Section 9: Presidio to Rio Grande Village
The worst thing about night hiking is how hard it makes it to get up on time the next day. The sky was still dark and our legs knew they had been gypped of their normal rest, but we had a long day ahead and couldn’t risk a late start. Santa Elena Canyon lay to our east, an insurmountable obstacle that required a several mile detour up and around the canyon’s mouth. Our second trail of the trip (!!) took us on a wiggly route north bypassing the deepest section of the canyon and along a mesa that overlooked the Rio. It might be the best bird’s eye view of the river we get. We meandered high above the spiderweb of canyons and drains that branched outward from the Rio into the States and Mexico. Beautiful.
Turns out Tenny was maybe a little too enamored by the spectacular view because she missed the split in the trail (and was blindly followed by a daydreaming Claire). The resulting chaos forced us to cling to the edge of steep drainage as we angled back towards our lost trail. Even after rejoining it, the route was unreliable, with the trail disappearing and reappearing across the cacti-ridden terrain. When we made it to the edge of the Santa Elena formation, the trail disappeared entirely and we painstakingly lowered ourselves down to the valley floor below.
We had hoped that the steep would conclude the most difficult portion but it was only slightly easier once past the Santa Elena formation.
Is there a correct choice when everything is hard?
No, not really. Every drain and rivulet that came off the mesa ran perpendicular to our path; we had to cut across and through all the dips. Claire chose to pass the drains way to the left of the mesa where the terrain was flatter while Tenny chose to catch them at the top before they grew too big. There may or may not have been some tension caused by our alternative styles. Regardless, the hiking was slow going and required intense concentration.
Our different paths finally came together in a wide flat wash which provided easier walking and navigation. Tenny found an arrowhead lying amid the rocks while on the phone with Nikki, her archaeologist friend. Bad timing to have an archeologist around! As Nikki reminded Tenny, Leave No Trace/outdoor ethics require that you leave everything where you find it, only taking pictures as mementos. Dang! Okay, okay that’s the right thing to do.
Terlingua Creek sprung up in a splash of green with massive cottonwoods and willows eagerly crowding the only water in an otherwise arid land. It was a relief reaching the water because it signaled the end to the difficult cross country section. We picked up a dirt road which soon transformed to asphalt. As we continued we noticed plenty of signs that we were in a national park - lots of cars, tourists and campers. Nice to be around people!
Cottonwood Campground was hopping! We headed straight to the water spigot and sat down ready to devote some time to people watching.
One person after another checked in to ask, what are you doing and are you okay?
We loved the vibe and happily latched on to any conversation. Norm was the first of many, he and his wife had been out traveling for several weeks and were not due back home in Pennsylvania for awhile. We all got lost in warm, fuzzy thoughts about why traveling for an extended amount of time is so fulfilling. The man in the closest RV popped his head out after overhearing our conversation. He volunteered with the Sierra Club and participated in proactive borderlands work. After the Boquillas river crossing had closed in 2002, he said, the nearby Mexican towns had almost disappeared, due to the loss of visitors and economic opportunities. The reopening of the crossing in 2013 had started to revive the area, in particular Boquillas, and he encouraged us to support the local economy by giving everyone in the town $5 when we visited. Then he followed up by giving us each a Snickers Bar. Reviving us!
Very, very slowly we got around to packing up, hoping to chat with more friendly people. A group of four from the Wisconsin area stopped by for a lengthy chat. Oh well, we’ll just have to hang out a little longer. The group was curious about our mission and we spent a good chunk of time talking about how many more good people there are in the world than bad and how that isn’t a reality that we focus on often enough. Norm showed up again with an invite to stay at his camping spot since all the other ones were full. So nice.
Still lounging at the spigot we finished our ramen dinners and decided we had to keep going in order to meet Nikki on time. Bummer! We walked through the campground to find Norm before leaving and felt like celebrities. For once our oversized backpacks and grimy appearances made us look cool rather than creepy! Several campers stopped us on the way to ask about the trip and we got lots of handshakes and good lucks. Thanks for the encouragement folks!
We quickly lost the remaining daylight as we continued down the road. Thankfully no one else was on it and we were able to walk straight down the middle, using the double yellow line as a guide. (We were also very aware of Border Patrol’s reminder from a few days ago that rattlesnakes love paved roads just after dark). The night was light enough that we didn’t need our headlamps and we could just make out the black silhouettes of huge rock formations all around us. Stars were sprinkled brilliantly across the sky and the wind blew gently across our sweaty faces. It felt like we were in a car commercial. Texas is so big!