I've been here before. This long desolate drive is familiar and I use ranches and distant mountains as markers to tell me how much further we have to go. WELCOME HUNTERS, a huge banner says strung across two light posts on the main street of a sleepy town. It's the kind of place that always makes me wonder what people here do for fun. Ten in the morning and there are a few old farm trucks parked in front of the one place that seems to still be in business; a bar. I guess that's what they do for fun. "Six more hours" I think to myself. The stops are few and far between so when something comes up on the horizon it's easy to remember it, "I've bought coffee at that gas station, four more hours". The smell of oil starts to permeate the air. The first time the scent that is so familiar to Texans entered my car years ago I actually pulled over because I assumed it was leaking out of my own engine; now it gives me the feeling that I am going somewhere. "Two more hours." We pass a tilted brown road sign that reads Sierra Madera Astrobleme, my friend Jake and I both yell "astrobleme". We pronounce it incorrectly because it is more fun to say the wrong way. We're almost there.
My face probably doesn't show it as I spit my thousandth sunflower seed shell out of the window of a truck that is loaded down with tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, propane, coolers and three of the most genuine people I have ever met in my life; but I am excited. Excited to share this place with the people who mean the most to me, excited to experience it through the eyes of those that I love, I'm excited for their excitement.
There is a sign on the ranger station instructing us to pay the entrance fee inside the visitors center. We walk in and scribbled on a white board I see the words, Rio Grande Village Full, Chisos Basin Full, Cottonwood Full; all of the campsites are full. My heart sinks as I walk up to the grey haired volunteer leaning against the desk. I badger her a little bit, "Nothing? Really? Not even a primitive site?" She doesn't seem amused, but i'm sure a hundred other people have already asked her the same thing today. She informs us of a private ranch eight miles outside of the park where we could camp, it's our only option at this point.
I walk outside feeling defeated, I had an idea in my head as to how this weekend would go, step by step it was all planned out up there. Jake seems to take it all in stride, I have been in this position with him before and it turned out to be one of the best nights of camping i've ever had. But still i'm thinking back to being here in the past and how much those trips transformed me. I'm frustrated because I want Jake, Lindsey and especially Lauren to feel what i've felt here before.
We turn around and head back towards the entrance of Big Bend and start making our way towards the ranch, I can tell that Jake is trying to convince me that everything is going to work out but i'm being stubborn and only quietly mutter a few words. As we walk into the ranch office, which also serves as a general store, conversation is immediately struck up with the man behind the counter. He is telling us all about his life, travels, and the secrets hidden within the park. Lauren pulls a six pack of cheap beer out of the cooler and places it on the counter. We find out that it is actually fourteen dollars, not cheap, but still money well spent after being on the road since sunrise. Before we push the screen door open and head back out into the desert Lauren asks the man "What's your favorite place that you've been too?" without hesitation he answers, "Well Big Bend of course."
This is what it's all about I thought to myself. Yes I have been here before, but I have not been here. As i've touched on a previous time in my writing, it is not about the place it's about the people. I could visit the same place a handful of times and every time would be different because of who i'm with or who I strike up a conversation with. Maybe I had forgotten this on the drive to the park, but Lauren's interaction with the man overcharging us for Tecate was surely a reminder.
The gals in the back seat, Jake and I looked at each other while driving down a dirt road looking for the perfect campsite. Without speaking a word we knew that the park campgrounds being full was actually a blessing in disguise. The gravel crunched beneath our tires as I let my hand ride the wave of wind out of a wide open window while we pulled up to a spot that looked ideal to pitch our tents.
Later we chased the last remaining bit of light through the park so we could sit in the hot springs situated on the border. I relaxed in a corner spot, taking it all in as a couple of guys jumped into the river and swam across just so they could say they went to Mexico. With the sun setting in the background I took a sip of wine from a cup I had carried down with me. Jake is asking me if I want to take the plunge into the Rio Grande when I see two National Park Rangers walking up to us. I know what's about to happen.
"What's in those cups?" one of them asks me.
"Wine" I say without hesitation
"Okay pour it out and come with us."
The four of us get out of the springs and gather our shoes, clothes, backpacks and cameras as everyone just gawks at what's happening. We start to make the walk of shame back to the truck as the rangers shine their flashlights behind us, lighting up the short dusty trail ahead. The rangers give us the standard run down of questions and take our licenses, one of them calls our info in to make sure we "aren't hardened criminals", as the other searches the truck.
They call Jake over and I watch him take a sobriety test; we've only had a drink or two so I know he'll be fine. We're sitting in a dirt parking lot in wet bathing suits as Jake follows the finger of one of the rangers. "Okay you guys are fine." They let us know that the springs are the one place where you can't have alcohol in the park, but of course we already knew that.
Service is spotty in the park but the next day an Instagram notification comes through on my phone. I open it up, it's from the ranger who had talked to us at the hot springs. We all lose it, it's an unbelievably a small world. I converse with him a bit and apologize for making him go through the hassle of last night. This is just another reminder that i've been to Big Bend before but I have not been here.
The rest of our days in the park were filled with hiking, a lot of laughter, and even a seafood dinner (yes we brought seafood to the desert and lived to tell tale). Everything about this weekend was a reminder of why I like to revisit places I have been before.
After our run in with the law we're back at the ranch with a roaring fire, one we wouldn't have been able to have if we stayed in the park. Now i'm sitting by the crackle and warmth of one as I watch my friends dance in the in the glow of headlights from a truck that was blasting Justin Beiber (or maybe Taylor Swift, I can't remember). I questioned why I even thought things had to be like they were when I had come here in the past. Big Bend was not the same this time around, and it wasn't supposed to be. I had been here before but this time was different. Different, but better.