After six eventful weeks in New Orleans the time had arrived to once again pack our bags and hit the great open road for adventures deep in Wild West cowboy and indian country. Feelings of exhilaration and excitement for these as yet inexperienced corners of America were offset with a strange sense of mourning for the time gone by at a fixed address and the certainty of a comfy bed each night. The uncertainty of the road can be a daunting concept but equally one that brings joys and wonders and ignites the true explorer inside of all of us. Moving westwards did bring some certainties, increases in temperature and sunshine, and with that we decided to become more in balance with mother earth and bought a list of camping essentials to enable us to camp whenever possible for the duration of our travels. The days of motels were drawing to an end, and I for one was happy for this change in circumstances.
Interstate 10 or the I-10 is a concrete goliath that stretches across the entire breadth of the United States, starting on the east coast in Jacksonville (Florida) and ending in Santa Monica (California). If you plan on travelling the southern stretch of America chances are you will find yourself on the I-10 for a portion of your journey, it’s hard not to when this stretch of interstate totals a whopping 2,460 miles. Driving west through Louisiana first brought us to Avery Island and the home of Tabasco, the hot sauce known throughout the world. A tour of the factory including insight on how this peppery sauce is made and offered chances to see the bottling plant in full swing.
West from Avery Island and we arrived at Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country. Lafayette has topped lists around the nation as a destination for food, particularly its Cajun and seafood, and in our limited time we dined on traditional seafood gumbo. Although it has to be said we found the gumbo of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in New Orleans superior in taste. The highlight of our time in this quiet town was a trip to St. John’s Cathedral, a beautifully maintained building with impressive cemetery and grounds that include a living oak dated more than 500 years old.
A hundred miles further west we stopped at Sam Houston Jones State Park just outside of Lake Charles. The park consists of swamps, lakes and rivers set in forest surroundings and it was here we set-up camp for the night, only to find ourselves guests to the various specious of reptiles and insects inhabiting the nearby surroundings. Sunset over this swampland apparently awakens all manner of creature to life and the chatter of frogs, lizards and who knows what else was deafening when trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep.
Our last travels through Louisiana took us south to where the Gulf of Mexico boarders America, through an area known as the Creole Nature Trail made up of wildlife refugees and reserves, where many species of birds and butterflies thrive. The drive itself was pleasant until we arrived at the coast where the beaches are lined with the corpses of large shrivelled fish and worse, decaying dolphins. An eye-opening experience, witnessing first hand the destructive nature of man’s quest for oil from the hundreds of rigs that are visible to the naked eye not more than a hundred miles off the coast line of Louisiana, as well as the devastating impact of the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill that discharged an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into this stretch of ocean in 2010.
Once more we crossed the Texas state line, knowing full well that this time we would be travelling over a thousand miles to pass through the entire of the Lone Star State. On this occasion we ruthlessly blitzed the 300 miles to San Antonio without pause. San Antonio is a charming city and is home to the Alamo, a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. Following a 13 day siege in 1836, Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched an assault on the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio, Texas). All of the Texan defenders were killed. Santa Anna’s perceived cruelty during the battle inspired many Texans to join the Texan Army. Buoyed by a desire for revenge, the Texans defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on 21st April 1836, ending the revolution.
Travelling west from San Antonio we left the I-10 in favour of the smaller, more rural Route 90 that took us deep into the barren desert landscape of west Texas and past a handful of small settlements with nothing more than a saloon and grocery store to keep the local population occupied. After a few hours on Route 90 we had our first sighting of the Rio Grande River, the only barrier separating Mexico from the United States. Seminole Canyon State Park would be our home for the night, and this time it would be the elements not inhabitants preventing us from having a sound nights rest. Note to self, never again camp atop a canyon cliff with winds of 35 mph blowing against the tent. Seminole Canyon features some of the oldest Native American pictographs (estimated around 7,000 B.C.) in one of the oldest cave dwellings in North America. Natural beauty at its finest and our first glimpse of what to expect for the coming days.
An early rise and west once more, stopping at the town of Langtry (population 30) to visit the saloon where the famous Judge Roy Bean was appointed Justice of the Peace for this stretch of the Wild West between 1882 and 1886. Slight concerns started to surface once leaving Langtry, our low gas levels light illuminated and we hadn’t seen a gas station since Del Rio, a good 4o mile backtrack and the next town of Dryden was still 68 miles ahead of us. We decided to push forward only to discover Dryden (population 9) is barely a recognised hamlet, let alone has a gas station to speak of. Lucky for us, a further 20 miles on Sanderson (population 837) had all the petrol we could ask for and we promptly filled our tank. Lesson learnt, and thankfully not the hard way. Marathon (population 430) was the final town to pass through before reaching our destination of Big Bend National Park. Named after the great curve in the Rio Grande and the largest state park in Texas, with over a million acres of Chihuahuan Desert wilderness (some of the most rugged desert terrain I had ever witnessed) as well as an entire mountain range, the Chisos. To say that Big Bend is impressive would be an understatement, breath-taking beauty contrasting with the tough, almost unbearable climate (temperatures rose to 118 Fahrenheit daily) make this an unforgettable location on earth. Trekking is rewarded with dramatic scenery and opportunity to see a variety of wildlife (we saw rattle snakes, roadrunners, vultures and deer), and it is not uncommon to spot black bears and mountain lions roaming wild. Big Bend is a truly remarkable experience and one that I will never forget.
We exit Big Bend on the west side of the park via the ghost town of Terilingua (population 58). In the mid 1880s the discovery of cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted, brought miners to the area. Once demand for this metal declined so did the population of Terilingua and it was only in the 1970s that a wave of Americans descended to this corner of western Texas to seek refuge from the Nixon administration. It was here we bumped into the town spokesman, Dr Doug, an aging hippy with long grey beard who wore jean cut-offs and was swinging red wine from a stylophone coffee cup at 10am. Dr Doug spoke to us about the history or Terilingua and the local folks that now rule the town, be sure to take a minute to check out Dr Doug’s website to see what the good doctor has to say about life. You won’t regret it.
Moving on once more we passed through the town of Alpine before stopping at Marfa, a youthful town with an arty vibe thanks to former resident, minimalist artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa from New York City in 1971. Judd bought two large hangars and some smaller buildings in Marfa where he permanently installed his art. While this started with his building in New York, the buildings in Marfa allowed him to installed his works on a larger scale. In 1976, he bought the first of two ranches that would become his primary places of residence, continuing a long love affair with the desert landscape surrounding Marfa.
Continuing north on Highway 17 took us to Fort Davis National Historic Site. Between 1854 and 1891, Fort Davis was strategically located to protect Americans emigrants heading west in search of fortune. Fort Davis was important for the presence of African Americans in the frontier military because all-black regiments (known as the Buffalo Soldiers) were stationed at the post. As night fell we drove into the Davis Mountains State Park and onward to the McDonald Observatory where we attended one of their weekly ‘Star Parties’, offering the public a chance to view the solar system through some of the most powerful telescopes in the world (we were fortunate enough to gaze at Saturn, complete with solar rings and orbiting moons), while giving insight on star constellations and the creation of the solar system. Fascinating, and perfect given the vast array of night sky on display in this relatively quiet area of the country.
The next morning we rose early and headed for Balmorhea Springs, a natural oasis in the baron, desert landscape of west Texas. Balmorhea is the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, which covers 1.75 acres and stays at 72–76 Fahrenheit year round. Eight million gallons of water flow through the pool each day, and can reach depths of 25 feet deep, serving as a perfect habitat for many endangered species of fish and other aquatic life.
From Balmorhea a straight shot, 200 mile journey west along the I-10 took us through El Paso and to the western border of Texas. The Lone Star state has proved to be an epic journey, from the trend setting hipsters of Austin, to the Mexican influence felt along the southern towns bordering Mexico and the epic landscaping of Big Bend and Wild West country. We thanked Texas for everything she had shared with us and looking onward to the future in the state of New Mexico.