When we headed out to Big Bend National Park from Alpine, we were giddy with excitement. As we drove the hundred miles south through the mountains, we told each other we were going to have fun, that it would be our greatest adventure so far.
When we got to the visitor’s centre in Panther Junction, in the middle of the park, we were told the campgrounds were self-registration. We were to drive around and find the site we wanted, then register and pay at the campground gate.
By the time we got to our actual campground in the southeast corner of the park, on the shores of the Rio Grande, it was mid-day and very warm: 34 Celsius. There was a light breeze that took the edge off the heat, but we knew we needed some shade, as well as level ground, for our site. We drove around, noticing there was a “No Generators” section filled at one end by a dozen small tents covering perhaps six sites.
We also noticed that many of the vacant sites had stickers that said reserved, many of them for March 10th to the 14th and we wanted the 8th to the 11th. We had heard it was spring break and that the park would be busy starting on the weekend—the busiest of the year, in fact. So our choices were severely limited, and it took some time before we finally found site 89 with a shading tree and several RVs nearby. The sticker said it was free until the 14th.
We got out the groundsheet and tent, and Rick started setting up while I headed back to the gate to register. There was a Jeep there, with a man and a woman and a dog in it, and as I began filling out my form, the man said, “We’ve just registered for 89, so you know.” I inwardly groaned, and told him that my husband was currently setting up that site. I pointed to the Procedures written on the board which said you were to “select and occupy” the site before registering. He said, rather snippily, “But we’ve put our money in the box already,” and they pulled away. I considered registering for 89 anyway, but realized I had better get back to Rick first. My chest got tight.
As I parked behind their Jeep at site 89, Rick and the man had already started walking around the campground, apparently looking for another site. Whether the new site was for us or for them was unclear. As I stood beside the car, uncertain what was happening, the woman came over and began chatting, asking me where we were from, how long we’d been away from home. She said they were from California, that they’d been gone since mid-January, and that this might be as far as they were going. She also told me they had never been to Big Bend before. I was naively astounded that they had only their Jeep for so long a journey, especially with a dog. After Rick and the man had covered most of the campground, they came running back, Rick telling me to go register site 45 for three nights. As I was doing this at the gate, the couple drove by. I waved. They ignored me.
When I got to our new site, I saw that it was right beside the grouping of small tents. Rick had already begun setting up the tent and was chatting away to me about how friendly Bob was, how he had offered to take site 45 himself but that it was in the No Generator section. Rick then related that they had an RV and that they had spent the night before in the RV campground, a ways up the road, and that it was basically a parking lot. Bob had told Rick that there were no trees and no breeze, so it was something like 120 Fahrenheit, their AC was running non-stop. They figured they’d forfeit their registration over there and come over to our campground that had trees and a lovely breeze.
I was even less enamoured of the couple, hearing they had an RV, as well as that they had not followed the self-registration rules. But listening to Rick talk in his generous and amenable way, I breathed deeply, looked around, and realized that site 45 was quite lovely, and probably better than 89. It had several trees, and we fit in well next to the group of small tents. Since we were very close to one of them, we tied the one side of the tent—the side that happened to face the wind—to two of our trees instead of staking it into the ground right next to the other tent. This proved to be extremely fortuitous.
All the picnic tables had notices stuck on them, saying there were javelinas roaming the campgrounds, and that they would destroy your tent and cooler looking for food or toiletries. We were urged to use the large metal cabinets provided at each site for any such things. We put our cooler and food bins in the cabinet, as instructed.
As we sat down to enjoy a beer after setting up camp, Bob pulled up in his Jeep. He told us he and Judi got moved by the Park staff to another site (some bizarre rule about sites that were reservable and when you could take them), and asked us if we wanted to come over to site 01 around 4 or so for “a toddy”. We agreed.
Rick and I hiked the trail at the south end of our campground, the breeze turning into quite a wind (see Big Bend Trail photos). After checking the tent, we headed over to Bob and Judi’s. They had one of those huge bus-like RVs, and Judi was outside wrestling with their young black lab, Harley, while Bob tried to figure out why he had no DC power in the RV. We went inside and sat on a large couch behind the driver’s seat. Judi sat in the passenger-side chair, swung around to face us, and Bob, once he solved the power problem, sat at the table across from us. He offered us red wine or beer, and Rick took wine while I had a beer. Bob had wine as well, while Judi had Crystal Light.
Both were retired, Judi from teaching and Bob from being a pilot for American Airlines. He had been in the Air Force, then was hired as a commercial pilot, dreaming of travel, taking Judi along to exotic places. They did go to Montreal once, but travelling extensively together didn’t materialize. He explained how computerized scheduling changed the life of a pilot for the worse, with flights scheduled so tightly that the crew barely had time to eat before they had to retire to their rooms for the mandatory eight hours of sleep. No more exploring the place you were in, eating out, relaxing before bed and a morning flight rarely earlier than ten.
Bob spoke of one of their two sons, now a pilot with Southwestern Airlines, who lived in Phoenix. Bob tells his grandson that there are lots of things he could grow up to be: he doesn’t have to be a pilot like his father and grandfather.
This son also did military time, doing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You Canadians avoided Iraq, and that was smart. But why we think we can achieve some kind of balanced social order over there,” he shook his head and set his jaw, “why, I think that’s just not possible.”
Bob and Judi have lived in many places, but they now live somewhere northeast of Sacramento, out towards Lake Tahoe. Judi says she tried to garden, but the deer and rabbits and birds get everything. When Rick said he had heard it was beautiful country up there, they heartily agreed.
I finished my beer quickly, worrying about the tent as I felt the wind shaking the RV. Judi remarked on the size of the branch that had been blown down next to their RV. Bob talked about camping with various couples, taking turns hosting Happy Hour. Rick said they were welcome to come by our tent the next night. Finally, we left.
Rick stopped at the washroom and I hurried back to our tent. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and I was glad I had changed into my jeans and fleece jacket. When the tent came into view, I saw the front of it literally flapping off the ground, the wind having blown out the stakes holding the vestibule, and only the few back stakes and the ties attached to the trees holding it from flying away entirely.
I yelled to Rick, who was ambling across the grass, a few campsites away. Instantly, several of the small tent campers came over and helped hold the tent down while we gathered the stakes that had been pulled out and quickly re-secured the fly. I crawled inside and climbed onto the bed, which was floating as the wind got under the floor of the tent. I covered myself with the blanket and listened as the wind got stronger and the tent flapped more severely. I tried to take a video of the tent wildly leaning and snapping in what seemed like gale-force winds, but didn’t know how to do it with our new camera.
Meanwhile, Rick dragged all our food bins and the cooler back out of the javelina-proof cabinet—figuring no animal is going to venture out in this wind to destroy our tent—and used them to hold down the vestibule flaps, similarly to how he had in Seminole Canyon, using rocks. We had heard from the good-Samaritan campers that the wind was expected to die down by 8 pm. We made ourselves some PB&J and cheese sandwiches, thinking that would tide us over the couple of hours till then.
And so we sat in our vestibule, with the lantern lit and on the table, hearing nothing but the wind wreaking havoc on our tent, with the odd sound from the small tent people as they helped each other secure their tents. Every few minutes, Rick would go outside and push the tent pegs back into the ground, and I would re-set the bins on the flaps. We were pretty proud of ourselves.
Suddenly, the entire vestibule wall came whipping at us, tossing everything, including the lit lantern, onto the floor, and pegs flew into our faces. (We’re sure that it was at this point that the knives we used to make our sandwiches blew away, as we have not yet found them.) Rick ran out to re-secure the tent, while I did my best to clean up the mess and re-set the bins on the flaps.
When Rick came back in, he went into the tent to put more clothes on, it had got so cold outside. While he was in the tent, I heard a voice calling, “Hello? Hello?” and went outside to see who it was. It was a Park Ranger, telling me that he was recommending we move the tent because they were worried one of the trees we were under was going to come down. I couldn’t believe it: one of the trees I was thinking was our salvation, securing one of our anchor cords and keeping the tent on the ground, was, in fact, our potential destroyer. I asked him, rather sarcastically, just where he thought we might move it. He waved his hand over by the small tents, and said something, but his words were lost in the howling wind. I said, “But isn’t this wind supposed to die down by 8?” He asked, “Where did you hear that? This is expected to keep gusting all night.”
I returned to the vestibule to tell Rick the bad and worse news. He said, “That’s it. We’re leaving,” and I agreed. There was no way we were going to be able to keep warm and hold the fly down, let alone sleep, for ten or more hours.
Rick began to load the bins in the car, while I packed up our suitcases, sleeping bags and air bed on the billowing tent floor. I know I was whimpering, expecting the cursed turncoat tree to fall on my head any second, but I persevered, and soon the tent was empty and everything but the tent in the car.
Rick and I looked at each other, wondering how in the world we were going to get the tent packed up in this gale. As soon as we removed the pegs from the fly, the entire tent rose in the air, stakes flying or hanging on the loops at the floor of the tent. Rick and I hung onto the tent poles, and as soon as Rick let go to untie the tent from the trees, I felt my feet lifting off the ground. I screamed, and Rick yelled, “Help! Help!” and instantly the fellow from the small tent beside us was there, asking what he should do. Rick hollered, “Grab hold of anything!” and soon there was another fellow there, with a flashlight, helping unhook the poles so the tent was more or less on the ground and sitting on it.
The two men asked us what had happened, and we told them that we were leaving not only because of the wind but because the Park Ranger told us the tree was not safe. The poor fellow from the small tent—which was under the same tree—looked shocked, and asked, “Why didn’t he tell me?”
As soon as we got our tent more or less rolled up and stuffed in the back of the car and the Thule (we didn’t bother with the tent bag), the four of us went over and helped the man with the small tent pack up. We weren’t sure where he was planning to spend the night: he just carried things off into the darkness, perhaps to his car.
The remaining Samaritan, who was camped across the road from us in a trailer, told us the winds were gusting from 50 to 60 miles an hour, and invited us over for coffee. “You’ll need to stay awake if you are driving all the way back to Alpine.” We demurred, Rick saying he wouldn’t sleep all night if he had coffee, and he was certainly hoping to sleep yet.
As we pulled the car around, a Park truck came along, and Rick leaped out to ask for a refund. As Rick and the very tall, powerfully built, young ranger stood talking, they were continually struggling to stay on their feet as gusts of wind pummeled them. We were told to write to the Superintendent if we wanted any satisfaction.
It was 9:20 when we finally headed out of the campground. I noticed sites, like the one across the road from us, that had had tents earlier in the day now were empty. A couple with a tent trailer were sitting in their truck, reading. As we drove north, out of the park, the temperature continued to plummet. By the time we got to the highway at Marathon, it was below zero, and there was freezing rain. We pulled into a motel in Alpine at 11:30 and got a room. We were hungry and tired, and ventured out to hit the drive-through at McDonald’s, the only place open.
As we crawled into bed, I thought of Bob and Judi, wondering if they would come by for drinks the next afternoon, find us gone, and wonder what became of us.