I road-tripped it out to West Texas this weekend, because why not. It was my birthday, I'd never seen the mountains in my own state, and I was in the mood for a nice little drive.
I took off Friday morning for Bandera, which claims to be the "cowboy capital of the world." I'd found plenty online about the surrounding ranches, but not much about the town itself, so I was charmed out of my mind when I rolled in and laid eyes on it for the first time. Rows of little streets and shops, a coffeehouse and local dives, churches and bars in equal measure, and a water tower emblazoned "BANDERA: STATE CHAMPS, 2002" overlooking the whole scene. If I was going to film some kind of western or Friday Night Lights spin-off, Bandera would be the scene for sure. I ate it up.
On a whim, I decided to call one of the aforementioned ranches and see if I could wiggle my way onto one of their trail rides. I haven't ridden since I was working at Deer Valley last summer, and I miss it. The first place I called had a small group going out at three, and I guess I sounded reliable enough over the phone for them to let me on.
I signed a waiver at the front office when I arrived and was directed to a corral out back.
"I'm Bubba," a crusty old man clad head to toe in Wrangler denim announced, shaking my hand. "And you are?"
"Ryley," I said.
"Ryley? Huh. Well, that's different," said the man who, you'll recall, literally just introduced himself as "Bubba," but whatever.
As Bubba peppered me with questions, he learned about the previous working-on-a-ranch thing. Immediately, he lost all customer service pretense, lighting up a cigarette and telling lively stories of clueless guests and staff debacles. When the others in our group arrived, he had me hold their horses while they mounted and tossed me the reins to a "fun" ride, which was a vague & slightly alarming description ("Listen, hey, yeah, can you please define 'fun?'") but turned out to be true in the nicest, mildest sense — smooth and sweet and responsive.
We wound our way to the highest point on the ranch, stopping for a while just to sit and take in the view. Sprawling hill country from the best seat in the house, as far as I'm concerned — it was perfection.
The ultimate goal of the trip was to get to Alpine, Texas, & my plan after Bandera was to make it a couple more hours west to Kickapoo Cavern State Park, sleep in my car, & drive the remaining distance Saturday morning.
The landscape shifted dramatically as I went, traffic becoming increasingly scarce as the road twisted further south to meet the rising border. Trees vanished from the landscape and the hills slowly flattened out to nothing, until you could literally see miles and miles of Texas. (You're so welcome for that link.)
By the time I turned onto the long, winding road to the park, I'd seen no other cars for a solid while. I stopped at one point to get a mini-skate in at sunset, but I couldn't shake the weirdness of being somewhere so vast and so empty. I could hear the wind sweeping across curves in the road. I only lasted a few minutes before throwing my board back in the car and hustling the rest of the way to the park, anticipating it being at least decently populated with other campers, as I had confidently assured my parents it would be. Just like I had confidently assured them that I'd chosen the park further from Mexico of the two along my route without really accounting for relativity, given that the other was literally on the border.
Anyway, the point is, I was the only one in the entire park. I set up the back of my car for sleeping and made myself a peanut butter sandwich, thinking others might eventually show up, but it didn't look promising. When I grabbed my phone to call my dad and let him know I'd made it, I realized that not only did I not have neighbors, I had zero cell service, too, and the spare flip phone in my backpack was dead.
My senior year of high school, a group of fellow youth-groupers and I were planning to drive down to South Padre for a beach trip. My friend James, the worst-case scenario king, was extraordinarily concerned, and kept warning me not to cross the border.
"Not even for cheap tacos?" I joked. "C'mon, what's the worst that could happen?"
James' eyes lit up like tiny Christmas trees.
"'What's the worst that could happen?'" he responded, as I remembered, too late, who I was talking to.
I don't remember how, but in just three steps, James took me from cheap tacos to — I kid you not — being "beheaded by the cartel and put on YouTube." Not just beheaded by the cartel, people. Beheaded by the cartel and put on YouTube.
I rolled my eyes then, and I rolled them again when 18-year-old James' words popped into my head as I crawled back behind the wheel at KCSP, planning to drive until I had a few bars to touch base and return to my campsite.
But after passing not one, not two, NOT THREE, but four border patrol cars — all full of officers, each with flashlights, crawling along and casing the front half of the park — I tapped out. I mean, maybe they're always that thorough, but with no way to know, no one around, and no way to contact the outside world, it seemed unwise to test fate.
As soon as I had a signal, I called my parents, explained, and sheepishly suggested backtracking to the nearest Holiday Inn. I don't know that my dad has ever so willingly dropped a hundred bucks on me.
An hour and a half later, I was standing in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Uvalde, Texas; feeling a little disappointed that I wasn't doing the most adventurous part of my adventure BUT slightly redeemed by the fact that I was at least staying at a hotel that had signs hanging all over pleading, "Welcome dove hunters! Please clean your birds OUTSIDE. The water hose is located next to the dumpster for your use. Please do not clean them in your room. Thank you, The Management."
I was back on the road by eight the next morning, with nothing but four hours of pavement between me and mountains. It was hard to believe, given the surrounding landscape.
I took almost no photos along the way, for the same reason I don't bother trying to take photos of the moon — because there are some things that a camera, iPhone (yes, uppity iPhone 7 people, even yours) or otherwise, just can't capture. Trying to fit that kind of bigness into pixels was a lost cause.
Southwest Texas is the kind of barren that gets in your bones. The wonder that such a massive expanse of nothingness exists in my world is exhilarating, but a little unsettling. Wilderness in Colorado still felt like there was people in it — or at least potential for them, behind whatever mountain happened to be immediately in front of you. In Southwest Texas, there are no peaks or valleys to hide your isolation.
There is a vast emptiness and harshness to the land; and it's only intensified by an awareness of the border, and the uneasiness and hostility that comes with it and all its issues. Fences to my left, the Mexico side, were high and laced with barbed wire and electric. Gates were rusted out metal, stamped boldly with their corresponding ranch brand — less decoration, more declaration. Ours. Yours. Stay in, stay out. The border patrol cars and frequent checkpoints didn't do anything for creating a warm atmosphere, either.
I know I couldn't hack it out there, though occasional signs of human life — mail boxes, a single dirt driveway winding to nowhere, a "TOURISM INFORMATION" sign in Langtry — told me others, apparently, could.
For those people, I have so many questions. Where are they, for starters; and how did they get here? What food do they eat? Where do they get it? Are they all trained in medicine, or do they just have to die when they get sick or injured? Where do they get gas? Who is their cell provider? Do they know who won the World Series? Do they know what the World Series is? Where do their children go to school? Do they have children? Do they intermarry, or do they send their young men out periodically to woo women and then spring it on them right after the wedding that, surprise, they're going to be in training to colonize Mars for the rest of their life? Has Langtry EVER had any tourists?
I loved the drive, but I'll admit, I was itching for a change of scenery and some human interaction by the time I rolled into Alpine. It was everything I hoped and more, too; a blend of small-town Texas and mountain hub, something I didn't even know was possible.
I wandered through stores and mural-hopped nursing a coffee from Plaine, visited the Big Bend museum at Sul Ross, and hiked Hancock Hill (along with a few other random trails) for mountain views that left me smitten.
My expectations for the Davis and Chisos were considerably low, and I feel like I owe them a formal apology, because they were incredible.
The Rockies are the Rockies — towering, huge, majestic. The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia are more like high-elevation hills; wide and rolling. What mountains in Texas lack in height or breadth by comparison, though, they make up for in drama. Often seeming too tall for their more narrow bases, they burst suddenly from the ground, their mismatched crags and peaks reminding me of hastily-built sandcastles. When I headed north to Monahans later that afternoon, my windows were filled with horizons of them layered upon each other, one after another, like some funky art piece that belonged in one of Alpine's little galleries.
I audibled for the second night in a row when the road to Monahans Sandhills State Park grew increasingly rainy. Weather forecasts told me it wouldn't be stopping anytime soon, and rangers informed me the sand dunes for which I was visiting the park wouldn't be much fun until it did.
Rather than shell out for another hotel room or try and coax a campsite from another park, I found my way to I-10 East and pointed my car towards home. Eight hours later, I was laying in my own bed with a check mark on my bucket list and a full, happy heart.
Because sometimes, it's good to just get out of town — way, way out.