Section 9: Presidio to Rio Grande Village
We walked the final miles to Lajitas in the early morning, watching as the houses became nicer and nicer as we neared a golf course. At the top of a hill we reached the resort - an enormous complex of stores, restaurants and lodging surrounding a brilliant green lawn along the river. It reminded us of the base of a ski resort, all the shops and food creating a little self-sustaining pod of luxury in the middle of nowhere. We had looked into staying here originally but had been deterred by the $250/night price tag. Now that we were here we understood better. Uniformed staff zipped around in little golf carts and the guests - mostly older couples - milled around in their tennis skirts and linen pants. This might be a hard hitch after all.
After taking advantage of the bottomless coffee and free WiFi, we started on our way to the visitors center at the edge of town, thinking we might have a better chance at finding someone headed to the National Park.
Surely someone will understand our needs are genuine? We just want to pick up our backcountry permits.
Thus began the string of phenomenal luck that carried us through the day. Within moments a resort staffer pulled over and asked if we needed a ride to the visitors center. Yes thank you! We hopped in the back of his pickup truck and were at the visitors center moments later. We headed straight for the ranger in the hopes that she would have a magical solution to our permit problem. As we stood there going over our limited options (and confirming for the nth time that we needed to visit in person) the middle-aged couple standing behind us asked if we needed a ride. They were on their way to Big Bend themselves and would be happy to take us. Ahhh! What an amazing offer. Yes and thank you!
Steve and Carla lived in Texas and were recently retired and on an adventuring spree. Over the last couple years they had been trying to hit all the major national parks in the southwest. As an ex-cop Steve had lots of advice on how to safely adventure. One of the most interesting suggestions was to carry a “throwaway” bag - a fake wallet with small amount of cash, an expired ID, and old credit cards. That way if you get mugged you can fool them with the fake. Not a bad idea. We covered all sorts of topics on the 40 minute drive to the Panther Junction Visitors Center, with Steve and Carla even offering to drive us further than they were headed. Truly wonderful kind people. We won’t forget meeting with them!
Time to start figuring out this permit. Before heading in, we did our best to look as organized and businesslike as possible. We are both huge fans of our national park system but we have also had our fair share of frustrating experiences with its bureaucracy. We wanted to be prepared for what we predicted would be a lengthy argument over whether or not we had the skill set necessary for backcountry travel through BB. This time it was us who underestimated the ranger. Jeanette could not have been more knowledgeable, engaged and supportive. She assumed we knew what we were doing from the start and went from there, rather than needing to be convinced. Someone who truly facilitates positive engagement between the public and our parks. Permit in hand we left her office with huge grins and a renewed love for our rangers. Thanks Jeanette!
We had our permit but the day was far from over. We still needed to get back to Lajitas and get in some hiking. We dragged our feet on hitching again, sensing that we were in for rejection.
Haven’t we learned that touristy areas are the hardest to catch a ride out of? Locals are far more likely to offer a lift.
(Side note: we are aware that as youngish white girls we have the easiest time hitching out of anybody. Still guys it’s hard sometimes!). But then Juan pulled over. He actually worked for the park’s law enforcement, which we found ironic because it’s illegal to hitchhike in national parks. But it was his day off and we were holding a sign, which he told us was enough to justify bending the rules. Juan was awesome and an expert on the idiosyncrasies of a national park on the border. Several times he worried about being too frank but we loved it. The park’s law enforcement works closely with Border Patrol; they even sleep in the same housing units right in the center of the park.
He was especially proud of the park’s official Port of Entry, a ferry that shuttles between Rio Grande Village and the Mexican town of Boquillas. There are no BP agents or customs officials stationed at the port, everything is managed remotely by agents in El Paso by camera. The crossing was used unofficially for decades but was closed after 9/11. Over the next decade, the nearest POEs were in Presidio 100 miles to the west and Del Rio 250 miles to the east. Anytime Big Bend staff needed to meet with the officials from Mexico’s Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), which manages the land on the southern side of the Rio Grande, they had to travel hours out of their way. In 2010 President Obama and President Calderón of Mexico made a joint statement recognizing the binational interest of this ecological region. CBP set up a federal register and public comment period to measure the public’s interest in a park POE and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Construction began in 2011 and the port officially opened in 2013, becoming a popular tourist spot for park visitors and dramatically reviving the Mexican town of Boquillas. The port is staffed by a single national park staff member from Juan’s department.
Juan dropped us off in Terlingua, a small town just north of Lajitas. Our friend Colin Mcdonald had put us in touch with Austin, a river guide who had just completed a project traveling along the Texas/Mexico border. Juan knew Austin and was happy to take us to Far Flung Rafting where Austin worked. Bye Juan and thanks for the stories! Austin met us out front and we picked his brain in between phone calls and customers. He and four others had completed their trip from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico on bike, horseback and canoe and had some good info on what was coming up. He told us about some of the rapids in the Lower Canyons and confirmed that public access along the river extends to high water line. After Del Rio border activity picked up so much so that every time their group continued after dark they ran into someone or something. He also talked about a fascinating project he is currently working on to construct a long-distance trail that completes a circuit from Presidio through Big Bend and into Mexico where there’s a neighboring national park. What an idea!
Austin needed to get back to work so called up a friend who was willing to help us work our way back. Adam is an EMT and river guide and he loved the area and all it has to offer. He dropped us off at a store just down the road where we thought we could get some food. By the time we realized it was a dead end he was already gone. Luckily Drew had just finished a backpacking trip and, seeing our backpacks, offered to take us wherever we needed to go. He used to work for the oil industry and had traveled all over the world on all sorts of adventures. Interesting guy. When we made it back to the resort in Lajitas we invited him to grab some food. He was fun and easy to talk to and we had a great time cracking jokes and learning about sotol, a liquor similar to tequila but sweeter and way more expensive!
Drew didn’t believe we were gonna make any more miles that day but around 7 pm we filled up on water, said goodbye and finally got going. We had to navigate through the golf course to find our trail and immediately got lost in the network of paved pathways. This trip has us navigating more odd man-made structures than natural landscapes. We had to push through some thick tamarisk and mesquite but eventually we made it to the second trail of this trip! It was perfect and beautiful, taking us immediately to the top of a mesa which we continued on top of for several more hours into the dark. And then it was time for sleep, after painstakingly replanting a tiny cactus so our tent wouldn’t crush it.