Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas and Big Bend

Christmas morning I got up early and drove up to the Dallas area to have Christmas dinner with my Aunt, Uncle, Grandmother, and my cousin and her husband and two kids. It was very good but I had to sit there smelling it for an hour before it was actually served, so I devoured my first plate and went back for seconds. After exchanging a few gifts and a power nap, I drove back to Austin.
The next morning (Boxing Day for the Brits) I got up early and started riding out to Big Bend NP. It was warmish at the house, foggy with some water on the road. I briefly considered not wearing all of my cold-weather gear, but put it all on anyway. I wore long johns, thermal socks, a thermal-type Henley shirt; then my leather jacket with the liner, my new chaps (bought for 15% off Christmas Eve to replace my old ones with broken zippers), my leather gauntlet gloves and a thin pair of gloves underneath as a liner, and a fleece face mask. I was black from helmet to boots, with only the smallest patches of skin showing that the mask didn't cover. I was thinking it would warm up along the way and I would take some of it off later, but it never did, and in fact it got colder around Fredericksburg (or at least it felt like it, it may have just been exposure). It didn't take too long before I was freezing cold even with all the gear. I later realized that my jacket was a bit too loose and allowed a draft over my chest. I made gas stops in Junction, Ozona and Fort Stockton, warming up slightly, but only stopped for about 20 minutes each time, so it didn't really help much.
I did however make a long (2 hour) stop at the Caverns of Sonora and warmed up completely. Before the tour started, they recommended that everyone leave their jackets. I was reluctant, but the assured us that the cavern was quite warm and humid. I had already taken off my chaps, and left my jacket with them. There was a short walk outside to get to the actual cave entrance, but I was already freezing at that point so it wasn't a big problem. Once we got into the cave it was much warmer, but I was still cold for a while and never felt hot. The cavern started out pretty average- not really big, not many formations- but then we got to the area where they had to blast in order to get to. The really active portion is absolutely amazing. I was amazed at the abundance of "cave popcorn" throughout. I thought the most stunning formations were the helictites, especially the "fishtail" formations. The way the defy gravity makes them so spectacular. It was very unfortunate to hear about how vandals broke one of their most famous formations, the "butterfly," two fishtails growing next to each other. Another highlight was the "geode room" or "surprise room" (so called because when they were blasting they were surprised to find it was filled with water)- what was once an almost completely enclosed room lined most of the way up with dogtooth spar formations. After the tour I had a snack then geared back up to continue on my way in the cold.
I got into the park itself about 4:45, showed my National Parks card at the entry station, and continued the 25+ miles to Chisos Basin and the campground. Once I got there, though I was lost because I'd forgotten my reservation info and had no idea what site I was staying in. After a wandering around lost for a while the campground host, who was having dinner and wine with some campers, saw me and asked if I needed some help. In his trailer he found what site I had reserved, so I headed there to make camp. Being cold and not real hungry yet, I decided to warm up by hiking up to the lodge and store. The store's selection was quite slim, nothing like the larger parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite. I bought a six pack of Bud Light and bread to make sandwiches and went back to camp to have dinner. I slept that night in pretty much what I'd worn all day, minus the leather and jeans. I was in my relatively new 20 degree sleeping bag with a bag liner and a blanket over my feet. It was in the 20s overnight and while I was a bit chilly at times, I wasn't really cold. I didn't sleep any better than I had been at home due to terrible nasal congestion. I had been hoping that the dry desert air would be a miraculous cure for what I'm assuming is just related to allergies.
After some oatmeal and consulting with the campground host, I set off with my pack full of water and granola bars and two PBJs on the Window trail. It was an easy downhill getting there and it is just spectacular. There's a really neat little stream that the trail criss-crosses toward the end. It forms little pools and mini waterfalls and is just really cool looking. "The Window" itself is a narrow slot canyon that dumps out the stream practically to the desert floor below. The view from there is quite beautiful, but really hard to photograph with my camera because the canyon is kind of dark and the desert landscape is really bright. There was a guy taking pictures at the end whom I startled a bit when I popped out from behind a rock, although he certainly should have heard me coming. After enjoying the Window, I started back toward the campground, but as suggested I went about 1/4 mile up (and I mean up- it was pretty steep) the Oak Springs trail for another amazing view of the desert, as well as the canyon I had hiked down. I decided against going all the way down to the desert on that trail and instead headed back the Window trail. Instead of just going back to the campground, I hiked on up to the store, which was a steeper trail than the rest of the Window trail, but not quite as steep as the Oak Springs trail. All told, my heart monitor watch said I burned about 1400 calories. I relaxed a bit, got a drink, went into the ranger station and ate my PBJ sandwiches. After hiking back down to camp I got some things and headed to check out the hot spring near Rio Grande Village. The road to the hot spring is not paved and about halfway there's a big sign warning not to take trailers or dual wheeled vehicles past that point. I took that to mean the didn't recommend motorcycles, but I probably wouldn't have had a problem, it wasn't that much worse than the rest of the road. Rather than walk along the road, I hiked across and down a hill to get to the trail that leads to the actual hot spring. The spring has been enclosed in rocks and cement and is directly adjacent to the Rio Grande. The pool was quite silty, mostly from the river bank crumbling into it. The water was quite warm and felt pretty good, but it wasn't very deep, only mid-chest when sitting down. The pool is fairly large, but there were quite a few people there. After I'd had enough and hiked back to my bike along the road, I rode to Rio Grande Village to take a shower. It was quite warm in that area that afternoon, getting to a high around 80, so I didn't put all of my gear on for the ride back to the basin. Rather than go right back to camp, I went and had dinner at the lodge. The steak was mediocre, the sides were pretty good but nothing special. I ate my steak with A1, which I rarely do, and I ate more fat than I normally would, on the justification that I'd burned enough calories hiking that morning.
That second night was the coldest, probably somewhere in the teens. My water bottle had a bunch of ice crystals in the morning. The eggs were kind of milky and nearly frozen. In the bowl I used to beat them, the remnants that didn't make it to the fry pan froze before I finished eating. They tasted fine, however, and went well with a slice of SPAM. I don't normally eat SPAM, but it's a great camping food with all of its salt and fat to replace what you lose hiking. Since I was planning to ride that day and it was so cold, I waited for it to warm up some before leaving. It was after 10:30 when I left. Instead of my original plan to start toward Presidio along the river road, I decided I'd start toward Alpine and have lunch somewhere in that area. I went to a diner in Fort Davis that used to be a drug store. The chopped beef sandwich I had was pretty good, the bread was very good, but the service wasn't great. The three waitresses there were very overworked and it took a while for them to get around to me. After lunch I rode to McDonald Observatory and got there just as a guided tour was about to leave. I got a ticket (for a reduced price since I'm a member of UT's Blanton museum, and the observatory is run by UT) and got the last seat on the mini tour bus, next to the driver/tour guide. We were a very large group, their busiest times being around holidays, but all fit in the telescope dome. We got a demonstration of the telescope moving, the dome rotating and the doors opening, as well as info about 107" telescope itself and the facility in general. The formal tour ended there, but the bus went on to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a large segmented mirrored telescope with a much more limited range of motion. We didn't get to go into the room with the HET, but the building has a lobby with info and a large window to view the telescope. When I got back to the visitors center it was 4:45 and I was very concerned about how cold it would be riding back in the dark. I knew it was too late to try to do the river road, since it would take even longer to get back and it would be too dark to enjoy the view. I did, however, want to make sure that I went through Presidio county, but wasn't quite sure where the county line was. I started on my intended path through Marfa and was glad to find that it is in fact in Presidio county. Instead of continuing to Presidio, I turned in Marfa to head back through Alpine. The GPS said it was quicker to go back the way I came, on TX 118, but in retrospect it may have been slightly quicker to go back through Marathon because of the hills and turns on 118. I got gas in Alpine just as the sun was setting. I should have changed to by clear lenses there, but thought there was enough sun left to warrant the dark glasses, so I ended up changing on the side of the road when it got too dark. It had been cold riding all day, but when the sun went down it got even colder. On the plus side, I did see a bobcat run across the road near sunset. It was so cold and there's nothing on that road, so I was just counting down the miles back to Study Butte. I stopped in at a convenience store to warm up a bit before going back into the park. I was hoping they would have some hot chocolate available, but no such luck. It was about 8 when I got back to camp, freezing cold. I wasn't really hungry and knew I was going to bed very soon, so instead of dinner I just made some hot chocolate and stood in the heated bathroom a while to warm up.
Saturday I had SPAM and eggs for breakfast again and geared up for the hike to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. I got off a little later than I had hoped, hitting the trail about 9:30. I didn't see or hear anybody going my direction on the trail, but there was a group of people going the other direction less than a mile from the trailhead. I hardly saw anyone else on my way up the 3.5 mile Pinnacles trail, but I did see a number of small birds. The trail wasn't especially strenuous, but it did have quite a bit of elevation gain. I did have to stop to catch my breath a few times along the way. Mostly I would pause for a minute to have a drink and let my heart slow down a little. At the peak of the Pinnacles trail the view over the basin was quite spectacular. From the lodge, Casa Grande looks really high, but it's an illusion as Emory is much higher, and you're already looking down on it from the top of the Pinnacles trail. From there the trail descends a bit to the start of the Emory Peak trail. I ate a PBJ before stowing my pack in one of the bear boxes there, bringing only my 1-liter water bottle and two granola bars, plus whatever was in my pockets. The trail to the peak is steep- almost every step is a gain in elevation. I had to pause at least every 100 feet gained. I finally got to the rocky outcrop that is the actual peak. There are two upshots from a saddle, and it's hard to tell from there which is the true peak. I took a guess that it was on the left, scrambling up to the top of it only to find that the other one is the true peak. There is a solar-powered radio station (I'm guessing a weather station, but I didn't see an anemometer) on both "peaks," so they look the same from below. At that point I was thinking "Oh well, close enough" and headed down. Unfortunately I went down a different way than I came up and couldn't find the trail. I circled around the mountain looking for it, crawling under trees and getting poked by agave and prickly pears. When I found the trail, I took it back up to recover my water bottle I'd ditched when I needed my hands to ascend. Four guys had made it to the saddle by that point and were having lunch. I sat down and drank my water and ate my granola bars. While we were all sitting there, two women who spoke to each other in English and German arrived and started toward the summit. After regaining some of my energy, I decided I couldn't leave without reaching the true peak and went in the direction of these women. The second woman was being timid about scaling the boulders while her friend was coaching her. I decided I would attempt a more difficult route rather than wait for them to finish. I didn't have any real trouble with the craggy boulders and was quickly at the peak while the woman were still working on getting up. I enjoyed the view, it must have been possible to see the entire park, took some photos including one of myself to prove I was there, and started the scramble back down. Psychologically I find the descent more difficult, but it didn't really slow me down this time. On the way down to the Pinnacles/South Rim trail I passed about a dozen people on their way up, at least one alone, most in twos or small groups. After I got my pack out of the bear box, I sat and had lunch at the peak of the Pinnacles trail. It was windy, which made me feel cool just sitting there, so after drying off some of the sweat I put my down jacket back on. Once I started hiking again it wasn't long before I took it off again, plus of course it gets warmer the lower the elevation. I passed more people going up as I was going down, and there was one guy who was going down at a similar pace to me. I passed him when he stopped to take a picture, he passed me when I stopped for a quick break. Back down at the basin I bought some beer and Oreo cookies and went back to camp to read for the rest of the afternoon, it only being about 3pm. It was a great relaxing afternoon, warm enough that I took my shoes off for a while to let my feet air out. It got cold again once the sun went behind the mountains. For dinner I had a freeze-dried meal of rice and chicken, which I liked better than any of the other ones I've had, which along with everything else helped replace the 3000 calories my watch said I burned. I made up some hot chocolate and went to the amphitheater for a ranger presentation on the various raptors that live in or pass through Big Bend. It got even cooler during the presentation and I went back to my campsite and got into my sleeping bag and read my book until I fell asleep.
The last night was probably the warmest, but still in the low 30s. I slept better than I had been, but woke up about 5:15 and started packing up after reading for a little while. After oatmeal for breakfast, getting everything packed up, and waiting for the sun to really wake up, I set off from camp about 8:30. I got gas before leaving the park, since I didn't have enough to get to Marathon (the next available on my route, 70 miles away). I took a different route home, and my next stop was in Sanderson. It was actually warming up by that point (about 11), but I was still cold so I stopped long enough to drink a hot chocolate. I made a quick stop at Amistad National Recreational Area-Pecos River to look at the steep-walled river, and then continued on for my next stop in Del Rio. It was definitely warmer at that point, and was overly warm once I hit traffic. When I got gas I left my glove liners and face mask off. From there, the gas I had got me close enough to San Antonio that I wasn't worried about running out in the middle of nowhere, so decided I would go until the gauge started blinking. I was glad that it didn't blink until I was out of San Antonio proper, in Schertz, 170 miles from Del Rio. It was 4pm at that point and still pretty warm. I would have taken off my chaps if I had more room to store them, but kept them on and switched to lighter gloves. From there it was a quick 45 minute jog back home, where I plopped down and vegetated for the rest of the night. The route home added Terrell, Val Verde, and Kinney counties to the list of counties I've ridden to, taking me over the 75% mark for the state. On my colored-in county map it leaves a hole for Maverick county which I aim to fill before too long. Ending 2007, the Fat Boy stands at 77,103 miles and 2940 for the Night Train.

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