Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop, Part III: the canyon

Headlamps sliced the quiet desert night. "I only see one," a male voice said. I sat upright in my sleeping bag. Border Patrol? My hiking companions, chasing off mountain lions?  Illegal immigrants? Who else could be in this lonely desert?

Backpackers. "We're just getting an early start," chirped a guy in shorts as he hiked by with three others. I looked at my watch. Four am. It wouldn't be light for another three hours. Early start? I guess so.

The last full day of the Outer Mountain loop took us through a vast, panoramic desert. We trudged through sandy washes and climbed to the top of buttes, dropping down to our cache at the Homer Wilson Ranch. You can drive close to the trail and drop off water, and we hiked up to retrieve our stash in the bear box. All of us had a gallon of water except for Camel, who had packed in two gallons. As it turned out, we carry our fears: none of us needed that much water. Instead, we guzzled as much as we could and re-filled our various water containers; we would be dry camping again.



As we did so, the volunteer ranger we had seen before arrived at the old ranch building with unsettling news. Freezing rain was in the forecast! We looked up at the serene blue sky. Seriously? For the first time on this hike, I was wearing shorts (This didn't last long. While it was warm enough for sure, there are way too many prickly bushes that want to attack you. Pants are a must).

The rest of the hikers around the ranch were abuzz. Freezing rain! The horror! I just shrugged. We had all the gear we needed. We would deal with freezing rain if it arrived. Packing up, we headed for our last night's camp, suggested by the ranger: a flat spot in some oak trees, next to a trough.



Passing under huge, orange and red spires of the Blue Creek Canyon, we encountered two women hiking downhill. They seemed overly interested in where we were going to camp, and when we volunteered this information, one of them pressed her lips in a tight line. "That's a historic site," she said disapprovingly. "The ranger shouldn't be..." Reconsidering bad-mouthing a fellow employee, she told us she was a volunteer archaeologist for the park. While Buffalo talked to her I rolled my eyes behind his back. While I respect history, the destructive ranching practices in the last century irrevocably changed water patterns in this park. Many more springs and streams used to exist before the cattle ruined them forever. Though the desert may seem tough and invincible, it is a fragile place. Warning us not to camp by an old trough seemed a bit of overkill.

As it turned out, the "historic site" was a crumbling concrete trough and some pipeline. Convinced we would not hurt the site by camping there, we set up our tents. This was my 50th night in the backcountry for the year, a goal I had set in January and was not sure I would reach. It was a celebratory moment. (Post on this to follow...)

The next morning I attacked the 2,500 foot climb with happiness. I love an early morning ascent. A naturally uncaffeinated morning person, I can't think of anything better than climbing a mountain first thing. Though a chilly wind raked over us, no freezing rain was in sight, although a thick fog layer blanketed the basin below.



We circled around Emory Peak and began the descent to the busy parking lot. Fresh backpackers were heading out, one carrying a fully-loaded Dromedary water bag (six liters) in one hand. Our hike was over, but theirs had just begun.

I felt the same emotions I always get at the end of a trail. For whatever reason, I am my truest self in the wilderness. I won't list all the ways I feel this to be the case, but if you are like me, you know.

Taking our finish photo, we didn't know it then but the hardest part was yet to come. An ice storm descended upon South Texas, and it would take us two days just to get back to Dallas. For hours, we crawled the interstate, sometimes at a complete halt. Cars and trucks were overturned and jackknifed everywhere. Sometimes hiking is the easiest part.

What I learned from this hike:

We carry our fears. I didn't need nearly as much water as I thought I did in the desert. None of us did. Well, maybe Camel.

Wear lighter socks in the desert or risk hot spots.

No decisions are the wrong ones. (Camel, a wise man who knows not to revisit the past)

If you have to drive through a scary ice storm among people who have no idea how to drive in it, do this with Buffalo. Thanks, Buff, for getting us through.

I hope to someday have half of TC's confidence. Honestly, you could plop her down in any wilderness and she would thrive. Believing in yourself is half the battle.

My hiking companions scattered to other sides of the country. I don't know when I will see them again. I miss them.



If you go: There's tons more hiking than just the Loop, though the loop is pretty outstanding. The other trails are rougher and less well marked, and there is definitely no water. You need to be self sufficient in all ways. If you only go to day hike, that's great too! There's a mini loop that is 13 miles, which gives you some of the highlights of the OML (except the desert portion). I didn't see any concerns with wildlife although when I was here years ago, it was with a fire crew, burning out brush near the visitor center where mountain lions lurked. The park is going to make backpackers carry bear canisters soon, though. As far as weather goes, you don't really want to be out there in late spring or summer. There definitely won't be water, and the temperatures are brutal. It's a great choice when everything else is under snow! Bring capacity for 5-6 L minimum, or have Camels with you.


17 comments:

  1. What a great way to spend the holidays (well, except for the drive in freezing rain...) Thanks for sharing your latest adventure!

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    1. Thanks Linda! I'm looking forward to reading yours once you are recovered!!

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  2. Outstanding photos.....for those of us who may never get there, we now have images and feelings to absorb. Glad there were northerner or midwesteners to drive that highway, with Texans and that you all returned home (I WON'T) say " to the real world" safely. And happy thoughts for your 50 nights in the wilderness....way to dream a goal and find it!

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    1. Actually the two drivers were from Arkansas and Missouri!

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  3. So glad you made your 50 night goal.
    Awesome story of your adventure and beautiful pictures!
    It is sad to see how destructive cattle can be in the wilderness.
    I know they are only supposed to be on the forest service land but nothing keeps them from crossing into the wilderness. I have seen a lot of damage to stream banks and lake shores due to cattle.

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    1. There are places for cattle but not in a desert environment. Granted the use occurred before this became a national park. I like to think we know better now but not so sure.

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  4. Congrats on your 50! I'm not much of a desert rat, and don't enjoy this terrain much, but appreciate your perspective. The mountains are in my blood. I'm like camel and can never get enough water. I hate carrying the extra water weight so will most likely avoid low water situations. I've been known as a cherry picker of trails and I guess once again this rings true.

    So glad you survived the ice driving, that and the other drivers scare the tar out of me, more so than mountain lions, rattle snakes, tarantulas and scorpions.

    I can't imagine being on a trail with a ranger wandering about at 4am (except the overpopulated ones like Yosemite).

    BTW, congrats on finding some far flung trip mates. I've found a few and I LOVE these adventures.

    Today my eyes are off to see new sights . . . America's Loneliest Highway, 50 though Nevada and Utah.

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  5. I didn't think I liked the desert either so it surprised me how much I did. It is so starkly beautiful and remote. Can't wait to read about your adventures!

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  6. Another fabulous trip report. Those rocks are so colorful. Ah the joy of an early morning climb- such a sweet thing. Way to go for getting in 50 nights!

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    1. Thanks, Joan! I know 50 isn't much for you, but it was a significant thing to pull off for me.

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  7. This series has been one of my favorites, thanks for sharing it! Congrats on 50 nights, that's a serious accomplishment.

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  8. I'm sorry it has to end, it was a great trip.

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  9. Mary, I loved reading about this amazing trip! You captured it perfectly, not only the incredible desert scenery, but also Camel's propensity for hydration. I hope to travel with you again soon!

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  10. Either TC, Buff or Camel, Thanks! I do also. Sounds like there are opportunities coming up perhaps! So much great country to see, even close to home.

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  11. I want to know what your goal is for 2015.

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  12. In preparation of attempting my PCT thru-hike last year. I too did the Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop. It was a good preview of what it'll be like in the SoCal desert sections. I'm glad to see you preparing in this manner. Sincerely, Tartan PCT 2014.

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