Texas Traveler: Terlingua to the Park

Categories: Texas Traveler

La Kiva fire.jpg
Photos by Brittanie Shey
Fire at La Kiva
Ed. Note: This is the fourth part in a series of posts on traveling to Big Bend and back. Click back to read posts 1, 2 and 3.

Let me start off by saying that if you are a Big Bend virgin and you have the opportunity to visit the park for the first time with a seasoned veteran, jump on that chance. If the veteran also happens to be a professional geologist, you are in for a real treat.

And so it was that after almost a week of exploring West Texas, we finally made it to our destination, Big Bend National Park. We checked into Big Bend Motor Inn in Terlingua, Texas, a ghost town that now houses a few buildings and served as one of the northern entryway to the park. It was New Year's Eve, and our plan was to meet four other friends, so out for drinks, and begin exploring the park on January 1.

There isn't much in Terlingua other than a few overpriced supply stores. There isn't much anywhere in this part of Texas, which probably accounts for why BBNP, one of the biggest national parks in the country, also has the lowest visitor rate of any national park in the lower 48 states.

Our friends, who are driving in from Houston that day, haven't arrived yet, so we start the evening off with a fantastic (if overpriced) dinner at the Starlight Theatre, which is exactly what it sounds like -- an old movie theater turned diner. I eat an axis venison burger with raspberry chipotle mayo that pools on one side of my plate because, this being an old movie theater, the floor (and our table) incline downward towards the old screen and stage. Outside, hordes of people are gathered on the storefront's porch, sipping beers. There isn't much to do on New Year's Eve in Terlingua, and this is it.

La Kiva.jpg
La Kiva
​Back at the hotel we rendezvous with our friends and head to La Kiva for the night. The legendary bar is built into the side of a creek, and like a cave, you must descend a series of steps below ground to enter. Outside, giant fire pits are raging, while inside, a bar band featuring the head botanist for BBNP is playing covers of The Talking Heads and Grateful Dead.

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The famous Penisaurus erectus
​La Kiva is infamous for many reasons. On the wall there is a sculpture pieced together from the bleached bones of dead desert animals referred to fondly as Penisaurus erectus. In the men's room, a gigantic copper pot serves as a urinal. And the place is huge -- I'm led on a rogue tour, lighted only by cell-phone displays, of yet another level below the one we're dancing on, old dusty rooms filled with picnic tables, broken rows of theater seats and who knows what else.

The towns in this area have some archaic law that the bars must close at midnight. (We experienced this at Padre's in Marfa too), which means the band has to give an early countdown at 11:45 p.m. after which we are all unceremoniously kicked out of the bar. Not content with this toast, my friends and I stand in the parking lot, pouring cheap champagne carted in from Houston into plastic cups pilfered from the hotel, watching the satellite clock on my iPhone tick down until 11:59:59. We toast each other, and in a round we share our best parts of the last years, our worst parts and what we hope for 2010. It's a pretty awesome way to start the new year.

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Santa Elena canyon
​The next morning we get up super early and rive into the park, where we pay the $20 for a 7-day pass. Our first destination is Santa Elena canyon, an easy hike following a night of revelry. To get there, we take the most direct route, a primitive park road called Old Maverick. The giant gash, carved over billions of years by the now-dwindled Rio Grande, is visible in the distance. When we finally get there, we have to walk across a wide swath of sand to get to the trail that leads up the canyon.

Twenty feet in front of me is Mexico, and this is the closest I have ever been. The river is narrow and shallow here, and the temptation to wade across it is huge. I want to stand on the other side and have someone take my picture, but I do not dare risk getting arrested or worse. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the border between Texas and Mexico is the deepest part of the river as it flowed in 1848, the year the treaty was signed. So, in other words, the border doesn't exist anymore. At least not the physical one. I am still not willing to take my chances.


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