Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Burt and I are at Portrero County Park just this side of the Mexican border. Tomorrow we will cross at Tecate and start the clock on the bureaucratic process of securing our temporary resident visas. We will need some patience and determination to see the process through, I think. The internet is rife with rumors of how to do it and they all vary. We either have two week or a month to see immigration authorities in La Paz. After that it could be done that day or it might take as many as three more visits. It all depends. Some say we’ll need a lawyer. Others say it’s easy. Only the Shadow knows.
Meanwhile we finally made it to Jack’s house where we spent three days cooking food and playing cards. Stella is and all her associated boating equipment is stored under Jack’s porch. The California fires were on all our minds. Jack lives on the end of a dead end road crowded with trees, brush, sheds, and wood piles. The homes are tight. This isn’t your 5 acre ranchette style community. It’s a subdivision in the woods. I don’t think a single home has heard of the Fire Wise standards that minimize the home ignition zone. Trees hang over all the houses and stacked wood is stored against foundations. One neighbor has a brush pile ten feet in diameter. It looks like he’s planning a bonfire. There’s hardly a metal roof in the neighborhood. So as the fires burned north and south of us and the numbers of dead and missing climbed I sat there and wondered if we could get out in a similar situation. It seemed unlikely.
I asked Burt if we had a plan to drag Jack out if there was a fire. Jack is a former LA county fireman and despite the fact that he turns 90 in January I believe he would rather stay and face the fire with his house than flee. Burt and I agreed to pick him up and haul him out without giving him the time to think it over. Since Jack is very thin and a bit rickety we could just shove him in the truck and run. Burt also agreed to leave Jack if he somehow proved more than we could handle. He’s a wiley one, that Jack. But that seems impossible to contemplate. Maybe if we stole his dog he’d follow us willingly. A little carrot and stick.
Burt and I have driven two-thirds the length of California these last two weeks and she’s a barren land of over grazed fields and smokey skies right now. Everything is as dry as we’ve seen it. My eyes have itched and sinuses ached. I fear we are only in for more of this. The new normal as they say. The urban interface will continue to burn. Towns like Paradise are all over the Sierra and they are full of lots of people of limited means living like Jack and his neighbors. They are cheek to jowl in poorly built homes at the end of shoddy dead end roads. There isn’t a fire hydrant for miles. Even if they wanted to clean up the ignition zone around their homes many of them are no longer physically or financially able to do the work.
The Gypsy Carpenters drove north up the Owens Valley of California on our way to Jack’s house. Burt had a an idea or two about where we might stop. We headed off the beaten trail and found ourselves late in the afternoon at a place with no room for our rig. Benton Hot Springs is a fine looking hot spring getaway. It’s developed but you get your own tub at your campsite. If you can pull in. We couldn’t. You’d think that would be in the guide book but it wasn’t so let me say it here. RVs do not fit at Benson Hot Springs.
So there we were on thin ribbon of road at 8000′ in the Sierras. Four years ago at this exact time of year we were trapped in the Sierras by a fall snow storm. We drove through the gathering dusk and finally landed at a pull out near Mono Mill just above Mono Lake near Lee Vining, California. My last bit of internet said we could expect 13 degrees F that night. Uffdah. No snow on the horizon but that’s some serious cold. Our new Mr. Heater and CO2 monitor were put to work. .It was an uncomfortable night but everyone and our pipes survived.
In the morning we visited Mono Lake. I had not stopped to visit Mono Lake since a 1985 visit to Yosemite. Burt, California native, had never stopped. So we each wandered our own way for an hour. Burt and I habitually walk apart but within sight of each other. I think we see more stuff that way. It’s quieter and we cover more ground. I found a hot spring. Bathing is forbidden at the Navy Beach hot spring so it was perfect. No pressure for me to get in. I also found a salt covered dead bird that looked as though it died mid under arm preening.
The Mono Lake visitor center was already closed for the season so we did not get to learn much about the area. Mono is pronounced Moh-no. It’s famous for its tufa outcrops which I mistakenly thought were pillars of salt. These white piles are actually stone deposits from thousands of years ago. The tufa pillars were formed when the water was much deeper way back when. In the big scheme Mona Lake’s water is very low now but recently it was much lower. Most of the incoming water was diverted for the coastal cities but in the 70s they realized birds really needed Mono Lake and they started putting the water back in. The current surface is about 40′ lower than before they started diverting but much higher than its lowest amount.
We did not spend much time. We were within a few hours of Jack’s house and we wanted to arrive before dark. There was one more hot spring between us and him. We went. It had no room for RVs unless we paid for a campsite. This place had private showers and a public soaking pool but we did not want a camp site. Burt famously said, “Are you sure you don’t want a shower?” I famously said, “No, I’ll take one at your dad’s.” So we ate lunch on teh side of the road and then continued on our way.
That afternoon we arrived at Jack’s with an hour of sunlight to spare. We were only 2 days later than we expected and earlier than we’d planned when we got off the Rio Grande. The eyeball emergency had given our schedule a big boost forward.
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.
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.