The Hustle

Along the Boquillas Canyon Trail.

“You going down to the canyon? asked the guy walking into the parking lot. He had come from the Boquillas Canyon Trail, the same one we were about to check out.

“Yeah” I responded with a nod.

“Be sure to look for Victor,” said the man, “he’ll sing you a song.”

Not the typical pre-hike conversation I was used to having with someone coming off a trail. “The trail is nice”, “The view is worth it”, “The climb out is tough” were more common pre-hike exchanges you have with fellow hiking strangers. But Victor? Singing? What were we getting into?

Christmas carols blared outside of lawn & garden as we drifted to sleep in a parking lot on the edge of Fort Stockton. It seems that Big Bend National Park is way down in West Texas. Way down. A bit out of our way and right on the way to Kentucky all at the same time. It was a park Jill had visited before and one I had not. One we opted not to visit on our road trip in ’09 because I wanted to get to a destination where we could climb. A park that made perfect sense to visit this time out. It was December and the daytime temps were warm, it also put off getting home. We’d awake the next morning and drive on down for a few nights of National Park fun on the border.

The Rio Grande with the Chisos Mountains rising out of the background.

Through miles and miles of rolling hills and Texas scrub we came to the park entrance, only 46 more miles to Rio Grande Village. The rolling hills gave way to the Chisos Mountains, the scrub continued. We quickly settled on a campsite, this being off season we had our pick of the litter, and headed out for a little hike to the mouth of Boquillas Canyon. Easy. One point four miles round trip. Let the hustle begin.

“We’ll check that out!” I hesitantly responded to the guy in the trailhead parking lot.

The Mexican village of Boquillas lies in a bend in the Rio Grande at the mouth of an massive canyon.

We had read about the trinkets that the people of Boquillas made to sell to the tourists. It was illegal to buy directly from them, instead you could legally purchase them in the park’s visitor’s centers. For a marked up price of course. You see Boquillas was a small village on the south side of the Rio Grande River. The Mexican side of the river that separates the first world from the third world along Texas’ winding border with Mexico. Back in the day you could pay a fare and take a boat to Boquillas to buy a bite to eat, cervezas and trinkets. If the river was cooperating you could also wade. That is what Jill did back in 1994, lucky duck.

Then came the attacks of September 11th, the lock down of our Nation’s borders, the and the end of tourism as Boquillas knew it. With no official border crossing in the park, the nearest one 50 plus miles away, a visit to Big Bend National Park changed. Gone was the carefree day trips to Mexican border towns like Santa Elena or Boquillas and here to stay was the presence of the US Border Patrol.

The trail side hustle.

We followed the trail out to the parking lot and quickly climbed to the top of a low hill with dramatic views of the twisting Rio Grande and sweeping canyon walls. And there it was by the trail, the hustle. A small pile of trinkets and walking sticks complete with a price list and payment can. Really? Right here? Huh? It wasn’t a sight I thought I’d see. All the park propaganda warned of purchasing crafts off of Mexican residents, not from a trail side flea market stall. OK it wasn’t that bad, more interesting than anything. Instead of direct sales it was more on the honor system. Slide over and leave your wares at the busy tourist spots in this popular border park and come back later to collect the profits. It only got more interesting.

The price list.

Remember that guy we met in the parking lot? Something about Victor and a song? As soon as we reached the edge of the river and turned downstream toward the entrance to the canyon it started. The sound of the rippling river was interrupted by the distinct sounds of song. Mariachi? Tejano? Whatever it was it didn’t matter, somewhere out there in the Texas or Mexican river grass was a guy singing to us. We stumbled onto Victor’s collection cup soon there after.

Victor (lower left) and his amigo chillin’ on the river bank.

And to think we missed the singing of Jesus?!?

Amigos! Amigos! I’ll sing you a song. Never mind he already had, Victor was channeling a carnival barker to drum up a donation for more singing. Sitting on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande with his amigo, he would wait for his audience. Binoculars insured he earned his wages and made sure they didn’t walk off. Its how he made his living, or so he said. We continued on down river to the end of the trail. Sand stacked up to make a large dune against US side of the canyon, sheer limestone walls rose up out of the river on the Mexican side. It was beautiful. But unlike other National Parks where the hustle was contained to the man made villages of commerce catering to the tourists, this place had it out on the trails too. We started back up the hill to the parking lot and were met by border patrol agent.

Of course he is a Cowboys fan!

“Did Victor sing you a song?” asked the agent.

“Yeah” we chuckled, “it was something.”

“He used to ferry people back and forth to Boquills by boat.” the agent informed us, “Singing along the way.”

Could it be Victor’s? A boat moored on Mexican side of the river.

We chatted with the agent a bit longer and were on our way back over the low hill to our van. The setting was ideallic outdoors, but my mind was transfixed on Victor, Boquillas and life on the border.

Lowest of Lows

Nowhere to go but up.

We bottomed out in California. Soon after harvest Jill and I found ourselves at the lowest point we’ve ever been since starting our travels back in the fall of 2008, Death Valley. At 282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point North America. For a couple who like to climb up high and look around it wasn’t exactly tops on our list of places to visit.

And not an ocean in sight.

As it turns out, a place with death in the name is quite an attraction, well worth a look. From 11,000 foot peaks, sand dunes and canyons the park has plenty to see and do. While not as spectacular a desert setting as Southern Utah or Red Rocks Canyon in Nevada, the park is special in its own right. A place of extremes, from elevation to temperature, Death Valley National Park is another shining example of Mother Nature’s sense irony.

Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley National Park

During our stay we soaked in the dramatic landscape, experienced the rare occurrence of rain (of course we did) and hit the lowest point in our travels. You see, every journey is filled with highs and lows. We just prefer to measure ours in the physical sense.

The namesake of the lowest point in America.

Zabriskie Point looking into Badwater Basin with the Panamint Range rising from the west.

The Long Way Home

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Leaving California in December we struggled to decide on our route home. We dreamed of hitting countless back country and cross country ski destinations across Utah and Colorado. We did pull off a snowy Thanksgiving visit to Yosemite before the reality of coping with the effects of winter on both ourselves and Norman Clyde sent us south.

We ticked off some new places and visited old favorites. It rained in Death Valley, slightly and in the middle of the night but still rain in the desert of deserts. Of course there was! We soaked up the mesmerizing peace that is Joshua Tree. We were wowed by Petrified Forest National Park, spent a quick day peering into the Grand Canyon thinking it just might be worth returning to for deeper explorations and marveled at the be-jeweled interior of Carlsbad Caverns.

We topped out on the Texas high point, Guadalupe Peak (8749 ft). Who new Texas has mountains that are nearly 9,000 feet tall? Putting off the bulk of the driving for as longs as possible, we spent a few days soaking in the sunshine and the hot springs of Big Bend National Park in far southwest Texas. I visited Big Bend years ago when tourists often crossed the Rio Grande and spent the afternoon in the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas. Today this is a big no-no as all unofficial border crossing were closed in the wake of 9/11. Blah.

Leaving the southwest behind we made a mad dash across Texas and tackled what for us is the most adventurous activity of all. We took the van into a city. A city with narrow, one way streets and lots of parking garages that can’t house a giant van. Shockingly, and I mean shockingly, it all came together and we had a wonderful 24 hours in New Orleans. We found a charming hotel. Norman Clyde had valet parking. Best of all great restaurant beta from the brother-in-law. And we have a new “I have to go back there” destination.