Suzanne and I arrive to Big Bend National Park on an unseasonably chilly afternoon. After parking RVs at the campground, our old bones are weary from the journey as well as the previous night’s restless arctic wind in Marfa. But Suzanne has a plan (Suzanne always has a plan)! She had chatted with some helpful folks at the Visitor’s Center who recommended, no, insisted that we visit the Hot Springs that evening.
So, swimsuits beneath our warm coats and long pants, we head off after dinner in Suzanne’s little white “Bratty Tracker” to make the 5 mile drive. The road to the parking lot is a bit daunting as it splits into separate one-way very narrow gravel trails along each hillside, but the Bratty Tracker crawls down the rocky road with glee— these are the very roads that little bratty Trackers were born to drive!
We arrive to a small parking lot surrounded by a canyon of amazingly thin layers of limestone (like those we’d see the next day at the Ernst Tinaja). Before this area became Big Bend National Park in 1944, it was homesteaded by the J.O. Langford family in the early 1900’s. Their fascinating story gives a great sense of the Wild West frontier life still here just barely one hundred years ago.
The Langfords built one of the very first tourist attractions in the Big Bend region — a modest hot springs resort with a small motel, general store, and bathhouse. The structures that still remain are now a National Historical Site.
Here’s a look at the general store and its surrounding large palm trees along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Suzanne and I make our way to the hot springs down quarter-mile trail that skirts a tall, jagged-edge limestone cliff dotted with bird nests, ancient petroglyphs, and Spring desert blooms.
A few minutes later, we arrived to an even grander oasis! The hot spring is a large, warm, clean, and delightfully unoccupied “infinity pool” with the Rio Grande rushing just a few feet below it and the shoreline of Mexico so close, you can walk right over to it (if so inclined).
Back in 1912, this structure was the concrete and rock foundation for the Langford resort’s bathhouse. Shortly after building it, the family had to abandon the property for over a decade due to border bandits and spill-over violence from the Mexican Revolution. J.O.’s stamp is still visible on a concrete wall beneath the spring’s clear waters.
The pool’s water depth is absolutely perfect for sitting on the foundation’s sand floor and soaking up to your neck in the spring’s near-perfect 105-degree temperature! It warms up our tired, chilly bones quite nicely!
I relax and re-channel a classic Sarah Palin thought—“I can see Mexico…thru my toes!”
By the time we leave, a few college-aged bathers have now arrived (thanks for taking our pictures!). Suzanne and I vow to return to this heavenly place again very soon!
Fast-forward to our exhilarating day of Tuesday, March 18th when we awoke at 4:30am to drive 90 miles and watch the full moon set perfectly into the expanse of Santa Elena canyon. As we make our long drive back to the campground, I mention that the moon will not be rising again until around 11:00pm, so the early evening should be pitch black and perfect for star-gazing.
“You know what would be fun,” Suzanne suggests, “going back to the hot springs to watch the stars there. I bet we could also get a good view of the moonrise too!” Yep, that Suzanne sure knows how to come up with some great plans!
So, shortly before 9:00pm on our still-amazing Tuesday, when all other campers are retiring to their RVs, Suzanne and I gather up our flashlights to once again head out into the night! The Bratty Tracker makes its way back down the narrow cliff-edged road to the hot springs, this time blaring the sole musical selection that resides within its vintage 1990’s cassette tape player – Hawaiian Hula music! A decidedly strange combination, Hula and Big Bend, but they seem to compliment each other nicely!
The soothing Hula ukuleles also seem to calm our rampant imaginations as we peer over the dash to the “Blair Witch Project” headlight-view before us. Are we REALLY sure a pitch-black nighttime hike right up to the Mexican border is such a good idea?!!!
We arrive to find two other cars in the parking lot. Looks like we won’t be alone tonight. We pause for a few minutes to look up and stare at the sky in complete awe of what we see. Photos can not begin to show all the thousands of distant stars now revealing themselves on this clear night in the “Dark Skies” capital of the U.S.! The good Lord is certainly providing quite a show to start and finish this very special day!
We make our way back down the trail like a couple of expert, confident, locals. Young male voices are heard coming from the hot springs. “This should be interesting,” I mutter to Suzanne.
We try not to blind them with our flashlights as we feel around the edge of the foundation to make our way into the water. With lights now off, we have only our ears to discern just who our two male pool companions are.
One of the guys strikes up a conversation with Suzanne, while the other guy and I sit at opposite ends of the pool listening. The guys are a pair of childhood buddies on a cross-country road trip who have just spent the week in Austin at the trendy South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.
The chatty guy asks Suzanne her story and upon hearing that she works and lives full-time in her RV replies “Dude! That’s totally RAD! I’d love to do that someday!” We quickly deduce by their vocabulary that these boys are no more than half our ages, but Suzanne neglects to say anything that would give them that clue.
The chatty guy now begins to ask Suzanne about the places she’s lived and traveled, while his silent buddy stands up, announces that he needs to cool off, and proceeds to crawl over the pool wall and into the dark rushing rapids of the Rio Grande below!
“Wow!,” Suzanne exclaims, “I’d like like to cool off a bit too, but I’m too nervous to jump over the wall like that in the dark.” The chatty guy responds “Look, it’s easy!” proceeding to follow his buddy right up and over the edge. He then offers to Suzanne, “I can spot you if you’d like!”
She wisely declines and sits up on the edge of the pool to cool off in the pleasant evening air. It is still pitch-black with a sea of stars shining over our heads. The boys crawl over the wall and back into the warm spring waters.
The conversation resumes: “Where are you guys from? What do you guys do for a living?” Suzanne asks. The chatty guy answers “my buddy works for a Tech company and lives in northern California.” Suzanne asks if the chatty guy lives there as well. This time, the quiet guy responds, “no, he doesn’t have a job at the moment, so he lives all over. You see,” he continues, “my buddy is a bit of a drifter.”
Suddenly the small talk halts as we see new hikers with headlamps approaching. Two, young 20-something girls arrive and begin peeling off their clothes to jump down into the hot spring. With the darkness, it’s hard to tell, but we think (hope!) they’re wearing bikini swimsuits!
The two girls seem to take forever to get settled as they get in and out of the spring to retrieve things from their pile of clothes and gear. “Could you toss me your lighter?” one asks the other as they begin flicking their Bics to illuminate the darkness and foul the fresh air with their cigarettes.
They begin talking to each other and tapping their ashes into the pristine spring waters. Suzanne and I bite our tongues and try to remember that these National Park lands are owned by everyone for the enjoyment of all. Might as well just chill out and let them have their enjoyment too.
Soon, the girls are getting up again to go retrieve more items. This time, beer bottles! In the darkness, I can’t tell for sure, but I’m thinking Suzanne’s jaw is hanging open just as far as mine now is! The two skanks are oblivious to our stares and light themselves more cigarettes to go with their beers as they start chatting with the guys. They say they’ve just come from a 3-mile hike looking for the “secret” hot springs, “but we thought we heard a mountain lion” one exclaims, “so we thought we’d better just come here instead!”
As the conversation continues, we begin to notice the sky across the river getting increasingly brighter. The moon is getting ready to rise over the horizon at any minute! The geeky guy jumps out to get his cellphone to take a few photos.
The two skanks, the geek and drifter, and us two lady RVers all watch in silence and awe as the full moon begins to rise. Once it has cleared the horizon, we are also now instantly aware just how much brighter it is making our little hot tub filled with new friends! As if someone has just turned on a big overhead fluorescent light inside a movie theatre!
Suddenly, the chatty drifter seems to recognize that the sultry-voiced world-traveler he has been enamored with for the past two hours is a woman older than his mother’s age! He leans over to the geek and says “Dude! We’d better book on outta here!”
After the guys leave, we chit-chat for a few more minutes with the skanks, but when they crack open another round of beer and smokes, Suzanne and I simultaneously take that as our queue to exit the pool party.
I take one last photo for the road. What a memorable, and literally unimaginable day this has been!