Texas 1997

I had heard about this cactus heaven called the Big Bend, so when I was again fortunate to benefit from a business trip (to Austin), I just had to try to get there. I found a decent scale walking map in Stamfords, a great travel and map shop in central London, and looked at various web sites on the area. One of the useful ones was a site that gave me daily weather details, so at least I had some idea of what to expect. It was early May 1997, so I expected it to be hot, but I was surprised at the wide variation in daytime and night-time temperatures. But as I only had about 1 week in which to organise things, I think I was pretty green about where I was going and what I might see. Just hoping. And my hope was greatly fulfilled.

Of course everyone has heard that everything is big in Texas, but when I managed to re-arrange flights so that I ended up in Midland/Odessa, I found I still had a long way to go to enter the Park. In fact I almost didn't get there, because like a fool, when checking in to rent a Ford Explorer at the airport, I discovered that I was without my driving license. I can tell you that at 10pm Texas time, 20 hours since leaving home, having flown through massive thunderstorms, via Chicago, and Houston, I found it distinctly unfunny that they wouldn't take it on trust that I could drive!

So my plan to drive on, sleep in the car and arrive early Friday morning in the park, was scrapped. As it was by then already 5 am in the UK, I found a local motel, managed a brief sleep, and started phoning the UK as soon as I awoke. As luck would have it, a photocopy of my driving licence was located in my company fleet management unit, and faxed to me at the motel. So by 1pm in Texas, I was on the road, and making a detour via Fort Davis - to see the historical sites - got to Alpine, found a motel, stocked up with food and drink from a local supermarket, and got some well needed sleep.

 At 6.30 am the next morning, at last I set off - only a day late. In the golden early morning light, the landscape looked great. There were a few clouds and a little mist, but that was soon to burn off as the sun gained strength. I stopped on the way a few times, to search close to the road, and to take a few photos of nice plants, only Opuntias and Echinocerei at this stage.

Finally I got to the Park, and once through the Entrance, drove slowly down towards St Elena Junction, again stopping where it was sensible to do so, and where I felt there might be something of interest. After a while, I arrived at the area known as Tuff's Canyon. What a smashing place! Leaving the car, I walked off along the north edge of the canyon, searching out and enjoying the various forms of cacti and other desert plants. This took a good hour, and the scenery was absolutely wonderful as well. On the way back to the car, I took a photo across the canyon, where I could make out (just) a clump of cactus, very yellow spined, right on the southern edge. I would have loved to know what this was, as it looked really golden in the sunlight, and I have since tried to decide what it might have been. It may have been a trick of the light, but subsequent reading still doesn't shed much light on what it could be. Echinocereus correllii perhaps, but that's not supposed to be quite in that part, and if so a really large clump. Next time I'd hope to have more time and really find out.

 Moving on, I then came down to the Rio Grande near Castellon, and did the normal touristy thing of wading across the low stream and then walking down St Elena canyon. I got my first sight of Ferocatus hamatocanthus there, as you can see from the photo. It was pretty muddy crossing to and from the canyon, again which I hadn't been prepared for, so I let the sun dry off the residual mud and brushed my feet reasonably clean. The drive further along and then up the old road to Maverick Junction - lucky I thought to have a 4x4 as the road was pretty lumpy - obviously unmetalled - and stopped several times to wander off the road and take photos. The Echinomastus photos on the photo page were the result. I could have wandered for hours, but I was always conscious that I was on limited time.

Back on the surfaced road again, I then went up and across Panther Pass into the high Chisos mountain bowl. Great views and a real change of scenery. Just by the turning to the Pass, there was this Echinocactus in flower - what a sight, wonderful. By now it was about 2pm, so rather than explore one specific area, and knowing my time was limited, I reluctantly left and stopped at the Visitors centre and grabbed a bite to eat at the small store at the petrol (gas) station nearby. When I came out, one of the few other people around - the Park was very empty, somewhat surprisingly - drew my attention to a rear tyre - flat as a pancake. This took a while to change, as the spare was hung under the rear, and a set of irons had to be fitted together to form a long handle which then threaded through a long hole to wind down the frame which held the type. Never having changed an Explorer tyre, it obviously took a while longer than I wanted - another hour wasted!

 So then down along the road to Rio Grande Village. I stopped along the way at Tornillo Creek, where the road crossed a river bed just north of Hot Springs, where I had read somewhere that there might be some rather different plants - and certainly there were, Escobaria tuberculosa and possibly Neolloydia conoidea. Unfortunately I didn't see any Ariocarpus plants here, although the nature of the soil and rocks seemed right. I couldn't really get close enough to clearly identify, but I think the plants in the background in the photo of Escobarias may well be a Mammillaria pottsii. At Boquillas Canyon, I parked in an almost empty car park area, and took the trail to the canyon. A nice short walk, and also some nice specimen plants to see - a wonderful Opuntia rufida in bloom, and also many small lizards sunning themselves.

By now the temperature had passed its peak, although it had really built up by 2pm, and with the air as clear and pure as it was, I decided to drive the next bit with the A/C off, so opened the car windows. What a mistake! - the passenger window simply dropped out of sight into the door. The next drive was up towards the Persimmon Gap Park Entrance on the road to Marathon. I stopped again several times, and took some nice photos of Mammillarias and Coryphanthas, which seemed to be pretty numerous on the flat sandy desert floor. But with an insecure vehicle, I didn't like to leave it unguarded by the side of the road for too long, as even though there were not many other visitors, wouldn't it just have been awful if I'd returned from a forage to find no vehicle, no luggage........ And so with regret I decided that rather than camping out in the Ford, I'd better get back to civilisation where I could lock valuables away, at least in a motel room. Of course I didn't know that there were motels in Terlingua, as I now do having had the opportunity to do a proper research since. Bu maybe they wouldn't have a vacancy... anyway it was so back to Alpine, where I booked back in for overnight at the same motel, and the next day spent the morning in the Davis State Park.

I only saw one new plant, Echinocereus viridiflorus v. cylindricus in flower, but lots of other plant and animal life. A brief stop was made at Mount McDonald Observatory, near which a clump of Echinocereus coccineus in flower was seen. And finally, just after I'd joined Interstate 10 at Kent, I saw a flash of yellow as I passed, from something in the quite wide area between the two lanes. Quickly reversing back along the shoulder of the road, I parked and crossed the this central reservation - to find many groups of Echinocereus dasyacanthus fully in flower. The flowers varied from clear pale yellow almost to deep orange, but all with the very distinctive green throats. A great and totally unexpected end to a wonderful couple of days.

My only regret is that I didn't have more time. I will rectify that someday, and return to the Big Bend. That's a promise. And I'll have my driving license this time!

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