After my dad died in mid-October (worth it’s own post, but not now) and it became clear that the kids had their own plans for the holidays – Ruby on the Colorado R. in the Grand Canyon, Sawyer with Bella in Idaho, and Eli heading for Minnesota with Sam – it was time for Plan B. The ‘we’re-out-of-here’ plan. Yeah, that’s right, leave town, have an adventure, don’t sit at home gazing at the Christmas tree and pining away over the empty nest. And not just a low-key, out-of-here, kind of holiday. Something big, something with some heart, some danger, some exhilaration, some weight.
Cut to the chase – early morning of Dec. 15 in a Billings, Montana snowstorm, when we head south out of town, fleeing weather and heading for the Mexican border in Big Bend, Texas. Several hours south, somewhere around central Wyoming, we escaped the snow, but the temperature zoomed up 20 degrees in about 10 minutes and the wind started howling out of the west. The canoe strapped on top of our Prius started wobbling and bouncing. The roof rack was making abnormal and alarming noises. We ratcheted back the speed, stopped to tie bow and stern lines to the chassis, the wonderful gas mileage plummeted, and time after time we wondered if the lid of the car would rip right off, sailing away to the east under the parachute of our 25-year-old Dagger Legend canoe. Those damn winds hounded us all the way to Las Cruces, NM, more than 1,000 miles south. Out of the west, 60 mile gusts, clouds of dirt and sand, tractor trailers tipped helter-skelter in the freeway (once we had to 4-wheel around a wrecked semi in the median strip in southern Colorado). Unbelievable, sustained, battering air just hammering away mile after mile after mile.
At the end of each day our heads still rang with the beating, our bodies felt strained like we’d been to the gym. The good news, we had friends and family to stay with along the way – Mp’s sister, Sally, in Denver, my old friend Kris Carrillo in Albuquerque. Havens in the onslaught, islands of calm. Until the next morning when we’d do battle again. Finally we wheeled east onto Highway 10 towards El Paso and zoomed along with hurricane-force tailwinds, hurtling us toward our put-in on the Rio Grande River at La Linda, just downstream of Big Bend NP.
It didn’t begin well. At the put-in, on the morning of the 18th, it was 39 degrees and windy. What happened to those southern warm breezes??? That first day was brutally cold. By the time we stopped for the night, we were both teeth-chattering hypothermia victims. The good news is that it kept getting better. For 6 days we slid through the deep walls of the lower canyons on the Wild and Scenic river. Cliffs rose 1,500 feet overhead. Springs, hot and cold, refreshed us and our water jug. The days kept getting warmer and more comfortable. We ran rapids, portaged, lined, camped under the unbelievable density of stars in one of the darkest quadrants of North America, took hikes up side canyons full of canyon wrens, sat by the fire drinking coffee every morning, shared daily stocking-stuffer gifts. For a week we saw no one. No one on the Mexican side. No one on the US side. No one on the water. Just us and the wide, magical borderland desert full of evocations and mystery. God it was deep and lovely. And that’s where we need a wall??? Really? (Side note – I asked everyone we met what they through of Trump’s wall. To a person, no matter which way they voted, the consensus was, it is a really stupid idea. Hear that, Donald??)
From the river we refreshed for a night near Terlingua, enjoyed one of the top ten sunsets either of us had ever seen, ate at the very fun Starlight Theater restaurant in the old ghost town, and then headed north toward the Guadelupe Mountains near the New Mexico border, just south of Carlsbad.
Christmas Eve, in a very sweet campground at Guadelupe Mountains NP, the winds returned. Tent-hammering, pole-bending, fabric-flapping winds. All night we battled a collapsing tent, rigged up guy lines, added rocks to the stakes, cowered under the lash. The idea was to hike to the high point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak (8,700′ plus) on Christmas Day. Good idea, but if anything, the winds rose in the morning. We huddled in the tent to cook breakfast, but then decided, what the hell, let’s give it a go.
It’s a good hike, nice trail, 8-9 mile round trip. There were calm moments, a couple, but for the most part, the winds just blew like stink. On certain corners the gusts pushed us bodily backwards. At the summit, with west Texas spilling away to the horizon, we hunkered in the wind-shade of some boulders, made a few static-fraught holiday phone calls, and shivered through lunch before pounding back down. Worth it? Sure, pretty exhilarating, actually, but sheesh!
For another day we enjoyed the Guadelupes, had some sweet bird watching, walked up scenic canyons, and the wind finally died in time for us to head on to Carlsbad Caverns, another pretty amazing spot in the middle of nowhere. A bit of a culture shock at the caverns, which were slammed with cell-phone toting, selfie-taking humanity. Still, the tour, even the self-guided one, is worth it.
For another three days, we headed back north, dodging the winds this time. We visited Mp’s childhood friend, Lia, in Santa Fe, stayed with my aunt and uncle in Denver, and on the Friday before New Years, in time for the neighborhood Polar Bear Plunge, we beetled back home through another Montana snow storm. Back home, where we greeted our old dog, Beans, turned up the heat, and plugged in the Christmas tree. Good to be home. Good to go, but good to be back, too.
Happy, epic holidays, right? May they all be adventures.