Sunday, October 24, 2021

Hiking in Carlsbad Caverns, NM, and The Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX: October 22-23, 2021

The next morning there was little obvious evidence of the prior night's storm. The Rio Grande did have a bubble of about four times more water than the river had when we visited two days before and residents of the area were thankful that there was rain to catch in their water tanks.

On the way to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, we drove through Marfa for a very short drive by tour of various concrete art installations. From within our bus, it didn't look like any were worth spending time on. Outside of Marfa we did stop at the never open "Prada Marfa" building. Prada Marfa is just outside of Valentine, Texas, on one side of US Highway 90 and railroad tracks are on the other side. That's it, nothing else. According to the Atlas Obscura website: 

The brainchild of Berlin-based artistic team Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa was meant to be a “pop architectural land art project.” Built of a biodegradable adobe-like substance, the building is meant to slowly melt back into the Earth, serving as a surrealist commentary on Western materialism. Interesting, then, that Miuccia Prada herself was consulted on the project, handpicking the merchandise for the store’s interior and allowing Elmgreen and Dragset to use the Prada logo. Costing a sum total of $80,000 - or, put another way, about 40 Prada handbags - Prada Marfa’s grand opening occurred on October 1st, 2005, and the perplexed press spread the news all across the country.

With all the press coverage, it was only a few days before vandals converged on the site, breaking the windows, looting the store, and graffiting the walls. Elmgreen and Dragset came in and repaired the building, but this time around they’ve taken precautions: all of the store’s Prada wares are heavily alarmed, and stronger windows have been installed to protect the interior from forced entry. Additionally, the handbags have no bottoms and all of the shoes are right-footed. While the vandalism might be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to Prada Marfa, the site still gets thousands of visitors a year, despite Route 90’s low traffic flow.

Most people buy the artists’ story, but a few vocal dissenters have flooded the internet with conspiracy theories. Some even argue that Prada Marfa is a trap set by aliens meant to attract potential abductees. Visitors beware.

Fortunately, we were not abducted and drove on to hike in Carlsbad Caverns.

The Descent into Carlsbad Caverns
Once inside the caverns the artificial lights gradually decreased in intensity to allow our eyes to adjust to almost total darkness. Visitors are instructed to keep their voices low or not talk because the sound carries easily in the caverns. At times, Dan and I felt we were the only ones inside. It was fantastic and the shapes were also fantastic: stalagmites, stalactites, cave pearls, lily pads, brimstone dams, popcorn formations, and helictites. 

We hiked The Big Room Trail in Carlsbad which is 1.5 miles and an easy 30' elevation gain. This trail follows the perimeter of the cave's largest room of 8.2 acres.

In some areas the formations were as intricate as the exterior of a Thai temple. Some of the "figures" looked like Buddhist sculptural figures especially with the "lily pads."

We overnighted in Carlsbad and the next morning headed back to Texas. Our hike on this last day was The McKittrick Canyon Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park of Texas. The hike was a moderate 6.8 miles with a 300' elevation gain. We walked below the Capitan Reef mountain which was once part of an ocean reef (now a fossilized reef), along a spring fed creek through desert areas, and into a canyon woodlands ecosystem. We ate our bag lunches at the Grotto and headed back to the bus.

Hiking one of the dry stream beds with Capitan Mountain overhead
Deciduous trees were just beginning to show some fall color.

The Grotto
Our last overnight was the return to El Paso where the next morning we caught our flight back home. 


This, Hiking at Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains & Carlsbad Caverns, was our first Road Scholar trip. We thoroughly enjoyed our guides Erin Little and Joe Landreth and the knowledge they shared with us. I liked how varied this itinerary was as well. It was well organized and low stress. With Erin and Joe, there were just 12 of us on this tour.

Erin and her twin sister Erica Little own Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company in Terlingua. They can arrange float trips, canoeing, rafting depending on the depth of the river, hiking, day trips, backpacking trips. 

During our bus journeys when the scenery wasn't spectacular, Erin and Joe put on various DVDs that complemented the areas history. One of the most interesting for me was The River and The Wall. Five friends by bike, horse, canoe, hiking follow the Rio Grande as it flows from El Paso to the Gulf. The scenery is stunning, the wall not so stunning, and while the interviews are of ranchers, residents, environmentalists, farmers who are against the wall their opinions are valid and their voices need to be heeded.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Big Bend National Park, Texas: October 21, 2021

This is the day that in normal years this Road Scholar trip crosses the border into Mexico at Boquillas, but this is not a normal year and the border crossing is closed so on our last day in Big Bend National Park we hiked the 5.6 mile round trip Window Trail in the Chisos Mountains. There is an 800' elevation gain, but there were quite a few shaded areas so not so bad. This was my favorite Big Bend hike.

We hiked through oak, madrone, Mexican Buckeye, cacti, willows, dry river beds, and into Oak Creek canyon before trail's end at the Window.

The window is a slot with a view to the distance, but no trail. There was a trickle of water running over the edge. 

While there wasn't a cloud in the sky while we hiked, clouds were definitely moving in and looked threatening while we had dinner at the Chile Pepper Cafe in Terlingua. 

Although there was a full moon, we hoped to do some star watching tonight in the 55 minutes or so between dusk and moonrise. Mother Nature had her own plans for the night. By the time we arrived back at the Longhorn Ranch Motel, the sky was almost black except for the bolts of lightning. 

One of our fellow Road Scholar travelers, Gail, brought out a bottle of wine to share while we watched lightning bolts dance across the clouds as the storm swept our way. The colors of the sunset peaking out from the storm clouds were glorious. We watched until the overhead clouds opened up and dumped monsoon rains over the hotel. Southwest Texas, like California, really needed this rain as the summer monsoon season had far less rain than normal.

Tomorrow hiking Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Big Bend National Park, Texas: October 20, 2021

We began the day with an early morning visit to the off-the-grid home built by Jamie Cowdery. The walls are pounded earth within a steel framework.

Much of the building materials were "found" in debris piles or otherwise scavenged. He invited us inside where he explained to us the provenance and raw source of his artistic creations. 

In the corner behind the blanket is a "rocket stove" made from a 55-gallon drum. Pipes from the stove run along the wall within the seat under the blanket toward the eating area to provide hours of ambient heat.

Car parts, gas cans, and bed springs decorate his bedroom in a truly original fashion.

His kitchen counters are glass pieces set in Portland cement which he vibrated to evenly distribute the glass pieces. Once set, he sanded and epoxied the surface. They are beautiful. 

This box-like creation is for taking advantage of the area's dark skies. A mattress goes inside and the space is surrounded with a fine mesh to keep bugs and other crawling creatures away. A wood stove sits at the end to provide warmth when needed. Once inside lay back and watch the stars above.

Rain water is captured and filtered and excess solar power is stored in an array of batteries.

After the off-the-grid tour we drove to Big Bend to hike the challenging Lost Mine Trail. The round trip distance is 4.8 miles with a 1,300 foot elevation gain. 

We hiked through oak, Texas Madrone, and juniper forests and there were a surprising number of wildflowers in bloom. Fall is Big Bend's green time as it comes after the summer monsoon season. Cacti bloom in the spring.

Lunch was at the top surrounded by stunning views.

Down the mountain and finished hiking for the day our guide, Erin Little, took us on a walking tour and gave us a history lesson of Terlingua Ghost Town. About 200-300 people live in Terlingua full time. The number swells to 2,000 for the annual Chili Cookoff the first week of November.

Starlight Theater and Old Car
The old car sits between the theater and the old jail (public toilets behind the jail). We learned some of Terlingua's history, and although I can't recall all the details of the car, this is what I remember. 

Cinnabar ore was discovered in the 1880s. Mr. Howard E. Perry bought the land and established the Chisos Mining Company which at its peak employed about 1,000 Mexican miners. The mine shafts were as deep as 800 feet down. The miners (mostly Mexicans who were paid about $1.50/day) chiseled out chunks of rock, put about 80 lbs into a sack hoisted on their backs, climbed a ladder 800 feet up to the top where the chunks were checked for quality, and then climbed back down the 800 foot ladder for another load. The chunks with cinnabar were smashed, the mineral heated and liquified into mercury (quicksilver). 

By 1922, 40 percent of the quicksilver mined in the United States came from Terlingua, but production began to decline steadily during the 1930s. Mercury mining hit its peak during World War I as mercury was a bomb detonator. In 1942 the mining company filed for bankruptcy and Perry was broke.

One of the Mexican workers finally saved enough money to buy that car from the Sears catalog. The car was delivered and he asked his wife to take a ride with him. She declined. The next day, he asked again and she declined. While the man was working, his two boys decided to make themselves comfortable in the backseat. They were smoking and inadvertently caught the seat on fire and the the entire car burned. 

Bar Stools in front of the Starlight Theater
Terlingua Trading Company Front Porch for music and shade
Votive Candle for a possible Texas Gubernatorial Candidate
The Terlingua Cemetery was established in 1903 as a final resting place for miners and residents that succumbed to dangerous working conditions, gunfights, and the influenza epidemic of 1918. Many of these graves have lost their identifying information. Day of the Dead is marked here on November 2 with little tokens, coins and rocks placed on each grave. Each of these people have died twice already: first when the breath left the body and second when each was placed in the grave. There is a final death when you aren't remembered. Terlingua remembers.

The cemetery is in continual use and some of the most colorful graves are from the current era.

The Grave of an Amateur Paleontologist

St. Agnes Church founded 1914

Dinner was at Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company (Erin's company) on TX-118.