Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 2

Though day one of our Big Bend vacation was one of our trip highlights, days two and three certainly did not disappoint.

On our second day, after a foggy, relaxed morning at the campsite drinking coffee and eating pumpkin pie, we headed down the mountain to explore the valley below on our first ever desert hike.

A moderate hike to a series of prominent volcanic dike formations, the Chimneys Trail is well-known for Indian rock art marks at the base of its iconic, chimney pinnacles. Surrounded by various types of cacti and other short, brushy desert plants we were unfamiliar with, the first bit of this hike was interesting, but in all honestly, I was over this hike halfway before it was done. Once we made it to chimneys and explored the petroglyphs and evidence of camp settlements, we high tailed it back to our car and ventured on to the more exciting part of our day.

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From the desert we headed along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for more beautiful views and a visit to the Santa Elena Canyon. Towering 1,500 feet over the Rio Grande, the Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most dramatic canyons in the park, and was a breathtaking site to see. We’d originally planned to take a rafting trip down the river through the canyon, but not wanting to jam pack our schedule, we decided to save that trip for our next visit. Now after seeing just a glimpse of the canyon’s beauty, that’s a rafting trip I can hardly wait to take.

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On our third and final full day in the park, we woke before the sun and set off for one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes I have ever done. The South Rim Trail,  a strenuous 14.5 mile loop along the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, was well worth the 2,000 foot elevation gain, steep and never-ending switchbacks, and a nerve-racking bear encounter.

Starting off brushy and dry in the basin of the Chisos, the hike soon turned green as we quickly ascended a couple thousand feet into the mountains. Next to cacti we saw Pines, as well as Firs, Aspens, and Maples. The first couple of hours our feet saw red dirt, and then suddenly the bright colors of Fall.

Finally, when we thought our knees could no longer take it,  we made it to the mountain ridge where we were rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. Fighting with the fog, we took our time on this part of hike, resting and eating lunch, and peeking through the clouds into the world below. Then, just before we descended the mountain, the sun finally won, offering us front row seats to Big Bend’s most stunning vistas.

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Though the second half of the hike was just as pretty as the first, I barely remember it as I was just ready to get off the mountain. With a bad knee, hiking downhill is much worse than going up, and if we’re being totally honest, we both just couldn’t wait for a burger and an icy cold beer.

The last mile of the hike I felt exhausted, yet energized, as I powered my way back to the car proud of what I had just accomplished. After a visit to our campsite and a quick decision that we were too tired to cook, we headed to the Chisos Mountain Lodge and ended our adventure with that well deserved burger and beer.

We went to bed that night exhausted and sore, and woke the next day surprisingly rested. Trying to extend our trip just a little bit longer, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and bacon, and then eventually, knowing we had to go home, packed up camp and made our way back to Austin.

Though I was tired on Monday and still a little sore from our hikes, our short trip to Big Bend was well worth it. Each year our Thanksgiving celebrations seem to get a little more unique, and I am totally okay with that. A plate of turkey and stuffing is just as good in the great outdoors, if not even just a little bit better…

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 1

 

The first time I ever experienced a major holiday away from home was our first year living in Boston.

Though my heart longed to spend that Thanksgiving with my family, knowing we’d  soon be heading home for Christmas, we instead went to New York where we spent the holiday with some of Jacob’s relatives.

That Thanksgiving was a bit unusual for me as we celebrated as a party of 10 or so,  instead of a party of 50, but it was quiet, and relaxing, and truly one of my most memorable holidays.

Living in a big city at that time, I was quite used to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, so spending a long weekend in a spacious, country home was a dream. I still remember vividly making my first totally from scratch green bean casserole, and some amazing brussels sprouts dish I prepared from one of Jacob’s aunt’s magazines.

I spent most of that day in the kitchen with his aunt, laughing and talking and getting to know her more closely. By the end of that day I no longer felt so homesick, and settled in that night grateful for family, when the rest of mine was so far away.

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Last year marked another interesting holiday. Back to a small celebration, we spent Thanksgiving here in Austin with our pup, my parents, and their small dog L.E. A table of four felt so small, but it was a memorable experience to be able to cook my first full Thanksgiving meal and host my own family.

The turkey was flavorful and moist, the pumpkin pie was divine, and again, the peace and quiet was amazing.

Growing accustomed to these small and peaceful Thanksgiving celebrations, this year, we decided to have our most untraditional Thanksgiving yet, spending it in the desert for a long weekend of camping.

Still wanting a somewhat traditional holiday, I decided to cook a full Thanksgiving spread before we left town to enjoy on Thanksgiving day. Having roasted a 12 pound bird (for only two people), preparing stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, a casserole, and a pie, I had big expectations about our Thanksgiving meal, and even bigger ideas about what this blog post would look like.

I envisioned pictures of our plates with jagged mountain peaks in the background; shots of the cheese course centered on the picnic table surrounded by cups of wine. I thought i’d show artistic photos of our tent and the campfire, and then talk about how fun and manageable it was to celebrate a holiday in the great outdoors.

This is not how this post is going to go.

Instead of  this romanticized, idealistic Thanksgiving I had envisioned, we spent the holiday in Mexico, where we had our most memorable Thanksgiving yet.

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Settled in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National park features sweeping desert landscapes, dramatic canyons, rugged mountains, and shares 118 miles of its park boundary with Chihuahua and Coahuila Mexico. Knowing that there was a border crossing located within the park, we knew that stepping over into Mexico was something we wanted to do during our trip, we just didn’t expect our time there to be all that is was.

An isolated and primitive outpost amidst a vast wilderness, 150 miles from any major town on either side of the border lies Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once a town of around 300, because of the border closure in 2002 (due to the events of 9/11), by 2006, the population of Boquillas dropped to around only 90 residents. Eleven years later in 2013, the border reopened, helping to revive Boquillas’ population, which is now home to about 200 people.

Besides for two small restaurants and one bar, there’s not much to see or do here, but wanting this tiny tourist town to succeed, the Mexican government has done what they can, providing supplies to fix older buildings, and paint to freshen up the look of the place. And finally, in 2015, solar panels were installed so that residents could enjoy reliable electricity…

Our journey to Boquillas started at the U.S. Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry where we learned the rules about crossing over into Mexico (don’t bring back alcohol, rocks, etc…) From there, we hopped an “international ferry” and were transported 15 yards away across a knee deep river. After politely saying no to a man with a burro offering us a ride, we walked the quarter of a mile into town and started our adventure in Mexico.

Once arriving to town and checking in with customs, we decided on one of the two restaurant choices (both I believe are owned by the same family, serve the same food,  and are are literally just across the dusty road from each other), and grabbed a spot outside in the shade to enjoy the views and excitement.

For lunch we had tacos with teeny fried flour tortillas and a plate of tamales, and washed it all down with a couple of potent margaritas. We enjoyed live entertainment, AKA a man with a very out of tune guitar, made friends with strangers (who just happened to originally be from Austin), and enjoyed the company of a lively local.

Esteban was the man who originally offered us a ride on his burro, and after spending lunch talking with him, I was disappointed we didn’t accept. Over a peach juice and a couple of Carta Blancas, Esteban told us about his time in Boquillas (he has lived there his entire life), about his mountain guiding services, and about how he walks four days through the desert each year to the nearest town for some extra work.

In the midst of all the hatred we’ve seen towards immigrants and minorities this election season, Esteban was a breath of fresh air. His authenticity and kindness was refreshing, and our time spent with him was one of the best parts of our day.

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After buying a copper scorpion from Esteban and bidding him farewell, we left with our new Texan friends and their guide to take a short tour of the town. We saw the small church and school, water supply tank, and solar panels before finding ourselves in the town’s only cantina where we enjoyed more good conversation over a couple of shots of Sotol. Coming from an unmarked bottle behind the counter, similar to tequila, Sotol is distilled from the dasylirion wheeleri plant native the Northern Mexico. It was smooth, tasty, and was probably safer to drink than the water. Even if the bottle did look a little sketchy…

After an hour or so of getting to know our new friends and a round of Carta Blancas, we hurried our way back across the river, just barely in time for the border closing, and continued our random Thanksgiving day at some hot springs nearby.

Finally, around 7:00 pm when the sky grew dark, we drove the hour back to our campsite to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal. After quickly reheating the food I worked so hard to prepare, I took one lame picture of my plate in the dark, and then crawled into the tent for bed before 9:00. By the time Jacob had returned from cleaning the dishes, I was sound asleep, dreaming of tacos, and our Thanksgiving adventure in Mexico.