Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Rio Grande

The best place to start here is to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and to offer an apology. I am building a record of our journey and at the rate we are moving every day counts. Normally I'd take a day or two off for the days we all celebrate as vacations or family gatherings but I am taking advantage of WiFi and some time not moving to catch up on this page. 

This part of our trip took place along the north bank of the Rio Grande, the Big River which as you will see is really not that big at all. Worse, Mexicans call it the Rio Bravo del Norte, the Fierce River of the North, and I can't say as the sections we drove alongside looked at all fierce. Bear in mind as we shall see the river was once considered too difficult to navigate.

First we passed through Terlingua itself which locals I now know call "The Ghost Town." One man has bought up most of the town, a local Spottswood you could say and his name is Bill Lay and he owns…the lay of the land in town. The tepees are for rent so if you want an "authentic desert experience" or something there they are, and they aren’t worker housing. 

Everywhere else has authentic desert living out in public for all to see. 

Chris of Get Lost Tours told us of a massive steep climb at one point along Highway 170, we couldn't miss it he said, so every time we faced a massive dip we looked at each other and said: Could it be worse than this? Rest assured it could.

The road from Terlingua to Presidio is mostly freshly paved and smooth so the driving was easy, even with only one hand on the wheel, and I hope my pictures illustrate at least to some modest degree the spectacular nature of the terrain. It went on and on for an hour of driving, about 70 miles depending on which two points you measured. The intensely beautiful stretch may have been only fifty miles long but it went on forever. 

The reason the river is the border between Mexico and the United States is because both countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The treaty created the southwestern United States as we know them today, a concession of over half a million square miles of territory in exchange for $15 million dollars with promises to respect the rights of the settlers in what had been Mexican territory. 115 thousand Mexicans chose to remain in what was now the US and become US citizens. The treaty was a complex arrangement but for our purposes, driving the river bank it made the river the boundary between two countries.

As you can see the Mexican side of the border is quite impenetrable. If you look at a map of the area there is nothing much for miles to the south of the crumbly cliffs overlooking the river.

The beauty of the rugged terrain has an added advantage for a US traveler in that this section of border is not only unguarded but it is surprisingly peaceful. Here we saw no law enforcement, indeed hardly any other cars drove past us.

In a world dominated by 9-11 and border controls and fences and walls along here you can drive unimpeded and enjoy nature in pristine form. 

Additionally the state of Texas has secured public land in the area known confusingly as the Big Bend State Park. We had plans to travel straight through unfortunately but I could have spent a lot more time mooching around here. You drop by Park Headquarters and talk to the rangers and enjoy back country camping, river rafting and I don't know what all else with a simple park permit.

What ho!? I see...teepees? This was our first encounter with a picnic area dressed up in rather peculiar style. 

I know, it looks goofy but really they were rather fun. In a world where we find ourselves fearful of treading on ethnic toes at every turn I thought these simple shelters were hilarious. I over photographed them.

It should be noted they provide real shade and even if your voice reverberates a bit when you ask for the mayonnaise I imagine a traveler stopping for lunch in summer would be grateful for the airy shade.

The weather was perfect, dry air seventy degrees and quite warm enough for shirt sleeves as we went for a walk through the accidental rock garden next to the teepees.

Rusty trotted through nose down and we stood on the bluff above the river and enjoyed the quiet.

Bearing in mind you can park for twenty four hours in picnic areas in Texas we could have stayed the night and I was ready to hang out and read and laze in the sun but we had a date with family members in Tucson so Herself was ready to move on.

I don't think he was ready to get back in the van. The longer we find ourselves in the desert the more he likes it.

I find the joy of traveling with my home outweighs any memories of motorcycling. I dare say I would take up riding again in a stationary life in a quiet backwater but for travel you can't beat having your home with you.

Photography doesn't translate grades and inclines well but we finally found Chris's steepest hill. There was a convenient pull out. 

We looked over the wall into the abyss. Emigration from Mexico would look like this for miles upon miles, above.
Apparently the grade is not actually recommended but it was the best the engineers could do when they built the road. I had long since put the van into Tow/Haul mode to hold back gear changes in automatic mode on the grades, but now I stuck the manual shift into second gear and we coasted down the extra steep grade without needing to use the brakes. There was no traffic so we could coast as slow as we liked. 

It was glorious.

A couple of bridges were getting upgrades which was nice to see even though it felt a little stupid sitting at a red light in the middle of nowhere!

The desert out my window as we waited:

We happened upon an open space with a prominent sign advising no overnight camping for whatever reason. It was broad daylight so we stopped.

We had the river bank to ourselves and wide open spaces for the former stray dog to run in.

I looked across the river to a lonely Mexican Ranch on the other side. I could see some barbed wire as a clue.

Rusty suddenly went on full alert and started pointing. For some reason I left my camera in the van and was using my Apple 12 mini cellphone. Thus the two javelina drinking at water's edge are mere black dots. Sorry about that:

They scrambled up the bank and disappeared. Meanwhile my little hunter gatherer found a snack on the river bank. He wrestled the tortilla into submission and elected not to share any with me.

Here's another spot I could have lingered before driving on to the next picnic area for a free night's sleep but we had miles to make before dark.

There was a resort nearby and I think the land was their’s but somehow left open for passersby to stroll and enjoy. We left no trace.

The fading board explained that R T Hill who was a member of the first river raft down the Colorado repeated the experiment here to prove the Rio Grande could be traversed down the canyons. I think those expeditions were incredibly brave as once you were committed the only way was forward.

That was a good walk.

Your home where you go. Our sink drains to a gray water tank under the van so we don't leave messes as we go.

It was about lunchtime when we arrived at Presidio where our drive would take us north to Marfa and away from the border. I took this photo in the days leading up to Christmas and as you might imagine Mexican Americans going home for the holidays had their vehicles piled high with gifts which apparently Mexican customs were not processing as fast as one might like. The line was impressive enough we skipped all plans to cross before the holiday.

40 years ago I rode across the bridge on my Vespa 200 which had brought me here from New York over several months and quite a few encounters. I stopped at the intersection and pulled out my tripod and my Rand McNally and photographed myself planning my route. There was no Facebook to tell me Mexico was dangerous and I slept on the streets in my sleeping bag, talked to everyone I met in Italian as I knew no Spanish and spent a couple of happy weeks seeing Mexico. I was 23 and feckless.
If I denied there is an element of nostalgia in this journey I'd be lying and that would be a terrible thing to do at Christmas.