Check out our new Interactive Route Map (button in menu above). After a month in the Smokies, three months chasing the sun and birds in Florida, we’re embarking on a more ambitious trip. This time we plan to cross the US, Canada via a Northerly route, picking up a headboard from our van manufacturer, Read More
When people speak about Texas Big Country, it’s not an understatement. The filling station (below) and attached store blew our minds. It was just so Big! We couldn’t imagine how these stalls would be filled up, but they were.
Since the 60s, I wanted to see and understand the man who brought us so much social change but also had the Vietnam War as a legacy. The war seems to have overwhelmed all the great things LBJ did, all the changes he enacted, all the good services offered for the poor. There is no doubt he felt at a loss to solve the Vietnam problem. There are so many of us that cannot forget how deadly the war was, how inhumane, and the pall of ‘baby killers’ on people’s lips. It wasn’t the military’s fault to be sent in, but so many of my baby-boomer hippy friends pointed the rhetoric at anyone within spitting distance. It was indeed a sad time.
The bills Johnson helped pass were cornerstones for the lower and middle classes, to give them a hand up out of poverty. Johnson put through and Congress passed 1000 new bills. This is how NPR, PBS, Head Start, Equal Housing amendments, Medicare, Medicaid, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1964 Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the Product Safety Commission, and so many more significant bills were created, which became an important part of our society.
We visited San Antonio, Austin and Fredericksburg, stopping on the way at Johnson City, the birthplace and home of LBJ, the cemetery where he and Ladybird are buried, and the LBJ Ranch. So much history and from such humble beginnings.
LBJ started his career as a school teacher, in a one-room school, to Hispanic children. When he saw the poverty and lack of meals, supplies, clothing, it made an impression on him that never faded. When he became a Senator, he used his power to change Texas for the better. When he became the President, he used his gift of negotiation to the fullest. He came to power after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and served as President until 1969.
I wanted to visit the Alamo where The ‘King of the Wild Frontier’, Davy Crockett, lost his life. So much has been written about the Alamo, history of this mission turned fort and the defeat of the small group of Texan defenders by overwhelming Mexican forces lead by ‘Santa Ana’. It was very interesting to learn some of the detailed history behind the border wars, how Texas started out as a Republic and eventually became one of our States. Some of the original buildings stand, but most walls have been reconstructed from original plans. The courtyards, horse stalls, military dorms, and supply rooms were cool in the hot sun, the walls being 2 feet thick. After visiting the Alamo, we took a boat tour to see San Antonio’s famous ‘Riverwalk’ district, an extensive waterway development with many shops, restaurants and other attractions.
First priority in Austin was to visit the LBJ Library on the University of Texas Campus. There we found tapes, archives, photographs, and history written in a very easy to understand way. Lots of children visited the library on the day we toured and giggled their way through Johnson’s colorful language.
I think the story I most liked about LBJ is how he got his agenda passed through Congress. He found out what a Senator wanted for the district, and then he’d use that carrot to get what he wanted to accomplish.
In the evening, we walked the music district, visited some bars with
live music. The next day, we drove to Fredericksburg, stopping at the JBJ Ranch and homestead. This is a combined State and Federal area. The tour took us first to a small 1900’s working farm where costumed interpreters carry out day-to-day activities; the dairy, meat and vegetables are raised there. We visited the little one-room building where Johnson started his education at the age of 4. Next, was LBJ’s working Ranch with its herds of Hereford cattle and sheep in addition to a herd of Bison and one of Texas Longhorns. While in office, Johnson spent a large percentage of his time at the Ranch. He equipped the ranch with all the communications and security facilities required and held many meetings there, some with foreign Heads of State. He felt at an advantage, when offering the hospitality of the ranch, which he felt helped his negotiating position. He loved to conduct meetings under the big oak tree outside his home, but also spent time with international leaders discussing policy around his pool. The ranch had to be reorganized and remodeled to handle the FBI detail, the staff, along with the Air Force plane (dubbed “Air Force 0.5”) that ferried him from Washington, DC and back to the small airstrip next to the ranch. The Johnson cemetery is in this area along with the gravestones for Ladybird and LBJ, and his relatives.
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LBJ Country, Texas
Having explored the rest of Big Bend area, we allocated a week to Big Bend National Park. It was well worth it. We stayed in two campgrounds, Chisos Basin and, when the temperatures dropped below freezing, breaking records for the Park, we moved to a lower altitude at the Rio Grande Village campground. The Rio Grande River forms the lower boundary of the park for 118 miles separating it from Mexico. The park contains the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert and contains over 1200 species of plants, birds, mammals and reptiles. The Geology of the area is very complex and includes a period when the park was connected to the ocean so many fossils, including dinosaurs, have been found.
The drive into Chisos Basin is very dramatic through a pass between the highest peaks which reach almost 8,000 feet above sea level. The campground is located in the basin, completely surrounded by jagged-topped mountains. At the visitor center we inspected a map showing recent bear and mountains lions (none seen during our stay). I attended a geology talk by one of the Park Rangers and learned that the basin was formed, not as a caldera as he first thought, but by sediment being washed down between the mountains and having no place to exit. The sunrise and sunset hours were spectacular with the surrounding cliffs being touched by the light. The Chisos Mountain Range is the only range in the US completely enclosed in a National Park.
As the sediment in the basin built up in time, water eventually found the lowest point to exit. This narrow exit where all water exits down a 220 foot cascade to the desert below is known as the ‘Window’. It is also located where the sun sets at some times during the year. We did a short hike to watch the sun set on our first night and the following day I hiked the trail across the basin down to the Window and back. The trail through the desert scenery ended up in a river bed where water gradually appeared and eventually cascaded over the edge.
The Rio Grande cuts several canyons through the mountains and the Santa Elena Canyon is the most impressive. The cliffs rise to over 1,000 feet on both the US and Mexican sides and the canyon entrance can be seen over 10 miles away. We both took the trail up the side of the canyon which rises steeply in the beginning and then descends again to water level before the canyon sides meet the river and end the trail. Finding the beginning of the trail was a bit tricky as it involves crossing the Terlingua Creek (a tributary of the Rio Grande) and scrambling up the river bank to find the trail. We learned that the lack of any trail signs is because the creek frequently changes its course. Fortunately there were enough hikers around so that word of mouth directions were passed to us on the way up. We were able to help hikers as we came down and back across the creek. The canyon provides an echo chamber at the end of the trail which amused many of the hikers.
Having seen pictures of Balanced Rock in Big Bend brochures, I wanted to see it for myself and provide my own photographic interpretation. The Ranger at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center had assured me that the unpaved road to the trailhead was of high quality, no special vehicle required. However, the 7 mile journey down the road was a bit nerve-racking, particularly for Cheryl, as the road quality worsened the further we drove. In spite of the noise of rocks hitting the van, the rocking right to left over the huge potholes, I still wasn’t about to give up and we made it to the trailhead and waited for our dust cloud to settle. (I can’t see us on an unpaved road again until Cheryl’s memories have faded over time – and perhaps any repairs paid for). The hike was classified as moderate and indeed it was easy, leading through a valley between high peaks to the final climb up into the pass. The last quarter of a mile proved a lot more difficult, more like rock climbing than hiking, but I finally made it to the top just as the setting sun’s rays were leaving the balanced rock structure. The climb down was just as hazardous (mental note: I need a different way to carry my camera to leave both hands free) but I made it back into the valley with only a shin scrape. The ride back along the road didn’t seem quite as bad but we were both glad to reach the paved road and make it back to the campsite before dark.
Big Bend National Park contains the only unmanned border crossing from the US to Mexico. It is reached by wading, swimming, or most commonly by hiring a rowboat across the Rio Grande for the princely sum of $5 round trip. The village of Boquillas, Mexico is a mile or two from the other side of the river and can be reached on foot, by burro, or by hiring a pick-up truck and driver. It was a very cold day (record low temperatures) and very windy so we went for the rowboat/pickup option. It was a good choice as we later learned, the burros often decide to go home instead of to the village, stranding their passengers. Our driver (and guide for the visit) Chalo Diaz was very pleasant and spoke English well, answering all our questions about life in Boquillas. The nearest town is 150 miles (the first 50 unpaved) and so they are dependent on a weekly truck delivery for food and supplies.
Mexican Customs and Immigration consisted of a hand-wave from an official in his trailer and we toured the town with Chalo, visiting his home, meeting his family and seeing the school and a clinic. Chalo was very proud to show us that all the village power was Solar-generated from the small facility at the end of the village. We dined in a local restaurant/bar with Chalo, and walked into some of the cultural buildings on the main street, which was just a dirt road. The town consisted of about 12 business buildings, and had no more than 75 one-room houses. We only saw one fenced-in garden area for fresh vegetables. On our way back, Colin persuaded the rowboat owner to let him row back across the Rio Grande, which proved a bit tricky with strong wind and current, but managed to reach the other bank close to the desired arrival beach. The ‘unmanned’ crossing was a bit of a misnomer as we discovered on re-entry to the US. A Park Ranger supervised us as we stood in front of a camera and spoke to a Customs and Immigration official by phone, who quizzed us about what we were bringing back, while our passports were being scanned.
In the late afternoon, we visited Boquillas Canyon, another steep-walled canyon cut by the Rio Grande through the huge, angular Sierra Del Carmen mountains. A trail from the parking lot leads over a ridge into the canyon which is navigable on foot for about two miles.
We stayed the next two nights in the National Park’s Rio Grande campground. I took an early morning hike on the Nature and Overlook Trails and was happy to discover a pair of Blue Herons occupying a spot under the floating dock structure used for a part of the trail. The early morning view from the top looked back over to Boquillas in one direction and over the campground to the Sierra Del Carmen mountains in the other. There were several ‘unmanned stores’ on the trails in this area (see picture) with trinkets from Boquillas Village for sale. We never did find out how the money and goods were transferred across the border.
We had heard about the Hot Springs in this area of the park and wanted to take a drive to look, or even to take a dip. However this was vetoed when it became clear that this would involve driving on another unpaved road. So I hiked the alternative 6 mile trail over the ridge and along Hot Springs Canyon rim from the campground to the Hot Springs. The Springs themselves were pretty unusual, showing the contrast between the fast-flowing, muddy Rio Grande and the spring-water pool which sat right next to it. There was only time for a quick foot-dip before returning along the trail, which provided some great views of the river gorge with the Sierra Del Carmen behind.
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Big Bend National Park, Texas
We traveled to Big Bend, Texas a week before Christmas and Chanukah. However, because we are publishing this post on the 25th, we want to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday! Lots of hugs from us both.
Our ultimate destination was Big Bend National Park but some Texans we met on our travels persuaded us to visit Murfa, Alpine and Big Bend State Park on the way. A surprise sighting of an African Ibex snacking on the shrubs was the only significant wildlife that we saw on this part of our journey. Neither of the towns suggested to us was particularly attractive apart from Sul Ross University in Alpine which houses the Museum of the Big Bend in a beautiful stone building. The museum, although small, gives a comprehensive overview of the history of the Big Bend area from dinosaur fossils to the present day. Fort Davis, a short drive North-East of Alpine, was originally set up as a frontier outpost to protect travelers on the San Antonio to El Paso road, mainly from Comanche, Kiowa and Apache Native Americans. Most of the travelers were on their way West to California hoping to strike it rich. This highway to the West was an unpaved road through the middle of the Fort, parts of which are still well-preserved. During the Civil War, the Fort passed back and forth to both sides but was finally occupied by the newly formed US Cavalry in 1867 and was built up as a major outpost with more than 400 soldiers, protecting wagons, stagecoaches and telegraph lines until 1891 when it was abandoned. It became a National Historic site in 1961. We particularly enjoyed the hospital, barracks and were amused by the sounding of (recorded) bugle calls at appropriate times during the day. On our way to Big Bend State Park we stopped at Terlingua, and drove around the Ghost Town, looking at relics of when the town was an active mining community producing Cinnabar, from which Mercury is extracted. Mining was carried out on and off until 1973.
Big Bend State Park has no campground facilities of its own so we found an RV Park associated with a Golf Resort at Lajitas, close to the entrance to the Park. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but the RV Park, although very remote, was well run, roomy and pleasant. The resort across the road had hotel rooms, a restaurant, bar and other stores. The main road through the park from Lajitas to Presidio, known as the ‘River Road’ follows the course of the Rio Grande with the steep Mexican mountain range on the other side and many scenic views. We found it hard to believe we were at the border, no sign of a wall, and the river looked easy to cross, unlike the Chihuahua Mountain Range on the other side. Together, we hiked the ‘Hoodoos’ trail to an overlook and down to the Rio Grande. Hoodoos are rock pillars formed from a protective small layer of hard rock preventing the rock directly below from erosion, very common in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Colin also hiked into Closed Canyon, a chasm cut through the mountains by a wash, leading down to the Rio Grande. The canyon was dry but it was easy to imagine the rush of water on and off over hundreds of thousands of years creating the 150 foot canyon walls. The hike through the canyon gets more and more difficult, ending up requiring ropes to rappell down the rocks caught at the bottom of the canyon. While Colin was negotiating the canyon, Cheryl made friends with some passing travelers who lent her their dogs for a little while and gave us some good advice about the National Park, our next stop. The morning that we left Lajitas, the full moon was setting behind the mountains as the sun was rising so Colin took some moon shots.
From Cheryl: Here is a particular bird song we woke up to every morning. I never did see the bird type, as they were hiding in palm trees and I could only see a shadow of them. They were dark, perhaps black, but nary a one would come out to get a picture taken.
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Alpine, Fort Davis, Terlingua and Lajitas, Texas
We found Oliver Lee Memorial State Park as our home base for exploring the White Sands area. The park was tucked into the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, East of the White Sands National Monument and at the entrance to ‘Dog Canyon’, an area first settled in 1885 by a Frenchmen F. J. (‘Frenchy’) Rochas who found and piped water from the canyon to his orchard and then in 1893 by Oliver Lee who kept cattle and built an irrigation system. Frenchy was shot and killed in his cabin. Oliver Lee, his only neighbor, fell under suspicion but was not charged with the crime and later went on to become a New Mexico Senator.
We explored the source of water, a spring, and a short stream before it disappeared into the ground again. Then Colin opted for a very strenuous hike 5 miles up the side of the canyon and back enjoying the views of the Tularosa Basin as the sun went down.
The main reason for our visit to this area was to see White Sands National Monument. This unique landscape, originally occupied by the Mescalero Apache, was finally preserved as a National Monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover after several attempts, one of which was to create a hunting preserve. The white sand consists of tiny crystals of gypsum which is water soluble. The combination of a dry climate with no water escaping from the Tularosa Basin results in large soft selenite crystals forming in dried up lakes which are eroded and blown by the prevailing SW wind into the dunes area. The vast white dunes, surrounded by mountains result in a unique landscape. The day was mainly cloudy, so no dramatic sunset photos that the area is famous for. Colin found it very easy to get lost in the landscape once away from the road but managed a few pictures. He met a professional photographer, shooting a recently engaged couple, who also grumbled about the lack of the sunset the area usually delivers.
Formerly the White Sands Proving Grounds, the Missile Range was created in 1945 to test US and German rockets (with the help of Vernher Von Braun from Germany). Seven days after the Proving Ground’s creation, the first Atomic Bomb test was carried out at the Trinity Site on the North end of the range. Von Braun was one of several German Scientists brought to the US after Germany’s surrender in May 1945. The German V2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile that had menaced Britain in the final 8 months of the war in Europe, was further developed and tested here by the US military. The Missile Range covers a vast area, 3,200 miles, in the Tularosa basin. Highways in the area are closed when a test firing is planned. Security was high in the area when we arrived to visit the museum and, after some discussion, we declined the vehicle search (there are many nooks and crannies in our van) in favor of walking in on foot to visit the museum. This was closed, giving a lie to the opening hours on their website, but we did walk around the outside exhibits representing a lot of the testing carried out there.
We were surprised to be stopped several times in New Mexico by roadblocks manned by the US Border Patrol. We answered “yes” to the question “US Citizens?” and we were on our way. A van ahead of us with four darker-skinned individuals was not so lucky, all occupants asked to exit with hands in the air and a search started.
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Jerome, Cottonwood, and Sedona, Arizona
The Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, South of Albuquerque NM, is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service . It is an amazing place! It serves as a stopping off or wintering point for migrating birds traveling South in the Fall or North in the Spring. It’s located just South of a funky little settlement called San Antonio, New Mexico. When we visited, there were thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese along with many varieties of other waterfowl. The best time to observe and photograph was at dawn or at dusk when the birds were taking off or gathering for the night. The cranes and geese appeared to be vying for lake territory, when one flock arrived, the other left but they seemed to get along together well.
We stayed at the ‘Birders RV Park’ just North of the Refuge where we experienced an unusual and not forecasted cold snap one night when temperature went down to 18 degrees. Our water pipes froze but thawed the next day without damage, fortunately. Cheryl decided the best way to stay warm was to crochet a blanket and lie under it while it was being made (actually for a friend’s new baby).
Colin felt ‘outgunned’ by the expensive camera equipment carried by a large group of ‘Pro’ photographers we kept on running into. However we were happy with some of the pictures we were able to take, so much so that we found it difficult to pick the best out of the 1,000 or so we took. So apologies for posting such a large number here, we hope you enjoy some of them. We laughed about the whole day we spent in Florida chasing a single pair of Sandhill Cranes contrasted with their abundance here.
The noise and quantity of birds taking off and landing were incredible. We tried to capture this in the following video.
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Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve, New Mexico