“After crossing the railroad tracks, turn on 6th street and you will run right into the gate,” Ingrid said. “The Goat Shed is ready for you.” When I called, she answered the phone in Spanish then switched to English after I said hello. Her English was flawless but accented with what sounded like a Germanic underscore. “Thank you,” I said. “We will be there shortly.”
Marc, Don, Gary and I had arrived in Marathon, Texas, just north of Big Bend National Park after a long trek across the Texas desert from Leakey. We had a lodge reserved for three nights on the west side of the park but needed a one-night stay in Marathon before entering the Park from the north. La Loma del Chiva had the only vacancy to accommodate our “last minute” change in plans.
“What is this place?” Don asked in dismay as we rolled up to the gate where Ingrid was waiting. Gary responded with a hearty laugh. Marc was silent. Ingrid showed us the grounds, the Goat Shed, and the communal bathhouse. She was quite gregarious and entertaining but we really didn’t learn much about the compound, how she came to own it, or about her personally. She immigrated from Slovenia, bought the place from its original owners, and advertised it as an Airbnb. As it turned out, we were quite comfortable in the Goat Shed but never learned how it got its name. Our stay was one of the highlights of the trip. However, with just a tinge of regret given the build-up of expectations over the past several days, there were no goats to milk, no heroin, and no naughty girls; just a wacky place to stay that had a mysterious decor and questionable past. If only the walls could have spoken to us!
Big Bend: Day One—The southwest region of Texas is called the Trans-Pecos. “Wild, vast, and isolated, this land of desert, river canyon, and rugged mountains is as close to primeval as anything on this continent.”—Ron C. Tyler
According to Native American legend, after the Great Creator completed the Earth, the leftover scraps of stony debris were hurled down on the Trans-Pecos where they landed in scattered heaps. Of course, the geologic origin of the area is more complicated; it involves major land and sea forming processes over a period of 500 million years that included mountain building, cycles of ocean submergence, multiple periods of volcanic activity, basin expansion, and continual erosion and deposition. Climate and cycles of evolution and demise of plant and animal ecosystems occurred contemporaneously. The history of these processes has been recorded in the rocks and landscapes within Big Bend National Park. I wished I had three weeks, not three days, to study it.
The current landscape of Big Bend includes desert, mountains, and river ecosystems on which Native Americans thrived for 10,000 years. Despite its harsh desert environment, Big Bend has more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. The variety of life is largely due to various environments created by changes in elevation between the dry, hot desert, the cool mountains, and the fertile river valley. Large fauna includes cougar, coyote, javelina, kangaroo rat, golden eagle, gray fox, peccary, jackrabbit, and black bears. The park’s main attractions are its hiking and backpacking trails and its scenic landscapes visible from many miles of paved roads. Despite its large size and beauty, Big Bend is one of the least-visited national parks in the contiguous United States.
The waiter approached our table with the drinks we had ordered and set them before us: “Now, gentlemen, what would you like to order for lunch?” he asked. Because it only takes me fifteen seconds to select an item from a menu no matter the restaurant or how complex the carte du jour, I ordered first and read it exactly as printed with no changes or substitutions: “I’ll have the marinated portabella mushroom topped with bell peppers, spinach, and parmesan cheese with wild rice and asparagus on the side, thank you.” With that approach, I’ve found that I always get what I ordered, it comes in a timely fashion, and the wait staff is happy. However, that approach was not typical of several of my buddies!
We were at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant. This was our first day in the park. After refueling our bikes at Panther Junction and enjoying an informative stay at the Visitor Center, we made our way to Chisos Basin and the Chisos Mountains Lodge for lunch. The Chisos Basin is a relatively small flat spot high in the mountains; it is a lovely area. The average rainfall is over twice that in the rest of the park, which dramatically increases plant and animal diversity. We passed grasslands punctuated by century plants and sotol which gave way to green leafy shrubs. The shrubs, in turn, gave way to sumac, mountain mahogany, madrone, and evergreen and deciduous trees. Junipers, oaks and pinyon pines were common and Douglas fir, quaking aspen, bigtooth maples were found at the highest, protected elevations.
The Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant overlooks one of the most beautiful views within the park. After I ordered my lunch, I turned toward that view. It was my buddy’s turn to order: “Let’s see, I am not quite sure. The menu says Club Sandwich, but what is that exactly? he asked the waiter. “Well,” the waiter answered with a cheerful voice, “just as it says: toasted whole-grain bread with turkey, ham, bacon, swiss cheese, spinach, and avocado.” After a long pause: “Well, OK. Could I get it with white bread instead? The waiter nodded and said sure. “Is the ham country ham or city ham?” my buddy asked. “Aaah, I guess you would call it city ham,” the waiter answered. “Could you make sure the bacon is crisp? The waiter nodded. “Could I have lettuce instead of spinach?” The waiter nodded. “Is the lettuce Romaine or iceberg?” “Iceberg,” the waiter answered (by now his cheerful expression had vanished). “How about that avocado, my buddy asked. Could I have tomato instead?” The waiter nodded and asked: “Now, is that all?” “Yeah, I think so,” my buddy said. “But could you toast only one side of the bread?” Almost imperceptibly, the waiter grimaced, rolled his eyes and walked quickly toward the kitchen. I smiled and said: “That is certainly a beautiful view, isn’t it?”
That view is called “The Window.” It is a notch in the mountains through which the Chisos Basin drains down Oak Creek Canyon, one of Big Bend’s iconic views. We did a short hike near the restaurant, rode around the Basin then departed toward the village of Terlingua west of the Park where we would stay for the next three nights.
The parking lot at the Terlingua Lodge served a small motel, a store, gas station, and the cabin where we stayed. Part of the lot was cordoned off for a small, annual Harley Davidson rally. After I dismounted by our cabin, I watched one of rally’s “riding skills” contests. A 300-pound biker dude on his 900-pound Harley was trying to roll a beer keg within the boundary of a five-foot-wide, 100-foot long corridor with his front wheel. Next to him in a parallel corridor was a petite, 90-pound biker chick on her 800-pound Harley doing the same. There was much whooping and hollering toward the end. She beat him by a “mile.” Oh, to be humbled by the fairer sex, especially when one-third your size on the machine you think you “own”. Ouch, it can be painful sometimes.
Terlingua, Texas, is a mining town that went bust. It is a ghost town with decaying buildings, mine shafts, and according to the locals, some semi-friendly rattlesnakes. It is being revitalized with a motel, restaurant, trading company, and saloon, and some of the old dwellings are being reoccupied. Janet, an artist, was volunteering her time in one such building rebuilt by the Terlingua Artists Cooperative. As we walked by she beckoned us in with a friendly baritone and proceeded to tell us her life history and the history of this land she and generations before lived on and loved.
“My Grandpa said wreckless mining and too many cattle changed the climate and the land,” Janet informed us. “Used to be covered with some of the most beautiful grass you can imagine. Now it’s mostly cacti, rocks, and rattlesnakes. But I was born here and I will die here; I can’t imagine being anywhere else, even though I spent some time in your neck of the woods.”
She told us she was smitten with a young man from eastern Tennessee who passed through after being discharged from the US Army. She followed him back to the Appalachian mountains where he made a living making moonshine. After a while, she “gave him up” because of his vocal and sometimes violent nightmares related to his experiences in Vietnam during the War. She came home. We bought some of her art; she was an extremely talented lady.
Within a stone’s throw of Janet’s artist’s shop was the Trading Post. Old Timers were jamming some country music on the porch next to the upright beer cooler that contained a nice selection. To the right of the Trading Post was the Starlight Restaurant where we had a nice dinner (Well now, I think I will have—no, not that, maybe—-). The restaurant was a movie theater originally. Shortly after it was built a strong wind blew the roof off. The theater was left roofless for years and was named the “Starlight” because when looking up while watching the movie one could see the stars (makes sense to me).
It was a great first day in Big Bend. We had a great ride, saw some beautiful country, took some short hikes, made good-natured fun of each other, and had a lot of laughs. On the way back to the cabin from the Trading Post, I looked out across the landscape and thought about what Janet’s grandfather observed. “Yeah, I wish I could have seen what this country looked like two hundred years ago before it was overgrazed by thousands of cattle,” I thought. Janet’s grandpa was correct. To my right and left were a lot of “cacti, rocks, and maybe some rattlesnakes”.
But it sure was beautiful.
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