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Del Rio to Big Bend, The Wild West

May 15, 2017

Waking up in Del Rio, I haul my stuff down to the bike, drop my key card in the motel office, and grab a half cup of coffee. It’s been sitting for a while and isn’t hot so I drink it in one gulp and throw the cup in the garbage on my way out the door. There’s a group of four other motorcyclists loading their bikes in the parking lot. We exchange head nods as I start the bike, fill up at the gas station next door, and hit the road at 8 a.m.

day 9
Del Rio to Big Bend. 315 miles.

Back in Cedar Key, Tony, the older guy with sagging shorts and no underwear, told me West Texas was empty nothingness. I expect a bland ride for the first few hours until I hit Big Bend National Park but am immediately proven wrong. Just north of town is the beautiful Amistad Reservoir National Recreation Area, managed jointly by the US and Mexico. For miles and miles along both sides of the highway are dirt trails the border patrol pickups and SUVs drive. Other trails stretch haphazardly through the desert to the east.

The speed limit lowers north of the reservoir and I see signs for a border patrol checkpoint instructing drivers and passengers to have documents ready. I’m in full gear, completely covered with no way to get to my wallet. I figure I can fish around in my pockets once it’s my turn. The driver of the truck ahead hands over his ID and gets waved on. I pull up to the smiling agent, “That’s a cool facemask! Are you a US citizen?” Shifting to neutral and preparing to get my ID, I say yes. “Go ahead”, he says and waves me through. I guess we’re going on the honor system.

border patrol
Swarming with US Border Patrol

About 20 miles up the road, I see a couple pulled over to take pictures on the Pecos River bridge and decide to do the same. I stop for more 40 miles later. Tony must have ridden through a different area because this is anything but empty nothingness. I’m in the vast desert passing over canyons carved by rivers with mountains and buttes in the distance. Maybe it’s because this landscape is foreign to me, but I find it beautiful. These are the roads I imagined when I dreamed about riding through the American Southwest.

west texas
People say west Texas is a boring drive. These people have never been to Nebraska.

Between the good night’s sleep last night, the shot of coffee this morning, and my confidence on the bike improving, I feel great. The radio is loud, an occasional bird soars across the landscape, the wind at 75 mph seems quieter than usual, and with no cars in sight, I’m free to relax, live in the moment, and enjoy the ride. When I first entered Texas four days ago, I was worried it’d go on forever. If the rides continue like yesterday and today, that’s fine by me.

pavement
Yes, I laid in the middle of a 75 mph highway to take this

I see a few helicopters overhead, probably border patrol. Every ten miles or so, I see another SUV creeping along the trails. I see one pulling tractor tires behind it. I assume this is to cover old footprints so they know when new ones appear.

I roll into Sanderson, TX and see a gas station. It’s the first since I left Del Rio over 100 miles ago so I pull in and fill up. That gets me thinking, if my reservation change would have worked out and I had the Indian Scout, I would have run out of gas on that stretch. I would have carried extra gas, but the thought of going down, having the gas can break open, cover me, and then sparks from the bike on the pavement igniting and burning me alive crossed my mind. So I’m happy I didn’t get what I wanted. The Street Glide is the perfect bike for this trip. The gas station bathroom isn’t perfect.

bathroom key
It says "Please Don't Open" around the cap. I don't want to know why.

I finally figure out, on the 9th day of the trip, how to check the temperature on the bike. It’s 71° in Marathon where I turn south on Hwy 385 toward Big Bend National Park. I can feel the temperature rising and after entering the park only 40 miles later, it’s 20° warmer. The speed limit drops to 45 mph, which I’m indifferent about. It’s a little warm with less wind in my jacket but frees me to take my eyes off the road a bit and scan the amazing scenery straight out of a western movie.

Motorcycles are sometimes referred to as steel horses, the seat is called a saddle. Like many children, if Astronaut and Firefighter didn’t work out, I wanted to be a cowboy. Riding alone through the Chihuahuan Desert on a motorcycle, it’s hard not to imagine Wild West outlaws riding this very land looting Wells Fargo stagecoaches or laying low after a string of bank robberies.

big bend
The Wild West

I go on fantasizing for the next hour as the temperature continues climbing on my way to the visitor’s center. Once parked, I peel my jacket and over pants off in world record time. I’m wearing mesh shorts underneath, but figure since it’s so hot and 45 mph, I can change into jeans and forego the over pants. I check for children, see none, and change behind a cactus near the parking lot. Heading into the visitor’s center, I refill the water I chugged, pay my entrance fee, and let the park ranger know I only have the afternoon to explore. She gives me her recommendations for what to see given the time constraint, I head next door to get gas and an overpriced sandwich, and make my way to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There are many scenic outlooks and I stop at every single one.

big bend 2
Study Butte

My phone is getting low and the Harley has a USB port in a little cubby on the dash. I plug it in at an overlook and latch the cubby shut. I also take my jacket off because it’s dumb how hot it is. Heading down a twisting road into a valley, the relatively cool breeze feels great against my sweating skin. There’s a dip at the bottom before I head back up the other side and as I hit it at 55 mph, my phone falls out of the poorly latched cubby and smashes against the pavement. Fuck! I’ve been completely reliant on my phone up to now. It has downloaded directions for the next several days, my music, my communication with the outside world. I use it to find gas stations, to get around towns with Lyft, and it has my insurance information. I have Project Fi, an online-only provider so it’s not like I can swing by a cellphone store and get a replacement. Even if I could, I’m in the middle of nowhere, it will be multiple days before I pass through a city large enough to have one. All this flashing through my head, I stop at the next safe spot and cautiously run down the valley expecting at best a spider webbed screen and at worst a dead phone. I pick it up, flip it over, and it’s still on with a flawless screen! There are two large chunks out of the side as it cartwheeled down the road, but there’s seemingly nothing else wrong. I instinctively put my hand on my heart as I breathe a sign of relief. I get on myself for not checking the latch but am relieved I lucked out in a such a huge way. I plug it back in and drop it in my front jacket pocket, no more latch to worry about.

go pro off

Only a little further and I arrive at Santa Elena Canyon on the border of Mexico. The limestone sediment in the Rio Grande acts like sandpaper and carved it over thousands of years. There’s a trail that winds along the US side of the Rio Grande into the canyon. All the nerds with walking poles are taking it. That sounds boring.

santa elena
Santa Elena Canyon

The river is shallow and narrow through the canyon so I take a detour with two girls and we make our way across into Mexico. I didn’t bring my passport on the trip because I can’t take the rental bike into Mexico. Outlaw.

santa elena 2
The US side of the canyon from Mexico. Human for scale.

I snap a few pictures for the girls and we sneak back into the US across the Rio Grande. When I get back to the bike, it’s 3 p.m. and 109°. I don’t have suntan lotion because up to now my skin has been fully covered with gear. I have the classic farmer’s tan from my short-sleeves, but I’m also wearing gloves so my hands are pale. So it’s just burnt forearms and pale everywhere else. Nice.

pale hands
Pale Hands Warren

I plan on taking Old Maverick Road out of the park to my motel, but as I start down it I see a sign saying 4-wheel drive is required. Yikes. Instead, I backtrack down the 24-mile stretch of the scenic drive. My arms start to peel right away. It’s still well over 100° so it’s a choice between sweating uncontrollably in my jacket with little water left or my arms burning. I choose the latter and only stop once on the way back.

big bend curving road
Big Bend

45 minutes later, I pull into Chisos Mining Co. Motel, a real shithole in the middle of the Terlingua, TX ghost town. I check in and the lady behind the counter has a strong southern accent that reminds me of the scene from Blues Brothers when Elwood asks what kind of music they have at Bob’s Country Bunker and the bartender replies, “Oh we got both kinds, Country and Western.”

I open my room door and step into a furnace with wood paneling everywhere. I rush to the AC and turn it on. The lukewarm air it’s pushing out feels great by comparison. I throw my stuff from the bike on the floor, strip into my underwear, and flop onto the musky bed like a starfish. From this vantage point, I take a look around the room. There’s a flyswatter by the bathroom, a nice touch. A sign on the door says not to throw toilet paper into the toilet, use the garbage can instead. This is common in Europe where the plumbing is much older but is the first time I’ve seen it in the US. A second sign says the water is “state approved for consumption”. Good to know.

The AC only manages to get the temperature down to probably 85, but that’s fine. I take a cold shower and change for dinner. The lady at the desk said there’s a restaurant and bar with AC down the road I can walk to. I use every drop of the motel’s lotion on my forearms. All my clothes reek of BO so, in a vain attempt to mask the smell, I open my deodorant only to find a melted mush. Determined, I scoop it out with my fingers and rub it on. Whatever.

melted
Melted in the desert heat

The walk is longer than I expect as I wander to dinner. I’m relieved to be at my overnight town, though, and reflect on the day. It’s my favorite ride of the trip. The open roads and beautiful scenery gave me a chance to appreciate what I’m doing and where I am.

There’s no sidewalk so I’m walking on the road. I don’t see anyone else in sight and there are rundown buildings all over. I think, “boy, this is a ghost town” only to quickly realize it is an actual ghost town. An old BMW 3-Series comes up behind me and the driver asks if I need a ride. I’m sure he means well, but he and the car look sketchy so I kindly say no.

I see four motorcycles in front as I head through what look like cellar doors and down stairs into the cool restaurant. I order a burger, fries, and a beer from Big Bend Brewery. The couple next to me at the bar is from Missouri. They lived in California for a couple of years as white water rafting guides and moved here five years ago. I tell them about my trip and they mistakenly think I’m riding a bicycle across America. Again, not putting off a biker vibe. I have another beer with them and head back to the motel.


Rocky Warren's blog.

Principal Engineer and Architect at Vertex Software. I do other stuff too.

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