Hello! I’m Justin, or JZ, and I handle the boring bits of the adventures that we take. Maybe not so boring, as I’m actually taking the time to write about it and I really enjoy these small bits. I hope my minutiae interests readers or people who are planning to take similar trips. I also love pictures with roads in them, so you’ll see more road-y pictures in my posts than in Jamie’s.
The first thing anybody who lives in Texas will learn is that it’s a solid 10 hour drive to get outside of your local bubble. For us, that bubble is Houston and the triangle of Dallas/Austin/Houston. As a solo driver, the driving can be exhausting and the best advice I can give is that the sooner you get on the road in the morning, the better. I’ve never realized this as acutely before (and this is a theme I will continue to bring up); when traveling, daylight is the most precious resource. As long as there’s sunlight, I can drive any distance without exhaustion–the difficulty arises once it’s dark. At night, I have nothing to look at, nothing to see–just a (poorly) illuminated road and the headlights of the other cars. It’s hard to continue once night falls. When we left from our first stop in San Antonio, we were on the road by 7am.
When going to Big Bend from the Houston-area of Texas, the two big options are I-10 or Highway 90 to Del Rio/Big Bend. Highway 90 is definitely more scenic, but knowing the roads I’d be driving after Big Bend, I grew preemptively sick of one-lane highways, so I opted to drive I-10. Our journey was a total of 1618 miles, according to Google maps. The final odometer reading was about 2100 miles and 41 total hours of driving, counting all of the intrapark driving.
The drive to Big Bend (and even Big Bend itself) shows off the diversity of Texas environments–starting with the humid coastal grasslands of the Houston area, to the Plains of Central and West Texas, and the Mountains, Basins, and Shrubland of Big Bend. Having done so much driving around the US, I love watching the change in environment over the course of a driving day. Starting the day in a human almost-swamp of Houston and ending in a desert gives me that feeling of awe that never gets old.
I do have a minor rant about the drive, and this really applies to the National Park. People speed like irresponsible jerks, and will do unsafe one-lane passing all the time. I understand speed limits on a highway tend to be “go with the flow of traffic” and that’s sometimes 5 mph over. But on a winding park road, with limited visibility, if the speed limit is 45, I’m going to respect it. When when some idiot in a luxury suv [at a national park…] is tailgating me, I’m just going to wonder what the hell their problem is. I imagine they’re probably similar to the unaware sheltered rich people who camped next to us who have no idea that they’re on a vacation and cannot stop being prevailed assholes for a few days. I was happy every time I saw a Park Ranger giving somebody a speeding ticket.
We still had daylight when we arrived at Big Bend, and we set up our tent. We use a smaller 6-person tent, that had an emphasis on quick/easy setup rather than a bunch of fancy features. While I would love a tent with a mesh enclosure or other things, one thing I’ve learned from our longer trips is that it’s important to be able to setup and take down our tent quickly. Especially on days where we arrive late–I couldn’t imagine trying to set up a complex tent in the dark and freezing (like we had to when we arrived in Carlsbad). Or on days where I’m going to be driving 6+ hours–taking down and repacking a tent is time consuming, and the longer it takes to pack up camp, the later we get on the road (and then we arrive in the dark… and well, yeah…). Also, aluminum poles are so much easier to work with than fiberglass. Or last tent had a fiberglass pole shatter and it was an absolute nightmare to clean up and deal with.
We were a bit under prepared for the brutal cold of the nights in New Mexico–where it was reaching 32F and below counting wind chill. We opted to use camping quilts instead of sleeping bags, which in retrospect, was a bad idea if you toss and turn a lot. Most nights, I was knocking off the blankets and waking up very, very frigid. I was missing my mummy-style sleeping bag. We didn’t camp with electrical hookups, so using space heaters were out. I am considering a propane heater for future trips, which I will report on next time we adventure out–but regardless you cannot run a heater over night because of fire and carbon monoxide concerns. What I can say helped however, was creative use of exothermic chemical warmers (Hothands) and USB hand warmers. Skin burns from long duration exposure can occur at temperatures as low as 110F-125F, a standard Hothands averages a temperature of 135F (with a possible max of 160F, which is rare). Needless to say, if you leave that on your open skin overnight, you will be going to the ER the next morning. We kept them in our jacket pockets, shirt pockets, or pants pockets while we slept, and were perfectly safe with it. The feet-warmers are also great to sleep in–but make sure to wear them attached to thick wool socks–I tried thin cotton socks and nearly burned my feet.
Part of the fun of these adventures is the cooking. Our preferred method of cooking is to use freeze dried food [of which I’ll go into more detail in another post] with a small canister stove (uses isobutane and propane) to boil the water. We both absolutely love our camping meals. As somebody who prefers simplicity and ease of use/cleanup, freeze dried meals are really time-efficient compared to cooking “real” meals; plus I don’t have to use space in our car for a cooler to refrigerate ingredients. I see other campers making bacon and eggs with a few other sides… then I see them in line at the campground cleaning sink with 10+ pots and pans. Depending on the freeze dried food (some have different serving amounts in the bags), the cost per meal per person works out to be between $5 and $8; the one area this option is at a disadvantage. One other note about the canister burners is that you can’t see the flames during the day, so keep that in mind from a safety standpoint.
I also recommend considering bringing a pressurized water bottle–having one has made the two plates much easier to clean. Being able to blast a jet of water (or hot water, if you bring it close to boil before pouring it into the bottle) onto our mess kits helped me keep our cookwear clean without having to stand in line to use the single cleaning sink at the campground. The one night I went to use the cleaning sink, I was stuck behind our snobby camping-neighbors. The lady 5 dishes, so I was totally ok with waiting. Then a relative brought over an entire rack of pots and pans over. Her husband suggested that they let me wash my two plates since I wouldn’t take long. The wife screeched at him to “get with the program, hurry up and wash these now” (it was already dark so I don’t know what the rush was). I really don’t know what her problem was, but I salute her dedication to assholery and selfishness, as that is clearly the entire point of being out in nature.
The Rio Grande is a definitely a sight to see, and Big Bend is a pretty awesome park to camp at. The few other obnoxious campers or drivers didn’t manage to ruin that. Also, the stars at night in Big Bend are phenomenal, and being out at 2am, under those stars made me wonder what the world was like before civilization polluted the skies with illumination. I felt a sense of wonder I had not felt since childhood. I would walk the camp just staring upwards at the sky full of constellations that I could never see back in the city and suburbs. And really, that’s the whole point of our journeys: restoring and embracing the sense of wonder.
The hiking was a blast too–getting to see sights that the modern world doesn’t get to. I enjoyed the trails we hiked in Guadalupe Mountains more than Big Bend, because we got to climb more rocks and it was overall a little more challenging. In Big Bend, we did the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (about 1.2 miles if you go up to the river), and it took us up to the edge of the Rio Grande River. While it was a short hike, it gave a nice sample of all the environments in Big Bend–mountains, deserts, shrubland, and the river. There were several other people on the trail, so I wasn’t able to get mentally lost in nature as I would have liked to. In Guadalupe, we did the Smith Spring Trail, which was 2.3 miles, going up it counter clock-wise (which I liked because we ascended by climbing over rocks, rather than descending on the rocks).
Our drive back took us through the wasteland of far-west Texas. I saw wasteland because the only thing out there are oil fields, oil people, small towns, and lots of ignorance. I do want to give special mention to the town of Andrews, TX, for their obnoxious sign as you drive into their town:
I’m still trying to figure out the propose of this sign, because it’s a beacon of ignorance on so many levels. Is it to make you feel unwelcome if you don’t believe in their exact version of God? And even so, is it really that appropriate to announce that to everybody? I mean, I love critical thinking, but I didn’t make a sign for that; it’s just one of those things I don’t need to make a giant sign for. Then there’s the “Supports Free Enterprise.” Again, something that I have to wonder about the need for announcing this. It clearly doesn’t fit on the sign, so they’re really going out of their way to put it on the sign. After driving through their downtown and seeing the town itself in rather poor repair, I have to wonder if they meant “Supports Free Enterprise bleeding wealth out of the common man.” I mean, I too can just adjust the font size until it fits. All told, I’m not sure what’s going on with this giant sign. If it’s to upset people, then I am disheartened by their sadism. I can totally go back to my city/suburb/whatever that doesn’t go around making obnoxious signs while their town eventually becomes a relic of history once the great free enterprise of oil leaves them. Normally I don’t feel the need to call out small towns, because most of them have been nice places, but Andrews is going the extra mile, and so, I felt needed to go the extra mile too.
Our trip ended on Black Friday, which was a mild annoyance when driving past the largest mall in Houston. I hope we get a chance to go back to Big Bend, because there were so many hikes we didn’t get a chance to do (and I love National Park camping). Here’s a few other random pictures I took that I liked: