Just Us Girls at Big Bend: October, 2004
While waiting for our flights to leave Albuquerque last spring, Ronna and I planned a trip to Big Bend for October. We hammered down the exact date over the course of the summer and finally met up in the Las Vegas airport, where we shared a flight into Midland/Odessa. We chatted and yakked and got caught up on the family news and what we wanted to do at Big Bend this trip. We both wanted to do something new and since we were there in the Autumn, we had some hiking options that are normally closed to us in the summer months. We tentatively agreed on Emory Peak and Apache Canyon but agreed that we'd be flexible. It was a warm, sunny day in Midland when we landed and we both dug out our sunglasses for the drive to the park. We stopped in Fort Stockton for groceries and supplies but we both brought whatever we could along with us. Ronna brought makings for two meals and was in control of the menu. She had even brought lunch for on the plane! Hooray for roast beef sandwiches! They complemented the pretzels that the attendants on the Southwest Airlines flight tossed at us just fine. All I had were dark-chocolate lemon-cream truffles that I'd bought at the Ethel M place in the Las Vegas airport. They were good, but not hardy desert food. Besides, they melted.
As we drove, we got more and more excited about what the weekend would hold. Ronna and I had never been to Big Bend alone before and while it felt weird at first, we came to treasure our time together there. We pulled into the Basin well after dark and picked out a site in the no-generator zone. I pitched my new tent and we both settled in for a night's sleep. We had javelina around the tent, of course, and crickets everywhere. We wanted to watch the meteor showed but the sky was pretty cloudy so we couldn't see much. Next morning before we did anything, we moved to another site that had a covered picnic table. The forecast was for rain and we wanted to have some cover. In true Dillinger fashion, we stalked a guy that was packing up his camp and we descended upon the site as soon as he slammed his car door. He didn't look happy, but neither would I be if I were leaving! After setting up camp in the new place, we had some breakfast (eggs and toast) and set off to see what the day held in store for us.
It was supposed to get hot so were shy of diving right into Apache Canyon but I didn't feel up to the altitude of Emory just yet, figuring that Saturday would be a better day for that and we could get an earlier start anyway. We drove to Panther Junction and asked about Apache Canyon. The ranger mentioned that there are "ark" sites down there, by which we assumed she meant "archeological" and seemed to discourage us from that hike. She asked us, instead, if we had ever been to Indian Head. We said no and when she mentioned that there were petroglyphs there, we knew we had our adventure for the day! She gave us directions and off we went. We were to drive to Study Butte and take a right on a dirt road. At the end of it, we were to re-enter the park and hike about a mile. The petroglyphs were on the rocks on the left and the spring was a bit further down. Sounded great!

my new yellow tent

Thanks, Spidey!

pretty yellow carpet

what is this stuff?

Indian Head Mountain
      On the drive to the edge of the park, we marveled at how green the park was. They'd had a lot of rain recently and the wildflowers just carpeted the desert floor. It was beautiful! We stopped along the way to greet a tarantula that was crossing the road (no one knows why). We took pictures and watched him for a while, then sped off on our way. It was a pretty day, with just a thin layer of clouds over us so the heat was minimal. The ranger's directions were perfect and soon we were out of the car and hiking across a plain. There's not a trail, per se. You just have to keep the big rocks on your left. The plain is lightly dusted with a strange white powder. We couldn't figure out what it was.

Our guide for the day

the track to the springs

Is it Christmas already?

My sister!
We hunted and hunted for the petroglyphs without finding a thing for hours. Up the side of the mountain and back down - we tried to think like Indians and look in places where petroglyphs wouldn't be washed away by rain. While we searched, we noticed a turkey buzzard keeping an eye on us. He sat on boulders that towered over us and watched us hike and hunt. As we moved along, so did he. Finally, as we decided to give up, we decided to take a picture of him before heading back to the car. So we put our cameras on 'zoom' and moved slowed toward the rock on which he was perched. Snap! we got our picture. As I looked down at my camera to see the shot I'd gotten, I noticed that BINGO, the rock he was on had petroglyphs on it! Ronna quickly found more on the surrounding boulders and we were so excited! We found more and more as we looked and I was really impressed by them. There were some panels with 'modern' writing on them but even that dated to 1902 and so was pretty neat.

the date says "1902"

note the hands

there were wasps
near there


    The discovery energized us so, after a light lunch, we pushed ahead, hoping to find the spring. It wasn't easy to find because it's in a very unlikely place. Instead of bubbling up from the ground like any normal spring, this one comes out of a rock face about four stories tall. Luckily, there were lots of songbirds all around it or we might have missed this, too, just like the petroglyphs. The spring was really neat, and there were even cattails growing around it. That got us very excited as we had not expected cattails out there. But it was obvious that not many people came to this site so its use-impact would naturally be low. We tried to tread lightly (Ronna, you have to stop squeezing the cattails!) and wound our way back to the car, hunting for more signs of previous inhabitants along the way. We did find some more petroglyphs and even some grinding holes in the rocks. The holes were similar to the basins at Chaco but were deeper and had ridges along the inside like someone had turned a rock in there for many, many years. Some of the holes had water in the bottom and I owe Ronna a dollar because she stuck her finger down to the bottom of one of them. Yuck!

neat spring

from the other side

it's about a two-story

don't squeeze 'em!
We got back to the car and I realized, with horror, that I had left my digital camera case on the trunk of the car when we stopped to take pictures of the tarantula. It wasn't a disaster since I didn't leave the camera itself, but I was disappointed in myself because the case had spare batteries and compact flash cards in it that I would not have time to replace before leaving for Amsterdam. Ronna drove slowly back to Panther Junction but we didn't spot the case or even recognize the place where we originally stopped. No one had turned it in to Lost-and-Found, either. Drat. Then I had an idea: I had had the GPS running the whole time and it was keeping a breadcrumb of our drive and hike. Maybe I could examine the breadcrumb trail for irregularities and see where we had turned around just after the tarantula (we thought we saw a scorpion on the side of the road and turned around to check). That way, we could drive back to the place and maybe the case would be nearby. It was so crazy that it just might work. So off we went, watching the GPS the whole time. Just as we were nearing the turn-around spot, Ronna said "Hey, look, there's a tarantula in the road". And it was exactly the same place where we stopped before. I know it was because she pulled off the road and as I opened my door and looked down, there was the camera case. The spare battery and cards were nearby. The tarantula watched us pick up the stuff and then marched back across the road to the bushes. I'm convinced that it was the same spider we had seen that morning and that he was watching over my stuff until I got back. The animals were certainly helping us out today!

grinding hole?

I'm relaxing!

cowboy hat rock

that's the Window
waaaay back there
We felt victorious as we returned to the camp site and prepared dinner. We ate and then went to the Lodge store to check out the souvenirs before it was time to go to the ranger program. The program was about the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the work they did in the park between 1934 and 1942. Did you know they built that road into the Basin by hand?!? No bulldozers! It was shovels and sweat. Wow - I can't even imagine how hard that must have been. The ranger had some great slides to show us of the CCC camps and the construction of the cabins and it was one of the most educational programs I've ever attended. Unfortunately, this is where my story takes a turn for the worse.
During the ranger program, my stomach was burbling, whining, and groaning. Ronna teased me about it a bit and it really was pretty comical. We went back to the tent, had a little bit of scotch for dessert, and hit the sack. It rained and rained that night, and the wind blew through the campground all night. My new tent held up just fine, which was a relief to me. About 2am, though, Ronna got up and said she was going to the car, that she was feeling nauseous. I didn't think much of it (had I passed gas in my sleep?) and went back to sleep. About sunrise, though, I was feeling pretty bad myself. I checked on Ronna and she was miserable and feverish. It was 7am when we decided that we either had food poisoning or some horrible stomach flu, and needed to bail from the campground (we needed toilets...and beds.) I went up to the Lodge to see if by chance there were any motel rooms available. They were full, and fully booked for the night, but suggested I come back closer to checkout time to see if there were any cancellations. I explained the situation and they couldn't have been nicer. But 'full' meant 'full', even cabin #100 was occupied (I checked). So I got some Tylenol, saltines, and Sprite, and drove back down to the camp to check on poor Ronna.
To try to cheer her up, each time I went to the Lodge to see if they'd had a cancellation yet, I came back and described for her the bear and mountain lion that I had seen on the drive. The first time, I told her that the bear was pulling the lion in a little red wagon. The image made her smile a little bit, and that warmed my heart. So each time I went up there, I came back with another sighting that, I hoped, would help distract her from her misery. She was so brave, lying on her deflated Therma-rest on the concrete picnic slab. Finally, at 12:45pm, the ladies at the Lodge said they had a room. We were going to make it! I drove back to the Basin to get Ronna and put her into the bed post-haste. She fell into it, and promptly into a deep sleep. For the next 18 hours, she slept and nibbled crackers and Sprite. About 4pm that day (Saturday), she touched my arm and pointed at the window. Right outside our room were four deer standing there munching grass and watching us inside. I told you the animals were on our side! The night passed, and I went back down to break camp so we wouldn't have to do it in the morning.
We got up early and made our way down to the Lodge for breakfast. Ronna had a little bit to eat, as did I. We still felt very sick and I think she still had a fever. But we set off for the airport anyway. The drive to the airport was one I'll never forget (here's why) and when we got there, we realized Ronna had four hours to wait for her flight. Because it was Sunday, flights were full out of Las Vegas and although the folks at Southwest did their best, there just wasn't a way to get her home any earlier. It was so hard to leave her there, alone and weak at the airport. I made sure the attendants at the gate knew she wasn't feeling well and they promised to keep an eye on her. I guess they did, because she got home safely, as did I.
You know, I've never had a bad trip to Big Bend, not even once before when Mom and I went together and I had the flu. And maybe I'm just stubborn, but I'd really rather not think of this particular trip as being 'bad', either. Ronna and I never figured out what we had, but we are going with the food poisoning theory. We know we contracted it at the same time because we got sick within hours of each other. So we didn't give it to each other. It's possible we picked up a stomach flu on the airplane, but it's more likely that we shared some food item that was contaminated. Perhaps the trail mix that I brought, elements of which came from a bulk-food bin at Fred Meyer? Or an apple that we bought at the store in Fort Stockton and didn't wash thoroughly? Who can say. Anyway, we had one great day at the park, and we saw a part of it that we never knew existed. And we learned that we can take care of each other when the chips are down. So I'm going to call it a good trip, after all. I just hope none of you have the same trip in your futures... :)

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