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.