Saturday 25th February – I Swam to Mexico

It was bloody cold in the morning! In denial, I donned shorts, sure it would soon heat up. I was up with the sun which is a pretty early start these days, but I was happy to get going. I saw the same ranger at the entrance station and I wished her a curt good morning, showed her my pass and she gave me my map and I was on my way. The entrance visitor’s centre was closed, so I drove on into the park until I reached Park Headquarters.

There was a queue at the desk of people all asking about camping options. While I waited, I spoke to a kind man about what I should do for the day. He gave me some very good ideas, but when I asked about the hike I was considering, he was not at all recommending it and if I was really keen I should definitely get going right away! I thanked him for his advice and had my turn at the campsite information. Nada, nothing, zero. Not even a roadside camp available. Ok then, guess I’m doing Big Bend National Park in one day. Fine by me!

I drove into the Chisos Basin, a valley at the heart of pinnacle style rock formations. It was 9:30am and the carpark was busy. Knowing I had a lot of miles to cover, I didn’t waste time packing a day pack with food, water and a jacket before setting off. I did make time to talk to Matthew who had parked next to me. He, like many others, was doing an overnight hike. I planned to do the overnight hikers route in a half-day. I wished Matthew a good hike, as he did for me and I set off into the rocky desert.

New friends at the trailhead

I started on the Long Meadows trail that lead me up to the south rim of Juniper Canyon. The trail was rocky and the terrain reminded me a lot of The Pinnacles in California, so I spent the first hour or so of walking going through memories I had there with Vanessa and Christian. I set a cracking pace, wanting to gauge how long it would take for me to do the 12 hour hike (according to estimates in the National Park guide). After the first hour I was happy to find I was doing 5 km/h, a pace I managed to maintain for the whole 24 km route. It meant I finished at 3:30pm after setting off at 10am. I must have looked like I was hustling; another hiker commented that I was moving faster than a Tesla on the trails when he saw me and my hat.

The Long Meadow trail lead me up out of the canyon and up onto the rim. While the sun was shining, the trail was well shaded so I hadn’t needed to bother with much sunscreen. The temperature was also perfect, it was only just t-shirt weather with the cool breeze doing well to keep it that way. At the top of Long Meadow, I reached the south rim. As the ranger had told me, the ground just dropped away below my feet into a huge desert valley below with a few mounds poking out. The sun made it all seem colourless and washed out, but it was still impressive.

I skirted the south rim for a while, then turned around and got onto the Pinnacles trail heading back to the start. I managed to avoid all the cactus around the trail, but I lost count of the amount of times I stubbed my toes on rocks and had to save myself from falling over. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Lift your feet Sarah!” Obviously all the sitting in the car in recent days had affected my walking skills.

I said hi, hello and hey to the happy hikers that I passed. They were few and far between out on the rim, but as I got closer to Emory Peak, the tallest point in the park at 7,832 ft, the crowds got thicker. Emory is the most popular day hike, as an alternative to the death march I had embarked on. At the base of the peak, I dropped my pack inside a bear box and went lightweight for the 1.5 mile hike up to the top. I passed a few people, trying to keep the pace up, but this was definitely the steepest section of the route and it felt long. It got rockier and rockier as I climbed, so I made sure I kept my feet up but it was nothing too difficult.

The peak was crowded, but I climbed my way up to the peak where there was an array of solar panels and weather equipment blocking the view. The washed out colour of the morning had receded so the desert looked more colourful from where I stood. I looked out over pinnacles of rock, the wall of a distance canyon and endless hills, all with Mexico in the background.

It was a quick walk back down where I had to interrupt a couple of guys in front of the bear box to get my pack out and dive into my wrap for lunch. Phil and Patrick were both military men and had been swapping stories. When Patrick asked me about the view at the top I became involved in their conversation. Turns out Patrick’s girlfriend who I’d passed on the trail was an Aussie from Melbourne. I hadn’t even noticed when I said hi! The three of us talked for a good twenty minutes before I got up to leave and Phil packed up also. Patrick still had some waiting to do for his girlfriend. They were both great guys, clearly happy as pigs in mud to be outside.

The rest of the hike back was all downhill and shaded with beautiful views of the pinnacles and I’d made exceptionally good time. Now I was as happy as a pig in mud. I passed a group of three guys about half way down, then had a close call with them while I was in the bushes and they came up behind me. I thought I had more time on them when I took my bathroom break. Thankfully, they didn’t see me. They seemed a little confused when I passed them again ten minutes later. I reached the carpark sooner than I’d expected, a huge smile coming across my face when I saw my beautiful Astro. It wasn’t even 4pm, there was so much left of the day!

I drove to the eastern-most point of the park to the hot springs. This had been a pleasant surprise when I consulted the National Park map in the morning and I was hoping for a nice bath. After the twenty six mile drive, I drove down a dirt road for a mile or so, then found myself at a carpark by some ruins. Apparently there had been a small community based here once with a shop and all. The stonework was all that remained of the structures. I donned my bathers and followed an Asian guy along the trail to the hot springs. When I followed him down a wrong way trail, we started talking. He was shy, but I found out he was South Korea so I told him about my time there and then he had more to say. We found the hot springs together and I was excited. It wasn’t even as crowded as I thought it would be.

My new friend didn’t stay long as he didn’t have his swimming gear, so I bade him farewell as I sank my body into the knee-deep pool. The temperature was just right considering it wasn’t cold out and felt perfect on my slightly weary legs. I got talking straight away to a retired couple who were down in Texas to escape their Wisconsin winter. Marie and Rick had left only a week ago and planned to stay south side for at least April. They were being minimalists too, camping out in a tent and a Jeep when they couldn’t or didn’t want a hotel. After Rick got out of the pools, Linda and I carried on about travelling and the advantages of going solo. She said in a hushed voice that solo is the way to do it! Ha ha, I really liked Marie.

As soon as Marie and Rick left, I got talking to a pair of ladies because one of their daughter’s was in Melbourne playing basketball. Linda and Dee had been in Big Bend for a few days with a church group, having come from Austin. I told them immediately how much I loved the city and they completely understood why. They were great to talk to. Before long, I was overheating, so I ducked over the walls of the bath and into the Rio Grande river that was rushing alongside us. It was cold, but not too much, in fact it was perfect! I asked if the bank across the river was Mexico and sure enough it was. It was less than ten meters away! The temptation was just too much.

Top notch hot springs. The river bank opposite is Mexico, where I swam to.

I gingerly stepped into the river towards the center where the current was quite strong, but the current band was only a few meters wide. Why not? I swam across the current and across to the other side of the river. I put my feet on solid ground and declared to the small group in the bath that I was in Mexico! Fearing the appearance of the law from behind the reeds or above the mountain top, I didn’t stay long and crossed back to the country where I had a valid visa. All those in the bath made jokes about my passport all in good fun. Turns out, I started somewhat of a trend. The young guy that had been in the river during my border crossing decided he’d have a go too. A second illegal immigrant in the space of five minutes. Soon, there were three other guys crossing, one of them doing push ups on the opposite bank so that he could claim that “He’d done some training down in Mexico”. Ha ha. After another few dips in and out of the bath and the river, Linda and Dee were off so I thought I would make a move as well. What a beautiful spot, it had been well worth the drive and I felt very, very clean!

I drove all the way west out of the park, battling to see with the setting sun blazing in front of me. It was a pretty drive through the mountains that rise out of the desert, with pretty purple desert flowers lining the road. As soon as I exited the park, I was on the look out for a camp. It didn’t take long before I stopped on the roadside for an inspection. Unfortunately the ground was too soft, but when I looked across the road, I saw tyre tracks leading over a small mound. After inspection of these tracks and the flat area beyond it, I was satisfied that I’d found my night’s camp. Funnily enough, it was right behind a billboard advertising an RV park a mile down the road for $25 a site. I love van life.

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