They say you can get your kicks on Route 66. I did not know they meant literally. Every fall a gang of wild burros descend on the town of Oatman for free handouts. Tourists show up to oblige them. These burros are descendants of burros used by prospectors in days gone by. Burros are wild animals but they are not native and have, in not just my opinion, achieved a level of success that threatens the livelihood of nature’s local creatures. And they get free food in town just when supplies are disappearing in the desert. I came, I saw, I was disgusted. We did not get out of the truck. Passing by and peering out from the safety of the cab was enough for me.
I know I’m a party pooper. I love horses and burros and I wish they were not running amok in certain fragile ecosystems. I think they should be eradicated. Just like the audad in Texas. The desert creatures need their habitat. There are plenty of horses and burros in the world. I also don;t want to get kicked by an irritated mule in a traffic jam. Been there, done that, time to move on.
We finally got out of Tucson with plans to head north and see Burt’s dad Jack. Jack will be 90 this January. Our dog Elvis has caught up to Jack in relative age. They both limp and can’t hear so well but have their faculties. We try to handle both with care and respect. The leaving of Tucson was a bit drawn out because we had a leaky trailer tire and we could’t find a place that could fit us or fix us. Eventually we landed at a tire shop on the north end of town. I walked a nearby shopping center for most of the two hour wait. When we finally cut loose we headed to a place called Kaiser Canyon in search of another hot spring. We made it through rush hour Phoenix traffic and made it to a rest area just south of Wickenberg for the night.
Kaiser Canyon is northwest of Phoenix between there and Las Vegas. It has a nice campground and we were relieved to find it after the trials of the day before. We arrived early enough in the day to park and then head out on the hike and look for the hot spring. If you haven’t noticed, Burt’s been on a bit of a hot springs mania this fall. Our route to Jack had a bunch of promising spots to keep the drive entertaining. Kaiser Hot Springs was spot number one on the list of potentials.
While the hot spring was only mildly interesting it was not a slimy, gross, smelly, trashed spot. So I’ll give it a thumbs up even though I did not bother to go in. Burt suggested it might be a long time to my next shower and even then I didn’t bother. The water was luke warm and, after a breach of the walls by Elvis, shallow. I did not feel like wallowing in 18″ of tepid water. The sand was gritty and besides my heroic reconstruction efforts were the only thing keeping any water behind the walls so Burt could enjoy himself. I shoveled. He soaked.
I enjoyed the scenic hike and fun birds enough to be able to say the hike alone was worth the stop. There was a mine and some wild burro sign and hooded mergansers and a nice oasis. The water was attracting a lot of wildlife.
Early the next day we discovered our propane regulator had died. After ten years of service the regulator called it quits. We first noticed a problem the day before when the refrigerator was on FAIL. We hoped it was just because we hit a big bump in the road because it restarted without difficulty. The next day the fridge went down again and then the stove flame dropped to a flicker. The propane tanks were full so we deduced the regulator. Regulators are projected to last ten years and ours had read the rules and bailed as predicted. For the last couple of years we’ve been saying, “We should pick up a spare regulator.” Did we? No. So there we were without cooling or heating and hungry. It was a Sunday but I was able to google a RV repair shop open on Sunday in Kingman so off we went.
Cordova RV repair was out of town and when we pulled up it seemed like we might get shot easier than finding a repair guy. As I dialed the number Eric Cordova ran out and assured us we were in teh right place and he was happy to help. “I charge, you know,” he said to seal the deal. Well, I hope so. The weather had shifted towards winter and I stayed in the truck while Burt dealt with our hyper repair man. The dogs and I played with the internet and Burt supervised the regulator repair. The bill came to $91 for labor and materials. It was worth it but it was also another example that Burt and I need to diversify into RV repair. The regulator was easily replaced. I could have done it had I had the spare regulator we’d talked about for two years. The Gypsy RV Repair coming soon.
So here we were off the beaten track and more hours of winter daylight lost to repair. Our trek to Jack was slow to launch. Three days in and we hadn’t left Arizona. Instead of hitting the highway we took a back road over to see the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona. Route 66 you own us.
The eye emergency took us to Tucson earlier than planned but it was on teh agenda so no biggie. Our buddy Turtle housed us while we ran errands and did some minor work for her. She has a new porch shade and we started the process for our Mexican Residency Visas. We also reestablished a banking connection so we can transfer money to Mexico more easily. We hope to build a casita for our later years and we hope to start it this year. Building requires cash.
Turtle is the Northern Jaguar Reserve Coordinator. We met her last year when we went in to the Reserve for a construction scoping trip. Turtle wasn’t with us during the actual building last December but we knew she was out there in the real world ready to help if we needed a hand. We’ve stayed in touch and she was helping with logistics of our aborted Aros River float. Burt had agreed to help her with a minor project during their many email exchanges regarding shuttles and river flows. Once I was reassured I did not have an exploding eyeball we headed over to Turtle’s place.
Despite my aching back and super annoying vision we managed to get a lot of fun and life chores accomplished while simultaneously building a shade structure. Burt and I are have finished step 1 of applying for our temporary resident visas. I compiled a few pounds of paper documentation showing our financial status and marriage license and current photos. We handed it over, and I wasn’t so comfortable handing a stranger a detailed accounting of our financial holdings but I did, and our able and friendly handler, Grace, gave us our visas in return. That was after she made sure we had enough pesos to qualify. We had to prove to Mexico we were not likely to become a burden on them. The temporary visa has lower financial requirements and offers a door to full time residency after four years at those lower standards. The temporary visa also allows us to drive US tagged vehicles in Mexico. If and when we switch to permanent residency we’ll have to formally import a vehicle to Mexico or buy a Mexican tagged vehicle. Mexico (like states in the US) requires its residents to register their vehicles with them.
After the trips to the Mexican Embassy and the copy center we hit our bank and got our on-line banking organized for the great bleeding of pesos we expect this winter. We’re only building a modest place and it will cost peanuts compared to the US but those peanuts (due to US banking laws) are hard to get into Mexico. This is an area the residency will help, too. Now it will be easier to have a Mexican bank account and I can just write a check on the US account and drop it into a Mexican bank. We’re building a redundant system of money moving tools.
One of the highlights of our Tucson spell was the Day of the Dead Procession. Our friend Randy is one of the organizers and founder of this event. He was the Northern Jaguar Reserve ranch manager but has moved on since we spent two weeks out in the wilderness with him last year. The procession welcomes and integrates a mix of cultures and their customs regarding death. It is a beautiful reflection of the complexity of our broderlands. This year’s centerpiece was a silver ‘urn’ where the public placed notes to the departed. At the end of the event the urn was lit on fire. Randy, dressed in red and wearing a mask, pulled the urn through the streets while his attendants placed the paper offerings inside. The quiet, stately parade of costumed participants moved me to tears.
Saturday afternoon I arrived at the Tucson Medical Center ER. I’m becoming quite the expert on ER staff all around the country. This place was friendly and the wait wasn’t long. My only complaint is that they did not have an ophthalmologist on call on the weekend. Also, they had free RV parking they allowed us to use over night. That’s a really, really nice feature but you’d think they would have mentioned no eye doctor when I arrived and said I was having vision problems. I could have easily gone to the hospital that did have a staff ophthalmologist. Way to waste my time and money. So I’m a little bitter despite their niceness. Another example of my underlying Afib freaking everyone out. They were concerned I was having an eye stroke. Long story short: I did need an ER visit but I did not have an emergency eye problem. The ER ruled out an emergency where I might lose vision if I didn’t receive timely care and told me to get to a real eye doctor on Monday.
Sudden eye floaters with flashes might be a sign that you have a detached retina. A detached retina requires emergency treatment in a short window of time to have the best chance of saving vision. With the detached retina ruled out I was safe to go back home for a few more days. I was released to our RV in their parking lot Saturday night. Sunday we headed to a friend’s house as planned. We had planned to spend a few days in Tucson to do pre-Mexico errands and earn a couple bucks. This part of our schedule was working out as hoped. Monday I called the ophthalmologist associated with the TMC. They got me in that morning. On the up side I am not hallucinating and I do not have a detached retina. On the downside I am not hallucinating and I have a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). PVD is very common and most people will experience it if they live long enough. There is nothing I can do except hope the roach runs away. The doctor told me the large floater might disappear in a month to a year. A YEAR. This floater is right in the middle of my line of sight. I have mistaken it for bugs, birds, and eye glass smudge. It’s everywhere I look. The flashes have died down. I also am at higher risk of developing a retinal detachment and the doctor suggested I have a pupils-dilated eye exam every two months for the next six months. A nuisance but easily accomplished in Mexico. Everybody likes Dr. Lechuga and now I’ll get to meet him, too.
Meanwhile my back was killing me through all of this. Two weeks later and the back pain and the eye floater are my new frenemies. We go everywhere together.
It seems a long time ago when we finished up our float down the Rio Grande. The four of us arrived at the Heath Canyon take-out across from the defunct mining town of La Linda two weeks ago. It was a very smooth trip full of unexpected delights and a generally relaxed ambiance. You can read about it in the posts below if you haven’t already. As soon as we landed things went a little south for me.
Recent flooding wiped out the road to the shore of the Rio Grande so you either hump your gear a quarter mile or you pay some dude an unspecified tip to carry gear to wear the van and trailer can park. At least that was the rumor. Everything on the Rio Grande was shrouded in an air of uncertainty.
We arrived at the take-out a day before the shuttle was due because desirable camp sites were scarce near the take-out and the shuttle company charged $75 an hour so we did not want to arrive late. Better to pack up the night before and enjoy the wait the next morning. As storm cloud formed on the horizon we deconstructed our water crafts and did the best we could to wash away excess mud. Hardened mud was everywhere. It was in the seams of Stells’s tubes, under the decking, mashed into the cam straps. If there was a hollow spot there was mud. We threw water with our bucket and used sponges found abandoned on the gravel. It was heavy work but satisfying. After nine days with no hope of being clean we were finally heading in the right direction.
As soon as Stella was cleaned my back went out. I was reaching for sponge to hand it to M. I’d felt twinges of irritation all week so it wasn’t a complete surprise but I had hoped to make it off the river and get a rest to avoid the drama. Suddenly I could not stand up. I was stuck bent over for about 10 minutes. The gravel and mud prevented a collapse to the ground. I just hung there in terrible pain. My legs began to quake as I tried to keep from causing more damage. Eventually I pushed myself upright. From that point on I was in the position of having to tell Burt what I wanted done instead of doing it myself. I hate ordering Burt around. He was receptive given the emergency but it was very awkward for me. Burt rolled up Stella and then moved everything to higher ground because the storm clouds concerned me that a flash flood might be headed our way. With the chore done I paced the beach and hoped for relief.
What should have been a lovely evening of storm watching was for me just a sort of fizzle out of a great trip. Pffft. We retired to bed. The next morning a team of characters met us and offered tehir services to shuttle our gear up to the road. Rumors of the tipped based intermediary shuttle turned out to be true. These dudes were at the end of the road in more ways than one. Wives had abandoned them because Walmart was too far away. They wondered if we hand any marijuana we could spare. They could not stop talking. Me, grateful for any excuse, said, “I need a walk” and I disappeared for an hour of road walking. I saw a coyote. My back was killing me but I adhere to the keep moving or die school of back care. I walked.
Without more than some hugs and a see you next year, we bid farewell to our companions. I had the Olvis in mind. I wanted a shower and my dogs. As I lay in the Van Horn, TX cheapo hotel bed post shower I noticed a really big cockroach running across my bed. Huh. There’s another one. I looked for the black bug. I even swatted at it. I felt like I was hallucinating. I kept seeing a bug run by behind my computer as I wrote. I got up and looked for it. I was very calm. That was when I realized to bug was following me everywhere I looked. It wasn’t a bug it was a really big floater in my field of vision. Hmmmm. Seems like a bad thing.
I googled sudden eye floater and read not to worry unless there were flashes of light. I mentioned it to Burt and decided not to worry. There were no flashes of light. If there were flashes of light the interwebz said get to a doctor ASAP. Flashes of light combined with a new floater might be a medical emergency. Twenty-four hours later we were doing laundry in Portal, AZ and trying to decide our agenda for the next few days. I lay in bed and noticed a flash of light. Oh, shit. We were three hours from medical attention. I immediately went into a panic attack. Burt called my doctor. He agreed it was an emergency. We called Portalites. We tried to decide how to best get medical care for an eye emergency on a weekend in a city where we have no eye doctor. After many plans and phone calls we decided to head to an emergency room the next morning in Tucson. Burt would get up early and pack everything and we’d head out as soon as possible. So that’s what we did. I spent a night watching the cockroach scurry as flashes of lightening lit him up. I wondered if I should try LSD. It might have made me feel better. Medical emergencies when you are a transient in a remote location don’t come with straightforward solutions. More later.
It was a long day getting into Boquillas Canyon. There’s a ten or twelve mile stretch of park where floaters are not supposed to camp. The Mexican side is available but it’s populated and we chose to avoid those areas. When we finally reached the canyon it was late afternoon and time to decide where to spend the night. This was never an easy decision. The Rio Grande does not offer wide sandy beaches with trees and plentiful tent sites. We juggled the various shortcomings and amenities. There were mud landings, no moorings, steep banks, hummocks. On the plus side were views, hiking, grass, shade. Ideally we wanted a flattish spot with a cobble landing and a tree somewhere within 100′. No mud. Well, no mud was impossible but we could dream. Access to a walk was nice, too.
Our second night in Boquillas was the penultimate night of the trip. We had in a mind a spot vaguely described and near a feature called the rabbit ears. Early on we had hoped to lay over and explore this canyon but we never were able to make more than 15 miles a day and did not store up enough milage to allow a rest day. Late in the afternoon we thought we had found the rumored canyon but there was no landing area. We decided to stop at the next hospitable bend. This was as magnificent failure to achieve a goal as I have ever experienced.
The camping area was merely meh. Two spots for tents and room for a kitchen. We’d arrived with enough daylight to explore the side canyon heading off into Mexico. On the beach we noticed some very small cat tracks and lots of twisted scat. If you’ve cleaned a litter box it was the same size as a house cat. One upside to the shellacking of mud was we could see tracks everywhere we went. Once the area dries out the tracks will all blow away with the wind. We headed up the canyon in the creek bed which required some boldering and thorn wrestling. We were rewarded with waist high blanket flowers and desert marigolds. Wet spots in the canyon walls featured mysterious flowers with lush leaves and scores of stamens. Flowers in fall would normally be all it takes for an satisfying hike but this canyon had even more to offer. The walls were packed with crystals. Literally packed. There were crystals of all shapes and many hues everywhere we looked. I’d never seen such a thing. I like a pretty rock as much as anyone but this was mind blowing. A site like this would be world famous on any of the western U.S.’s popular rivers. Here in Big Bend it was up to us to find it on our own.
I was tired. This was the first multi-day backcountry trip I had taken since before my heart troubles started more than four years ago. I had resigned myself to never doing an arduous trip again but my recent change in medication changed my mind. I figured I’d try and see how it went. This trip went well but by day 7 I was tired. So while Margaret scrambled up a pile of rocks I sat and gazed off into the canyon. My eyes were unfocused. I sat and looked without looking. I had the unfocused gaze of a hunter that sees nothing but catches movement in a wide field. Suddenly I saw something slipping between the rocks and cacti above us. I yelped, “It’s a mammal, it’s an otter, it’s an I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS! It’s black, it’s moving! Look! Look! Look!” Burt had his binocluars and he spotted it as I pointed and continued to describe what I was seeing. “It has a long tail, its face is flat, the ears are rounded, it looks like a squirrel, a really huge squirrel, its legs are short, it’s a squiotter!” Each of us took a turn with the binoculars before it disappeared behind a ridge only a couple hundred feet away. Nobody had an idea what we had just seen. All we could say was a short legged, long tailed, flat faced mammal that moved like an otter or cat.
M and M contiuned up canyon in the direction our mystery animal had headed. Burt and I returned to camp. The animal sighting was filed away for later research. I figured there must be a massive Coahuilan squirrel we’d never heard about. Maybe neotropical otters were in the area.
The most visited part of the river in Big Bend National Park is the stretch between Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons. On the US side there are campgrounds and a visitor center and a nice boardwalk hike through a bird rich swampy spot. On the Mexican side there’s an actual town. For a few years after 9/11 the border crossing was closed and visitors couldn’t enjoy a quick trip to Mexico and the Mexicans lost a lot of tourist dollars. Today you can take a boat across and catch a burro ride or a burrito in Boquillas. It’s better for everybody. On both sides of the river you can find hot springs. The US spring is closer to the river’s edge and only the day before our arrival the pool was inundated with muddy water. On the Mexican side we accidentally found a nicely developed hot spring and signs of a historic and prominent Native American encampment.
All credit goes to Mark for stopping to explore the mysterious Mexican coastline. We were a few miles upstream of the town of Boquillas and just downstream of the US hot spring when he spotted a sign and some structures. The going was slow and we’d already stopped for a soak and clean drinking water upstream. It didn’t look like much and nobody was there. Mark pulled in anyway and sent the probe ashore. Marg being his probe. The twenty pounds of mud I was carrying in my shoes, cracks, and clothing did not inspire me to leave the boat. Every exit entailed a limb threatening skim of slick silt but we got out anyway. Here’s where a guidebook would have told us just what to do and we would have dutifully done it. Without a guide we delighted in accidentally finding cool stuff. This spot was part of the Mexican park system and we didn’t even know there was a Mexican park in teh area. There were grinding holes all along the rocks. Above there was a pool of clear warm water. I saw that clean pool and waded in to float and dissolve my husk of clay. There was no point in disrobing. It was the cleanest 5 minutes in the 9 day trip.
When we finally arrived at the town of Boquillas we realized there was no landing for the boats. Burt and I presumed we could tie up and visit the pueblo. No such luck. Or if there was a place to get out, we missed it. Land visitors were crossing at a ford about two miles upstream from town and paying for a ride to the village. Kids waved from the streets high above water level. We floated on into Boquillas Canyon.
I had been eager to make it to the mouth of Boquillas because nine years ago a man had serenaded us from the acoustically sublime entrance to the canyon. I thought this would be a trip highlight. This year there was only a man looking for duct tape to repair his canoe. I asked the man to sing and he gamely tried Cielito Lindo but it wasn’t his thing. When I asked about the singer the man with the leaking canoe asked when I had last visited. I told him 9 years ago. That was a long time ago. Pablo was retired from singing as far as I could tell. I gave the man my twenty year old roll of duct tape and we floated on. I hope the tape holds.
Much of the stretch of the Rio Grande we floated is designated a Wild and Scenic River and therefore enjoys a certain degree of protection. Mariscal Canyon can only be reached by lengthy and bone jarring back country roads or the several day float through cane. We chose the cane float. Despite the mud and claustrophobia it was worth the effort. Rapids in this area are sparse. In Mariscal we were advised to expect two navigational hot spots, Rock Slide and Tight Squeeze. The difficulty of the rapids would depend on the flow. The guide book for this area had not yet reached stores so we were floating with information gleaned from the shuttle company, our iPhone maps, and a paper map. It was as uninformed as I had ever been on a float. So few people choose this middle part of the Rio Grande that it hasn’t been worth writing a guide. Our phones gave us a vague notion of how far we had come and where we were on the globe but neither offered information on the topography of Mexico. Half the river surroundings was marginally sketched in and the other half was a gray void. As a result we got to balance mild anxiety with the feeling of first time explorers.
Rock slide was a read and run situation where we had to chose a path through a maze of boulders. There was only one way through but with the flow in a middling to low range and the gradient low it was easy to stand on the boat deck and pick the route. Tight squeeze was another story altogether. From Stella’s deck I could not see a slot wide enough to accommodate her overly wide girth. My cataraft is about 2 to 3 feet wider than most rafts. I also can’t easily ship her oars. Shipping means to pull the oars in and out of the way. Stella was rigged a little top heavy (she was leaking on a side and required more stuff on the air worthy half of her tubes) and the gear made shipping difficult. Add to this a passenger in the way and it gets to be a gnarly tangle.
Since we couldn’t see a route through prudence dictated we pull to shore and walk down to scout the rapid. All for of us made the trek to what seemed like an impossibly narrow slot. Close inspection did not ease our minds. There was no way Stella would fit. I hatched a plan. I told Burt to row through, pull the oars and I would wait on the rock I expected him to lodge on and push him off. My theory was a lighter boat would rise onto the rocks more easily and I could give a stouter shove from shore rather than from the boat. It worked out so well I was able to jump onto the back of the boat as I pushed Stella and Burt free. Yippee. we eddied out down below and waited for M and M. They sailed through in their more slender craft with little difficulty.
Marsical’s tight canyon provided welcome shade and dramatic vistas. We were all happy for relief from the sun drenched cane tube of the previous three days. Birds of prey flew above. Black Phoebes littered every turn in the river. Spotted sandpipers were eddy hopping in drab winter plummage. High up a cliff on the Mexican side Burt spotted a gang of Audads. Audad are an invader exotic species that threatens the native desert bighorn sheep. Also known as Barbary sheep, Audads are a hardy sheep-goat intermediary species that out compete the desert big horn sheep for food. Presently it is open season on Audads. Teams of well armed hunters are using helicopters and all terrain vehicles to reduce audad numbers. Check out their horns HERE.
Our days went like this. Everyone but me was up before the sun. They drank warm beverages in the dark and damp. I lolled about in the warm sleeping bag and dryish tent. Why get up when all there was to do was murmur and sip? Every morning was soaked with dew and we’d wait hours to let our tents dry or else we’d have muddy and wet tents. Best to go for dry dirt if you have a choice. So around 8 or 9 we ate breakfast. The first four days of food was provided by team M and M. This happened because we had originally planned a trip in Mexico and Burt and I would not be able to buy fresh food. So we volunteered to do the canned and dried meals. M and M took on the fresh food meals. Usually they cooked and I washed dishes. Their meals were very tasty. Burt maintained the groover and all of us did chores as required. Margaret managed the kitchen infrastructure, an onerous job that she handled with expedience and good nature.
Halfway through the trip food quality dropped and Burt and I prepared meals of impervious ingredients and M and M washed up. Tastee Bites Indian Meals in a pouch are quick and palatable and easy to clean up. There was also some dried lentil soup and spaghetti and bean burritos. Most nights there was chocolate in some form for dessert. Note to self: Mark does not like fancy chocolate. More for me.
Every morning we’d wait for stuff to almost dry and then pack up our kitchen, groover and personal campsites. Then we’d load it all back onto our boats. Take off varied from 11:20 to 10:20. As the trip progressed and the ground dried up we left earlier and earlier. Around 1:00 PM we’d stop for a lunch. Shade was a bonus. The meal was usually cheese, crackers, fruit, salami. Early on there was bread, later it was all crackers. We’d sit on the ground and huddle around a cutting board of sliced snackage. Pringles, the traditional river snack, lasted four days. Sometime around 4:00 or 5:00 PM we’d start looking for a suitable camp. Suitable camp meant a safe landing zone and a dry place to pitch our tents. We’d want a place to lash the boats, too.
The low point for the trip for me was slipping on my boat and crashing to the deck while barking my shin. I crawled into the weeds and cried it out. The mud was infuriating and dangerous. Every step required care. I recovered.
During the course of the week the water level stabilized and the ground began to dry. The dew was lighter and hope dawned that maybe we had a handle on the mud. Or maybe we just got better at picking campsites and accepting our fate.
Most nights we had a fire, sang a few songs and headed to bed by 9:00 PM. Repeat.
If you don’t like bugs you’d best move on. The rare autumn rains was a boon for the invertebrates of the river valley. As I mentioned earlier, we saw stick bugs everywhere the first few days. One bush had over a dozen and they were on the move. When I think of stick bugs I think of them silently and stoically imitating sticks in stationary solitude. These bugs were on the move. The great walking stick disco. Were they looking for love or food? I never could tell.
Another night, just as I’d come to terms with our jammed tent zippers we found a scorpion that appeared to be making his way to our tent. The scorpion denied the allegations. Lucky for him the zippers miraculously recovered when I saw his wee eyes looking our way. Perhaps the zip just need some panicked body English to get past the rough spots in the teeth.
The dung beetles made swift work of horse and burro turds. All they left behind was a woody poop skeleton. Spiders were in the family way and making appropriate plans. Some carried their eggs with them and others built elaborate houses of leftover bugs and vegetation.
I found two new to me bugs: the wind scorpion and the desert daddy long legs.
We never needed bug repellent and all of us had a soft spot for the spineless. Margaret used to have a bug zoo as a child. I would like one now but our lifestyle limits pet options.