Trip Report: Big Bend Expedition 2021
"The struggle makes it memorable," I told Joe, as we pushed our bikes up another chunky steep ascent. There were many moments on this trip where the casual side conversations like this one, were replaced with silent introspection while each rider worked through the current challenge in their own way. To me, that's the best part of these expeditions at Big Bend. It's impossible to zone out. Each person has to be engaged and dialed in. The terrain and route demand your focus and won't allow more than a few moments of anything less than your full attention. You have to be in the moment, watching the trail ahead, dodging sharp rocks and sharper vegetation.
Riding at Big Bend is the embodiment of why we created The Trail Warrior Project. It's tough, you work hard for the rewards and the rewards are big. It forces you to live in the moment and permits no time for thinking about the daily struggles of your personal life. It's a tangible shift in thoughts and actions.
The first few miles of exploration and excitement lead to a constant underlying stream of personal inventory. How much water do I have left? Where are we camping tonight? Have I been eating frequently enough? Are we on the right course? On day 2, while working our way up the last stretch before sunset, I made that exact statement. I said "All I'm thinking about right now is a warm meal and a comfortable night's sleep." and at that moment I realized our intent to provide these experiences to veterans had become a reality.
Our expedition began around 1 pm on Saturday, December 18th, 2021. Our team included Mick Sudano (Navy) from the Trail Warrior Project, Joe Sitterly (Air Force), James Eastland (Marines), and Tom Elliot. We completed checking in at the Barton Warnock ranger station and finalized prepping our bikes. Day 1 is a short day for a couple of reasons. First, it takes a while to drive to Lajitas from Alpine where we camped the night before. The entire morning is consumed by travel and checking in to the park. Second, the sun sets early this time of year. With mountains surrounding us in every direction, we would be losing direct sunlight around 5 pm. We needed to be established at our campsite by then. Riding in the dark is certainly possible but due to the terrain, would not be a wise decision. We rode a total of 8 miles before finding our campsite. We took time to explore the Crystal Trail along the way and had time to walk around the old mine and explore the area on foot before dark set in.
There was no campfire made since the wind was blowing a little too much. Joe made a duct-tape repair to his tent screen due to a mishap with a jet boil the night before. The temperature dropped quickly and we each departed for our tents and the promise of a restful night. Shortly after falling asleep the rain and wind started. We could hear the wind coming before it would reach us. It sounded like a train rumbling through the canyons and mountains around us like water around a drain. It would get louder and closer as it circled then finally would arrive in a strong blast shaking tents and testing the integrity of our tie-downs. The rain wasn't a downpour but more of a persistent drumbeat throughout the next several hours. The night went like this, wind blast - rain, wind blast - rain. After that stopped late into the night, the moonlight was able to find its way through the clouds and we mistook it for the dawn. It illuminated the interior of tents and made the characteristics of the surrounding mountains plainly visible without any other light source.
Day 2 started cold and wet. Joe's small morning campfire pulled us each from our slumber towards the heat and light of the fire. Meals were prepped and coffee launched us into the activities of breaking camp and loading bikes. We knew we had a long day ahead. Our goal was to reach Solitario. We finally started rolling around 9:30 and had a short ride towards the Fresno Cascades spring where we planned to filter water. We stopped at one of the ruins to walk around and explore. The course is slow going on loaded bikes. Several sandy washouts and rocky sections later we reached our objective.
Water filters appeared out of bike bags and each of us approached the spring with an armload of empty bottles.
A short while later we were on the move again with the full weight of around 6 liters of water each (plus the liter or two we each consumed at the source). The sun started reaching us through the canyon and stops were made to stash layers of clothing. I was losing tire pressure in my back tire and a trailside sealant and valve stem repairs were made. A herd of wild donkeys watched us from the river bottom as we worked our way up the trail. We rode past the Chimney Rock and eventually up towards Rincon. Again, short days and an early sunset started catching up to us.
After a break off-bike to inspect the petroglyphs, we discussed the unlikeliness of reaching Solitario without having to ride in the dark. As we approached the Rincon camp area we decided to stay there and save Solitario for another trip. It was a good call. We were able to set up camp and eat with just enough daylight left to hang up some gear still a little damp from the night before. We enjoyed a warm campfire a little later into the night as a flask or two made an appearance.
Day 3 greeted us with ice. Temperatures had gotten low enough to freeze the condensation on our tents and although it did not rain, each tent was covered in a layer of ice crystals. The bikes and gear left out were encrusted with ice as well. Tom's water bottle had frozen and required some motivational shaking to release the water. As the sun rose through the valley, ice-covered gear was strategically laid out on surrounding rocks and sun-exposed sections of creosote bushes to what eventually would have resembled an outdoorsman's yard sale to anyone who would have passed by.
After breakfast and coffee, we each started packing our half-dry gear back on the bikes. It was clear and sunny at our elevation when we left camp for the ride back down. As we descended back into the river bottom and started working our way towards the Crawford Smith house, we were covered by a layer of local fog or clouds in the low spots.
As soon as the sun was replaced with fog, the temperature dramatically dropped. The morning was a combination of putting warm layers on and then removing them with each crest of a hill on the route. On one of the descents through a narrow section of single track, a cat's claw slapped my left middle finger and opened up a decent small cut. We stopped in the sandy washout while I applied some first-aid and glue to seal it shut again. We joked about how I had now left a blood sacrifice to the region. Shortly after, we stopped and a running spring in the ground to make a seep well and get enough water to get us a little further.
Near the Crawford Smith house, we found a pipe and valve in the river bottom. It was fed from a spring up the mountain. Meals were prepared and water containers were again filled to capacity. After a break, we rode a short distance to explore the old ranch house ruins. From there we were only a short few miles to our campsite overlook.
We were anticipating the shorter day. As Big Bend makes you earn every reward, we pushed our bikes up a very steep section of rocky cliffside trail to the top where our trail picked up again. James and I joked about how everything on these trips becomes "your best ever _". After a few days on the trail, the dehydrated camp food becomes the best 3-cheese enchilada of your life. This cliffside trail became the toughest hike-a-bike section... of our life. We reached our campsite around 2 pm in full sun and warmth. Immediately we set up our trailside yard sale display and started drying our gear in the sun. At some point, we found animal remains scattered around the area while looking for some firewood. A campsite altar was made to commemorate the ride (and maybe mess with whoever camps there next).
Another great campfire and a clear night were welcomed on our last night on the trail. James went to sleep early and the rest of us looked up constellations on Tom's phone app. The last hour of the night was spent with heads looking up at the amazing view of stars.
Day 4 is always the fastest day of this route. A dozen or so miles of rideable downhill towards Barton Warnock goes fast. Everyone is a few days stronger and more experienced with a few days less food weight to carry. After hiking our bikes back down the cliffside trail it was a pretty quick ride through the river washouts and past the mine. We stopped a few times for conversations and equipment checks from all the rocky bouncing on the descent.
We arrived at the ranger station around 11 am, loaded bikes, and checked in with the rangers to let them know we were off the trail. It's always a surreal feeling to spend a few days in the extreme terrain of Big Bend then get in a car and drive away. It feels too easy, un-earned travel, almost like you are cheating by moving so effortlessly. Everything in Big Bend is earned. The trip memories and experiences we earned and paid for with blood and sweat are our souvenirs. Until next year Big Bend.