1-12-2014 Last Day in Big Bend

NAS Corpus Christi: 67 F with a nice 10mph breeze and bright sunshine at 5:30PM

through the window at Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsSometimes the most difficult part about not writing blog stories right away is getting back into the “mode”. Sitting here by Corpus Christi Bay, watching the brilliant sun turn orange on the horizon and listening to shore birds makes it a bit difficult to slip back in time to our rocky world at Big Bend. 

This has been a lovely day, and there are more to come, and of course by the time I get to write about them, we will be off somewhere else, doing more lovely things and trying to remember the last lovely thing that we did.  It isn’t so much that I feel obligated to keep up with the blog, it is more that I really want to remember, for myself, what I felt when I was doing whatever.

red rocks in the Grapevine HillsSo, I open up Picasa again, and look at the photos for awhile, think about where we were and what it felt like, and sooner or later, the feelings reemerge. I am back in Big Bend, the cool morning is opening up as the sun rises, the smell of the leafless cottonwoods and desert grasses filling my nose as we get ready for our last day in the Big Bend.

When we first started looking at ideas for this day, we thought it would be nice to do the dirt back roads that are between the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.  The River Road traverses the southern portion of Big Bend and midway passes the ruins of the Marsical Mine.  Mercury was once mined here and structures are still standing.  In addition, the route has several rough dirt tracks that lead to backcountry campsites along the river that might be interesting to see.

Nice easy trail little over a mileBut it is a 51 mile trip, with at least 8 hours of rough bumping around.  We do that a lot, but on this day we thought, no…maybe something easier.  I thought it might be nice to get back to camp by 3 or so and have time to cook a decent supper, get some laundry done, and be ready for Monday morning and an early departure.  You know, that life stuff. 

Instead of an all day backcountry trip, we took a 6 mile dirt road to one of the hidden gems of the park, the Grapevine Hills.  Photos of the Balanced Rock are everywhere, and yet it seems that fewer people make it out to the hills to take the short easy hike.  We thought, hmmm…maybe no one will be there and we can take Abby.  (If you haven’t seen my last post and my comment about dogs on the trails here is another thought about that.  Our dogs can carry diseases that wild animals are not immune to.  I hadn’t really thought about that aspect when I was grumbling away about the no dog rule and trying to get around it.)

trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThe road was again, graded dirt, but with more washboards and a few ditches, but nothing that would require actual 4 wheel drive.  We drove past a couple of primitive camps, and at 6 miles arrived at the trailhead for Balanced Rock.  Lo and behold, there were six cars already there and 4 more had just arrived with big bunches of people piling out and loading up water and packs and leaving on the trail.  Way too many people for me much less an illegal dog!

We thought we would amble on down to the end of the road and check out the Grapevine Springs primitive campground, just another mile or so north.  The road got a bit rougher here, with high clearance needed for sure, but all wheel drive would have been ok as well. The campground was surrounded by brush, and didn’t have much of a view. We wandered around a bit, and finally made it through some of the thick, spiny brush to find what may have once been a spring.  There was a hint of an old cottonwood, but I am pretty sure it was no longer alive, and a hint of a view of the desert to the east, but it was hidden mostly by the brush.  Our trusty little guidebook author said it was one of his favorite primitive campgrounds in the park.  All a matter of opinion, I guess.  We wouldn’t camp there, even if we did camp in a tent.

mountain mahogany in the Grapevine HillsBy the time we got back to the trailhead, there were still a lot of cars but no one was in sight.  We talked about letting Abby wait in the car, since it was still very cool, but Mo wasn’t at all comfortable with that, so instead she encouraged me to take the hike alone to the rock and she would wait with Abby in the parking lot.

I took off on the easy rated hike, only 1.25 miles each way and well marked.  The skies were perfectly blue, the air was just the right temperature and the path was wide and easy. About 3/4 of a mile in,  I passed some hikers returning and they said there were javelinas on the trail, an excellent reason for not having Abby along.  I looked and waited, but never saw a sign of them.  I see some beautiful and healthy mountain mahogany trees, indications of a bit of a different climate back in the small valley surrounded by hills.  Stopping every so often I heard interesting bird calls, but not being a true ‘birder’, I had no idea what I was hearing.

easy trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBig Bend Day 3_008Another couple came down the trail, and said, “It is just up the hill there, and there are still a lot of people up there”.  Hmmm.  At least I wouldn’t be surprised by the crowd.  What did surprise me, however, was the trail.  This was an ‘easy’ trail, remember?  As I saw the marker for the last 1/4 mile, I also saw the trail begin to ascend, and not gradually.  The trail looked dang near vertical, a scramble up the rocks, with switchbacks, and no end in sight.

This time I was armed with both hiking poles and my good boots, so I was ready.  Or almost ready.  I started up, and kept on going and going and going.  Yeah it was only a quarter mile, but it was definitely challenging to me.  Very near the end of the hike I looked at the rock as tall as I was and thought, “I can’t do this.  How in the world will I ever get back down”.  But I could hear voices at the top out of my line of vision, and thought, “Well, if I fall someone will at least hear me”, and up I went.  It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but it still was an adrenaline rush.

all that hiking and this is what I found at the top of the trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThen when I finally made it to the top, it turned out it wasn’t the top at all.  But there were definitely a lot of people there who were all busy scribbling in tablets and talking quietly among themselves.  They seemed to think I shouldn’t be there, but when I asked where the Balanced Rock was, one guy decided to talk to me and said, “Up there, on that trail.  It isn’t far.”  Oh great.  More up and in front of all these people, whomever they were with their little tablets.  I did ask someone if they were botanists or geologists, and a guy piped up and said, “We are artists”.  Oh.  They were all actually drawing desert images with colored chalk on little thin pieces of slate, obviously they brought their own slate since the rocks surrounding us were all granite of some sort.

Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBalance Rock in the Grapevine HillsWith just a bit more effort, and a bit more adrenaline, I made it to the top of the landing below Balanced Rock, managed to take some photos without tipping over from vertigo, and climbed back down and beyond all the artists busily working on their projects.  When I had climbed the very tall, very vertical wall, I decided I needed both hands and had left my hiking poles behind.  I was happy to get down that rock and back to my poles, believe me.

love my Keens.  They stuck to the rock perfectlyIt was worth it, of course, and I am sure the next time I won’t be so jittery about it, and Mo will be with me, too.  Yes, we will come back and do this hike again.

When I returned to the trailhead, Mo and Abby were comfortable in the warm sun, hanging around and getting in a few walks along the road.  We drove back to the main highway and then turned north again to go find another dirt road to what was called Painted Gap.  Now I have to say, this road was the roughest we encountered.  There were lots of rocks and high clearance was a definite requirement.  The view from the crest of the hill near the gap was nice, with the Chisos Mountains to the south, but the road was rough enough and I was a bit tired of bouncing around so who knows what we would have found if we had continued to the end in another 1/2 mile or so.  We didn’t see any paint anywhere, though, so have no idea where the name came from.high clearance road to Painted Gap

By this time is was mid-afternoon, and it was a fine time to drive the 30 miles or so back to camp with plenty of time to have a nice supper and actually relax a bit.  Our grilled chicken breasts were great in a parmesan penne pasta with a little caesar salad on the side.  Small kitchen cooking is simple but can be really good.

Caesar Salad, grilled chicken, and a good bottle of white wine in Big BendAfter dinner we decided to go exploring around the campground, something we hadn’t done in the three days camped here.  At the store, I was shown on the map where Abby could go, and the boat ramp was on the list.  We just couldn’t take the paths and had to walk on the pavement that led to the park campground and around to the ramp.  It was a nice walk, and long enough that we all got a bit more exercise.

The river looked wide and slow, and not at all scary.  Well, maybe just a little bit.  The ramp has a drop off into thick, silty mud and the river depth drops suddenly within a foot or two.  I couldn’t quite picture trying to hold my boat against the current, keep from sinking into the mud, while trying to climb into my kayak without dumping.  Friend Jeanne just pushes her kayak off the rocks into waterfalls.  Jeanne I am not!

evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NPWe thought about trying to launch on the river in the morning before our planned departure and leave Abby in the MoHo, but common sense won out, and the lack of a permit and the country of Mexico within a few feet kept us from taking the chance.  I think this decision was made around 4 in the morning when I woke up, and could hear Mo breathing, and said, “I really don’t want to try to kayak in that river tomorrow morning”.  Her “OK” was quick and emphatic.  That trip will wait till next time as well.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

Walking back from the ramp that evening we were treated to one of the best sunsets we have seen in all our time on the road.  The skies in all directions just kept getting brighter and brighter and the colors kept shifting and changing.  What a beautiful way to end our last day in Big Bend National Park.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

1-5-2014 Surprise boondock

Currently: Gila Bend AZ 52 degrees F and sunny morning

boondock sunset_007We are traveling east on I-8, between Gila Bend and Tucson, Arizona.  The interstate on this stretch is butter smooth, smooth enough that I can type away on the laptop while Mo cruises down the road.  Gotta love that.  So few stretches of Interstate in California are like this, and Oregon isn’t much better.  Does Arizona have a lot more money for road taxes?  Just wondering what the difference is between states that have great highways and those that don’t, especially when they are nationally funded roads, at least I think the interstates are nationally funded.  Who knows anymore how anything gets paid for anyway.

typical Quartzite stuffWe pulled out of Desert Hot Springs yesterday right around 9am as planned, filled up at Costco at LaQuinta for just 3.37 per gallon.  Looking forward to cheaper fuel as we continue east, with Tucson prices now hovering around the $3. mark for regular.  We are not a diesel rig, obviously.

Last night turned out to be a surprise.  Originally I planned for a night at the Military Family Camp at Gila Bend, but with recent renovations, there weren’t even any hookups available.  Why pay to boondock in a gravel parking lot with no amenities?  So we then thought we might push hard to get all the way to Tucson, just 388 miles or so, and we can do that if we want to.

all that is Quartzite in a nutshellBut then, not long after we left the Coachella Valley, the signs for Quartzite started showing up, and Mo said, “Maybe we could take a little break.”  Is there an RVr out there who doesn’t know about Quartzite?  I read somewhere that 20 percent of all registered RV vehicles in the United States can be in the area at one time.  Not to mention the Canadians.  Boondocking there is a fine tuned art, and we passed the Dome Rock exit where RV Sue hung out a bit back, and saw the folks who like a bit of space between their rig and the next one scattered across the desert below the rocky hills.

Something about a camel is in the history of QuartziteAs we got closer to town, the long term and short term BLM parking areas were visible with their more closely spaced rigs, and then in town I was quite surprised at all the “real” RV parks with hookups that were lining the highway adjacent to the freeway.  I first camped in Quartzite in a tent back in 1988, selling my flowers at a booth at the Tyson Wells Show for ten days.  I mostly remember the wind and the dust.  Mo and I parked in La Posa one year for an overnight, but in spite of the nice invitations from fellow rvrs, we have declined returning.

Except for the tools.  Mo wanted to walk around a bit and look for little tooly things, and there is certainly no better place to do that.  Things are still fairly quiet, and we parked the rig easily at the Pilot station in town for our walkabout.  Somehow this photo of baseball caps reminds me of all things Quartzite.  Kinda crazy I guess. 

take a walk through QuartziteHowever, there was a new addition since I was here last, a giant box store called the Gem Store.  It was HUGE, and I walked inside and was completely overwhelmed.  Filled wall to wall with all the “stuff” that is sold at little gift shops all over the country for very high prices, the store seemed to cater most to wholesale buyers.  Still, there were rows and rows of beads and jewelry findings, boxes and bags for packaging jewelry, and it was filled with people with little heavy metal carts lined up at the registers spending a LOT of money.

I couldn’t resist, and called daughter Deborah, who likes to do beadwork.  I bought a bunch of 1 pound bags of seed beads for $4 bucks each for her.  Birthday girl coming up soon and this was a perfect shopping moment.  Yes, Deborah reads the blog, and yes, she already knows I got the beads for her.  There were so many choices I had no clue what to get without asking her.01-04-2014 Buckeye Boondock

By the time we left town it was already 3:30 in the afternoon.  How the heck did that happen??  UhOh.  Time change in Arizona, and we completely forgot about that .  Gila Bend was already looking better than Tucson for our night.  But then, what about all that great BLM land around us?  We didn’t want to stay too close to Quartzite, but as we turned south on highway 85 toward Gila Bend, it seems there was a lot of flat cropland and no sign of BLM land.  I looked up boondocking in the area and most of the information led us back west from Gila Bend, and we didn’t want to do that.

sunset at Buckeye Hills ArizonaSurprise!  Just 8 miles south of I-10, on Highway 85 is the expansive Maricopa County regional park called Buckeye Hills. There is a shooting range and a sheriff training facility near the entrance and on google maps the main road just seems to wander around the hills toward nothing in particular.  I found the park website which said something about no hookups and pit  toilets, but we couldn’t find any evidence of a campground. It is possible that the official campground is further up the road in the park.

Instead, less than 1/2 mile in, adjacent to the wide graded gravel road, we found several large sites, obviously used for camping.  No signs had said anything about camping restrictions, so all alone there in the desert we pulled off and set up camp.  The timing was perfect, just at sunset, which came a little bit later in this part of the time zone.

sunset at Buckeye Hills Arizona with an early moonboondock sunset_014Mo built a fire from some nice hard firewood that we found near our Joshua Tree boondock site.  Nice to a chance to use it, since it was taking a bunch of space in the Tracker!. The park police never showed up to run us off or say anything about the fire.  In fact, no one ever showed up except for 3 cars that passed us on the road during the evening.  Who knows where they were going.  The night was dark and beautiful, and we had a nice supper, watched the fire, played some cards before retreating to bed with the windows wide open to the stars.

I know there are a lot of folks who boondock in the middle of nowhere, and I have no idea if they worry about security.  But there was that little nagging thing in the back of my mind that felt a bit vulnerable out there.  What IF someone decided to harass us.  We have some protection, but still it isn’t exactly fun to have to deal with it. 

One of the main reasons we prefer a motorhome to a fifth wheel is about security.  I asked Mo if she would indulge my niggling little bit of fear and I pulled in the slide and put the key in the ignition.  That way if anyone did hassle us, with the car hooke dup ready to go, the slide in and the key ready, we wouldn’t have to fumble around in the dark trying to get out of there.  It would just be a matter of jumping in the drivers seat and driving off.desert kitty loves exploring with freedom watch out for coyotes, Jeremy

The night was completely quiet and completely beautiful, and of course my fears were probably silly.  Still, I did sleep better knowing that I had paid a bit of attention to the possibility and was prepared to handle it.sunset at Buckeye Hills Arizona

I haven’t looked at the internet this morning, so don’t really know how the predicted severe cold weather is affecting the rest of the country.  Here the sun is so bright I am having trouble seeing the screen and the temperatures are steadily rising. MoHo in the Sonoran Desert

This afternoon we will find a way to watch the 49rs game and I will do laundry at the very nice FamCamp facility.  There are no reservations taken at Davis Monthan AFB FamCamp, but there is a system of waiting in line for a space after spending time in the overflow no-hookup areas.  Won’t know till we get there if we will get a site or not, but we are ready either way.