It’s mid January and we’re sitting in a backcountry campsite in Big Bend National Park. Off in the hazy distance, the rugged tops of the Chisos Mountains rise above the nearer Grapevine Hills while the creosote bushes wave in the chill wind blowing across this wide, open expanse of desert bathed in the bright winter sunshine. The outside of the camper is covered in a fine dust blown up during our seven mile drive out here. There’s no one else nearby and the quiet beauty of the desert surrounds us.
When we returned to live in the camper we didn't think of it as especially small: it's just the size it is. This perception shifted within a few weeks of being back on the road when Sterling's brother Eric and his wife Jeanette bought a Class A in preparation for new RV adventures of their own. Seeing the floor plan and the photos had us hankering after more space and we started searching the internet for something bigger than our shoebox. Matters were exacerbated by a photograph of Eric preparing pizza on the kitchen island of their RV. Yes, you read that correctly, kitchen island! Many hours of scrutinizing and discussing the options brought us to the realization that we couldn't find anything that we would prefer sufficiently to spend a great deal of money. We are content once again and our decision has been confirmed by our ability to come out to these backcountry sites where the average larger RV cannot.
We spent our first nights in the park up in the Chisos Mountains. Within forty eight hours of arriving the road was closed due to snow and ice and for two days we were wrapped in freezing mist. As the skies finally cleared we were rewarded by the sight of the mountains dusted in snow, glinting in the sun and after being shut up in the camper, we were eager to get out on one of the trails. Our feet crunched through the snow on the more sheltered parts of the path and there was a distinctive sweet spicy smell in the air which we later discovered was the fragrance given off by Damianita plants in the aftermath of the precipitation. The views from inside the Chisos Basin are breathtaking: the steep walls rise precipitously around the large hollow while the opening of The Window seemingly provides the only obvious escape route.
From a distance The Window looks like a wide open U shaped gap through which the desert floor is visible for many miles. The reality on closer inspection reveals something very different. The trail winds down into a small wooded canyon and finally into a much narrower and fairly tortuous bare rock water course; a place of miniature waterfalls, small plunge pools and intermittent water flow which disappears before reaching the narrow drop off down to the desert floor. A short detour up the Oak Springs Trail presents the wide open vista that we had naively expected from the famous aperture and we sit contentedly munching our snacks, gazing off into the distance.
The Lost Mine Trail took us around the base of Casa Grande and up to a vantage point from where the south rim and it’s various peaks are visible. This is our favourite trail so far. The path is varied and moderately challenging, the views spectacular and we’re inordinately pleased to be out here. The folds and contortions of the landscape are laid out before us as we reach our destination and sit doing some more munching and gazing, stilled by the beauty. The quiet is shattered by the arrival to a pair of raucous ravens flirting with each other and obviously frisking up for connubials. In an attempt to entice the female, the male produces a range of sounds like a wooden percussion instrument. She politely listens to the repertoire, appears quite impressed and takes to the wind with her suitor mirroring her flight pattern.
Big Bend is a park of distinct areas and down on the US/Mexico border the Rio Grande marks the meeting of the two countries. The river’s name is one of many marriages of Spanish and English and on this side of the border is pronounced as “Rio Grand” whilst still retaining it’s original spelling. The interconnectedness of the area was abruptly changed in 2002 when the US closed the border within the park making the previous fluid movement illegal.
The cordial connections with the villages of Boquillas, Santa Elena and San Vicente were broken although the wildfire-fighting crew known as Los Diablos and hailing from the three villages continued to be the park’s chief fire-fighters. Since 2002 they have been the only people permitted to cross the border within the park. The arrangement benefits people on both sides of the border: the park has a highly trained fire-fighting crew in an area that is sparsely populated but susceptible to fire from lightning and careless visitors while the villages have a small amount of desperately needed income.
While the border is technically closed there is plenty of evidence to the contrary in the Rio Grande area. Foot and hoof prints leading down the banks on both sides of the river re-emerge on the other side while park service notices warn visitors that it is illegal to buy souvenir items from Mexican people. Small collections of these souvenirs are to be found on various trails with written notices offering items for specified donations, presumably in an attempt to circumnavigate the “Don’t buy from Mexican Nationals” rule. The fact that there are usually no Mexicans in evidence may be a further attempt to encourage hesitant customers.
From a vantage point looking over the river we see a saddled horse patiently waiting for the return of his rider who is carefully straightening and replenishing a cluster of souvenirs and collecting the donations from a screw top jar. He repeatedly looks over his shoulder back along the trail but when he sees us on the rock outcrop high above him gives us a friendly wave before mounting his horse and making his way to the river and crossing back over. A few minutes later a tuneful whistling signals the steady progress of another man on a horse followed closely by his dog as they ride from the direction of Boquillas on a well worn path toward the river. As they enter the water, the whistling changes to cheerful singing and we watch the nonchalant crossing. There is nothing clandestine about this and no anxiety evident from the rider. He crosses into the US, rides across the ground on the inside of the river bend, re-enters the water and crosses back to Mexico. This is clearly the established way to avoid the deeper water on the outside of the water course and a well used track albeit technically illegal.
Feelings run high in this area when it comes to the border and there are arguments both that the closure of the Big Bend border has caused more problems than there were previously and conversely that there would be more problems if the border was opened again. The federal government has taken the former view and in what appears to be a little publicised move The U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a rule on the 28th December 2012 declaring the opening of the Boquillas border crossing effective the 28th January 2013. We were planning on leaving the park before then but we may just have to stay to witness this historic development.