First day, December 31

Our first campsite was Gravel Pit #1, a few miles upstream on the Rio Grande from Rio Grande Village, where we were booked for three nights. The ranger who helped us plan our itinerary promised that the Gravel Pit had nice sites, despite the unglamorous name. She did not lie. We were ecstatic to arrive at our first real boondocking, virtually free, campsite. The view was spectacular, the neighbors not too close. Overall, this was just a really great site. We arrived in the afternoon, when the sun was high in the sky and the temperatures were warm, bordering on hot. We were so elated that we did a happy dance around the van.

We are about to leave pavement to find our first drive-in backcountry camping site.

We are about to leave pavement to find our first drive-in backcountry camping site.

Gravel Pit is the name of the cluster of sites we are headed to.

Gravel Pit is the name of the cluster of sites we are headed to.

GP1 - our home for three nights.

GP1 – our home for three nights.

The driveway to our temporary home.

The driveway to our temporary home.

GP1 is a beautiful site. With the sun beating down on us and no utilities, John was inspired to tilt the solar panels up.

GP1 is a beautiful site. With the sun beating down on us and no utilities, John was inspired to tilt the solar panels up.

From the site we have a perfect view of the Sierra Del Carmen mountains, which are known for the lovely purple reflection at sunset.

From the site we have a perfect view of the Sierra Del Carmen mountains, which are known for the lovely purple reflection at sunset.

After eating lunch we took a short walk to the Rio Grande River. Standing on the bank of the river, Mexico was only a short swim away, through swift and cold water. We stayed on shore (the water was REALLY COLD), though I did take my shoes off to test the water with my feet and squish mud between my toes. We spotted many animal prints in the mud by the river; clearly the site is a common watering path. One strip in particular was completely churned up from the number of animals following the same path to the water, but in other less-used patches of mud the prints were clearly visible. The most exciting prints we saw were mountain lion; no other local fauna have four-inch long paws, so they were unmistakable. We also made out deer hoof prints, a four-inch three-toed print that is probably a large water bird (heron?), miniature hand-like prints likely belonging to a raccoon, and many more.

The Rio Grande River is just a short walk from GP1. John enjoyed skipping rocks on the river. The bank on the other side is Mexico.

The Rio Grande River is just a short walk from GP1. John enjoyed skipping rocks on the river. If you look closely you can see the rock mid-flight. The bank on the other side is Mexico.

Watching the sunset at our campsite.

Watching the sunset at our campsite.

New Years’ Eve

In celebration of spending the holiday mere yards away from the Mexican border, we had a simple dinner of tamales and tortilla chips with guacamole (actually, we had this meal because I am a sucker for fresh tortilla chips, and the local grocery store chain offers a fresh tortilla bar in each store, including fresh chips, and giant cases of tamales were on display for the holiday season). I had a fun encounter when picking up the tamales. While I was standing at the case, a nearby woman asked me if they were good. She then proceeded to talk to me for the next 20 minutes, explaining how to make tamales, how some people do it wrong, that the grocery store sells a tool that makes creating them easy, and that her and her mother are not making them this year because her brothers always take a lot but their wives won’t help out and learn how to make them.

After night fell, we set out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags, and brought in the new year gazing at a remote desert moonless night sky, reminiscing about the year past. The number of stars visible was phenomenal, and we saw so many shooting stars that we gave up on counting them. We didn’t need gunpowder fireworks, we had meteor fireworks.

Highlights from 2013

Heidi: Taking the winter vegetable fermentation class with my friend Zoya, where I learned the how easy and delicious it is to make sauerkraut, kimchee and any number of brined pickles.

John: Getting to spend a lot of time with my immediate family in Florida before heading out on our journey was certainly my highlight for the year.

Both of Us:

– Meeting each other’s families.

– Seeing a bear while backpacking in the Catskill Mountains.

– Leaving our jobs to embark on this adventure.

– Hiking 100 miles in amazing weather for peak foliage season in Maine.

– Driving 120 miles to the coast of Maine to eat lobster, and the subsequent opportunity to explore a closed Acadia National Park and bicycle to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

– Visiting our many friends and family throughout the eastern US.

– Arriving at our first backcountry car camping spot just in time to see in the new year, with the lucky bonus of being a new moon (well, maybe one day short of new).

 

Second day, Jan 1

In preparation for star-gazing the night before, I caffeinated myself to ensure that I would stay awake (I have a tendency to fall asleep when laying cozily at night). Because of the extra caffeine coursing through my veins, I woke up early the next morning, before sunrise, and went back outside for more stargazing. As I lay, the first rays of the sun started brightening the sky. I watched the Big Dipper fade above me, and the few small clouds on the horizon to the east turned from black to grey to pink as the horizon turned toward the sun. In this early dawn light, I really heard the desert come to life – packs of coyotes howling in the distance, birds chirping and fluttering about. The chorus in the morning twilight stands in contrast to the complete silence of the mid-afternoon heat, even in the cool winter months.

Two roadrunners wandered through our campsite in the morning.

Two roadrunners wandered through our campsite in the morning.

Roadrunner running. Their tails drop down when the run, and rise up when they stop. This one chased something into a bush than hopped up on the bush to grab the snack. Another day I witnessed one eat a lizard (only the eating part, I missed the chase).

Roadrunner running. Their tails drop down when the run, and rise up when they stop. This one chased something into a bush than hopped up on the bush to grab the snack. Another day I witnessed one eat a lizard (only the eating part, I missed the chase).

At noon we set out to walk to the nearby hot springs denoted on the map. Rather than walking the five miles up our road, down the paved road and back to the river on the hot springs road, we chose to walk directly through the desert along the river; the hot springs are just a couple miles downstream on the river from our campsite. We thought this would be a short-cut.

From our campsite, desert off-trail hiking looks easy. The landscape is sparsely dotted with vegetation, easy to blaze a trail around. However, the river had something else in store. Hydration along the Rio Grande allows for thicker vegetation, and many of the hills drop off in steep cliffs of loose rock, making trail-finding difficult. Walking along the river was at times impossible through the thick reeds, and forget about walking right on the shoreline of the river. I walked up to the water to cool my feet in the chilly water (it was hot in that desert sun, even on January 1st!) and found myself in quick mud. Thankfully John was standing within reach; it would have been extremely difficult to get myself out of that mud without him standing right there on firm land.

With the difficulties on the riverside, we walked out away from it to find firmer, less vegetated ground. Walking away from the river we were not always walking in the most efficient direction, and at times had to skirt around steep hills. The most difficult section came near the end. As the river shore became impassible, and we felt like we had been walking long enough that we should be near our destination, so we climbed a hill to get a better vantage point. We could see our destination, maybe a quarter mile away. We also noticed steep cliffs separating the river from the land so we knew we needed to stay inland, but there was a valley of thick brush between the hill where we stood and the destination. Pushing one’s way through bushes in the forest is one thing – slightly difficult and a little guilt-inducing at breaking and crushing living plants, but in the desert this is a whole different challenge. Half of those bushes sport painful defense mechanisms, ranging from short claw-like thorns that catch in your clothes and skin, to 1.5 inch long needles that can pierce right through a boot sole. After several scouting trips up and down different hills, looking for a way through the brush, we managed to spot a promising path of sparse growth through a narrow section of the brush. We worked our way through the brush, making our way around the more dangerous branches, to come out into a dry river bed leading right to the Hot Springs path. We celebrated our accomplishment with a dip in 105 degree water (given that we were overheated from our three hour walk in the desert, this was not the best time for a hot water soak, but it was fun anyway).

Rio Grande river near the beginning of our desert trek.

Rio Grande river near the beginning of our desert trek.

Neat rock formations on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Neat rock formations on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Flowers brighten the drab landscape.

Flowers brighten the drab landscape.

A mummified millipede.

A mummified millipede.

Dry and cracked mud.

Dry and cracked mud.

Desert sand makes animal-print finding easy. The prints are obvious and persist well. We think that the parallel lines track is made by a Giant Centipede; nocturnal and poisonous, this centipede is a good argument to not sleep under the stars.

Desert sand makes animal-print finding easy. The prints are obvious and persist well. We think that the parallel lines track is made by a Giant Centipede; nocturnal and poisonous, this centipede is a good argument to not sleep under the stars.

Near the hot springs we ran into a man bicycling from Santa Barbara to Quebec by way of Key West, whom we had first met at the backcountry permit office. We chatted for a bit at the springs, then he caught up to us on our way out and walked with us the two hours (along the road this time) back to our site, and came by for a beer. He’s an interesting character, with many adventure stories including living in a van to be a full-time climber, sailing from Vancouver to Santa Barbara, and now in the midst of a many-month bicycle tour.

In the middle of the night we were woken by strong wind gusts shaking the van. John had tilted the solar panels up to better catch the sun’s power, using makeshift support since we do not have the proper metal brackets. The wind flipped one of the panels over, prompting us to get out of bed and take care of the gear we left outside – John climbed on the van’s roof to secure the solar panels down, and I ran around the campsite collecting his clothes that had blown around and collapsing the table and chairs. Happily, the panel was not damaged and we got out there in time to collect the items that blew around.

 

Third day, Jan 2

After a relaxing morning we set out to bicycle to Rio Grande Village to say hi to Helen and Ralph, check out the RV campground, take advantage of the showers (the only ones in the park) and inquire about propane (also the only place to get propane in the park). Rio Grande Village is only five miles down the main road, but we first had to make our way out the 1.5 miles of unpaved road. We made it through the unpaved part, but about a mile down the main road, John got a flat. He patched it, but when he put it back together the stem ripped and the tube was destroyed. Our extra tube was back at the van, so I rode back to grab it, while John found a shady spot to nap in. The spot he chose was a drainage tube – thankfully this is not the rainy season so he was safe in the drainage tube, which is not generally a recommended place to sleep. We made it to the campground, where we walked the informative nature trail (and witnessed a roadrunner eat a lizard), and said a quick hello to Helen and Ralph. Due to the delay from the flat tire, it was after 5:00 pm by this time so we couldn’t stick around to hang out or even take showers. We had to leave right away to make it back down our dirt road by dark (and still ended up walking the last third of the road in the dark).

John with his bike on the way out to the paved road.

John with his bike on the way out to the paved road.

Walking around looking at plants while John was changing his tire, I noticed several strange looking plants. I saw a dome of spines, but didn’t see any structure or roots beneath them. Eventually I figured out that these are the spines left over after the cactus dies.

Walking around looking at plants while John was changing his tire, I noticed several strange looking plants. I saw a dome of spines, but didn’t see any structure or roots beneath them. Eventually I figured out that these are the spines left over after the cactus dies.

Eagle Claw cactus, which leaves behind the spines pictured above.

Eagle Claw cactus, which leaves behind the spines pictured above.

Cycling down the road toward the tunnel (okay, I am pointed the wrong way, but really we are headed toward it).

Cycling down the road toward the tunnel (okay, I am pointed the wrong way, but really we are headed toward it).

Pond in the desert, from the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.

Pond in the desert, from the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.

Overlook on the Rio Grande Nature Trail.

Overlook on the Rio Grande Nature Trail.

Panoramic view of the Sierra Del Carmen ridge that offers such lovely sunset view to the Gravel Pit campers.

Panoramic view of the Sierra Del Carmen ridge that offers such lovely sunset view to the Gravel Pit campers.

Since we have a picture of John tickling a cypress knee, he wanted me to tickle the cactus (FYI, it is a Chisos Prickly Pear).

Since we have a picture of John tickling a cypress knee, he wanted me to tickle the cactus (FYI, it is a Chisos Prickly Pear).

4 Thoughts on “Big Bend Part 2: Gravel Pit

  1. Enchanting place! Your words and pictures make me want to lock my house and travel west. Also, In case I haven’t said so before, this retired nonfiction writer greatly admires and appreciates all the effort you put into each blog entry. Thanks for working so hard to share with all of us.

  2. I love the mummified millipede, and cacti are really cool. An uncle of mine used to farm them and there are so many great varieties! Hope you get to see some cool ones.

    • They are all cool. We have seen cacti of so many different shapes and sizes. As long as we keep our distance, they are awesome (we have had a few unfortunate attacks when we get too close, though!).

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