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Riding Far West Texas: Calamity in Terlingua

There is something that continues to draw my wife and I repeatedly back to the Big Bend Region of Far West Texas. I first explored Big Bend National Park on a brief 2 days in the very hot summer of 2012 vowing to return with my wife in the winter for a full exploration. When describing what the park had to offer, she was skeptical with a response similar to “How much fun can rocks and dirt be?” On the return that winter, my wife fell in love with the park, the terrain, the desert, this region of Texas leading us to 3 more return trips over the coming years. All of these trips were exploration trips, immersing ourselves into the remoteness, driving the desert dirt roads, hiking into the arroyos and into the Chisos Mountains. We thought we were done with exploring this region until we decided a return trip with our dual sport bikes were needed to experience this area and the unexplored Big Bend Ranch State Park. Plans began to ensue last summer.

The Big Bend Region of Texas is extremely remote. This is the high desert region of the northern range of the Chihuahuan desert that begins in Mexico and extends into the very southern portion of the U.S. The mighty Rio Grande cuts through the mountain ranges dotting the desert and creates a natural barrier between the two countries as well as the mountains on both sides of the border. This is the place or remoteness, ruggedness, isolation, desolation, complete silence echoed by complete darkness at night (darkest place in the lower 48, the milky way is as clear as day looking up). Every 50-100 miles a small little oasis of a town forgotten is scattered about, hanging on to life by the little tourist traffic that comes to visit Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The closest city of any size is El Paso, just about a 5.5 hour drive away.

This trip was going to be different in every way. We had thoroughly explored Big Bend National Park but never explored, just driven by, neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park. We knew there were excellent (rugged and beautiful) dirt roads through the desert and thought this would be a great place for our first multi day adventure ride. Though we do a lot of day tripping on our bikes on and off road in Tennessee, the plan was to have a base camp in Terlingua, Texas which is nestled between the two parks. Not much is in this town and it is 80 miles to Alpine, the only real towns close by. 65 miles of rugged mountain roads to Presidio Texas which also is a Border Town with a crossing into Mexico is the only other option. It was going to b remote and without cell service and limited services in this town (1 gas station). We had planned to go to San Antonio for a few days, visit the grandkids, and then head out to Terlingua for 4 nights and 3 full days of riding while camping at Rancho Topanga campground. That was the plan at least. I began prepping the bikes with new tires, needed maintenance and spare heavy duty tubes ordered. Best laid plans don’t actually work out the way you want them to; hence the calamity to come.

We arrived at Rancho Topanga which is on the outskirts of Terlingua and began to setup our campsite.

The weather was beautiful as was the scenery and isolation. We weren’t going for a big ride this date but we elected to ride our bikes into “town” (Terlingua Ghost Town) to try and find some free wifi to check in with family and friends. We stopped in Terlingua Ghost Town and borrowed their wifi, enjoying the afternoon.

We also filled out bikes up at the only gas station in town, preparing for a ride the next day. We would be going to Big Bend Ranch State Park. As we were back at the campground, we were greeted with an epic sunset which from past experiences, the desert always provides.

The next morning, we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and leisured about drinking coffee and getting our gear together. It was going to be a long day. It is about 50 miles of twisty, mountain road to the entrance of the park. Once at the entrance, it is 26 miles of dirt road just to the park headquarters. A big mileage day for sure!

As we headed out, we stopped in Lajitas (a small resort town with no services other than a gas station and some high end restaurants situated on the Rio Grande) at the visitor center to get our day passes for the park and a map. My planning had already been getting lackluster. You see, back last summer I downloaded GPX tracks for however forgot to put them on my phone or upload to my google drive. Neither would we have any wife/cell service to re-download. Oh well, paper maps would have to do. As we drove on, the scenery was just fantastic…as was the weather. Overcast and cool but not cold. Perfect riding conditions to keep that intense desert sun off of us.

A couple hours later we arrived at the entrance. Dirt riding was here! We stopped for a bit and had lunch from our supplies. That is when I realized what would be the first major problem that would lead to other problems.

After some food, water, and pictures, I noticed my Wolfman Fender bag had fallen off somewhere.

This bag had my tire irons and tube patch kit. We only rode about a quarter mile from the main road and I did get a little hot for a stretch (high speed) so figured I through it off somewhere on that stretch. I road back and couldn’t find it. It was gone. It was then that I also remembered that I left our spare tubes back in Tennessee. We had nothing in case of a flat. Oh well, the tires had 25psi so I wasn’t worried about a pinch flat and both tires having heavy duty tubes, I figured we would be fine. I figured wrong.

We set off from lunch and were having a blast! About 2 or 3 miles in Tammy said over our intercom that her back tire felt weird. I commented it may be the loose gravel/sand as my rear was squirrely but nothing to be alarmed but I turned around anyways to investigate. When I pulled up, I noticed her rear was almost flat. I did still have my hand pump but no tubes, tire irons or patch kit. I started looking at the tire and found a screw in the rear. I pulled it out and a 1.5-2” wood screw came out.

I knew we were done for the day. Now it was planning time, how to get out. I suggested we stash her bike behind a creosote bush off the road and ride 2 up back to the campground, pick up the trailer, come back, get the bike, and figure things out from here. If I happened to see my fender bag on the road, we could turn around and patch the tire. Tammy objected, not wanting to leave her bike alone in the desert. She wanted to stay with the bike and have me go back. I knew it would be 1 hour riding (fast!) to get back, then a bit slower to hook up the trailer and drive back. I estimated 2.5 hours. Gave her my survival knife and off I went.

If you are a supermoto rider, highway 170 is for you. I harnessed my supermoto self and took off flying down 170, hoping I didn’t get pulled over. I made it back to camp in 1 hour all the while scanning the road and sides for my fender back to no luck. Hooked up the trailer, gassed up in Lajitas and off I went to retrieve Tammy and her bike. About 3-4 miles outside of Lajitas along the Rio Grande, I come over a hill and see my black Wolfman Fender bag on the side of the road. What luck! How the heck did it come off on the main road? This bag is a bad design and has come off at the most inopportune times since I have owned it, somehow I always find it. I made it back to Tammy in just under 2.5 hours, exceeding my expectations. We loaded the bike and headed back to camp. My mind was racing. If the tube was too mangled, a patch kit would be no good. We were only 10 miles from Presidio and it being a border town and close to BBRSP, there had to be a bike shop or a bike dealership I could get a tube at. It was only 2:45 in the afternoon. So I headed in the opposite direction to Presidio. As I began to get cell service on the outside of town, I started googling and calling auto parts stores and bike shops. No bike shop but there was 1 in Alpine. None of the auto parts dealers had tubes for bikes.

I drove through town and saw a garage/repair place with a loaded down dual sport parked out front. Maybe this was a bike shop? I pulled over and asked the owner if he sold tubes or could repair a flat? He said no but the dual sport rider came over. He was riding a WR250r and stated “I just got back from a week in Mexico and am headed home. I can sell you a spare tube I have.” What luck! I bought a tube from him and met his buddy who pulled up after his own border crossing. We chatted a minute and they were both living in Terlingua. I wished them luck as did they and we parted ways.

In my head, I figured we lost 1 day. When we get back, I will take the tire off, change the tube and we would still have 2 days of riding. Again, my plans don’t always work out. Let me remind you that I am not a mechanic even though I have stayed at a Holiday Inn. I had just put a new rear tire on Tammy’s bike, my first solo tire changing adventure, and was feeling confident in my abilities. By sunset, was trying to spoon on the rear tire and was having a bear of a time. I could not get the last lip of bead over no matter how hard I tried. I was getting sloppy in my method and hurrying. Not a good combination and thoughts of a pinched tube were crossing my mind which I quickly squashed. What to do? I remember that I had an online dual sport friend in town, Jay Masterson of Superbee ADV. He had mentioned he had a Baja No Pinch Tool. I needed help. I loaded up the rear tire, and drove off in the dusk to borrow some wife at Terlingua Ghost Town to message Jay. I replied back that he would be right over. In the dark, we got the tire back on. Let me just say now, Jay is the dual sport ambassador or West Texas (title my wife and I give him). He is the nicest person to meet, always willing to help a person out or just to chat and make someone feel welcome. He gave me some stickers, took a picture and sent me on my way. Sometime that evening, I put the tire back on, aired it up, and went to bed exhausted.

Jay Masterson of Superbee ADV

The next morning I get up and notice the tire is a little low on air on a test ride. I pump it up to 20psi and ride it down the road a couple miles and come back. It is now down at 10psi. Darnit! I know I pinched the tube. I am so discouraged, as is Tammy. What do I do? I am not feeling confident now in my ability to take the tube out, patch it and replace it. I remember Alpine had a bike shop. It is 10am and 80+ miles to Alpine. We are headed to Alpine. Load the bike up, gas up and head back across the desert.

We arrive at the bike shop at 11:30am.

The door is locked but the neighbor who fixes car tires states he was in earlier and is probably at lunch, check back at 1pm. I call the number to the shop and it says I can text if need be. I text the number and the owner states he won’t be back until 2pm due to an appointment but says I can leave the bike and trailer there. That is what we do and decide to explore this little town.

At 2pm we return and he has the bike off and on the lift. I relate to him what happened and he puts a new tube in, showing me on the tube I bought where I pinched it. 30 minutes later the job was done and we were back on the road. Let me just say that the owner, I believe his name was also Jay, was very nice and efficient, charging a reasonable rate.

We arrived back at camp around 4pm, discouraged about 2 days of riding ruined but hopeful for at least 1 day of riding. I needed some wind therapy in the worst way but Tammy was exhausted. We agreed that I would take a short afternoon solo ride. I quickly headed off in the late afternoon sun to BBNP (Big Bend National Park). I knew it would be about 30 miles to the first dirt road, Old Maverick Road. Ahhhh, the fresh air, twisty roads and a 650 thumper grunting beneath me. Just what the doctor ordered! We had both planned to ride what we knew tomorrow, to avoid more calamity and hit BBNP. I wanted to just do a little exploration. When I arrived at the entrance, due to the government shutdown, the pleasant knowledge that no entrance fee would be needed was welcome. However, I quickly noted that Old Maverick road was closed. Where all the backcountry dirt roads going to be closed!? I began to panic but got into problem solving mode. I would head the 25 miles to River Road and if it was closed, I would begin planning a trip to BBRSP hoping we didn’t pick up another screw in a tire.

The sun was setting but the riding was nice and I arrived at River Road which was open. My heart began to race and I needed some dirt! I didn’t have much time but I wanted to see how the road conditions were. I took off on River Road! Sometimes my adrenaline gets to me and I was riding much to fast but having a blast nonetheless. The conditions were perfect and road was just spectacular! I road about 10 miles back, stopped, took some photos and drank some water while taking in the sunset.

It was getting late, the desert gets DARK at night and the little gen 1 klr650 headlight is none too good. I turned around and headed out into the setting sun. I arrived back about an hour later just as dark fell over the desert. We ate dinner and went to bed planning on a great day of riding. Sometime in the middle of the night it started raining but it had sprinkled almost every night so I didn’t worry.

I awoke to a steady rain with no relief in sight on the horizon. We were both sorely discouraged now. It looks like our entire trip was a bust and we head out tomorrow for 2 days of driving home. I decide I am riding hell or high water, the rain can be damned! Tammy states she is not going to ride as it is wet and cold. We are both discouraged. I drive into town, check the weather forecast and come back to report the rain should end by early afternoon. We decide to go and risk it despite knowing that desert mud can be quite nasty. It was mutually agreed that if the going got to rough, we would turn around and come back.

We took off riding in the rain and stopped in town for gas. Jay Masterson was apparently behind us on the road in his vehicle and pulled up to the pumps to say hey and worn us of the bentonite mud (what the heck was that!?) back in the desert.

I let him know we were going in the west entrance of River Road which was more rock and also would turn around if it got too tricky. We parted ways and headed off down the road. It was cold in the high desert, cloudy, rainy and foggy but as we descended elevation towards the Rio Grande and River Road, the temperature began to warm a bit. We stopped at the entrance and were enthused. The road did not look bad.

Tammy and I took off riding and were doing a good pace. Several times I turned my shoulder to see where she was at as I thought I was going too fast. She was right on my tail! A quick twist of the throttle and we both were doing a pretty quick pace through the desert. This was desert riding at its best! The rain was just a drizzle but continued however we were having a blast! A few little slippery spots but nothing too challenging was being presented. This was 2nd and 3rd gear riding with good speeds being maintained. We stopped for a few breaks and about 2 hours into the desert the first of what was to be coming presented itself.

As I came up over a rise, I noticed the pinkish dirt turned white at the crest. I was at speed, in 3rd gear when I hit it. I felt my front wheel, then rear loose traction with the front wanting to washout. However, do my speed I was through it and regained my traction quick enough. I did let out a “whoops” or something to that effect when I almost washed out which led to Tammy hearing it in her headset, hesitating just slightly and going down behind me. She let me know; I came back and helped her bike off her ankle which was pinned. Thank goodness for good boots and knee pads! She wasn’t hurt but her confidence, like all of ours after a spill, was shaken just slightly.

We continued on and things began to get increasingly nastier and more slippery. We made the decision about a half hour later to stop for lunch and evaluate our situation. I estimated per GPS that we were just under or at halfway down River Road which is around 70+ miles. We at lunch and the rain continued. Our boots were sinking into the road surface. It appeared the further we went, the worse it got condition wise. We had been riding half the day, about 35 miles of desert and 50 miles of road, we were going to turn around.

We still had a LONG way to go back and been having a blast but did not want to push our luck anymore, especially after the past 2 days of calamity. We made the right decision.

As we headed back, conditions had deteriorated. Tammy went down again and was getting tired. This happens to all of us. Once the bikes start dropping, it is like they just keep dropping. I helped her up and continued. About 15 miles from the entrance we hit a spot that earlier was not soft but now was super greasy. I made it through by picking a good line but Tammy being tired, didn’t see the line and went down again. We were both getting worn out and slowed our pace. As we began to getting closer to being out, Tammy realized she had too many clothes on and took off a few layers. This helped her. The rain stopping as well as the sun coming out helped our mood. We were close to the black top. We stopped for 1 last break and we were all smiles. We were riding the desert! We had done it, despite everything working against us. This was it.

As we got to the blacktop, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll on the bikes back to camp with numerous breaks along the side of the road to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Our bikes and bodies were covered in thick mud but nothing could mask our smiles. We made it back and gave each other a high five (what we do after we accomplish an adventure). The next morning we headed out and for home.

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