Camping Over Christmas Break
Chapter 20 of my work-in-progress camping memoir
I started working on a camping memoir five years ago but abandoned it after a year of detailed work because the time just wasn’t right. Now I am ready to get back to the work I started and turn it into a true memoir of the first 21 years of marriage and parenting. If you want to get regular updates on this project, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
When we returned from our family vacation to the Midwest for my cousin’s wedding, I took a deep breath.
I needed a vacation from my so-called vacation.
I had a wonderful time visiting family. We had seen and done some fun things. But by the last day of our vacation I was pulling out the map and looking at the match-up of national and state parks in Texas, determined that we would have a “real” family vacation with just the four of us before the end of 2018.
By the end of July, I had mapped out a Christmas break trip to southwest Texas with stays near Fort Davis and Big Bend National Park. Jeff approved and reservations were made. For months we looked forward to the end of the year trip. When the stress from work and school and life stretched us to our limit, we remembered that planned week of camping far away in the middle of the Texas desert.
But then, in early December, the news outlets were flooded with the possibility of a government shutdown. My brain, which was already overloaded with end-of-the-semester responsibilities, was suddenly overrun with a series of what-ifs related to our Christmas break plans. For ten days we waited on pins and needles for every piece of news related to what was happening in Washington, D.C. and I completely ignored the other potential problem: a camper that was still in the shop for repairs for warranty issues that we had discovered during our Campsgiving trip.
By December 21, I was checking the Facebook page for Big Bend to see what kind of notifications they might be posting in case of government shutdown. But the park was ignoring the potential disturbance during one of the biggest seasons of the year. Instead, they warned potential visitors to “Plan on a busy park during the Christmas and New Year’s week.” The page exploded with comments of many who were making plans for a visit, including us. And then at midnight, shutdown.
I have a tendency to worst-case-scenario a situation over which I have no control. I started searching for other options for camping in Texas, fully aware that most, if not all, spots in state parks were full for the coming week. I found a couple and went to tell Jeff what I had found. He pulled me onto his lap, looked me in the eye, and said, “We’re not going on this trip to get stamps. We’re going so we can be together as a family. It will be ok, even if it won’t be exactly as you planned it.”
I will never stop being thankful for a husband who knows how to settle me down when my “what-ifs” go spiraling out of control.
With all of our camping plans unaffected by the shutdown, we agreed to make the best of an imperfect situation.
But the camper was still in the shop. When I called on Christmas Eve morning, they were still waiting on the part for the sink, the only thing that NEEDED to be fixed before we headed down the road for a week. Our excited kids repeatedly asked about everything related to Christmas Eve, including when we were going to open presents. The problem? Every single plan for Christmas Eve Day hinged on when we were going to be able to pick up the camper. Until we knew that, we didn’t know which church service we would be attending, when we were going to eat both lunch and dinner, and when we would be opening presents. I found myself yelling at our kids nearly every ten to fifteen minutes to stop asking me questions, each question raising my anxiety over the continuing chaos surrounding our trip and turning me into a Grinch who was stealing their Christmas joy.
And after hours of waiting in the repair shop for them to finish, we were finally able to bring it home.
The rest of Christmas Eve was a whirlwind that included one church service, a couple present opening sessions, dinner, packing, showers, and the unfortunate revelation concerning the truth about Santa when our seven-year-old looked me in the face and asked me to tell him the truth about who filled their stockings. That eventually snowballed to our nine-year-old daughter and our hopes that the upcoming camping trip would take the sting off of the loss of a piece of childhood innocence.
But Christmas Day was a new day. Texas is so big that it was going to take us two days of driving to get to Davis Mountains, so we spent our first night in Garner State Park. The next morning we woke up to rain and wind, the wind following us the next 340 miles out west.
It didn’t take long after leaving Garner that we began to see border patrol agents and then cars with Mexican license plates and finally Border Control Checkpoints. It was clear that we were close to the border, but we never got close enough to the border to see the Rio Grande. We did get to experience our first ever Border Control Checkpoint, watching a German Shepherd and his human agent companion walk around our truck and camper before we were quickly released to continue on our way.
Over the next several hours we watched the landscape change from the hill country to the wide-open desert and then to mountains growing up around us. We finally arrived at Davis Mountains State Park, and settled in.
When I left the camper that night to take a walk to the bathroom, I looked up and all I saw was stars. So many stars, and the Big Dipper clear as day right in front of us. I called the rest of the family outside so that they could also take in the starry night. The kids complained about the cold, but those complaints died down as Jeff and I pointed out just how many stars they could see in the dark campground, light pollution completely nonexistent in the middle of the desert mountains.
We woke up the next morning ready to explore. After taking care of a few errands, Jeff drove to the overlook at the top of the Skyline Drive. When we got to the top and could see the mountaintops all around us, Ethan exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to see a mountain!” While he had never shared this seven-year long desire with us, it was clear that awe of the mountain peaks took some of the edge off of the forty-degree temps with an even colder windchill. Lydia distracted herself by jumping from rock to rock, ignoring the drop off on all sides of the mountain peak and exclaiming her own love for the rugged terrain.
By the time one of the park rangers showed up for the 11:00 interpretive talk, “Sky Island Party,” I wasn’t sure the kids would want to endure the cold wind any longer, but Ranger Ty pulled out leis and the kids were game. This was how we learned that the Davis Mountains is one of three “islands in the sky” in the state of Texas—Guadalupe Mountains and Chisos Basin in Big Bend being the other two. And that is how we ended up hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park six months later.
By the time we were done with our ranger-led nature experience, we were cold and hungry and instead of heading back for sandwiches at the camper, we went to the CCC-constructed Indian Lodge on the other side of the state park for lunch at their tiny restaurant, like we had several times before in the very different CCC-constructed Potawatomi Inn in Pokagon State Park in Indiana.
When we finally returned to our camper, the kids took off for the dry creek bed below the camp site so they could play with the rocks. With the winter temperatures, I had few concerns about snakes and scorpions hiding under the rocks, so I let them go crazy. They moved rocks, made sculptures, and found treasures galore.
But Jeff and I weren’t done exploring. We leashed up the dogs and walked as a family to the base of the Montezuma Quail Trail, a nearly two-mile hike up the mountain side over rocky trails, taking a 220 foot climb in elevation at the highest point. As we started our ascent, Ethan exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain,” another lifelong dream that we never knew he had. The dogs pulled Jeff up the mountain, while I guided the kids over the challenging, rocky terrain to a spectacular view of the mountainous park.
As we walked back to the campsite, we met up with another family with two little girls who had just completed the Indian Lodge Trail, almost convincing us that we could attempt another trail if their girls could do it. But we had plans to watch the sunset from the top of Skyline Drive. Another hike would have to wait for another day.
The top of the overlook hadn’t gotten any warmer over the course of the day, the cold wind still cutting across the top of the peak, but the changing colors over the mountainous desert landscape was more breathtaking than the wind. We waited with the few other families who chose to brave the cold and watched as the sun slowly went over the mountain.
The clear, cold night sky presented another perfect view of the stars. The whole day in the mountains may have been colder than we Houston transplants had become accustomed to, but the refreshing time outside made it all worth it. Thankful for a heated camper, we snuggled into our beds to prepare for a trip down south the next day.
Big Bend National Park was always supposed to be the crown jewel of our Christmas camping vacation.
When the shutdown happened, I was convinced that even if we still visited the park, it was going to be a mere shadow of what our original planned trip was going to be.
We had already made the decision to stay in Davis Mountains, letting go of our plan to pack up and head south for two nights outside of the national park. Then I checked the forecast. The day I had originally scheduled for exploring the park, the temperatures were supposed to drop by at least 20 degrees from the 60-degree temperatures forecasted for our second full day in Davis Mountains. So after a day of hiking in Davis Mountains, we headed 100-miles south for a day in Big Bend National Park.
The next morning, we didn’t quite get an 8:00 start time for our long day of travel, but we were close enough. By the time we left, the sun was starting to rise over the mountains.
When we finally arrived in Terlingua/Study Butte, the last stop before the national park, we discovered we had stopped at the gas station right next to the RV resort where we had a reservation. I hadn’t been able to cancel our reservation because I didn’t have enough cell service to make a phone call, so we walked into the office/gift shop to see what we could do. The desk clerk cheerfully greeted us and after we explained our situation, he gladly returned our deposit even though we had clearly missed our 72-hour cancellation window. Many of the people who had been kicked out of the national park due to shutdown closures had turned to the surrounding RV parks for replacement lodging. Our cancellation would open up a spot for another family looking for a place to stay now that they couldn’t stay in the park.
Following the recommendation of the desk clerk, we headed into the park and straight for Chisos Basin Lodge, an independently run establishment inside the national park which still had an open gift shop, restaurant, and rest rooms. On the way there, we watched the desert shift to the mountains again, vegetation getting denser and trees taller while we felt the change in elevation. We pulled into a full Chisos Basin complex, cars and trucks parked on the road and hikers and tourists crossing parking lots to get to their desired location. Our kids watched in awe as they passed license plates from all over the country, national parks lovers determined to not let a shutdown keep them from exploring one of the less frequently visited parks in the United States during its traditionally busiest time of the year.
We made a quick stop through the gift shop, headed back to the truck to get water bottles and Jeff’s hiking boots, and then headed down to the hiking trails. On the way we walked past the same family we had met the day before coming back from our Montezuma Quail Trail hike. They had just completed the trail that we would soon start. The kids, oblivious to the other hikers around them and the trail sign ahead of them, were immediately distracted by the warning sign giving instructions on how to avoid bears and mountain lions. When we finally got their attention, we let them take a look at the sign and pick the trail. Already hungry and asking when lunch would be, they picked the shortest of the trails, the 1.8-mile Chisos Basin Loop.
The loop has an elevation of 350 feet, took us through forests and past cacti and delivered spectacular views of the mountains and valley below.
We climbed, stepped over rocks, and steadied ourselves as we made each descent. We started to shed layers of clothing no longer necessary once our blood was pumping. When we finally returned to the store at the trailhead, we guzzled multiple glasses of water and devoured our lunch at the Chisos Basin Restaurant, the food fueling us up for a second round.
We said goodbye to the Basin and traveled towards the Rio Grande Village. From the top of the Rio Grande Overlook we could see into Mexico and the pangs of being so close but so far away hit us as we looked across the rugged wilderness.
As far as I was concerned, the day had been nearly perfect, but I still hadn’t seen the Rio Grande and Ethan still hadn’t really seen into Mexico. On our way back towards Panther Junction, Jeff pulled off towards the Hot Springs historic site, taking our truck on the bumpy dirt road and then on the incredibly narrow one-way road leading to the parking right next to the Langford Ruins on the top of a hill. We headed down the quarter-mile hike towards the natural hot springs pool and then I heard it: the rushing waters of the Rio Grande to our right. Our son raced down the trail to the hot springs. The break in the bamboo growing on the banks revealed a small stone pool full of naturally heated water, the pristine frigid waters of the Rio Grande running right past it. Park visitors filled the pool, braving the 60-degree weather to don their swimming suits and take advantage of the warm water, some of them taking advantage of the ranger-less park to then dive from hot spring to icy river water. Both of our kids took off their shoes and socks so they could dip their feet in, Lydia stretching her long legs off of the edge of the pool so she could dip her toes into the Rio Grande.
It was our last stop inside Big Bend National Park. We made a quick stop in Terlingua Ghost Town, staying long enough to visit the gift shop and the old cemetery on our way out of town. On the way home, an icy fog settled around the truck; we still had nearly an hour to go and we could barely see in front of us.
As I tucked our excitable little boy into bed, he told me he couldn’t settle down; he “didn’t want the fun to end.”
That statement pretty much summed up the day.
When we went to bed, we discovered the drop in temperatures had frozen our hose. With our source of water turned to ice, my first task of the day was thawing out the hose and getting our water running again, at least for long enough to fill our freshwater tank. I heated water on our stove and walked back and forth before finally loosening the hose long enough to let it thaw in our shower.
Our last full day in Davis Mountains was also our anniversary and the kids were determined to make it special. By the time I returned from walking both dogs around the loop and pouring two pots of boiling water over the water spout, they were doing their best to make Jeff and me breakfast, complete with coffee. I gladly I ate my Cornflakes with just a little too much milk before figuring out our plans for the day.
We spent much of the day inside recovering from two full days of exploring. We watched the Peach Bowl (after discovering that we unexpectedly had a site with cable available), played Oregon Trail: Hunt For Food and back-to-back rounds of Uno, and then Jeff and I took a short walk down to the gift shop at the Indian Lodge.
We finished our stay in Davis Mountains with a trip down the road to the McDonald Observatory to take in their nightly Star Party.
The overcast skies never cleared for the telescopes, but we sat inside the warm visitors center and listened to one of the astronomers talk about the various constellations that can be viewed at the observatory, complete with pictures and diagrams. Then we braved the 22-degree mountain temperatures to look at two of the telescopes that they use for viewing at the visitor center before heading back inside so the kids could run from one exhibit to the next, learning as much as they could without being able to see the constellations for themselves.
The next day, we woke up to a dusting of snow on the ground, but it didn’t scare me away. I declared that we would be back, at least to spend the full time in Big Bend.
And the next Christmas break, we did just that.
This time we made our halfway stop South Llano River State Park, the same park we stayed in at the beginning of our 2019 summer vacation. The kids begged for a tent night, piling their blankets and pillows into the tent, our son commandeering my mummy sleeping bag for the adventure. We weren’t sure how long they would last through the steadily dropping temperatures, but it was the only night of our trip that this would be a possibility. Ethan, all cozy in my mummy bag, eventually fell asleep after staring at the stars. Lydia, who had covered her brothers face with a stuffed animal to keep his head warm, was still awake at 11, telling us that she couldn’t fall asleep. She finally caved and decided she wanted to sleep inside and we had to wake up our very sleepy son so that he wouldn’t wake up in the tent alone.
We spent the next day traveling another 360 miles, arriving in Terlingua right before dark.
Big Bend National Park is the most remote national park we have ever been to. Even Arches has a fairly large town right outside of it. Terlingua is a blink and you’ll miss it type of town, but the RV park we reserved had everything we needed. The kids discovered a pool table in the game room and wanted us to teach them how to play. The dogs got their walks around the campground, and Jeff turned on the hotspot so we could find out what was happening in the park over the next three days and make our plans, this time without the stress of a government shutdown.
The year before we had rushed our way through the 800,000-acre park in less than six hours. This time we had three full days. We could take our time and actually explore.
To give an idea of how much area Big Bend National Park covers, it is twenty miles from the entrance of the park to Panther Junction, the first of five visitor centers in Big Bend. The Big Bend region itself covers hundreds of miles of territory, called so because of the actual bend in the Rio Grande River, the natural border between Texas and Mexico. Technically, our stay in the Davis Mountains during the previous Christmas break had also been in the Big Bend region, and that was 100 miles away from the park.
We had three days and, thanks to our stop at the Panther Junction visitor center, a list of things that we wanted to do. With three regions of the park to explore, the plan was to do one region each day. I wanted to do Boquillas Crossing on our first day and Jeff worried that, since we were approaching noon, we wouldn’t have enough time to explore the Mexican village and make it back across the border before it closed. Then we discovered we had forgotten our water bottle carriers and our hiking sticks.
We were heading to Mexico.
Boquillas Crossing has been an important part of Big Bend National Park history since nearly the beginning. It was never intended to be a free-for-all open border but instead an open partnership between the US and Mexico government to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of land on either side of the river and keep the village of Boquillas open for American visitors looking to cross the border. We paid for the boat ride across the river and, despite my desire to walk into Boquillas, rented burros to transport us to the village.1 Since there was no one there to check our passports on the other side, we freely explored the village with our burro guide following us along the way.
During our family’s first trip out of the country, we ate at one of the two local restaurants, drank from glass bottles (I forgot how much I dislike Diet Coke outside of the States), found a geocache, visited the local church, and let the kids pick out a couple of handmade souvenirs. Despite Jeff’s fears that we would get stuck in Mexico (the national park port of entry closes at exactly 5:00 PM, no exceptions), the whole visit took us about two hours. We returned across the border with plenty of time to visit other parts of the east side of the park.
I had gotten my wish to travel out of the country; now Jeff wanted to relive our post-Canyonlands adventure by taking an unimproved road to another geocache location. We turned onto Old Ore Road and traveled along the scenic, bumpy, windy four miles to the Ernst Tinaja trail turn-off. The leaves of tall yucca plants scraped against our side mirrors and we had to move over to the side to occasionally allow another vehicle heading the opposite direction to pass us, but thirty minutes after turning onto Old Ore we were hiking down the trail.
It was worth all of the bumps along the way.
We stepped over waves of sandstone, changing in color and texture the closer we got to Ernst Tinaja. When we finally arrived at our destination, both kids took off to climb up the rocks that flank the sides of a series of pools, only one of which is visible from the bottom. We all climbed up to the top and walked about 50 feet further to see additional rock formations unlike any we had ever seen, before making the decision to head back since we didn’t have any of the climbing equipment necessary to go further.
We finished our day with a return to the historic Hot Springs. I realized when we were about 30 miles outside of Houston that we had forgotten our swimming suit, which meant that we were going to have to make due with just putting our feet into the natural hot tub. We looked into the historic buildings, put our feet in the water, and walked back on the sandy trail without our shoes, finally putting on our hiking boots when the rocks got to be too much for our bare feet.
We wrapped up the day with a stop at the Panther Junction visitor center so the kids could walk the 400-foot path in front of the visitor center which helped them answer the questions about plants in their Junior Ranger books. While they raced the fading sunlight to finish their research, I watched a small family of javelinas cross the path behind the visitor center. It wasn’t a bear, but it was more wildlife to add to the coyote and roadrunner we had seen earlier in the day.2
The next day was reserved for completely new experiences. The previous winter, the western region wasn’t even on our radar. Because of the government shutdown, the first road leading down to Santa Elena Canyon was closed and with less than a full day to explore, it just didn’t seem like a responsible use of time.
This time we weren’t going to miss it.
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