Gravel Riding in the Lone Star State

A couple of months back, I heard a story on the radio about problems with planes making their returns to the sky. As air-traffic increased and passengers slowly reentered the world of international travel, many pilots had begun self-reporting minor mistakes, mostly procedural, none particularly dangerous—but mistakes, nonetheless. The culprit? Lack of practice. It seems that with fewer flights and long stints away from the stick, muscle memory had lapsed. Use it or lose it, as they say.

So it is that we set out on what would be my first bikepacking trip since the pandemic began—physically ready, mentally prepared, but perhaps a bit soft around what used to be sharper edges of experience and routine. Selecting a destination we could easily (and in light of recent radio reports, thankfully) reach by car, we packed up and drove the seven hours from Austin, Texas to the most remote corner of our very big state, making a few stops along the way to pick up missing pieces of kit we’d predictably left at home.

A lot can be said about West Texas, with its tiny towns forgotten by time and wild, wide-open landscapes, but two things are undeniably true: never trust the weather forecast and never trust people who tell you that you can. We arrived at dusk at our campsite overlooking the old ghost town in Terlingua, population 110, with the cool evening air creeping in to coincide with the darkening night sky. Our plan seemed straightforward: David and I would get up at dawn and drive to secure camping permits for the nearby Big Bend National Park, then back to camp to meet the three other members of our five-person crew before embarking on a four-day circumnavigation of the park, point to point, enjoying the primitive roads and gravel tracks awaiting within.

In theory, we knew it would be hot, like really hot. All either Texas natives or having lived here for several years, we were familiar with the fiery side of Texas temperatures. The forecast was warm, but not overly so. But of course, as we were kindly, yet firmly reminded by the park ranger while requesting our permits, the numbers only tell a tiny part of the story. The sun says the rest. Having satisfied the ranger’s questions about our route, research and water rations, we made our way back to camp with permits in hand and accompanied by a new sense of foreboding at the stern, official warnings and quickly rising heat.

Our first mistake came early. Packed up and rolling, we turned off the main road through Terlingua onto a smaller, gravel county road—one that would skirt around the mines and mountains while avoiding busy highway riding as we made our way to the northern edge of the National Park. Unfortunately, we had under-estimated the land-grabbiness of Texas locals, and soon encountered a “no trespassing” sign and accompanying purple painted post directly in our path on the public road. Rumors abound about the intended meaning of the Texas purple post, with its legal significance serving as shorthand for “do not enter”. But as any urban legend will tell you, its “true” meaning is something much more sinister: shoot first, ask questions later. We decided not to stick around to test this truth, backtracking to Plan B—the more direct, highway route. The detour, while lovely, had cost us over an hour and added 25km to our day—not typically terrible, but it meant extra exposure to the midday heat.

After a brief stop to top off our water, we reached a series of short, steep climbs, made all the harder by our heavily laden bikes and the now-scorching sun on newly paved roads. Heartrates skyrocketed and it wasn’t long before we lost the first member of our group. This was Rob’s first fully loaded adventure, and he was already starting to feel the effects of overheating. Nearing the point of no return, his new-dad instincts for self-preservation kicked in, and he made the (ultimately smart) decision to turn back, grab the car and meet us at campsite number one.

Pedal, pedal, sip…pedal, pedal, sip…You couldn’t drink fast enough to stay hydrated, and despite the effort and heat, troublingly, none of us were showing any signs of sweat. We paused briefly at the first spot of shade, chugged more water, snacked on salty foods, then rolled on. The highway was behind us as we crunched over the crushed stones of ranch roads, talking less and slowly turning our multiple liters of water into temporary relief before it invisibly evaporated from our skin into the atmosphere.

Eighty kilometers in and having reached the hottest part of the day, we napped briefly in a sliver of shadow beneath a dumpster at the corner of Terlingua Ranch Road and the gravel path that would take us officially into the National Park. We were more sunscreen than human by this point and each well over halfway through our water reserves, but we only had around 50km to our first camp, and the temperatures were finally tipping. Even better, as we got rolling again down a beautiful gravel road, Rob reemerged from a cloud of dust in his bright white SUV, bringing water and reassurance that we were headed in the right direction.

We covered the final kilometers beneath the fading sun as smoke rose slowly from wildfires way out on the horizon. Our camp was connected to a small RV park just outside of Big Bend, built as spillover accommodation when peak weekends see a heavy influx of out-of-towners. Relieved to have made it through the first day, we quickly realized we weren’t out of the woods (or desert) just yet. Despite our best efforts, and near-constant hydration, Mike – a cat-2 racer and very strong rider – had succumbed to low-sodium levels and severe dehydration. Soon, waves of nausea and full-body cramps mandated a trip to the hospital, over an hour away, where he’d spend the night hooked up to a series of IV bags to bring his balance back to normal. And then there were three.

Waking up the next morning, we knew we’d need to re-route. The forecast was equally treacherous, and even though our original day-two plan ended with another water stop, it would put us in position to attempt days three and four with no guaranteed water for almost 200 kilometers—a risk we could no longer take. Instead, we decided to follow a more direct route, covering 100km of mostly paved roads across the park and back to our original campsite, from where we could regroup and plan the next two days. Refilled at the camp store and doubled down on electrolytes, David, Natalie and I retraced the short road back to the park before bypassing the gravel track we’d ridden in on and enjoying the smoothest tarmac federal funds can buy.

By mid-morning, the sun had begun to do its thing, and with an abundance of caution, we stopped more, sipped more and sat in the shade whenever we could find any. We followed a few mellow, steady climbs towards the park’s center, with David and I beginning to feel the heat. Natalie continued, seemingly unbothered by it. A bit past the halfway point, and around the bend from the ranger station where we’d picked up our passes the day before, we took our planned lunch pause at a small service station. Meanwhile, Rob had retrieved Mike from the hospital, and they stopped by to check in as we snacked and sipped pickle juice to fight off the ever-encroaching cramps. Leaving a few bags in the car, we lightened our load for the remaining 50k and started rolling once the sun had abated a bit.

From Panther Hill to Terlingua is mostly downhill, and we were happy to have the wind at our backs and the hottest part of the day behind us. But we were even more overjoyed to arrive at camp to find our tents already set up by our newly minted support crew, where we enjoyed a good meal and a relaxing night around the fire.

Cloud cover greeted us at sunrise and was a welcome sight to start our morning. David, Natalie and I had decided our best ride would be to head south and into the park, following Old Maverick Road to the Rio Grande and Santa Elena Canyon; Rob and Mike figured theirs was in air-conditioned comfort all the way back to Austin, so we said goodbye and went our separate ways. The gravel tracks of Old Maverick are washboarded and bumpy but surrounded by stunning scenery. We bounced along beneath a mercifully cooler sky until we reached the high walls of Santa Elena, carved out over centuries by an unrelenting river that today draws the line between the US and Mexico.

The Rio’s level was low, so we wandered upriver and into the canyon. Santa Elena is one of the most iconic features of Big Bend. As such, fellow tourists were abundant, but not overwhelming. Some asked questions and gave encouragement, and one kind man even shared muffins and water. The clouds had mostly burned off, but the temperatures remained manageable, and we began to bump our way back north towards Terlingua. Our camp was quieter with just the three of us, but compared to the previous two days’ heat, day three had been downright enjoyable, and we were happy to sit and reminisce about the decisions we’d made, both good and bad, that had led to where we were.

The good decisions were simple, but significant: We’d all regularly applied sunscreen and had thus avoided being burnt. We’d planned for disaster and had options B and C as backup just in case. We’d brought as much water as we could possibly carry and had managed to never entirely run out. We’d listened, once prompted, to nature and stayed just within the safe side of our limits.

But we had, of course, made one bad decision. We’d done the one thing we’d always been warned against: we’d messed with Texas—and Texas messed back.

In the end, though we hit our fair share of turbulence and were forced into a few unscheduled layovers along the way, muscle memory eventually did return, and we found our way through to the other side, making one last good decision to end our trip. We bailed on day four, packed up the car and drove to Marfa for the best burritos in West Texas. After all, flying’s for the birds anyways.