I didn't start planning an actual Spring Break trip until like 4-6 weeks in advance, so even though some of my friends expressed interest in joining me, they weren't able to get the time off. So I headed out on my own. I'd always wanted to go out there to see what kind of starry sky a “certified dark sky” locale could offer me. And back when I'd been working up in Canada, Matt had been going on and on about his trips to Terlingua (the nearest 'town' to Big Bend) where they'd go drinking and star-gazing and mushroom-tripping. So I thought the national park would be a fine backdrop for trying out some mescaline. And the third thing I wanted to do was try out my newly finished Man Cave, an 18' tipi. It was a bit excessive for just camping out a few nights by myself, but it seemed like the occasion called for it. So those were my 3 goals for the holiday week. Stars, trip, and tipi.
My sewing machine blew up the night before I headed out, so I was able to exactly 'finish' the tipi, though some safety pins shored up the last few stitches well enough. But that snafu delayed my departure by a day and I didn't know it, but that delay made me miss the last clear night of the week. I got out to the park Tuesday afternoon and the ranger that was issuing the camping permits wasn't exactly the friendliest. Since all the regular campsites had been reserved long before I'd made my plans, the only option left was to go 'zone camping,' where you just go pitch your camp somewhere in some general area. She got on my case about how zone camping wasn't just overflow camping and how last year we zone-campers had caused too much damage and obviously I hadn't planned my camp-out very well, etc. I think she realized she was getting carried away, because she excused herself and some other ranger helped me out. There were a couple regular sites still available, though they were extremely remote and on the river, at the end of a 4-wheel-drive road. He was warning me about how there was a chance that the road might wash out from that night's incoming thunderstorm and that it'd probably take me an hour and a half just to drive the 16-mile-long dirt road. With me driving my poor overloaded 2WD truck and camping by myself, I wasn't too pleased by his outlook. But I didn't have any other option, so I took it.
I was able to make it out there in my truck, but the winds were gusting up to 40 mph due to the incoming storm, so I didn't even attempt to erect my big heavy tipi. It was all I could manage to pitch my regular tent and arrange things so that it wasn't being flattened by the wind. I did go cycling in the late afternoon and check out the river and rode to one of the trailheads. Back in camp, after sunset, I realized just how complete the darkness and silence was. With an overcast sky, there was absolutely no light in any direction and there was no sound buy the wind. And then it started raining. I ate dinner and attempted to relax in my tent but the constant pattering of raindrops on my rainfly had me constantly wondering how bad it was going to get and if I should bail on this campsite, or the entire trip.
I must've been awake until at least 2 am, too anxious to fall asleep as long as it was raining, but I eventually did. Although the rain had been constant all night, it hadn't been heavy and the roads were in good condition. I drove up to the Chisos mountains in the center of the park and although I just intended to take a quick look around, I ended up spending my day there. It was amazing. Most of Big Bend is either the river valley or the desert floor but going up into the Chisos was such a change of elevation that it was 30 degrees cooler and wetter and it was literally and island of forest surrounded by desert in every direction. It was amazingly scenic and immediately obvious why they made this place a National Park. The mountaintops were shrouded in clouds and in the basin near the top was a picturesque lodge. I have to stay there next time I come. After a day of hiking through there and taking so many pictures that I exhausted my camera's battery, I relocated to a desert campsite that evening (considering there was an 80% chance of thunderstorm that night).
I had some college-age neighbors at this new campsite and I made some small talk with them as I set up my camp before the sun went down. I thought I'd be sociable with them so I made a quick trip into town to buy some liquor and mixers. When I got back though, they'd retired to their tent even though it was only 8 pm and didn't seem too keen on mingling by the campfire. So I tried having a drink myself. I don't know if it was because I was drinking a different brand of rum, but my drink tasted awful, no matter how much mixer I added. I wouldn't realize till the next day that the mixers I'd bought in town had expired back in February 2015. So instead I drank my cactus juice, optimistic that I'd be seeing the Milky Way that night. I had played it safe and made a moderate dose of juice, so the effect was more mild than I'd hoped for. Still, at the peak of its influence, it was starting to feel pretty amazing. I can only imagine how phenomenal it'll be when I get the dosage dialed in just right. Although there was no longer any rain in the forecast, the overcast sky still lingered. Occasionally I'd see a random star peek through for a few seconds or a minute. It was a long night of star-gazing blue balls.
Sometime around three am, some howling coyotes woke me up. I could make out Scorpio overhead, but it was still hazy and obscured. That's the closest I got to seeing my stars. :T
I broke camp before dawn since I needed to be in Terlingua early to join my rafting trip. Since I was just one person, I couldn't pick my own trip. I had to join some other group's trip. The only one available was the Hot Springs route, not the famed Santa Elena Canyon trip that I'd been hoping for. It was me, the river guide, and a family of three. Although the hot springs trip wasn't all that scenic, it was fun to make multiple stops to enjoy the hot springs along the Rio Grande. And now I know which campsite to reserve so that I can have a private hot spring at my disposal. After a pleasant picnic lunch near the (???) homestead ruins, we did enter a small canyon which partially satisfied me. We got off the river around 5 pm and I momentarily considered spending another night in the park on the off-chance that the skies might clear that night. Although there were some breaks in the clouds, it didn't look like they'd be leaving any time soon. So I packed up my gear and left the park, heading up to Abilene to stay in a hotel and take a hot bath and re-acclimate to modern convenience.
I didn't accomplish any of my three goals for the trip, but I'm okay with that. I still was amazed by the park and now I know exactly how to plan for next time and make it awesome. So it was actually kind of good that I went alone, it allowed me to work the kinks out and get an idea of what expectations are realistic. I certainly do hope I can convince some friends to go, or better yet, take a special gal with me. The grandeur of that park has a undeniable impact on your thoughts and perceptions; you can't help but feel that you need to share those thoughts with someone else.