My husband, Charley, and I got married in October 2008, at our house in Kerrville, TX. We couldnʼt afford to do our honeymoon then, so we essentially planned and saved for over a year. We both agreed that Big Bend National Park, out in West Texas, was where we wanted to go. Charley and I had spent a great week in Big Bend when we had first started dating, and we really couldnʼt wait to get back there.
Finally, after all of the planning and waiting, we found ourselves on the road between Marathon and the park, smelling the creosote bushes and watching the landscape gradually change to desert. This was Charleyʼs second trip to Big Bend and my fifth. Still, the grandeur of the Chisos mountains and mesas instantly gave both of us that familiar feeling of being small and insignificant. Big Bend is certainly beautiful, but it is also harsh and jarring. I had learned on my previous trips that you can not make plans in the desert. As soon as you do, the scorching sun will turn to hail, or youʼll pop your second tire on a back road with nobody but a roadrunner to help you. In Big Bend National Park, the desert is definitely the one making all the plans, and youʼd better be the kind of person that can go with the flow.
Our first few days in Big Bend went fairly smoothly. We hiked to the top of the Chisos mountains, and we spent a night with the local bohemians that live in the nearby Terlingua ghost town. We did get thunderstorms every afternoon, but, for the most part, it would dry up overnight. Then, we decided to stay at a primitive campsite near Santa Elena Canyon, since that was the one side of the park we had never stayed at. The park ranger helped us pick out the best campsite and told us weʼd be the only ones there for the night, which is what we liked. The primitive campsites at Big Bend are great, because you can camp places where there is literally nobody within a ten mile radius. We got to our campsite at about 3PM, and it was beautiful. The Rio Grande canyon was our background, and the campsite was surrounded by hills with layers of multi-colored sand. The rusty carcass of a 1930ʼs automobile laid next to our campsite. We mused over how it may have ended up there and how many rattlesnakes were now living underneath it. We walked down a path that led to a stream bed and were surprised to find a slight trickle of water leftover from the previous nightsʼ rain. After thoroughly exploring our campsite, the afternoon thunderstorms began to build, so we quickly went to work putting up our tent.
As soon as we had we finished setting up the tent, that extensive Texas sky became a vortex of monstrous, black clouds. Lightning like I had never seen began to dance and crash all around us. Charley and I got in the truck to wait it out. We sat in the truck for a good 30 minutes, watching the rain on the windshield and the lightning land dangerously close. We realized that this storm was not going to pass by quickly, so we decided to kill some time driving down Maverick Rd, the back road that our campsite was off of. About a mile down the road, the rain began to come down hard, and the desert ground could not absorb it fast enough. It must have been raining just as hard north of us, because, suddenly, small streams began to flow across the road on their way to the Rio Grande. The firmly packed, dirt road was quickly turning into a road of pudding and chocolate milk. Streams were cutting ravines into the road. Charley put my truck into 4-low, and we turned back for our campsite as soon as we could find a good spot to do so. We officially got nervous when, on our way back to our campsite, we noticed how much the road had changed in such a short period of time. When we saw the rushing water flowing down the road toward our campsite, Charley and I looked
at each other, with a sinking feeling.
Our tent was sitting in the middle of a stream. The water had washed out the dirt holding in our stakes, and the rainfly had been blown off. Everything we had was soaking wet. The creekbed that had only contained a slight trickle, was now a rushing river. This had all happened in a matter of about twenty minutes.
It had taken us half an hour to set the tent up, and it took about seven to take it down. We threw all of our wet gear into the back of the truck and decided to make a run for it. The question was, which way should we try to escape? Our choices were the 14 mile dirt, Maverick Rd that we had just been slipping and sliding on, or the main, pavement road that we had originally come in on. We knew that the main road was subject to flooding – we even had to cross a little water on the drive in, earlier that day – but, surely, it couldnʼt be as bad as Maverick Rd. We decided to try the main road.
We knew the water crossing we had come across earlier would be right at the beginning of the road. If we could make it across that, we would hopefully be home free. When we turned onto the main road, we immediately noticed a sign that read, “Warning. Next 7 miles subject to flooding”. Shortly after the sign, we came to the underwater part of the road that we had anticipated. It was significantly higher than when we had crossed it earlier that afternoon. The warning cones were now underwater. Charley was driving, so I decided to wade out into the water to see how deep it was. We measured my legs against the truck and determined that if the water reached my knees, it would be too deep. With lightning still crashing all around us, I waded across the road, trying to keep my crocs from getting stuck in the mud. In the deepest part, the water just came to the bottom of my knees. Charley and I sat for awhile in the truck. We gave ourselves a 50/50 chance of making it across. If we made it, we could maybe even make it to a hotel room in Marathon. If we didnʼt, weʼd end up on youTube, being pulled off the roof of my truck by a helicopter from the middle of the Rio Grande. We decided to go for it.
My truck has always had the name, Rosie, but she rarely gets called by her name except for in moments when she is desperately needed. “Come on, Rosie,” we both cooed to her. “You can do this.” With our hearts pounding and our butts admittedly puckered, Rosie carried us across like a champ. Having just watched the water go up to the wheel bases for a decently long stretch of road, I gave Rosie a kiss on the dashboard. Our spirits lifted a bit, as we were pretty certain that we had just made it across the worst part. About a fourth of a mile later, our spirits were deflated; as we came to another crossing equal in size and in deepness to the first. And so we continued on, every quarter mile my knees would gauge if Rosie could make it across. After about 10 crossings, we had made it 4 miles. Finally, we made it to a crossing that was above my knees. In the previous crossing, Rosie had nearly bogged down in some silt in the deepest part, so we had no desire to turn around. It looked like we were stuck for the night. We grabbed a beer out of the back of the truck and tried to slow down our adrenaline. Charley and I put rocks at the waterʼs edge to see if the water was rising or falling. Midway through our beers, we noticed that the water was falling. After fourty minutes, the water had dropped below my knees. We hopped back into the truck, and Rosie made it across with ease.
Cautiously, we allowed ourselves to hope again. The road looked like it was starting to head uphill. A beautiful, double rainbow arched in front of us. Then, we hit mile 5. Mile 5 had one of the most unbelievable sites I had ever seen. A river, an actual river, was flowing across the road. There was a 2 foot wave train down the center, and huge logs were rushing past. It would have been like trying to drive across the Rio Grande. I had never witnessed flash floods up close and personal, and I was not prepared for the magnitude and the volume that could accumulate in such a short period of time. We knew Rosie couldnʼt get us through that one, so we sat back and tried to enjoy the stupid rainbow. Charley and I split a bag of Cheetos for dinner, and we scrounged up the few dry articles of clothing in the front of the truck for blankets. We settled in for a night of fitful sleep inside the front of Rosie.
At about midnight, horses began to whinny, and they sounded fairly close to the truck. They could have been wild horses from Mexico that had become stuck on the Texas side of the river. They could also have been Mexican drug smugglers on horseback that liked to smuggle drugs when the roads get washed out and nobody can get to them. At any rate, Charley slept with the pocket knife.
The next morning, the water was down. About two feet of mud remained, but it was compact. We made it across easily. We made it another mile, and we found an even wider area of road covered in 3-4 feet of silt. Obviously, the river across this part of road had been even bigger. There was even still a stream in the middle of it. Anyone could have easily looked at this and determined that no vehicle could make it across.
Yet, at the other end of it, a park ranger truck sat stuck in the mud. Ranger “Frank” and Ranger “Rick” (his actual name) stood next to it, scratching their heads. They yelled to us from across the wash, “Donʼt be stupid and try to cross this. Youʼll get stuck!”
Charley and I waded through the mud that came up to our thighs to get to the rangers. Ranger Rick told us that they had called for a dozer to come clear the roads. There were some other washes beyond where we were. Maybe, maybe, they would be able to get us out today, assuming it did not rain again. Charley and I looked at the clouds in the sky and asked the rangers what our chances were at making it out on the old Maverick Road.
“I wouldnʼt risk it,” he said. “If you get stuck there, it will be days before we can get you out.” So, Charley and I made ourselves at home in the middle of the road. We took everything out of the truck to dry. Charley made bloody maryʼs and eggs for breakfast.
We had just finished eating breakfast, when we heard the sound of a truck coming from behind us. Two Mexican guys in a big, white Ford truck (to us, knights in shining armor) rolled up, and we told them our story. They worked for a company that had to check the water gauges on a daily basis. One of the guys got out and put on his waders, to see if they could make it across the muddy wash. They quickly decided it was not possible. Charley and I liked these guys. We trusted their judgement. They said they had easily been able to make it through Maverick Road with their four-wheel drive. They thought we could, too.
With that, Charley and I loaded up the truck again, and we went back across everything we had the afternoon before. The water had all gone back down. Maverick Road was 14 miles of 4-low, but it was nothing like what we had done the day before. Rosie made it through, and Charley and I made it to a hotel, where a gang of benevolent bikers took us under their wing for the night. But that, my friends, is a story for another time.