One of the huge attractions for us in making this trip to the US was the chance to see some of the most fantastic scenery on Earth. We plan to see as many National and State Parks as possible, and we began the wilderness side of the trip down in south western Texas, heading for Big Bend National Park.
We left San Antonio and drove west. We knew we wouldn’t make it to Big Bend in one day, but it was by chance that we found ourselves in Seminole State Park camp site late in the afternoon. It was a gorgeous little place to test out our camping gear for the first time. The next morning we stumbled across a stunning lookout over the Pecos River, the first of many unexpected ‘wow!’ moments…
Big Bend NP sits on the bend in the Rio Grande river (hence the name) which itself forms part of the border between Mexico and the US. It’s a huge park of contrasts – hot dry desert, a chain of mountains, and of course the river. We camped high up in a natural bowl, with walls of rock surrounding us, and Black bears and Mountain lions (pumas) allegedly wandering around. We did some testing hikes, though it got very hot, topping 44 degrees down in the desert and only a bit cooler in the mountains.
It was really interesting to get down to the river and see a little Mexican village just on the other side. I think we were expecting some kind of barbed wire electrified fence patrolled by angry US Border guards – instead, it was just a river that you could wade across. And evidently the villages from the other side did, as on the US side there were a collection of small hand crafted ornaments and an honesty box, brought over every so often by the Mexicans hoping to cash in, at least in a small way, on the tourist dollar.
This is not to say that the US border guards are not numerous or visible. There are inspection points on every major road where all vehicles are stopped. Makes sense – the Border patrol figure that any illegal immigrant is probably not going to want to live in the desert for too long and will inevitably head for civilisation. Interestingly it seems that if you are a US citizen you get waved through quite quickly without any checking of documentation. Unless, I imagine, you have the misfortune to look Hispanic. We, being too scared to test the hypothesis by saying we were American just in case it back fired and we were put in Guantanamo Bay before you could say “nachos”, dutifully handed over our passports each time. But let me just say, all the guards were very friendly.
After Big Bend we headed north. We explored the old military base at Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas (and wonderfully cool after the searing heat of the desert) that had protected the Wild West frontier against Native American Indian attacks, and had an amazing night at the McDonald Observatory. Here they hold ‘Star Parties’, where professional astronomers explain the wonders of the heavens with the help of the world’s most powerful laser pointer. Then everybody gets a chance to look through a variety of the observatory telescopes – which was absolutely amazing! The stars here are so spectacular thanks to the lack of light pollution and the super-clear skies, so the stellar display is among the best you can see anywhere on Earth.
Next up was a drive west towards the last town in Texas, El Paso. On the way we drove past an odd piece of public art – a fake full-sized Prada store, plonked literally in the middle of nowhere as an artistic comment on modern consumerism!
El Paso, literally Spanish for ‘the Crossing’, is a really endearing city – at least it is after the dust storms that prevail at this time of year have passed through. It sits surrounded by mountains on the Rio Grande, again forming the border with Mexico. It is actually twinned with a larger Mexican city, Ciudad Juarez, over the border, but the once fraternal bonds have been strained by Ciudad Juarez being centre of the drug cartels that control northern Mexico. As less people popped over the border for cheap nights out in Mexican bars and clubs, so El Paso has had a boost. It is still an odd experience driving down the freeway pretty much through the city, with the US on one side (with it’s own urban architecture of commercial neon) and colourful but noticeably poorer Mexico just the other side the road. I can’t quite think of anywhere else where such economic differences between two neighbouring countries are so starkly visible.
One of the reasons we had such a nice experience in El Paso were the tips we got from the locals we stayed with. They pointed us to some of the best Mexican food we have had so far, in such a non-descript locals bar-restaurant that we’d never have found by sticking to the tourist trail. (And the bars they recommended were spot on as well!) Just goes to show the value of local knowledge!
Well, after an awesome couple of weeks, our first State was done. It was time to leave Texas…