Big Bend and Beyond

Day 1: We left the house early, around 6:00 a.m., a 570-mile drive ahead of us. We didn’t bother with breakfast before we hit the road, as every minute we delayed would put us deeper in heavy Dallas traffic; breakfast would wait until the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area was sufficiently behind us.  BigBend1It took just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Weatherford, where we stopped before dawn at an old cafe for a nice breakfast, a very big, filling breakfast.  Normally, we have light morning meals; not this one, though.  By the time we left the cafe after daylight, the sky was overcast with  odd, iridescent clouds.  We had been expecting clear, blue skies, so the somber grey and pink iridescence was surprising, but pretty.


Crepuscular rays lent an air of majesty to the scene before us as we headed west.  The first scene here, the one with the road ahead, appeared earlier than the one with the crepuscular rays; the brightness of the sun’s light in the sky darkened the appearance of the landscape to the side of the car as we drove west.

The landscape west of Fort Worth can best be described as rolling hills occupied by scrub, a tangle of spindly weeds and grass hardy enough to can survive the rocky alkaline soils, and stunted mesquite and a mix of cottonwood and oak trees.  Though the scenery is stark and hard, there’s a beauty to it; even in times of drought, the dying grass and trees are somehow stately as they wither.

The big breakfast left us too full for a big lunch.  When we stopped in San Angelo for gas, we bought a couple of green chile and bean buritos from the convenience store; we drove a few miles out-of-town, found a roadside picnic area, and had our fill…not much, but all we needed.

We took Interstate 20 west only as far as we had to, turning southwest onto Highway 67 a bit west of Cisco, then driving through Coleman, Balinger, San Angelo,  intersecting with Interstate 10 about fifteen miles east of Fort Stockton. We stayed on Interstate 10 just those few miles to get into Fort Stockton, where weBigBend4 stopped long enough to take in the butterfly gardens at the Fort Stockton Visitors Center.  Then, I took a photo of Paisano Pete, the sculpture of a road runner that makes Fort Stockton memorable, before we turned south on U.S. 385 for the last leg of the trip into Big Bend National Park.

The drive from Fort Stockton to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we stayed while in the park, is long (135 miles) and lonely, with very little traffic and almost no signs of civilization along the way, save the tiny town of Marathon, where U.S. 385 intersects with U.S. 90. About 98 of those 135 miles are outside the park; it’s another 37 miles from the park entrance to the Chicos Mountains Lodge in the basin, which is about 10 miles from the park headquarters at Panther Junction.

Along the way, we saw a sign that puzzled us, reading: “Entering Sierra Madera Astrobleme.” We learned what it was after we were able to get internet connectivity a few days later, after we left the park.  It is a meteorite crater, about 6 miles in diameter, with the central structure of the rebound structure of the impact crater rising 793 feet above the surrounding land.

After arriving at the Chisos Mountains Lodge sometime before 6:30 p.m., we settled into our room and headed over to the deck outside the restaurant, where a park ranger gave a talk about the park.  Then, we ate dinner at the lodge restaurant (Elk Chili, chicken fried steak, and Texas toothpicks [slivers of breaded and fried jalapeños and squash]) and went back to our room and made an early night of it.  There was no internet, no television; just the clear sky and watching the Milky Way overhead when it got dark. And then, sleep.

Day 2: We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the Lodge, then headed out to see what we could see. We saw spectacular scenery of mountain passes, mountain peaks, the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon, massive deposits of volcanic ash amid fields of huge sharp-edged boulders, and a surprisingly amount of greenery, courtesy of recent rains.  As for Day 2, I’ll let the photos tell the story.

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Day 3: Our third day on the road started early, well before daylight, as we got up and packed the car for the next leg. We waited until just after it was light enough to see before we set out toward the west exit of the park to Study Butte/Terlingua.    BangkokDog CowDogWe stopped for breakfast at a little place that had an excellent buffet, then continued north toward Alpine. In Alpine, we visited the Museum of the Big Bend and wandered about town for a while, then headed to Marfa to explore for awhile.  Surprised that there appeared no place open for lunch, we headed back to Alpine and stopped at the Cow Dog food truck, where Janine ordered a Bangkok dog (Thai-inspired) and I ordered a Bad dog (heat-inspired).

From there, we drove to Fort Davis, where we stopped to try to find an as-yet-uncooled six-pack of Big Bend Brewing Company beer, but that was to no avail. I had hoped to take a six-pack or two back home to give to a friend, but each time I looked for it, I found only chilled beer and I did not want to warm an already cooled six-pack, as that could do damage to the flavor.  Onward toward the McDonald Observatory for a quick look-see, then a long, winding, looping scenic drive back down to US 90.  We headed west on US 90 to just past Valentine, where we got a glimpse of the Prada store, an art installation on the side of the road that looks like a Prada shoe store.  We continued on US 90 until we got to Van Horn, where we decided to call it a day.  We got a room at the Hampton Inn, then headed out to find dinner, which we found in the form of enchiladas and chile verde at Chuy’s Restaurant.

Day 4: We began the day with a leisurely breakfast at the Hampton Inn, then headed east on I-10 to Fort Stockton, where we stopped for lunch at Bienvenidos Restaurant.  Along the way, we paused for a look around Ozona, then drove to Sonora, where we got off the interstate and went searching for the Caverns of Sonora, which we’d heard were worth visiting.  When we arrived, we were greeted by a guy named Patrick, who encouraged us to join a tour of the caves that was just about to leave; we quickly decided to spend the $40 for the tour, which lasted almost two hours.  We followed some steep passageways and stairways down into the caverns, descending (according to Patrick) more than 150 feet below the surface.  It was well worth the time and money.  Below are just a few photos of some of the formations we saw during our trek through the caverns.

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We continued east on I-10 all the way to Junction, where we stopped for the night at a Best Western; we used the last of my “points” to get a free room there.  After checking in, we had dinner at Isaak’s Restaurant, then kicked back at the motel.









Day 5: Our primary objective for our fifth day on the road was to have lunch at Mac & Ernie’s  Roadside Eatery, in Tarpley, a town about 70 miles northwest of San Antonio.


Cabrito Burger from Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery

The place, featured on the very first episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, has long been on my wife’s list of places she wanted to try. We both had the cabrito burger; it was out of this world good!  The woman who runs the place told us she raises the goats she uses in the cabrito burger.  Just behind the building, we saw a pasture where several goats were grazing; fresher meat cannot be had!

After lunch, we took back roads through Bandera and Pipe Creek and into Boerne. I was stunned at the horrible traffic in Boerne; what once was a bucolic little town is a tourist trap with crowds and nasty drivers and people who forgot what lured them to “the country.”  Arghh!

From there, we wandered down Highway 46 a bit more until we found a more tranquil country road.  We followed it until we got to US 281 at Blanco.  From there, we headed north through Johnson City, Marble Falls, Burnet, and Lampasas, veering off US 281 at Hamilton to Meridian and Cleberne, joining the world of Big Traffic on I-35 at Burleson.

From that point on, we were back in the big city.  We got back to our neighborhood around 6:30 pm, stopping at Jack Mac’s Swill & Grill for a nice dinner.  And then, we were home.

This post doesn’t begin to do the trip justice; it was spectacular.  But I’m tired and wanted to get something online before too much time had passed and I forgot details I wanted to remember.  So, here’s the lousy travelogue!


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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12 Responses to Big Bend and Beyond

  1. Carlos, I had a rainstorm experience in Big Bend many years ago. A friend and I had hiked up one of the trails near the basin and made a camp on the slope; no tents, just sleeping bags and a tarp stretched over us, tied to some trees and rocks. A rainstorm that night proved how useless that tarp was.

  2. Carlos says:

    I think I was in New Mexico in 88? Ozona was a spit of town, and we only gassed up there, but I remember we had been in search of the Owl restaurants where supposedly the best burgers topped with roasted and minced jalapenos were to literally “cry about.” We had a car break-down in Jornado de Muerto desert. Some electric problem caused the car’s horn to simply blare — non stop — which caused some excitement with us,and so with nothing left to do I went driving down that desert road with the horn going at 80 miles an hour looking for some place to stop that might fix the damn thing. Well, we found nothing, and so after I just finally stopped (it was a showdown between me and that car horn), I pulled the battery cables which caused the horn to finally stop — peace in the desert — that caused the whole electrical system in the car to reset, and so when I re-attached the cables, we were back in shape.

    Years later, Whit Hoth and I took a road trip to Big Bend, where we walked the rim, and then went running down that mountain side when rain storm came upon us. Lightening and thunder sent us barreling down the paths, large sticks in hand, running as fast as we could. I think it had only been a year since the death of a woman — killed by an irate mountain lion, too.

  3. druxha says:

    Glad you feel that way, John! It was a mistake, but an addition! ¡Gracias! 😀

  4. I didn’t even notice, Trish. Conversations on this blog never need apologies! I love conversations, regardless of what prompts them.

  5. druxha says:

    Ah, heck! John, just realized when you commented to Carlos and me, ans asked “when where you there”….that question wasn’t for me, but for Carlos! Perdón…my mistake..and a lot of babbling to go with it!!

  6. druxha says:

    whoops….s/b *thought*

  7. druxha says:

    Yes, John that’s true! Did a lot of road trips in Mexico with my 1st husband, which were only for the adventurous at that time, like sharing a 5 star buses with the locals and their chickens and goats, or perhaps joining in religious procession march for the local saint, and a lot more! Yep, a really different kind of road trip, for sure! 😀 But actually my travels to the states in the last years have been more “visits” in nature. I’m sure going to give what you’ve said some deep though, for I do miss the road trips! 🙂

  8. Trish, what’s keeping you from making another trip? Mexico City can be as much of a prison as a room with four walls and bars on the windows. Hit the road and find what you left on the road!

  9. druxha says:

    John, it was back in 75′! It was my first “long distance” vacation with a girlfriend, and her and I were just teetering on the line of legal drinking age, our parents gave their blessing, and off we went! It was a 3 week road trip, a bit of a marathon, really. We drove through CA, to NV, AZ, NM, skimmed through your state of TX (just overnight in El Paso), then on through CO (with brief detour to Four Corners.) On to UT, back through NV, and then spent the last 2 days in LA with a friend of mine who’d invited us to swing on by before we drove back up to San Francisco. I said marathon, John, for we had many specific sites we wanted to see, and stay awhile. With that in mind, there were various times when we just had to haul it, which were often long desert driving, stopping only to eat a small diners, gas up the car, and hitting the road again. But all in all, these long drives balanced out for the amount of days when spent at the sites that were our goals.

    This is why I enjoy reading your travel log so much! I loved doing this trip, and 5 more (with 5 different girlfriends) would follow, but in other directions. And it’s great that you’re keeping note of it all! Something that I had not considered in its time, but wished I had.

    Very glad to hear that you and Janine had a wonderful time, and I look forward to reading your next travel adventure! 🙂

  10. It was ground, Carlos. When were you there? Trish, thanks for your comments; we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

  11. Carlos says:

    I have stood in that very cave! Cabrito burgers? Wow! Was the meat chopped before she placed it in the buns? Or was it ground?

  12. druxha says:

    Wow, John! What wonderful road trip for you and Janine! What a lovely collection of photos, and paired with your expressive writing, personally gave me a good feel of what your trip was all about.

    Particularly enjoyed those shots of the caverns. Many years ago I had done a road trip with a girlfriend, and we passed through Carlsbad Caverns, NM. Seeing your photos made the memories of that trip, and the caverns, all come rushing back to me, with its crusty stalactites and stalagmites. I can even recall the peculiar, but pleasant earthy smell it gave off.

    Oh, and don’t think for one minute that pic of the Cabrito Burger escaped my view! 😉 Though I’ve never had cabrito served in this particular style, you can bet I’d sure as heck be willing to try!! You said it was out of this world, and I will certainly accept your appraisal as the gospel truth! 🙂 The Bad dog wasn’t sounding bad either! 😉

    Thank you for this one, John. Very nice share, and sounds like the two of you had a fine time!!

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