Telling people about our road trip across West Texas and New Mexico earned the most, “Why are you going there?” responses of all our adventures. This isn’t the kind of place you go by choice. You’re usually stuck traveling through West Texas on your way to someplace better. Or you’re stationed in the military. Or you got on the mob’s bad side. No one really chooses to spend a long weekend in the Chihuahuan Desert. But that just meant we’d have more space to ourselves!
Sure enough, there was really nothing there except for three very dry national parks, a bunch of suicidal rabbits and a Prada (I’ll get to all that later). I also might have insisted we do this trip instead of spending four days at a condo on Lake Tahoe. On top of that, the first day was the kind of disaster that made me rethink this whole see every national park life plan in the first place.
El Paso is closer to the California border than it is to Austin, Texas, but that didn’t stop me from having that be the jumping off point for a romantic vacation that started with a supply run to Walmart. They didn’t have the gas canister our camping stove required, so we found the city’s largest outdoors store, which was also out of stock on the fuel we needed. Our nature adventure took us into an El Paso Target to buy a new camping stove with fuel included before we peeled out into the desert three hours behind schedule where we got pulled over by our first border patrol officer. So far we were off to a roaring start.
The drug-sniffing dog cleared the rear tires of the rental and the officer was satisfied with our answer when he asked, “Are you American citizens?” This didn’t seem the time to discuss Jen’s Canadian heritage, so we continued east into Texas backcountry. A few hours later and with the sun starting to set, we got to our first national park, Guadalupe Mountains, which would be great if you’re assembling a fossil record of West Texas, and a major disappointment if you could’ve been at Tahoe. It’s home to the largest peak in Texas and a post office from the 1800s that is now a pile of rocks. The first-come camp site was full, so we drove another hour to an RV park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town that made El Paso look like Vail.
I can’t think of a lot of scenic places with “Bad” in the name. Islamabad isn’t near the top of my list, and Carlsbad was populated with a highway of chain hotels serving the Caverns (to the South) and alien-seeking conspiracy theorists in Roswell (to the North). We expected the worst from the RV park, but it turned out to be a great find and the trip took a turn for the better. Like every camping trip, Jen soon picked up the gossip of every female camper drama from the ladies’ room, and then we downed a pan-fried Walmart steak deep in the heart of a Roswell, New Mexico K.O.A.
Carlsbad Caverns elbowed its way into the top ten places I’ve ever seen. It was a huge relief that the trip was justified the minute we descended the thousand-foot-deep cave (roughly the height of the Empire State Building, or 12,000 Empire State Building souvenirs). The first thing you hear is a soundtrack of a few thousand bats reminding us that the elevator was out of service, along with an additional thousand children shouting, “Stalagmites,” and “Stalactites.” We get it. You know which one is which. Our exhaustion scurrying to the bottom of the cave, taking a tour and hiking out was relieved by judging whether other people would be able to make it out.
There isn’t much to check out between Carlsbad and Big Bend – McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, and a lot more nothing – but we stopped in Marfa, Texas, which is sort of like a Texas Ojai. It’s an artist outpost in the middle of nowhere part of the middle of nowhere where Matthew McConnonaughey and a few other celebs call their second home. It has 20+ art galleries and the kind of stores where you can drop a few hundred bucks on astrologically-embroidered denim jackets while you pregame for Burning Man and get your photo taken at the Marfa Prada (not a real Prada – art is tough to explain). It was a perfectly fine place to eat a falafel for lunch.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Bend National Park. We knew it’s where the Rio Grande curves to the north and there’s a border crossing where you can take a boat and ride a donkey to a Mexican village. We drove out of the desert up into some mountains where we saw trees for the first time in four days. We dropped into a grove where our campsite was surrounded by a forest and mountains being hit by the sunset. We were also instantly befriended by the camp host, who raised her glass of wine and said things have been great with her since she had gallbladder surgery.
An astronomy professor from U.T. hosted a stargazing session that night with two high-powered telescopes. We got a good look at Jupiter’s moons and the Milky Way ripped across the Texas sky. But the best part was his love for astronomy was only matched by his disdain for astrology. He’d show some green neutron gas around a cluster of young star formations, but when someone asked him to point out Gemini, he shrugged them off with a, “That’s not really my thing,” to which another person asked, “What about Sagittarius?”
The next day we hiked three trails and around nine miles, the best was Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. It’s a 1,500-foot rock face dropping straight into the water. If anyone descends that cliff from the Mexican border and crosses the river, they deserve to stay. Immigration debate over. Although it was nice to visit a national park that wasn’t overrun by Germans for once. This was the first national park trip that didn’t have a slew of Berliners telling me they haven’t met any Americans in the national parks yet.
Our final morning we woke up at 3am Central Time. All the road kill we saw during the day was explained by hundreds, maybe thousands of jackrabbits lining the highway in the middle of the night. These bastards did everything possible to try and get hit. They darted into the road, jumped back in, darted in front again, and hopped away. If I were Elmer Fudd, I’d drop the gun and just do 80 through Big Bend. I’m proud to say that no rabbits were harmed in the making of this trip, but any time I saw road kill after that, I was like, “They were asking for it.”
Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns were two of the best parks we’ve seen so far. You can skip Guadalupe and just eat rabbit stew instead. As much as we were warned of gun-totin’ Jew haters who want to make America great again, everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. It seemed like an annual pilgrimage for people from Austin and we could’ve spent a week in the park with ease. Sure, one family’s picnic basket was emblazoned in red, white and blue with, “Faith, family, freedom,” which are three things I’m not big on (too much anxiety with freedom), but they wished us a great day when we saw them later on a hike, and thanked us when part of their picnic blew away (the dishes were gunning for freedom).
My biggest moment of being a total idiot was walking into a donut shop in Van Horn, Texas at 7am after dodging rabbits. Jen and I combined were less than a third shorter and smaller than the next person in there. I was going on zero sleep and video game driving when I asked for four donut holes. “Four?” She yelled at me. “It’s a dozen for a dollar.” My palm-to-forehead morning only continued when I asked if they had soy milk for my coffee. “No,” she stared at me.
And I only share that super-embarrassing story because I hope I could fulfill their stereotype of pompous city boys walking into their Texas donut shop and ordering four donut holes and asking about soy milk. And I hope I made their day because it’s the least I could offer in return after such a great trip to Texas.