Been down in the dumps for a few months. I needed to go touch some grass, or rocks, or cacti. So I did.
Wife and I get up bright and early, Thursday morning. We rent a car ("not my car" became a common refrain while barreling down caliche roads), load up, and head out.
After a seven-hour drive, twenty state troopers, thirteen border patrol agents, and two border inspection checkpoints, we're finally deep inside the park. The desert is in bloom! (we had to plan eight months in advance for lodging during the bloom):
My wife fell in love with the ocotillo cacti, the tallest cactus in the pic, with red blooms at the tips. It's hard to see, but the shrubs also have small yellow flowers. Prickly pear (not in the pic) were also flowering. Off in the distance is the Chisos mountain range, the crown jewel of the park. I decided to save it for the last couple of days, when we had reservations at the lodge there. For our first day, we would head down to the Santa Elena Canyon (park map for reference), but not without stopping at one of the park's premiere overlooks on the way, Sotol Vista:
The most prominent notch in the distant plateau is where we're headed. It looks small from the overlook, but when you're down in it?:
That's the Rio Grande. There were people swimming in it, but considering how large of a watershed it has, my wife and I opted not to go in. If you ford the river, you can see where a hiking trail picks up and the handrails line the path on the right side of the vid.
With the sun setting, we hit the road to head into "town" just outside of the park, in Terlingua. We booked two nights in the pressurized, translucent bubble pictured here. Since it'd been a looooong day and was quite cloudy, we opted to keep the cover on the translucent portion that night to facilitate sleeping in. Finally, we went to the (THE) local bar & grill, and caught the sunset from the patio balcony:
Friday morning. Here's my view of the distant Chisos range off to the southeast from the bubble's fire pit:
It's the No Big Bend Day. We load up the car around 9:30 AM, and head up to McDonald observatory, about a two-and-a-half hour drive north, in the Davis Mountains. We tour the tourist-y areas, and then drive up to the legit 'scopes, which are on a pair of nearby mountaintops. Friends, the views were staggering:
That little dome? It's nothing. Probably some grad student trainer 'scope or something. The real badboi is the Hobby-Eberly, currently working on a dark energy survey, which will surely compliment ongoing James Webb observations. Anyway, we went inside the little viewing room inside the big dome. These seemingly-curved support beams are actually a reflection in the 11-meter parabolic mirror:
Most impressive is the fact that this entire structure, including the optics and detectors up above, has to constantly rotate along two independent axes to track targets as the Earth rotates. And it has to rotate as smoothly as possible.
Next, we head up to Balmoreah Springs, an old CCC/FDR project wherein they built a one-and-three-quarters acre natural swimming pool. It was a perfectly beautiful day, and we had the place almost to ourselves! In the summer, and especially summer weekends, there are typically around 700 people. The water was nice, and I did a pretty sweet can opener off the 12-foot diving board.
After a couple drinks in Fort Davis, we close out Friday with a coveted "Star Party" at McDonald observatory (again, book months in advance). Long story short, we somehow got incredibly lucky that other people are too dense to follow instructions, and we got some good telescope time before about 1,000 other people realized that the telescopes were open for viewing. As one does with a telescope, we were treated to a feast of Messier objects, including an open cluster, a globular cluster, and a couple of galaxy clusters.
The day ends with me driving the rental back to Terlingua at midnight, in the middle of nowhere. No cell service. Plenty of close scares with wildlife near and in the road at 75 mph. Guys, I went almost a hundred miles (literally) without passing another car on the highway. It was some Last of Us shit. My adrenaline was pumping so hard that I couldn't sleep for a couple hours after we got back to the bubble. Which was fine, actually, because we took the cover off, so I was sipping beer in bed, watching the stars.
Saturday. Head straight into Big Bend, and down to the Southeast side of the park. Did a few short hikes, and then, finally made for the Chisos basin. It was too early to check in, so we hiked the iconic trail, "The Window". That's the view as you're headed towards the trail's namesake:
The people you meet on trails are reliably amazing. The guy who took our pic there was someone we ran into repeatedly, even the next day, on the trail. He was a 65-year-old training for the Grand Canyon. He was out doing about 15 miles a day. You can catch a glimpse of him here on our way back up.
We scarfed down an overpriced dinner at the lodge, and I caught a view of the sunset from our little porch:
After sunset, we make friends with the neighbors. One of them is a guy from NASA who works QA for the Orion project, so we talked shop for about an hour while his buddy set up a telescope in the parking lot. TWO nights in a row with a star party! Could not believe our luck. We toured another ten Messier objects that night, and counted six satellites go by above us.
Wife and I are up a bit before 7 AM, Sunday morning. We check out of the lodge and head out to the Lost Mine trailhead, where it's notoriously hard to score a parking spot, but score we do, since it's so early. Guys... Guys. This was the most amazing hiking experience of my life.
And back home we went. We visited the Judge Roy Bean visitor center on the way, and it was... weird. Couldn't separate mythos from objective history too much of the time. At least the gardens were beautiful. We saw a roadrunner there. I was too tired to catalog anything else. Still buzzing from that last hike, though. :)
Oh and I did want to specifically tag kleinbl00 so that they can enjoy tons of video footage with the sound of a brisk wind, I know that kleinbl00 absolutely adores the sound of air finessing microphones