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Holy Week in a Holy Place

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Holy Week in a Holy Place
« on: April 13, 2018, 01:42:26 AM »
I and lots of other people spent Easter week in Big Bend. With some effort and a bit of planning, I managed to find lots of solitude, open spaces and the healing power of the desert.

It was a solo trip. My wife, Goldilocks, who I first met in the Basin, is a pastor, so Holy Week is not a good time for her to get away. As a government affairs guy working in a red state, Holy Week is the perfect time of year to get away.

Anticipating the crowds, I left Austin on a Saturday morning with the hope of obtaining a campsite in the Basin Campground the next day. I figured I would take whatever I could find and would be able to ďtrade upĒ during the week. I spent a restless Saturday night in a ďno tell motelĒ in Alpine, had a huge breakfast at Pennyís Diner and headed south just after sunrise.

Upon entering the park, the first thing I noticed was a sea of red ocotillo blooms.



The second thing I noticed was the fact that I alone was following the posted speed limits. I recall a time in the park when driving 48 mph would almost certainly get one a stern warning if not a ticket. Many drivers were routinely doing at least 60. All week.

With the cruise control set firmly at 45, I drove uninterrupted to the Basin, swiveling my head this way and that to look at the desert I love, a friend long neglected and seldom visited, at least recently. I used to say it was a bad year if I didnít make it to Big Bend at least three times. This was just my third trip since November 2012.

I turned up the familiar road to the Basin, thankful that all the cars I saw were headed in the opposite direction, and hoped I would find a good site. The Lodge was fully booked, and all the reservable campsites were spoken for, all week. Passing the bear crossing sign, I mused that I had never seen a bear on this stretch of road in what must be about 200 times driving it.

I reached the Basin around 9:30 a.m. The sign said the campground was full, echoing the sign down below, but I saw a few people clearly packing up and preparing to leave. I asked several of those people if they were leaving, and they told me their sites had already been claimed. ďItís real busy,Ē one of them told me. I came over the hill and saw another pair packing up and asked if their site was available. It was! I just lucked into the best site (No. 17) on the campgroundís upper loop. Itís a wide site with a ramada, its own piŮon pine shading the parking area, a stunning view of Casa Grande and privacy from the sites below.



Having already taken a payment envelope from the pay station, I filled it out for seven nights, placed my stub on the campsite pole, moved my car to a nearby parking area and walked down to the pay station. The couple finished packing up about half an hour later, and I moved in immediately. All I did that day was set up camp, unpack, nap (I didnít get much sleep at the no-tell motel.), eat and watch the sunset from the nearby ridge overlooking the group campground. That sunset didnít disappoint.



I drove down to the pullout officially designed to notify visitors about bears and mountain lions but unofficially known as the ďcell phone pull-outĒ and called Goldilocks, something I would do each night. Bright Venus sunk to the horizon beside Pulliam Bluff, and a parade of headlights and taillights streamed past. Once again, no bears crossed the road. I settled in for the night, pondering the weather forecast and the many ideas for what I wanted to do this week Ė I had barely a hint of a plan for the trip. Ė and the happy thoughts that I was back in the Bend.

The stars were stunning. A waxing just-passed first quarter moon yielded the sky after midnight. The Milky Way, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn were especially stunning during the early hours of the morning. I had planned to photograph the Milky Way in the early morning, perhaps over the iconic dead tree in Juniper Flat, but was simply too tired to shoot tonight. It turned out that was the best night to photograph the night sky. Clouds soon streamed in, and the nearly full moon would rudely butt in shortly thereafter.

I slept in that morning (Monday). The sun, peering over Panther Pass, pierced the tent a little after 9 a.m. For all the hours I spent setting up camp and unpacking, I hadnít actually prepared myself for the day ahead, so I didnít leave camp until about 10:30 a.m. I headed for the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, hoping to find the giant daggers in bloom.

Only once before have I been in the park when some of the daggers were blooming, and Iíve never seen them at their peak. Almost none of the yuccas Iíd seen so far were blooming, so I wasnít terribly optimistic. The creosote was blooming, fragrant plants covered in bright yellow flowers.



That, and some cacti, were all that were abloom along most of the auto trailís route, but then I spied the unmistakable creamy candlelight of a giant dagger in bloom. And then another.



And then dozens.



Maybe 25 percent of the daggers were in bloom. Itís more than Iíve ever seen, but I bet itís not their best show by a long shot. Very little measurable rain has fallen in Big Bend since December, and the effects of that drought are everywhere. On the plus side, thereís hillsides full of dead and dying lechugilla, the bane of every off-trail hiker, but almost every other effect is on the minus side. Animals are stressed. Plants are brown. Flowers are limited.

Driving back, my attention was caught by a branched bloom, shaped like a heart, rising before the distant Chisos Mountains. Though not a sentimental type, I immediately felt the desertís ďI love youĒ message. "I love you, too," I thought, perhaps aloud, maybe with one or more tears in my eye(s).



I would see the giant daggers from another viewpoint later in the trip, but I did not know that at the time. Driving back toward the main road, I was tempted to go down the Old Ore Road, but instead I visited the new (to me) Fossil Discovery Exhibit. It is impressive. I spent about an hour there before heading down to Dugout Wells for a picnic lunch. A pair of cardinals sang to me while I ate.

I returned to the Basin for a nap, then hiked the Basin Loop Trail, taking liberties to go off-trail when I saw, or thought I saw, something interesting. I ended up walking/scrambling to a bare rock outcrop overlooking Oak Creek and providing a largely unseen view of the Window.



The off-trail rambles were a warm-up of what was to come, but it was time to finish the loop, itself a warm-up hike, and return to camp.

Clouds filled the sky, so the sun set privately. Based on the weather forecasts for the week, I knew the next day (Tuesday) would be the best for what I considered the keynote hike of the trip. Before I retired for the night, I prepared my pack, fixed a picnic lunch, loaded the car, set an alarm and otherwise got everything ready so all I had to do in the early morning was leave for the trailhead. I needed to hit that trail before sunrise.

A familiar trail it would be, for a while, then into the wild.

To be continued.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #1 on: April 13, 2018, 03:00:50 AM »
Excellent! I was there in the area at the same time. Your right about being a holy place, that's where I go to see God. No way of seeing the Bend and not see him.

sent from flatland


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Offline Casa Grande

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #2 on: April 13, 2018, 03:40:35 AM »
I sure do miss your reports,  Jeff.  So eloquently written.  Glad you got to spend some time in God's country my friend.

sent from my Note 8 using the Big Bend Chat mobile app


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Offline mule ears

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #3 on: April 13, 2018, 06:36:49 AM »
Like old times, happy to see a jeffblaylock report unfolding.
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Offline Jalco

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #4 on: April 13, 2018, 07:34:08 AM »
I enjoy your writing.  Thanks!

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Offline Jim

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #5 on: April 13, 2018, 08:20:15 AM »
Welcome back, Jeff.

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Offline Don H

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #6 on: April 13, 2018, 11:59:50 AM »


"Like old times, happy to see a jeffblaylock report unfolding."
My sentiments exactly, good to see you back!
Site #17 one of my faves as well in the Basin, although I seldom frequent the basin campground anymore and opt for primitive camping.




"Rugged isolation in a Jeep with the top down, doors off, sweaty, dusty, listening to your flavor of tunes, immersed in the most beautiful and beguiling desert mountains in all of the Southwest, the Sierra Quemada. Nothing short of spiritual cleansing. " D. Locke

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #7 on: April 13, 2018, 01:19:14 PM »
Hello, Jeff. I believe this is the first report you've posted since I joined the board, and I think it's fair to say that I joined this board, in large part, because of your posts. Very glad to now be in the position of reading one first-hand as it unspools. Happy to know you're back in the Bend.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #8 on: April 13, 2018, 03:35:11 PM »
Hello, Jeff. I believe this is the first report you've posted since I joined the board, and I think it's fair to say that I joined this board, in large part, because of your posts. Very glad to now be in the position of reading one first-hand as it unspools. Happy to know you're back in the Bend.

Thank you, HMoD. I have recently restored the photographs to those old trip reports, so they are mostly whole again. Other links to other parts of my old web site will remain broken (The site suffered a catastrophic failure about six years ago, and it has been offline ever since.), but I might be able to recover attachments like GPS tracks, maps, etc., if someone asks about a specific one.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #9 on: April 13, 2018, 03:48:31 PM »
I awoke moments before my alarm wouldíve roused me. Clouds filled the skies, and It was still dark. I attended to some morning matters then started the drive down from the Basin, turned right at the junction and cruised (at 45 mph) to the road toward Boquillas Canyon. I changed into my hiking clothes at the parking area for the Marufo Vega Trail, put on my pack and looked both ways before crossing the road.

A car pulled into the parking lot immediately behind me. Really? Not even five minutes alone on this trail, I thought.

It took them about 20 minutes to catch me, and they blew right by me. The sun rose, its light briefly turning the clouds orange.



The clouds would hang around all day. So would a gusty wind.

Iíve hiked this portion of the Marufo Vega trail twice before. In February 2002, I hiked the Ore Terminal Trail. In January 2008, I led a pair of friends down the North Fork to the bottom of Boquillas Canyon and back up the South Fork. At that time, I noticed that several of the ore tramway towers had decayed significantly from my previous hike. Ten years later, theyíve decayed a lot more. Some are no longer standing, and others continue to be reclaimed by the desert.



After the trail leaves the ore tramway behind, it begins a comically steep ascent to a shelf high above the desert floor. Rather than using switchbacks, the trail charges straight up a series of pitches, then levels out until it passes an unusually flamboyant cairn. Of course, I trekked right past it, not even remotely considering the possibility that it marked my exit ramp. A quarter mile later, I checked my GPS, realized my error and backtracked to the Jenga tower.



It was time to follow the GPS track Randell recorded years earlier toward an overlook that, on this board, bears his name.

From here, the route heads generally eastward across a pair of washes before descending into the third one. It follows this wash upstream until it disappears into a ridge.



There is one particular pour-off that requires leaving the wash to negotiate. I went to the left, presenting me with a tough, nearly 60-degree scramble up a loose slope perilously dotted with cacti to overcome. Looking at othersí paths after the fact, there appears to be a better route to the right, but I didnít see it at the time.

From there, it is simply a matter of following the wash until it ends. Stay to the left. The temptation will be to go to the right, to what appears to be a high vantage point. It is a false summit, and the views will disappoint relative to the effort it takes to reach it. There are likely some spectacular views to be had, but they are a long way away, and I had already spent too much energy to get here. I had been hiking for nearly three hours, and there had been nowhere to rest or sit down.
I abandoned this higher perch for one closer to the canyon rim, and within a few moments, I was greeted with a spectacular view.



It got more spectacular as I edged closer to the rim of Boquillas Canyon.





Here I sat. I ate the lunch Iíd prepared the evening before: sliced Italian sausage, sliced cheese, nuts and dried cranberries. Actually, I only ate about half of that. I was tired. To my left I saw a perch that might provide a view of the actual canyon bend, but I wasnít willing to scramble for it. It might be the type of perch Iíd visit if Iíd backpack up here, but Iím not likely ever hiking that comically steep section of the Marufo Vega Trail with a heavy pack again.

No, this was probably my only shot at this outcrop, and I passed. It looked like stormy weather was moving into the area. The wind grew stronger. I retreated. Rain never did hit the ground, but it sure tried.



I followed Randellís path back down the wash. Plants and cacti have grown during the intervening years, so I couldnít follow his path exactly. Once again, I bypassed the pouroff on what I now believe is the wrong side. I rejoined the Marufo Vega trail at that oversized cairn almost exactly three hours after Iíd left it. The trail seemed like a highway.

Then I hit that aggressively steep section, where I met a pair of guys who had just climbed it. They decided to turn back rather than make for the Split Rock camp site. They tore off down the trail before Iíd negotiated even a third of that awful decent. I ended up seeing 10 people on that trail, including a mother and two children who were hiking to the terminal, I guess, as I was making my way back to the trailhead. They seemed ill-equipped for the trek, but itís their choice.

I stopped to take a closer look at some collapsed tram tower ruins.





Back at the trailhead, I saw six vehicles. Six! This place is overrun, I thought.

After a shower at the Rio Grande Village store, I retreated to my campsite in the Basin for a nap.

It had remained fairly cloudy all day, but there were enough breaks to make me think the sunset might be something special. I drove part way up the road toward Panther Pass to stake out a vantage point. The sunset was indeed something special.







I headed down the hill and called my wife. She was happy Iíd made it to Randellís overlook and happier that Iíd made it back. As for the next day, I knew where and when I needed to end up, but I hadnít filled in the rest of the schedule. It was going to be cool and windy, so desert hikes were in order.

To be continued.
« Last Edit: April 14, 2018, 02:58:52 PM by jeffblaylock »
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline badknees

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #10 on: April 13, 2018, 09:26:05 PM »
Quote
There is one particular pour-off that requires leaving the wash to negotiate. I went to the left, presenting me with a tough, nearly 60-degree scramble up a loose slope perilously dotted with cacti to overcome. Looking at othersí paths after the fact, there appears to be a better route to the right, but I didnít see it at the time.

Stay to the right!
Not all those who wander are lost.
Ė J.R.R. Tolkien

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Offline RichardM

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #11 on: April 13, 2018, 10:23:01 PM »
Got coordinates for the Jenga cairn? I'd like to guess how much we came up short...

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #12 on: April 13, 2018, 10:53:32 PM »
Got coordinates for the Jenga cairn? I'd like to guess how much we came up short...

I recorded a waypoint on my GPS:

UTM 13R 0701779 E 3234584 N NAD27
LAT 29.225555 LON -102.92410266521527 NAD27

The Lat-Lon is calculated using an online utility. The waypoint was recorded using UTM.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline Hang10er

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #13 on: April 14, 2018, 02:27:27 PM »
On the 45mph, I had been politely warned not to speed in the park.  I never had a problem, as I was always too busy trying to see all the views.  My last trip in February was the first time I noticed that it seems to be a lot less regulated.  I had people passing me right and left.  I was somewhere and I actually pulled over so a car could pass.

What was funny was I heading east towards the basin and saw a couple of Corvettes behind me.  They never really caught up with me and when I turned off towards Croton Springs, I stopped and watched about 8 or 9 of them pass by.  Must have been a rally or club or something.  And they ALL appeared to be doing the posted 45!  Them guys and me.

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Holy Week in a Holy Place
« Reply #14 on: April 14, 2018, 05:58:51 PM »
Clear skies sent the temperature freefalling into the low 40s by early Wednesday morning. Since I was cold, I didnít particularly feel inspired to get up early and get off to a predawn start, so I dozed until after sunrise.

This was the only day when I needed to be in a specific place (The Front Porch) by a specific time (5 p.m.), so I needed to plan the day accordingly. I decided to drive down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping wherever I fancied, down toward Santa Elena Canyon, then take the Old Maverick Road to the western entry station and the highway to the ghost town.

I first went to Panther Junction, hoping to find new Big Bend book to read but instead finding the visitor center overrun with people. Backtracking, I stopped to take photos of the few bluebonnets growing alongside the road.



Then it was on to the Croton Springs Road for a little hike there. I explored several of the high points overlooking the main wash.





Turning onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, I decided to check out the Sam Nail Ranch, which I havenít visited in many years, and see if I could find a path into Cottonwood Creek. Turns out a nice trail leads right to the base of the big cottonwood tree and down into the wash. I didnít recall their being such easy access to the creek, but it has been many years since Iíve visited this particular set of trails.

Once in the creek, I bypassed a flock of birders, then trekked downstream (northward) for a mile or so. I found some small pools of water and evidence of an overgrown spring.



On the way back, the tall cottonwood trees marking the wash exit could be seen from a long way away.



I planned to hike down to the Homer Wilson Ranch and environs, but that parking area was full. So I went on to Sotol Vista, where I had my traditional picnic lunch under the lone tree, chatting with several visitors and paid guides. Feisty winds blasted the area.





Prickly pears were blooming here and farther on down the road below Goat Mountain.





I stopped a little farther down the road determined to explore the ďdinosaur rockĒ formation. From a distance, it appears like a big dinosaur bending down to eat its prey. Someone else referred to it as the ďsaber-tooth tiger.Ē I wanted to check out the natural window.



Getting to the formation is fairly easy across the open desert. In addition to abundantly blooming prickly pears, a few other cacti were showing off their colors.



As I neared the dinosaur rock formulation, I began to recall having tried to visit it sometime before. From a distance, it looks like an easy climb would take one right up to the arch/window, but it turns out to be a much more difficult ascent. A deficit of free-climbing skills combined with a surplus of sense caused me to turn around after hiking around the base. Just like I did the first time, whenever that was.

I vaguely recall that I had company the first time I was here, and I seem to remember one or perhaps both of my companions attempting the free climb and maybe even making it, but I canít find any photos of it, so maybe I imagined the whole thing. Nonetheless, the feeling of dťjŗ vu was very strong.

The hike back offered excellent views of Cerro Castellan.



I headed on to crowded Castolon for my customary ice cream treat, even though it was out of stock and I had to settle on a different one, then it was on to Santa Elena Canyon. The trail parking area was full, so I turned onto Old Maverick Road. Shortly thereafter, I found a picturesque ocotillo waving its red-tipped arms at the canyon.



Despite the lack of measurable rain in months, Old Maverick Road was exceptionally washboarded and rough for nearly the entire distance. I stopped at Lunaís place, partly out of admiration that he raised so many kids there but mostly out of desire to stop the bouncing for a few minutes. No one drove by or stopped while I was there. I ducked inside briefly. It was still quite cool in there.



I was happy to see the end of the road. After a shower at the motor lodge, I headed up to the ghost town intending to visit the cemetery and pay respects. The parking area at its gates was full, so I went on to the end of the road and took a seat on The Front Porch.



Someone was playing music between swapping stories with the tourists, but the locals Iíve grown accustomed to seeing were by and large absent. The parking lot began to fill.

The locals I was here to meet arrived just before the Starlight opened its doors, and we shuffled in near the front of the herd. Every table and seat at the bar was accounted for within minutes. At 5 p.m. On a Wednesday.

After an enjoyable visit, which ended well after sunset, I headed back up to the Basin, got my stuff together for an early start the next morning, set an alarm and hunkered down for a windy night. Surely I could outmaneuver these crowds.

To be continued.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

 


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