Texas Summer Road Trip- Big Bend, BBQ and Bourbon
August 6th-18th, 2021 Big Bend portion the 10th-16th.
I have always wanted to see Big Bend in the rainy season, see it green and without lots of people. August is the least visited month and the second wettest month in the middle of the monsoon which generally runs from late June (the hottest month) through September. Boy did we hit that right with this August’s 10 plus inches of rain being the 4th wettest month ever on record in the Chisos Basin, only missing the record by a few tenths of an inch. I also wanted to experience the heat of the lower desert but only by doing early morning day hikes and then retreating to air conditioning for the afternoons.
Scott and I were within a week of hitting the road in December 2020 for a different hiking trip in the lower desert but with Covid reaching its peak in West Texas just then and many stories about the locals saying please don’t come, we decided the responsible thing to do was to postpone the trip. I fully retired from farming in the spring so as Covid waned and we got vaccinated I proposed a summer trip to the upper Chisos with some day hikes on the tail end. We would still drive as flying and renting cars right now is still an insane and expensive process. Driving would also allow us to hit many more BBQ places and to carry home as much hard to find, for us, Bourbon, as we could locate and afford.
The timing of the trip revolved around the big Perseid meteor shower which peaked on the morning of the 12th under a new moon which would make for optimal viewing conditions. The plan was for short days with lots of time for easy day hikes and to sit in camp or on the rim and watch thunderstorms roll across the desert, we got that in spades too as it rained on us every single day. When my brother Jon saw the trip plan he said “Geezer trip for sure” and asked if he could join us. For icing on the cake and/or to add yet another moving part to the trip plan Scott and I were invited to speak at a farm conference in San Marcos a day or two before we would be rolling through anyway so we added that day and a half onto the itinerary.
As we were in the planning stages the South Rim 4 fire, in April, burned across almost the entire high Chisos leaving me wondering what the campsites would be like on the second half of our 4 nights up there. I gathered as much intel as I could and decided that the ER7 campsite looked like it had escaped the fire damage that effected other sites to varying degrees. It would still be fascinating to see what the fire damage actually looked like and how the recovery was progressing.
It is a long ass drive to Big Bend from North Carolina, one I hadn’t done since 1992 but off we went on the 6th stopping in Birmingham for some average BBQ and then ending the day in Shreveport, just short of 1000 miles for the day. Up and on the road at 5:30 on Saturday the 7th, the goal was to get to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington as early as possible. They are only open on Saturday and were rated the #1 BBQ by Texas Monthly in their last roundup in 2017. We made it by 9:30 and the line was already crazy long.
The 86 year old pit master Tootsie Tomanetz (on the left) was managing the pits and greeting the public, tough gal.
3 hours later we made it to the counter and they were out of a lot of things including turkey, pork ribs, coleslaw and potato salad. It was really good but if anything it needed a bit more smoke. Pro tip- if you want to skip the line show up at noon or even 1:00 and it looks like they always have brisket and sausage at the end.
We had planned to maybe hit Louie Mueller’s in Taylor and then on to Micklethwaite’s, La Barbeque or Valentina’s in Austin on the way to San Marcos but after 3 hours in a hot line we decided just to head straight to San Marcos and check into our hotel. After we recovered we made the short drive over to Lockhart and Kruez’s Market for dinner, certainly the best pork ribs of the trip.
Sunday and Monday morning we were speaking at the conference and picking Jon up at the Austin airport where he was 5 hours late after delays in Dallas. As soon as we were done Monday morning we headed west to Marathon, stopping for lunch at Lum’s in Junction, I give it a 3.5-4, pretty good.
The Marathon Motel seemed fairly full and we spent the evening packing and getting everything ready for the next day’s hike up into the Chisos as I wanted us to be able to just pull out the packs and start walking when we got there. We would have had dinner at the excellent Brick Vault BBQ but they are closed on Mondays.
Tuesday the 10th we were up early to be at the J&G Grill at the Alon gas station, when they opened at 7:00, to get some to-go breakfast so we could make to the Basin by 8:30 to get our park pass and then get started up the Laguna Meadows trail by 9:00 to beat the heat. The grill was closed so we back tracked to the Oasis Café for a sit down breakfast, which was great but put us an hour behind schedule.
It was in fact very green all the way down to the park and as we stopped just short of Panther Junction it also became apparent that it was also surprisingly humid for the desert. Not really unexpected when one thinks about it, moisture laden air rises to make thunderstorms and they used to predict the Arizona monsoon rains would start when they had three days in a row of dew points in the mid 50’s or higher. It had been raining fairly consistently for weeks now and the air felt like it. Still, I was not used to the idea of a hot and sticky desert. As it turned out the dew points the whole time we were there were between the mid 50’s and the mid 60’s when, in my experience, things begin to be uncomfortable.