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

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?

How do you say goodbye to your hometown?

christmas tree at reston town center pavilion virginia

Six years ago, Chris and I left Africa and returned to the US. In just one short month, we lived in a hotel, got married, bought a house, got a job (Deah), and got deployment orders for nine months (Chris). It was a crazy month, and in that time, we found ourselves living in Reston, Virginia- which turned out to be our home for the next few years.

Reston has a very interesting history. It was one of the original Continue reading “How do you say goodbye to your hometown?”

A Day in DC: Embassy Row, the National Cathedral and Georgetown

washington dc georgetown

My friend Kelly came into town, and on one of the days I took her to see an area of DC I hadn’t spent enough time in: the northern part, which features Embassy Row, the National Cathedral, and Georgetown.

Embassy Row

Since we were in a car, it was easy enough for us to just slowly drive around the Kalorama neighborhood, near Massachusetts Avenue and Sheridan Circle. You could also take a Zip car- I noticed quite a few Zip cars in the area, and there were Capital Bike docks nearby as well, so a bike ride in nice weather would be a lovely way to see the embassies. DC has more than 175 foreign embassies, residences, and diplomatic missions, so don’t expect to see them all. But focusing on Massachusetts Avenue and nearby streets should let you see close to 30 of them, including Philippines, Portugal, Togo, Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus, Latvia, and Japan. My favorite is the imposing Kazakhstan Continue reading “A Day in DC: Embassy Row, the National Cathedral and Georgetown”

Day in DC: the Botanic Gardens, the National Geographic Museum, and Arlington National Cemetery

Library of Congress

Every time friends come in to town, my DC bucketlist seems to get longer, not shorter. It seems like DC is constantly adding museums, and of course even the museums I have been to change their exhibits quite frequently, warranting a return trip. So this week I found Continue reading “Day in DC: the Botanic Gardens, the National Geographic Museum, and Arlington National Cemetery”