It was here. The anticipation was over. We were finally leaving city life for our first big taste of camping in the wild. We were so ready to switch from gas station and random establishment bathrooms for pooping out in the open landscape, Walmart parking lots for backcountry primitive dirt roads, window shopping to sight seeing, and connection with society to none. THIS was the van life we had anticipated. As much as we thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the southeast we had not seen before, the southwest (the mountains) was calling.
We left the wonderfully eclectic city of Austin and headed west/south. Abi, in her subtle yet elaborate planning, had already researched our hikes. We had planned to stop for the evening at an overlook that was halfway to the park. We were scheduled to arrive right as sunset was making its debut. We took a 20 minute detour off route 10 to get to this spot and as soon as we pulled in, the sun was lowering itself modestly towards the earth. The overlook opened up to a vast vista of hills backlit with cotton candy hues. All you could do was stare with mouth gaping and eyes wide open. We slept like babies.
We took our time leaving the site. We were so grateful to not be surrounded by societal interruptions that we slowed way down to take it all in. Our coffee was sipped with more intention. We let our eyes indulge in the view. I meticulously prepared my veggies for breakfast, James Beard Award-winning brunoise carrots because why not take it back to culinary school precision. I had time.
We left our site around noon and knew today would be another long drive, so we already planned to stay at this free camp site right outside the park for the evening and drive in the next morning. After stopping to load up on groceries for the week, we headed out for our last leg of the drive. I noticed we were at half a tank and I didn’t think to fill up one last time. I quickly realized that our fuel lasts a lot longer the first half of the tank then the second because I swore we were at a quarter of a tank before I could blink my eager eyes. I calmly asked Abi how much longer to the next town. She said 30 mins and I felt assured. 5 mins later our fuel light came on for the first time ever and we were trudging up steep inclines through barren desert land. I started panicking to myself. I had always known how far I could ride empty in my shimmery pearl white Acura TL (that took expensive premium gas) I had sported around Charleston before this but I had no idea how far I could get the van on empty. I finally tell Abi that I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. She always has a way of assuring the situation will work itself out even if she is not internally sure. Thank the universe, we just coast into the city of Alpine and roll up to a pump at the last second. My nerves crawled back into their crevices and I exhaled.
We were finally coming up on our turn to our campsite. “In 300 feet, turn left”. I say, “thank you Sally”. I like to give the GPS a different name each time depending on her tone. ( And by her tone I mean my current frustration level, which was pretty moderate, so Sally, which I felt was nice and wholesome, it was) The entrance had a sign saying private property. Abi had read that it was private land but the owner allowed overnight camping so on we went. We cruised down a dirt road which started to get a little more rugged as time went on. We passed a house on the left and glanced as a man rocking on the porch just kind of watched us pass. I said to Abi are you sure this is correct? She assured me yes. The longer we drove, the rockier the van got. We knew prior to trekking off grid that our cabinets were not built with precision by any stretch of the imagination, however, the rumble underneath the tires revealed just how DIY’ed they were. We held the breaks over this dip and practically everything in the cabinets hit the floor. It felt like we were in a raging storm on a little skipper boat in the middle of the sea. The dogs were trying to locate the oh-shit-handles to hold onto. I can only imagine the old man on the porch was either laughing at us van lifers or cocking his shotgun. I can say I don’t often see Abi lose her cool unless I’m taking a wrong turn or we are on treacherous terrain. We traveled about 2 more miles up steep grades and down and around sharp turns of unapologetic road until we decided we were getting farther and farther away from the drop pin. After pausing Abi pulled up the site coordinates on Google maps GPS which directed us to go a totally different way. Apparently our Pioneer GPS had failed. With a grunt and an eye roll, off we go. We finally get to the correct road which was so much more forgiving. Almost there, we get to a three way split. The left says private land so it is either straight or right. I decide straight makes sense. Two minutes later we were again in the perfect storm of off roading. I was sure the cabinets were just going to rip out of the ceiling and land on the dogs who were already bracing themselves for impact. We knew we had to turn around but the road was so narrow I didn’t believe I could three point turn. I ended up backing up until I found enough of a widening that I could perform a 10 point turn to get us back. We finally take the right road and pull into the most magnificent spot we have stayed at the entire trip in our van. In that moment, we were home.
Immediately I went into fix it mode and installed hooks and bungie cords on all the cabinet doors, extra hooks for nick nacks, and adjusted a few locks we had previously installed. After a few hours of home improvement we took the dogs on a long walk. The landscape was just mind blowing. We went from city hustle to bird watching amongst the mountaneous landscape. On our way back to the van I looked up and saw the grandest full moon just starting to peak over the mountain. Abi ran back to the van to grab her camera and in that moment I decided we were going technology free for a few days. I wanted no distraction from what was already right in front of me.
We rose early in anticipation of getting to the park. I was excited but also so content because I thought how much more beautiful could our surroundings be than this? We roll up to the entrance, proudly show our annual National Parks Pass and continue on. We decided to head to the one campground that potentially still had vacancies. We pulled up and it said all sites were full. We drove through and saw that most people were leaving the next day as it was the weekend. We were not fully prepared for how packed it would be but we learned of primitive roadside camping available in the park and knew we would need to get to the visitors center bright and early to try and secure a spot. As for the rest of the day, we were going to enjoy the trails. We focused on a few shorter trails just to take in the lay of the land and decided to stay back at our original spot right outside the park one more night.
We woke early and hustled to the visitors center to try and secure a primitive backcountry permit. We arrived at 8 am at opening and there was already a line. Luckily we were the first to jump in the line for the permits. The ranger informed us nothing was available for the night but we could book one day in advance for the following day so we decided to secure a spot centrally located for 5 nights. There were two available spots and I decided we would take the spot that looked further off the road than the other. Knowing we had nothing booked until the following night, we needed to hustle back to the campground to try and get a spot as it was first come first serve. Luckily we grabbed an empty lot. We settled in and started setting up camp. I must note, I am not privy to camp grounds. I tell Abi all the time how they feel almost cult-ish. I’m not saying I share the same distaste for all of them but for the most part, it’s everybody in their little square footage, sharing outhouses and judging the noise levels of everyone around them. One lot may be a single older man trying to enjoy the silence, the other, a family of 6 with yappy kids and barking dogs, trying to re-enact National Lampoon. They are not as bad as RV parks, (Don’t get me started on those) but they still don’t tickle my fancy. We enjoyed the day however. The ranger on duty was overly excited and came by our campsite about 5 different times but I was friendly and for the most part, enjoyed the conversation.
We went out in the late afternoon to walk some trails. We started with the Tuff Canyon Trail which led us down into a small canyon. In a few minutes we went from feeling gigantic looking down to feeling insignificant awing at the upward. Cactus shot out of the side of the canyon like appendagis. Some of them still held the bloom of late Spring. Every now and then you’d catch a lovely bright red flower at the tip of a prickly pear, in the midst of the desert. An awakening reminder that there is always beauty in the breakdown. Just before sunset we headed to Santa Elena Canyon trail. We were awe struck by yet another gorgeous part of the park situated on the Rio Grande. The canyon towered above us and the hike was so serene. After a lovely and breathtaking sunset, we returned to camp. That evening we tried to start a little charcoal fire but failed miserably. We didn’t have sufficient lighter fluid and the flash mob of lights going out around us sort of signaled our failed attempt. The cult was going to bed so we closed up shop, cooked inside the van, and dozed off.
It was time for our backcountry camping to begin! Knowing the spot wouldn’t be available until noon, we decided to do a little hike beforehand. The Lower Burro Mesa Pour Off trail proved to be interesting and even led us to climb the side of a canyon, free solo style.
It was after noon now and we were eager to set up camp so off we went. We turned onto Grapevine Hills, our road to wilderness bliss. We went about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road and saw camp number 1. (Cool, I think. we were camp 3.) We continue down, admiring the Ocotillo still in bloom and the mountains in the distance. Soon enough, the dirt road went from pebbles to adolescent boulders. Here we go again. A horrid flashback from two nights before takes shape. I slow my acceleration to a crawl and brace for the future. Twenty minutes go by and no sight of camp 2. “How damn far down is it Abi?” I can already tell she was thinking I told you so. I had been the ultimate decision in picking this sight over the other option, closer to the main road. I held my conviction in the lump in my throat and drove on. At this point, the adolescent boulders mixed with dips in the path that were quite controversial. After a rough 35 mins or so we came upon camp 2 and 3, right next to each other. I was so upset. “Are you kidding me?! The map made it look like they were at least a mile apart!” Then again, I thought the distance of camp 3 was a walk in the park. Silly me.
We quickly decided that we would stay the night but headed to the visitors center immediately to try and get a closer camp. The road was just too brutal to endure twice a day for the five days. The ranger informed us that there would be nothing available the following night but we could have the last three days in camp 1. We agreed.
Since we were out and about, we headed to the Chisos Mountain to do the Lost Mine Trail. The drive was incredible. Sidewinding through the range of clay red mountains. It was yet another totally different view from the desert landscape from the previous days. We arrived and set up our packs with snacks and water. When we got to the trail head I quickly notice all the signs saying beware of black bear and mountain lions and what to do in the event of seeing them. (I will admit my fears are stacked and this whole lifestyle is a daily challenge I purposely wanted to put myself through for self growth) I’m not going to lie, my concern was raised. I made sure to pack our whistle, phone, and axe. Apparently that was going to save us should it come to a confrontation. Either way, it made me feel better. Off we went. Just 5 steps in I look to my left and see two beautiful deer not even 50 feet away from us. They were not even concerned with us. It was a calming sight to see and it instantly shifted my energy. Every switch back of the hike was an opening to the mountain range with jaw dropping regality. We couldn’t stop taking pictures. We ended the hike just before sunset and made the tedious trek back to camp. The Chisos Mountain road was quite the uphill as expected but that meant the decline down was a doozy. Sure enough after 10 mins into the drive I started smelling burning. It got worse and worse and finally I said we have to pull over. I thought the van was going to start spewing flames the smell was so intense. I was relieved to not see smoke coming from the hood and realized it was our brakes. At the time, I had no idea it was possible to down shift. Our van’s gear stick is your basic park, reverse, neutral, and drive. I couldn’t believe the Sprinter vans were not equipped to set to low gear so naturally I had my foot on the brake the whole way down. (They do shift, I hadn’t done my research) We determined we just needed to let them cool down so we sat 30 mins and enjoyed the view. There was a 12 mile hike in those steep Chisos Mountains that we were stoked about doing the next day but made the executive decision that the van could not handle it. We did not want to overload our homes abilities.
Once we got back to camp, the sunset was overwhelming. We got on top of our roof and watched the sky color change orange, marmalade to pink sherbet. It was a 360 degree view of saturated hue upon the parks limitless beauty. It was the most unreal sunset I had ever seen. It is so funny how the universe can throw you a loophole and in an instant remind you why the tough moments are worth going through. I was in complete bliss.
We concluded that since we were not going back to Chisos for our long hike, we would keep the van parked at camp and walk to the trail at the end of our road. Roundtrip was a hearty 10.4 mile haul. This would make up for not doing the South Rim in the Chisos. As we walked and walked, we saw just how much worse the road got and were so thankful we didn’t try to drive it to the trail. At one point we saw a Chevy truck come flying over the horizon and barreled at about 50 mph through the terrain towards us. Luckily they saw us and slowed down as the road was quite narrow. Luckily we had our bandanas to cover our face from all the sand kicked up in the air. We laughed because we knew if that were us, our whole home would be in shambles. They were just having fun with their 4 wheel drive. Goals.
We finally got to the trail and man was it worth it. This place just keeps getting better and better. The terrain was filled with cactus and starburst colored lizards. They were not shy when we took their pictures. They just proudly stretched out on the rock until we were done. The last quarter mile was a steep incline of literally climbing boulders to the top. When we got there we saw it. The coolest balanced rock. It felt like we were in the Flinstones and all I could think was, something as delicate as water formed this valley; imagine what the delicacy of kindness could do for mankind? We stopped awhile for a snack, water, and some pondering. By the time we arrived back at camp, we were spent. It was a very rewarding day. I never wanted to leave this place.
Today we would enjoy our morning routine and chill until noon when we could head to camp 1. We decided the people that were supposed to be staying in camp 2 must have decided as we did, the road was too much because they never showed up. I mean, it was too much. The time came and we made the slow trek back out. Once we got to camp, we decided to set up our much anticipated “awning situation” we bought. By this, I mean we weren’t going to spend the money on an attached awning for our van as they were quite pricey, but we found a bargain sunshade tent would work just fine. Mind you, the winds within the park and Texas in general, were unrelenting. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to my own struggle. Abi and I laugh now, but the 30 minutes it took trying to hammer the stakes in then were a bitch. The ground was so hard and almost impenetrable with layers of rock. You can only imagine trying to dig a hole for natures calling. Basically, if you had two cups of coffee, you’d have no time to properly prepare.
Once camp was set, we headed to Boquillos Canyon for another hike. Once again, the landscape seemed to totally re-create itself. The high limestone canyon was studded with vegetation. The heat of the desert end transformed into an oasis. We saw wild horses and mules and were a bit confused until we realized they were crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico. We stumbled upon pop up shops where Mexicans had crossed and were selling art as to support their families and left a jug for donations. I had no idea it was physically that easy to cross over. It immediatley broke my heart because I had never been so confronted with what freedom could be for a whole culture.
After the hike, we headed to the natural hot spring in the park. We had anticipated this before even getting to Texas. We definitely awed at the Instagram photos of said spring and dreamed of the moment we’d arrive. We headed down the road to the spring and about half way was a sign that said RV’s and dual wheeled vehicles must stop and park as it was too narrow of a drive. Even though our rig didn’t quite fit into the category, we decided to park and walk the rest of the way. Once we got to the trailhead we were amazed at the beauty. We were able to see structures along the walk of what was left of a retreat from the 1900’s and were blown away. There were corn fields that butt up to the river and there was even a cluster of giant palm trees that we didn’t know could thrive in this ecosystem. It was pure joy and then we arrived to the spring. We put down our bags, got in, and just sat for a few hours. The only thought in my mind was, this is living.
We hesitantly decided to make our way back to camp. As we neared the end of the walk, we noticed the clouds start to gather and the sky get prematurely dark. I immediately thought to myself how the ranger at the visitor’s center mentioned to another park guest that they weren’t expecting rain until July, as if to reassure myself it was just cloudy. Five minutes into the 20 minute drive back to camp, the sky just became pitch black and I remember thinking that sunset wasn’t for another hour. Abi started filming the lightning in the distance. We were both so excited. Heat lightning would be amazing to capture so when we got back to camp Abi set up her camera to shoot some long exposure shots. She got her shots and we closed up shop and started admiring the lightning bolts from inside the van. We cut out all the lights, got on the bed, and stared out all the windows. Each bolt increased until we were watching a brilliant display of natural strobe light. It increased to the point where we felt like we were in the twilight zone. We couldn’t count the strikes anymore and our energy shifted from ah-how-beautiful to hmm, the lady at the visitors center said…
Boom! Abi and I look at each other. Before we can analyze the noise, BOOM! Even louder. In my split second mind, I assumed the wind had up rooted one of the poles of the tent and it hit the van but before I could fully except my own answer BA BA BA! Abi screamed, “we’re in a hailstorm!” I immediately jumped into survivor mode as if I was in a Marvel film and it was my moment to defeat the bad guy. “Cover the windows!” I screamed. The hail hit with such a tremendous force and I knew we were surrounded by glass. Next, I yelled for her and our animals to get on the ground and we grabbed our blanket and covered ourselves. From there all we could do was brace. What seemed like eternity was 30 minutes of calamity. I will say at first I was terrified but a split second later was an unbelievable calm. I might add right before the craziness, we had gotten very high so the sharpened height of awareness could have gone very sour for me as a naturally anxiety proned person but I was in a state of relaxation beyond what I knew possible for myself. Under that blanket was almost ethereal. I was protecting my family in a way I hadn’t faced. Really what was happening was the truck bed liner we painted our whole van in was turning this hail storm into hell on earth via amplified sound. I’m not dumbing it down but after it calmed and there was no damage, I gathered I’m dumbing it down. What I will say is that only made us closer and made our venture into Big Bend that much more rewarding. The stories we would tell.
We had fallen so madly in love with the hot springs and the general surrounding area that we decided to go back. After walking the half that was supposed to be too rough for big campers, we concluded our Wanda (the van) could make it. Abi decided to get out and film. Luckily my driving skills are pretty slick so of course we got there. There was a nice 6 mile hike (round trip) to Rio Grande Village that we would take and finish the day in the spring. The ultimate natural spa treatment. About twenty minutes into our hike we noticed the sky get cloudier and cloudier. Once again, the storm Gods were making a new brew. As it got darker and darker over the mountain peak we made the decision to start heading back to the van. Luckily we had just gotten to a loop point on the trail and we took the loop to head back to the parking lot. Just 100 feet away from the van the sky opened and dropped a torrential downpour. We hauled ass and dove into the van. The parking area was all dirt so in a blink of an eye it turned into a mudslide. We made a split decision not to try and drive out because just a head we watched a portion of the road literally turn into a river. Instead, we backed the van up on an incline where the water was running off and waited it out. Once again, we were in a hailstorm. This time however, we just sat inside and watched it from the coziness of our home because the icey morsels were only half the size as the night before. 30 minutes later, the storm was over and it was time to head to the spring. It was so muddy. Our shoes had no traction on them so we were laughing so hard trying not to slip or sink into the ground. Upon arrival, we noticed quite a change from the clear water from yesterday. The runoff from the storm had filling the spring with muddy, cloudy water. The top was still around 105 degrees and the very bottom was ice cold. It was an interesting feeling. After awhile it the cold water drained into the river and it was once again perfect soaking temp. It wasn’t long before more and more people started showing up. Everyone from all over the country and the world. We met a couple that just so happened to be also living in vans (in Europe!) so we got to talking. We ended up sharing info to model for each other the next day. It was so exciting because Abi needed a model for her White Sheet Series (Check it out here on her website) and they needed models for their passion projects. The evening became quite serendipitous.
Today was our last day in the park. It was already feeling bittersweet sipping my perfectly prepared Aeropress coffee. We were not meeting up with our new friends until about three so we decided to relax at camp. I climbed up on the roof of the van to enjoy the views and worked on compiling a soundtrack of songs that inspired this journey as Abi painted a scenery of the mountain range. As hard as it was going to be to leave, we still had an awesome adventure planned. Three o clock rolled around and our friends Peter and Ines, showed up. We all settled in for a bit as they just finished an awesome hike and needed to have lunch. Once they were done, Abi got a few pictures of Ines for her White Sheet Series (@whitesheetseries) and then we headed out to a new location. We took their car and would pick up our van later for a location that was more easily accessible. We decided to shoot for Ines’ jewelry line first and the Chisos basin sounded like a nice shady spot to capture pictures at that time of day. We were excited because we were not able to take the van that far into the mountains and now we had the opportunity to experience it! We got some beautiful shots and as the sun began to fall, we headed out to a new location to shoot for Peter’s photography website. I was pumped to put on my wedding jacket again. Abi did not bring her wedding dress on the trip but had a stunning cream lace flowy dress that I was obsessed with. We were in our element. After our shoot, Abi took pics of Ines with her red sheet while Peter simultaneously shot pictures of me wearing the ear wings. On the way out we stopped because the sunset was just too amazing not to capture. At the end of the shoot Ines let us pick a pair of her ear wings to keep which was an awesome surprise. We then exchanged information, wished each other well, and said our lovely goodbyes.
As soon as we headed our separate ways, I immediately thought of how amazing this van culture is. These are people willing to hault their whole existence as they knew it, to step into the unconventional. It takes opening a whole new corridor of your spirit to purposely live your life in constant unknown to possibly discover an untapped beauty, whether it a new place or within yourself. Because of that, the people we meet on the road are as real as it gets. They open their hearts because they revel in being vulnerable which is not an easy topic for the average human. Unfortunately, technology’s influence on society has made it almost impossible for people to be themselves. Now, human connection is highly based on social media platforms that dictate peoples every move, which is archived and rated. How many likes can you get for a post that is most likely super set up and not true to your actual personality? How many followers can you get if you stay within the visual confines of what people want to see? How can you stand out enough when so much information is being thrown at people who scroll so fast they can barely take the time to let their eyes even adjust to what they are looking at? How can you be real, say what you mean to say, without being long winded, as to keep a persons split second attention? I have taken the time to read van lifer’s feeds, every last word. It is amazing how intimate they will be. It is soothing because they are touching subjects that actually are relatable, meaningful, and sometimes hard to take in. The time taken in this community to present uncomfortableness is not to garner reaction is it to hopefully help another, touch another, or inspire another.
My experience in Big Bend was the first time I let it all go and just sat in the current. Nature heals. Period. The morning before leaving my dad called me to tell me my cousin had passed away. I was not close with him until the last two years of his life, but the point is we did connect as family. I was crushed to hear it was accidental self medication. I got down from the van, walked 100 feet away, and started sobbing. As I looked around at the landscape before me, Mother Nature was screaming. She was screaming at me in absolute silence and I felt it all. Before that moment, it was never easy for me to go to my wife and breakdown. I spent several years of us dating crying in private. Most of the time would be over the loss of my biological mom. Sometimes it would be fighting back tears over a dramatic movie. The point is, I am a highly emotional person and I felt weak sharing that with Abi because I never really saw her cry. That day I walked into the van and fell into her arms. That surrender was magic. Being out in nature is so vital because it lends an ear. It listens. You are surrounded by a depth, a disconnect not possible within the confines of modern society. It re teaches you to appreciate both the highs and lows because such is life. I am realizing this journey is breaking my walls down to the point that I will never again accept being anything less than myself.
Here’s to you Big Bend, you broke my wilderness cherry. I am so, unapologetically, alive.
Ps, Terelingua ghost town right outside the park is a must see stop!
Check out our video of the 10 Reasons You Should Visit Big Bend, on YouTube:
Words by Natalie Rodriguez
Photography by Abigail Marie Rodriguez