West of the Pecos, Part VI


With our departure from the Chisos, we all knew that we'd seen most of what we wanted to see in Big Bend, but we hadn't quite explored every nook and cranny yet. We drove back over the ridge to the junction with the main road, having determined that we'd be heading to the far southeastern corner of the park, Rio Grande Village, for one last look at the river and perhaps a glimpse of the Boquillas Canyon.

I settled into the passenger seat and flipped open a field guide, scoping out the morning's birds, while Dad took one more shift behind the wheel. We probably hadn't made it more than half a mile down the road when Dad shouted out the word I'd been waiting for all week: "Roadrunner!"

In a flash, I had dropped my book and set my eyes on the road ahead of us. There, at a full sprint, was a gangly knot of streaked feathers moving across our path. It rocketed into the brush to our right, long tail and crest vanishing as suddenly as they'd appeared, but all three of us had seen it and knew it as a Greater Roadrunner--no question.

That put the exclamation mark on the trip, though I'll confess to a mild disappointment that we didn't see it in New Mexico, where it's the state bird. Nonetheless, it was delightful to lay eyes on one at last, and we attacked the next 20-odd miles of park road with a more positive outlook as a result. That was good, because the landscape was becoming as desertish as we'd seen it anywhere:

100_2915.JPGA glimpse to the southeast told us quite clearly where the river was, though: where all the green was:

100_2923.JPGRio Grande Village, like Castolon, was a small gathering of buildings largely catering to campers; there was a store, a restaurant, a handful of showers and toilets, a laundromat, and a gas station charging half again as much per gallon as any place outside the park. We snagged a couple of sandwiches and occupied a picnic table long enough for me to note that the bright green trees here were just as attractive to Vermilion Flycatchers as the ones at Cottonwood Campground had been; several of the bright orange-red males were flitting about in the shade near our lunch spot.

Before long, however, we were up and ready to drive over the only miles of paved road in the park that we hadn't driven over already, and after a few curves, we found ourselves at the Rio Grande itself, looking over into Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

100_2928.JPGThe village is not a large one, and I can't guess what its economy is based on, but it's clearly visible from the low bluff on the U.S. side, and its proximity has created something of a tourist-based industry. All around the parking area were small souvenir stands, offering walking sticks, belts, jewelry, and various other Mexican tchotchkes for the consumer with a few extra dollars in his pocket. These handicrafts arrived on the American side through the very simple expedient of having a few guys from Boquillas ride through the shallows on horseback:

100_2929.JPGA few hundred yards down the road from the overlook is Boquillas Canyon, and we figured that as long as we were in the neighborhood, we might as well examine it up close. Before we could reach it, however, I spotted a frustrating bird off to the left: small and sparrowlike, but with a pronounced bit of black-and-white plumage. I hopped out of the car with my binoculars and wandered off into the desert--well, for a few yards, anyway--trying to get a good look at the bird. I could see several of them, darkish atop the heads, and bearing heavy seed-eater bills, but the main field marks of note were the stripes down the side: a pronounced white stripe atop a pronounced black stripe.

I had absolutely no clue what that meant.

Realizing I'd need my field guide for further investigation, I trotted back to the car and joined Ian and Dad for a few more yards until we parked the Enclave at the Boquillas Canyon lot; the only remaining pavement untraveled by Cashwells had now been deflowered. I rapidly flipped through my guide, coming up with nothing remotely plausible, while Ian and Dad suggested that we take the short footpath up into the canyon's entrance. I agreed, but because I was distracted by the pressing bird issue, I neglected to bring my camera on our walk.

The canyon's walls are several hundred feet high--not so startling as those at Santa Elena on the other end of the park, but still pretty impressive to those of us whose local "canyons" are woody slopes measured in the dozens of feet, rather than the hundreds. There were ravens and vultures winging along the heights, a Black Phoebe or two did the tail-wag for us, and we could see a number of sizable turtles sunning themselves on the far side of the river. At one point in the canyon, the watercourse was narrow enough that Ian and I were each able to toss a pebble across, fractionally increasing the size of Mexico at the expense of our motherland. Yes, I know, we're not Real Americans.

Ian's main fascination with the canyon was the sizable (and fairly steep) slope of sand that had collected on the northern wall, and after a few minutes of staring, he pronounced himself ready to surf down it. I took a look through my binoculars and reasoned that it wouldn't hurt him any worse than any other desert materials in the area, so he trotted off with my blessing. He climbed up the slope for at least seventy feet before turning, squatting, and attempting to slide, but the sand wasn't entirely conducive to smooth movement. Eventually he came across a piece of cardboard left by a previous downhill practitioner and hopped aboard it with somewhat more success. Nonetheless, when he returned to the waterside to rejoin me, he was a) ferociously thirsty from his exertions, and b) carrying sand in every fold of his clothing and possibly some bodily orifices. Luckily, I didn't walk around in the desert without a water bottle, so we were able to get him rehydrated and head back toward the car. On the way, we passed the collection jar for Victor, the Singing Mexican, whose a capella renditions of traditional songs (including the one that, I'm ashamed to say, I know only as the theme of the Frito Bandito) took good advantage of the natural acoustic properties of the canyon walls. I don't know what kind of living Victor made, but it was at least good enough that he'd been able to afford an aluminum canoe to get him back and forth to Boquillas.

And that was pretty much that. Back into the car, back on the road to Panther Junction (where a ranger assured me that my mystery birds were Lark Buntings not yet in their full breeding plumage--one more lifer for the day), and back to Fort Stockton, where we celebrated our return to civilization with a tasty steak at K-Bob's and a good night's sleep.

The next day we returned to Midland and got ready for the flight home, pausing in our preparations only long enough to visit The Bar, Midland's finest beer joint, where the coasters have a picture of a dog at gunpoint--yes, the one from the old National Lampoon cover--along with the legend "If you don't drink at The Bar, we'll shoot this dog." With a cute waitress at our table and Shiner Bock on draft, I was bound to be happy, but my Bar Burger was the capstone on the experience: a gigantic beef patty whose diameter exceeded the bun's by a good inch, topped with cheddar jack cheese, grilled mushrooms, red onions and--la piece de resistance!--roasted Anaheim peppers. If it wasn't the best burger I've ever had, I certainly couldn't begin to guess at what could have put it in second place.

And that was that: back to the airport to turn in the Enclave. Back to Houston, where Ian and I said goodbye to Dad and put him on his plane to Raleigh. Back to Dulles, where Kelly met us at bedtime and drove us home anyhow. If the Pecos River itself was a bit disappointing at first glance (see below), I can't say anything remotely similar about the land around it.

100_2598.JPGThanks for the hospitality, podners.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 21, 2010 1:40 PM.

West of the Pecos, Part V was the previous entry in this blog.

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