On December 27th, around 2pm, Aurora and I left Houston for our annual Big Bend experience. This year promised to be different because our usual camping spot was off limits due to new ownership of the land.
We made it to Marathon at about 10:30 and stopped briefly to see if Jim Flowers (or any of our acquaintances) might be at the Gage bar, but he had moved on and so did we. We got to the Stillwell Store at about midnight. We found Jim setting out a bedroll in the back of his beamer station wagon, and a note to the camp of Brooks and Karen. We went over to the camp and found a warm campfire that Brooks had left for us. It was about 35 degrees and the sky was clearing.
Next morning we met Karen and had coffee and apple bread and decided to venture down to Andy Currie’s Open Sky Café property at the end of the road around the closed international bridge at La Linda. First we met with Fred who I had spoken to the previous day. He recommended the sand flats near the spot where the river rafters put in and take out of the Rio Grande. He also mentioned that we might consider the area near the north end of the, now closed, Heath Canyon airplane landing strip. We checked out the sand flats and found very limited conditions for our style of camping so we went to check out the air strip. On the way we ran into Andy at the Open Sky café and he also recommended the landing strip.
The landing strip at Heath Canyon must be a challenge to pilots because it rises perhaps 100 feet over the length of the take off and then finds a 1000′ cliff just after the end.
Nevertheless, we didn’t think the runway option was very good for us either. There was no vegetation, no trees or anything to cut the wind if a northern came up. So we decided to return to the Stillwell’s property.
On the way back to Stillwell’s, we decided to check in to the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. It is state property used for regulated hunting. It was the 28th and the current hunt was a youth hunt ending on the 29th. We checked out the WMA headquarters and found no one there, but as we were leaving, we ran into Tom Van Zandt. He was quite helpful and told us which permits we needed and where we could get them. According to Tom we needed to go to the True Value hardware store in Alpine (about 80 miles one way). As I described that we wanted to camp at Fish Camp 1, 2 and that we wanted to stay over New Year’s eve he asked if we were the folks who used to camp at Adam’s ranch and shot off fireworks on New Year’s eve. I confessed proudly that our reputation preceded us. He said that there was no problem with us camping in the WMA but that due to the surplus rainfall the grass was very high and that the fire danger was high and we should NOT shoot off our fireworks. I said no problem and he said jokingly, “but, if you do, shoot them over Mexico”.
Jim Flowers on the ridge above Fish Camp 1 & 2.
Later in the afternoon as we checked in at Stillwell’s I made a huge mistake. I told Nanette about our encounter with Tom and how he had joked about the fireworks. The reason this was a mistake was that Nanette later recounted our impression of Tom back to Tom when he came into the store. She told Tom she thought it was nice that he was going to let us shoot our fireworks over Mexico and he adamantly denied giving us any permission to shoot fireworks.
Jim and I collected some down and dead mesquite wood from a creek bed on the Stillwell’s property with permission from WT. Ben arrived in the late afternoon on the 28th and we all spent another on the Stillwell property.
On the 29th, Brooks and Karen headed into the Park for some hikes around the perimeter of the Basin and Santa Elena Canyon. Jim, Aurora and I went to hike into Rio Vista from Beunos Aires and Ben decided to hang in camp and collect wood later that afternoon. As usual we got a late start on our way to Rio Vista and the day caught up with us about half way between Buenos Aires and Rio Vista. We did manage to get to an intact stretch of the old river road with a clear view to our old familiar Apache Peak. Even though we didn’t make it, it was fun hiking in the old terrain.
When we got back to the Stillwell camp, we found that Dale, Karen and Canyon and Derek had arrived. Yet another joyful reunion and we celebrated with drinks and good food. We had some venison sausage and Derek added some beef and made a wonderful chili. That night we agreed to try out Fish Camps 1 & 2 again. Late that night Ben left for Terlingua to catch up with Jeff Grey and tour his property in the Solitario region.
Next morning, the 30th, we broke camp while I went to the Stillwell store and proceeded to deal with the bureaucracy of the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area via a FAX machine. The Stillwell’s had information and phone numbers that let us get our permits via FAX instead of having to go to the True Value Hardware in Alpine. Finally we got our permits (the wrong kind, as we later found out) and we headed off to the WMA headquarters to the self registration booth. After filling out yet more forms we started down the road to the fish camps.
The road was much improved from the last time we drove about it 10 years ago and Jim even made it with his new BMW station wagon. It took us about an hour to make it and felt like an apprehensive homecoming.
We walked down to the river and were getting our bearings (the terrain has changed a lot in the last 10 years) when we heard a vehicle approaching. It turned out to be 2 rangers from Black Gap (Javier ? and Lynn Shakleford – Lynn is the son of Mackey Shakleford who owns Big Brushy ranch). They had gotten a message from Stillwell’s that Lisa was going to have back surgery the next morning. As Derek had not even unpacked he took no time to decide to head back to Houston and within about 5 minutes he was off down the “long“ road. We later heard that he made it back out of Black Gap in about 20 minutes (which had just taken us about an hour to negotiate). Even later, when we got out of the Big Bend area and my cell phone started picking up messages again, I picked up an instant message from Lisa. It read: “Lisa is having surgery Friday 8:00 a.m. Will be home next day Sat per second opinion advise, do not rush home…be“
Brooks and Karen stayed with us through dinner and had their Big Bend carne experience and then headed down the long road to pick up Ben in Marfa and then head on to LA for the Rose Bowl.
The next morning we were preparing the morning coffee when we heard a voice from the ridge… “I’m here“ and we looked up to see Shawn waving in the distance.
The day was spent hanging around camp, gathering wood (easy pickins for a small crew of 7), hiking up to a ridge and generally enjoying the warm sunny day.
That evening we proceeded to have our usual steaks and potatoes feast on our favorite grill and we were just finishing it off when a truck came over the ridge and swooped into the camp. Turns out it was Tom Van Zandt come to check our “stinkin’ badges“ or rather our permits and wanted to see all our drivers licenses to make sure we were who we said we were. Before we collected our permits and IDs Jim told Shawn to hide in her tent as she had not arranged for a permit.
I asked him if he really needed to do this and he said he was just doing his job and that he would be checking all the campers that evening. I later checked with some campers at the Stillwell showers who had camped at camp # 22 and they never saw Tom Van Zandt.
After verifying our names on the permit with our IDs, Tom told us that we had recieved the wrong permits (Fishing licenses instead of Mixed Use permits) and that we could stay the evening (how nice of him) but that we would have to go to Alpine to get the correct permits in order to stay another day as we had planned.
Tom told us stories of his exploits with campers; how he often watches them scatter when he arrives. He said he had supplies (food, water, books, radios – you can’t outrun Mr Motorola) to outlast campers who were hiding in the bush. He told us that Horse Canyon was a major drug route because there were raods on the Mexico side right up to the border. He said that they had detectors that could sense foot traffic through the area and that someone had been detected just a few days before we arrived.
Tom knew about the Adams ranch deal and about Cemex and the issues surrounding the La Linda bridge.
After about 45 minutes of jawing, he left us to have a quiet New Year’s evening.
more to come…