The Other River Road and One Hundred Thousand Miles

I woke up this morning with a long route ahead, but feeling no particular hurry. I finished River Road through the park, making a few detours marked in my book. I stopped at the remains of Johnson’s Ranch, now a pair of backcountry campsites, in the ruins of an old ranch complex along the river.

The foundations are all that remain of several outbuildings and the old house, with a small gravesite beyond. A tiny airstrip was cleared in 1929 and the Johnsons operated a trading post, cotton farm, and goat ranch until the 1940s. It was apparently quite the weekend getaway for locals. A few “trespass livestock” animals were grazing around, too — they cross the Rio Grande from ranches across at a shallow point and eventually wander back.

The rest of the road, even toward the comparatively more rugged western half, is still pretty manageable. We did all this after nightfall back in 2018 and it felt somewhat more intense in the dark.

Daylight revealed sweeping views of the flat desert wash headed toward the river with a giant wall in the distance that is Santa Elena Canyon. The rest of the drive in the morning sun and cool air was beautiful. A short hour or so later, I rolled out onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, named for the park’s first superintendent. It links up some of the most stunning overlooks and trails outside of the Chisos on its way back to the main park highway.

At Terlingua, I decided I could spare an extra hour to take FM 170 from Terlingua through Lajitas into Presidio before heading home. It’s a beautiful canyon drive along the river, and this was my third time to do it, but it never gets old. There are a few hikes along the route I’d like to do one day, too.

I picked up a new book recently, Yonderings: Trails and Memories of the Big Bend, wherein author Ben English recounts his life growing up in this area. As a boy, he was a frequent passenger on a new bus service that ran this highway, originally known as “the River Road” long before the National Park was established. It carried him between Presidio where his family lived and Lajitas, where his grandparents lived in and operated the general store and trading post in the early 60s. At the time, I gather 118 from Lajitas up into Terlingua wasn’t paved, and Terlingua was little more than a mine and a cinnabar furnace.

From Presidio, it’s a straight shot through Marfa and Fort Davis to pick up I-10 in Balmorhea. Not the shortest route home, but I did make a discovery when I did a map-check. Marfa is closer to Austin than Tulsa.

Suddenly this remote West Texas paradise doesn’t seem nearly as far away.

I didn’t stop again on the way back, passing the time with more podcasts and bluegrass music. And then — without exaggeration — as I rolled into my apartment’s parking lot, a major mile marker:

It’s been a good run, through a lot of unexpected everything. Though I try to keep this blog from being exclusively “here’s a bunch of photos of my car,” here’s a celebratory photo-dump of the sixty-two thousand miles since we joined forces.

Roadtrip doggo in Terlingua, Texas as reward for scrolling through all that.

Boquillas Canyon and River Road

I shuffled across the room like I needed a walker and surgery this morning. I rolled into the park later than I’d intended, and headed over to Panther Junction for a shopping trip:

Since the pass I bought on The Laidoffroad Trip has just expired.

I also picked up a backroads guidebook written by the Big Bend National History Association. I already have topo maps and track routes saved for every backroad in the park, but this $4 pamphlet includes a lot of backstory generally, and especially a lot about the Mariscal Mine that we discovered in 2018. Relatedly, I stopped by the ranger’s desk and asked if there had been any cancellations for backroads campsites. As luck would have it, the Ranger offered me Fresno:

A campsite near an abandoned mine? Hell yes. Also I need a security blanket.

It meant that my campsite was only a third of the way across River Road, leaving two thirds of that plus the drive to Austin for Sunday, but that’s Sunday’s problem. I’d be camping at an abandoned mine tonight! And I suddenly had an entire afternoon to pass slowly. But that felt like my speed for today. I started with a short hike at Boquillas Canyon, downriver at the east end of the park.

Boquillas del Carmen is a small village on the Mexico side of a foot-traffic-only border crossing inside the park. Unfortunately, the crossing has been closed for COVID-19, shutting down the incredibly remote town’s primary revenue source. I saw more souvenir “stores” than usual along the trails and overlooks around the canyon — a small collection of handmade crafts perched on a boulder with a pricelist and cash jar. For my part, I did a little more shopping.

After my river stroll, I started the River Road drive and arrived at the Mariscal Mine much sooner than I expected.

Cinnabar, the ore extracted here, is the brick-red form of mercury(II) sulfide (HgS). It is the most common source ore for refining elemental mercury and the historic source for the brilliant red or scarlet pigment called vermilion. The mercury produced here was used in various drugs, chemicals, and explosives detonators. Ore was discovered here in 1900 but mining didn’t start until a few years later. Refining buildings weren’t added until 1916. Early owners packed out their ore on mules to the furnaces in Terlingua.

According to my new book, the mine shipped out 894 flasks of quicksilver, each weighing 76 pounds. After World War I and a price drop in quicksilver, then-owner W. K. Ellis sold his holdings to the Mariscal Mining Company which continued operations until 1923 when the mine closed functionally but was still held on paper. A few transfers later, an additional 97 flasks of quicksilver were extracted in 1942 and 1943 by new owners, but then the mine went inactive for good.

“Sit and don’t do much” isn’t usually part of my daily life or travel itineraries. But after a few minutes of feeling like I should be on the move, I sat on the edge of the old blacksmith shop and quietly watched the daylight fade over a beer.

I wandered back to the car for dinner and photo editing while I waited for nightfall. I wanted to head back to the mine and photograph it at night. But as it got darker, I could feel the ghosts watching. And I’ll reluctantly admit — I was intimidated. I didn’t want to be eaten by monsters or fall into a haunted mineshaft.

I decided I should practice my night photography on the housing and company store ruins along the main road because something about being near the Xterra made me feel safer. Likely the combination of lockable steel doors and a sleeping bag to hide under.

But while I “practiced,” the last hints of sunlight faded to the west and a searing moonlight burst through the horizon. As it lit up the front of the house, I knew I had to go back to the mine. So I finished my bravery beer, grabbed a flashlight, put some music on my phone, and walked the half mile back up to the ruins.

Emory Peak and the South Rim

Sun rising over Casa Grande

The parks service is resurfacing the road up into the mountains, so they’re closing it for a few hours each morning and afternoon. I didn’t get to Terlingua until almost 2am and had to be up again at 7 to drive up into the Chisos Basin before the closure. But I’d brought cans of cold brew and had two on the long winding road up. There’s something energizing about that drive, windows down, rising up into mountain air. The base elevation is 5,400 feet, which isn’t Rocky Mountain National Park altitude, but definitely knocks a few degrees off of the Texas heat.

I decided to revisit Emory Peak on the way out to the rim because it only added about 4 miles and I still think it’s the most spectacular viewpoint in the park.

After the scramble back down and the 2 miles or so back to the junction, it was a long walk through Boot Canyon out to the rim, but so entirely worth it. On a clear day, I bet you could see Argentina.

The trail returns to the basin through the Laguna Meadows, which traverses another pass and didn’t feel at all meadow-ey but a nice reminder that Big Bend has just about every type of forest in just this one area.

When I got back to the car, I collapsed onto the bedroll in the back, barely able to move, but victorious. I decided I would do slightly better than prepackaged dinner and trunkbed for the evening, so I booked a room back in Alpine on points and got back on the road.

Starting a Weekend Early

Highway “Campsite” on TX 118 at Terlingua.

After a long week that managed to condense five days worth of crazy into four, I took advantage of a day off I’d managed to book and disappeared. One thing I’d wanted to do this season was hit Big Bend National Park again, and a ton of my friends have been in the last month or so — so really it’s their fault.

But what I really wanted to do was come back — a year after the Emory Peak Hike on the Laidoffroad Trip, which itself was a bookend to an eventful year — and add the South Rim hike. Whether to put 2020 in the books, make way for the promise of 2021, or just because I managed to finagle a 3-day weekend and didn’t want to waste it, I’m not sure.

Lookouts and Ruins Along the Current River

34° and lightly raining today, but it was also our last day to explore more of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. So we made another scenic drive of it, looking for a few fire towers, then looking for a place to ford the Current River to check out an old abandoned hospital.

First up, Flat Rock fire tower, built in the 40s and rebuild in the 60s. Proof that there are no rules in Missouri, this one even had a sign that climbing was allowed! Well. It said “climb at your own risk,” and “no more than 5 people on the tower at a time,” but that’s pretty close to permission. So despite the falling ice chunks, I had to give it a go.

Chris Mahan, a forestry and wildlife crew leader in Eminence, has watched the use of fire towers decline since he joined MDC in 1994. The seasoned tower operator has logged many hours at Coot Mountain, Deer Run, Flat Rock, Panther Hill, Shannondale, and Summers-ville fire towers. Yet this spring, he notes, he spent just three hours in the Flat Rock tower, an area where towers might have been manned 40 to 50 days a year in the past.

People today use cell phones to report wildfires. […] Firefighters respond if they have an exact location. If not, two crew members head to two different towers—such as Flat Rock and Coot Mountain—to […] pinpoint the location of the fire.

The Missouri Lookout Towers That Helped Fight Forest Fires, Missouri Life Magazine.
Instead of bicycles, the “Share the Road” signs here feature illustrations of carriages.

Next, Hartshorn tower, which was smaller with just a single ladder all the way up. I went up just enough to take a couple photos and then bailed because the ladder rungs were covered in slippery, melting ice.

Match 17th, 1949: Two Conservation agents are investigating the origin of a forest fire which blackened a thousand acres of the upper Current River country north of here last week, said Lee Fine, district forester for this area.

Fine said his Hartshorn towerman sighted a small blaze at 9 P.M., Monday.  Before crews organized an attack, the fire was apparently ‘strung’ for more than two miles by horse mounted arsonists.  Suppression was greatly impeded by high winds plus the persistence of the ‘fire bugs’, who continued to string flames throughout the night.  Forestry crews were assisted by Pioneer Cooperage employees but despite their combined efforts the fire raged nearly 24 hours before being brought under control.

Hartshorn, Forest Lookouts (website).

After Hartshorn, our adventure along the Current River began. While planning the day, we’d noted multiple paces marked on the old CalTopo atlases as fords, and even a pontoon ferry in Akers.

Unfortunately, the river seems to be higher than its usual level and the ferry is not running today. So after bombing around a few trails and backroads looking for a crossing, we bailed to a spillway bridge outside Cedargrove. But the trails were a great time.

Vanity. I removed my front tray-table for better pictures, and to protect my shins.

That may be the most dramatic photo of the Xterra ever taken — it usually doesn’t look particularly dramatic, even if I feel like I’m about to be in big trouble. But that’s two wheels off the ground with some incredible flex. Don’t tell Mom.

On the far side of the river, we walked up to the Welch Spring Hospital Ruins, which we had spotted from the opposite bank twice already. We’d designated it the finish line, should we find a way to reach it, since we spent most of the afternoon on the trails.

Sitting along Missouri’s Current River, the gorgeously abandoned Welch Spring Hospital Ruins once offered healing waters but now simply provides scenic ruin.

Back in 1913, an Illinois doctor named C.H. Diehl bought Missouri’s Welch Spring for just $800. Dr. Diehl believed that the spring water had healing properties and that the cool, pollen free air coming from the adjacent cave would be beneficial for people with asthma, emphysema, and tuberculosis, which were collectively known at the time as “consumption.” […] To tap this clean air resource, Dr. Diehl built a hospital over the mouth of the cave. Welch Spring, which flowed from the cave, was dammed up so that water would close off the entrance. This was to force more air out through the cave opening into the hospital. In today’s terms, Diehl’s “hospital” would be better called a “health spa” since there wasn’t much in the way of formal medical treatment. […] Access to the area surrounding the Current River was limited to just a few rough dirt roads, and the flood of patients and other guests that were to flock to the site’s healing surroundings never materialized.

Welch Spring Hospital Ruins, Atlas Obscura.

By the time we got back to the cars, it had gotten dark. We took highways most of the way back, but made a quick stop in Akers to see the platform ferry, then took one last forest detour on a trail through a ravine that crisscrossed a number of small creeks headed into the river.

In all, a fitting final drive of the trip. Tomorrow we’ll begin the trek home and into 2021 officially. At least the first bit of that will still be in the lonely mountain roads before linking back up with interstates and the busy roads of the real world.