge surrounded by razor wire.
In Southern Texas, they have many immigration check points along the highway where they make you stop, take photos of your vehicle and ask you two questions: “How many people are on board?” and “Are you all US citizens?” Surprisingly, that’s usually it for two gringos driving an RV. At one checkpoint they did lead a German shepherd around the vehicles. He was quite interested in the compartment where our sewer connection is, but the agent moved him along quickly. The moral of the story: sewer compartments may be a great place for contraband.
In a word, the Big Bend area of West Texas in beautiful. But Braden did better than that on one of our hikes. “It looks like a picture,” he said. “We’re IN a picture.”
Jess and I were there at the Maverick Ranch RV Park for a day without him before my parents flew out with him to Midland/Odessa airport and drove the 4 hours down to a nearby hotel. FYI, nearby in West Texas means 17 miles. He had a great trip staying with both sets of grandparents and loved his first flight in an airplane.
Part of the reason the plan worked so well was my mom’s interest in seeing the stars at Big Bend National Park. The area is legendary for dark skies because of the lack of lights on the ground. Unfortunately, the sky was covered with clouds up until their last night. We went inside and ate a crowded dinner (we’d never served five in the RV before). We went back out to check the sky and only one star was faintly visible, so Braden talked them into staying for a few rounds of Uno and Old Maid. When we went back out, we were dazzled. The Milky Way reached from horizon to horizon and the constellations like Cassiopeia and half of Orion were out in force.
Within 30 minutes it had clouded up and remained overcast for the next day or so. Luckily, I got to be part of an impromptu star party in the campground a few days later led a telescope-wielding couple from Brownsboro, Texas.
After saying good bye, the next morning, I hammered out some work and then we had a nice evening talking around the picnic table with our neighbors Patrick and Marie. They were about our age and had just sold a house and insurance business in Austin to go on the road in their travel trailer. We swapped stories and learned from each others experience. Marie said she went back and read all of our blog posts, which I think should earn her a medal. Cool folks.
They left the following day just before a Shelby Rally rolled in. The high-powered cars were cool for the first hour, but it got old hearing them rumble past all day long. While we took a couple of excursions into the park, most of our exploration came on the weekend when I wasn’t working and we ditched the wi-fi for a more rustic campground inside Big Bend National Park.
The park is one of the biggest and least visited in the national park system and that means a lot of people are missing out. Santa Ellena Canyon, the Rio Grande, javelinas in the campground and the exotic feeling of being on the border are things we will not soon forget. We hiked several trails along the river. Big Bend is separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande so in most of the photos, the river is the international boundary. It was sure nice to see it before that wall gets built.
In several places along the trails, there were handmade crafts for sale on rocks where Mexicans had rowed across the river and set up their trinkets and cash boxes in popular spots for tourists to purchase. We saw one old caballero singing and giving directions on the trail for money.
On one hike down by the Rio Grande, Braden stepped on what looked like solid mud and went in up to the ankle. He almost lost his shoe in the mud and although we pulled him out, that shoe was never the same. This wouldn’t have happened if there was a wall there.
The most worrisome character we encountered, however was a gringo from Vermont. Jess took notice of shoes and a pair of jean shorts on the river bank and a head bobbing in the river and signaled to me that it was time to turn around and head back up the trail before we saw more. Having learned my lesson at the border station, I listened to her. Luckily when he came back up trail to the Hot Springs pool he was wearing the shorts. He was a rough looking old hippie and didn’t speak when someone else spoke to him. The Vermont tag on his car said “Utopia” and he had kid’s toys displayed all over the inside of his car. So, we no longer had a perfect batting average of finding nice Vermonters, but 4 out of 5 isn’t bad.
Aside from the creepy guy, the pool at the hot spring was surprisingly nice. Even though the air temperature hit 93 degrees while we were there, the warm water was relaxing and made the air seem cooler.
In the park, we saw roadrunners, javelinas, a bobcat sprinting across the road, tarantulas and cactus everywhere.
We ended our stay on a sad note when Braden told a park ranger his only friends were his mama, dada and his dogs. That one stung.
Seminole Canyon State Park
On the way to Big Bend, we had spent a rainy night after the incident at the border near Del Rio at Seminole Canyon State Park. The power went out during a storm, making it so dark, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. West Texas is dark at night even when the power is working. On a Sunday morning, the campground host came to knock on our door and check on us at 7:30 a.m. While it was a nice gesture, I can’t say I was happy to be woken up.
Seminole Canyon was named for escaped slaves who ran away from plantations and fled to the parts of Florida controlled by the Seminoles. When the Seminoles were finally relocated to Oklahoma, slave-holding Indian tribes like the Choctaws and Creeks could have recaptured the escaped slaves. To avoid being forced back into servitude, they headed west for Mexico before being recruited by the US Army as scouts in the region where the park is now.
The park is famous for some of the best native rock paintings (called petroglyphs) in the US. The rain canceled the guided Petroglyph Hike on our first stay, so we spent another night there on the way back through. We got to the park from Big Bend just in time for Jess and Braden to make it on the hike. I missed it because dogs weren’t allowed and I needed to set them up in the air conditioned camper. We had seen scratches and marks before that were attributed to Native Americans, but we’d never seen anything as detailed as what Jess and Braden saw on that hike. It was an amazing stop for $20/night with electricity, water and wi-fi. Unlike our previous experience at Texas State Parks, Seminole Canyon was very clean.
At Seminole Canyon, we biked the Rio Grande trail on bluffs high above the river. It was a rougher ride than expected. It was by far the closest Jess has ever been to mountain biking. The views and clouds of butterflies were worth the effort and we only saw a couple of hikers in the six miles of biking.
Texas is a strange place. They have a lot of signs to warn you of guardrail damage. I don’t know how you are supposed to drive differently knowing this information.
Texas also has signs for litter barrels and have places alongside the road where you stop just to throw away trash.
Things we’ve lost along the way:
- 1 bottle of shampoo
- 1 grill grate
- 1 lantern
- 1 Robin cape