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Big Bend '17: No. 13 - Chisos Basin Epilogue

The drive back to the Chisos Basin from Santa Elena Canyon involved a daring drive down a dark, worn, and rocky path known as Maverick Road. Fortunately, we managed to make it back to a paved road unscathed, and returned to Chisos Basin for one last night.

The dirt path may have been called Maverick Road, but the "Road" portion of the name was very misleading as the dirt path was riddled with large rocks, deep pits, and traversed multiple ravines. Even with Travis' large truck, we were at risk of damaging the drivetrain or popping a tire, either of which would have left us stranded out in the desert all night. Moreover, we were fortunate that the ravines were completely dry because even a little water could have made them impassable with a rear-wheel-drive truck.

However, it’s not a real Big Bend trip unless you head down a road you've never been down to discover an adventure you've never experienced. The unforgiving road tossed us around for a good while, and we dodged more than a few obstacles, but in the end there was something entrancing about the isolation of the dark night. Our headlights danced across the flanking desert foliage and faded into dark nothingness only a short distance in front of us, making the path a focal point without an obvious destination in sight. It reminded me a little of being on the ocean when land fades and you are surrounded by an endless horizon.

Washboarding - Have you have ever driven down a dirt road and noticed ripples in the surface perpendicular to the path of travel that create an incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable ride? This phenomenon, known as washboarding or corrugation, seems to be caused by loose, granular road material that can be repeatedly manipulated by passing vehicles. As vehicles consistently manipulate the ground, ripples of a corresponding frequency begin to form. Over time, the ripples are further solidified by the fact that the only way to minimize the rough ride is to match the speed that created the ripples in the first place.

The feeling of being out at sea was only intensified by the transverse ripples along the road that caused a powerful vibration through the vehicle, punctuated by sharp impacts from larger rocks. It was similar to the crashing of waves along a hull, though the frequency was much higher. As is the case with rough seas, the washboarding was a real headache that seemed to go on forever.

As we began to wonder if this small dirt road would rattle all the nuts and bolts off our truck, we finally intersected with Panther Junction Rd (118) and headed back East towards the Chisos Basin. The comparatively quiet drone of the asphalt was a welcome change even though are bodies stubbornly held on to the hum of the dirt road. After a few minutes, our minds finally adjusted to a lower noise and vibration threshold, and the tingling sensation faded from our bodies.

Once we made it back to camp, we consumed our dinner and started to head to bed. As my eyes were inescapably drawn to the vast night sky, I couldn’t help but notice how much brighter the stars were even though the nearly full moon was still well above the basin. Without clouds to refract the moons light, the stars were able to shine brighter than on previous nights. I shielded the lens from the glare of the moonlight to my right, and while the stars aren’t as bright as they would be with a new moon, the moonlight added considerable detail to the towering walls of the basin that would have otherwise been lost. In the end, I think I like the result just as much as an image created during a moonless night.

I soaked in my final night in the Chisos Basin before finally retreating to the tent and snuggling into a warm sleeping bag. To limit the overpowering glow of the moon, we draped the rainfly over the tent, but left the doors open so some of the cold, dry air could still pass through. A rain fly can help to keep body heat in and limit the chill of a cold night, but the human body releases a considerable amount of moisture through the respiratory system, so you can wake up to a very wet and cold interior if the warm water vapor is allowed to hit the cold, water resistant rain fly and turn back to droplets of water. Allowing sufficient air to flow through the tent limits the condensation to a manageable amount.

As I slowly faded off to sleep, I was sad that we were no longer on the South Rim, and that we would be leaving the Chisos Mountains entirely the next morning. However, with every end there is an excitingly new beginning, and we still had a lot to see in Big Bend this trip.

© 2017-2019 Shaun C Tarpley


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