The Great Outdoors. Again.

"Wuzza lite," Joanie said groggily, slowly uncoiling from her comatose stupor. Thanks to her small stature, yoga-developed flexibility, and (I'm convinced) some manner of unsavory bargain struck with, if not the Devil, then certainly some denizen of the underworld or abyssal plane, my wife can sleep anywhere, anytime. (Except, of course, in our bedroom, in our bed, in the dark, when I have to wake up before she does. But that's a story for another post.)

"Border patrol station," I replied. Laconic is not a word that fits me well, but in these circumstances, it's all I am able to manage.

Joanie sits up, drastically improving her command of the English language as well as basic enunciation skills. "Wuz it here yesterday? Or whenever?"

I shake my head as we pull into the oasis of light in the surrounding pitch blackness. "Looks prefab - probably move them around to keep smugglers guessing." She nodded, fully awake now. This should be interesting, we were both thinking.

Not wanting to raise any red flags, or rather, any MORE red flags than I was already raising, I parked the car in what I hoped was a docile fashion and waited for the surprisingly pretty, petite, and perky BP officer to walk around to my window and inquire, in an incredulous but not unfriendly voice, "So! Whatcha guys doing, driving away from Mexico at three in the morning?"

Joanie burst forth into peals of laughter that had a slightly manic edge to them, while I simply guffawed. "Oh, I'll tell you," I said. "I'll tell you."

In retrospect, it should not have been surprising. Because I was involved. I am convinced that it’s my fault that our camping luck is the way it is. Or rather, that my historical luck with camping has now attached itself, its filthy, clinging self, to Joanie.

Sorry honey!

The first time I went camping, I was 14, and my youth group was going white-water rafting down the Ocoee. Having never been camping before, having never really slept anywhere more rustic than a university dorm before, I did not have an appropriate anything. At all. Particularly sleeping bag. Mine was 100% cotton. Very, very comfy for crashing at a friend’s place and rockin’ the unwarmthed [look, honey, I made a word!] basement.

Not comfy when the tent springs a leak during a rainstorm.

Or the second time, when I went camping, again with a youth group, and the “half mile” walk from parking lot to campground turned out to be as the crow flies, or rather falls, straight down a mountain. Then, at the bottom of the mountain, there’s a river! Complete with a bridge ford riverbed!

I include these anecdotes to give you a clue as to the typical out-door experience that I am liable to encounter. I am well aware of this, and subsequently attempt to limit my exposure to the cruelty of Nature to quick walks to various methods of mechanical conveyance, usually with furtive glances over my shoulder to check and see if, say, the sun is going to mug me, or perhaps the trees are planning a surprise attack.

That is, I did so until Joanie.

My wife, for some reason, loves the outdoors, even though Nature so clearly hates her. She is the only person I know who can get a sunburn during a blizzard, and mosquitoes swarm toward her as though she was five feet of candy-flavored blood. (Which, in all fairness, she is.)

Even given this level of active antipathy from Gaea toward her daughter, Joanie loves being outdoors, and has engaged me in many an outdoor pursuit since we started dating. I enjoy these excursions, in much the same way that people are purported to enjoy running with the bulls or joining the “polar bear club,” so I join in.

Like the time she wanted us to go camping at Big Bend National Park, located in Mexico, Texas!

Yes, this was after the Grand Canyon round of camping. Which was, as you’ll remember from last week, a resounding success.

Big Bend is a massive park, roughly the size of three and a half Rhode Islands, that hunkers down on the Rio Grande in a desolate and god-forsaken corner of the Lone Star State. You have to drive to Fort Stockton on I-10 (the speed limit out there is 80, but Joanie learned that yes, they mean it), then trek another three hours south of this bustling metropolis to get to the park entrance – three hours through blasted desert, occasionally passing houses huddled over fertile fields of hard-baked slate that made both of us say, “Somebody, at some point, chose to stop here,” then step on the accelerator.

Once you get to the park entrance, you have to get to the campground. No easy task, as the park-wide speed limit is 30mph (so that the jackrabbits can dash past you and laugh at your struggles) and, again, the park is larger than some of the founding states of our nation. We got to the campsite, right on the edge of the Rio – I mean, our tent was probably closer to its banks than your fridge is to you right now – and pitched our tent.

Looking at said tent, the same gnome-hut we used at the Canyon, caused us to need either some beer or a good cry, so we set out to get dinner ready. Now, Big Bend has a very strict “No Open Flame” policy, since one errant spark could pretty much ignite half the state. So we utilized the poorly covered charcoal grill to burn our hotdogs, then carefully stowed the garbage so as not to attract the swarms of javelina that we were constantly warned about by various signs.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we willingly and purposefully went, for fun, to a place where we had to take great pains to avoid being ravaged by a species commonly known as the “skunk pig.”


At any rate, the “No Open Flame” rule meant that once night fell, everybody at the campsite turned in for the night… and that's when we both fell in love with this place.

You see, one of the big draws for Joanie in picking this place was that it advertised having the lowest amount of light pollution of anywhere in the continental U.S. You’re too far from anything remotely resembling a city – heck, the smallest hamlet, Marathon, TX, is hours away. As a result, the night sky is something that can’t really be described. Transfixed, we soaked in the multicolored array that was so new to both of us, until finally the day’s travel caught up with us and we crawled into the tent.

The next day, we got up and decided to Enjoy Some Nature. This essentially involved walking a lot. We walked through the desert, down the river, in the mountains, and had neat experiences in each.

For instance, while walking in the desert, we rounded a hill and came to a small valley that practically assaulted our senses. The cacti were in bloom, and this one little corner of the desert was an explosion of both color and scent that, after the relative drabness of the rest of the environment, left us breathless. (And sneezing.)
Picture this, but everywhere.

Then, when we were walking along the river, we took a bath! Not in the river. That would be absolutely disgusting. We took a bath in the hot springs!

There’s a natural spring right off the Rio that has some of the cleanest water in the world, right next to the river with the filthiest water in the world. Huh.

And lastly, when we were walking in the mountains, we saw bear poop.

We did not, sadly, see any bears. Or mountain lions. We were looking forward to either possibility, in a perverse sense, because we wanted to try our frequently-discussed “Carnivore Defense System.” Based on some extensive research on the signs that we saw ten minutes before taking our walk (see below), we had decided that, in the likely event of a fanged animal sighting, Joanie would climb on my shoulders, wave her arms, and sing Donizetti at the bears, while I would throw a couple of rocks and shout recitations of bad late 19th-century poetry. This would, we were certain, send any such animal, along with any other people in the area, into a panicked retreat.

However, just before our hike, we met up with two older ladies from Dallas who wanted to walk the mountain trail with us, since bears and mountain lions probably wouldn’t attack a group of four. (We had mixed feelings about having them along, since their talking was loud enough to scare off every bit of fauna within two miles, and we were almost looking forward to trying out our Carnivore Defense System.)

No bears. Not today. Still pretty.
One of these two ladies was a vet, and she got very excited when she saw the bear poop.

I have never experienced anybody under the age of 80 being quite so thrilled about poop.

I mean, she just got right down in there and POKED at the poop. With a stick. But still. She was about a foot away from the poop, and was avidly discussing its various properties, while Joanie and I kept moving away, slowly, and smiling so that she wouldn’t quite grasp how freaked out we were. Luckily for us, the bear scat was full of plant matter, meaning the bear was less likely to attack us while we stood analyzing its poo.

At any rate, we got in a good thirteen hours of Walking In Nature and decided to call it a day. After some relaxing at the campsite, we went ahead and turned in once it grew dark. And that’s when the day’s fun really began.

The previous night, we had been sharing the campsite with a few retirees who went to bed before we did. Or at least, they went into their $500,000 RVs and watched satellite TV from the comfort of their baby-seal-leather couches. Thus swaddled in the desert silence, we immediately passed out.

This time around, though, spring break had begun.

And there were college kids.

Now, I don’t dislike college kids. I do. But I dislike loud people. Particularly people who are loud while I’m trying to sleep.

As we were crunched up within our fetal-sized tent, we heard some kids talking and laughing – not too loudly, but just loudly enough. Worse, some of them had apparently found a radio station that was playing conjunto music and found it greatly amusing. Joanie and I shared a grumble, and then I passed out.

I was awakened five hours later by the sound of my wife muttering to herself while searching for her shoes. Why did she need her shoes, you ask? Because she had to pee. Why did she have to pee? Well, in the last five hours, she had had occasion to drink four bottles of water. Why on earth had she been awake that long?

Because the music had not stopped.

First Rule of Marriage: if she isn’t happy, you are not happy. With that in mind, I grabbed my shoes and went to politely beat some kids in the head with a stick until they reasonably agreed to turn the [expletive deleted] music off.

As I approached the campsite from whence the maddeningly cheerful music was emanating, I noticed that they were not terribly festive. In fact, the two 20-year-old girls in question bore a remarkable resemblance to my wife at this point in the evening: muttering to themselves, slightly jerky movements, and all the basic visual cues that inform one to tread with care.

The stentorian challenge I had prepared seemed inappropriate. So I eased up on my approach.

“Evening, ladies… I, um, I wanted to ask about the music… but… uh…” They stopped and glared at me. “It’s not coming from you, is it.”

One of them, her eyes alight with hatred, informed me curtly that, no, in fact, it was not coming from them. It was coming from THEM – and with the last pronoun, she pointed in grandiose gesture across the Rio Grande.

Oh yes.

The robust polka that was keeping an entire collection of grumpy Americans awake was not, in fact, coming from a radio.

It was coming from Boquillas del Carmen.

The citizens of this tiny village, about two miles from our location, were apparently celebrating another week of being alive with a rousing fiesta. I apologized to the two ladies, who graciously didn’t kill me, and went back to inform Joanie that, far from being annoyed by somebody’s inconsiderately loud musical entertainment, we were in fact Deeply Enjoying a Cultural Experience from Outside Our Normal Boundaries.

At first, she looked at me in stunned disbelief. But then, as we tried to go back to sleep, we started to notice the little things that mark a live music performance – the occasional roar of a crowd (how big a crowd can there BE in Boquillas del Carmen, you ask? Apparently one the size of Mardi Gras), the corresponding brief announcements through a crappy microphone, and above all the tuning.

This conjunta band appeared to have a ferociously held commitment to not tuning one’s instrument. Based on the increasing slippage from anything remotely resembling unity, it was part of their overall group aesthetic, a commentary, perhaps, on the postmodern disconnection from reality, some form of ironic discourse, whimsical, even, about alienation in a technological world.

Or, more likely, they were just sloshed to pieces and didn’t care how they sounded.

Added to that, they appeared to only know two songs. Or rather, they knew one melody, which they could adjust to fit two rhythms – a waltz, and a polka. And – here’s my favorite part – they did not feel any need to alternate them. More than once, they would finish the polka-oriented version of this melody, yell at the audience for ten seconds, and then immediately launch into the polka they had just concluded.

We listened to them for an hour before realizing that, our musician-brains engaged, we were going to be utterly unable to sleep. Our options were to either continue critiquing their postmodern-or-drunken performance or get the heck out of the park.

Half an hour later, we were leaving our campsite behind. (And our tent, upon which we took out our frustrations during the “packing” process and thus rendered even less operable than before. If you’d like a free tent, check the dumpsters at the camping grounds of Big Bend National Park.) As I had enjoyed at least a few hours of sleep, I agreed to drive us to Marathon, where we would find a hotel – and it was on this route that we were stopped at the border patrol station.

As I wove our story, the officer in question grew incredulous, then amused, then hysterical. I seriously thought she was going to injure herself. She actually gave us the name of the town, which shall forever live in infamy in our hearts, and asked if we wouldn’t mind popping the trunk so her colleague could ensure we were not leaving with half a ton of cocaine.

I obliged willingly – we had nothing to hide except perhaps our embarrassing lack of actual camping gear – but her fellow officer didn’t even actually open the trunk. Instead, he saw my parking sticker and announced, “Uh, they go to Baylor,” as he closed the car and shambled back to his TV.

The woman at the window turned to me expectantly – “Do you?”

“Actually, I teach there,” I said, and her laughter only deepened as she waved me ahead through her tears.

And that’s how we were chased out of a national park by a Mexican polka band.



The story continues, of course! Marathon not only didn’t have a hotel, it didn’t have an open gas station. So, no coffee for Michael. We ended up driving all the way (fourish hours) up to Ft. Stockton, where we stopped for gas and I asked the attendant if they had a hotel, like a Holiday Inn, nearby.

Mistaking the essence of my question for a form of brand loyalty, the sadly shook her head. “No, señor, sorry. They got bought by the Quality Inn.”

I did not kill her. But this was the second camping trip in a row that concluded with Joanie and me fleeing the campsite for the comfort of a real bed. We haven’t been camping since, but I think we’re about due for a new story… so stay tuned.