Friday, April 28, 2017

#53 - Friday, 28 April 2017 - 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

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