When you're in Big Bend National Park, which occupies 800,000 acres of desert, mountains and river canyons north of the Rio Grande along the Texas and Mexico border, it is easy to feel like you're the only person on earth. Standing at the top of the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend's Chisos Mountains, formed from volcanic activity 35 million years ago, the incredible 360 degree views with absolutely no sign of human habitation are both breathtaking and humbling.
If we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, that's because we were. Our guide book informed us that to get to north entrance of the park, you take US 385 from Marathon, which made Marathon sound like some sort of major hub. In fact, Marathon is a tiny place with 400 inhabitants and one gas station 59 miles from I-10, the nearest highway, and 250 miles from the nearest international airport in El Paso. Driving from Marathon to the park's northern entrance was a further 39 miles, and once we had entered the park, we drove another 46 miles to get to our campground on the banks of the Rio Grande. Luckily there are two gas stations within the park itself, otherwise no one would ever make it out of here.
Big Bend is an amazing place for hiking. Lost Mine Trail is well worth the five mile round trip, but we also did shorter hikes to Standing Rock, Hot Springs, where you can take a dip and see pretroglyphs dating from 1000 to 100BC carved into the rock face, and along the Boquillas Canyon Trail, which takes you along the Rio Grande, with gorgeous views over to Mexico (see our gallery of photos from Big Bend below). We also went on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which provides access to many more trail heads and overlooks with spectacular views over the mountains, mesas, Chihuahuan desert and the Santa Elena Canyon, carved 1,500 feet deep into the surrounding cliffs by the Rio Grande. The drive takes you to overlooks closer and closer to the dramatic canyon and ends with a hike right into it, which offered yet more panoramic views and echoed every word we uttered back 1000 times louder.
Although black bears live in the park, we STILL have yet to see ONE bear on this trip, despite being on the road for three months. When will our bear drought be over? Much to Sonny's disappointment, we didn't see any mountain lions in Big Bend either, although one of our fellow campers reported seeing one in the picnic area right by our campground. Nor did we see any rattlesnakes, scorpions or tarantulas, although we were pretty happy about that.
We did encounter a coyote and several roadrunners, which aren't hard to spot, because they are exactly as they appear in the cartoons. They sprinted across the road in front of us at tremendous speed – far too fast for us to get a photo – with their necks stretched way out in front of them, like a horse straining to cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby. We also saw our first javelina feeding near our campground at dusk, which look a bit like extremely large hairy pigs, but are not related. Big Bend is also the site of some of the world's most important dinosaur bone discoveries, including the Bravoceratops, among the largest of the horned dinosaurs (about the size of a dump truck), which has only been found here. There's a new fossil bone exhibit in the park, which is definitely worth a visit.
There are two other memories that stand out from our stay in Big Bend. One was watching the sunset as we drove back towards our campground, which suddenly set the whole Sierra del Carmen mountain range ablaze with orange and then red light. The other was seeing the stars as we've never seen them before from our campground on a moonless night. Those above appeared incredibly close and the size and intensity of car headlamps, while those on the horizon twinkled constantly. As Shane commented, you only realize what a drastic aesthetic impact artificial light has made on our lives when you come to a completely dark place like this, where it becomes obvious why cultures throughout history have sought their gods, myths and futures in the stars.
Goodbye, Big Bend. You were special.
Time has been gliding by so smoothly and quickly that it’s been difficult to divide our journey into emotional or measurable sections. Today, a little more than three months into the adventure, the drive across central Texas felt like a milestone.
It is the longest gap between markers on our map – the biggest single 'hop' in distance so far. Most of the distance covered was east to west, almost directly and as the crow flies. About the same distance (>300 miles) as New York to Pittsburgh, further than San Diego to Phoenix. More than that, the land transformed and we left behind thinning signs of the old South for the humbling landscapes of the Southwest.
As we traveled west from Austin, we passed through more Austin-esque country of hills, rivers and springs, and were surprised by young vineyards along both sides of the highway. These continued into the lovely, mind-boggling town of Fredericksburg: population 10,000 souls, every one the owner of a German biergarten or bakery.
A bit west of Fredericksburg, the wineries became peach orchards, with huge painted signs hawking preserves and bushels. Then a change in landscape, low creeks and small trees, which reminded us of South Africa, accompanied by the arrival of Texas ranches. Each plot, of every imaginable size, obliged to include fences and at least a few cattle. Sometimes it was hard to say which ranch the herd belonged to, because the distance between big ranch name-gates was many miles. Then cattle ranches gave way to some sheep and to a wide range of goats, all huggable, as the creeks became drier and drier, the trees smaller and smaller.
Then, it seemed quite suddenly, all sign of man or beast vanished hundreds of miles before our final destination of Fort Stockton, and we were on a dry scrubby desert of ridges and mesas. This was the exact landscape that the spaghetti westerns were trying to reproduce in Italy. Hours passed when all we saw were tiny industrial sites like mars habitats, probably natural gas wells and plants. Despite refilling The Beast’s diesel tank early and often, we came too close for comfort to running out of fuel. At one point the truck’s indicator estimated 82 miles of fuel remaining, while our Gas Guru app advised that the next fill available at any price was 75 miles ahead, providing a nervy if beautiful sunset drive toward an unmanned and shuttered but operating Shell station a few miles east of empty.
My advice would be to leave early if you are attempting this drive. Refill your fuel tanks whenever possible and be aware that Google Maps bases its estimated trip duration on the 80 MPH speed limit that you may or may not achieve based on the rating of your trailer tires and the severity of the head and crosswinds. If you leave enough time, however, the 'Central Texas Burn' is an iconic American drive. You can hit a wine tasting, scarf a schnitzel, pick peaches, ride a bull, hug a goat, and re-live genre favorites while on the run from the posse. At least I imagine you can if you don’t bring a cat.
We stayed in New Orleans over the New Year and were pretty amazed to find that there was an RV park right in the French Quarter. Then we found out that it cost $250 a night. So instead, we opted for Bayou Segnette State Park in the suburb of Westwego, a short, 20-minute drive from the city center on the other side of the Mississippi, all for just $20 a night.
Here, we were in a right next to a cypress grove and swamp, where air boats were taking tourists out on alligator-spotting tours, but we didn't even need to venture that far to appreciate the local wildlife, because our campground was full of armadillos. One of them resided right where we were set up, and each time that we returned to the campground after dark, we found him (or her) noisily digging for grubs around our trailer. Shane was so excited about this that he would have been outside taking photos all night every night if it hadn't been raining.
Another big bonus of camping in Westwego, which is a large fishing area, was that we were right next to several seafood stalls, where you can buy fresh shrimp starting at $3.50 a pound, crawfish, crabs, scallops, red snapper, bass and trout, as well as alligator meat, frogs legs and a huge range of sausages; basically everything you need to cook your own Creole feast.
The downside of camping next to a swamp was that when we had torrential rains for a couple of days, the campground became pretty swampy itself, with the roads in and out covered in over a foot of water in some places. This did not present a problem when driving in The Beast, which has massive tires, along with everything else, but we wouldn't have wanted to try it in a normal car.
What can we say about New Orleans itself that hasn't already been said about its 400-year French, Spanish and American history, its amazing jazz heritage and its incredible music scene today, its 18th century architecture or its food?
Many visitors find New Orleans intoxicating and we were no exception, but after many weeks camping in remote, rural areas, and having just visited Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississippi, which were pretty tiny by comparison, we were even more excited to experience such an amazing confluence of cultures and to be back in a big, vibrant city, pulsing with life. Needless to say, we fell for NOLA immediately.
We loved the St Charles Streetcar, the oldest continuously operated streetcar in the world; the elegant avenues and mansions of the Garden District; the beautiful City Park, containing New Orleans Museum of Art and its amazing sculpture garden; exploring Tremé and Louis Armstrong Park; walking around The French Quarter and The Marigny at dusk as all the gas lamps came on; browsing in independent bookstores; enjoying the hip vibe of Uptown; eating chargrilled oysters. We particularly loved the fact that you could walk up Frenchmen Street and hear world-class music emanating from most of the venues along it.
A big thanks to all our family and friends for their excellent tips, especially to Kathryn’s brother-in-law Martin, a jazz musician in the UK, who suggested we found out where his friend and reed player James Evans was playing and headed there. We did so and saw him play a great set with Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses at The Maison on Frenchmen Street; one of several local bands that we loved.
When it comes to jazz venues, by the way, we could have spent every night propping up the bar at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street hearing incredible music (such as Sarah McCoy, pictured in the main photo above), but if we’d done that, Sonny would have had to learn to drive. Just ask CNN’s Don Lemon.
A massive thank you also goes to our friend Elana, who having lived in NOLA, gave us a huge list of things to do and places to visit, including where in Uptown we could dance on a pool table and eat cheese fries until sunrise, which we didn’t quite manage, and where we could order a chilli cheese omelette as big as our heads, which we definitely did!
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.