I’m not good at research and expectations come with the expected. Taj Mahal, Mount Rushmore, Eiffel Tower, you know what you’re going to see and bam, there it is. I much prefer the unexpected, the surprise, the distraction and that preference excuses my reluctance to research.
Note from editor: We asked published author, and solo motorcycle adventurer, Graham Field to write about one of his favourite unexpected destinations. We hope you enjoy his eloquent, amusing and enlightening account of motorcycle wild camping in Big Bend National Park. You can check out his excellent books at: www.grahamfield.co.uk
I stopped at Big Bend National Park because it was in the way of me and Mexico, it was one of the best obstructions I’ve encountered.
As I apply for my back country camping permit, I’m told I only have an hour and forty minutes of daylight left. Where the hell did the day go? I need to find my designated camping spot before dark, I’m not sure I like this urgency in my dithering day.
I get a frozen burrito from the fuel station but don’t have my glasses, so how long do I put it in the microwave for? Long enough to buy a tin of ravioli, a packet of Kettle Chips and some water. Another healthy dinner awaits.
The park is big and I’ve done 30 miles before I find the four-wheel drive track. The evening is getting warmer, the dirt road harder. I even have to stuff my scarf into my pocket. When the surface allows, I feel behind me to check my water bottle hasn’t fallen off. I ride between the rocks and around hills, up an incline that looks out over miles of nothing, I think I’ll be living down there somewhere.
The descent brings me to a wooden marker and I leave the track to find my individual desert camping spot. It’s perfect. The only indication it’s here at all is a circle of stones. Solitary, silent and, best of all, legitimate. I have a sunset to myself.
Did the ranger who booked my back country permit read me? Who I was? My desired location? Or did he just want me out of the way, like a hostess seating me in a roadside restaurant? I don’t care, this is just what I’m looking for. With joyous exhilaration, I throw off my clothes and run round my stone circle like a demented druid. Having marked my territory and assessed the situation, I erect my tent in the centre.
When the distant desert dusk fades behind the highest of the far off mountains, a half moon casts me a shadow and now I’m ready: ready to stop. I think I’ll have a nice cup of tea. My camping stove hasn’t been used in 11 months, but it still has fuel in it. Impressively, it still has pressure too. I’ve forgotten the knack of lighting it and the hairs on the back of my hand singe with a sickening smell.
I take my chai up a nearby hillock where I question my free will. Why did I walk up this hill? Is it my choice? How long will I stay? It’s cheap here, and beautiful and warm. I have no deadlines, just phone reception. The human mark is minimal. In a 360-degree view, only a single light some 30 miles away is visible. Actually, it’s becoming quite annoying. Bloody inconsiderate neighbours. I may have to go and have a word tomorrow.
Now I know why I rented out my house. So few people experience this silence and solitude, and even less appreciate it. I absolutely love it. I feel I’m the luckiest person here. I’m the only person here. The anti-social, light sleeper in the silence of the desert.
I’m in my sleeping bag at 6.45 on a Saturday night. But I don’t care. There’s no credibility here to lose. Time and days are irrelevant out here. I just wonder what I’ll do for the 12 hours of darkness. Sleep is what I do: delicious, undisturbed sleep.
Through the open flap of my tent, first light spans the horizon like a shallow rainbow, just where I anticipated it would appear. It’s hard to get a perspective on it. It could be a headlight or the top of an illuminated dome. But it’s just dawn, just the first evidence of a new day, and it’s very exciting, too new to miss and too vast to view from my tent.
It’s cold. I put on my thermals and run up the hill to take it all in. I’m spinning round like the dawn is picking on me. Every direction I look in is simply stunning. Only the brightest stars can compete against the crimson, rippled texture of passing morning cloud.
The tops of the Chisos Mountains that the sun hid behind last night, catch the first rays with red radiation. At any moment the sun will appear over the ridge, I watch the shadows cross the desert floor and the highest points of the undulating terrain catch the beams.
A receding tide of non-colour sweeps towards me, I hold my breath like it’s going to physically hit me. Then simultaneously I start to cast a shadow as I feel a warmth through my thinning hair. At fucking last – finally an advantage to my advancing years! A shaggy, younger me wouldn’t have felt that sun on his thick mane.
Morning has broken. How exciting and how rewarding to be in awe of an event that happens every day; an event that defines day. I feel an exhilaration spawned by the most basic and fundamental laws of our revolving planet. I want to do this again. Same time tomorrow?
When the sun and hot chai have taken the chill away, blood, ink and thoughts flow more freely. I don’t even need my glasses, the light is not simulated or diffracted, it’s bright, pure and feels like it has rejuvenating qualities. As I write my diary, I hear the rush of wind and look up to see it comes from the wings of an inquisitive crow as it glides over my head. It’s really quite loud, and then it’s replaced by the sound of silence.
No crickets, no wind, no distant traffic, not even planes overhead. Utter silence: just the sound of my pulse pumping blood in my ear vessels. Such a rare sound – well, I assume it always pumps, I just don’t necessarily notice. They say when you’re deprived of one sense your others are heightened. I’m just deprived of senseless sounds.
This is a still land, and it can still be found. I don’t think I want to leave it for a while. There is no urgency to the day. It’s free of time constraints, which feels so liberating. I eat my last bagel and a degree of urgency returns. With my depleted supplies comes compromised liberty.
I wander around my desert. Everything is positioned perfectly, from the flora to the fossilised rocks. It’s all so idyllic, so wondrous. I find a pile of gathered rocks, dilapidated dwellings surrounded by rusty cans as opposed to litter. History: embossed dates from the last century can still be made out. Miners? Prospects? Pioneers? It just adds to the mystique.
I find my bike keys on the ground. I didn’t even know I’d lost them. Maybe I hadn’t. I hadn’t been manically opening drawers or looking in pockets. Such pursuits only happen in man-made environments. This is simplicity: minimalism.
You couldn’t create desert like this in your themed garden with cactus and succulents, tumbleweed and the odd trace of a past civilisation. Your B&Q sand would lap up to conifers or an interwoven fence, not infinite distance and daunting mountains of red rock. Nothing is as authentic as nature.
The other thing that is genuine and a fact I have to face, is that I need more supplies.
The bike that I so sloppily packed in Denver with cold apathy is now stripped, and I lay everything out on my poncho and totally unpack and repack my panniers. This methodical and meticulous reorganisation will make for far greater efficiency, if I can just remember where I put everything. My attempts to remove the now sun-baked salt layer are ineffective. This will require a power washer.
Right, it’s time for a ride then. What a great morning I’m having! I decide an unattended tent in this deserted area is safe, but not secure, so I leave the non-valuables and the water too. I’m going to ride the back trails, but I’ll find water at some point and I want to build up my provisions, not take them out with me.
I’m riding slowly, but it’s too fast to feel and too slow for change. I don’t need to do this track again, but I’m also reassured that I have the best camping spot. Reaching the paved road is a relief, but inevitably it leads to the tourist sites. I suppose I’d better have a look. People, lots of people, noisy people.
I have the need for something healthy and fill up at the all-you-can-eat salad bar. Although, my ravioli is becoming more appealing, and the calling to my silent wilderness is deafening. I happily leave humanity behind.
I deliberately ride past my turn off, and when I stop for fuel and more water from the ‘village store’, I discover they have showers. I’m not ready for spontaneous decisions, I’ll think about it. This is where the big motorhomes stay. I’ll never understand them, but they can’t get to my campsite and that’s all I need to know.
I have a strong urge to go back ‘home’ to my tent, my domain, my sanctuary. From an incline, I look through my zoomed lens and locate my tent. I really am out there. Once back, I have time to deliberate the indecisions of the stationary road warrior. Do I want this ravioli now? No. Do I want to carry it tomorrow? No. Do I have an answer? No. The ravioli remains and the light fades. I suppose I could stay another night.
This isolation and tranquillity is so stimulating. If I had demons, they would surely come out to play in a place like this. But I don’t, and nothing too bad seems to be surfacing. Well, save for the occasional embarrassing memory or recollection, released from suppression as the song in my head gets spontaneously sung out loud to repress the cringeworthy reminiscing.
I make tea and take it up to my hillock to watch the sunset. I stand tall, I stretch, I reach out to the space around me. It’s tai chi with chai tea. They say a man should know his limitations. I can’t find mine out here.
Before 7pm, the chill takes me to my sleeping bag for a night of wild dreams, alluring and precarious. Is this exorcising, opening up, or drying out? I haven’t had a drink since I left Denver. Despite this, nature calls and I leave the tent under moonlight. Again under starlight, and next time I open my eyes it’s new light.
I miss first light, but I’m up for seconds. Up to my hillock for more dawn. I’m worryingly happy. Is it OK to be this content and this alone? What is normal? Living in a motorhome so close to this experience, but isolated and oblivious to it?
Having said that, I suppose I’d better see what I am missing. Is there somewhere better I could be? How can this satisfaction stay if I don’t prove to myself I’ve found the best of the desert? I ride out to the hot springs. Yuk, lots of that people species again. I don’t like them at all. I go off in search of the Gravel Pit Campground along the river, the Rio Grande that separates the United States from Mexico.
I see a couple walking down the dirt track. They tell me they’re parked up at Gravel Pit and the other two spots are vacant. It’s a sneaky little track that takes me there and it’s right on the river. Yeah, I’ll have some of this. This means I have to go to the ranger station to have my allotted site changed.
I discover the park has won an award – the darkest place in mainland USA. Curiously, it’s quite a bright trophy. On a more useful note, I’m told it’s safe to bathe in the river, so I’ll forego the dollar-sucking showers.
Once again, I ride back to my camp. It takes ages to pack up, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got all day. I’m beginning to realise I don’t need to leave this park at all. I’ve got everything I need here. I don’t even have to go to Mexico if I don’t want to. I run out of room before the camp is clear and the bike resembles a Christmas tree hanging with gifts of cold-weather clothes.
It’s not a pretty sight. I need to work on this. Bloody low-capacity soft panniers! They’re shit and there’s no option to strap stuff on top of them. It’s all bungees and bollocks. Back to the river camping spot, dump my stuff and go and bathe in the river. I could swim to Mexico from here.
It’s ludicrous that further west there are impenetrable fences, drones and helicopters with searchlights, watch towers and 4×4 patrols. Here I could wade across without even getting my back wet.
This evening, unexpectedly, the bond with my bike begins. I wasn’t even aware there was anything missing in our relationship. I’m sure I’ve said that before. We ride up to nearly 6,000 feet. It’s cold, but the west side of the park, I discover, is the most popular for a reason. It’s by far the most scenic.
With low light, the shadows bring new dimensions to the formations of rock and they pose with a timeless posture. I race around the road that takes me to the dark side of the view. The park is so vast and the scenery so stimulating that the distances disappear in a constant stream of thoughts and sights.
Something fist size crawls across the road in front of me, the hairy fist doesn’t have fingers, it has legs, eight of them. It’s a tarantula. I stop, turn around and photograph it, the low sun makes its shadow longer than its legs. Despite the zoom I get close, it’s only later I find out they are capable of jumping three feet, I was closer than that.
Miles go unnoticed, but still they pass, and soon I have to fill my tank again. I take the opportunity to purchase another frozen burrito.
‘More gas?’ Says the cashier
‘Yeah, the problem is I can’t seem to stop riding’
‘That’s not a problem’ he says and then wishes me a Merry Christmas. I wish he hadn’t. The light is going and it’s a long way back. Well, 40 miles, and I’m sure I’ll feel every one of them now that the temperature has dropped.
However, it turns out to be one of those rare occasions when I warm up as I ride. I drop 4,000 feet under a pink sky, the formations now silhouetted against the end of the day. I have no luggage and the road is smooth and empty. The wind is warm, as are the road and the tyres.
I lean the bike more than I’ve had the opportunity to before, it’s quite possibly the best Christmas Eve ride ever. I sing a Bruce Dickinson song out loud, the one I save for the best rides. Even my voice sounds good this evening.
I meet the neighbours again. They live in there camper full time. They invite me for some Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres. Their 4×4 camper looks very expensive, we pick at the food and drink iced tea.
They have, they tell me, four levels of protection: air horn, car alarm, mace and level four is a machete. I consider mine: a Swiss army knife with multiple torturing devices from toothpick to corkscrew. Never underestimate the pain of tweaking tweezers. Yeah, be afraid! Ya better run on home to ya Mama if ya know what’s good for ya! I probably talk too much. I say nothing I haven’t said before, and therefore I hear nothing I’ve not heard before.
We chat until 10.30, a late night in this environment. As I walk back to my tent, their horn honks affirmation that they’re securely locked inside their box, unaware that their solar-charged light shines through the night and my tent like a gleaming trophy. The ravioli lives to see another day, Christmas Day perhaps.
I climb up some rocks for the sunrise. The view may be better, but I still prefer my old place. I have no phone signal here either, so I can’t send the message I’ve carefully composed, using my full allowance of characters: a trait of the frugal text messager abroad.
There’s a reason why people like me stay in a desert at this time of the year. I bloody hate Christmas. Say you detest summer heat and no one minds, getting disturbed about autumn leaves is acceptable, moan about November rain and people empathise, but mention you can’t stand Christmas and all you get is, ‘Bah, humbug!’
Well, there ain’t no humbugging out here, so I can be as miserable as I want. I don’t believe in Christ or mass materialism, so what’s to celebrate? There’s nothing about this date that appeals to me. Yet, deny it as I do, I still have some obligations.
I have to go back to the ‘village store’. In the laundry room, the only place to sit and plug in is in between the doors of the male and female showers. The washing machines grate their dilapidated displeasure, but still the Wi-Fi surfers make themselves heard above the noise.
Over-privileged brats whinge about their underwhelming presents and obnoxious motor home types blame everyone but themselves. I try to Skype my mother, but she can’t hear me over the amplified consumers. I can’t speak any louder, the bad connection thwacks in my earphones like a lawnmower on a cattle grid, and her webcam isn’t pointing in a favourable position.
The experience is altogether unpleasant. My tranquil existence has been infiltrated and eradicated, replaced with resentment and repulsion. I hear a lot, but no one is saying anything.
‘What time you got on that computer of yours?’ says an instantly dislikeable man with an annoying moustache and hesitant wife.
‘You use military time in the UK?’
No, we just have the ability to count beyond twelve. ‘What are you doing out here?’
‘I’m heading to Mexico.’ Shit, why did I say that?
‘On a motorcycle?’ comes the predictable response.
‘On your own?’ he continues with trembling facial hair.
‘Yes, I’ve done it before and I’ve heard it all before,’ now take your Fox News negativity and frightened little existence back to your isolated and fortified box where your digital clocks tell the same time twice a day. I’m rude, but I’m so tired of ignorant people pissing all over my travel plans. I leave loathing everything: the people, the location and the date.
I have phone reception again and it bleeps with Happy Christmas texts from happy friends playing happy families, and vibrates missed call alerts that I’m too mean to retrieve. I make the one call I’m duty-bound to, and thankfully it goes to voicemail.
I can fake jollities for the thirty seconds it takes to leave a message. Responsibility fulfilled, I head back ‘home’, but take a wrong turn and end up at the bloody hot springs again. I’m so annoyed, I’m in a really bad mood. It’s a horrendous road and I rode it needlessly, now I’ve got to do it all over again to get back. I hate this day, doesn’t matter where I am.
The only redeeming features are the stolen creamers for my morning chai and a dump in the porcelain toilet. So this is Christmas.
I go back to camp. It’s cold, cloudy and windy. It’s time to move on, but it’s not time yet. The borders probably won’t be open during the holidays. I walk to the river and take photos of cracked mud on the river banks. I lose my lens cap and have to retrace my steps.
The sunset can’t come soon enough and when it does, it’s dull. I’ve endured enough. Wearing just my thermals, I get into my sleeping bag, but soon I’m too hot. I can’t read the print in my guidebook, even with my headlight and glasses.
Then in the night, it gets so cold I have to zip up my tent, so I can’t see out. God I hate this day. Oh yeah, that was a cold night, my water bottle has an icy crust. I still get up for dawn. Why wouldn’t I when there’s only 11 hours of daylight?
My climb rewards me with a beautiful sunrise, but it won’t warm away the chill in my hands, my marmite is so solid, it rips the bread as I try spreading it. More southness is needed. It’s almost time to go to Mexico.
Today is my second least favourite day of the year. It would have been my dad’s birthday. I’ve had a really successful year, achieving a dream of getting my book published and the unexpected bonus of it being well received. I’d love to be able to tell him that. If I was still a loser, I’d miss him less, that’s sobriety for ya!
I have a trial pack, a new system, but I’m not leaving until tomorrow. I do some laundry and have a half-hearted wash with some half-boiled water. All I seem to be doing is waiting for tomorrow to arrive. When I realise this, I slap my wet face, go for a ride and find a new road.
I come across an authentic and restored stone and thatch dwelling, which would once have housed a family who would no doubt say that all I’ve experienced here is nothing compared to the lives they lived. Before the all-you-can-eat salad bar, entry charges and convenient paving to vista points. I’d have loved to have got here earlier. But I can’t help that I’m a 21st century man. Still, the silence remains the same (most of the time).
This is America’s least visited national park. Its distant neighbour, the Grand Canyon, has fifteen times more visitors in a year. I wonder if this is to do with location or vicinity. Is it because it’s not on the way to anywhere or is too close to somewhere else?
I could spend more time here, but it’s too cold for comfort again tonight. The moon has steadily been getting brighter. I think I need to make a sacrifice. It’s time for the ravioli … and no desert. I feel a growing need for a taco and cerveza. It’s been a very dry week.
My water bottle doesn’t rattle with frozen fragments this morning. As it starts to get light, I can see that’s because it’s solid ice. I decide I’m not going to climb the hill for my dawn patrol. But then the whole sky turns purple. Yes I am. It’s too enticing to miss. I run out of the tent like I’m late for work. It’s the best sky yet.
I pack my bike with numb fingers and when the sun shines on me, it’s with a warmth I wasn’t expecting, making it hard to decide what to wear. Stupid bloody soft panniers. Even without the ravioli, there’s still no room.
At 9.30, I’m ready to leave. I stop at the visitors’ centre to throw out my rubbish, and have a brief KLR conversation only to have rubbish thrown back at me. ‘You’re going to Mexico? They kill babies and fill them full of drugs to get them across the border. Take a gun. No, take two.’
Have you ever been there? Of course you haven’t. But I have. Whose account do you think is more accurate? Be afraid, live in fear, listen to your TV, trust us, spend your vacation dollars at home. It’s pissing me off because I’m listening. I know the score. I know, I know, but I’m on my own. I have no one to help me defuse this negative bomb that’s just been dropped on me.
Deep breath: out with anger, in with calm, tranquillity now. After six days of positive solitude and tolerated company, I ride out of the park. I’ve ridden 400 miles around it and all I’ve seen is how much more there is to see. I think it’s safe to say after my two-day sprint down here that I’ve slowed my pace appropriately.
Graham Field is the published author of three books about his solo motorbiking adventures. In Search of Greener Grass about a journey from the UK to Mongolia & beyond on a £700 ebay bike. Ureka about 15,000 miles south to Iraq and east to Azerbaijan. And Different Natures covering three journey’s over 12 years from Alaskan Arctic Circle to Southern Mexico.
If you enjoyed Graham’s account of Motorcycle wild camping in Big Bend National Park, then you’ll love his books. You can buy all threein his unique panier style boxset by visiting: http://grahamfield.co.uk/