Pushing On to Big Bend
When I take road trips around America, some days are meandering and serendipitous when I take my time poking around and (usually) stumbling across interesting places. Other days, though, I just want to make tracks and get from one place to another. Today was the latter. It was a Wednesday morning and I had told my friends in Austin that I’d be there on Friday evening, and between here and Austin, I wanted to spend two nights – tonight and tomorrow night – in Big Bend National Park in west Texas, one of my favorite national parks in the southwest. So my main goal for today was to get to Big Bend, meaning that I had to cross a portion of Arizona, all of southern New Mexico, and a good chunk of west Texas in a single, long drive.
Above: After exploring Chiricahua National Monument in the morning, I headed on to the historic site of Fort Bowie in southeastern Arizona. Then I got on Interstate 10 and pushed through to west Texas, pulling into Big Bend National Park at 11 p.m. after driving 583 miles. Yep, it had been a long day.
But first I wanted to check out Chiricahua National Monument. I’ve been to over half of the 411 National Park units in the U.S. (National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, etc.), but this is one monument I’d never been to. Judging from the name, I figured there had been some important conflict with the Apache Indians, perhaps Geronimo or Cochise, here back in the 1800s, which would’ve piqued my interest. But as I learned, it was named for the Chiricahua Mountains and nothing very historic actually happened at this site. Instead, the park, high atop a mountain range in southeastern Arizona, is most noted for its rock spires. But regardless, I left the pleasant campground around 7:30 and decided to check it out.
I drove up the single dead-end road that travels through the park and went all the way up to the end, a mountain peak where there’s a nice vista overlooking the plains down on either side. It was still early and I was the only one here, and I spent about 20 minutes reading the signs and admiring the rocky spires on a nearby cliff that the park is most noted for.
On the way down, I stopped at the Visitor Center. After seeing lots of brand-spanking-new National Park Visitor Centers this past week, like at Death Valley and Joshua Tree, it was nice to see one of the old “Mission 66” Visitor Centers. Mission 66 was an effort back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to upgrade park facilities in time for the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966. Consequently, the Park Service constructed a number of new Visitor Centers, including, as I guessed – and verified by the ranger at the front desk – this one here. The Mission 66 Visitor Centers all have a similar quaint charm, with similarly quaint displays inside that never seem to change. Still, it was nice to see one of the old-time Visitor Centers again.
I left the park around 9 a.m. and backtracked, traveling north on Highway 186, the same road I’d come in on the night before, but then I turned off onto a dirt road that traveled over a low rise of mountains to the east because I wanted to see Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which is also managed by the National Park Service. It was just a little brown rectangle on my AAA map far away from any paved highways so I figured I had to see it, because I love these kinds of off-the-beaten-path places. Even though I read a lot of history, I knew nothing about Fort Bowie so I wanted to check it out.
The dirt road crossed over a small pass, where I parked the truck, got out, and hiked on a short trail until I reached a few signs. The former site of Fort Bowie was about two miles away, but this overlook explained the situation. Between 1862 and 1886, Fort Bowie served as the military hub for the U.S. Army’s war against the Chiricahua Apaches, who were led by Cochise and Geronimo. The fort was abandoned in the 1890’s and today little is left of it.
Further down the road, I passed a parking area, some rest rooms, and a trailhead where you can hike out to the site. The fort site, two miles away, is staffed by a volunteer who apparently either walks out there every morning or lives out there (though I saw a sign saying that the NPS was currently looking for a volunteer – any takers?) Normally I would’ve hiked the trail, since I love these sorts of serendipitous explorations, but I had to press on to Big Bend. But someday, I promised myself as I drove away, I’ll come back here and hike out to the Fort Bowie ruins.
Chiricahua and Fort Bowie, Arizona
The Wonderfully Quirky Town of Marfa
And press on I did. Up to Interstate 10, through Albuquerque, and arriving in El Paso, Texas around 2 p.m., where I fueled up. Now that I was in Texas, I figured it wasn’t much further to Big Bend National Park. Wrong. Texas is an awfully big state and, as I realized after looking at my AAA map, Big Bend was still several hours away. So I pressed on again. Down Interstate 10, turning south at Van Horn, down U.S. Highway 90 and into the town of Marfa (pop. 2,121).
I’d been to Marfa once before, back in 1984 during a road trip around America, but as I’d been reading about these past few years, Marfa’s quirkiness factor had increased significantly since then. A few years ago while I was in Qatar, I was checking out the web version of the program “60 Minutes” and was stunned to see that they had a piece on Marfa hosted by none-other than Morley Safer. “Why is Morley Safer in Marfa, Texas?” I asked myself, so I watched the whole segment.
Apparently a few years back, a number of artists and other quirky folks moved way out here to the middle-of-nowhere called Marfa, Texas. One of their most prominent works of art was a Prada store sitting all by itself, unstaffed but locked, about 20 miles outside of town. “Now I gotta see this,” I said to myself as I was in Qatar, so I put Marfa on my map – and here I was. My first stop was that same Prada store, which still sits by itself miles from anything, fully stocked with elegant shoes. I love artists.
Marfa definitely has a different vibe now compared to my last visit over 30 years ago, and for the better. I saw several neon glass sculptures and on the outskirts of town, there’s a Marfa Mystery Lights building. According to the brass plaque there, people have been seeing nighttime mystery lights in this area for over a hundred years but nobody has an explanation, which I thought fit right in with all the other odd things I saw in Marfa. There’s an unstaffed building there now where you can look out over the Texas plains in the evenings, searching for the mystery lights. In fact, as I was leaving, two older gentlemen were walking towards the building with folding chairs who I guessed were going to settle in for the evening to see if they could spot anything. I loved Marfa and wanted to stay, but I had to press on.
Around sunset I drove through the neighboring town of Alpine, Texas, then turned south onto Highway 118. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I could see thunderstorms up ahead towards the Rio Grande, which lent an ominous feeling to this evening drive on the high plains. A few hours later, my headlights shone on the “Big Bend National Park” sign and I drove through the deserted entrance kiosk and picked up a map of the park. According to the sign posted there, many of the park campgrounds were full but the Cottonwood campground, down on the Rio Grande, still had sites available, so I turned right and headed down to the river.
After driving 583 miles that day, I pulled into Cottonwood campground around 11 p.m. and looked at the thermometer: 95 degrees. Fortunately though, there was a breeze blowing. The campground was about half-full and most campers had already gone to bed, so I quietly pulled into a campsite in the darkness and made dinner. It was definitely warm but with the breeze, it wasn’t too unpleasant. I went to bed an hour later and was glad to see that it had cooled off – all the way down to 90.
New Mexico and West Texas