Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris
Bob Adams repairs a flat with assistance from Bonnie Tadej.
Grear Kimmel pedals through the desert.

The next day, I began to hear about some of the riders having problems with flat tires, punctured by goat heads. Goat heads are tiny multi-prong thorns that stick to bicycle tires. We had been warned to bring flat-resistant tires.

The fourth day of the tour took us into the national park. We rode 56 miles past breathtaking views of desert blooms and jagged mountains. We climbed to the park’s welcome center at Panther Junction and took a break. Everyone rode at their own pace, meaning we were strung out on the roads for miles, but often we regrouped at areas like Panther Junction or simple roadside picnic tables. From the junction, we enjoyed a fast 12-mile descent with Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen visible in the distance. Our day’s riding ended at Rio Grande Village campground.

I went hiking with three riders from Colorado, who became known to us as the Colorado Mafia. We found our way through the tall grass to the shallow and narrow Rio Grande River, and gazed across to the other bank in Mexico. That evening, we spotted more javelinas along with a lone coyote playing in a small stream. We stashed our valuables and personal snacks in metal lockers provided by the park service to keep the javelinas from destroying or eating them.


Our first day of riding took us 54 easy and mostly downhill miles from Fort Davis southeast through Alpine and on to Marathon. This was an area that once drew Comanche and Apache along with Pioneer ranchers, cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers. We pitched our tents at a desert campground and watched the fiery sunset transform green cactus into dark silhouettes while two of our fellow travelers cooked what they called “Texas Taters.”

 After dinner, our tour guides awarded a pink princess tiara to one of the riders who had done something embarrassing, although I can’t recall the exact infraction. The tiara was presented to a different rider every day for things like forgetting a glove or cellphone, or causing extra work for the tour guides. The princess had to wear it all day long on his or her helmet.

We awoke the next morning, rolled up our camping gear and stowed it in the van’s covered trailer, ate breakfast and started pedaling deeper into the Lone Star desert. The day featured 46 miles and 1,800 feet of glorious descent as we approached the north entrance to Big Bend National Park. We made a short detour before reaching the park and pitched our tents at the Stillwater RV Park, founded by Hallie Stillwell, a legendary gun-toting pioneer who refused to flee while the area was under attack by raiding parties from Mexico.

Although it was early April, the temperature was in the low 90s, but the dry heat felt like 80 compared to my home in the humid Southeast. After I cooled down, I walked across the campground to the shower house, which featured a sign with a photo of a coiled rattlesnake and a message to keep the door closed to prevent unwanted guests. I didn’t see any rattlers in the shower or at the campground, but that night while taking a short walk, I jumped a pack of animals that looked like wild hogs. They turned out to be javelinas, which are actually peccaries, or pig-like mammals.

April wildflowers paint the landscape in Big Bend
Bob Stenz of California climbs up from the Rio Grande River in Big Bend.
Andy Hyde makes it to Panther Junction after a tough climb.

By Scott Morris

The night before we began our epic bicycle tour of Big Bend National Park, an emergency room doctor warned us to watch out for rattlesnakes before we stepped in the Texas desert.

“If you get bitten, it’s a trip to the hospital in Alpine, and then a $60,000 helicopter ride to a regional hospital in El Paso,” Dr. Evan Minard told our group of about 15 riders.

Minard, who serves as a part-time guide for Adventure Cycling Association, briefed us on what to expect and what potential dangers to avoid on our 10-day tour.

“If you leave your shoes outside the tent at night, make sure you check inside them for scorpions before you put them back on,” he said.

These sobering comments reminded us that we weren’t about to be pampered on some inn-to-inn excursion through wine country. We were entering a different world along the U.S./Mexico border where cellphone service was spotty, Border Patrol officers were armed and help was far away.

A van-supported tour with the organization also requires a degree of sweat equity in addition to pedaling up and down steep desert mountains for up to 60 miles a day. On our first night at a hostel in Fort Davis, we divided into teams of two and went grocery shopping. Each team was required to cook dinner for one evening of the tour and breakfast the next morning, and provide sandwich and snack ingredients for lunch on the bike.

One of our two guides cooked the first night’s dinner while we pulled our bag chairs into a circle and got to know each other. We were strangers from as far away as New England and California brought together by a mutual love of bicycle touring


The sun sets in the desert at Stillwell RV Campground.
Top, Willy Powell, Joanna Swain, Bonnie Tadej,  Grear Kimmel, Bob Adams, Jim Harger, Grady Knight and Bob Stenz find roadside shade. Second, the historic Terlingua Cemetery. Third, octillo blooms as the moon rises near the ghost town of Terlingua.
Joanna Swain, Bonnie Tadej, Mike Koenen, Bob Adams, Brian Hester and Willy Powell take a break in the Texas desert.
Mexico lies across the Rio Grande River at Rio Grande Village Campground in Big Bend National Park.
Joanna Swain and Bonnie Tadej  roll through Big Bend.
Willy Powell is on the road again.
The author, left, along with Brian Hester, Willy Powell and Mike Koenen.

Spring cycling along

U.S., Mexico border

Camping in the Texas desert at Stillwell, just outside Big Bend National Park.
A Border Patrol stop on the way north from Presidio, Texas.
On the climb up from the Rio Grande River
Hallie Stillwell was a teacher turned fearless rancher, newspaper columnist and campground operator.
Prickly pear cactus abloom in the Texas desert.
Bonnie Tadej reluctantly receives the dreaded pink tiara from Grear Kimmel to the amusement of  Grady Knight and Bob Adams. Note the javelina/bear lockers behind the riders.

At just 31 miles, the next day was to be one of our shortest mileage efforts, but it turned out to be a tough challenge. First, we had to retrace our path back up, up, up to Panther Junction, where we refilled our bottles with water and our lungs with oxygen. Then the climbing really began when we headed up to Chisos Basin, which included one particularly challenging three-mile ascent with inclines as steep as 15 percent. That’s the kind of pitch that requires trucks to use low gears.

Somewhere along the way, we passed a park service sign that warned of bears and mountain lions. I added them to my growing mental list of things to avoid. Luckily, we all arrived at Chisos Basin without getting bitten, stung, mauled or eaten.

Grady Knight, a rider from Georgia, and I had supper duty after all that tough climbing. We threw together two big pots of rotini pasta, canned chicken, fresh broccoli, olives, garlic salt and parmesan cheese. It was gratifying when the other riders ate every bit of our Italian concoction and told us it was delicious. But in full disclosure, we were all so hungry every evening that you could feed us anything and we would devour it.

Chisos Basin is a beautiful remote campground surrounded by 360 degrees of mountains looming overhead. From the bottom of the rocky bowl, we watched the orange sun set through the Window, a U-shaped cutout section of the mountains in the distance. We talked about the day’s tough climbs and made plans to hike the next day, since we were spending two nights here and didn’t have to ride the next day.

A bicycle tour into the wilderness poses a degree of risk, of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. That risk is outweighed, however, by the greater odds of being at the right place at the right time to see or experience something almost spiritual in nature. That moment arrived for me on the first night at Chisos Basin as I watched a full moon rise over a mesa surrounded by a sky unspoiled by artificial light. As I gazed up into the night sky, I wondered what was out there and whether it had anything to do with me. Eventually, the chill of the night drove me back inside the tent and the warm sleeping bag.

After breakfast the next morning, we hiked several miles, including a trek out to the Window, which opened into a sprawling valley below. The desert was blooming in vivid spring colors, including variations of yellow and orange encased in prickly pear cactus.

Day 8 took us 58 miles from Terlingua and on a long, beautiful stretch beside the Rio Grande River through deep canyons. The route included a tough climb, which sent most of us walking our bikes up instead of riding them. Then, we careened down a steep descent through hairpin curves that heated our disc brakes before we entered less challenging terrain. At one point, we stopped in the blessed shade of a Catholic mission, whose walls featured los Diez Mandamientos in Spanish. There we rested while a roadrunner sped past.

Finally, we made it to Presidio, a U.S. border crossing town where our lodging was a roadside motel rather than the hard ground.

Goat heads had taken a particularly hard toll on Mike Koenen’s bike tires during the tour, but on the previous night one of the evil needles deflated his air mattress.  At the motel in Presidio, Mike and I took the air mattress to the swimming pool and submerged it in the water until we located the puncture hole by watching for escaping bubbles. Then, a resourceful member of our group, Jim Harger, who turned out to also be a competent bike mechanic, repaired the leak with a patch.

After dinner in the motel courtyard and a good night’s rest on real beds, we faced a tough day of climbing almost 4,000 feet over 60 miles with no place to stop for water except the tour van, which met us about halfway to our destination. At our highest point of the day, we were pedaling at 5,400 feet above sea level.

We pulled up to a Border Patrol stop where a uniformed agent waved us through and laughed at the sight of us, perhaps amused at the thought of anyone trying to sneak into the country on a bicycle while wearing highlighter yellow cycling clothes. I snapped a selfie at the border check alongside my new amigo, Willy Powell, a member of the Colorado Mafia.

Eventually, we dropped back down into the funky artist haven of Marfa, Texas. We set up our tents at a roadside campground within walking distance of downtown, although a few riders chose to simply roll out their sleeping bags on a raised entertainment stage in the campground and sleep under the stars.

Marfa has been featured in several big Hollywood films, including the James Dean classic “Giant” along with “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” But the town was quiet on the Sunday of our visit, which fell on Easter. Although we camped next to a busy highway, I got my best night’s sleep in Marfa after another rider gave me a pair of earplugs. I’ll make sure to add them to my packing list for any future adventures.

Our final morning began cool with gray, threatening skies. Although we only had 22 miles left to complete our 365-mile circular tour, it was a challenging day in the saddle with a stiff headwind, light rain and more traffic than most of the other days.

Somewhere along the way, Bob Adams pulled up with a hissing tire. He removed the tire and tube, and searched for goat heads. The culprit turned out to be a tiny wire that had entered the tire and punctured the tube. The stubborn wire wouldn’t come out.

I remembered that my bike tool bag carried a small pair of pliers, which I had bought for $1 at an estate sale back home. We were able to remove the wire with the pliers, install a new tube and finish the ride.

Although we were tired and ready to get home, the quick goodbyes back at Fort Davis were sad. Living, cooking, riding, hiking, talking and laughing together for 10 days had brought us together into a tight unit of friends who helped each other along the way. I packed up and started for home, thankful for the new friendships and the fact I had avoided rattlesnakes, scorpions, bears, panthers, goat heads and that dreaded pink tiara.

Dodging Big Bend's

rattlesnakes, scorpions

and princess tiara

It was cool on our second morning in the Chisos Basin. We dressed in layers to deal with the wide range of temperatures and elevations. Some days, like this one, began with riding in the low 40s and ended in the low 90s. From Chisos, we climbed back up a steep pitch and then descended back down to Panther Junction. Gusty winds through the mountain passes jostled our bicycles around like paper airplanes as we gripped the handlebars.

 We passed through the unincorporated community of Lajitas, famous for its mayor, Clay Henry, a beer-drinking goat.

“People come from all over to stand outside Clay Henry’s pen and feed him beers all day long,” reports RoadsideAmerica.com. “There is no other good reason to be in Lajitas.”

Thinking of some of the politicians who have represented me in government, I tipped my helmet to the beer-drinking goat and thought, “Why not?”

It was hot by the time we dropped into the lower desert and rolled into Terlingua, a resurgent ghost town.

We found a nice restaurant and splurged for lunch. With the hot sun bearing down, we didn’t want to arrive at our campground too early, so we hung out on the restaurant’s comfortable lounge furniture for several hours. I fell asleep on a plush leather sofa. When I woke up, we shameless loiterers decided to ride past the ghost town ruins and stop at a historic cowboy cemetery, which was decorated with makeshift crosses and crudely chiseled tombstones. We pitched our tents on the warm desert sand that evening and performed a nightly ritual: running a long extension cord to the shower house and jockeying for space on a power strip to charge our electronic devices.

Top, add Mexican black bears and mountain lions to the list of dangers in Big Bend. Second from top, the sun sets through the window as a lone bicycle sits atop the tour van. Third, the moon rises over a mesa in the park, which is designated as an international dark skies zone. Fourth, the tour group trades pedals for hiking boots as they negotiate a canyon climb up to the Window.
On the trail to the Window in Chisos Basin: Mike Koenen, Grady Knight, Gary Kleeman, Evan Minard, Willy Powel and Brian Hester.