In planning our Texas tour, I knew that Big Bend National Park would be our prime destination after leaving the city part of the trip, but I was worried that, with Big Bend being at least a six-hour drive, we would be spending a whole day of a fairly short vacation on travel, so I was anxious to find something in between. A little research in my usual source, the Lonely Planet, as well as Frommer's and online sites, brought Seminole Canyon State Park and its excellent pictographs, almost exactly half-way to Big Bend, to my attention. So I had made hotel reservations in the nearby town of Del Rio, and figured we could leave San Antonio without getting up at the crack of dawn and still be able to get to the park in time for the second of two daily tours that they run from Wednesday through Sunday, at 10 AM and 3 PM (apparently, they don't do the afternoon tour in the summertime because it is too damn hot!). The road was straightforward and the countryside not particularly interesting, although in the vicinity of Bracketville we passed a ridge on the left with a collection of wind turbines, and a field on the right that appeared to be studded with solar panels (Smitty had told us to anticipate both when we looked at our itinerary back in Austin).
We made good time, however, so we stopped in Del Rio and dropped our bags at the local Best Western, where we were staying. The Best Western was a perfectly adequate accommodation, but the response I got when I tried to get some confirmation of just help much further we would need to drive to get to Seminole Canyon State Park, and the desk clerk plainly had no idea what I was talking about: she said, you mean Big Bend (which is three hours further). The room was comfortable, though, and reasonably sized, and breakfast included not only cereal and muffins and waffles made in a mold the shape of Texas (a very common items in inexpensive Texas motels, I have found on various work trips to the Dallas area), but a sort of omelet, and sausage patties, and biscuits.
On we went to Seminole Canyon, first passing Amistad National Recreation Area which is plainly the focus of many tourists staying in Del Rio. We reached the park about a half hour final scheduled tour of the Fate Bell Shelter for the day, which leaves at 3 PM, and spent the time looking at exhibits explaining the origins of the park’s name — they discussed was a set of Black Seminole scouts, the descendants of escaped slaves who settled in and raised families with the Seminoles in the Florida area, and who then who served the US Army in the Texas area in tracking down and fighting those Native American tribes in the area who were still resisting colonization and extermination in the post-Civil War years.
There was a huge group of tourists waiting to be led – an older woman, who turned out to be ouir tour guide, commented that she had never seen such a large group; it was divided into two parts to make viewing more manageable. Talking to her, I learned that she was a long-retired volunteer, technically associated with the Rock Art Foundation rather than with the Texas Parks Department itself, who lives many states away but comes back to this area regularly. She loves the site and makes herself available as a guide, rather like a volunteer docent at a museum, to share her love of the materials and what she has learned about them over the years.
We began by walking down a set of stairs to look at the walls along this overhang from the lip of the canyon near the visitors center
Above us was a long wall full of several sections of pictographs
drawn about 4000 years ago by a group whose name was never given, just “Archaic People”
We looked both at the various panels
and at copies of watercolor paintings that had been made back in the 1930's showing the figures far more vividly than they are today
Another wall section, compared with the drawings years before
There have been a variety of explanations of the rapid fading of pictographs that had previously lasted for thousands of years, including the theory that the vast increase in moisture in the air as a result of the damming of the Devils River to create the Amistad Reservoir. Our guide told is that at the current rate of fading, the pictographs could be gone by mid-Century.
As we returned to the visitors center, we stopped to admire a statuary tribute to the people who had executed the pictographs below
Because we were so far at the western end of the Central time zone, it was not getting dark until around 8 PM, so we decided to take the Windmill Nature Trail along the top of the canyon. We bought a one-dollar booklet with numbered stops but we could not find any of the numbered locations; still, it was a nice little walk and we saw a number of the plants we would be seeing again and again in Big Bend National Park
Back in Del Rio, we looked for a nice place for dinner. The guidebooks all suggested heading across the river to Ciudad Acuña for the best meals, and I was feeling badly that I hadn’t studied them more carefully before leaving DC, so that we could have brought our passports to cross the border. Later on, though, I learned from knowledgeable locals that Ciudad Acuña has become pretty dangerous, that the State Department now and that even middle-class tourists are in danger of being kidnapped for small ransoms, so perhaps it was just as well that we did not have our passports.
We settled instead on a restaurant called El Patio, which was nicely reviewed on Yelp and Trip Advisor, but trying it for dinner was a big mistake. The signs on the outside all advertised the day-long buffet, and maybe it would have been good at lunch-time, but at dinner time the buffet food looked greasy, doughy and tired. We ordered off the menu, which seemed promising, but they are plainly not used to having their customers eat from anything but the buffet, because they were out of almost everything we tried to order; what we were able to order was inferior. I cannot recommend eating there.
I had hoped that we could go back to Seminole Canyon and take a longer hike, maybe even get a boat ride to Panther Cave, a separate pictograph site in the same park, but my spouse was having trouble with the site of an insect bite that kept getting redder and redder, and then painful. So she spent part of the evening checking around online for medical clinics, and settled on the most popular one, Dr. Jaime Gutierrez, indeed the one that ripened earliest in the morning. When we headed for breakfast at around 7:30 AM, dawn was barely breaking – here is a photo from the parking lot of our motel.
She got to his office shortly after 8 and got the full experience of urgent care in rural Texas – she did not get out until after noon, with a prescription of antibiotics which was all she needed. I’ll say this for the Best Western – they were very understanding of our circumstances and allowed me to stay in the room, taking advantage of what was likely to be my last Internet access until after leaving Big Bend national park a few days later; the day before, I had filed a pretty controversial report on a free speech issue relating to my alma mater, Reed College, and I had to address the reactions..
We decided to have lunch because, as limited as our culinary choices were in Del Rio, there did not look to be much hope for any restaurants for the first couple of hours of driving westward. We decided to try a place just up the street, Don Marcellino’s. We placed our order at the counter and took a number that would tell the wait staff where to bring our food. It was nothing special, but a fair improvement on our experience the evening before.
We then undertook the long drive toward Big Bend National Park. The first couple of hours were flat, fairly boring country side, but after we turned south at Sanderson, the landscape became more dramatic, reminding us of the views around Capitol Reef National Park a few years before, although not so colorful. Our route took us through the National Park (the sweet deal for folks over sixty, lifetime free park admissions for a $10 pass, very nice!), and we got to the main visitors center at Panther Junction a half hour after the normal 5 PM closing time; luckily for us, they were open until 6 for spring break, so we were able to get some good advice on trails and wildflowers.
But the hour was late, and we wanted to get to our motel past Big Bend in time for dinner, worrying that the town might be so small that everything would close up early. We reached our hotel in Terlingua (I’ll recount that sad experience in a future blog post), and then after dropping our bags we headed into the Terlingua Ghost Town (more about that later too); this is where the action was. We tried to eat at the Starlight Theater, but by the time we arrived, after 7 PM, there was a two hour wait for dinner. They suggested we try the Boathouse, and that is what we did. The place was more a bar than a restaurant, and the menu options were severely limited. But a very nice solo singer/songwriter was performing, playing his guitar and singing with a rich, deep voice. We were OK with the combination, but determined to do better for our following days in the area.