Wide Open Spaces

“It takes the shape of a place out west, but what it holds for her she hasn’t yet guessed. She needs wide open spaces.” ~Dixie Chicks

I was fifteen years old the first time I visited Big Bend National Park. My parents loaded the kids into the Buick station wagon (no air-conditioning) and drove about nine hours to get to the remote park. This was during the pre-entertainment device era and just to confirm, it was a long-ass drive. However, as we set up camp in the Chisos Basin at sunset, I knew we were somewhere special. Fast forward several decades later and I still hear Big Bend calling to me. I crave wide open spaces, big sky, luminous stars, breathtaking sunsets and the feeling of being on the edge of the world. 

Sunset through the Window, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, image/ sharetheexperience.org 

The family and I recently spent our Thanksgiving break at Big Bend and it was a trip that made us fall in love with being alive. We left our home mid-morning and drove west to Fort Stockton, located about 2 ½ hours outside of the park. Our stay in Fort Stockton, a town established in the mid-1800’s to protect travelers heading west through the Comanche owned land, was brief and uneventful. It is an oil town and seems to have an influx of fracking-related traffic. We ate a big Tex-Mex dinner, had a pretty decent margarita, filled the truck with gas and went to bed early in preparation for the remainder of the drive the next day to the Rio Grande Village campground. 

The Rio Grande Village campground, southeast side of the park, is located close to Boquillas Canyon and the crossing into Mexico. A couple of things to note about the park, the majority of the campsites cannot be reserved and function on a ‘first come, first served basis’. The ones that can be booked get reserved well in advance. The park is huge, it covers over 1,200 square miles and contains three microclimates, consequently each campground is unique. You can’t go wrong with any of them but keep your location in mind when planning your itinerary. 

Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park

We tent camped at the Rio Grande Village campground and the nights were cold and windy, but the vast night sky provided greater understanding of the minuscule role we play in the universe. This campground has a short nature trail that leads to the river and the base of a small hill. Pack your evening cocktails (don’t forget drinks for the kids!) and climb this small hill before sunset. Look west to catch the light show created by the descending sun and look east to gaze upon the colors of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range…and just breathe.

We traipsed all around the southeast corner of the park the next day and hiked the dusty Boquillas Canyon trail. This trail starts off with a climb then leads down into the canyon. Sunscreen, hats and water are necessary-even in the fall and winter. During the hike we heard singing echoing off the canyon walls and one of my eagle-eyed kids was finally able to locate the source. A small man, tucked away into a cleft of the canyon on the other side of the river, waved and continued to serenade us. Later, we came across a jar with a note stating he was ‘the singing Jesus’ and accepted donations. We happily left a little something for Jesus.

Post hike we drove to the Boquillas Crossing. When I was a kid, this was a very fluid, unofficial area where you paid for a small boat to ferry you across the river into Mexico. It is now an official port of entry with specific operating days and times. You will still pay for a small boat to ferry you across, but you need to carry your passport and must check in with immigration officials on both the American and Mexican side.

After your brief boat ride, climb onto a burro and ride into the village, tip the locals for their assistance, buy a few hand-made items, tour the church and eat at one of the two restaurants (they usually are not open at the same time so the choice is easy).

The next day we drove into the central fortress of the park–the Chisos Mountains. Standing tall above the desert floor, they form their own microclimate containing pine trees, mountain lions and black bears. We did the Window Trail hike early in the morning. The beginning is primarily downhill and it gets a little tricky at the creek crossing, but even the six year old was able to navigate it successfully. The view at the end of the trail is worth it. Upon arrival, sit down and bask in the warmth radiating off the boulders, observe the changing play of light and shadow through the ‘window’ and just enjoy each other’s company for a while.

Before returning to our campsite for the evening, we drove to the start of the Hot Springs Historic Trail. This short walk meanders by the stone ruins of an old resort, ancient Native American petroglyphs and ends at the remains of a bathhouse. Let the hot, healing water soothe your tired limbs; this was as close to a bath as we got during our trip.  

Hot springs, Big Bend National Park
Petroglyphs, Big Bend National Park

The northeast part of the park was our last leg of this journey and we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to get there. This thirty mile paved road highlights spectacular geological features and at its terminus is the stunning Santa Elena Canyon Trail. This trail leads you up several short switchbacks and then gradually descends to the banks of the river. Look up at the towering canyon walls above you and as the wind rustles through the river reeds, listen for the ancient greetings of the Native Americans watching you from above. 

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Post hike, we stopped at the small historic town of Terlingua. This dusty, sandy strip of inhabitation is home to quirky eclectics, creatives, hermits and worth a visit. It even contains a bonafide ghost town that our kids found fascinating. Most of us were also thankful to see the plethora of restaurants to choose from for lunch. Note: I will pay you money if you can convince my crew to eat sandwiches for more than three days in a row. 

There is so much to do in Big Bend and each of our trips build upon the previous ones. One day I will be able to say that I have done every single thing I ever wanted to do in Big Bend National Park but until that day I will continue to heed the call of wide open spaces…..of Texas deserts and mountains….of big luminous sky, right here. 

Big Bend National Park, David Hensle/Getty Images

Texas Gulf Coast-Galveston Island

Whenever my family craves saltier air, I schedule a quick trip to the Texas Gulf Coast. I grew up in the Galveston area- eating raw oysters opened by my dad with his ever-ready pocket knife, fishing the red runs in the fall and learning how to identify all the flags on the ships going in and out of the ship channel. I also learned how to avoid stingrays and sharks when in the surf * and this has been very useful knowledge during our travels.

Indian Campsite Texas Historical Marker in Jamaica Beach, Galveston Island, Texas-flickr image

Galveston is an interesting area because it has so much Texas history to explore. There is evidence the area was originally inhabited seasonally by the nomadic Karankawa people.

In the early 1800’s, the French pirate Jean Lafitte developed a pirate colony on the island titled Campeche. It is rumored he buried treasure somewhere near this site right before he was forced by the American government to flee the island.

In 1821, there was a battle between the Karankawa and Lafitte’s men known as the “Battle of the Three Trees”, a State Historical Marker at the end of Stewart Road commemorates it. It is a sad story of stolen women, retaliation and death.

Jean Lafitte and Battle of Three Trees marker, Photo by Richard Denney

Very close to this marker you will find the Stewart Mansion, built in 1926, literally on the site of the battle. This area of the island is also where the Karankawas had their camps. Lots of ghost stories circulate about this plot of land as you can imagine. The tales of disembodied voices, floating orbs and ghostly apparitions are endless and anyone who grew up in the area circa 1960s-2017 can probably share personal experiences about their visit to Stewart Mansion as a teenager. Prior to 2017, the mansion was only in remains and it was a fascinating place to explore. You can still find pictures of it online and while the property has always been private property, it my understanding that it is now inaccessible and has been undergoing renovations.

Remains of Maison Rouge, photo courtesy of Waymarking.com

At the other end of the island, you can find the remains of Jean Lafitte’s headquarters, which he called Maison Rouge because it was painted red. This house was situated to oversee the port of entry area of the island.

If you are in the area of the Maison Rouge, be sure to visit the Texas Seaport Museum and the 1877 ELISSA ship (I do not know why she is titled in all caps but she is). Have lunch or dinner on the strand. Our kids also enjoyed the Galveston Railroad Museum when they were small. There is a display of old-fashioned telephone booths and it was here where my boys learned what a rotary phone was.

Take a drive down Broadway Avenue and stop at some of the historical homes open to the public. The Bishop’s Palace is worth a stop as is the Moody Mansion (I got married here!).

Of course you should spend time on the beach, fish, canoe the bayous, bike or roller blade the seawall, surf, boogie board, relax, ride the Port Bolivar ferry, eat delicious seafood (see the blackened redfish recipe below) and maybe even do a little treasure hunting. Galveston island can easily fill a 2-3 day agenda or even longer.

*Shuffle feet in the shallows to avoid stepping on a ray; do not swim at dawn or dusk and avoid wearing anything glittery into the water to avoid sharks in the surf.


Gracy, David B. II (1964) “Jean Lafitte and the Karankawa Indians,” East Texas Historical Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 9. Available at: http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/ethj/vol2/iss1/9

“Jean Laffite” accessed December 2, 2018; https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/

Blackened Redfish

Redfish Fillet(s)

Butter, melted (enough to brush over each fillet)                               

Olive oil (monounsaturated option-heart healthy)                       

Blackened Seasoning

Lemon, cut into slices for service

  1. Preheat large skillet to very hot, turn on the range hood/fan
  2. Brush each side of fillet with melted butter; follow by seasoning each side of fillet generously with the blackened seasoning.
  3. Carefully place fillet(s) into pan, drizzle olive oil (or more butter) over each fillet. Note: lots of smoke and sizzling here
  4. Cook until bottom of fillet is charred, turn fillet over and repeat step.