To mark our anniversary earlier in the month, we stayed in Chisos Mountain Lodge for a couple of nights. What a treat - no making the bed, cooking the dinner or washing up - and no work either! Standing at the grandly named reception which if we’re honest might better be described as a counter in the gift shop, a woman approached offering the free services of a string quartet to play in the restaurant. A manager was summoned, the arrangement agreed and sure enough for the next two nights our evening meal was accompanied by an extremely professional classical repertoire delivered by the four sisters who make up the quartet.
The guest booklet in the lodge room reiterates the dire warnings posted on the trails about the presence of mountain lions. One such notice reminds hikers of the presence of an aggressive panther and advises against taking children or pets onto the path. The booklet somewhat undermines it’s message with the use of a line drawing of a cutsie cat that looks for all the world as if butter, never mind anything else, wouldn’t melt in it’s mouth. This juxtaposition of warnings with humorous pictures seems to be a theme in the park and on the notice board at Rio Grande we find a photograph of a bear politely sitting at a picnic table waiting for dinner to be served. Presumably, porridge was on the menu.
We leave the lodge heading out for five nights in the backcountry, the first three at Fresno near the Mariscal Mine. The River Road is categorised as primitive, the prospect of the eighteen mile drive delighting Sterling. It’s a slow ride and challenging in a couple of spots where the ruts, bedrock and camber combine to put us at what feel like very precarious angles and I have to remind myself of our low centre of gravity, four wheel drive capability and Sterling’s driving skills.
Fresno is our favourite backcountry campsite so far. The 360 degree views are spectacular taking in the Sierra del Carmen range as well as the Chisos. There is a real sense of isolation with only a handful of vehicles making it out this far. That is until the runners of the Big Bend Ultra 50K race come past. In between getting some work done, we walk out to the road to applaud and offer encouragement, the early runners hardly in need of it, the later ones looking surprised and pleased to see spectators this far out. One runner stops and asks if he can use our binoculars to have a look at the mine and stands looking and chatting for a good few minutes, obviously not that bothered about his finishing time. The runners are strung out over a couple of hours and as a later pair approach we can hear them speculate whether we’re here taking photos of the race. Not to disappoint I raise the camera and take a few shots as the female runner quips “I hope so, my hair looks awesome!” They’ve come 35 kilometers by this stage and it’s good to hear that they’re still capable of humour.
The rest of our stay is quiet and comparatively uneventful. We visit the Mariscal Mine and wander amongst the remains of the various buildings. At the advice of a ranger back at Panther Junction we resist the temptation to lick any of the bricks used to line the condensers - this being a cinnabar mine - and while the name makes it sound like a tasty snack it is actually the ore from which mercury is extracted.
Most of the area that is now encompassed within Big Bend National Park was previously ranch land and many of the backcountry roads date from that period. While some of the original network has survived to be utilised in this way it appears that the rest has been left to return to the desert. The Fresno campsite has been placed along one of these so that a hundred yards of it links the site to the River Road while the continuation of the trail has been left to it’s own devices. We follow it out for a couple of miles, stretches of it clearly visible as a two wheel track, albeit overgrown, other sections swept away by the washes. A real delight are the infrequent flowers now in bloom after the rains of a couple of weeks ago and an answer to our query about what all the bees and butterflies are eating.
Earlier in our time here we stayed on another backcountry site at K-Bar. Nowhere near as isolated as Fresno we were nevertheless fortunate to be there around new moon. The skies were clear and with not another light visible, the stars were at their most spectacular. Being around the continual back noise of light pollution it’s possible to forget just how stunning the Milky Way looks or just how many stars there are. Big Bend reportedly has the darkest skies in the lower 48 and standing staring out into the universe, it’s easy to believe the claim. By our last night at Fresno the moon is nearly seventy percent full and given it’s not setting until 3.20am there’s not much stargazing but the gentle moonlight illuminating the desert more than compensates. Standing in the monochrome light, the silence is impenetrable; the only noise one's own breathing.