The Long Way Round to Marfa :: Week 4
Week 4 :: 27 March-2 April
Big Bend National Park to Austin TX
Wednesday, March 27
Big Bend National Park
> 46 miles
At the start of our fourth week out on the road, the day we would cross the Rio Grand into Mexico promised to be a warm one.
We left the campsite in mid-morning, stopped first at the campground store to replenish the Yeti cooler with ice and then drove the short three miles from the campsite to the official U.S. Border Crossing facility where we would leave the United States and then visit the little town of Carmen del Boquillas. The park ranger there explained how this was going to work, and with his words of advice about getting a boat ride across, about making our way up to the town about ¾ of a mile from the river, about not bringing back any rocks or minerals or fossils or tobacco or liquor, and finally about making sure we each had our passports in order to re-enter this country, we walked a short way down to the banks of the Rio Grande.
On the other side a young boatman noticed our arrival along with two other groups, and set off across 30 or 40 yards of fairly swift moving water to come pick us up. Four of us got into the flat bottomed rowboat, and pulling strongly against the current, the oarsman brought us ashore in Mexico, where we paid our $5 per person which also included two tickets to present for the return ride back to our own country.
Right near the shore quite a few burros, a few horses and a number of pickup trucks were waiting to transport the American tourists up to town for an additional $5. Kerry and I, of course, chose to walk our way there, as it really wasn’t all the hot yet and not all that far. Frankly, we just feel kind of silly sitting on a donkey when we could simply follow the path into town that the burros and walking handlers were taking.
Rounding the last turn in the road, we walked past the stopping point for the burro riders, saw the first stand selling inexpensive souvenirs, and walked up a short hill into the center of Boquillas. We did cast a glance or two at the curios and t-shirts for sale, but clearly there wasn’t much of interest for us even though some of the t-shirts did have some interesting messages to announce: “Make Boquillas Great Again” and “Non Al Muro.”
It was lunchtime by then, so we walked into the José Falcon’s Restaurant and found a table in the shade but looking out over the patio towards Boquillas Canyon. We were lucky to get such a nice spot because the restaurant was quite busy. We each ordered a beer along with chips, salsa and guacamole, and I ordered the chicken enchiladas in green tomatillo sauce to share with Kerry. The salsas were quite tasty, spicy but not too much so, and the enchiladas were okay, though nothing special. The beer was cold, though, and I certainly welcomed that. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch, in the cool shade, and then walked back outside and up the main road in town. By this time it was a lot warmer than when we arrived. The sun seemed relentless, blindingly bright. We glanced around a bit, took some photos and decided that it was time to walk back down to the river.
That return walk was not an easy one in the heat of the day. But we made it back to the boat landing and got our passage back to the U.S. where we inserted our passports into an automated kiosk, picked up a phone, looked into a video camera to be seen by an agent located who knows where and answered a couple of questions before being thanked and told we were “good to go.”
So we visited Mexico as we had planned. It’s quite the symbiotic relationship that the citizens of Boquillas have with the Americans and foreign visitors who pass through Big Bend. They certainly rely on this quaint, crazy little border river crossing for their livelihood. The U.S. apparently relies on our Mexican neighbors to fight fires on both sides of the border and to assist with environmental and wildlife studies. I’m certainly glad for all that. This definitely is not the part of the border where any crisis seems to exist, however. And I’m also glad for that, too.
The excursion definitely took its toll, what with the heat and relentless sun, so we got back in the Element, turned on A/C on high and drove 20 miles or so up the road to Panther Junction to sit in the visitor center there and log into the free Wi-Fi. We also bought a couple of cold drinks and enough (expensive!) gas to get us to Marathon the following day.
Once back at the campsite we did our best to find shade and cool off, dousing our heads under the water spigots. We sat and read. Filled up on water, then enjoyed chilled white wine from a bag and the last of our tortilla chips and salsa. We also decided that we wouldn’t spend an extra day here in Big Bend but instead move on to the town of Marathon where it would hopefully will be a bit cooler. From there the plan is to drive down to Comstock.
We also decided, after speaking with a couple of our friendly campsite neighbors, that we’d drive to Austin when our two day stay in Comstock was over. This would work out well because we really had a few days to kill before our upcoming reservation to stay overnight in Arcosanti AZ on the way home.
We enjoyed our visit to Big Bend: it offered beautiful country in its stark desert and mountain terrains and its proximity to Mexico along the Rio Grande. One of the nicest parts of this visit, for me at least, had been talking with other travelers who were doing their own road trips and passing through the park: folks from North Carolina who encouraged us to visit Austin before returning home, a woman traveling alone with her dog from Willits CA, and the three guys next to us who were all middle and high school educators on Spring Break from Indiana. All were initially interested in learning more about Nitro and its ECamper, kind of a friendly neighbor magnet, as it were. Great people, willing to share their stories and adventures and learn from one another, making this whole road trip thing all the more glorious and worthwhile.
Thursday, March 28
Big Bend to Marathon TX
> 155 miles
This morning we didn’t have to rush back onto the road, so we took it easy and left the Rio Grande Campsite in Big Bend around 10 o’clock.
We made a short side trip on our way out, driving down the Hot Springs Road to visit the hot springs and the old house, post office/store, and motor court that are still standing there. Along the path down to the Rio Grande and the hot springs that trickled up at the river’s edge, we took a look at some of the pictographs and petroglyphs that still exist on the canyon walls. There wasn’t much to see, and those that still exist are rather faint.
After our short walk along the hot springs trail, we bid farewell to the Rio Grande and the borderlands of Big Bend National Park and drove north on TX Hwy 385 toward the town of Marathon.
About two hours later we rolled into town and found a “tent site” for the night at the Marathon Motel & RV Park right on Hwy 90 which runs through the center of town. This turned out to be a wonderful and most unexpected spot, actually, as the new owners have done a great job in renovating an old motel and RV park. We definitely appreciated the fact that the area for tent camping was far enough away from all the huge, electricity and water sucking RVs and 5th Wheels that we hardly noticed them.
The tagline on the Marathon Motel & RV Park website reads: “Sunsets, Stargazing, and Storm Chasing — We’ve Got the Sky For You…” And as it turned out, this was absolutely true for the one night we spent in town.
After staking out our spot in the tent camping area, we drove into town to find a thriving and a rather well-to-do community, centered around the very upscale Gage Hotel . Near the hotel, Marathon boasts several really nice shops and cafés as well as two excellent photography galleries.
Because the James H. Evans Photography gallery was closed when we walked by, we could only gaze into the windows at some of the very impressive images on display. I did notice, however, that a sign on the door encouraged visitors to contact Mr. Evans with a text message, as he lived nearby and would be more than happy to open up the gallery for a visit. So, of course, I sent the message, and we continued our walk, turning off the main street to explore some of the town’s backstreets. From the north dark and ominous storm clouds seemed to quickly approach on the back of a strong cooling, dusty-wet wind.
I love real weather. At least I do when I can be safe, warm and dry under it. With the storm front still some distance away, my phone buzzed and it was James Evans letting us know that he’d be able to meet us at the gallery within the next 10 minutes, so we headed there and had a most interesting conversation with this engaging and talented artist. Do visit his website; his photography is exceptional. We also learned that one of our favorite writers from the San Francisco Bay Area, Rebecca Solnit , wrote the Forward for Evans’ photo book Crazy From The Heat [Amazon].
After talking with James Evans we wandered past the E. Dan Klepper Gallery , the second of Marathon’s two extraordinary photo galleries. Klepper is perhaps less well known and established as Evans, yet some of his photography pushes more of an edge, expresses more of a conceptual viewpoint while his more mainstream images articulate a personal and highly technical vision. We thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with Dan Klepper as well, and a visit to his gallery would definitely be worth your while.
Back at the campsite, we sat in the Element while a bit of that “real weather” rain fell. We took advantage of the showers provided in the nice restroom up near the office area. When the rain was over and the skies started to clear, Kerry and I marveled at the sunset as it developed and then reached its peak.
One of the more permanent residents in the RV park, an astrophotographer named Bill Ramey, put on a nighttime viewing session with one of his larger telescopes and some powerful binoculars. Quite the guy, full of great information about the stars…Cirrius, the “dog star,” Orion’s belt, a nebula located within that constellation, facts about our own universe which we commonly refer to as The Milky Way (but it’s incorrect to name it that…we were looking at the Sagitarius spiral of our galaxy last night), and one of the most interesting facts/phenomenon, the “Zodiacal Lights” that can only be seen in a Class 1 Dark Sky location…and Marathon is just that. What an amazing and unexpected treat.
Around 10 o’clock we crawled into the Element, set up the Penthouse and tried to get a good night’s sleep. We could have except for the 5-6 freight trains that rolled through town and blew their horn right there across the road from us. Impossible to sleep through. Despite that, what a great place to spend a night on the road for only $15. Compared to the $22 we paid in Terlingua for a terrible site with a great view, by way of comparison, the Marathon Motel & RV Park was our best deal ever.
Friday, March 29
Marathon to Comstock TX
> 146 miles
We were both pretty much wide awake by 6:00 AM and eventually descended from the Penthouse around 7:00. We did the easy thing by walking into town for some strong coffee and a tasty breakfast at the Gage Hotel’s V6 Cafe (the name comes from the ranch that belongs to the cafe’s owner). Thus fortified for the morning, we drove through the town a bit before cranking Nitro’s throttle up to 75 mph and flying down Hwy 90 East toward Comstock.
The landscape quickly changed to the most boring, the flattest, the least interesting terrain we’d experienced during our entire trip thus far. We broke up the monotony by stopping in Sanderson to check out the incredibly well-stocked Kerr Mercantile Company which obviously serves local residents as well as tourists traveling through.
We stopped at a small store at the turnoff to Langtry, home of the frontier legend Judge Roy Bean, to use the restroom and buy a cold drink. What a bizarre stop. A somewhat renovated building included a sparsely stocked store to one side and a large room that had a new pool table and a folding table where someone seemed to be repairing a weed whacker. Other than that, the extra room was empty. The older woman who was behind the counter clearly hadn’t gotten around much in her life, as she didn’t know about Comstock only 30 miles down the road. Or maybe she didn’t understand us. Either way, she was a woman who had undoubtedly lived a tough life and yet was kind enough in her own manner. From my privileged perspective, though, it was just a bit sad. She asked Kerry to sign the shop guest book, we paid for two sodas, and I took a picture of a $10 t-shirt for sale:
Anyway, off we went with our A&W Root Beer for Kerry and a Dr. Pepper for me (had to go with two sugary sodas just to complete the weirdness of the stop), driving the short loop through the actual town of Langtry — which has a tourist museum devoted to the legendary judge, and that’s about it — before turning back onto the highway for the short last leg to check into our accommodations for the next two nights, The Comstock Motel.
The accommodations were exactly what we expected and hoped for: simple but clean and comfortable and close to our meeting place for the tour at the White Shaman Preserve just up the road from there.
We hung out in the room for the next several hours, enjoying a strong T-Mobile signal to catch up with the world we had left behind since leaving home. I wrote up the previous day’s journal notes and most of those for this day, and then we walked across the street and down a block to have dinner at the J&P Bar and Grill [Facebook]. Online reviews gushed about “the best burgers in Texas,” and the Italian couple who visited and posted a review enjoyed the “typical American” small town scene.
We weren’t disappointed either: the hamburgers were, indeed, delicious, as were the chips and house made salsa “sauce” and the French fries. There weren’t many customers when we walked in around 5:30, maybe four or five others, but they were friendly enough to banter back and forth with us across the room. Around 7 o’clock a local young man named Noah Smith [Facebook] was back from a nearby college for the weekend and provided the music entertainment to a very appreciative crowd that had grown in numbers by then. This young singer/songwriter was certainly as good as any other contestant on The Voice, for example, and I’m sure that Blake Shelton pound the button to pick Noah for his team.
We stayed to listen to the young musician’s first set as he accompanied himself nicely on an acoustic guitar. J&P’s was clearly the one spot in Comstock where friends could meet for dinner and drinks on a Friday night. They brought their kids, and folks who apparently hadn’t seen one another for quite some time gave each other hearty handshakes or heartfelt hugs. The scene was indeed “typical American” in a small-town way, and I smiled inside to watch it unfold.
Saturday, March 30
Guided tour of White Shaman Reserve in Comstock
> 88 miles
This day dawned full of excitement and anticipation for me: months ago, after watching the West Texas episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in which he visited the rock art protected at the White Shaman Preserve near Comstock, I had lobbied hard for extending our road trip beyond Marfa and Big Bend. No, we couldn’t stop everywhere and visit every interesting spot between Oakland and West Texas. But this was the one highlight for which I would be willing to give up others.
The White Shaman mural would be the third of four major rock art sites that were on my radar to visit during our trip, and this short description of the site and of the work of archeologist Dr. Carolyn Boyd on the Indigenous Cultures Institute website begins to explain why I was so excited about seeing this ancient rock art with my own eyes:
The White Shaman mural is part of an on-going archeological study by The Shumla School, Inc., a nonprofit headed by Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd. Boyd has been studying the pictographs in the lower Pecos area for over two decades. Through meticulous documentation and ethnographic analysis, Boyd determined that the White Shaman mural is a planned composition. Every image is intentionally placed. Just as words on a page, it is a visual text communicating a narrative through graphic vocabulary. Though the artists are gone, she argues that the sacred stories and belief systems of the people who produced the art have remained over the centuries. They endure in the shared symbolic language of contemporary native peoples. Boyd identified patterns in the art that parallel rituals and iconographies of many Mesoamerican groups, in particular those of the Huichol and Aztec. She argues that the White Shaman is a creation story detailing the birth of the sun and the protocols for ritually participating in this cosmic event. In a sense, it is a cosmological map.
At last I might be able to view in person ancient rock art that modern studies have come close to deciphering, on some level at least.
After a light breakfast in our room, we left the motel around 10:30 and drove north to see the Pecos River High Bridge. We hung out on the west side for a bit where the wind was really blowing, then drove down to the east side for a closer view of the bridge. We couldn’t have known at the time that from the west side vista point we were gazing out toward the cliff wall where the White Shaman mural had been waiting across the millennia for someone to decipher its story and speak to anyone in this lifetime who was able to listen.
Right around noon, we headed back down the road less than a mile to meet up at the gate of the White Shaman Preserve for our tour. Fifteen to twenty people gathered and our guide, Jack, showed up a few minutes before our 12:30 start to open the gate and lead us down a short dirt road to the trailhead.
The walk down to the cliff overhang where the White Shaman panel is located was a bit challenging, more so than I expected, but I wasn’t the only old geezer taking it slow. About half a mile down and there we were, up close and personal with Pecos River Style pictographs that were created circa BCE 2500 to E 500. Jack squatted in front of the mural to describe what we were seeing and to answer out questions about this rock art which “among the oldest — and most important — in North America.”
The best, most in-depth discussion I could find online of this important archeological site is in the November/December 2017 issue of Archaeology magazine, “Reading the White Shaman Mural” by Eric A. Powell.
Another article, “If These Walls Could Talk” by Brad Tyer in the December 2, 2016, issue of the Texas Observer, offers a more mainstream, journalistic description of the site.
Our guide was also leading the 3 o’clock tour of the Seminole Canyon pictographs, so we decided to head on over to the state park and sign up for that. This tour was a lot less strenuous a hike, for sure, and a lot of fun as well because we were able to walk along the canyon floor to other canyon overhangs. These natural overhangs sheltered a number of pictographs, more spread out than those of the White Shaman panel, but some of them were in even better condition.
After our late afternoon tour, it was getting close to time for dinner, so we drove down to Del Rio — what an unappealing town — for a barbecue dinner at Rudy’s Bar-B-Q , which was actually pretty tasty. Then we filled up with gas, got back on the road doing 75 toward Comstock, passed through an immigration control checkpoint right outside of town, and rolled into the Comstock Motel for the night.
Days on the road like this don’t get much better, especially when the anticipation and reality more than measure up to the hype.
Sunday, March 31
Comstock to Austin TX
> 305 miles
It was really cold as we packed up the Element on this morning, and for some reason I had a headache that would persist throughout the day.
We left Comstock at 8:30 and headed back down Hwy 90 toward Del Rio where we turned north on TX Hwy 377. Then it was east on TX 41 to Mountain Home where we joined the I-10 for a few miles down to TX 16 north toward Fredericksburg, now a popular tourist location that was founded by Germans back in the 19th century. We drove around there for a few blocks and then left the mob of Sunday visitors behind.
From Fredericksburg we headed down some back roads to another nearby town, Luckenbach, which is also very much a tourist destination.
There were more back roads as we drove up to Hwy 290 leading into Johnson City, the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson.
By then it was definitely time for lunch, so we decided to head toward a nearby restaurant called Salt Lick BBQ that was pretty much on the way to Austin. Salt Lick is well known in the area, and we arrived to find a huge parking lot filled with cars, with lots of people having lunch in two large buildings while many others waited for a table. We were told that it would be an hour wait, but after getting ourselves a beer we were seated after only twenty minutes or so. We settled in at the end of a long communal table in one of the large dining areas and enjoyed the delicious barbecue “combo” meal.
Clearly it ain’t easy to drive east from the Rio Grande and across Texas without having to zigzag up and down and every which way, especially if you’re looking for popular barbeque restaurants out in the countryside.
In Comstock and with the drive down through Del Rio, we had reached the southernmost point of our road trip, and on this day we were heading to the westernmost destination, the city of Austin because Kerry had never been. Our thinking was that this was her best chance to check it out, as we probably wouldn’t ever make the trip back this way just to visit this city.
So from the Salt Lick BBQ it was about an hour and a half drive to Austin. The city’s surrounding Hill Country is gorgeous, with the green, gentle roll of the landscape a welcomed change from the flat, monotonous desert that we’d left behind. Yet there in the middle of this beautiful country we followed the controversial Permian Highway Pipeline that was under construction for quite a few miles.
Once in town, we checked into the Red Roof Plus+ Hotel right along Hwy 35 in the South Congress area of Austin and then drove over to the heart of SoCo — South of Congress — and walked around a lively, tourist/local shopper neighborhood. It felt good to get out and stretch our legs after a long day on the road — but I was still feeling out of it because of the headache.
Before returning to the hotel, we stopped at the H.E.B. Supermarket to pick up something for a light dinner, and then vegged out in front of an HBO documentary. All I really wanted was a good night’s sleep and for my headache to go away so that we could go out the next day and enjoy exploring Austin.
Monday, April 1
> 43 miles
Good news! In the morning we called the information center at Hueco Tanks State Park and were able to get a reservation this coming Thursday for a guided tour! I was really excited about that, because we wouldn’t be coming back this way again anytime soon, if ever, so if we didn’t make the effort to visit Hueco Tanks this time around we probably wouldn’t ever have a chance to visit this important rock art site.
More good news! The first destination for the day was to REI because we needed to replace one of our Sea to Summit sleeping pads which had sprung an air leak at some point; out on the road, we really didn’t have an easy way to locate and fix the leak, especially if it was a valve issue. So we pleaded our case, and here’s a shout out to REI and to Matthew, the sales guy behind the check out counter, who helped us exchange the product even though we’d owned it past the 1-year limit for exchanges. Then, because they didn’t sell this particular item in the central Austin store, another very helpful sales person called the north Austin store, had them hold a new one for us, and we drove up there to make the exchange. Well done, REI! Both Kerry and I would be sleeping comfortably on pads that remain inflated throughout the night.
Because we were further north in Austin, we drove around the nearby neighborhoods. Some funky ones, some that were definitely upper crust, and then one downtown park area along the Water Walk to check out the Congress Street Bridge which the largest urban bat colony calls home (which numbers upward of something like 750,000 Mexican free-tailed bats). We thought we just might head down there in the evening to watch the bats emerge. This was something that I witnessed years ago when working at an ad agency and was in town with the team to pitch the website account for a large computer company. Thinking about those days was like an acid flashback. Not quite a bad trip, exactly, but an anxious one, for sure. I really had marveled, however, at seeing three quarters of a million bats head out along the river in frenzied search for their evening meal.
We also stumbled upon an impressive outdoor sculpture by Ai Wei Wei, the dissident Chinese artist.
After checking out these various Austin neighborhoods we headed back downtown to the Whole Foods “mother ship” as it was described to us by one couple we met in the Rio Grande Campground in Big Bend. We walked around, did some food shopping, and then returned to the (fabulous! irony implied) Red Roof (resort! irony again implied) to hang out. And have a beer, which I needed after navigating all the turns and traffic in this city.
One thing that I’ve clearly noticed in Austin: it seems to be the capital of Honda Elements! I saw quite a few on the road the previous day, and I must have seen fifteen or more of them on this day, several of which were the same Sunset Orange Pearl color as Nitro. It felt like we definitely belonged here in Austin among this familiar crowd. Unfortunately, like in every other dense population of Elements that I’d driven through before, none of the other drivers seem to be the least bit interested in waving in recognition. Whatever.
So, one more full day in Austin ahead of us — which would mark the end of our fourth week on the road! — and then on Wednesday we would start to head back west, beginning our return drive home.
Tuesday, April 2
> 17 miles
A second full day in Austin.
We walked around on the University of Texas campus, visited the Blanton Museum of Art and Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin Pavilion . We enjoyed the provocative temporary exhibition entitled Words/Matter: Latin American Art and Language at the Blanton and were impressed with the museum’s overall collection which included modern & contemporary art and an extensive Hispanic collection.Kelly’s pavilion was beautifully evocative. According to the brochure,”[Kelly] was greatly inspired by the art and architecture of European churches, but the building is not a chapel, since it serves no religious function. Kelly envisioned Austin as a site for joy and contemplation.” It is difficult, however, to not experience this structure as something other than a chapel: from the cross-shaped building to the colored glass windows, the “totem” in the location where the altar of a church would be and the fourteen black & white 40” x 40” marble panels which echo the standard set of 14 Catholic stations of the cross, every aspect of the building and the interior speaks in reverent tones. But that seems to be what Kelly was going for: even as a secular edifice one experiences a sense of awe.
We also walked by the tower on campus from which a sniper started shooting in 1966. I was almost 15 years old at the time, and, horrified, I remember the TV coverage of the carnage.
On August 1, 1966, after stabbing his mother and his wife to death the night before, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, took rifles and other weapons to the observation deck atop the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin, then opened fire indiscriminately on persons on the surrounding campus and streets. Over the next 96 minutes he shot and killed 16 people (including one unborn child) and injured 31 others; a final victim died in 2001 from the lingering effects of his wounds. The incident ended when Austin police officer Houston McCoy reached Whitman and shot him dead. The attack is one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. [Wikipedia ]
53 years ago, and we still haven’t figured out a way to prevent these tragedies.
We drove a short time away to have lunch at The Shady Grove , one of thousands of popular restaurants or food truck locations which seem to be everywhere in this city. The food was tasty, the beer cold, and as it was a very nice day, we enjoyed relaxing outside in the shade over lunch.
From there we moved just a couple of blocks down the road and pulled into the Peter Pan Mini Golf and played a round of 18. Quite a laugh, especially because we were right behind a foursome who had brought along their own 12-pack of beer — and who were kind enough to offer us each a can! That, and the whimsical course itself, certainly made for an entertaining round of miniature golf.
But the sun (maybe the beer) and definitely the traffic on the road as we drove home pretty much wiped us out. Once we finally made it back to the Red Roof Hotel we were done for the day, hung out there for the evening, and then planned the next day’s departure from Austin after a short but fun urban adventure.
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