West Texas, December 2017

With our renewed zest to make progress on our US National Parks list, our eyes turned south to Texas with the remote Big Bend region looming large and mysterious. Our fascination with borders, especially the one that separates us from Mexico and our penchant for deserts in the winter just whetted our appetities for exploring this region now. Our past trips to Death Valley, Arizona and the Sahara in the winter had only sharpened our appetites for similar experiences. And our sense of discomfort at having passed through Guadalupe Mountains National Park in 2005 (we did make a stop at the visitor center to get souvenir stamps) without exploring the park meant that it was one more park left on our dwindling list. And so we headed to El Paso, Texas in December on this dual quest. The prospect of upping the National Parks count to the nice round figure of 50 got juicier by the day.

Christmas week is high season for Big Bend as it gets too hot in the summer. While the nights tend to go below freezing, the day temps rise sharply and can even get upto the 80s in the winter. Lodging in the park is limited to a single facility in the Chisos Basin area that gets booked years in advance. That usually means last minute cancellations and we kept checking periodically. We did get lucky and managed to get a reservation for one night and so maneuvered our itinerary around that. It turned out to be the coldest night of the week with a low of 25 F and we were happy to be indoors that night. The following two nights were considerably warmer at around 35 F and this we could endure in our sleeping bags inside our tents.

The Big Bend region is famed for its dark skies given its remoteness from large cities (San Antonio is 400 miles to the east and El Paso is 300 miles North west, Mexico's big cities are even further way) and its clear desert air. This adds an extra dimension to enjoying the area, in addition to its daytime delights. However, one cannot plan everything to the smallest detail and it turned out that we had a fullish moon during our stay in the park. But we did get up at 5 in the morning after the moon had set and got our fill of the dark sky on two occasions. It required an act of will to get out of the warm sleeping bag, put on our boots and head out into the freezing air, but once we looked up and saw the sky, we knew why we just did it. And once dawn arrived, it was time to lower the binoculars and look at the vocalizing birds. And then head out into the desert for the day. But not before breakfast, which was beautiful and simple requiring just boiling water.

Did we mention birds? Texas is known for its prime birding destinations with it being a junction of the Pacific and Atlantic flyways. As soon as we arrived at the idyllic Rio Grande Village Campground we knew we were in for a treat. We had barely set down our tent when a ladder-backed woodpecker made an appearance and forcing us to stop everything else and follow its progress as it moved from branch to branch. This pattern would repeat through the next few days with Vermillion flycatchers, Golden fronted woodpeckers, Pyrrhuloxias, Cardinals, Phoebes and so on. They wrecked havoc with our timings but we wouldn't have it any otherway. The appearance of a rare and wondrous bird almost inevitably puts into shade any other activity that we may be embarking on. But despite these myriad and multiple avian intrusions, we managed to cover a lot of ground.

Did we mention borders? It is a particular pleasure for us to traverse land borders regardless of whether they are artificial lines or natural divisions. We got our fill of thrills at the Rio Grande Village with its proximity to the twisting river with its narrow shape and shallow friendliness. Whether we were walking in Mexico or hiking in the US, we seemed to be surrounded by the other country on all sides. Spotting the odd burro or a sombrero clad man relaxing in the shade on the other side brought on a wave of excitement.

The area's other highlights include the Macdonald Observatory and the Fort Davis National Historical site which we managed to squeeze in while enroute. We had not heard about the Marfa lights, otherwise we may have considered stopping there as we passed through the town in darkness. And just as it is in Death Valley and northern Nevada, towns and facilities (gas stations, restaurants) are few and far between. One would see it on Google Maps but you could easily drive past it (especially at night when there are no lights, not even the neon signs posted outside public places) and not see it. We would literally have to slow down and drive into the lot and use the flashlights on our phones to find the door. And, of course, Dec. 25/26/31/1 are days always fraught with the danger of not finding anything open. But we have always managed to find the odd Chinese eatery open even on those days. And our good luck continued on this trip too.

Dec. 26, 2017 Items: 88

 Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Dec. 27, 2017 Items: 65

 Alpine, Fort Davis, MacDonald Observatory

Dec. 28, 2017 Items: 99

 Big Bend - Chisos Basin

Dec. 29, 2017 Items: 145

 Big Bend - Rio Grande Village, Boquillas

Dec. 30, 2017 Items: 90

 Big Bend - Hot Springs

Dec. 31, 2017 Items: 109

 Big Bend - Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Santa Elena Canyon

Jan. 1, 2018 Items: 82

 Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico