Road Trip Big Bend: Playlist

This following post represents the collective experiences and thoughts of three women who set out on a 1,500 mile trek across West Texas in December 2003. This is their “Road Trip: Big Bend.”

MONDAY

Up before dawn, we dressed and packed up the car in dark. A short stop for coffee and we were on our way to the looming Chisos Mountain range, the centerpiece of Big Bend National Park.

Desert sunrise

The Chisos Mountains are the heart of Big Bend National Park. They extend twenty miles from Punta de la Sierra in the southwest to Panther Junction in the northeast. It is the only mountain range totally contained within a single national park. Among the highest peaks in the range are Emory Peak (7,835 feet above sea level), Lost Mine Peak (7,535 feet), Toll Mountain (7,415 feet), and Casa Grande Peak (7,325 feet).

A 7-mile long paved road climbs into the Chisos Mountains Basin, a circular valley ringed by craggy peaks. In the Basin there is a developed National Park Service Campground and Park ranger stationed. Chisos Mountains Lodge operates the only hotel in the park and a dining room with the grandest view of any in Texas. The Chisos Mountains support vegetation that includes Douglas fir, Aspen, Arizona cypress, Maple, Ponderosa pine, and Madrone. Daytime highs in the summer rarely exceed 90 in the Basin, and there is plenty of shade.

Driving in the dark was amazing. Beyond our headlights, there were no signs of life as far as the eye could see. DeLinda stopped the car, turned off the lights and engine, and we were at once blanketed in the softest, widest blanket of darkness. The air was cool and refreshing. Slowly, outlines of the mountains in front of us began to appear, and life sprang forth, including a jack rabbit that crossed in our path!

A right turn brought us to the mouth of the Chisos Basin road, a winding hilly drive that led us up along the side of the mountains, up over and down to the center of this crown-like mountain range. At the center and bottom sat a sprawling campground and the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Perched inside the Basin, cupped by giant mountain walls, the Lodge faces south over Big Bend. A natural opening called “The Window” afforded views of the park as the sun climbed higher in the morning sky.

An all-windowed dining room was the perfect amphitheater for the sunrise, and we had front row seats as we enjoyed a scrumptious buffet. We ate like we hadn’t in days, and devoured our filled plates of eggs, bacon, fruit, biscuits, grits and salsa.

Sunrise from the Chisos Basin

Some photos and souvenirs, and we were back on the road again, backtracking through Panther Junction, north up 385, 70 miles back into Marathon. Overhead, hawks and eagles watched our departure and the sun on our backs pushed us along out from Big Bend and east along Highway 90.

Nancy Griffith sings about Highways 90, the Gulf Coast Highway. She was just one of our eclectic selection of music on this trip, that included the Partridge Family, Paul Simon, Bare Naked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Indigo Girls, Steely Dan, Dixie Chicks, Robert Earl Keene, Randy Travis, Sting, Amy Mann, Suzy Bogus, Eagles, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovettt, Lilith Fair, Gypsy Kings, and Abba. Each of us sharing our favorites along the way.

Highway 90 took us six hours east through West Texas, past Sanderson and Dryden on into Langtry. Here, we stopped at the Judge Roy Bean Museum. This was a weary day, and you could see our enthusiasm wane just a bit as we made plans to stop for lunch and visit the exciting town of Del Rio.

The slick and glossy brochure for Del Rio said this was THE place to be—shopping, recreation, happy Mexican dancers. We drove down now-congested Highway 90 into a stretch of every fast food joint, gas station, and car dealer known.

In the first five minutes, we saw more people than we had in the past three days! It was quite a culture shock—the cars, the people, the noise! I was reminded of Gulliver returning from the land of the Houyhnhms where he lives among the majestic horse-creatures and the “Yahoos” or humans…

“I must freely confess the sight of them filled me only with hatred, and the more by reflecting on the near alliance I had to them,” wrote Jonathan Swift. “For although since my unfortunate exile from the Houyhnhm country, I had compelled my self to tolerate the sight of Yahoos…yet my memory and imagination were perpetually filled with the virtues and idea of those exalted Houyhnhm.”

We stopped in “historic” downtown Del Rio, wondering how this congestion of dollar stores and loan shops was “The Best of the Border”? We didn’t say much as we drove east out of Del Rio, rather quickly, and on into San Antonio, then north through Johnson City and back into Austin.

In an airplane, you are aloft at some 30,000 feet in a vast skyscape of blue and white, with only your fellow travelers as company. And then, as you make the approach to your destination, the world slowly reappears. You begin to make out cities and buildings, houses and backyards, cars and people. With one weighty tug you are back to earth, and back home.

In the same way, our world took shape again. Out from the expanses of vast desert and majestic mountains, out from the quiet and dark, back into this bustling hub of activity—for better or for worse.

By the time we reached Austin at 7:30 Monday night, we had charted more than 1,500 miles on our adventure. Our modern-day weariness happily replaced by a shared exhaustion, a feeling of accomplishment, and a heartfelt sense of camaraderie.

“There’s a pale sky in the east
all the stars are in the west
Oh, here’s to all the dreamers
may our open hearts find rest
The wing and the wheel are gonna carry us along
And we’ll have memories for company
long after the songs are gone.”

— Nancy Griffith

Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.

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