What makes Alpine such a neat little place to visit is, in part, its proximity to Big
Bend, its beautiful mountain vistas, its historic baseball field,
shopping and great food. One other unique aspect of this place is that Amtrak makes it a regular stop on its Sunbelt route,
which travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles two or three times a week.
Last month, Alpine Avalanche publisher and editor Mike Perry reported Amtrak
officials were considering making the route a daily, which would mean increased passenger traffic and tourism in town, a certain piece of good news for the residents.
In this week's editions of the Avalanche, though, what Perry reports is not quite so good: "According to Passenger Train Journal magazine ... a
plan is now being floated to divert the Sunset route at New Orleans and
send it through Dallas-Fort Worth. From DFW, it would go through
Abilene, Odessa and on to El Paso, bypassing the Big Bend."
I agree with Perry's assessment that it's not such a good plan for
either train enthusiasts or Big Benders, many of whose existence depends on
tourism and visitors.
"For my money, the Big Bend area is probably the biggest
attraction of the current route. Plus, the new plan would make Houston
and San Antonio feeder cities for DFW," Perry concluded.
I understand progress. I understand convenience. But I don't understand
why politicians and big business continue to try to destroy this area
of Texas through plans like La Entrada al Pacifico and its resultant destruction of the infrastructure of both Alpine and Marfa, and now today's news from
... drive west of Pecos for some real desolation. The rise of Gomez Peak (6,320 ft.),top photo, at the confluence of I's 10 and 20, would likely remain unchallenged if there was ever a poll conducted asking people the most scenic part of the trip. I must say, though, the drive from Van Horn to Marfa is one of the more interesting I've been on... If we ever shift to a helium-based transportation system, Jeff Davis County will be the new Atlanta Hartsfield.
We took a rowboat 'cross the Rio Grande Captain Pablo was our guide For two dollars in a weathered hand He rowed us to the other side
-- "Gringo Honeymoon," Robert Earl Keen
ALONG THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER -- Texas singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote "Gringo Honeymoon" in 1994 after visiting the Mexican border village of Boquillas.
Victor Valdez (pictured) could've easily been the man Keen referred to as Captain Pablo. Valdez was a boatman in the town for 24 years before the border was closed for security reasons several months after the 9-11 attacks.
Victor can't boat anymore, but he hasn't given up on his hometown, and he still counts on congenial tourists who hike by him into beautiful Boquillas Canyon.
I saw Victor last week and we talked for a long time. He said he's seen no terrorists come through Boquillas, nor has he seen any Mexicans try to cross into America. He assured me though that if he does he'll pick up the phone and call Border Patrol to alert them. The villagers here are still connected via telephone to America, a rare link that remains.
Victor is one of a number of campesinos, or farmers/workers, who live in villages along the border. Before, when the crossings were open and tourists plentiful, Victor told me during the busy times of year -- Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring break -- he would make as much as $300 a day rowing people across the river so they could have a beer and some tacos, and interact with the friendly villagers.
Until several weeks ago, he and others in the town scratched out a meager living selling walking sticks, handcrafted wire scorpions and painted rocks to people who walk the Boquillas Canyon trail. With law enforcement in the area cracking down on that now, Victor has been encouraged to no longer make the crafts. Instead, he has been invited by authorities to put to use the obvious talent he has: singing.
So that's mainly what Victor does nowadays. Every day, he and a couple of friends from town get up and make a mile-long walk through the tall reeds and desert brush indigenous to the river area of northern Mexico. They arrive at a lean-to shack they built, and they wait, a pair of binoculars in hand, hoping to eyeball hikers as they make their way over the mountaintop and into the canyon hiking trail. When he sees the hikers, he begins his song. Victor's rich Mexican tenor echoes off the canyon walls and hikers into the canyon are treated to not only a great walk, but a beautiful natural surrounding and music that echoes through the air.
It's not boating, but it's all he has now since he's lost the ability to move tourists across the river, and now to sell sticks to them. Now, he just moves people with his music.
"Sometimes I make $5 a day, sometimes people very generous and leave me $20," he told me. "It's very bad. Business is very down since I can no longer make sticks and scorpions. But I have a good voice and people like my singing."
When I walked out of the canyon last Wednesday, there was no money left in the jars along the way.
On the spare change he makes from tourists, he helps care for a 94-year-old man in the village, his wheelchair-bound niece and his wife, who now lives in Muzquiz, where there is more opportunity.
Victor preferred the boat industry and even though both his previous occupations have dried up, he doesn't want to leave Boquillas, where he has been for all of his 56 years.
"This is my home," he said.
After we talked, Victor walked back across the river and belted out a big Mexican ballad, strong and confidently enough to rouse emotions in even the hardest of hearts. It didn’t matter the language was another culture’s, the music was beautiful and the message received.
We waved at each other and I walked back toward the car.
“Vaya con dios!” he shouted out at me. “Vaya con dios!”
This may be the quietest, most serene place I've ever enjoyed.
Grapevine Hills is 7 miles due north of the main east-west road in and out of Big Bend National Park. The unique geology is only half the show. Rocks are everywhere, spilled as if someone shook up a bottle of boulder cola and then took off the lid.
As impressive as the lay of the land is here, what is most impressive is to just walk a couple hundred yards into Grapevine Hills and then stop. Listen, and you will hear a silence like few other places I can think of. There is nothing. No plane noise. No trains. No cars. And on this day, there were no other hikers. Even the flying insects seemed to have no buzz. The only sound I heard last Wednesday other than the sound of my own clomping, hiking boots were the skittering of a pack of roadrunners as they scampered up the trail, hurrying as if they were late for a feast.
Two words of warning: the trail through Grapevine Hills is mostly, oddly, sandy and not entirely easy on which to gain traction. For 3/4 of a mile, the walk gently slopes upward, and if you are not in shape for the last 1/4 mile, take your time. In a number of places on those final steps, it is not a walk up, but a climb up.
Like everything else I've seen here, though, the payoff is worth it: the site of Balanced Rock with the Chisos Mountains in the distance is worth a little wind and strain.
STUDY BUTTE -- Cowtown Pattie loves the Big Bend. She wants to retire there with her husband and enjoy the serenity the likes of which are rare if not impossible to find elsewhere. Pattie has a vested interest -- as any Texas citizen could and maybe even should -- in the Christmas Mountains fiasco.
In short, the mountains, located adjacent to Big Bend National Park, just to the north and east of Study Butte, are about to be given to the highest bidder by Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. A decision could be made as early as Nov. 6. The mountains were deeded to the state by a conservation foundation in 1991 and have been under the state's jurisdiction since.
Simply, this land was gifted to the state. Now Patterson wants to give that gift -- our gift -- to someone with more power and more money than a lot of us have. For a few quick bucks, Patterson’s bill of sale will also deny Big Bend National Park a chance of assuming care of the range. The national park had shown prior interest but, at the time, a lack of funding, manpower and time prevented the park from following through on potentially obtaining the Christmas, Big Bend superintendent William Wellman told me this week. Now, Wellman said, the park does have that time, money and manpower. But Patterson will apparently no longer entertain the thought of re-issuing an offer for BBNP to bid on the mountains.
Reason? Simple, at least according to Jerry: No hunting, no firearms, no sale. Patterson wants to sell to private interests so that the range can be used for hunting. Problem? The National Park Service has a no firearms policy nationwide. Patterson says that's a violation of the Second Amendment and therein the decision to block BBNP's ability to re-bid.
So what's all this got to do with Cowtown Pattie?
Pattie runs the Texas Trifles blog and through her platform and her working-overtime cell phone, has been a thorn in Jerry Patterson's side of late. Pattie says he's a nice guy but he’s flat wrong on this issue and she's told him as much. And through her blogging and petitioning, she’s told plenty of other folks, too.
"I’m just trying to educate him,” she said.
Pattie and other bloggers are doing what they can -- and perhaps all they can -- to get word back to Patterson that what he is doing doesn’t sit well with Big Bend-loving Texans, and there are plenty.
Only one problem with all this public outcry: in the view of at least one official involved in this mess, the more irate people become over Patterson's apparently imminent decision to sell off the Christmas Mountains just like eBay would sell Paris Hilton's dog's used, slobbered-on collar, the more steadfast he becomes in his decision to do the deal.
Pattie says not only is Patterson stubborn, but he is almost oblivious to how "the entire state views this fiasco."
"I've read with increasing dismay the General Land Office's intent to put the Christmas Mountains land up for sale to private individuals," Pattie wrote to Patterson. "This land is a gift to the taxpayers and the citizens of Texas. It is OUR gift. To say that a private sale is in the best interest of the land makes me very suspicious."
At the Prairiepoint.net blog, another internet jump-off point for discussion on the matter, Pattie pointed out something interesting: "Little known secret: the existing deed covenants (pertaining to the Christmas) have always allowed hunting permits to be issued. The GLO has never done that, so has been missing out on money for the Texas School Fund. Patterson is talking out both sides of his mouth."
Pattie has obviously done her homework on the matter.
It all boils down to the state handing off public property to private interests for some large. And Patterson's hardline stance on the Second Amendment is for some strange reason preventing BBNP from assuming operation of the Christmas.
Dailykos.com has also covered the story and you can find information on the proposed sale at EnvironmentTexas.org -- which is where you can also sign the petition voicing your displeasure to the land office and Commissioner Patterson.
Finally this posting from the Envirnomenttexas.org blog, from an avid Texas hunter, the very special interest group that would stand to benefit from Patterson's decision to sell to private interests:
“These mountains belong to our children, and grandchildren. Mr. Patterson is just wrong. The Christmas Mountains should be preserved for all, not put on the auction block. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid hunter, but he knew that some places had to be preserved for future generations. He created several of the great parks we enjoy today. Let’s learn from his foresight. Jerry Patterson does not represent this Texas hunter – let’s preserve the Christmas Mountains for future generations.”
Whatever the outcome, and let's hope Patterson comes to his senses, the story has made for a great example of how bloggers can come together and use their resources to work for a common cause.
Being a Bend-o-phile, anytime I see an image of the area on a magazine cover I pick it up and add it to an already overflowing stash of literature on this unique land.
Texas Monthly's October issue, which hits newsstands this weekend, has writer Suzy Banks' 15 top attractions in the region, plus some spectacular photography including the cover photo of Santa Elena.
Suzy's article is inclusive of attractions in the entire area from Chinati Hot Springs to the West to Balmorhea north and the Lower Canyons to the East of the region's epicenter, Big Bend National Park.
Her noted attractions specific to the immediate Big Bend area include brief write-ups about the River Road, the lower canyons and veteran tour guide Mike Long, Bushwacking the Big Bend desert, Terlingua Ghost Town and Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Nobody asked me, but if they did, a list of my favorite places in the area would have to include:
The end of the 1 mile trail into Boquillas Canyon (It helps to have a Mexican balladeer standing across the river serenading you as you hike to the sound of his tenor echoing off the canyon walls). With or without the serenade, though, the serenity and beauty found at the end of this is enough to take your breath away.
The hike into Santa Elena Canyon.
The unique geological formations at Grapevine Hills.
The Southeast Rim trail. Honestly, I've not made this yet, but I understand it to be spectacular and well worth the 5- or 6-hour hike time. And it's next on the list.
Juniper Canyon overlook, 2.4 miles up the Lost Mine Trail. Easily one of the most spectacular views of nature I have ever seen.
The view of the Sierra del Carmens and El Pico from anywhere east of the Chisos.
The Terlingua Starlight Theatre. You just have to walk into it and feel the atmosphere.
Lajitas. (I know, I know, a lot of people are turned off by this over-the-top -- and in bankruptcy -- haven for the privileged few. But it's hard to beat the food, the movie-set like town and a golf course that has a teebox in America and a pin in Mexico making for, correct me if I'm wrong, the only international golf hole in the world. The beds in the hotel rooms may be some of the most comfortable you'll ever sleep in, too.
The view at sunset sitting at the Chisos Mountains Lodge looking through The Window.
The night sky anywhere within a 100 mile radius of Panther Junction. On a recent overnight stay in the Chisos Basin, the sky was cloudless and the night sky so vivid you could see the Milky Way stretch from one mountaintop to the next ... until the full moon rose and the Basin was washed in some of the brightest moonlight I've ever seen.
The summit of the River Road overlooking Panther Canyon, a view that also ranks right up there with the most spectacular views of Texas you can find (the third one being the look south from between the two large planetariums at the McDonald Observatory.)