Dec. 9th-16th, 2017
82 miles with packs, 3 or 4 more exploring
All of my walks need to have a raison d’etre and this one was no different but this time we had several objectives. First and foremost was for Scott to have a long walk to decompress after just stepping down from his stressful position as Executive Director for one of the most important sustainable ag non-profits in the country. We had planned to go to Utah in November but neither of our schedules was going to allow that so I suggested a return to Big Bend and this time I promised him that I would take him to the most watered section of the park. He had both walked across the Eastern Half of the park from Boquillas to the Basin and all the way down the Eastern side from Dog Canyon to Marufo Vega, neither trip had more than a handful of water sources (like less than the fingers on one hand) so he had no idea that there were actually places in the park with more water.
I also wanted to do an informal spring survey for most of the Sierra Quemadas, at least those water sources that would be along or close to our route which would turn out to be nearly 50. After five years of near normal rainfall totals at the park headquarters at Panther Junction (PJ) and 5 out of 6 years near normal in the Chisos (2016 was considerably above normal) this would be a good snap shot of which springs really exist and flow with regularity. My last trip into the heart of the Sierra Quemada was in the historic drought year of 2011 so this should be quite different.
I was also interested in exorcising some old ghosts from past trips, mistakes I had made from as long as 25 years ago and things I didn’t get to do because we had to change the plan mid trip due to unforeseen circumstances. They will become apparent as the report goes along.
The exact timing of the walk was set to be able to help out a friend, Kelly, from Big Bend Chat who was doing an epic 24 day pack raft down the Rio Grande and then walk back across the park trip. He was having trouble with how and where to leave his pack raft after he was back on land. The NPS would let him cache food and water indefinitely but not leave his “personal property unattended” for more than 24 hours. Our plan was to arrive at his cache a few hours after he made is drop, pick it up and take it to the Rio Grande Village (RGV) Store and drop it with some of the rest of his gear that they were holding for him. The next day we would head into the backcountry and hopefully cross paths with him on our second night out.
Of course with a journey as long as his, things could go awry and we would have fixed dates to fly in and out so we added an extra day onto our total trip plan so we could have some flexibility in case he got behind. He had been planning this trip for a year and was scheduled to drop his raft and gear around noon on Dec. 8th. On Nov. 29th I got a short cryptic email message that only said “Safe at RGV, all good” so we knew that he was indeed not only there but a day ahead of schedule.
We flew into San Antonio on the 7th just as the Blizzard of 2017 was blowing in. We were able to meet some friends for lunch and then stop and get gas canisters and a few more supplies before we headed west on US90 to Del Rio for the night. Going through Uvalde the snow was really coming down but by the time we got to Del Rio it was all done. San Antonio ended up having their biggest snowfall in 32 years with about 3 inches!
One of the non-backpacking objectives was to sample as much barbecue as we could along with the mandatory chicken fried steak and as many Mexican breakfasts as possible, as a former Texan (I did graduate high school in Houston after all) I have to refill the stores when I come back. After a late lunch at The Barbecue Station in SA we stopped 3 hours later and loaded up with excellent ‘cue from Heavy’s in Hondo and took it with us to eat in the room in Del Rio. It turned out to be the best all around ‘cue the whole trip and definitely deserved a spot in the Texas Monthly’s Top 50.
The morning of the 8th dawned crystal clear and cool. Great breakfast at Dona Elivra’s and we headed west. I had not driven US90 since 1974 and thoroughly enjoyed it. We made the compulsory stop at the Judge Roy Bean museum in Langtry
and then for gas in Marathon. The snow was quickly disappearing but it was evident that there had been at least 3 inches or more across most of the area.
We rolled into the park about noon and stopped by the Fossil Bone exhibit and all the snow that had been in the lower desert areas was gone but the Chisos where still pretty white
And the Dead Horse mountains too, I hoped that Kelly had gotten over the top before the weather hit.
We made it to PJ at 1:00 and no one was in line when we went to get our permit. We actually got one of the real, experienced, rangers not just a volunteer. He said that they had gotten almost 5 inches of snow at PJ and a bit more in the Chisos and that the road to the Basin had just reopened. As we progressed through the permit process I laid out the zones and nights and he quickly realized we were headed towards Mariscal Mtn. and asked what we were going to do about water and I said the Rio Grande at Talley. He made a face and I said “I know I know but I have used the Rio many times now.” He also commented that he had had to help some folks down there just recently who had gotten into trouble. The last day showed we were going to go from Dominguez spring to Mule Ears trailhead in one day and he questioned that but I assured him I had done it several times before. This was a much more informed ranger than the one we got in February before heading into the no man’s land of Arroyo Venado and far eastern Telephone canyon who acted like we were going to Mule Ears spring for the night.
Permit in hand we proceeded down the road towards Rio Grande Village looking for mile post 13. Kelly had sent not only GPS coordinates but very detailed instructions as to where his cache would be. About 2:00 we pulled off the road at the designated location and started to follow his directions. I was hoping that his pack raft would be there because if not we would have to initiate a search and rescue for him, a process I did not want to have to do. Several hundred feet off the road we turn towards his hidden spot and he pops up from behind a bush surprising us.
He seemed happy and in good humor but says that his trip is over. Two days ago in the snow in Ernst basin, he slipped with full pack on and re-aggravated an old knee injury and no amount of ibuprofen could dull the pain. What a sad moment and end to what had been an amazing trip. Fortunately for him we could take him to his car in Lajitas.
We manage to stuff his pack and bear canister into our small car and him in the back seat and head off to the Chisos Mining Co. motel so we can check in and he can get a room too. On the way Kelly was treated to the remaining excellent barbecue from Heavy’s in Hondo, what a first meal after 17 days eating dried food. While I ferry him over to Lajitas to get his car, Scott stays at the room to finish writing and file one more work report before he could really let go. When he drove in from Lajitas, I met him in the driveway with a cold beer on his way to a hot shower. We finished packing and then the three of us went to dinner at the Starlight where we became even better friends and Kelly regaled us with stories from his trip.