Now that it's over it's hard to weigh the fun vs. stress of this trip, because overcoming challenges can feel thrilling if you are a stubborn person. The drive out started okay until a coolant leak sprung that required pulling over every 60 miles to refill the reservoir. It wouldn't have been so painful if VW engines were not located in the back of the vehicle. Under a bike trailer, camp stoves, backpacks, tools, shoes, snacks, etc., etc. So about every hour we pulled over, unpacked the entire van, refilled fluid, repacked, and rinse & repeat. All while tending to a baby who gets fussy when the car is not in motion.
We stopped for Night 1 at Seminole Canyon State Park, about halfway to Big Bend. I highly recommend this as a stopping point between Austin and Big Bend. It's a beautiful place to break up the drive, complete with cliffs and ancient rock art. And lots of laid back bike trails with stunning views of the canyon. It got coooold in the van at night and with a restless baby between us we didn't get much sleep, but the daytime weather in February was perfect.
Our next destination for Night 2 was Terlingua. We arrived a little weary from the coolant issues but excited to finally be in West Texas. We reserved a night in the El Dorado Hotel's Tour Bus. No one expects a bus to be the equivalent of a five-star hotel. But when we got inside there was a leak dripping water into a bucket sitting on top of one of the beds, which was stripped bare of sheets. We shared the bus with two of our friends so we needed the extra bed -- luckily it stopped raining so they could sleep without getting wet. It was charmingly defunct, I guess you could say. And the bathroom sat in the middle of our rooms. No door, just curtains. So we established "pineapples" as our code word for needing bathroom privacy, which we still use today. It would be the last night sleeping in a bed, so we made the best of it.
In the morning our friends split off to start an epic bike camping trek in Big Bend Ranch State Park, where they'd meet us at our campsite the next day. We stopped for some supplies in town and headed for the state park. So far Henri had been in a great mood most of the time, but it did make for slow going having to stop for breaks and diaper changes along the way. Now that we were about to enter off grid zone, we weren't sure what to expect. We planned to stay at an interior campsite (Los Ojitos), which is a looong drive on a dusty, bumpy desert "road" to get to. It's not on a map. I'd printed coordinates with driving directions for everyone in our party. The plan was we'd all meet at the campsite that night.
We bumped along the dirt road for what seemed like all day until Ryan brought the van to a halting stop. I knew something was wrong. And his faced confirmed it. We had a flat. After about a half hour of effort in the blazing sun it wouldn't budge, and he wasn't able to get it off to change it. Already dripping with sweat, he spent the next hour or so pumping it with a BIKE tire, enough to get us about a mile further before he'd have to get out to pump it again. It was hot. The van has no A/C. I was pouring water over Henri's head to cool her off. We were all systems a go and trying to maintain positive composure. I called this our pre-marital counseling session. We were biting our nails hoping the tire plugs would hold because if we got stuck we'd be in real trouble. With no service and this is not being a place many vehicles come through, we could be there overnight. And the road was so narrow we'd be blocking anyone trying to pass anyway. As we inched down the road I kept darting my eyes from landmarks on the road back to the map, and I felt like we really might make it. When we finally reached the sign for our campsite we let out a huge sigh of relief. And seeing our friends' truck there felt like arriving at a sanctuary. But we were beat.
That night we enjoyed good company and a nice fire, and did our best to laugh off the "adventure". It turns out another one of our friends who was also supposed to meet us got a flat on the same road and was stranded -- she had to be picked up by local rangers and brought to a hotel in Presidio for the night. So the lesson here is don't ride the interior roads of Big Bend Ranch State Park without GOOD tires, tools, a spare or three, and extra provisions in case you are stranded.
The next day, we rode our bikes to the ranger station where they told us they could repair our tire the following day when staff arrived. So having that worry lifted, we enjoyed biking and hiking around for the day. Henri loves riding in her Burley trailer and it usually puts her to sleep. Since getting her to sleep is a challenge, the trailer has become a big part of our lives. She rides in her carseat inside it and is snug as a bug.
The second night at Los Ojitos I remember vividly, because Henri Would. Not. Sleep. She cried, no doubt keeping everyone else in their tents awake, and I let her because I was so exhausted and nothing was helping. I woke up with a headache, and sore from tossing and turning in my 1-foot of sleeping space having been kicked by a baby all night. My inner mantra "positive attitude!" was starting to sound sarcastically unbelievable.
The Ranger Station provided a hot shower, which helped. And they were able to put our spare tire on. But they couldn't repair the blown one, so we'd have to try a tire shop in Presidio or Alpine. Which meant our plans to head to the National Park were squashed. We couldn't risk riding on a spare and getting stuck again. Also there was now another mysterious maintenance light that popped on, worrying Ryan. Deciding to cut our losses, we split off from our friends who were off to have a beautiful time at the Hot Springs in Big Bend. Frownie face. Did I mention it was Ryan's birthday?
A couple of hours later we rolled into Presidio. But after trying two auto shops, neither had the odd tire size we needed. We'd have to drive to Alpine, another 100 miles away. Our hopes of possibly getting a quick repair and meeting our friends were dashed. We decided to take five and get some refuge from the blazing sun in a Mexican restaurant. The waitresses all fawned over Henri, kissing her on the cheek and only speaking in Spanish. It was a nice break. Then we dragged our feet back to the van and hit the road to Alpine.
Richard, who is the original owner of Pamagon the Vanagon lives there. So at least we felt the comfort of being on the way to a good friend's house after being so road weary. He wasn't home when we got there after dark, so we camped out in his driveway. And the next day we were able to get the tire situation taken care of. Finally, we made for Big Bend!
I won't lie, at this point we were both a little broken and allowed ourselves to be in a bit of a bad mood. As we entered the park, excited to get to the 'fun' we'd yet to have, we must have hit a patch of cell service and I got a text from Ryan's brother -- "Either of you have a sec to talk?". Obviously that's not a good text, especially because he was taking care of our animals back home. But we were out of cell zone by then and couldn't call or send texts, so we had to bite our nails and wonder what it could be about. We met our friends at the campsite, trying to appreciate the beauty of our spot amidst the Chisos mountains despite our worry. Then Ryan went to the lodge to call his brother. It turned out our dog back home had pulled her back and when Matt stopped by to walk her she was shaking and crying on the couch. He took her to the vet and some pain meds later she was apparently looking a little better. Sheesh.
Back at the campsite we were not feeling up to making dinner so we decided to all walk to the restaurant at park headquarters. It was supposedly not too far, but an hour later it was dark and we weren't sure we were on the right path and even less sure the restaurant was still open. After carrying Henri's stroller up steep, non-paved hills, we declared defeat and retreated back to the campsite, dejected and hungry. Just some more hilariously bad luck.
Unfortunately the van trouble made us lose almost 2 full days in the park. We missed the Hot Springs, and missed a trip to Boquillas Mexico (after jumping through hoops to get our passports in time). But we gained some real quality team-building as a couple...
We went back to Alpine the next day to spend the rest of the weekend there. We talked in circles about whether or not we should just cut our losses and leave the van behind. We could take an Amtrak back to Austin on Saturday night, putting us home Sunday morning without having to touch a steering wheel. We didn't love either option, but Ryan was pretty fed up with working on the van the entire trip, and Henri was sick of being in the carseat. Plus I had to be at work Monday and couldn't risk getting stuck in a small town on a Sunday when auto shops are closed. So we decided to cut the trip short by one more day, and go on an Amtrak Saturday night. I could describe how awful the people in our train car were, but I think the general laundry list of grievances on this trip has been long enough.
Ay ay ay, c'est la vie! When we got back, I was telling our neighbor about all the trouble we had and she said "Gosh it looked like ya'll had an amazing time, you wouldn't know it!". And I said, "Oh that's my Instagram life." Keeping it real. It ain't always what it seems on Instagram: