Say Goodbye

Big Bend, Texas

Do you remember those Zima commercials where it was so hot and sticky, the guy not only stuck to the furniture, but the furniture actually flew across the room to stuck to him? That's Texas on a cold summer day. Imagine a hot summer day. In August, temperatures get so hot that it's only news when the thermometer drops below 100 degrees.

When I moved to Austin over two years ago, I didn't realize it would be so hot there. I kind of wish someone had at least told me that outdoor grills are basically unnecessary. One time I saw a guy frying an egg on the sidewalk. I suppose that in and of itself is not entirely out of the ordinary, but it was midnight at the time. Anyway, one day I simply decided, "To hell with this [no pun intended], I'm going back to California!" After a long move, I ended up in Santa Clara, California, about an hour south of San Francisco.

And now, "Travels with Kevin: Say Goodbye."

Some day, I hope I can claim to have seen a great deal of the world. However, it is a rather large planet -- at least, compared to the size of my trunk. So to meet my goal, whenever I get a chance, I try to look around. On my journey from Austin to the Bay Area, I decided to take some detours. I picked several locations between Austin and Santa Clara and planned a trip to visit them all. The next three issues of "Travels with Kevin" will be about my journey across the seven southwestern states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

From Marathon to Fredericksburg in Order Categorical

Despite what you may have seen in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," planning a cross-country road trip isn't easy -- especially if you travel through parts of the country that don't have that many roads. The planning takes a tremendous amount of time, mostly because of all of the maps you have to download over the Internet. If you're using a dial-up connection because Texas was never exactly first in line for the cool technologies, planning your road trip can take weeks.

My plan was to leave Austin Saturday morning, meaning after packing nearly everything I owned and sending it on its way to Santa Clara, I had one last Friday night to say goodbye to the city I had come to enjoy living in so much over the past two years.

After getting one last taste of the excellent Tex-Mex at Chuy's, which by the way is the same restaurant where the Bush daughters got arrested for using fake IDs, I headed down to Sixth Street... which is another location where the Bush daughters got arrested for using fake IDs. Sixth Street seemed the perfect place for my last night in Austin. After all, what better way to kick off a road trip than a night at the bars? Yes, the irony was in full swing that night.

After a great night's sleep on the floor of my empty apartment, I ate my last Austin meal at one of my favorite barbecue spots: Rudy's. Rudy's motto is "the Worst BBQ in Texas," but it really is some of the best. (Buy this space! Call 1-800-TRAVELS to advertise!) After a hearty meal, I departed my home to go to... my home.

My first major stop on my seven state tour was Big Bend National Park, Texas. Big Bend National Park is appropriately named because it is a national park. The "Big Bend" portion of its name comes from the fact that the park lies on the "big bend" of the Rio Grande river -- way out in the middle of West Texas, and as far south as one can drive and still eat at Subway.

Of course, to get to Big Bend from Austin, one has to drive across most of Texas.

There's nothing quite like driving across the state of Texas. If you were to rotate Texas 180 degrees on its western-most point, Texas would stick into the Pacific Ocean. Rotate Texas 180 degrees on its eastern-most point and Texas would stick into the Atlantic Ocean. Turn Texas upside down and everyone's gun would fall out of their pocket.

It's this shear size that gives meaning to the saying, "The sun has ris', the sun has set. Here we is in Texas yet." Whoever said that wasn't kidding. Ten freakin' hours on the road and I was still only one state away from Arkansas. And let me tell you that one state away from Arkansas is a scary place to be.

Unless it's Fredericksburg. There is nothing scary about the town of Fredericksburg, Texas, at all. On the way to Big Bend, I stopped there. Someone had the brilliant idea to put a German town in the middle of Texas. That's kind of like putting a French town on the moon, except that no one suffocates, which, in the case of either country, is really too bad for the British.

Anyway, Fredericksburg is a great little town. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and of course, beers. Ah yes. Beer is what makes Germany great. Without beer, Germany would just be another country that tried to conquer the world. As if those aren't a dime a dozen.

Several hundred miles separates Fredericksburg and the turn-off to Big Bend. And I don't mean to say "Several hundred miles of beautiful scenery," or "Several hundred miles of rolling hills." No. I mean exactly what I said: between Fredericksburg and the turn-off to Big Bend, you can see several hundred miles.

As late afternoon turned into early evening, and early evening became late evening, which subsequently became night, I turned off the interstate and onto a small, rural highway. Ahead of me was a 107 mile drive to Big Bend. On this 107 mile stretch was only a single town. No cellphone service, no emergency call boxes, and no rest areas. Just the Supra and a long, straight stretch of road. And signs warning of flood. Let me tell you how exciting it is driving through the middle of nowhere at night and seeing signs every 20 feet that say, "Watch for water over road," or "Warning, floodwaters may lie ahead," or my favorite, "We designed this road so that there would be giant ditches every quarter mile that would fill to the top with water at even the slightest hint of rain so that we can keep all the damn sports cars out of West Texas." Luckily, the roads were dry that night, but every time I saw one of those signs I thought about slowing down.

I knew that about halfway to Big Bend I'd pass through the town of Marathon. I didn't count on seeing much there, but figured it would be a landmark, if nothing else. After several miles, I finally saw a sign indicating the distance to the town. It said, "Marathon: 26." Cute.

All the World's a Canvas and We Are Merely Acetone

After driving 480 miles, I arrived at the Chisos Basin Lodge at Chisos Basin in the heart of Big Bend. Chisos Basin is one of only three "towns" inside Big Bend. I say "town" because it isn't really one -- I mean, it has a general store, a hotel, and a ranger station (as every town should), but aside from that, there's nothing else there. Except hiking trails -- and what town doesn't have those? The only gas station in Big Bend is about 20 miles from Chisos Basin in a "town" called Panther Junction. Panther Junction is a town because it has a general store, a gas station, and... oh, I guess that's it. Considering that the farthest point from Panther Junction within the park is about 100 miles round trip, if you want to avoid hiking back to the lodge, you've got to plan ahead.

I will say that when visiting Big Bend, Chisos Basin is *the* place to stay. And I don't accent the word "the" because the basin is exciting, I mean it is literally the only place to stay. But luckily, the scenery is absolutely incredible and there is plenty of access to everything else in the park.

When I arrived at Chisos Basin it was pretty late, at least by West Texas standards. I tell you, it may have only been 11:00 pm, but that place was more dead than Bill Clinton on a night when Hillary comes home early from Washington. In my room was all manner of instructions about how to live in the desert. (Only one "s." After a long day driving, I could've lived in dessert very easily. Except Baked Alaska, which doesn't breathe that well.) In addition, for my convenience was a sign that I could put on my door that said, "No Moleste." I didn't feel like being molested that night, so I put the sign out. I mean seriously, the last thing I needed at that point was some bear coming up to my door and thinking that because I didn't have my "No Moleste" sign out, it was ok to molest me. Hell no.

When I awoke the next day, I left my room (um... after getting dressed) to see some of the most amazing scenery I have ever laid eyes on. As I walked across the basin to the ranger station, I had to pause repeatedly to take in all 360 degrees of sights. Mountains, mesas, large rock formations -- an oasis of scenery hundreds of miles from civilization. Chisos Basin is 5400 feet above sea level. Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend and visible from Chisos Basin, is 7800 feet above sea level. Words can't describe the awesome sights that lie within those 2400 feet.

I can honestly say the experience I had that morning was unlike any other -- and not just because of the light-headed feeling the lack of oxygen gave me. When I drove to Big Bend, it was pitch black. I could see nothing but the small stretch of road immediately in front of me. I had no idea what to expect -- I had never seen photos of the park. So when the lights came on the following morning, I saw a breathtaking painting by a master artist greater than Di Vinci, Van Gogh, and Renoir combined. What on earth that kind of painting is doing in a hotel room in the middle of Big Bend, I don't know. But I ignored it and stepped outside to see the even more incredible sight of nature.

The rest of the park is equally as amazing. Everywhere one can drive in Big Bend one can count on seeing incredible sights. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but I believe a picture of Big Bend is worth several million.

The other thing I will say about Big Bend is that everyone is very friendly. Perhaps this is because the population density is only slightly more than that of Antarctica, and perhaps it is because the vast majority of that population is armed. As my Texan cousin who lives in Dallas would say, "An armed society is a polite society." Apparently my cousin has never been to South Central LA. But seriously, everywhere I went, people wanted to have a conversation. As I walked into the general store to buy water, the clerk struck up a conversation that lasted a good 10 minutes. While hiking, a hiker walking in the opposite direction just stopped to talk. And while eating lunch on the trail, even the squirrels struck up a conversation before they tried to steal my lunch. Sure, it was just a bunch of squeaks and clicks, but they were still making an effort.

Everywhere I drove, the drivers of cars going the other way would wave as they passed by. Yeah -- *that* really freaked me out the first couple of times. Every time a car passed I would think, "What did I do? I know I didn't cut him off." It's a good thing I didn't do what I usually do when another driver makes a hand gesture at me.

When I was a young lad, I used to do a lot of hiking. I even went on a 50 mile backpacking trip in New Mexico once. (We didn't cover the entire 50 miles in one day. That would be tiring. And it would sort of defeat the purpose of carrying a heavy backpack.) Hiking back then was easy. The biggest challenge was keeping one's feet dry while crossing rivers. But naturally, all the hiking trails I'd been on were designed by careful planners, so there were always fallen trees and stepping stones and other objects to help hikers cross rivers without getting their feet wet.

The Big Bend literature had some great things to say about hiking through Santa Elena Canyon along the side of the Rio Grande. "Begin your hike by hiking across a small creekbed." Wow, that sounds like fun! I haven't crossed a fallen tree in ages! I hope that even though it's a desert there's a small trickle of water running beneath it.

Apparently the people who wrote the Big Bend literature don't get out much. Not only is this "small creekbed" occupied by what most people think of as a raging river, there wasn't even a fallen tree nearby to cross it! The only way across this river was to wade right through it. However, knowing that it is dangerous to cross a river without knowing how deep it is, I used all of my survival training to determine this important piece of information. That's right, I was in Boy Scouts for a long time. And in Boy Scouts they teach you to use everything at your disposal -- sticks, rocks, and so on -- to determine the depth of a river before you cross it. So I picked up a large, heavy rock, and said to a pair of hikers walking along the trail, "If you don't tell me how deep the river is, I'll throw this rock at you!"

As it turns out, the river was only about two feet deep. I decided to cross. The river flowed very fast. I felt the force of the water pressing against my legs and knees as I waded deeper and deeper. I could not even lift my feet off the ground for fear that I would lose my balance and be washed so far down the river that I'd need to hide in an illegal drug shipment to get back home. So I shuffled my feet against the river bottom as I crossed. A few minutes later I waved to some whitewater rafters as they passed by. It was treacherous, but I made it across the small creekbed safely.

When I returned to my car later that day, I was naturally very thankful that I'd chosen to drive to a national park with muddy rivers using a car with a leather interior. As far as important decisions go, I think that one is going to rank right up there with that time I let that vacuum cleaner salesman into my house.

Alas, my travel plans called for only one day in Big Bend. I considered staying longer, but didn't want to cut out any of the other sights on my trip I had long since wanted to see. That... and it was still really hot. Regardless, the one day was enough to see a great deal of the park, but not enough to fully explore. Some day I will have to return. The following morning, I packed the car again and set out for my next stop: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.

Once out of the park, the drive to New Mexico was quiet. Gone was the incredible scenery that I had grown so fond of during the previous day. After 200 miles or so on a small, undivided highway, I saw a yellow sign that read: "Welcome to New Mexico, Land of Enchantment."

Alas, my travel plans called for only one day in Big Bend. I considered staying longer, but didn't want to cut out any of the other sights on my trip I had long since wanted to see. That... and it was still really hot. Regardless, the one day was enough to see a great deal of the park, but not enough to fully explore. Some day I will have to return. The following morning, I packed the car again and set out for my next stop: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.

Goodbye, Texas. You will be missed.

I Would Drive 500 Miles

At the end of every issue chronicling my road trip, I'll list the approximate mileage -- rounded to the nearest tenth of a mile -- between major stopovers:

Austin to Big Bend, Texas: 480.3 miles

See? Just like that.

I know what you're thinking. "That was only one state! You only covered one state! You said you drove across seven!" Well I know, but it was a big state.

The next issue of "Travels" will bring us to more places in the Southwest: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Santa Fe, and Four Corners, USA. Finally, I will end this three part series with the voyage home -- complete with time travel and whale rescue. And don't forget: read the exciting last issue to learn the mystery of the Hoover Dam!