Big Bend National Park

Since we are returning residents to the state of Texas, we planned to go to Big Bend National Park over my Spring Break. With some reports of the Covid-19 contagion coming in, we decided to pack our own food for the trip and to camp, so as to be able to isolate ourselves as much as possible. We left the Austin area and drove across the beautiful central hill country, where the sides of the highways and byways are carpeted with bluebonnets during the month of March.

Ever since Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady, the Texas Department of Transportation has sown more than 30,000 pounds of bluebonnet seeds around the state annually.

Before entering Big Bend, we took a spin around the town of Marfa, a place I had heard of (due to the mysterious “Marfa lights” and also from their reputation as a Bohemian artists’ colony). I wish we could have stayed in town and eaten there, but we were already heeding warnings to not bring any outside germs into small rural communities so we just did a pass through.

With a population of only 1800, you stand a good chance of exploring all of Marfa in a long weekend. Keep an eye out for celebs like Matthew McConaughey

We spent the first day at Big Bend driving the scenic Maxwell Drive, which is essentially the west half of the park. We headed all the way to the Mexican border, where we hiked into the Santa Elena Canyon, fording an off-shoot of the Rio Grande River. The area was busy with hikers and kayakers, but people were staying a fair distance apart. The amazing effects of the eroding power of water were on full display in the canyon, with 1500 foot towering cliffs on either side of us.

Santa Elena Canyon
Chris hiking up the Santa Elena Canyon
Deah fording an offshoot of the Rio Grande to get to the Santa Elena Canyon viewpoint

Later, we drove the Chisos Basin drive. It was approaching sunset and there were some beautiful views. On the way out of that area, we spotted a coyote and were able to snap a pic. We also spotted some golden eagles flying around and Chris got a nice shot of those.

Spotting the wildlife around the park
A Golden Eagle

We camped near the ghost town of Terlingua. There are a number of cabin rentals, small hotels, bars, and restaurants there. Of course, they are most famous for their annual chili cook off in November. We had our own dinner to cook at our campsite so we just took a drive through town to see the dusty sights.

Terlingua: population 2,000 but this small town swells to over 10,000 annually with the chili cookoff
High on a hill overlooking the road into Terlingua

The next day we explored the eastern half of Big Bend. We made up a breakfast at the picnic tables at Dugout Wells. There we encountered a woman waiting for a scheduled ranger talk, but soon found out that the visitor’s center had been closed and all ranger talks and guided walks were canceled for the time being (campgrounds still open for the week). We continued our drive all the way to the eastern end of the park, to the Rio Grande Village, and hiked a bit into the Boquillas Canyon. Along the way, we saw small homemade souvenir “caches” of trinkets made by residents of the village of Boquilla, Mexico (you can leave the money in a jar and they come collect it later). We were serenaded across the border river by a man with a wonderful singing voice, his song echoing across the canyon. In normal operating times, if you bring your passport (kids just need a birth certificate or proof of citizenship) you can cross the river at Boquillas Crossing ($5 rowboat round trip) and have lunch and explore the small Mexican village. However, the crossing was closed this week.

A small souvenir stand
Recent rains had the cacti in full bloom while we were there

Along the southeastern edge of the park, we were able to hike to and enjoy a hot springs. Many years ago there were actually cotton plantations in this area, with dozens of workers and a somewhat-thriving industry. In fact, in the 1860s they even imported 30 camels and their handlers from North Africa to use to explore and patrol the area!

A hot springs built on the sides of the Rio Grande River

With more and more dire news coming in every time we stopped to check messages, we decided to cut our trip short and head home. We made one final stop on our way out of the park at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit (built in 2017), where some of the largest fossil finds in the US have occurred. Over 1200 fossils spanning 130 million years of geohistory have been found there. You can see a replica of some of the largest dinosaurs that ever existed, such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Deinosuchus (an alligatoroid bigger than a school bus!), and the Quetzalcoatlus northropi (the largest flying creature). Fossil finds from all three giants have been found in the park’s perimeter.

Xiphactinus, a giant spiny fish from the Late Cretaceous Era

We exited the park via the Persimmon Gap entrance, and spent one more night in the area, and drove home the next day. The bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and other wildflowers were a welcome sight to us as we headed home to make a decision about Chris’s Pacific Crest Trail hike plans.

A butterfly does his thing

Feeling Terrific in the Pacific

Blue Pacific Ocean waves crashing near Abaiang Island Kiribati

Guest post by Chris

After “settling down” in Austin and spending way too much time at Home Depot, I wanted to travel again.  Deah was busy with her new job, but suggested I go solo on the condition that I write a guest blog-post.  I’m no Shakespeare, but ventured out regardless for a three week Pacific trip to Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Kiribati.

I spent several days on Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands on both ends of the trip. It’s accessible via the United Airline island hopper flight starting in Honolulu. Due to the Compact of Free Association with the USA, Majuro has a somewhat American feel to it; brands, beers, T-shirts, people with relatives in the States, etc. It’s a long, skinny island, but easy to get around by frequent taxis and infrequent buses.

The international airport of Majuro, Marshall Islands. Tiny place but has a cafe, bar, wifi, etc.
The Peace Park build by the Japanese and Marshallese governments commemorates all those killed in the Pacific during World War II. About 30 minutes by car from Majuro.
This guy (?) was about the size of my little fingernail. There were lots of critters on the reef that were easy to see by walking out during low tide.
A “flame tree” outside the Flame Tree Restaurant.

After a Nauru Airlines flight delay of 48 hours, I arrived in Nauru; an island nation that used to be one of the world’s richest per capita, but is unfortunately now one of the poorest.  This change was due to over-exploitation of massive phosphate deposits by foreign countries and later Nauru itself.  The removal of the phosphate left a lot of coral pinnacle formations.  It only takes about three hours to hike around the entire country; four if it’s really hot and you stop for the occasional beer or dip in the ocean. 

Welcome to Nauru. This is the entire country.
Coral pinnacle formations.
Cantilever used to load and unload ships. Currently ships can’t get closer than the edge of the reef. There is a quay under construction.
Weightlifting is popular for both women and men on Nauru.
Weightlifters need loads of protein, so these little piggies better be careful.
Engine from a phosphate train on display outside of a tiny museum on Nauru’s history.

Next up was Kiribati; one of the world’s smallest countries by landmass, yet one of the largest by sea territory.  I visited two islands; Tarawa and Abaiang.  South Tarawa was full of small villages and towns, busy, and easy to get around in by mini bus. One of the main Tarawa attractions is the World War II battle site and its Japanese coastal guns and bunkers. Abaiang was less developed, rustic, and more laid back. I got there and back by two-hour boat ride, but there is a occasional plane option. Both islands had lots of places to swim (high tide) and walk out to look for various critters (low tide). The Kiribati people I met were all friendly and helpful. I enjoyed both islands.

Blue on the ocean side and green on the lagoon side of Tarawa atoll, Kiribati.
Japanese gun and bunkers left over from the World War II battle of Tarawa.
Looking back at Tarawa during low tide.
Passengers first ride a 25-passenger boat from Tarawa, then transfer in groups to a tiny motorboat, and finally walk through the swallow water to arrive to Abaiang atoll.

All in all it was a fun trip to three countries with three distinct personalities. The most challenging parts were getting a Nauru visa and scheduling flights. The best part was meeting lots of really friendly people in a relaxing part of the world.

Christmas on the Coast: the Gulf Seashores of Mississippi

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but don’t like snow- then I suggest a trip to the US Gulf Coast. Stretching from Florida to Texas, the white sand beaches and quaint coastal towns, coupled with 70 degree days, are a delight in the off-peak winter months.

A “sandman” greets us at Christian Pass, Mississippi

The Gulf Coast isn’t complete without a ‘Pascagoula Run’, so avoid I-10 and take Highway 90 instead to Pascagoula. Are you a Parrothead? Look for the Buffet Bridge near Buffet Beach, a 2015 honor for local-boy-made-good Jimmy Buffet. You can also stop by his childhood home on Madison and see a plaque, and imagine a young Jimmy listening to tales from his grandfather, a ship captain.

Buffet Bridge, Pascagoula

Ready to fuel up on some lunch? According to Charles McCool of McCool Travel, you can’t beat the po’boys at Bozo’s Seafood Market. Order seafood at the deli, a sandwich from the counter, or just pick up some groceries at this market, which has been around since 1956. I recommend their shrimp or their oyster po’boy, or if you can’t decide, get their half-and-half. Watch out for their cocktail sauce- it has a nice kick!

Bozo’s Seafood Market, Pascagoula

On your way out of town, stop in at the Lighthouse Park. For $2, you can climb to the top and see the 360 degree views. Take a short walk to the boat launch, and look for the plaque commemorating the 1973 alien abduction of two men fishing the river one night. Hoax? True story? Decide for yourself.

Pascagoula Lighthouse

Heading west, consider stopping for the night at Ocean Springs. In the morning, be sure to grab a biscuit and a pour-over coffee at Greenhouse on Porter– they have a daily special combo of one sweet and one savory, and you can sit inside their actual greenhouse to eat your breakfast.

A chocolate chip oatmeal cranberry biscuit, and a cheesy broccoli with roasted tomato biscuit from Greenhouse on Porter’s, Ocean Springs

Ocean Springs is also home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Center. You can take a guided walk with a ranger, watch the movie about the barrier islands, or fish off their piers. All kinds of pelicans, gulls, terns, and shorebirds can be spotted here. Ferries run to the uninhabited Gulf Shore islands from mid-May to mid-October.

Gulf Shores National Seashore Visitor’s Center

Crossing the Biloxi Bay Bridge, you’ll see several huge casinos and resorts- Harrah’s, MGM, Margaritaville, Beau Rivage, and more. If gambling is your thing, stay a night or two in the high rise hotels- what a great sunset view! Otherwise the beach side of Biloxi offers everything from campsites, to RV parks, motels, and bed and breakfasts.

Hard Rock Cafe, Biloxi

If you’re looking for a little bit of a different take on the standard Cajun cuisine, definitely pop in to Le Bakery, where you can get Vietnamese iced coffee, bubble tea, and bahn mi po’boys. We tried both the coconut curry chicken and the lemongrass pork. Dressed up with cilantro, daikon radish, pickled carrots, and fresh onion, drizzled with soy sauce, and served on crusty French bread, it’s really good. And under $5!

Bahn Mi Po’boys and Almond Bubble Tea from Le Bakery in Biloxi

There’s a section of the Biloxi beach front worth stopping in at for a little bit of history- the Biloxi Lighthouse Pier. A sign there tells the story of the 1960s civil rights “wade-ins” that spurred the creation of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. From that beach, you can also get easy access to the grassy median full of old oak trees. Many have been damaged by fire, hurricanes, lightning, or old age, and artists have used the remaining stumps to carve designs into them. They are all up and down the coast, but here in Biloxi you can catch a dozen or so.

Oak Tree Carvings, Biloxi
Biloxi Beach

Heading west from Biloxi, a fun stop is historic downtown Gulfport. Plenty of small bars, restaurants, and coffee shops all back up to Fishbone Alley, covered from end to end with paintings, drawings, poetry, and street art. The paving stones used in the alley were actually discovered under the main street after hurricane Katrina destroyed part of the city, and date back to the turn of the century.

Fishbone Alley, Gulfport

At the University of Southern Mississippi Gulfport Campus is the Friendship Oak Tree, a huge monolithic oak tree (actually duolith, as it’s two trees that grew together into one!) that dates back to 1458. At over 500 years of age, this ancient tree has sure seen a lot of history. A plaque at the tree says that “Those who enter my shadow will remain friends forever”, so bring a loved one with you.

Friendship Oak, Gulfport

It’s tempting to finish off a Gulf Coast trip in Gulfport- but continue west to Pass Christian and Bay St Louis for a small town, unique beach vibe. In Pass Christian, take a short detour onto Scenic Drive and see some of the prettiest beach-front homes in the state. They look especially nice all done up with holiday lights and decorations.

Crossing the bay bridge into Bay St Louis, the small town features dozens of locally owned boutiques, b-and-b’s, bars, yoga studios, art galleries, antique shops, and ice creameries. Dotted around town you can also find four different “Angel” tree statues carved by chainsaw artist Dayle Lewis, carved from oaks destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. There’s a community garden, and I spotted at least two Little Free Libraries. Clearly this is a town that places a high value on community, which is nice to enjoy even when on vacation.

Bay St Louis
Crawfish Étouffée Omelette at The Buttercup on 2nd, Bay St Louis

There’s more Gulf Coast to see, once you pass into Louisiana and then Texas, or if you head east to Alabama and Florida. For more information on the Gulf Coast shores, visit the US Gulf Coast Travel website, or download the “My Gulf Coast” app from the Coastal Mississippi website. There’s also a few visitors centers dotted along the beach road, and their staff are always happy to point you in a good direction.

What’s your favorite Gulf Coast destination?

The Art of Burning Man 2019

Chris and I returned to Burning Man again in August of 2019. This was my second year and his fourth. The theme this year was “Metamorphoses”. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Burning Man are pretty hard to describe, so I’ll just post a few of my favorite art pictures (all taken with my iphone):

“I.L.Y.” by Dan Mountain
“Mariposita” by Chris Carnabuci
“The Temple of Direction” by Geordie Van Der Bosch
“The Folly” by Dave Keane and the Folly Brothers
“Giant Harmonic Pendulum” by Gyuszi Suto
“Wing Portal” by a group of California artists. After the Burn, it will be publicly installed in a part of California that was affected by the wildfires last year
“Alternity” by Roy (The Wiz) Trammell
“Bee Dance” by Andrea Greenlees, Andy Tibbetts, and Josh Haywood
“The Man” by Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu
“The Awakening” by Philip DePoala
“Sacred Grounds” by Michael Benisty
“Love” by Laura Kimpton
“Paraluna” by Christopher Schardt
The Temple Burns

For more pictures from Burning Man 2018, visit my post from last year.

Could you Downsize from a Townhome to a 40 Liter backpack?

suitcases stacked

Four years ago Chris and I rented out our house, stored all our belongings, and backpacked southeast Asia for a year. At that point we had only lived in our home for two years, so we hadn’t acquired too much stuff, and we could Continue reading “Could you Downsize from a Townhome to a 40 Liter backpack?”