No, we haven’t lost the plot, that title is right. On Boxing Day 2016 the valley where we’re based was hit by devastating floods. This weekend will be 6 months since they hit, and businesses and families up and down the valley are still recovering. As part of the drive to boost the recovery of the area, and as a general spirit raiser, this weekend sees Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd celebrate their ‘Alternative Christmas’. So, in support of all those whose Christmas was washed away, we’re bringing you our 12 Days of Christmas Big Reads again.
It’s probably your last chance to have a turkey sandwich before it kills you. Pull up a chair, have a read, work up an appetite. In Day 2 of our 12 Days of Christmas big reads, we let you escape to another wilderness, but a warmer one this time. Cass Gilbert saddles up the iron horse and sets off across a Texan desert in search of nothing. And nothing is what he found. First published in issue 73.
International Travel: Bikepacking in Big Bend.
Words and pictures by Cass Gilbert.
I can’t say I knew too much about Texas. Just the headline factoids: it was vast (twice as large as Germany), it was staunchly Republican and Texans loved to drawl. Throw in some dated colour gleaned from my mother’s fascination for Dallas – the ‘80s soap opera chronicling the excesses of wealthy oil barons and their mistresses – and that’s about the picture I had.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what I hadn’t heard was that tucked away right on the Mexican border, far removed from the cigar-toting JR Ewings of this world, lay a singletrack nirvana. In fact, it was the simplicity of the name that had first caught my attention: Big Bend. Two small words to describe the monumental, country-dividing arc of the Rio Grande, sweeping through the Chihuahuan Desert on its slow, lethargic route to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although far less frequented than many of America’s playgrounds, Big Bend National Park is well known for its grand vistas, dramatic canyons and river rafting potential. But it’s the neighbouring State Park that holds most interest to mountain bikers. Previously a working ranch, it’s now become a progressively bike-friendly domain, laced with mile upon mile of roughly hewn dirt roads and enough desert singletrack for several days of epic riding. So, with two more well-chosen words – winter sun – I convinced my US-born partner to venture south, and explore what seemed like the perfect bikepacking terrain.
No Country For Old Men
Epic is also an appropriate term to describe the act of simply getting to Big Bend. In our case, we were relatively close to begin with. At least by American standards, where double-figure driving hours are the norm. Starting in the neighbouring state of New Mexico, our journey was a mere ten hours in duration. Thankfully it was broken up with a Texas culinary baptism. We stopped off en route at Nancy’s family home in El Paso for dinner: a succulent steak overlapping the land-of-the-giants plate on which it was served.
Our long drive also lent a sense of context to the impending adventure. Abandoned gas stations came and went, blips in the heat haze of the highway. One arrow-straight swathe of tarmac took over an hour to cover; barely a nudge of the steering wheel required. So close to Mexico, the roads were shared only with squads of Texas Border Patrol heavies, scowling as they scoured the area for illegal immigrants and drug runners. Clearly our bike garb aroused suspicion, for we too were pulled to one side, while a sniffer dog checked we hadn’t flouted any of the state’s strict laws. Little surprise that it was on these same, seemingly endless and empty state highways that the Cohen Brother’s ‘No Country For Old Men’ had been filmed. Remember that scene where compassionless Javier Badem flags down a car and wanders over with his infamous, cattle gun killing? Yep, that’s the kind of road we were on.
When we finally did make it to Big Bend, contorted bodies were unfolded from the car and we basked in the promised winter heat of the Chihuahuan Desert – the same chihuahua after which the Lilliputian yappers are named. Our starting point, Lajitas, was a mere stone’s throw from the waters of the Rio Grande, and marked by little more than a small settlement and an impressive collection of cacti.
The US’s international eco-credentials may be left wanting, but those Americans sure know how to run their parks back home. First we checked in with the Ranger Office, where we were booked with military precision into the various camping zones around the park. Initiation included a pep talk on the dos and don’ts of desert escapades, and how best to minimise our footprint – or rather tyre prints. We bought a detailed topo map and carefully highlighted our route for the four-day ride, plotting in the all-important hidden springs. Then we loaded up on water, packed and repacked our belongings with Tetris-like precision, crammed food into any available nook and cranny of our framebags, and set off rolling into the desert.
Quicksilver, Comanches and cacti
The ride began in a suitably mellow tone, following a well-surfaced two track out of East Contrabando Trailhead. Having left New Mexico under snowfall, it was comforting to see the needle on the trailhead thermometer nudging 80° Fahrenheit. Various singletrack spurs enticed us to one side or the other, alternating between buff, flowy trails and rocky, sandy gullies, the tell-tale signs of arroyos – dry river beds – that snake across the desert.
Like most of the American South West, this region is a melting pot of Native American, Anglo-American and Mexican people, all of whom had tussled for control over the years. We soon encountered our first taste of local history, in the form of the remains of Whit-Roy Mine. Before it was blighted by bankruptcy during the Great Depression, the original ranch was one of the ten biggest in Texas. Its early potted background included oil exploration and quicksilver mining – or mercury, by which it’s known today. In fact cinnabar, as the brilliant red ore is called, was used as war paint and in rock paintings by Native Americans, particularly the nomadic Comanches and Apaches. Its pigment barely fades and it’s still seen on the rocks and bluffs of West Texas.
It had been suggested, after a flurry of emails back and forwards with the enthusiastic mountain biking rangers who patrol the park, that we divert round on the Rincon Loop. This newly finished singletrack promised to avoid a hard graft along a dry riverbed, and the associated misery of pushing a bike through deep sand for several miles. It was good advice and we enjoyed some sweet singletrack, with the added challenge of miniature barrel cacti to slalom through. The scenery was starting to close in, too. We were leaving the more open desert of the trailhead and delving into deeper canyons striated with bands of sedimentary rock – Star Wars ‘scape. With light falling and the wind picking up, we found ourselves a patch of relatively spike-free land in our designated area to camp for the night. Water was measured out with the meticulousness of an alchemist and dehydrated food brought back to life, as we settled in for the night.
Remember the picture of winter suntans I’d painted to Nancy? Our mood wasn’t quite so merry the next day. The Texan sun had been usurped by a heavy blanket of brooding cloud, unleashing with it a 50mph wind that whipped through the valley and flung sand and grit in our eyes. We wrestled our tarp back into its pouch for fear we might sail off with it and took once more to the trail, each to our own thoughts. Part of the challenge of ultralight bikepacking is the fine balance between researched choice and calculated risk. In this case, it was the decision not to encumber ourselves with winter gear that we pondered, as we picked our way along a singletrack that curled its way up to a ridgeline.
At least we weren’t dying of thirst. Given its desert setting, Big Bend State Ranch is surprisingly well served with water. True to the advice proffered by our friendly rangers, we soon spotted the enormous tank into which we could scoop our bottles and glug (once purification tabs had worked their chemical magic) to our hearts content. It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that the area was open to the public, and the park still encompasses a network of ranches running the open range principle, where animals – longhorn cattle – can roam freely, regardless of land ownership. Hence the handy water troughs.
I’d set aside this day for a loop around the evocatively titled ‘Road to Nowhere’, circling around an area known as El Solitario – the loner – cupped by the Flatirons and Blue Mountains. Having consulted Google Earth during pre-trip planning, we’d noticed this unusual geological formation resembled a massive impact crater, one that spanned some nine miles across. Further internet probing had revealed that it was, in fact, the remains of an ancient volcanic caldera, a depression in the ground formed by a collapsed volcano. What’s more, it was also the name of a professional Mexican wrestler from the ‘80s – one Roberto Gonzalez Cruz – famed for his golden mask and matching briefs. Two qualities that put it firmly on my Big Bend hit list.
But even I had to admit that conditions weren’t looking as enticing as they might. I tried to inject enthusiasm for the rich rewards received for our half-day’s battle into headwind, only to be let down by one fateful passage in our guidebook. ‘Inside the Solitario, the landscape is not all that spectacular, and at first glance one might think it’s just a bunch of low hills.’ That was it. The decision was vetoed. Set to the context of a howling headwind, 3D animation would have to do.
Instead we turned our attention west, passing a rusting old windmill and unearthing a lovely slice of singletrack as consolation. It wended its way towards the only ranger station in the park, where we made small talk with a couple who’d rented mountain bikes to explore the area. I enquired about their long journey getting here, only to find out they’d flown in on private planes and landed on the scratch of land that made up the runway we’d just ridden past. This is Texas, after all.
With typical ill-timing, we had a spate of punctures to contend with too. Despite loading up
our inner tubes with sealant, as is the protocol in the American South West, a couple of particularly tenacious cacti spines had wormed their way through and needed to be dug out like deep splinters. So as I set about fixing flats, we battened down the hatches in the old converted ranch – now a rather luxurious dormitory – and waited out the weather. Provisions were duly measured out for lunch, then we consoled ourselves by eating more than we were supposed to, gloomily contemplating the tumbleweeds skipping across the yard.
Determined to enjoy a least a few miles of riding, we set off on a singletrack loop closer to where we intended to camp, enjoying the medley of loose, loamy corners and pock-marked, volcanic rock. Calling it a day, we gallantly turned down the offer to pitch camp behind the shelter of the ranger station. A bouldery gully beckoned, where we anchored the tarp to as many rocks as we could as it twisted and turned like a restless sleeper.
Fast forward to our next night, which was far more of a success. The wind had died down that day and the jeep track that led us there, between Oso Canyon and the Panther Mountains, looped its way back east. This was a land of huge mesas that rose dramatically sheer, weathered flat as the translation of the word – tabletops – would suggest.
Our camping spot was as we’d imagined. Venturing off down a spur shown on the map – a loose, rocky cul-de-sac – we pulled in at a site known as Mexicano 2, the valley completely to ourselves. There was even a bench that we could rest our backsides on and cook up a meal. By evening, the last lingering clouds had drifted west, leaving a darkness awash with the Milky Way, the odd shooting star and satellites gliding silently across the deepness of space.
By morning, the storm had well and truly swept past, mopping up the sky like a sponge and leaving behind a clear canvas. Our last riding day had come too soon, but at least it was among the best. It began with a series of grafty climbs and steep, loose descents, before we wobbled our way across a sandy, dried-out riverbed under the unrelenting heat of the midday sun. Just when our throats were feeling parched, a clump of wizened cottonwoods materialised ahead, their leaves blazing a wintry orange: a clue that water was to be found nearby. Indeed, the clear water spring that flowed here must have been the reason for the old Madrid House, the crumbling remains of an adobe, mud-brick dwelling perched on a hilltop.
Nacho chips in our sights
Refreshed and refuelled, we forged on. Our jeep road linked up neatly with yet more singletrack that cut across open desert, a wisp of trail that flitted between colourful cacti and sun-bleached animal skulls. Passing the wind-eroded Chimney Rock, a delicate flute set dramatically against the bottle-blue Texan sky, we began a long, gentle descent, backtracking out of the canyon the way we’d came. Even with supplies running low and the lure of the car just an hour’s ride away – where a bag of salty nacho chips was stashed under the seat – I managed to sweet-talk Nancy into one final detour. Contrabando Dome Trail wended its way past an old mercury mine to a viewpoint into Mexico, adding one last welcome dose of fast, flowing singletrack before we reluctantly turned for home.
It wasn’t until late afternoon on the fourth day, as the sun was hanging low and casting a golden sheen on our dusty, clammy bodies, that we encountered our first hikers. Apart from the couple we’d met at the visitor centre, we might have had the whole park to ourselves. It was then that it really sank in. Big Bend State Ranch had served up a remote yet accessible bikepacking adventure, without diluting the desert experience. All the tools are there for anyone who makes the journey – maps, a guidebook and an ever-growing network of trails. Such a sense of stark isolation isn’t always easy to find; which makes the impression all the stronger when you do.
Sure, it was a long way to travel. But even as we pulled away from the car park to begin the journey back, my mind was already scheming ways to return. Next time, we’d make a break for the border. Who knew what trails lay across the river in Mexico?
Desert Bikepacking Basics.
We used custom framebags and seatpacks made by Porcelain Rocket to stow as much kit on the bikes as possible, without resorting to heavy and cumbersome racks and panniers. We had an extra water bottle cage added to the underbelly of Nancy’s Surly Troll for H2O capacity, and hose-clamped two more onto her suspension forks. King Cage makes a nifty adaptor for mounting a bottle on your stem, too. I made use of Salsa’s versatile Anything Cages for my rigid-forked Ogre, which only weigh 100g each. Other kit highlights included a Black Diamond Megalite tarp, which packs small and sleeps two in relative luxury. We cooked with denatured alcohol, using an ultralight Trangia-like Clikstand and Evernew titanium pot set.
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