Remember when I told you that we had left one car at the end of the Oak Springs trail? Yeah, well, we left the wrong car. We left our minivan instead of my brother-in-law’s SUV! As we squished everyone into the van, we looked at each other in surprise at our miscalculation. What were we thinking? So, I know you’re not counting the seat belts in your head, because we sure didn’t. Also, our van during a camping trip is our other house because we are usually where we have to be careful of certain animals that like food and toiletries so we use it for storage too. It’s not like we are very clean either when we are heaving our bodies in and out of the car.
Basically, it’s a crummy mess. Cram eleven peeps in there, and it’s a loud, quit-touching-me-wow-we-have-too-many-kids kind of mess. I thought we might kill each other before we made it to Santa Elena Canyon. It is pretty desert-y out there. It would be a long time before anyone knew. Just kidding! We follow the Judeo-Christian law of “Thou shalt not murder.” But, it doesn’t mean we don’t think of it from time to time. We are human beings. We had to just go on because it would have wasted precious hiking daylight if we had gone to retrieve the other car.
Anyways, thanks to a DVD player and some snacks we made it all intact. We did stop at the Castolon Visitor Center to potty and refill our water. It is a neat historic place that was first a National Guard camp set up in 1916 with several original buildings including the oldest adobe structure in the park. The old La Harmonia Store which was set up in the old barracks of the National Guard in 1922 is still in operation except now it is set up for visitors. We went in and bought a few things, but we found no water here! Keep that in mind if you are on your way to Santa Elena Canyon.
We finally arrived at the trailhead for Santa Elena. I really had no expectations for this hike. It hit me as I exited the cramped car that this was our last hike at Big Bend. The day had been so wonderful so far, that I really didn’t need anymore beauty. I was wrong. The trail starts on the sandy shore of the Rio Grande, and it is very, very sandy. There are some board walks put out for hikers, and we used them, but then it is just plain sandy. Then you start the climb. It is windy and steep as you climb the side of the canyon, but the climb is worth the view with which you are rewarded. It is lovely in a spectactular sort of way. If you stay on the sandy shore, you can see some of the canyon, but you should take the climb if you can. The timing of the day we were there caused the sun to glitter on the sides of the canyon.
We climbed until we reached the plateau and then we kept moving along the canyon going further and further. There was something about this hike that gave the children their second or third or fourth wind. I think it was the combination of the canyon beauty, the end of day coolness, the edge exploring, and the river shore landscape. I felt it too, and I began to explore on my own. There was a point where the path was unclear and some of us (me) went a different way. Our group was split up a bit. I saw mountain lion poop, and we climbed on through bush after bush and through giant rocks. Lydia, Anna, and Maile and I had to do a little bouldering to make it through to the trail. We all ended up in the same place: the end of the canyon hike.
There was a small ledge curling over, and I sat under it with some of the children and passed out snacks. My husband Matt and his brother Clay laid down in the greenest grass ever. It was soft, they claimed. Some of the kids snuggled up to me because the sun was going down, and I was chilly. The water looked cold, and I kept thinking about the other side of the river. The canyon went straight up on the other side. If you wanted to come down, you would either be a rock climber with equipment or at least a person with a rope who is committed to the jump.
My mind began trip evaluation as the children frolicked. I never knew Big Bend would wind it’s sandy way into my heart, but I truly loved it. I was grateful it was part of Texas, and it gave me some moment of reflection on faith that I didn’t expect either.
We finally decided to weave our way back to the beginning of the trail. Once we made it back to the sand and back to the cars, we unfortunately had to use the compost toilets there. We are fans of composting toilets, so don’t get me wrong. My husband built one once. But, there was something wrong with the only one open. It wasn’t composting, folks. It was rotting something foul. I didn’t realize how bad the smell was until Lydia were out of it already. It was so bad that Matt said that we stunk! The others opted for the trees. I didn’t blame them. I could taste the stench. Okay, moving on. I’m starting to smell it again.
We piled back into the van nice and cozy and crammed, and then we drove singing camp songs all the way back to the Chisos Basin Campground. Not really. We didn’t sing. I don’t remember much. My legs went numb from sitting in a car seat with Claire in my lap. Don’t judge.
Back at camp, we settled in for a long winter’s nap. Brrr. It was cold, people. I mean freezing actually, but it was our last night, and we had to stay up. We put the long johns on the kiddos and tucked them in nice and tight. When I was sure they were warm, I put on as many layers as I could to sit outside around our non-existent campfire with the other adults. I had on lots of layers, a hat and gloves, and I was still very cold. We observed the stars for a while. It was too cold to play cards. Matt and Clay argued about constellations, and Mattea was jonesing my gloves. Finally we declared we needed some sort of warmth in order to stay out longer. I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. Clay lit the little propane stove and we put our hands over it. It didn’t work, but it was a good thought. So, we said goodnight to the starry sky and went to bed. I checked the girls’ bags for warmth, threw more blankets on them, and zipped myself all the way in my bag.
The next morning I woke up, and my face was in my bag. I knew it was cold, but I wasn’t prepared for the shock of getting out of the bag and tent. Getting dressed made me think of Laura Ingalls in The Long Winter breaking the ice off her quilt in the morning and taking her dress to the fire to put on. Hey, I think she was a lot tougher than we women are today. Well, maybe just me. The children were exclaiming rather loudly about the cold, so I let them stay in their bags and went to propose my Breakfast-in-the-Lodge-plan. Everyone agreed that we needed some boughten food and hot chocolate so that’s what we did. After breakfast, the sun had warmed up our camp a lot, and we broke camp and hit the road.
As we weaved out of the mountains, we all declared the trip a grand success and quite possibly one of the best Thanksgivings we’ve ever had. Our warm fuzzies lasted a long time until the National Park Police pulled my brother-in-law over for speeding. We pulled over to wait for him, and the other police officer rewarded our consideration with our very own ticket! It was 45 miles per hour…not 60. Remember that, okay?
The scenery soothed our lowliness after this, and we put on brave faces as we answered the how much longer questions and passed out snacks. It had been a glorious trip to Big Bend National Park!