This exact time last year I was in the backseat of a Toyota Prius with my friends Brett and Hannah, playing 20 Questions while we sat still on probably 2 inches of ice covering I-10 somewhere between Fort Stockton and Ozona, TX. What follows is the story of our insane winter camping trip and some of the photos I took along the way.
My husband, Branden, and I just got back from a craazy trip to west Texas. We left December 27th with 4 friends, three guys and three girls, and the plan was to drive to Marfa that day, which is about 8ish hours from Houston, stay two nights there then head to Big Bend and stay 1-2 nights and then stay 1-2 nights in the Davis Mountains and head back home on New Year's Day. We knew it would be cold in Marfa so we made sure we were prepared. Branden had a good North Face sleeping bag and we borrowed another from a friend and thenmy parents got us each a Therm - a - Rest Trail Lite sleeping pad for Christmas, we had wool socks and warm jackets. Good to go, right?
The day the six of us got to Marfa it snowed, but we were pretty excited. We got there, set up our tents at El Cosmico and then went into town to find coffee and get warm. We went to Do Your Thing coffee shop which was incredibly Marfa. It was in a tiny tin building that I think I overheard was used to store lumber in a previous life. Anyhow, while we were there it began snowing and we of course ran outside to play in it. Also while there we met a young guy named Stephen. Stephen had just finished his undergrad in Phoenix, AZ and was cycling, as in riding his bicycle, from Tucson to Austin or maybe Louisiana! He was a super nice guy so we invited him to have dinner with us a hang out at the campground for a while. He told us he hadn't had a conversation with anyone in over a week before he met us. I couldn't imagine doing something like that by myself. He would just ride 60 to 80 miles a day and then just stop anywhere and sleep in a sleeping bag and a Bivy. On that particular night he was going to try either the fire station or a covered outdoor area where food trucks park. The next morning we woke up and found Stephen crawling out of his Bivy and into the snow near our tents haha. He took the polaroid of all of us.
It continued snowing that night and we woke up to probably an inch or two of snow the next morning. It melted quickly by the afternoon but I ran around taking pictures and freezing my hands off before it did. What was nice about El Cosmico was that the office/store/common area was open from 8am to 10pm and we were in there every minute we could be because it was warm and cozy and there was a super fluffy cat named Marmalade. She was the sweetest. Marfa was fun and weird and we were pretty much the only people camping in tents because it barely got above freezing the whole two days we were there but we were certain that that first night when it snowed was going to be the coldest for sure. We should have let waking up to frost the following morning tip us off that this trip was not ever going to get warmer. That was definitely my first time tent camping in snow and frost and it was cooooold. However I was quite impressed by our new Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads. Once we wiggled into our sleeping bags and waited to be warm and for sleep to somehow come I noticed how warm my back was against the sleeping pad. It almost felt like it was heated! It was also pretty comfortable too, I never felt like I was on the ground and it never lost air.
On the 29th we packed up and headed to Big Bend National Park. It was a little over a two hour drive from Marfa and I of course had to stop and pee on the side of the road. Typical. I seriously need to get a Pstyle (look it up). Before we got to Big Bend we stopped in Terlingua which is a sleepy but spunky little ghost town full of old stacked stone house ruins and just a few open businesses. We met a woman at the coffee shop (everyone I was with has to drink 5 cups of coffee a day while I cannot drink coffee because it makes me feel crazy) that told us if we were around for New Year's Eve we should find a local to take us to the fireworks in the mines....uuuhhhh whaaaa?? Terlingua used to be a booming mining town but the mines went dry and the town just dissipated. We were incredibly intrigued by this woman's description of upside down fireworks and all were in agreeance that we needed that in our lives and would find "a local".
After we left Terlingua and made it to Rio Grand Village campground where we should have had a spot booked for that night (Monday) and Tuesday night. There were no fires allowed in the park and we knew it would be chilly so we booked Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the Davis Mountains also incase we decided we wanted to go somewhere that we could have a campfire. We were calling this trip Campfire Christmas after all. Well we pull up to our spot and there are people in it...Brett, who booked the campsite, looked back at his confirmation email only to find that our arrival date was set for Tuesday the 30th...and there we were on the 29th... Sitting in that head space of, we just drove over 100 miles and now have no where to sleep, but without completely freaking out we went and found the Camp Host. My friend Neil jumped out of the car and we saw him talking to an older man. Neil came back to the car and told us that the Camp Host said the spots were full and there were no cancellations but if we could find someone willing to let us bum off of their spot for the night then that would be fine and as it turned out Neil had immediately found someone willing to let us do just that! Allen. Allen was around 70 years old, traveling alone, driving from Vermont to the west coast. He said he was planning on just sleeping in his car that night anyways so we were welcome to set up our tents there for the night. We fed him chili in return for his kindness and he told us scattered stories of his background teaching hiking and canoeing and "the woman he used to travel with". He was such a nice guy and is still such a mystery. He and Stephen both. You seriously meet the NICEST people when camping. In fact, right as we arrived in Big Bend the lady at the entrance booth told us our car smelled like something was burning really hot. We pulled off to the side and the guys began looking under the hood of the car when a couple pulled in and stopped to see if we needed help. This guy came over and immediately we were intimidated by his knowledge of cars and just everything in life. He decided it was the battery and lent us his jumper cables and said he and his wife were staying in the same campground if we needed anything else, they were site 19. We from then on called him Site 19 because we didn't get his name.
We were under the impression that it was going to be warmer in Big Bend but after we set up our tents and as we ate chili with Allen the air kept getting colder and colder. The next morning when we woke up there was ice on my backpack and Hannah had ice on her pillow. Needless to say it was another night of tossing and turning with cold toes and trying to ignore either my frozen face or the claustrophobic panic that ensued when I covered it with my sleeping bag for even a few seconds. We had to pack up early that morning because we had plans to hike the South Rim Loop Trail at Chisos Basin, which was rumored to take around 8 hours to complete and since we would be moving to our actual reserved campsite when we were done, we had to have everything out of Allen's site and in one of our cars before we left.
Chisos Basin, where our hike was to begin, was 23 miles from our campground. We got there and began our hike around 10:30am and finished by 5pm. We were pretty proud of ourselves for finishing in 6 hours. The South Rim Loop was 12.4 miles long, easily the longest hike I've ever done and it's up a mountain and back down with signs stating "Bear Country" and "Mountain Lions often sighted here" scattered along the way. The first few miles are the hardest too, all up hill. My mother in law got me a pair of North Face hiking boots for Christmas, thankfully, but this was my first time to wear them and by the last 3 miles my feet were literally killing me, but no blisters! The trail took us up to the north rim where we climbed up on the rocks on the very top to have our sandwiches and look out over the vally and the little village where we started. Also this is where I began having an anxiety attack (I guess) because I'm apparently a lot more afraid of heights than I realized. I don't think the others (except Branden who was trying to very sweetly keep me calm) noticed I was looking backwards towards where we had just climbed up from, where the ground was much closer, and fighting sobbs. I kept it together enough to get a picture of the two of us but then it took me a couple of miles to fully calm down. So weird.
We hiked across the mountain to the south rim which instantly reminded me why I was doing this to myself. It was a view that still takes my breath away just looking at the pictures now. How could this be Texas we kept saying! Though part of that view was Mexico too.
We passed backpackers along the way who were hiking to their campsites on the mountain. The weather that afternoon was mostly pretty chilly and got warm when hiking in the sun. Once we finished our hike and thought we couldn't walk another step it started getting colder and colder. While we were still hiking we could see clouds that looked like they were pouring in through the mountains and we thought, wow look at that, how cool! Then when we finished and piled in the car we could see the clouds literally gushing in through the mountains, I've never seen clouds move like that, and as we drove out of Chisos Basin the air became so thick with fog we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. We made our way cautiously around the curves of the road, missed hitting a shaggy buck crossing the road by like a foot, and watched the temperature drop from 43 to 34 in like 5 minutes. The sky was all of the sudden a thick dark grey and the wind was blowing so hard! We were thankful to be in the car but could not believe what was happening. It was insane. Once we got a little further across the park we could see a thin line of light under the dark grey, which was where our campground was. This made us optimistic about the weather at our campsite. We had to be optimistic because we were cold and exhausted and hungry and we still had to set up our tents and all of our stuff and were not going to accept doing all of that in 34 degrees and wind. This was supposed to be warmer than Marfa! And we just finished a long hike! We were supposed to be able to go back to our campsite and relax and revel in our accomplishment! We didn't get any of that. We got to our campsite and it was about 40 degrees with like 20 mph winds. We struggled to set up our tents and sort out all of our stuff in the frigid wind before dark and everything is painfully tedious when you can't feel your fingers. Finished as quickly as we could and then all piled in the car and headed back to Terlingua with cheeseburgers in our eyes, but all the while thinking about those people we passed on the trail who were hiking to their camping spots and how they're probably all dead by now. Mountain Lion popsicles.
Though Terlingua is a "ghost town" don't think for a second that the Starlight Theater is not going to be packed and have a waitlist on a Tuesday night. You know those scenes in old western movies where the cowboy has traveled miles and miles across the desert and finally rolls into a seemingly deserted town, all dusty and bedraggled and swings open the doors to a saloon from where bursts upbeat piano music and a woman singing and people bustling about and talking a laughing? That is exactly what walking into the Starlight Theater was like. We were bedraggled, and it was bursting with life. While we waited for a table we watched a live jazz band made up of a random collection of characters. I have no idea how these people got together. A man that was at least 200 years old shredded on an electric guitar like it was more natural than breathing. A woman with 6 different hair colors played the upright bass while facing backwards and wearing sunglasses. A female asian drummer whom I'm now convinced was Lane Kim, and a few other incredibly talented weirdos. It was awesome. A local art shop owner whom we'd met the day before and began calling Sam Rich because we couldn't remember his name, came over and chatted with us. We asked him about the fireworks in the mines and he said he'd never heard of that before but it sounds like a bad idea because there are gasses down there. Apparently they used to mine mercury or something haha. We abandoned that idea. Long story short, Starlight Theater was an amazing oasis in the desert and I will forever love it. The food was great, we all had cheeseburgers and drinks and sat in the warm room wondering if they'd let us sleep there.
This was Tuesday the day before New Years Eve and we had decided not to go to the Davis Mountains after all but we had all secretly hit our limit of sleeping in the cold. Brett timidly threw out the idea of leaving a day early....inside we were all like ugh no we can't give up...but then he put forth the idea of staying New Years Eve night at his parents house in Boerne where there were warm beds and a fireplace and a hot tub and food and warm indoor showers and walls and a roof and it was only 6 hours away. It sounded like Heaven. We all just burst YES GIVE ME ALL OF THAT RIGHT NOW! We became giddy school girls at the thought of just getting through the night and then getting to Brett's parents house. The next morning we woke up and attempted to make breakfast in the freezing wind. A 2 hour ordeal. Then we packed up and hit the road. We had a 400 mile drive ahead of us which should have taken around 6 hours. We had very scarce cell phone reception the whole time so we briefly checked the weather and had it in our heads that it would get warmer the further east we went.
As we were driving through the park the landscape started getting frosty. It was pretty so we stopped to take pictures. Naive little idiots.
It kept getting frostier and frostier until everything was covered in ice. Then the road was covered in ice but still we thought it wouldn't last long and the weather would clear up soon. If we can just get through Ozona, we said. The entire drive became a complete nightmare, I can't even. It took us over 11 hours to get to Boerne. We were driving half the speed limit the whole way, 40mph and under. The roads were ice for all 400 miles. We saw multiple cars slide into the ditch (cars that were speeding past us mind you). We got stuck in stand still traffic for 2 hours on I 10 because of a wreck or something and then further ahead we bypassed a 30 car pile up by creeping along a very hilly and icey back road. We got to Brett's parents beautiful toasty house after 11pm where they had pizza waiting for us God bless 'em. We devoured three pizzas and then drank champagne in the hot tub like a rap video...minus all the glamour and the rap music. It was the trip of a lifetime. I saw and experienced a lot of crazy things and was miserable for a good 40% of it but also experienced a lot of amazing things, a lot of super nice and interesting people, and laughed really hard with good friends. Here's to the next Campfire Christmas...which we will do at a completely different time of year.