Friday 24th February – Blink and I’m in the Desert

I was out of Cracker Barrel as quick as possible and on to the nearby highway. I stopped at the first picnic area after catching up on some news through the BBC podcast. I’ve been out of it for weeks. Apparently the North Korean leader’s half brother was killed with a chemical weapon. Nice, thanks world (sarcasm). Bacon and eggs for breakfast since it had been a while, I sat in the sun on a picnic table and watched the cars go by as I ate.

I followed highway 90 west and I must have been distracted because all of a sudden I was in the desert! Before the last blink of my eye, I swore I was amongst lush green farmland but now, cactus and desert brush. There were quite a few cyclists along this highway, panniers and all. My immediate thought was, “Why?” but who am I to judge? ( I waved to every one of them and they waved back. I think I passed about a dozen. I wish I could have told them the California desert is much prettier. That’s not to say that this desert was not pretty. I was happy to see some semblance of mountains again since I’d been on flat plains for weeks.

I stopped for a Walmart shop to tide me over the next few days and nearly got blown over by the wind. Once I got back on the highway, I pulled over to double check the roof rack was going to hold up because the cross wind was so fierce. The highway rolled along, single lane each way with not much traffic, which suited me fine. Once I drove through the last major town of Del Rio, it was a very quiet road. Del Rio is on the border or Mexico and the highway followed closely to the border for about a hundred miles. After leaving Del Rio, I came upon an immigration inspection. I thought for a minute that I’d taken a wrong turn and I was at the Mexican border, but no, it was just a check to see if I was an illegal Mexican or harbouring any under my bed. Once I showed my passport, I was allowed to continue on my way.

I stopped in at a visitor’s center to get a recommendation for a good lunch spot somewhere in the Armstad canyon. The lady here not only found me a picnic spot, she also gave me a few tips about Big Bend National Park, where she used to work. All great advice, including the opportunity to roadside camp within the park, which is not normally allowed in national parks. Half an hour down the road, I drove past a destroyed gas station and to Peco river, which lay at the bottom of a canyon. It was a choice spot to hang out for a bit, which I did. I clambered over some rocks to get a good view down into the canyon, then I sat myself down at a picnic table in the shade and did some blogging. After lunch and more looking out at the canyon, I hit the road again. I’d underestimated the amount of driving for today, thinking I would be at Big Bend after a half-day, but I wasn’t even close.

The road became more and more deserted (no pun intended) as I continued west. I could see Mexico from the road, how tantalising! There were quite a few border patrol vehicles around and I saw a patrol boat at the canyon, so they obviously take things quite seriously. A wall might be more effective though.

At the turn off to Big Bend, I filled up with petrol to make sure I had plenty to get down to the park and back and the wind here nearly bowled me over it was so strong. It was quite chilly to so I was mentally preparing for a cold desert night. I was furious when I saw the “Big Bend campgrounds may be full” sign at the entrance to the southern highway. What a joke! The park was 70 miles away and that was the best they could do? The information center in the nearest town was closed and when I tried to call the park, I couldn’t get past their stupid automated system to talk to an operator. Whatever, I carried on. The road south towards the park was pretty, with more and more flat top canyon-style mountains appearing.

At the entrance gate, I saw the car in front of me turn around so that wasn’t good news. The sign next to the station that read “All campgrounds full” also wasn’t encouraging. When I got to the window, I asked if roadside camping was full also. Well, no it wasn’t, but you need a permit for that and all the permit offices are closed. How bloody ridiculous. I told the lady I would like to provide feedback and explained how I couldn’t get through on the phone and she started to say how they’ve been so busy they haven’t been able to get to the phones. Now, this is absolutely stupid. First, that they have a sign seventy miles away that says nothing much at all, second that you need a permit to park by the side of the road, third that they have no solution for after hours entry and fourth they don’t care!

I wasn’t rude, but she knew I thought it was pathetic and I drove back the way I came. In my anger, I’d forgotten about my plan to just make some friends at a campground and park at their site, something that has worked in the past, but oh well. About a mile back on the highway was a turn off to a private campground that the ranger had told me about so I headed that way. I had no intention to pay for a private camp site but looked out for a suitable spot on the side of the road. It was about 5:30pm and I still had about an hour of light, so I wasn’t rushed.

There weren’t many options, but I decided I’d give it three miles, then turn around and pick one of the few average spots I’d seen. A few hundred meters short of three miles, there seemed to be an opportunity. The road was deserted, so instead of driving straight in, I turned around, parked on the side of the highway and did a thorough recon to make sure I could drive down the shoulder and onto a flat area by a gate. The ground was hard packed and the spot was perfect. I drove down to my possie and was thoroughly pleased with myself. There was hardly a breath of wind here too, and I would be able to watch the sun go down behind the nearby mountains. Thanks to the incompetence of the national park system, I had a sweet free camp!

I was keen for a rest, but before I knew what was happening, I was doing a major reshuffle of the van, determined to make some more space by making better use of the space under my bed. It was a huge success. Still no rest yet, it was time to make dinner. It was a drawn out exercise since my stove stopped putting out after one bottle ran out. I think something must have got caught in the burner, restricting the flow, so I was limited to about medium heat when all I wanted was high! Since a watched pot never boils, I distracted myself by shaving my legs while I waited.

The sun went down, the stars soon came out and I was happy. I was totally isolated in the desert, aside from a car every now and then to remind me that other people do occupy this world.

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