Thanksgiving Big Bend Trip with the Sierra Club

I got a last minute call and spent my Thanksgiving in Big Bend, backpacking with the Sierra Club. I was a little worried because I know how close quarters a sleeper bus can be and I didn't know who I'd wind up with as a partner. Sure, we all hope for a Victoria's Secret model, but the odds of that were pretty low. I got lucky and they were actually one body short so I didn't have to double with anyone; I had a bunk all to myself. I did forget how cold those buses are. I brought a thin blanket; next time I'll bring something heavier.

The bus left Wednesday night around 7, and I was glad to see I knew someone: Anna Miller from the Dallas Down River Club. We even seen the Boquillas Canyon from one of our vantage point, this was where the DDRC was having their annual canoe trip. Sitting in the back, we were the Rockin'-est group on the bus. That means it was a quiet trip. I broke out the cards, brought out a bunch of change, and we went to town.

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We woke up in Big Bend on Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day) and unpacked all our gear. I was given a hard time for bringing cotton pants (Cotton Kills!) but the weather was supposed to be nice and I wanted something that breathed. The scenery was beautiful; reminiscent of Arizona, and there were lots of people in the park that weekend. I was on Trip 5, which was supposed to be the most physically demanding trip of the bunch. It was led by Arthur Kuehne, with Anna Miller, Jim Bussing, and myself.

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Halfway to lunch we took a break.  I took a nap.  Once again, Wayne in his natural habitat.

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Lunch break on the big drop.  Left to right, Anna, Jim, and Arthur.

We had lunch halfway up the south rim, but had to pack a little further in due to all the full campsites. We ran into Trip 4 (Or trip 4.9 as they were calling themselves due to their extra effort) and decided to camp with them for the night. They had to hike down the rim for the night to find a spot to camp as well, then they faced having to hike back up the next day. They beat us in by mere minutes. All of us from trip 5 slept out in the open, all the trip 4 people set up tents. Arthur commented, as two guys were putting up their tent, "All the trip 4 people put up tents because the couples want their privacy."

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Campin' for the night.  That's my sleeping bag--no tent for me.

We ate dinner with them; I was still milking my MRE and the rest of my group had freeze-dried. Trip 4 had brought up a Thanksgiving feast. One guy brought in a pre-cooked turkey breast, another brought cans of cranberry, some instant potatoes, and a pumpkin pie. It was well done and probably worth the extra weight they had to carry.

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Thanksgiving day feast in Big Bend.

The next morning were up and moving before trip 4. We headed down to Upper Juniper Springs. We settled in for lunch in a warm, sunny area. Despite the multitude of agave, I never was able to squeeze any tequila out of it. I broke out another MRE and dug into it instead--Bonanza! I got pound cake and M&M's! It's like winning the MRE lottery.

We pushed on across the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, up until we hit Dobson Ranch. The homestead consisted of two log cabins, about 8 x 10, that had fallen apart, next to a dry spring. They were actively lived in and the area was ranched in the 1940's – 50's. One cabin actually had a wrought iron bed in it that had to be packed in. Now that's love! "Baby, I'd like you to come live out in the middle of nowhere with me. I'll ride around on my horse all day, check on a few cattle. You get to cook over a fire, haul water, wash clothes, try raising a small garden, and our children, toiling for hours under the desert sun, with no friends or family around for hundreds of miles, which would take weeks by horseback, and if the scorpions or tarantulas don't kill you, the heatstroke or the lack of medical attention during childbirth probably will." Woman: "Are you out of your mind?" Man: "I'll pack in a small, iron bed." Woman: "I am so there."

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That's about the size of the cabin--about room for three or four people to stand in.   That's the bed peaking out behind Arthur's leg.

We were taking a break and I started to realize how rank everyone had become. I complained about how bad everyone smelled, until they pointed out they were downwind of me and they had a much different opinion of the situation. I shut up after that.

The bears tore up all the wood signs around the park; they've mostly been replaced with 1/8 inch metal ones now. The few that were left had indeed been mauled. No one knew why, the bears just liked tearing up the wooden signs.

We camped at Fresno Spring that night. While Arthur and Jim were out getting water, Anna and I found a tarantula right in the middle of camp. We shooed it out of there. It was our second one of the trip. I touched the fuzzy butt on it, but there was no way I was getting near the fangs. Theoretically you can move slow and pick them up, but theoretically bumble bees can't fly and I wasn't up to challenge him.

Everyone gave me a hard time about my dinner again. I don't see the problem with my Meal, Individual, Ready To Eat, Noodles, With Tuna. The Cake, Pound (Lemon Flavored) was great. Anna was fascinated by the Lighthouse or The Blind toilet paper that's included in every meal. Jim called it "John Wayne Toilet Paper" It's tough and doesn't take crap from anyone.

We slept outside again that night (another reason we wanted the tarantula out of camp) and once the sun went down and the moon followed a few hours later, the sky was magnificent. Lots of satellites and shooting stars.

Saturday the 28th of November, we all woke up covered with dew. This is the one time I wasn't excited about finding some Mountain Dew. There are advantages to sleeping in a tent. We were in a little valley, so we had to wait until the sun came up over the hill before we could begin to dry out. I also discovered I had sprung a leak in the Thermarest, possibly due to a cactus needle I had pulled out earlier. The tragedy mounts!

Two days in, I switched to clean clothes on a dirty man. The "Fresh Scent" deodorant wasn't so "fresh" after I used it! The application seemed to make the deodorant stink more than it made me smell better. Anna wore her dirty socks around her neck to help alleviate the smell. I don't get it--I didn't think I smelled that bad.

On the trail, Jim kept calling me Ironman because I drank very little water and I'd go running for a while with my pack bouncing along, instead of just hiking. (I tend to get called a lot of things on trips, this just happened to be something non-derogatory) I had a two liter container I milked for a couple of days before refilling, I'm guessing they had all gone through about three each day. I probably should have been drinking more, but even from the times in Arizona I didn't drink a lot of water. I was also watching my left shoe start to unravel from the toe back, giving a little more each day. This left my foot sliding around a little in the shoe and the toe next to the big one turned black and blue under the nail. I was more worried about the shoe holding up.

At one point we were hiking along the canyon, passing small dry waterfall beds and run-offs when we started hitting a few larger ones. We poked around and looked at them, taking a few pictures along the way. Some of them were 10, 30, even 40 feet or so, some with multiple drops. I had to climb up and down all of them as far as I could, exploring, and trying to find a way down them instead of hiking around. I was bouncing around like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. Sure, I got a lot of funny looks, but I was having fun.

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Time for another lunch break!

After we got up and around the rough part of the canyon, I finally cut loose and ran way ahead of everyone. It felt great, like being back in Arizona, running alone through the open desert. It works up an honest sweat that beats the Dallas muggy day sweat any time. I got down to the flat river bed, found a shade "scrub tree," got out my book and camera, and settled in for a nap. I got to watch them approaching for a while and caught a shot of them all coming down the trail together.

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I ran from way up here, down to the riverbed below, then down a ways.

We reached a stopping point at huge river drop-off, about 120 feet straight down if I remember right, that we had to circle around. The last good water for a long time was on top of it, and we were counting on it at this point. As we approached, the wind blowing up the canyon smelled like something had died in the water. It stank—bad. I mean real bad, absolutely foul. The first remedy, making me hike in the rear of the group, didn't work. We looked over the first drop-off, assuming some animal had died in the water. Since we had found the dried out foreleg of a javalina, earlier, it seemed like a good guess. There was a big pool down below it could be floating in, but Arthur eventually figured out it was rotting vegetation that had been washed down into the pool from the last flood that roared down the canyon. The water was green, still, and rank.

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The big drop-off was the last one--where the sun catches the cliff and it's slightly browner.

Luckily we had good water at the top. We answered the question, "How many people does it take to pump water?" Four. One to hold the bag/bottle (Anna), one to pump (Jim), one to straddle the water and hold the hose in the best part of the little pool (Wayne), and one to supervise (Arthur). I went last in line. After we filled my 2-liter dromedary bag, I drained it into my belly then went for a refill. I'd been milking the first two liters for about three days in the desert—it was time for a refill. I was able to do it because I had MRE's, which aren't freeze dried.

After we had hiked around up and around the sheer drop-off, we started working our way back down. The trail quickly turned into loose rock, making the descent a spread out (so falling rocks didn't hit each other) controlled slide as we picked our way down. After we hit bottom, we hiked back up to see how far up the canyon we could get. We were quickly stopped by a 20 foot drop where the water had carved neat patterns in the wall. Ever one else held there while I climbed up the little gully made by a slow runoff over hundreds of years. It was wet and slimy, but I made it up....cursing that I didn't have a strap for my camera. I had been wearing it in my shorts for short climbs, but this was too much. I had them toss my camera up to me.

I went up the canyon from there. It was absolutely beautiful. The next little grotto was framed by the sheer walls on the left and right, and the 15 foot waterfall drop (now just a trickle) in front of me. Lots of vegetation, and even more beautiful than the last little grotto. I scaled it and moved on. I wanted to see the big drop.

I pushed up past the area we had been looking down on before, where a huge portion of the wall had dropped into the canyon. The rocks were much larger up close, the size of the cabins we had seen earlier or much larger. I would have loved to have seen them drop! (Safely from atop the other side, of course).

I had to put the camera down to explore a way around the rock garden. Once I found it, I had to go back and get it again. I did a couple back and forth's until I made it where I wanted to be with the camera. The bottom of the waterfall was impressive. It was a long sheer drop, which some plans around the bottom. The force of the water had carved an undercutting a few feet high but very deep under the rock. You could easily have housed a couple of Indian families in there (until the rain came). With the bright sun, right light rock, and the shaded undercut, it didn't come out on camera. I knew that when I took the picture.

After running and jumping around, I started working my way back. I did OK until I hit that final downclimb. I tossed my camera first (they caught it), then I started the climb down. Toe sticking out of my shoe, slippery rock, hard fall....not the smartest thing I've done. That's getting harder and harder to judge, however, because the sheer quantity of stupid things I do seems to be outweighing the things where I'd sit down and say, "Gee, that was a really smart thing I just did."

We hiked out to an open spot with Mule Ears peak in the distance and just camped out on the stream bed in a little circle. Due to the ever disintegrating (the rip was about 1 inch long now) shoes, I had a blister on my big toe which ordinarily would have been a simple drain and bandage. Unfortunately, it was under the thick callus which means I really had to dig! Man oh man did it feel better once I took care of that.

Anna kept making too much food and she had to keep packing it along with her. As a gentleman, I felt it was my responsibility to help her with this problem. After clearing out an MRE, I dug through her cous-cous like a lion through a gazelle. She had some other stuff—not for long. Any extra food went into the Sanaghan Power Plant. I did it just to help her, of course.

Lying around that night, staring at the stars, we saw bats at flying around catching bugs, stars, planets, and meteorites.

Sunday morning dawned warmer, with the first gray skies we had seen. After a quick breakfast and a hike towards Mule Ears Peak, I celebrated with a mushy, re-solidified Snickers bar before we started a short, steep climb out of a valley. We did a cross country, rotating around until we saw Mule Ears Peak head on.

It rained on us a little that day as well. We stopped at a little spring for lunch (Pork Chow Mien for me), and after we ate Jim and I watched the Ant Races. Ants were busy cleaning up all the crumbs we had dropped. Two ants played tug of war with a chow mien noodle while trying to drag it back. A small piece of pork was picked up by an ant we nicknamed Speed Racer who just tore off with it. We followed him about 20 feet up the trail where we eventually found the nest. It was really pretty entertaining watching these guys work....I guess you had to be there.

At this pint my shoes had unraveled about an inch and a half...but they were still holding strong.

From our lunch stopping point, it was just a few hour hike through the desert again until we hit the takeout. During that last hour hike, my shoe completely disintegrated. It held together through the hike until it wasn't needed anymore, then the front half completely blew, just like the police car in "Blue Brothers." By the time we hit takeout, it was recognizable as a shoe only to the most professional eye. Were it not attached to the end of my leg, most people would have assumed it was a nothing more than a dog's well-used chew toy.

At the takeout we met a Mexican family who were extremely unprepared and only hiked about 100 yards in. Enough of that! Also at the parking lot was a brand new Winnebago. We were kidding about it on the way down, especially after we saw who was driving it. It was a real old couple. I argued for a fight—I knew we could take them! Shower, food, clean clothes....Well, I don't know about the clothes.

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We kicked back and rested for a little while until the bus came. Everyone else on the trip had been washing up along the way and changing clothes occasionally. At the takeout, Arthur and Jim went behind separate bushes and completely washed up and changed again. All I had done was swap jock straps once and I didn't see a reason to break tradition, I just took a nap.

When the bus came, we loaded up. The driver opened up the luggage area and I went and got clean clothes out of my bag. Lacking privacy but having clean clothes, I climbed into the luggage area under the bus and changed into them. The driver came around to close up the luggage doors and got an eyeful.

After an All-You-Can-Eat meal, some more gambling, and another movie (Sphere....don't bother), I hit the sack and woke up in Dallas. Great trip!

Let me relay one story that is pretty much the best one to come out of a great Thanksgiving in Big Bend. Note: The only thing I used my tent for was a pillow.

One lady decided she needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. At home this isn't a problem. When you're camped with your tent out on the very edge of the South Rim (I didn't look at a map--500 to 1000 foot drop), and I mean right at the edge of the South Rim, this can be a problem.

This lady went near the edge, dropped her pants, and squatted down. Then she lost her balance and fell over backwards, right over the edge of the huge drop-off. She fell down...and landed on her back on a ledge, about five feet down. She hit the back of her head on a rock which knocked her unconscious.

She came in and out a few times before she was alert enough to yell for help. Everyone came over, her boyfriend in the lead.

"Pull your pants up, before we come down and get you." he yelled.

"I can't," she cried. "I fell in a cactus and I've got too many needles!" You can guess where. (She was a little more blunt than that.) He climbed down and helped her with her pants, then she was carried out carefully.

After she was laid out in her tent (on her stomach!), he pulled out the needles one by one and by the next day, with some rest, she was fine. Some of the women in the group were upset that he didn't propose after such an intimate evening, but other than that, all was well.

She never did get to go to the bathroom until the next day.

I take it back—Jim reminded me there was one more good story that came out of it. We were talking about some of the dumber things that women have said and done around us. I thought I had him beat with some of my stories, past to present. Well, I think he topped me.

He was dating a girl for a while, and she needed to go over to his friend's house. He gave her directions, drew her a nice map, and sent her on her way. A couple hours later, he gets a call:

Her: "Jim, I'm ready to come home now."
Jim: "OK."
Her: "Well?"
Jim: "Well what?"
Her: "Aren't you going to tell me how to get home?"
Jim: "I gave you directions."
Her: "Yeah, but those were directions to come here. You didn't give me directions on how to get back."

Jim rolled along with it for a while. I told him that the dawning awareness point, that was the worst time of all. You think she's joking. She's not. You keep kidding around with her, not knowing you're digging in deeper. You think she's kidding around, because after all, no one could be that dumb. Suddenly, it dawns on you that she's not joking—and you're in trouble. I ran into that a couple times in the recent past, so I knew the feeling well.

Having the sharp, cynical, and bitter wit that I have, I came up with a few quick answers for him. The best one: "Just hold it up to the rear-view mirror and drive home." The runner up was to turn the directions upside down. We still laugh about that one.