Big Bend or Bust

By Jerry and Phyllis Spoor

We were on our Honda Valkyrie motorcycle. It has a 6-cylinder 104-horsepower water-cooled engine. It essentially consists of a car engine on a motorcycle. The saddlebags slip off and on easily and hold a fair amount of supplies. The bike has a rear rack and I created an additional rack extension that slips onto the permanent rack to allow for larger items. We put a large black suitcase, mounted horizontally and filled to the max, on this extra rack. We then placed 2 sleeping pads and a tent on top of the suitcase. We soon learned to use one of the sleeping pad bags to put ski pants and coats in when not needed. Even with all this weight, the bike was easy to handle when on good roads and little wind. Unfortunately, wind would not be in our favor on this trip.

We left Austin on Sunday morning, 5/20/01, at 7:00 a.m. The ride west on Hwy 290 was typical of other rides, but the weight on the rear of the bike was obvious. When we hit Hwy 10 and proceeded west, it was quite a thrill. This was our first time since living in Austin to be on a super highway with nothing but road in front of us. Sure, there is Hwy 1 and Hwy 35 in Austin, but they are more like parking lots or where you play bumper cars.

After about 100 miles on Hwy 10 we checked the rear tire and it was too hot. The manual says 33 psi and the tire says 41 psi. The motorcycle shop that installed the tire also said 41 psi. I split the difference and installed 37.5 psi. I hate to admit it but the motorcycle shop was right. It is difficult to add air with the tire hot but we tried to add a small amount. We had been flowing with the fast traffic at 85 mph so we slowed down to 70 mph.

The wind was really picking up. The gas mileage on the last leg of the trip to Balmorhea State Park was 23 mpg. There was a cold front coming in and we had 30 to 40 mph head winds. Add 70 to 30 or 40 and you have some strong winds.

We arrived at Balmorhea State Park on Sunday afternoon. Balmorhea is a simple park. It has excellent campsites and a large spring fed water supply. In fact, Balmorhea is located where it is because of the water supply. You can see the mountains in the distance and that is where the water comes from. It travels underground. At Balmorhea the lay of the ground faults forces the water up and out in the middle of an otherwise hostile desert. The quantity of water is very high. The Indians used it long before the Europeans set foot on the North American continent. You probably have seen many western movies where they found a spring in the middle of the desert. They really exist and this is one of the larger springs. Settlers going west and the Calvary used this spring during the 19th century. Half of the spring-fed area is in its natural state with many species of plants and animals. The other half has been turned in to a large swimming pool. The water in most of the pool is 25 feet deep. People go scuba diving there.

On Sunday evening at our campsite, we experienced a dust storm that seemed like a mini-twister. First it was peaceful and quiet as we were sitting at our picnic table. Then the dust storm hit without warning. The ferocious wind picked up dirt, sand, gravel and lots of items from campsites (including things which had been secured with rocks). Fortunately there was a barbwire fence about 300 feet away and it held many items. The campers walked along the fence and picked up items. Anything going over the fence was not worth looking for.

On Monday morning I woke up, got out of the tent and looked at the sunrise. I had never seen a sunrise like that. It has a dull orange glow in the center and was black on all 4 sides. I thought that was natural for the area. It was not. It was natural for an approaching dust storm. Phyllis had just entered the well constructed restroom to clean up. Soon afterwards the dust storm hit. I was still in the tent. I leaned up against the wall of the tent to support it and put my hat over my mouth. The storm was very strong for about 10 minutes. The campers on both sides of me grabbed everything they had and threw it into their van or car. What could I do? I just rode it out. The wind finally slowed down and I went to find Phyllis. She was still in the restroom and had missed all the excitement. We went back to the campsite and the wind was merely a strong breeze the rest of our stay.

I had picked up an air gauge on Sunday and was able to get air at Balmorhea on Monday. I set the rear tire pressure to 42 psi and learned that this was probably the best pressure for the weight we were carrying.

We left Balmorhea and went south on Hwy 17 to Ft. Davis. We traveled into the Davis Mountains on Hwy 118 all the way to the McDonald Observatory. We are now talking about very beautiful roads for a motorcycle. Before reaching McDonald Observatory we checked out Davis Mountains State Park. These are the most beautiful roads of any park. They wind to the top of a mountain on switch back roads where you can see for a long distance. From this mountain you can see the McDonald Observatory 14 road miles away. The road here has short sections of #10 rated areas for a motorcycle. There is a road that has a lot of #10 rating and we will get there soon.

 The trip to the McDonald Observatory leads you to the Summit of Mount Locke and the highest point of Texas highways, at 6791 feet elevation. The valley below is 5280 feet. The actual parking lot is about 40 feet below the private road leading to the observatory. We had to walk to the highest point and then 5 stories into the observatory to see the impressive telescope. On the way back to the motorcycle we saw the high point of the road where authorized vehicles could go. While we were not authorized, we drove the bike up to the top and crossed over the high point so we could claim to have ridden there. Then we examined another observatory and were astonished by the degree of technology that exists there.

 We proceeded south on Hwy 17 to Marfa and then on Hwy 67. We kept our speed at 65 to 70 mph. We had the wind behind us and this would be the only time that occurred during our trip. We checked the tires and they were running cool with the extra air pressure. The ride south to Presidio on Hwy 67 to the Mexico border was really great. Our gas mileage was about 44 mph and quite a difference from the 23 mph the day before. In Presidio, we stopped for a good sized meal in the afternoon. This was significant since it would be 48 hours before we had another good meal.

 It was about 3:00 p.m. and we were heading southeast on Hwy 170 along the Mexico border. This is also referred to as the River Road. The first 5 miles were beautiful and matched other great motorcycle roads. Then the road changed. It soon became the best road Iíve ever ridden a motorcycle on. This is the road that sets the standard for a top 10 rated road. At the 36-mile point the road was at its best with sharp turns and rapid variations in altitude. We stopped at one point to look at the view and the bike slid backward when using the front brake only. Phyllis had to get off so I could get to a more solid area of the road for traction. The Valkyrie once held the motorcycle production record for torque delivered to the rear wheel, and this torque came in handy. Taking off nearly brought the front wheel off the ground. We stopped on the top of the hill and walked out to the edge were the view was breathtaking.

 We kept riding to Big Bend National Park. The entrance consisted of a little building about 7 feet wide and 12 feet long where a lady took our entry fee and provided a map. She suggested that we camp at the higher altitude of the central campground where it would be cooler. As we proceeded into the center of Big Bend, we rose in altitude and the temperature got very cold. What we did not know was that a significant cold front was moving in. Since the temperature was so cold, we decided to camp at the southeast area in the Rio Grande campground. Our decision was good because the temperature was great. We soon found out that the temperature had been 101 degrees there earlier that day, but it went down to 50 degrees in only a few hours. This explained the very high winds and blowing dust we were encountering.

 We set our tent up before dark and slept okay considering the high winds that prevailed all night. We were warned about the javalinas and to definitely not have any food or food scent in our tent, or the javalinas would likely tear up our tent.  Some other campers saw a large group of javalinas rummaging around and we saw a couple just outside our tent that night. They look like large pigs. They normally are not dangerous, but they can be. If you get too close to a female with babies she can slice you up very badly with her razor teeth that curl up and protrude from both sides of her mouth. They were apparently upset with no food and decided to leave their own waste about 10 feet from our tent.

 The next morning we walked around the area and took a hike to the nearby canyon. This was a rather long hike with steep paths. The weather was cool and it was fun. After returning we proceeded back to the center of the park. At that time we had to determine if we would see the western leg of the park going down to the Santa Elena Crossing. This is the most beautiful road in the park. The distance is rather long at 42 miles from the park headquarters. We drove to the end and went on a hike down to the river and to another neat canyon. On the way back we stopped at every site available and walked every trail. The Burro Mesa trail is a 1 mile trip but it seemed like much more. The end of the trail continued to look close but it continued to elude us. The soft dry creek bed kept slipping away under our feet and making it difficult to walk. We finally reached the end. It was beautiful. But we were hot and tired and we had not been drinking enough water. This became the point in our trip that we knew we were overdoing it. We drove back to the center of Big Bend and then to the lodge area that is 7 miles off the main road. It is a fun drive as it goes over the top of a mountain range. We were still functioning all right and were absorbing the ride and views.

We had gone without lunch so we headed straight to the lodge restaurant and ordered high protein meals. Unfortunately, my body chose this time to rebel and seemingly shut down. I forced myself to eat what I could, but that was only two small bites. I needed to recuperate and get out of the sun.  Phyllis was doing okay at this point and she had been able to eat all of her meal and get some energy, but she could not drive the bike.

 At this time we had encountered more than we anticipated. The cold front brought in very heavy winds that made controlling the motorcycle strenuous. Then the dust from the winds were taking a toll on our lungs. The food we brought was not well selected and had almost no nutrition. I thought we were drinking enough water but we missed the electrolytes that need to be replenished. In the back of my mind I left the center campground lodge as a way out.

 There were only 4 campers the previous night at the Rio Grande campground and there are 50 camps sites and 4 restrooms. We assumed there were few visitors in the park. We therefore assumed there would be rooms at the lodge if we over did it and could not make it any further. We tried to rent a room at the lodge, but they were booked up. We drove to the nearby campground but there wasnít anything available there either. It seemed that a good rest in a motel was the only option. It was approximately 3 hours to Marathon where there might be a motel vacancy. We got back on the bike and headed north. We got to the Big Bend National Park north entry station at about 6:00 p.m. At that point I knew I couldnít drive any more. The station was closed so we sat on the east side of the building in the shade and I did very little for 2 hours as my pulse was very high. A nice couple stopped by and we traded our map of the park for some food and orange drink. I could not eat anything. The orange juice was really orange drink and was also unacceptable to my stomach. When it was getting dark we set up the tent between the station building and a tool shed behind it. We hid the motorcycle in some bushes behind the building. We rested for about 7 hours, then folded up the tent and left at daybreak.

 My body had apparently pulled on reserves and the cool drive to Marathon was ok. We got some electrolytes (Gatorade) and found a motel/RV park which let us take a shower for $5 each. Only minutes after drinking the Gatorade my body came alive. This is what I needed so desperately. We then had a pleasant drive to Fort Stockton. The thought of staying in Fort Stockton for a day was tempting. Then we saw a Wal-Mart and a Motel 6 within sight of each other. What more could we ask for? We had enough time to get to Austin before dark but that would be foolish. We took a room at Motel 6 and rested for a while. By that time my electrolytes were being replenished and my appetite was back. We went to the K-Bob restaurant and pigged out. We took it easy and checked out Fort Stockton the rest of the day.

 We wanted to drive while it was cool so we went to bed early. We had absolutely no problem sleeping in an air-conditioned room on soft beds. We got up at 2:30 am and were packed by 3:00 a.m. It was fun driving at night on a motorcycle on Hwy 10 in western Texas. We usually followed a safe distance behind a large truck so its lights would reveal a deer in advance. At one rest stop a trucker came over and asked if any tuna had hit us while we were riding. His wife had put tuna out the truck window, not realizing we were behind them. While it is good to follow a truck at night, you must not get too close because they can throw a tire tread and that can bring a motorcycle down. Many truckers know when they have weak tires and will wave you off if it is not safe. If they slow down, as you get too close behind them, then they probably donít want you there for good reasons. We luckily didnít run into any tire treads or tuna.

 The drive back was really fun. It was night but I used my high beam and it lit up the sides of the roads and the cutouts made for the roads in the higher hills. The single motorcycle headlight is probably more powerful than two car headlights and it covers a large angle left, right, up and down. We stopped at a truck stop 6 miles east of Ozona and pigged out on a great breakfast. We hit the highway again and the sun broke the horizon in a short while. The sunrise was beautiful. We cruised into Fredericksburg on Hwy 290 and discovered a good bakery there. We then rode back to Austin and arrived home a little before 11:00 a.m. on 5/24/01.

 We are proud of ourselves for having done this 1263.6 mile trip on the motorcycle and we learned many things which will allow us to plan better for future trips. We also developed a new respect for ďwide open countryĒ, desert areas and for national parks that donít have a ď7-Eleven on every cornerĒ.

 A Valkyrie does not have a large gas tank so we had to get gas often. The maximum range is 150 to 200 miles but you never know when things will be closed and you exceed your limitations. With strong winds during most of the trip, our gas mileage was not good. Also the gas prices kept rising, with Supreme at $2.04 at one place. A primary concern was a flat tire beyond repair in a bad location at the wrong time. You donít change a motorcycle tire Ė You have the bike towed away. Under the worst conditions, we would probably survive with only the loss of a good trip and a major inconvenience. While we did not have a flat tire or any mechanical problems, we failed to plan adequately in other areas.

Big Bend National Park has few facilities and they are spread out at many miles from each other. Also, they are often closed when you need them. So if youíre traveling on a motorcycle, which does not allow for much food, water and gas storage, it takes extra good planning to have the essentials when needed. We soon realized that our food planning was inadequate. We had taken backup food (small cans of meat, hot dog buns and protein bars), but we ended up eating these often, and for regular meals, because nothing else was readily available. We also should have had more water to drink at times. We surmised that I became ill because of dehydration, low electrolytes, bad food intake, extra stress of driving a motorcycle in strong winds, and catching most of the wind and dust from being in front on the bike.

Regardless of the problems, it was a great trip overall.  

Pictures of the motorcycle are at Valkyrie