March, 2012: Mule Ears Trek, Pine Canyon, the River Road, and Gravel Pit Hot Springs

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"Big Bend is about family." This was the message, and it came across crystal clear. For this trip to Big Bend, we were committed to experiencing all of its beauty and adventure, come what may, together. As a family, not just a collection of individuals. Although I sneaked in to the park a few days early for some solo hiking, the true trip began when I returned my rental car at the Midland Airport and met Ronna and Mark there late Wednesday night. We chilled at the Baymont Hotel and caught our ride with Mom and Tom in his truck Thursday morning. And then we were off!

A quick stop at Johnny's for delicious burritos fueled us up. Then we hit the Wal-Mart in Ft. Stockton for supplies and made tracks to the park. It was an exciting ride as we had big plans for our overnight backpack around Mule Ears, meeting up with Nathan on Saturday for some back-country camping around Pine Canyon, and finishing the trip with a night (and showers!) at the Rio Grande Village campground.

As we approached the park, conversation grew quiet and each of us was once again reminded of Dad's conspicuous absence on this trip. I didn't even have anybody to argue with! But we pressed on, stopping at the park sign for a photo and then at Panther Junction to obtain our back-country permits. Happily, the camp sites we wanted were open and available and we signed up with a very friendly ranger who lectured us about where to pitch our tents and how to appropriately contain our merriment in the backcountry. Promising that we'd do our best not to out-party the park's capabilities, we drove onward.

On our way to Cottonwood Campground, we stopped at Sam Nail Ranch for a short break. This was a hard visit for each of us as we wandered through the familiar paths. We were astonished at how dry the park was and how dead-looking the trees were. We spent a while there listening to the windmill pump and wheeze and to the birds who were grateful for the water and the bugs attracted to its puddle. Being there felt like visiting an old friend; it was comforting in its own way. Dad's voice was much-missed as I sat on the bench alone. With heavy feet, we finally piled back in to the truck and completed our drive to Cottonwood in a bruised silence.


Spirits picked up at camp, though, and we found a great site with soft grass beneath gentle trees. We pitched camp and Ronna and Mark prepared chicken tacos for dinner. Yum! We talked about our Mule Ears plans and sorted through our backpacks so we'd be ready in the morning. The night was cold but short and before I knew it, we were up and on the move. We drove to the Mule Ears trail head and set out on our trek. The plan was to hike past the springs and find a path down to the creekbed. Once we were there, we'd drop our big packs and day-hike the area. Tom had a cave he wanted to find and Ronna planned to find some springs.

Unfortunately, the heat of the day and steepness of the trail down off of the mesa proved too much for us and, after sitting in some shade under a tarp for a while, we turned back to the truck. The eight-mile trek was just too far for my injured knee and Mom was experiencing severe nausea from one of her medications so turning around was the right decision. Mark and Tom took Mom's backpack and hoofed it to the truck. Then Mark came back and took my pack, for which I was very grateful. We drove back to Cottonwood that night, exhausted but safe.

Dinner that night was freeze-dried foods, prepared in a jiffy thanks to Tom's new Jet-Boil stove. We shared and compared our meals with each other and eventually bundled up for a cold night's sleep. Unfortunately, the night was not a quiet one as a group of junior high students from Presidio raised a ruckus nearby. By morning, they had quieted a little bit, but the damage was done and we all felt the lack of sleep. After stopping at Castolon to use the restrooms, we had a quick conference and decided to drive down the River Road, ending up at Rio Grande Village. Nathan texted us that he was well on his way and making great time. We agreed to meet up with him in the afternoon near the turnoff for Pine Canyon.

Our River Road journey was delightful as we bounced and bumped (and slid!) our way toward the remains of Johnson Ranch, the Mariscal Mine, and the various back-country campsites. We explored the ranch and the mines and wondered how they ever managed to keep the fires burning 24/7 for so many years in the desert. We even saw a snake that we'd never seen before: he was pink and brown striped. He was really friendly but also very fast. Tom's truck was covered in dust, but we were covered in smiles when we stopped at the Gravel Pit campsites and decided to search for some hot springs that Tom had heard about. Tom and I hiked down-river and the others went up-river. Happily, Tom found the hot springs, with just a little bit of help from an Austrian cyclist. And what a charming hot spring it was, nestled in a crook of the slow, shallow river. Tom spent some time in the steaming hot water and I explored the bank with my turned knee and sore ankle. It was a tough hike out for me, but Tom found a walking stick and stayed near me until we got back to the truck. How exciting to find new hot springs after all these years!

Later, after ice cream at RGV, we met Nathan along the road and drove to our Pine Canyon campsite. It was a great site, with a beautiful view and just enough breeze to keep the bugs away. We ate chicken and stuffing that Mom and Ronna made, and felt like royalty as we watched the sun go down. That night, Tom, Nathan, Mark and I hiked in the moonlight to the trail head. It was farther than we thought it would be! The next morning, we were up and at 'em, though, breaking camp and packing up our gear. We drove to the trailhead and made our way up the canyon. The trail was gravelly and exposed, but the reward upon entering the canyon made it all worthwhile. It was shaded and full of trees and birds, just lovely. Woodpeckers flew here and there and the fallen leaves shone golden in the sunlight. It was a real treat! But, unfortunately, there was no water at the back of the canyon. The whole park was so very dry and dormant.

That afternoon, we picnicked at Dugout Wells and then drove on to RGV for showers and beer. We explored the road that will eventually bring tourists to the crossing for Bouquillas and wondered what it will be like to have lunch there again after all these years. We also admired the new boardwalk that's been laid recently along the marshy cane area. A heron was waiting patiently for lunch as some turtles basked in the afternoon sunshine. After a brief bird-watching stroll by Daniels Ranch, we got back to our campsite to find that Tom had fired up the stove and started the spaghetti. Yay! We had a big dinner. Afterward, we drove back to Gravel Pit and hiked along the river's edge to the hot springs. Mom and Mark enjoyed the waters while the rest of us shooed away the Mexican cows. That night, back at the campground, we heard burros hee-hawing and were startled by a big coyote party. The definitely were not containing their merriment! Eventually, though, we fell in to our tents and slept soundly despite the cold.

Monday morning, as our little buddy the Vermilion Flycatcher watched us from the treetop, bathed in the first rays of sunshine, we broke camp for the last time. Ronna and Nathan made sure we had a cake and sparkles to celebrate Mom's birthday, though! What a great place to have a birthday party!

On the drive home, we swapped drivers and passengers between Tom's truck and Nathan's car so that we all got to visit together. Ronna and Mark got out at the Midland Airport for a tearful good-bye, and the rest of us hit the pavement for Dallas. It was hard to say 'good-bye', like it always is, but it had been such an interesting trip, filled with adventure and good times. We made new memories and were grateful to be together again. Big Bend is about family, and I'm proud to be part of this one.

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