First, we will tell you that Big Bend National Park has exceeded our expectations, and we are so glad that we visited. A big thanks to our friends Bet and Joe who were here last year and highly recommended that we visit!
We’ve been camping at a place called Stillwell’s Store & RV Park, which is 46 miles from the nearest town, that being Marathon, TX. Marathon has a small grocery, a couple of restaurants, a gas station and a post office. Stillwell’s stocks a small (VERY small) selection of staples (three beers: Dos Equis, Bud, and Lone Star), has a mail drop for outgoing mail, and a very small selection of DVD’s to rent for $1. There is no TV or cell phone service here. WiFi is spotty, but has served our purposes.
This is also the location of the Hallie Stillwell Museum, which is free to tour. Hallie was a Texas native, born in 1897, who had a hell of a life. She married a rancher named Roy Stillwell against her parents’ advice and moved to a 35-square-mile ranch down here in the middle of nowhere. After his death in the 1940’s, she continued to run the ranch for decades after his death, and Hallie herself died in 1997, two months shy of her 100th birthday. Because there is so much more than I can tell in this post, you can read more about her here: https://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2011/may/legend/
The RV park itself is pretty funky. There is a gravel lot next to the store where you’ll find full hookups for RV’s, picnic tables, an outbuilding that houses showers and a laundry room. There is even a clothes line to hang your clothes. In addition, there are lean-to’s filled with stuff, an outbuilding that looks like a workshop, and two rundown mobile homes. Across the street, there is a long dirt road with primitive campsites (fire rings, but nothing else in the way of amenities) and a large gravel lot with 30 amp electric hookups and water for more RV’s. The dirt road leads to a low ranch house way in the distance, which is probably the Stillwell homestead. The no trespassing sign is respected.
We took Tessa for a walk down the dirt road past the primitive campsites our first morning here. As we walked along, quietly, a jackrabbit hopped out of the scrub brush on the side of the road. We all stopped. The rabbit came hopping down the road oblivious to the two humans and one dog who were all standing there watching. He came closer and closer, and suddenly realized that we were there and took off. We wondered if the darn thing was blind for a while there!
The next day, we were driving down a long stretch of road in Big Bend and we saw a dead jackrabbit on the other side of the road. You just don’t see dead animals out here, I presume because there are almost a million acres of open land and only a few roads. Sometimes you can drive for 30 minutes without seeing another car. Bob commented, “Wow! What luck, huh? You can wait an hour for a car to go down this road, but that rabbit hopped out onto the road at EXACTLY the wrong moment!” The we speculated that maybe it was the same blind jackrabbit that we had seen the previous day!
There are also coyotes here, which is no surprise. You can hear them at dusk, just as the moon is rising they will start to yip and howl in the distance. And then it goes quiet. It seems like moonrise is their greeting time before setting off on the task of finding a meal. They are not nocturnal, they are diurnal, meaning they can be active both day and night, napping in between periods of activity. We have had four coyotes run across the road in front of our car, and each of them has been a very healthy looking dog with a robust body and lush tail, not the scrawny coyotes we see in Connecticut. They are so fast that by the time you grab your camera, the dog is gone, hidden by the creosote bushes. Bob captured this picture, though. Wiley is in the bottom right corner of the photo.
Along with coyotes, there are roadrunners out here. We’ve only really seen a couple, and they also run so fast and are so well camouflaged that we haven’t been able to get a picture, except for this one sitting on a fence post.
There are also javalinas, which people say walk through the RV park at night. They are peccaries, which look like pigs but are not. We’ve been told that they live in families and travel in groups, so if you see one javalina cross the road, you can be sure ten more will follow! Bob and Tessa had one cross their path on a morning walk, but he didn’t have his phone with him to snap a picture! Tsk, tsk.
Probably the most incredible wildlife we’ve seen so far is the tarantula. We were on the road, Louise at the wheel, when suddenly she said, “What was that crossing the road? I have to go back and see.” She backed the car up a couple hundred feet and there it was, moving fast … a big old tarantula! How cool is that?! Not that we were looking for a tarantula, or that we necessarily looked forward to seeing one, but here it is! Now, we are really hoping that we do not run into a scorpion anytime soon!
The road that Stillwell’s is on leads nowhere. It’s a 20 mile stretch of road that ends at the Rio Grande. The map shows nothing on those 20 miles except for the Black Gap Wildlife Management area and the town of La Linda across the river in Mexico. Having visited every other area of the park, we decided to take a drive to the end of the road. Of course, the scenery is rugged and beautiful. At the end of the road, there is a narrow bridge across the river that has been well blocked to prevent use. To the right there is an old ranch that has a crude sign offering camping, put-ins and take-outs of boats. To the left, there is a small dirt parking lot with a gate that was open. We ventured in and parked.
Across the river is the town of La Linda. It was so quiet, and inspection through binoculars showed that the town had been abandoned. The roofs had blown of most of the buildings, windows were gone. On the top of a hill on the northern edge of town was a concrete building with a large pile of dirt and many rusted 55 gallon drums littered around it. Some research later revealed that the concrete building was a fluorspar mine built by Dow Chemical, and the bridge was erected by them in 1964 to transport the fluorspar to the US. At that time, the border was freely crossed with no border patrol or customs involvement. Then, Mexican and US authorities began to suspect that the bridge was being used by smugglers, and the bridge was closed in 1997. The mine closed down and the workers all moved away to find work. All that remains is a ghost town.
We spotted a trail that looked like it lead down to the river, and there appeared to be a beach of sorts. The right side of the beach held a small trailered boat with an outboard motor and a one-person tent. Nobody was in sight. We ventured down to the let side of the beach to see the river up close. We checked it out, took some pictures. Tessa took a quick swim in the Rio Grande and Louise put her feet in, only to discover that the fine silt/sand became the most slippery mud when wet! Down she went, right on her butt into the mud! A short time later, she went down a second time! It was pure luck that she had put a change of clothes in the car in case the weather changed, because sitting in the car with that slippery silt on her butt was not an option!
As we were turning to head back up to the car, a stray dog appeared out of nowhere! A red and white do that looked like an Australian shepherd wearing a red collar. Knowing nothing about the dog or where it came from, seeing no people, we didn’t want to take any chances, so we chased it away. Thank goodness it listened and ran off the same direction it had come from. We walked a short way and suddenly the shepherd was back … with a friend that looked like a husky mix who was not wearing a collar. The shepherd was the more passive dog, but the husky was not as quick to run away! Tessa, of course, wanted to play, which made it doubly hard to get away. Bob looked around quickly for a good rock to throw at the dog and found, of all things, a long, straight, sturdy branch like a walking stick. He grabbed the stick, swiped at the dog a few times, we yelled, and the dog actually backed off, went and joined his friend and allowed us to leave. We scrambled up to the car as quickly as we could, constantly checking to see if the dogs were following. They were not.
Making our way up the hill, we heard male voices behind us, but didn’t see anyone. Perhaps the dogs belonged to the people we heard. Louise changed her clothes and we hopped in the car. Taking a last look over at La Linda, we spotted what looked like people near the pile of rusted drums, so we grabbed the binoculars for a look. There was a sand-colored truck parked near the dirt pile with 3 or 4 men dressed in sand-colored clothing climbing around the dirt pile, looking down, turning things over, and one of the men had something thrown over his shoulder that looked like a rifle! Mexican police? Border patrol? What were they looking for? Suddenly, we decided that we’d better get the heck out of there before someone took a shot at us!
Back at the campground about an hour later we heard a vehicle coming down the road, and it sounded as if it was moving fast. Seconds later, a US Border Patrol truck went flying by so fast that, after seeing the men across the river, made us just look at each other and say, “Wow!” About a half hour later, the patrol truck came zooming back. We have no idea what that was about.
Later in the day, we read that there is still smuggling going on at the bridge. One tourist reported having seen a tractor trailer backed up to the bridge on the US side and men carrying large bags of clothes across the bridge toward La Linda. He decided it was probably wise to leave as quickly as he arrived.
We’ve some interesting and lovely people in Big Bend.
Joanna and Barbara were our neighbors in the campground. They have been friends since high school. Barbara’s home is outside of Dallas/Ft. Worth and she lost her husband in 2017. Before hitting the road full-time in their 5th wheel, Joanna and her husband, John, lived in Jackson, MS. Joanna and Barbara love crafting and laughing, which made them great company.
Jerry stopped to say hello as he was mountain biking and we were walking the dog. He hails from Howell, NJ, very close to my good friend Ginger, and enjoys adventure rides on both his bicycle and motorcycle. When he spoke, I wanted to say, “That’s not a New Jersey accent that I’ve heard before.” He revealed that he grew up in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo until he was a teenager, his father was with the United Nations. It’s too bad we were leaving the next day and we didn’t have more time to spend with Jerry.
Judy would walk into Stillwell’s every day dressed for hiking, carrying a walking stick. I don’t know her age, but would guess mid-70’s at least. She told us that she likes to rock hunt on the mountains, but all that climbing tuckers her out. God bless her!
John, who works at Stillwell’s and is one of the most stoic people we’ve ever met. If you ask him a question, you get an answer and that’s about it. He uses just enough words, not too many. And a smile is probably reserved for the holidays.
Now, we are on our way to Davis Mountains State Park by way of the Big Bend STATE Park, which lies right next to the National Park.