When Peyton and I moved to Dallas in August of 2020, Big Bend National Park topped the list of places I wanted to visit in the state. As young professionals in our first year of employment and in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, camping emerged as an avenue to economically and safely explore our new state. Thus, the plan for a camping trip to Southwest Texas was born. We settled on mid-April as the best spot on the calendar for it to happen in order to build up PTO through the winter and avoid the desert heat in the summer. In no time the target weekend had arrived, let’s go camping!
We pulled out of our apartment at 5:30 AM, 15 minutes before AIS time. Couldn’t ask for a better start! No road trip is officially kicked off without a stop at QT, after getting coffee and ice we were on our way. About two and a half hours down the road on I-20 we made a pit stop in Abilene for the bathroom and gas. The first gas station we tried the bathrooms were closed due to, to directly quote their signage, “current health conditions”. We tried an Allsups next, and while their bathrooms were open, they had a stench which consisted of equal parts human urine and cow s***. Thankfully we quickly got the heck out of dodge and back on the road.
About halfway between Abilene and Midland we encountered a stretch of road unlike any I’ve driven on before. For about half an hour we drove on what was labeled as “Textured Road”. Imagine a slightly toned-down version of the grooves that are right outside the lanes of a highway or interstate to alert drivers they’ve strayed off the road and you can picture how our car was humming the entire time. Peyton looked it up for us and discovered that it’s for the purpose of improving traction to reduce incidents of hydroplaning. Didn’t know there was a strong need for that in West Texas, but ok.
We got to Midland at 11 and stopped for lunch at the award winning KD’s BBQ. You walk up to the pit with a tray covered in butcher paper and tell the pit master what you want, all meat is sold $17/lb. I got ribs, a jalapeño cheddar sausage, and a hot link which came out to $12.41 of meat while Peyton had ribs, smoked ham, and mixed sausage for a total of $16.55. I did not expect my wife to out-consume me at a BBQ by the pound joint, but here we are. We had potato salad, baked beans, and a “pit jalapeño” for sides. Unfortunately, disaster struck as we were sitting down when Peyton’s sweet tea jumped from her grasp and spilled all over her tray. Thankfully she was able to rescue her meal, but it was a close call. I don’t know if it was better than Burn Co. in Tulsa, but I would definitely recommend it if you ever find yourself in Midland, Texas for some reason. Here’s a selected excerpt of conversation between us during lunch regarding one of the side items:
Miles: “These are some of the best baked beans I’ve ever had.”
*passes baked beans to Peyton*
Peyton: “These baked beans taste like how an old person smells.”
In the 45 minutes or so we were there I saw two other women than Peyton come in to eat; apparently not everyone is married to a beautiful woman who enjoys barbecue like I am.
We finished up and were back on the road around 1. The Midland-Odessa Petroplex is quite a sight to behold if you’ve never had the privilege of driving through it. Even though there’s about 30 miles in between the cities, I-20 is lined with oil and gas field supporting businesses on both sides of the interstate the entire way. I’d also believe there are more pickups than people in those cities.
Once we got southwest of Midland-Odessa the landscape got desolate real fast. The soil turns to sand and it might be the flattest place I’ve ever seen. Small wooden shrubs are everywhere, but there is so little grass or other ground vegetation that you can’t even run cattle out here. We turned south on FM 1776 in Monahans and the landscape continued like this for another hour or so. As we continued to journey south the topography began to grow more rugged, with ridges and buttes emerging off in the horizon. Rock Fever began to set in. By the time we got to Alpine we had definitely entered the high desert and had gained around 4000 feet in elevation on the day so far. Peyton drove us from Midland to Alpine and she has earned the nickname “F1 Peyton” due to her proficiency in passing cars on two-lane divided highways. If you aren’t going the speed limit, be prepared to see her fly by you on your left-hand side.
Terlingua was another 80 or so miles south of Alpine. This part of the country has to be among the most remote in the lower 48. I had thought this area would be mostly flat with Big Bend rising up out of the surrounding landscape, but really it is rugged and mountainous as far as the eye can see. We arrived at Rancho Topanga campsite around 3:30 and quickly got set up in the 95 degree weather. We had some extra time before we had to be at the horseback riding stables at 5:30 for a sunset horseback ride, so we made a quick drive down to Lajitas and took a look at the Rio Grande. Welcome to the border!
After that we headed to the horseback stable our ride would depart from in Study Butte. Zoe was our guide and two other couples were in our riding group. Peyton had a horse named Cheyenne who was very rotund and who had a tendency to wander off the path and drag Peyton’s legs through any spiky or thorny plant it could find. I rode El Guapo who Zoe said had to bring up the rear because he has “personal space issues” and can’t have any horses riding behind him. Zoe warned me that El Guapo liked to frequently stop and eat shrubbery along the trail but was not allowed to do so during a ride, and if he tried to eat any plants to pull straight up on the reins to get him to stop. Right on cue El Guapo leaned down and tried to get a mouthful of horse excrement that had just been deposited in front of him. It was at this point that I began to wonder if should request a change in horse. El Guapo turned out to be a superb steed though and I had no complaints from my ride with him. Peyton was not as fond of her horse, but the ride had some great desert views that we both enjoyed. During our ride Peyton asked Zoe to take our picture, and when she handed the phone back, she said to be careful because an iPhone is the worst thing to drop on a horseback ride. When Peyton asked why, Zoe replied “because apples are horse’s favorite food.” It appears horseback riding and cave tour guides are cut from the same cloth.
We got back to our campsite around 8:30 and watched the sunset with Cousin Beth Sandwiches and Pinot Gringo for dinner. One of the things that excited us most about coming down here is that Big Bend is renowned for having some of the darkest skies in the country. The International Dark-Sky Association (I can’t say I had ever heard of them before researching for this trip but it sounds like they would the foremost authority in this area) has designated Big Bend National Park as one of only 10 Dark Sky Parks in the world and measurements by the National Park Service Night Sky Team have shown that the Big Bend region has the darkest measured skies in the lower 48. It did not disappoint. We even spotted a phenomenon neither of us had seen before: a meteor splitting into six separate pieces which all continued falling in a perfectly straight line, one after another. If you have seen photos or videos of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it fell through Jupiter’s atmosphere you can imagine what this looked like. Looking forward to two more nights of this.