Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Gilberto Luna’s Jacal

National Parks are not much good for people traveling with dogs. The rule in brief is dogs can go where cars can go and that's it. Imagine me walking a trail without Rusty. I walk through enough dog droppings myself to understand the rule and not all dogs are as quiet and well trained as Rusty and few owners are as obsessive with a plastic bag as I am. Thats the reality. So driving through Big Bend was pretty much the best we could do. Here is a flyby shot of the icon of Big Bend, the Santa Elena Canyon.

Mexico is on the left and the US is on the right and on that side there is a short trail into the canyon. I walked it forty years ago and then the friend I met in the park was an ass and he dared me to swim the Rio Grande and because I was 23 I did and stood on the Mexican beach a minute and swam back. I swam a filthy canal in Venice once on a dare from a school friend so now you know: tell me something can't be done and I'll give it a try.

The sign at the entrance to Old Maverick Road said "Four Wheel Drive Required." With a two wheel drive Promaster loaded to the gills my thought was, if we meet a spot where two wheel drive won't do I know how to reverse this 21 foot monster. It isn't a filthy canal in Venice but the effect was the same.

The plan was to leave the asphalt, a road marked in red at the bottom left of the map and take the unpaved gray road north to Maverick Junction where we would turn left and leave the park bound for Terlingua. We had an appointment "between eleven and noon" with a desert tour guide who offers overnight parking as a harvest host. Chris at Get Lost Tours was expecting us. That was the pressure to complete Old Maverick. If we had to turn back and go the long way through the park we would probably be late.

The attraction along the way is Luna's Jacal, a modest hut on the side of the road in the shadow of a pile of rocks. Luna is famous for farming the area of Terlingua Abajo ("Lower Terlingua") and providing goats to miners, for meat not pets.

To a couple traveling in a Promaster van with 600 amps of electricity on tap hot tea on demand the rigors of Luna's long life are not to be underestimated. Just arriving at the jacal took a bit of nerve I shall admit, for it is a dry dusty and lonely road, this place where Luna lived and raised a large family with two wives.

From the Santa Elena Canyon entrance the road has its moments where the dry river beds crossed create deep sandpits and and short steep inclines to climb back onto the flat road surface. I used the ESC button to lock the front wheels in sync (similar to a differential lock in rear wheel drive cars) and I stuck the gearbox in manual in first. 

Almost all the road was annoying washboard, the bane of dirt road travel, and we should have aired down for greater comfort and grip but the road is short (13 miles) and time was even shorter which actually was really annoying. Including a ten minute stop at the jacal we spent 90 minutes driving 13 miles quite slowly and reasonably comfortably.

To my untutored eye the hut looked grossly uncomfortable and as dry as the proverbial bone. I can pass  on information to you we got from Chris at Get Lost Tours later, which explains away my perplexities.

The hut itself is made of mud and wattle traditional style as explained by the park service. Chris told us they tried to roof the hut in the same way but in a matter of months that roof washed away which is why the hut is covered with tarps as there actually is a reasonable amount of moisture here. I guess farming would be impossible otherwise!

We didn't notice but apparently the back of the hut is a giant rock firmly planted and that's why the canny Luna built it there. Rainwater flowing off the hillside can be channeled around the hut safely. He died at 108 years of age in 1947 so it seems safe to assume he had garnered some desert wisdom in his life.

Chris explained the lack of amenity, not even standing headroom saying Luna and his many, uncounted children spent most of their time at the farm itself, Terlingua Abajo raising crops and animals. This place was a retreat as needed but even so most functions of living were carried out outside what is basically a refuge and sleeping quarters.

Not my idea of home sweet home but I am made of lesser stuff than Gilberto Luna.

The notes describe the farmer as a respected figure in the Big Bend area and you can see why.

In the distance you can see the canyon cut into the cliff whence this modest journey across the desert began.

I doubt he had WiFi in there and TV reception was probably terrible...

We spent ten minutes mooching around and then got back to the business of wrestling with apparently endless washboard.

If you seek out opinion on the Promaster people who don't actually drive them will tell you they don't do well in dirt because they are front wheel drive. Or they have the lowest clearance among two wheel drive vans. The clearance is the big thing argued and it's true but the Promaster is only an inch lower than the Ford and Sprinter, and none of them are designed as off road rock hoppers.

Four wheel drive is also very popular these days but I have found reading the manual and understanding the Promaster gives me far greater latitude to enjoy the van than most couch potato critics will admit. Bearing in mind we use road tires as they are quiet on asphalt and have no deep back country pretensions in our travels, the van does fine. 

Some people put off road tires on them to look gnarly while others lift the van suspension which I think compromises the integrity of the drive system. We upgraded to Bilstein suspension which smooths the ride along with sumo springs recommended by everyone. The front winch is our Hail Mary if we get stuck and I have Go Treads and a shovel and straps and so forth to at least try to unstick myself. I also packed a Deadman to bury in soft sand as an anchor or to use as an anchor around a tree or rock for the winch if absolutely necessary. None of which was present on this desolate road.  Winching did not look viable here and I was acutely conscious of that fact.

The biggest Promaster doesn't have dual rear tires for which I'm glad as they aren't recommended in dirt and they cost more when the time comes to replace them and take lots more effort to change if you get an inner rear tire flat.

I failed of course to photograph the gnarliest bits of trail as I was busy driving and Layne was busy holding on but the van never missed a beat. 

I didn't think it was that hard but Chris looked the van over when we arrived at his place in the desert and said he was impressed we got it through the Old Maverick Road. On his tours in a Hummer he sees people with street cars turning back, so I thought it worth mentioning that we drove it relatively easily. Don't be put off!

We took the road because we wanted to see Luna's Jacal and as a test run in desert conditions, new to us, as we plan on more of this exploring Baja. We drove quite a bit of sandy tracks in Ocala National Forest in Florida and found the van did fine for our modest needs there too.

I have to say the northern end of the road, nearest the park entrance was pretty boring as the dirt was wide and flat and filled with washboard. It was like driving a desert freeway at ten miles an hour and bouncing. Airing down will be a priority in future. When we don't have damned deadlines!

25 miles an hour was out of range for us and thus not a limit. Below are the rules posted at both ends of the road which I photographed walking Rusty at the northern end of Old Maverick Road. "Fuel before entering" refers not to the road itself but to the fact the next gas station is at park headquarters at Panther Crossing deep in Big Bend.

Done and dusted as they say.

Well worth the drive. Stopping out there puts you in a totally silent place, far quieter than the Keys back country where Highway One traffic noise seems to permeate everywhere.

And then back to pavement for the drive to Terlingua Ranch to find Get Lost Tours. Up next.