Friday, April 28, 2017

#53 - Friday, 28 April 2017 - Alpine, Texas

ALPINE, TEXAS

SCENE FROM ALPINE … The old cowboy at the gas station counter asks for a tin of smokeless tobacco. He has that sixty year old body and 100 year old skin look of a man who doesn’t spend much time indoors on the couch. He was about 6’4”, but probably didn’t weigh more than 175 and he seemed twisted and bow-legged. His wavy salt & pepper hair was windblown below the white Laredo cowboy hat. Wrangler jeans, big belt buckle. Weathered cowboy boots, faded bandanna. I walked up with my tacos and drink and noticed the young man serving him. It was a striking contrast. The chaw-dipping, tall drink of ranch water was handed his can of Skoal by a pretty boy with pink finger nail polish. The boy wore impossibly long false eyelashes and spoke with a flamboyant swish quite dissimilar to the cowboy’s Far West Texas drawl. I looked around the store and saw a half-dozen other cowboys in white wide-brimmed hats, belt buckles and boots, but no other glamorous gender-fluid clerks. But the young girl who said hi to the effeminate clerk looked like she was from Manhattan. Welcome to Alpine.

Alpine sits at about 4500 feet and is surrounded by 6000 foot plus peaks of desert scrub and rock. It is a far west Texas town of 7000 people and the county seat of Brewster, which also includes Big Bend National Park 100 miles south. It is definitely cowboy country, but the town is full of food trucks, art galleries, book stores, coffee shops, artsy craft shops, and other trendy establishments. The grocery store I visited yesterday had a huge selection of craft and imported beers and many of my fellow customers looked like they’d just stepped out of a jamband festival or alternative performance art cafe instead of a cattle ranch. Two businesses in town I want to visit are Big Bend Brewing Company and Transpecos Guitars.

I had always thought I might spend a night in the Alpine area and it was most likely occur between Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountain and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks north of here. But I never planned on spending a week here with air conditioning and cable TV. Yesterday afternoon I arrived at Lost Alaskan RV Park at the north edge of town and booked a week anyway. My primary stressor during my 2017 travel has been my work as Editor of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. The next issue needs to be printed like yesterday. I’ve plugged away at it as I could at various locations, but the only way I can fulfill my commitment is to hunker down and sequester myself and get the job done. So Guadalupe and Carlsbad may have to wait until some time after my scorpion chasing in southern Arizona beginning on May 6. I confess that after a week without electricity in Big Bend National Park, where the thermometer hit 106ºF and days get warmer every hour until dark, and then see temps in the 90s two hours after dark and I slept in my own sweat each night, it isn’t bad to have full hookup, wifi and cable TV. It’s just want I need to finish editing and designing the new Journal, and a week’s stay in civilization affords me the ability to receive mail and packages, restock provisions, do some maintenance, and get my truck’s oil changed.

I thought seclusion in civilization (how’s that for an oxymoron?) would enable me to set aside my cameras and not chase creepy crawlies and the occasional bird or other charismatic megafauna, but fifteen minutes before I reached town I caught a six-foot red racer. I had taken the park road west across Big Bend and then took 118 north to Alpine. Ten miles south of town the big western coachwhip (a large, fast, diurnal snake that is red to pink here and called the red racer) was coiled in the southbound side of the two-laneroad. It was midday and about 82ºF. I pulled over as soon as I could and on the walk back a few hundred yards told myself how foolish I was for walking back for a piece of hose or rubber. Road cruising is an effective dusk or nighttime snake hunting method, but midday doesn’t normally yield many snakes because daytime active species like this red racer move quickly across. If it was a snake I decided it must be dead. As I approached I saw no blood or injury. That is a miracle as most people are wastes of carbon and will veer at a snake and intentionally reduce it to roadkill. The next miracle was that when I picked it up I didn’t get covered in snake shit and my own blood. Coachwhips are feisty and usually bite repeatedly and evacuate their bowels all over you at the same time. This one just hissed and made a few closed-mouth bluff strikes. The bigger miracle was that I picked it up at all. These are are faster snakes and this six and a half-footer could speed slither away pretty quickly. Then again, it wasn’t my first rodeo and I would have grabbed it even if it was a biter. Photos taken, snake released, I had to resign myself that I wasn’t snake hunting for the next week.

Big Bend National Park is amazing and vast. I will return soon and probably will overwinter there. The April heat was already sweltering and the warmth was stifling at night, but the terrain and wildlife are all that I care about. The night before I had found a very uncommon Mojave rattlesnake and couldn’t have been happier. It was in Boquillas Canyon where I had spent the day crossing into México, and the previous night black-lighting for scorpions. I had returned to release a tarantula and scorpion that I had found the night before after my flash batteries had died. [BTW, I guess this is a good spot to announce once again, that I am not posting pix in the blog because I do so via Instagram and Snapchat. If you don’t choose to use you are shit out of luck and I am not bothered. But, for those of you savvy readers who are following my images, I posted 14 new Insta pix last night and they include rattlesnake, coachwhip, scorpions, tarantula, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, jackrabbit [American Desert Hare] and more].

But let me tell you the tale of my border crossing. The village of Boquillas del Carmen sits on the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon. Hiking the canyon trails leads you to many hop, skip and jumps into another country. But there is one legal port of entry and it is pedestrian only. Closed for 13 years after 9/11, the 250 villagers are again earning their livings exclusively by serving the Big Bend National Park visitors who choose to visit their home. A passport is all that’s required. That, and the $5 round trip fare for the fifteen second flat bottom row boat trip to México. After showing the park ranger your passport and listening to rules regarding conduct and what you cannot return with, you walk down a little path to the river and your boatman paddles you into México. You then have the option of a very hot and dusty 3/4 mile walk to the village down a road of deep sand, with or without a “guide”, or you can opt for a truck, horse or donkey ride into town with someone who will show you around the small village. For $8 I rented a horse. My guide led it by the reins as it was not pleased with the large gringo cowboy on its back. As we approached town I tried my best steering it with my heels, but I was wearing sandals not boots. The horse was not amused with my faux cowboy skills. I guess that is one photo that I will share here. Miguel, el caballero. 






My guide tied off the horse beneath a wisp of a desert willow sapling that provided pretty much no shade (see left side of above image) and led me into the village and to the immigration office. I was surprised the town had such bureaucracy, but it took both sides of the border to work out the post-9/11 reopening of the crossing three years ago. A pretty Latina in a white and blue uniform scanned my passport and filled out the necessary document. I would have to return again upon departure. My amigo (I don't recall his unique name) led me to a restaurant where I enjoyed a plate of tacos and a couple of Carta Blanca beers. During the ride/walk into town I had impressed him with my Spanish and he had impressed me with his English. Speaking English allowed him the work of dealing directly with the tourists and it was why he learned. He told me that when tourism ended he was forced to leave his family in Boquillas and make his way into the U.S. and then east to Alabama where he worked as a house painter. I told him that I chased scorpions, spiders and snakes, and he told me he made special wire scorpions for souvenirs. Him and everyone else in the village. It was remarkable how every house displayed exactly the same small variety of handmade souvenirs. Everyone had wire scorpions and other animals. But after I finished my lunch he led me to his house, which was located at the edge of the village next to the solar farm. The only electricity they have is solar-powered and the government had built a nice solar farm and installed meters on their homes. The people of Boquillas were proud of their green energy and happy about American tourists like me. I asked what they had the most difficulty getting and they said gasoline. You wouldn't think they'd use much, but there were about a dozen old trucks in the town. The nearest town is 160 miles over bad road. The village had a little health clinic and a shiny new ambulance, but the drive to the town's hospital takes four hours. Once a week trucks come selling meats, produce, dairy products and other essentials. Prior to 9/11 they could shop at the National Park camp store. Now the crossing is mostly one way. Very few people can visit the American side. I bought a couple of the wire creatures and then paid my guide "what is in your heart". That turned out to be $25 for hanging out with me for two hours. I returned my ornery horse friend and three or four strokes of the boat oars later I was back in America and walking back to the Boquillas Crossing building where I spoke to a Customs Officer via camera and telephone.

The previous night I had hiked into Boquillas Canyon to search for scorpions. My friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson, who I will meet along with three students near Tucson in two weeks, told me about almost a dozen species that inhabit the canyon. The most interesting is found nowhere else. It is a psammophile – or sand lover/liver – and specialized to living in the sand dunes that sit from the mountain base to the river at the end of the canyon trail. I hiked to the dunes as the sun set, using a new GPS app I have on my iPhone to set waypoints that I could use to navigate back out of the canyon after dark. I am still a bit unfamiliar with the app and it's built-in maps failed a bit right at the river, so before darkness fell I hung four neon glow sticks from trees to lead myself from the dunes back to recognizable path points. Then I waited on the shore of the river and laughed at the idea of building a wall here. Once it was dark I turned on my UV flashlight. For those who do not know, scorpions fluoresce under "black light". They glow greenish and with the power of the flashlight I use I can see them as much as fifty feet away. The dune scorpions (<i>Paruroctonus boquillas</i>) sometimes would be just a speck of yellow-green as only a bit of their bodies broke the surface of the sand. Often you'd just see the claws sticking out of the dunes. They were wary and even if fully on the sand's surface a disturbance would make them vanish instantly. I used my forceps to flick them back out of the sand for photographs. I ended up only finding three species, but it was good fun. Brent and his students and I will be looking for specific scorpions in Arizona starting May 7.

My worst adventure was yesterday morning as I was to leave. During the night I woke and went into the bathroom. I flicked the light switch and the light lasted only a half second. My two batteries were drained after living without electricity for over a week. After I fell back asleep I was awakened by a periodic beep. It was my carbon monoxide detector/alarm. It wasn't wailing to tell me that I was at risk of death, but only chirping to let me know there was a fault. It needs electricity. The problem is that without power I can't break camp. I need electricity to move my slide-outs back in, lift the stabilizer jacks, and operate the power tongue jack on the trailer. I fell back asleep thinking I would just have to use my battery charger in the morning. That's why one feature for my new truck that I knew would be essential was an inverter-powered AC power outlet. Long story short ... I had problems with the brand new battery charger (only used once before so ...). It would only stay on charge for a few minutes and then would indicate that my batteries were fully charged and on a maintenance trickle. Um, no. It did it enough times that I became convinced that there was another problem and did some investigating. I even pulled out my manuals and tried to see if I could retract the slide outs manually. I gave up and walked to the camp store for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I came back and still dead batteries. It took maybe 20 unpluggings, frustrated slaps and random expletives before the charger finally worked. I gave it fifteen minutes, saw that my batteries were at 40% and then broke camp. The batteries would be completely charged by my truck via the smart connection during my trip north.

This must be the longest blog entry yet! If you got this far thank you. I'm here until the third and then have a few days to get to Tucson. I'll post again when I am farther on down the road. All the best, M

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#52 - Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It Part II
Instant Coffee. The horror. I feel like I am in the U.K. or an Asian hotel room. The tea kettle went on my propane stove and I emptied a packet of Starbucks Via freeze-dried instant into the cup. At least it is Starbucks. There would be no fresh brewed coffee this morning and I’m likely to drink more tea this week.

Yesterday’s heat was stifling. Even as the sun fell below the Chisos Mountains in the distance, the thermometer read 104ºF/40ºC. There was little breeze and despite the weather being beautiful at dark the inside of the Wheelhouse was the warmest it has ever been when I hit the sheets. My bed felt like it was heated. I went to sleep with both Wheelhouse doors open hoping the predicted winds that would bring atypically cool weekend temperatures would hurry up.

This morning it is indeed windy. The sun is rising on a day that is expected to be 35ºF cooler than yesterday. Crazy. 104 followed by a forecasted 67ºF. Tomorrow should be in the upper 70’s and then next week low 90s are anticipated.

Last night I went for a sunset drive and then waited at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center 20 miles west of camp for it to become dark. I walked the grounds looking at the desert plants and their identification placards. In my truck my laptop was connected to the center’s wifi downloading some television episodes to watch on my laptop since I have no AC power for the week. That’s OK as I just began a David Baldacci novel. Once it was completely dark, I drove back toward camp very slowly hoping for snakes on the road. I encountered mule deer and jackrabbits, and some sort of desert rodent ran across the road. But nothing reptilian.

Today might be a good day for cool weather hiking, but it also is Saturday and the park is more crowded than it will be on Monday. When I returned from last night’s drive many of the vacant campsites in my little out of the way loop had filled up. I’m likely to spend more time editing and writing while more people are on the trails, and then begin hiking in earnest first thing Monday morning. I expect Saturday is a bit of chaos at the Boquillas Crossing, but if I don’t go this weekend I will have to wait until Wednesday as the border crossing is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and I don’t want to be stuck en México. It also is probably a good day to use the park village’s laundry and do some RV chores. One of the reasons I like staying in a place for an extended period is selecting the best days for activities based on weather and less people.


This park is so big and so remote that it actually has its own zip code and a post office at the Panther Junction Visitor's Center. "Big Bend National Park" is actually a town name as well. I discovered this last night when I walked through the desert plant exhibit outside the visitor's center. A note on the name "Panther Junction". The park has about 130 reported mountain lion sightings per year. Over half of these lions are seen from the road by visitors. There are believed to be about two dozen adult mountain lions in Big Bend National Park and they say that no matter where you are within the park you are always within the home range of one of them. Occasionally one is sighted in a campground and then the campground is closed down. Other mammalian wildlife includes black bears and javelinas. I enjoyed my javelina encounter in Laredo, but have yet to see any here. Bears completely disappeared from Big Bend years ago, but now have returned by way of Mexico. There are supposed to be about two dozen in the park now, most of which are on the other side of the park where it is more mountainous and a bit cooler.

All the best, M

Friday, April 21, 2017

#51 - Friday, 21 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It
Jesse and I are finally without demon electricity and pressurized potable water. We arrived at Big Bend National Park to find the RV hookup area fully occupied, but I never intended to stay there. It is just a sun-exposed paved lot with a bunch of close together parking slots for those who wish to be tethered to electricity and water. I’m sure they’re enjoying their air conditioning as it is 3 pm and close to 100ºF, but I shoehorned my Wheelhouse into some decent shade in a quiet area off the main campground. It is a “no generator zone” so most RV campers don’t venture back here. In much of the campground generators may be run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for those who need to recharge or cool down during the heat of the day. I don’t have a generator (at least not yet) and I planned to start going without electricity as much as possible. My site is $14 per night whereas the full hookups are $32. That difference adds up and savings can be had if you don’t mind sweating and smelling your own stink. I mentioned Mick in my last blog. He had his RV parked at a site without electricity and hadn’t even bothered to look where the water hookup was. I sort of felt guilty that I have umbilically attached to power during this entire trip. The only place I didn’t have a water hookup was Everglades National Park. It’s only April and the temperatures are still tolerable so I may as well save money when I can. Tonight it is supposed to become very windy and cooler temperatures are expected for the next several days. My timing is spot on.

Without an electrical hookup my Wheelhouse is powered by the dual deep cycle batteries I have, which are currently recharged when I am towing and eventually will also be recharged by solar panels. They will run the LED interior lights, the USB charging ports and radio, plus other DC appliances like water pump and jacks. However, DC power only means no coffee maker (or anything I plug into normal outlets) and no microwave. I’ll heat water for coffee or tea on my range, which always runs on propane. I have two water heaters so instead of the usual electric one I will switch on the secondary gas heater. My refrigerator runs off of electricity when I am hooked up, but now is being powered by propane. I have yet to purchase propane. The two 20 lb. tanks that came with the rig have lasted this long. I am sure I’ll need to exchange them during this stay though. Setting up the RV my tongue jack, stabilizers and slide outs all operated by battery, and since I was still connected to my running truck the batteries were being simultaneously recharged. When this laptop begins need charging I can use my backup USB power pack and, once that is spent, use the A/C outlet in my truck that runs off an inverter. Sadly, I have found that outlet doesn’t give enough juice to run a coffee maker. As far as not having a water hookup, I just use bottled water for drinking and cooking and have a 49 gallon tank that I filled when I arrived at the park that will supply water for showering, toilet and washing dishes when I switch on the DC-powered water pump. You don’t need electricity to hike or read or photograph wildlife, and the only water you need is drinking and that is 88 cents a gallon at War-Mart (I have a dozen gallons in the back of my truck) or only about 20-25 cents a gallon at the water filling stations that are common in store parking lots in the southwest.

I left Seminole Canyon State Park just after 8 a.m. and arrived at Big Bend National Park at about 12:30. It was a 215 mile drive. This park is expansive and it takes some time on Hwy. 385 South before you reach the entrance gate and then it’s 30+ miles to the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center and then another 20 miles east to Rio Grande Village where I am camped. Big Bends refers to the great southwest Texas U-turn the Rio Grande makes here–defining the park boundary for 118 miles. On the other side of the river are the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. — I must interrupt this typing to report that a roadrunner has just invaded my outdoor office. I am typing this from just outside the Rio Grande Village store, which is my oasis for wifi, laundry and various provisions if needed. I am sipping a Tejas lager–“the beer from out here”–which is made in nearby Alpine, Texas by Big Bend Brewery.

I am here for six nights. My next destination will probably be north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. We’ll see which way the wind blows. Tomorrow I will probably visit Boquillas, Mexico. You hike down a trail near the campground for a couple miles and then there is a tiny pedestrian only port of entry. They call it "pedestrian only", but really you pay a Mexican to row you across the river and you can opt to be carried into town on the back of a donkey. I pity the donkey that would have to carry me. They'd need to supply a destria or a draft horse methinks. I'll walk it. From what I've read, about 43 families live in the village now. They make most of their money on tourists (ferry, donkey ride, cantina, souvenirs), but after 9/11 the border was shut down (2002) and many were forced to move elsewhere to survive. Both the Mexican and American authorities arranged for the crossing to re-open in 2012, but a book I read said that in 2013 it was still closed. So, it is good news to know this is happening again. I have my passport ready to make the little journey into Mexico for a taco and margarita.

All the best, M

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

#50 - Tuesday, 18 April 2017 - Seminole Canyon S.P.H.S. - near Comstock, Texas

A fascinating aspect of this life on the road is the people. It will surprise few of my readers that I far prefer wildlife, but I am intrigued by my fellow travelers and their stories. I enjoy the brief and random encounters I have with people. The very transience of these interactions is part of their charm. “Where ya from?” is a common beginning, but there are plenty of conversation starters. A tall, heavily tattooed guy with a parrot on his shoulder or a couple of big cameras slung over one is something that people notice. Yesterday I sat with Jesse perched on me underneath the ramada that shades my picnic table and I saw a familiar expression approach. It was the female half of the husband and wife campground host team. I had spoke several times with man when I first visited Seminole Canyon State Park last week, but she and I had not met. I noticed her making the grounds on the park provided golf cart checking camping permits. She parked and walked up to me and asked about Jesse. “Is that your bird?” seemed like a rhetorical question, but many of us are awkward when strolling up to a stranger, and I’m a bit intimidating I imagine.

I had just finished setting up camp when Jesse’s visitor arrived, and afterward I sat at a table beside the public restrooms and showers, which is the most reliable location to attempt to acquire the park’s weak wifi signal. Verizon has no service here and it is my only tether to the outside world. A woman approached me to ask if she could share the table. She looked weary of the afternoon sun and said she needed a shady place to have lunch. I saw a bicyclist approaching and then noticed the orange flag of the child trailer being pulled behind the mountain bike. Then I realized that the blue trailer’s occupant was a golden retriever. You meet all sorts when you travel. And, as John Muir said, travel far enough and you meet yourself.

The bike’s rider and dog’s friend had the “business up front, party in the rear” look of a mullet, but it was the most outrageous mullet ever. From the front his hair looked short beneath his baseball cap, but in the back was a dreadlock ponytail that reached below his waist. He set his bike down to use the restroom and his golden pooch obediently sat in its trailer berth looking adorable. I later found that their tent was pitched two sites away from mine. Rasta ponytail wasn’t much of a friendly sort. I’ve rarely had someone come within fifty feet of me without a greeting, but he briefly stared at me as he lit a cigarette and then looked away.

I was tired from little sleep the last night at the RV Park in Del Rio so I mostly hung around the campsite watching birds and cleaning my Wheelhouse. The vacant site between me and Mr. Rasta Mullet was soon occupied by two Harley riders. I didn’t see this many tent campers last week, but it is pretty much a 50/50 mix now. Whereas many parks have water and electric hookups for RVs in designated loops, this park intersperses sites with electricity with those without, and all but the largest pull through sites for big motorhomes have tent pads. The two gentlemen on the hogs were sixtyish and set up two tents side by side on the pad. The older looking of the two had a Harley trike that towed a matching trailer. For motorcyclists they had a lot of gear.

That’s another intriguing aspect of this life on the road … the different ways people camp and the different rigs. You see half a million dollar motor coaches. You see hippie dudes pulling golden retrievers behind their bikes. In between are a myriad of campers and I enjoy checking out license plates to see who has traveled farther than me, and bumper stickers to see who or what my fellow travelers represent. The only other RV that was set up in this campground loop when I arrived midday yesterday was also from Illinois. The spare tire on the back of his rig is covered by the Chicago Blackhawks logo. I haven’t met the lone gentleman occupying the campsite yet, but I am dying to commiserate about the fact that after last night’s poor performance the Hawks are down three games to nil in the first playoff round. He’s a silver-bearded man who has a smaller Casita RV and has been reading beneath his ramada. His camper is as small as you can go and still have a nice privy and galley inside. Two other campsites were occupied by one couple and one lone woman who were traveling together. They had camper trailers that are basically small bedrooms on wheels with an airplane style toilet. They made their morning coffee outdoors on a propane stove and showered in the public area. Others have only a small bunk inside and the rear opens to an outdoor grill and dorm room refrigerator.

I am reminded of the scene in Fight Club (in my top 5 movies and from the book from my favorite author of transgressive fiction Chuck Palahniuk and adapted perfectly to film by my favorite director David Fincher) where Edward Norton uses the term “single serving friends” talking to the unknown man sitting beside him. Brad Pitt isn’t impressed with the clever comparison of the single serving packages of condiments and liquor bottles to the one time fleeting interactions strangers during travel.

I now return to writing this after a nice little break. As if he knew what I was blogging about, my neighboring Blackhawks fan came over to my picnic table. Mick saw me sitting outside and had noticed yesterday that I also have Illinois license plates. As he approached I asked where in Illinois he was from and he replied that he was just coming over to ask the same. We then both expressed our disgust with the Blackhawks’ dismal playoff performance. Like me, Mick was listening to last night’s game via the NHL app and WGN broadcast. By some miracle I had intermittent wifi reception and was able to listen to the game with interruption from my Wheelhouse. Mick had been walking to the restroom area to pick up signal to follow the disappointing game. He joined me at my picnic table for a cup of coffee and told me some stories from his almost two years on the road and gave me his card. This wasn’t the first time I realized that I’ve always carried business cards, but don’t have an up to date one. I’m going to change that ASAP.

Mick headed off to do some hiking and invited me to tag along, but I needed lunch and to take care of a few other things first. When we chatted it was overcast, but now the sun is out and the temperature is climbing. I’ll be hitting the trail before long…

Well, my power is now out. It may just be that my surge protector has tripped, but I’m not going outside in this downpour to check. I have A/C power in my truck and can sit in there and charge my laptop if need be. Even without electricity I still have my battery powered lights, USB chargers, water pump and backup water heater, and propane powered stove and refrigerator.

All the best, M

Saturday, April 15, 2017

#49 - Saturday, 15 April 2017 - Del Rio, Texas

I am now in an RV park in Del Rio, Texas. My plan is to spend the weekend on my laptop working on project commitments. Since it is "Easter" weekend, it seems like the perfect time to hole up somewhere and try to force myself to "work". This is a quiet place where the historic downtown area leads to a strange No Outlet road and ends in a former mobile home park that is now an underused RV campground. For the first time ever my Wheelhouse is hooked up to cable TV and I have over 100 channels. It's a good thing I am not a TV watcher as I'll be able to avoid the distraction, but it was wonderful to be able to watch some playoff hockey last night and tonight I intend to watch the free UFC Fight Night.

Yesterday morning before I broke camp at Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site (SCSPHS), I hiked the most challenging trail the park and historic site has to offer. It is posted as 7.5 miles, but with the connecting trails it is about 9. Seminole Canyon contains pictographs created by the Desert Archaic people who inhabited the land 8900-1300 years ago. You may only enter the canyon itself (descend) on a guided tour, which I intend to take when I return early next week. This hike takes you to pictographs at Fate Bell Shelter near the park headquarters and is about 2 hours long. The Canyon Rim Trail that I trekked–a four hour hike–leads you to the confluence of the canyon and the Rio Grande and here lies Panther Cave, which contains many more pictographs including the namesake nine foot long panther. It is only accessible by private boat tour and when I reached the spot from the opposite canyon rim I saw the pier and stairs that leads to the cave. I didn't have binoculars so I used my long lens (420 mm with teleconverter) to view just the end of the panther's tail, which is exposed at the cave entrance. I had expected to be able to see the whole damn thing! The thunderstorms and torrential flash-flood-warning-inducing rains that fell during my stay at SCSPHS made the rocky hike a bit treacherous and the gloomy skies continually threatened rain. Most of my four hour walk was misty and if I closed my eyes to the rugged southwest Texas landscape I would have thought I was in the Pacific Northwest. My rain jacket was left on the entire trek. I encountered eight white-tailed deer that effortlessly bounded up the steep, rocky terrain. I also spooked a canid? that at first glimpse I identified as a coyote in the split second I had just because of general size, color and movement. I didn't see face or tail and still am uncertain what it was. I later researched and discovered that coyotes aren't known from the park (at least according to its website's list of mammals) and that means it may have been a fox (the largest true fox is the red fox and this animal appeared considerably larger that the 30 pounds that canid reaches - perhaps more than twice) but I am unconvinced. A look at the website for nearby Big Bend National Park does list coyotes. I've seen plenty of red foxes and my phantom buff-colored darter was so much larger. I'm wondering if coyotes truly aren't known from there or if the Texas red wolf occurs here (I'm pretty sure it doesn't). The park website does not list the coyote among the animals of the park, and the campground host I spoke to said that canids are rarely seen in the area due to local sheep producers and other ranchers shooting all on sight. The website does list "foxes" among its resident mammal species. I didn't see the face or tail so I am left wondering, but I fairly certain it was a coyote and a rare occurrence in the park ... I am still trying to pinpoint which fox species inhabits Seminole Canyon. If it is only the smaller grey fox than it had to be a coyote. I'll never believe it was a mountain lion (they are roughly human sized and only a young female would be the right size), but I'll also never believe that it was a 30# red fox. The other possibility is bobcat, which is well-known in the park but except for a very large male it, like the fox, is smaller than what I saw. My stealth friend was gone so quickly I will always be left wondering.

Also found on the Canyon Rim Trail was a beautiful female jumping spider that is as of yet unidentified but may be Phiddipus cardinalis. I will release it back in the park upon Monday's return, but right now it is living in a jar beside me and will be photographed later today.


my 2017 so far ...

J A N U A R Y

1-11    Hoffman Estates, Illinois
12    Marietta, Georgia 
13    Cutler Bay, Florida
14-17    Homestead, Florida
18    Florida City, Florida
19    Macon, Georgia
20    Bowling Green, Kentucky
21-25    Hoffman Estates, Illinois 
27    Bowling Green, Kentucky
28    Macon, Georgia
29-31    Lake Park, Georgia

F E B R U A R Y

1-5    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
6    Bowling Green, Kentucky
7-8    Hoffman Estates, Illinios
9    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
10    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
11-14    Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo (Malaysia)
15 -24    Langkawi, Malaysia
25    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
26-3/1    Hoffman Estates, Illinois

M A R C H

2   Chattanooga, Tennessee
3    Ocala, Florida
4-15    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
16-22    Everglades National Park, Florida
23-24    Okechobee, Florida
25-30    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
31    Holt City, Florida

A P R I L

1    Lake Charles, Louisiana
2-5    Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Pass, Texas
6-11    Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, Laredo, Texas
12-13    Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock, Texas
14-16    Del Rio, Texas

upcoming•
17-21    Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock, Texas 
22-28    Big Bend National Park, Texas
29->    Guadaloupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Thursday, April 13, 2017

#48 - Thursday, 13 April 2017 - near Comstock, Texas

I’ve woken to the most spectacular thunderstorm I’ve experienced since one violent and terrifying thunderstorm near Negombo, Sri Lanka in 2014. The thunderstorms and rain began back in Laredo a few days ago and, as I drove northwest along the Rio Grande through Eagle Pass and Del Rio yesterday, the skies were extremely overcast and rains were scattered. I drove 40 miles northwest of Del Rio toward Comstock and eventually pulled into Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. The rains held off, but the skies were threatening. Seminole Canyon is beautiful and the desert is more picturesque than it had been to the southeast.

My plan for the morning was to take the most challenging hike here. It is 7.5 miles roundtrip and the trail leads along the Seminole Canyon rim past views of Presa Canyon to the confluence with the Rio Grande. You are prohibited from venturing into the canyon itself except on the guided tours that lead you to the pictographs at Fate Bell. Seminole Canyon contains vast collections of pictographs created by the Desert Archaic people, and the Canyon Rim Trail that I wished to trek this morning leads you to a view across the inlet river to a pictograph that includes a nine foot jaguar (Panther Cave). Torrential rains fall at dawn while I type this, so I am not sure when I’ll be able to get out today.

There is no cell signal here and just some poor wifi reception near the headquarters. If the rains continue I’ll drive down the road to where I get good LTE signal so I can post this and send some files I need to get to Petco for Northwest Zoological’s 2017 Catalog. A rain out day would allow me to work on the BTS Journal as well, but that is what I intended to do over the weekend while I am staying at an RV Park back in Del Rio. Del Rio is the seat of Val Verde County and the nearest town of significance. Comstock is a small old west town.

During my drive from Laredo through Del Rio to this park I saw many Crested Caracaras. In Florida I only saw these scavenging falcons at one particular spot in Kissimmee Prairie State Park, but in Texas they are abundant along the Rio Grande. I also saw many Pyrrhuloxia, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Mockingbirds. Images of all these birds may be found on my Instagram. I also saw my first Harris Hawks, which is one of my favorite raptors.

My last day in the Laredo area I returned to a site outside of town where my friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson had given me GPS coordinates for. It was a spot he had found both of the tarantula species of the region. I had scouted it out the day I arrived and returned two days later but didn’t have any luck. During my third visit I finally found my target species – Aphonopelma moderatum. Tarantula hobbyists call this spider the “Rio Grande Gold” and most including myself consider it the most attractive of American tarantulas. Again, see Instagram for my photos.

I had intended to visit a few other waypoints Brent had generous shared, and did stop at one picnic area in between the rains. I found a couple of nice burrows, but either nobody was home or my pouring water down the holes didn’t have the desired effect due to the rains. The weather made me push on, but I may return. I first visited this stretch between Laredo and Del Rio over 30 years ago with my friend Ralph Henning. We met up with Stanley Schultz, his wife Marguerite and a young Canadian friend of theirs. Schultz is well-known for his tarantula guide, a very overrated, bloated and mistakenly lauded book that is hugely popular and in its third edition. I remember being appalled at how he collected anything that moved in the desert and had an RV with coolers full of cups of invertebrates and reptiles. All were smuggled back into Canada. As the years passed, my opinion of him only worsened, but I did get a signed copy of his first edition which was a smaller book published by Sterling. Oo-rah.

The pouring rains keep coming – and my cell phone keeps stirring with emergency flash flood alerts – (funny how you can get those when you have no signal …) so we’ll see how my two days here pan out. It is looking like today will be a laptop day. My A/C power keeps going in and out too, but I have D/C power that runs my LED lights and backup water pump and such. I was only able to book last night and tonight (Thursday) because of the upcoming holiday weekend. The area and park are beautiful and I know there are nice snakes about. I will spend Friday through Sunday nights back in Del Rio at the RV Park, but I may very well book a few more nights here afterward. If the weather is mild I could stay at Amistad National Recreation Area in the Del Rio area for cheap in a primitive site without hook-ups, but if the temperatures are hot I will need electricity for air-conditioning. I can sweat on the trail, but I have my parrot with me and I don’t wish for her to be cooked. I have to head back this way regardless as I continue west and slightly south to get to the Big Bend region. I haven’t booked any campsites there yet so I remain completely flexible.

Texas has already been terrific. Lake Casa Blanca International State Park was a bit overpopulated and chaotic at times, but I saw Javelinas, deer, raccoons, osprey, caracaras, and wonderful bird species. Lizards were surprisingly scarce and most darted to cover before I identified them except for one racerunner whiptail that I still need to post an image of. I saw another whiptail near the restrooms here yesterday. The only snake I’ve seen in Texas so far was a dead-on-road (DOR) garter snake outside of Sea Rim State Park. However, I haven’t begun to road cruise after dark yet. This area has treasures like the grey-banded king snake so when the weather improves I will be looking.

Well, my power is now out. It may just be that my surge protector has tripped, but I’m not going outside in this downpour to check. I have A/C power in my truck and can sit in there and charge my laptop if need be. Even without electricity I still have my battery powered lights, USB chargers, water pump and backup water heater, and propane powered stove and refrigerator.

Cheers, M

Afterword: I'm posting this from the outskirts of Del Rio. I had to drive 30 miles before I had a weak cell signal and another 15 before I had 4G LTE. I needed to fill up my gas tank anyway and I've been sitting in this gas station parking lot taking care of all that I need to do on the cyber webs. The storms obviously don't dissuade the bass fishermen. I've seen at least 15 fancy bass boat rigs pull into this parking lot. They're obviously all fishing the Amisatad Reservoir above the Rio Grande. It's got me thinking of Border Patrol on the water, because it connects with the border river. Now that I am driving back toward Comstock and the state park I will have to pass through a border patrol checkpoint. I did so twice yesterday. First time dude asked if I was U.S. Citizen. I said yes and he waved. Second time (the checkpoint I am passing through again shortly) the dude asked if I was having a nice trip so far and quickly waved me through.

Monday, April 10, 2017

#47 - Monday, 10 April 2017 - Laredo, Texas

Lake Casa Blanca International State Park is an odd place. Within the border city of Laredo’s city limits and adjacent to the Laredo International Airport, it is urban, noisy and over the weekend was overflowing with Mexican fiestas. I messaged a lovely friend this morning stating that I have a love/hate relationship with the park, and that’s about as accurate as a description as I can give. This morning I saw some beautiful birds and followed a pack of javelinas (desert collared peccaries) through the desert scrub. Cell signal is superb. The campsite is quite beautiful and has all I need. Those are the love aspects. The hate is having the place inundated with people over the weekend as everyone from both sides of the border seemed to be picnicking in the park or fishing the entire shore of the large lake. The hate is the revving of loud truck engines at 2 or 3 in the morning and children screaming after midnight. But now it is Monday and the park is again home mostly to fellow RV travelers. I am extending my stay for two more nights.

Wednesday morning I will head northwest along the Rio Grande towards Del Rio and on to Seminole Canyon State Park & State Historical Site. Because of Easter weekend I was only able to book two nights there. Nearby is Amistad Reservoir and its extensive recreation area, but its campgrounds are first-come, first-serve only and are sure to be chaos on the holiday weekend. Also, it doesn’t offer hookups and it’s been pretty hot for no air-conditioning. I found a real nice RV park with full hookups including cable TV and wifi at a reasonable rate that has amazing reviews and I will spend the 14th to 16th there before continuing west towards Big Bend one week from today.

All the best, M