Day 18 was PHENOMENAL! Best day yet for me; my only regret is that Boz was in Atlanta and missed it. It’s interesting that I can consider it the best though I had three significant problems and one big travel disappointment: (1) I found the BADlands Hotel to be BAD and the top nominee for worst use of money on the trip. (2) There was neither electricity, nor water, nor telephone service at the BADlands Hotel. (3) I seriously injured my left eye. (4) It was an overcast day (only thing worse is rain when you are going to see beautiful natural sights).
The power failure was in the town of Lajitas where I found a hotel room. No electricity, no water, no telephones. Even if all the utilities had been working, my Internet service did not work there. (I will not have Internet at several points along the way, so please don’t worry if a day or two goes by without a web site update, and if you are really worried, call me at 404-606-1885, but recognize that the area I have been in for the last three or four days has been essentially without cell phone service.) I injured my left eye on a hike in the middle of a sand dune in Big Bend when the wind hit that knocked out the power in Lajitas. My left eye was scratched so badly that I couldn’t even open it, and it was very painful.
Big Bend is incredibly beautiful (even on an overcast day), and it is the ultimate sunset spot, as you can drive from location to location while the sun is setting and see a variety of spectacular sights from heights that provide the ideal view.
I met some really interesting people on Day 18, including a Jehovah’s Witness at a gas pump (Ricky Bowman); a Border Patrol officer (Officer Hart); five fine young missionaries (Katy, Pete, Claire, Chris, and Katie) who I met at a gas station and then saw down the road when they had a blowout; two delightful ladies running a gas station in Sanderson Texas (Gennie Merrifield and Deanna Seager); a man who went to Texas Tech the same years I did, and his wife (Dalton and Pearl Hobbs); five park rangers (Ranger Rob, Katrina, Ranger Don, Casey, and Anita); the Tulane University tennis coach and her husband (Mary Lee and Brian); a former missionary and his wife – a Harvard-educated attorney (Ruben and Karen); a nurse/pilot and her doctor husband (Britton and Dan); Mike the night manager at the Study Butte “Mall;” a great bartender/waitress (Yvette); a couple who are in the unconventional lapidary business (Cindy and James); the Floating Neutrinos (Papa and Aurelia); and several others (including tourists Carol, Duane, Stan, and Roma as well as Jeannie and Steve). While I enjoyed meeting all of these folks and learning a little about most of them, the Floating Neutrinos may be the most interesting people I have ever met.
The day began in Del Rio at 8:30 am. 69-degrees and dusty. I met Ricky Bowman at a gas pump. Ricky’s a big barrel-chested 100% Texan-looking man. He saw the sign on the car and asked what I was up to. He is fairly new in Del Rio – moved there so they could be near their grandchild. We figure that’s about the best reason to live anywhere! He told me the sky isn’t always gray there. We talked for quite a while before he said he would like to give me something. He went to his pickup and brought me two magazines – “The Watchtower” and “Awakenings.” Ricky is a Jehovah’s Witness. I’ve never had a real conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness, so I asked about how and why he chose that religion, and I asked what his view is of the war in Iraq. He chose the religion because of the warmth and sincerity he felt from the members of the group. That sounded like a good reason to me. As to the war, he informed me that the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe we are “at the end of our days.” (I don’t believe I will join up as I would much prefer to look on the bright side.) We talked a little more about this, and Ricky admitted that the “end of our days” could be a period of a million years or some such huge number. Ricky asked if I was going to Hawaii, and I told him it would be the 50th state to visit. He said the first Kingdom Hall (aka church) was in Hawaii, so I promised to go see it and get a photo for him. I wished Ricky the best for his grandchild and for our own and for their grandchildren and their grandchildren and….
I ran into Officer Hart of the Border Patrol at the mini-mart, He confirmed that the Border Patrol needs more people.
Not far outside Del Rio is the Amistad Dam and reservoir. The terrain became pretty — going from flat white desert to brown to green with some hills and gullys (Is that the right term for a small canyon?). There wasn’t a safe place to pull off for a good photo.
26 miles from Del Rio was another Border Patrol Checkpoint. I guess I don’t look like I’m smuggling any illegals in my little car as they just waved me through.
Not much in the little town of Comstock. I did see a Deer Storage place. The terrain is so flat and barren in this area that it just doesn’t seem fair to the deer.
When I reached the Pecos River, I realized I missed a bet when I didn’t pull off at a “roadside park” that wasn’t billed on the highway as one of the best scenic overlooks in the state. U-Turn (what the car now does best), and I found myself at the top of a little mountain meeting Dalton Hobbs and his wife Pearl. Dalton had a double T on his shirt, so I assumed he went to my alma mater, Texas Tech. He did. And we were there the same 4’ish years. He was in advertising, and I was in marketing, so we probably had classes together. I’m counting it as the second meeting of “an old friend” in two days! The Pecos River Bridge is the highest in Texas, and it is really an impressive sight, especially after several days of choking on the dust in the border towns.
Mountains appeared on the horizon as I took Loop 25 off the highway and headed for Langtry. Langtry was the home of Judge Roy Bean, and his courtroom, saloon, and pool hall have been maintained by the state. Judge Bean is well-known to Texans and anyone interested in the Old West as he was a notorious judge who dispensed his own brand of justice and profited from his position. In addition to the building, there is a very interesting Cactus Museum on the grounds. I never stopped to realize there are so many different varieties.
I wrote two days ago that I was in the wide open spaces. I wrote yesterday that it was wider and opener. Today it is the widest and openest. It will be 265 miles from Del Rio to the entrance to the one million acres that are Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, and there are only four towns on that route. The four towns are tiny, and only two had anything that I could see (Sanderson and Marathon). Look on your Road Atlas, and you’ll see a huge area in Texas with not much in the way of dots.
Outside of Langtry, the speed limit increased to 75, and so did I. There just isn’t anything to see alongside the road. I did pass an RV at one point.
I reached Sanderson at 11:30. The sign says “Cactus Capital of the Southwest.” I didn’t see any increase in the amount of cactus that had been for as far as the eye could see for 125 miles, but I mentally applauded Sanderson for “celebrating what they got” – something we have noted numerous times on the trip. Inside the gas station, I met Gennie Merrifield and Deanna Seager, two delightful ladies. We had a nice talk about the trip, and Gennie suggested that I go see their train depot. She thought showing it in the book might help them raise money to restore it as the city was having trouble getting money. I enjoyed it and a few other things I saw due to that detour, and I hope I might help them raise some money as great old buildings like this need to be preserved!
My lunch consisted of a Goodarts Peanut Patty. These babies are good! If you’ve never had a peanut patty, you’ve been missing a great Texas treat. A high school and college friend, Robert Taylor, used to own Goodarts.
As I started to pull away from the gas station in Sanderson, I noticed a group of young college-age-looking folks. I asked which way they were headed, and they said Big Bend. I walked over and met Katy, Pete, Claire, Chris, and Katie. They are all missionaries working in the McAllen area. These are really fine young people, and it was so great to hear about the good they were doing. It struck me that there is a lot we can all do to help others, and it doesn’t have to be with money.
In this part of the country, there are all kinds of things that you don’t see elsewhere. For example, I drove over “Three Mile Draw,” as well as places called gulch, arroyo, bend, creek, and many others. Not many rivers, but a lot of gulches. You see windmills from time to time; these are kind of like lighthouses in that both are a sign of life. In the desert, the windmills provide the energy to pull the water out of the ground, and where there’s water, there’s usually life.
I was just doing my thing at 11:45 am. In this area, I’d go for long stretches without even seeing another car. My thing consists of driving as my eyes scan 180-degrees ahead enjoying the view and looking for anything that my mind considers especially interesting at that point. I came across a car that was moving slowly on the two-lane road, so I spent pass #8 to get around them. As I drove by, I saw a long web address painted on the side of the car. I thought to myself that this was very interesting to see on a passenger car, and I wanted to know what it said. So, I pulled off the road to take a photo just so I could read the web address when they passed me. They passed, but there was no web address. Uh oh, 18 days on the road and I’m beginning to hallucinate. I knew I saw a web address, so I spent pass #9 to go around them again. It said “floatingneutrinos.com,” and there was some other writing on the car that I couldn’t make out. Floating Neutrinos??? I wonder what in the world a Floating Neutrino is! I was anxious to get to a hotel so I could check out the web site.
I motored on, and it was several miles before I saw something that I wanted to photograph. So, off the side of the road I went, and out of the car with the camera. A few minutes later, I saw the Floating Neutrinos car approach and pass. As the car drove by, I was able to see an Ernest Hemingway-looking driver, with a woman riding shotgun, and a dog in the back seat. They drove slowly past, and the woman’s arm was sticking out of the passenger side window gently waving Mardi Gras beads. They stopped 50 feet ahead of me, and I walked up to the car; and I met Papa and Aurelia and Buckaroo the dog. They gave me the beads as a gift. How special was this. I knew from looking into their eyes that this was going to be interesting. I can’t remember everything that was discussed as I kind of felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Buckaroo kept barking, and Aurelia told me to avoid eye contact, as he would not bite me unless I looked him in the eyes.
I donned my new beads, and we began to talk as I tried to remember to avoid making eye contact with Buckaroo. As I recall, they were especially enthusiastic about my odyssey, but we very quickly began talking about them. I learned, among other things, that Papa Neutrino and Aurelia (aka Captain Betsy) took a trip from New York City across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland and then down to Spain. Many people have taken a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, but Papa and Aurelia did it floating on a RAFT! Papa opened the trunk of his car, and he pulled out a yellowed laminated newspaper story from the New York Times with their picture and a picture of the raft (that looked like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie). What an amazing adventure, and what stories they have to tell. I tried to remain focused, but I just kept thinking how incredible to be on my unique journey by land …to bump into on the highway literally in the middle of nowhere…two incredibly interesting people who risked their lives while making an incredible journey by sea. Going to the river with Fast Freddy paled in comparison.
Papa said he wanted to give me a song that he had written. I noticed a guitar case in the trunk. (And after Fast Freddy and the giant hedge trimmers, I’m sorry to say that the thought of there being a machine gun inside rather than a guitar did skate through my mind.) Papa gave me a photocopy of the words and music to “Thanks to the Yanks of the USA.” He asked if I would like to hear him sing it, and I said absolutely! Papa played the guitar and sang; Aurelia smiled; Buckaroo barked; and I thought how sweet and what a truly unique experience…and scrambled to get a photo of this as no one would ever believe it.
When the serenade ended, I had to ask Papa his views of the Iraqi War. I anticipated that Papa and Aurelia would be anti-war. His response was fascinating. Papa and Aurelia are not “meat eaters” and would not even kill a mosquito…and though President Bush “is a hunter” and eats meat and hunts and kills, they both support the President, voted for him, and believe his actions will dramatically change the world for the better. I didn’t expect to hear that. Papa talked about a lot of things that I didn’t fully comprehend there on the side of the road, but I am anxious to explore the web site. The back of their car has this painted on it: “Let those who know tell those who don’t know.” The front of the car has a symbol about the “seven levels” that I believe conveys their philosophy of life.
Before we parted, Papa and Captain Betsy gave me a videotape of their raft trip across the ocean and a CD of great jazz music by their children, the Flying Neutrinos! The CD is excellent; I’ve played it several times since, and we will continue to enjoy it. Boz and I watched the video, and it is better than many of the movies we have seen. I could have stood there for hours, but I had a long way to go and no hotel reservation, so I said goodbye. I just kept thinking about what an amazing encounter this had been. To see and learn more about Papa, Captain Betsy, and Buckaroo, see www.floatingneutrinos.com.
I’ve worn my green, purple, and white beads ever since I met the Floating Neutrinos. The Floating Neutrinos have to be really lucky to have survived their float across the ocean on a raft, so I consider the beads a good luck charm. The beads have added a whole new dimension to the trip. Women smile and many men look at me with a “can you believe that ‘weirdo’ look.” Kids stare. I’m meeting far more people with the beads. I need a gift for people I meet, though I will say that most of the people I meet seem surprisingly excited about having their name in the book. While the business card and a little fame may be gift enough, I am ordering a case of beads. Those of you who know me know how conservative I am, so the beads are a walk on the wild side.
15 miles further down the road, and I saw a car with a blown out tire. I put the car in U-Turn mode, and there were my five missionary friends. All they had was a little donut spare, and it was 25 miles to a town. I had learned that the three young ladies were on a year-long program that paid them $60 a month, so I felt good about giving them the money for a new tire. After I reached the next town and saw how small it was, I hoped the money was enough. I can see how they might not have been able to find a tire for 150 miles. But they are all good people, so I figure the big guy was watching over them and Marathon would have a tire to fit their little car.
If this book does well, perhaps I will follow it up by just returning to this stretch of road and write another. I’ll just get a couple of lawn chairs and put up a sign that says “Writing a Book – Stop to Chat.”
Marathon is a neat little place with a very impressive restored hotel, The Gage Hotel. I met Carol, Duane, Stan, and Roma out front. Roma frowned and asked where my car was from. I told her I was sorry to say it was a German car with French tires. Both will be my last!
At this point, the scenery is great. Flat land on both sides of the road with mountains surrounding me miles back from the road. When I saw a sign that said the entrance to Big Bend National Park was 72 miles, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Talk about the middle of nowhere! The scenery was wonderful. I passed a ranch entrance with nothing but three stars on the entrance gate; I figure a general must live there, or maybe someone who rates movies, hotels or restaurants.
Most days, I will see roadside memorials. I saw one on this really remote stretch of road, so I hooked a U. It said Aguilar. There were flowers and beer bottles and money and a stuffed animal and more. I had no gift to add, but I took a photo.
At 2:30, I reached the entrance to Big Bend. I was greeted by Ranger Rob. He looked like an actor – tall, tan, big smile, enthusiastic greeting. I told him that I was thoroughly enjoying Big Bend…that the scenery was fabulous. He informed me that I was just entering Big Bend and that all the really good stuff was inside. Was he ever right!
I later met four funny Big Bend ranger-like folks at one of the few visitor’s centers in the park. Katrina, Ranger Don, Casey, and Anita.
Photographs simply cannot do justice to Big Bend. The views are 360-degrees. I’d get out of the car to take a picture of a beautiful sight, and as I tuned to get back in the car, I’d be knocked over by something equally beautiful. It was an “oh **** day. I don’t cuss much, but when I topped a hill to see one breathtaking sight after another, I realized I was saying “oh **** out loud again and again. I drove for hundreds of miles in Big Bend. I have not yet been to a place that I have found to have scenery as spectacular as Big Bend. Since volcanic activity is responsible for much of the landscape, the diversity is what really got my attention. You can look in four directions and see four totally different types of terrain. I think Big Bend is probably the best kept secret in the United States.
I drove to Study Butte and Terlingua but I didn’t see a motel that appealed to me, so I drove on to Lajitas. Lajitas, I later learned, is being developed as a “resort town.” I stopped at the first place that appeared to be a resort hotel, the Badlands. There was one room left. I was relieved to know I would have a room for the night, and it was 4:45, and I had just three hours of time to see more of Big Bend, so I took the room even though I was shocked to hear $195 for a room in this dusty middle of nowhere spot.
I did meet a very nice young lady while waiting for service at the Badlands. (And you can wait a looong time for service there.) Britton is a nurse/pilot, and she introduced me to her husband, Dr. Dan. Britton told me a number of places to go, and Dan said the area was filled with great characters. He said they are like rattlesnakes; you may not see them, but they are out there. Britton told me a great story about a man who moved to Lajitas from Chicago. When he moved to town, someone asked his name, and he said “Jake.” They said “Jake what?” and he replied “Just Jake.” He died after 20 years or so there, and when they buried him, no one knew his name, so the gravestone says “Just Jake.”
I asked everyone I came in contact with where was the best place to see the sunset. I was surprised that no one had a particular spot. Most said to just walk outside, and Mike at the Study Butte “Mall” (gas station and convenience store with a gift shop) put it best: “To see the best sunset, walk straight out this door…and sit down.”
I raced back to Big Bend and took the drive down to the very end of the park at the border of Mexico. Just fantastic. When I got to the end of the road, the wind was really blowing. When I began hiking down to the canyon and river, I was in the middle of a sand dune when my eyes became absolutely filled with sand. My left eye was badly scratched, and tears were streaming down my cheek, but the sun was starting to set, and I pushed on.
On the climb up the side of the mountain, I met Ruben (a former missionary) and Karen (his Harvard-educated attorney wife) as my prized one-of-a-kind Round America cap blew off and disappeared down the side of the mountain. That made me unhappy, but the sun was starting to set, and I pushed on.
A little further up the mountain and I met Mary Lee, the coach of the Tulane University tennis team, and her husband, Brian. Very nice folks, and I had a chance to chat with them for a while after I came back down the mountain.
I got some pictures, but the wind was blowing so hard that it was impossible to hold the camera still. There wasn’t as much water at that spot as I had pictured in my mind’s eye. Had I known that and that there would be a gale-force wind in the middle of a sand dune, I wouldn’t have gone. But ya pay your money and take your chances. Sometimes ya win, sometimes ya lose, and sometimes ya get rained out.
When I returned to my car, my cap was under the windshield wiper. I know Ruben was my good samaritan! It’s so refreshing to meet so many nice, kind people.
I spent the next hour chasing the sun. I couldn’t believe that none of the people I had asked about the best place to see a sunset had suggested that I go to Big Bend and drive from point to point to see 50 different sunsets. I cannot envision a better place to see the sunset than here, due to the ever-changing terrain. The beauty of sunsets is the combination of the color in the sky and what it is framed against on the ground. Big Bend just can’t be topped in the sunset department! The wind continued to blow hard, and I was disappointed to later see that many of my photos were too blurry to use from the wind making it impossible to hold the camera still. But I thoroughly enjoyed the sights I was able to see with my right eye! My last sunset for the day was at 8:36.
Big Bend is humongous. Over one million acres! It was at least an hour’s drive out of Big Bend and back to Terlingua where I had my heart set on a big bowl of chili. I began to panic as I was running low on gas; I wasn’t sure I could make it out, but there were no options.
I made it. I met Jeannie from Arkansas and Steve from Austin as I stopped at the Study Butte Mall for gas and several soda pops. I should have asked whether they had anything for my eye!
Terlingua is the home to the mother of all chili cookoffs. I went to the Starlight Theater Bar and Restaurant. The chili was good, and the Dos Equis beer was too, though I drank about five glasses of water since I failed to do as I knew I should and had no water heading into Big Bend and no place to stop to get any). I tried Dessert Nachos – nacho chips covered with dessert sauce and a big scoop of ice cream in the middle. Different, but I bet the homemade cobbler would have been better. Yvette was my bartender/waitress, and she was one of the best yet. She told me several places to go for great sights, and she has the vision! She educated me to the beauty of both the sunrise and moonrise in Big Bend, and said, “You know, the great thing about Big Bend is that you can see so many different views at the sun and moon look different depending on where you are at on the ground.” She knew what I had just learned and that so many others apparently never stopped for a minute to consider. Yvette told me exactly where to go the next morning to see a great sunrise near Lajitas.
At the Starlight Theater, I sat next to two couples. The first couple didn’t say boo, and the man overtly turned his back to me when I was exchanging stories with Yvette as if to say, “get out of my life buddy.” Perhaps he is anti-bead. The second couple was delightful. Cindy and James are “unconventional lapidarists.” I learned this means they create unusual cuts of various rocks and gemstones. Nice people, and we had a great time talking. They enjoyed a chance meeting that day with a world-renowned lapidarist, and they were overjoyed that he invited them to join him on a dig at a ranch near Terlingua that is known to have incredible gemstones. This was to them like finding and seeing the Perky Bat Tower, meeting Fast Freddy and going to the river, bumping into the Floating Neutrinos, or happening upon Harry and the Natives is to me. Cindy and James gave me a beautiful polished gemstone to have made into a ring for Bozzie Jane. It was an imported stone, not something they found on the side of the road. I again wished I had a gift other than my business card and camera lens, but I arranged with Yvette to pay for their margaritas without them knowing.
I finally pulled into the parking lot in Lajitas around midnight. Man it’s dark in this part of the world. When I say black, I mean black. When I managed to stumble up the stairs to the front desk at the Badlands to get my key, I learned that the electricity, water, and phones were all off. It took four people with zero personality forever to figure out what room I was in, etc., as I stood there with my eye hurting much worse than it had at the Starlight. I was escorted to my room by flashlight.
The hotel was cheaply built. For $195 a night, I expect top quality, but the room had hollow-core doors with dents and veneer peeling off. The shower was a prefab tub/shower like you would find in a very inexpensive apartment. The chairs were poorly made western-looking reproductions that felt like they would break as I sat down. There was no AC, no water, and no phone service, but this place probably would have seemed worse if there had been power. The lobby was nice – always a good trick. The window was caulked shut, so it was hotter and stuffier than necessary. I could go on. I cried out of my left eye and tried to sleep. I couldn’t set an alarm since we lost our battery-operated model, but I hoped I would even fall asleep and hoped I might somehow awaken before sunrise so I could go see what Yvette had promised – a fabulous sunrise.
The lesson for the day. Man that’s a tough one as there are so many options. I guess the lesson is that it’s not all about money, at least it shouldn’t be. I will explain this when we write the book.