Exploring Big Bend

The Chisos Mountains practically erupt from the West Texas desert. The southernmost range in the United States, they rise from the heart of Big Bend National Park to form a natural amphitheater for some of the most breathtaking views in Texas.

On the first day of 2014, the sun was climbing beyond the Chisos’ eastern rim when I crawled from my tent in the shadows of the mountain basin. The sun’s golden rays struck the panorama of west-facing cliffs, and the fingerlike formations of volcanic rock gleamed red as the light swept across the ridge and banished the shadows.

It was the kind of view that stops you in your tracks. It distracts from the shivering cold, the need for coffee, and the fact that nature’s call is what drove you from your cozy tent in the first place. As the sun continued to climb through the cloudless blue sky, I marveled first at the awesome and immense beauty surrounding me, then at my own smallness in the face of it, and finally at my personal negligence: How was I just now seeing this place?

3 Chisos Mountains
The view from our campsite in the Chisos Basin.

Well, for one thing, Big Bend is in the middle of nowhere. It is situated on the American side of a “big bend” in the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from Mexico but a full day’s drive from the eastern half of Texas, where most of the state’s residents live. A small minority of Texans has made the pilgrimage to Big Bend, which remains one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the United States.

Forget the crowds jostling each other for a glimpse of Old Faithful, Yosemite Falls or the Grand Canyon. Big Bend offers vastness and solitude at even peak times, which are mostly the spring break months of March and April, and October, when the scorching summer is giving way to the more temperate fall season. Although the park boasts more than 800,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert, mountain woodlands and river habitat, only 275,000 people visited in all of 2013. To put those numbers in perspective, if every visitor had shown up on the same exact day last year, each person would have had three acres to him or herself.

Travelers who are willing to brave the distance and desert are rewarded with an experience that can be found nowhere else in Texas. They can amble down shady trails through narrow canyons, including spectacular Santa Elena, where the Rio Grande chisels a narrow, 1,500-feet-deep gorge through layers of bedrock. They can trek to the highest peaks, take driving tours through weird desert badlands within view of majestic mountains, relax in natural hot springs along the Rio Grande, or cross the river and ride a horse into the rustic Mexican village of Boquillas.

4 Desert Panorama
Desert on the drive to Santa Elena.

And while Big Bend has a reputation for extremes, appealing to hardy backpackers and others searching for solitude in a severe environment, the park also accommodates the less adventurous among us, with 123 miles of paved roads and a recently renovated lodge that features comfortable rooms, hot showers and serene views. Getting to the park isn’t the haul it used to be, either. In 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation increased speed limits for many West Texas highways to 80 mph.

After a day of driving, consider a rest in Marathon, about an hour north of the park. The dust-blown town of 430 people owes its continued existence to the travelers heading into Big Bend, and its centerpiece is the Gage Hotel, a historic lodge outfitted in elegant Southwestern style. During my recent visit, the Gage was a little beyond our price range, so my girlfriend and I went down the street and dropped $10 on a lovely campsite behind the Marathon Motel. After setting up camp we headed back to the Gage and warmed up by the fire at the cozy White Buffalo Bar, and we split a buffalo burger under the watchful eyes of an enormous white bison whose wooly head was mounted to the brick wall.

Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit served up comfort food for breakfast. The only gas station in town was plumb out of fuel, but we had enough in the tank to get us into the park—the vehicle entrance fee is $20—and to the fuel pumps at Panther Junction near Big Bend’s northern end.

1 Cacti web
Santa Elena Canyon overlooking the Rio Grande.

We were surrounded by desert hills rolling in all directions, studded with spiky sotol, creosote bushes and 65 varieties of cactus, including beautiful purple pads that grew in clumps along the roadway. Then the road turned, and we began a winding ascent into the Chisos Mountains. The desert gave way to the magnificent red canyons and forest of piñon pines, oaks and other trees that thrive at the higher elevation. I had been expecting endless badlands, so the lushness of the mountain woodlands came as a pleasant surprise. Because the elevation there varies so extremely, from about 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande to 7,832 feet at Emory Peak, the mountains trap the passing clouds and receive enough rainfall to support a diverse range of trees, flowers, and critters such as black bear and deer. It is also about the only place in Texas to see the Mexican jay, a pretty blue bird that is native to mountain ranges of Mexico.

We easily found a $14 campsite in the first-come, first-serve Chisos Basin campground, and although we were apprehensive about sleeping in a tent with low temperatures dropping into the mid-20s, we burrowed into two blankets and four sleeping bags and were just fine. Daytime temperatures climbed into the upper 60s, perfect for a long stroll along the Window Trail, where water from the basin funnels through a narrow gap in the mountains and spills over a cliff to the desert far, far below.

Later, as evening approached on a peaceful New Year’s Eve, the patio of the Chisos Mountains Lodge offered the best view of the sun descending through the Window, and revelers celebrated with drinks and dinner inside the lodge restaurant. The volcanic canyons gleamed red in the setting sun, and soon all was dark, the night filled with stars.

First published in Texas Farm and Home.

2 Casa Grande peak
Casa Grande viewed from our campsite.

The Sabine River book is here!

Texas A&M University Press has published my book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine! More information at www.sabineriverbook.com. Here’s the book jacket text:

The Sabine River by photographer Danea Males.

Ask Texans about their favorite rivers and most will mention the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Guadalupe, or perhaps the Brazos. These hold special meaning in the lives of those who inhabit their banks, paddle their waters, or ply the lakes compounded in their runs. But the Sabine River is different.Flowing on the eastern boundary of the state, where it is hard to see whereTexas ends and Louisiana begins, the Sabine holds the mystery and roughness of territory not claimed by river outfitters, visited by weekend kayakers, or profiled in travel magazines. If the Rio Grande is a river out of Lonesome Dove, the Sabine is a river out of Deliverance.Growing up near the Sabine, journalist Wes Ferguson, like most East Texans, steered clear of its murky, debris-filled waters, where alligators lived in the backwater sloughs and an occasional body was pulled from some out-of-the-way crossing. The Sabine held a reputation as a haunt for a handful of hunters and loggers, more than a few water moccasins, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional black bear lumbering through swamp oak and cypress knees.

But when Ferguson set out to do a series of newspaper stories on the upper portion of the river, he and photographer Jacob Croft Botter were entranced by the river’s subtle beauty and the solitude they found there. They came to admire the self-described “river rats” who hunted, fished, and swapped stories along the muddy water—plain folk who love the Sabine as much as Hill Country vacationers love the clear waters of the Guadalupe. Determined to travel the rest of the river, Ferguson and Botter loaded their gear and launched into the stretch of river that charts the line between the states and ends at the Gulf of Mexico.

Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine invites readers to join Ferguson and Botter for an adventure on the Sabine, “a brown run of water” that winds a twisting path through the places “where Texas blends into the forests and swamps of Louisiana.”

Click the button to pre-order Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine.

Why San Marcos loved Rob Robinson

A photo of popular tobacco shopkeeper Rob Robinson is on display at the Hill Country Humidor, which his family and friends are trying to continue operating in his tradition following his death earlier this year. Photo by Jamie Maldonado

When he died in the spring, at age 59, the body of downtown shopkeeper Rob Robinson was transported to a laboratory in Lockhart so a medical examiner could determine his cause of death.

The physician observed Robinson’s bushy eyebrows, the bushier mustache, and his mountain man-style beard, a gray tangle of facial hair that would have been familiar to any customer of the Hill Country Humidor. Robinson had been selling tobacco and swapping stories there for more than a quarter century.

The medical examiner measured Robinson’s beard, because that’s what medical examiners do. It was 10 inches long. She sized up his hair — 28 inches — and noted the six colored bands that held his ponytail in place. She also noticed his white Kinky Friedman campaign T-shirt and the message scrawled on it in red ink.

“Rob — See you in Hell!” the note read. It was signed, “Kinky.”

Click to read the rest of the story.

The ghost hunters

“Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night?
“Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?
“Have you or your family ever seen a spook, specter or ghost?
“If the answer is ‘yes,’ then don’t wait another minute. Pick up the phone and call the professionals …”

– “Ghostbusters”

There will be tears tonight. There will be voices in the cemetery — a child’s laughter, a whispered threat.

On a cool, damp night in Longview, paranormal investigator Misty Richardson says she will not fear the spirits whom she will encounter during research of a local burial ground.

“Me, what I believe is that I have the Lord with me,” she says. “We say a prayer and feel that He protects us. Some of them do try to possess you, so you have to do it with a clear head. If you act relaxed and peaceful, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

If you give in to panic, on the other hand, you become vulnerable. You must not panic.

Otherwise, “something can actually attach to you, and you can take it home,” she says. “It’s very, very rare, but it has happened.”

Richardson knows. She’s one of a handful of local investigators who form Above & Beyond Paranormal, a research team that is registered and open for business in Gregg County.

“We’re here to prove there is life after death here,” Richardson said. “Basically, we ghost hunt. Anybody that allows us to either go in their homes or cemeteries, we’ll go in overnight. We’ll investigate by pictures, videos, voice recordings. It’s actually pretty neat.”

They ain’t afraid of no ghosts. But tonight that’s about to change. Continue reading The ghost hunters

Unicycle football is hell on wheel

Dane "Toilet Face" Walter strains for the goal line.

This is a classic underdog story.

A scrappy football team. No talent, all heart. Fighting for a chance at the playoffs.

The competition? Only the most skillful team in the league. A squad so overconfident, its captain says things like this:

“We never really practice. We just have game adaptability.”

The underdogs, well, they do practice. They showed up an hour before anyone else to run drills and draw up a few plays. Here’s one of them:

The quarterback lines up in the shotgun position. He’s riding a unicycle, because this is the Unicycle Football League in San Marcos. In this league, every player rides a unicycle — passes on a unicycle, catches on a unicycle, plays defense on a unicycle.

The quarterback flaps his arms like a bird. He squawks like a bird, too.“Ka-caw! Ka-CAW!”

On cue, the wide receiver goes in motion, pedaling down the line of scrimmage. The ball is snapped. The receiver, Jeff “Big Bird” Hogan, darts toward the end zone.

Quarterback Daniel “Air Dan” McCarthy lofts a spiral into the receiver’s waiting arms. Big Bird rolls in — literally, he rolls in — for the touchdown.

With plays like these, who knows? Continue reading Unicycle football is hell on wheel

Sassman’s last stand

A confrontation between neighbors. Criminal charges and disappearing evidence. A road project in Uhland is the latest fuel for this small-town feud.

Gordon Sassman
Gordon Sassman stands above a drainage ditch that diverts water onto his ranch.

Gordon Sassman’s heart was racing. His hands were shaking. He was so wound up, he hadn’t gotten an ounce of sleep in nearly a week.

This was a bad sign. Only a month before, Sassman had nearly died. The heart attack had hit him like a backhoe pressing down on his chest. He’d spent 10 days in the hospital.

Now Sassman, 61, was back home in Uhland, where he’s an alderman on the city council. He was supposed to be recuperating, but his many responsibilities kept interfering with the recovery.

“My heart is so stressed out,” he said. “I don’t need all this extra stress, but I’ve been kind of a main person here in town, overseeing all these different things.”

His latest source of stress? The controversy keeping him awake at night?

Seeliger Drive. A gravel road.

It had been a good road, he said, before the city hired a street crew to dig it all up. Cost the taxpayers of Uhland nearly $2,000.

Sassman, a month removed from his heart attack, could feel the blood boiling in his veins. Continue reading Sassman’s last stand