Sunday, April 21, 2024

Deep In the Heart of Texas

Post by Corrine

Unfortunately, the weather forecasters had been right.

Eric and I had traveled for two days to get to Del Rio, Texas, to see the total eclipse of the sun and the forecast for every day of our vacation had been for sunny skies…except the day of the eclipse. And they were right. We woke to cloudy skies and mist.

Was the big event going to be a bust?

But at least it was warm. And we were having a mini family reunion no matter the weather. And there was still more of Texas to see.

Total Eclipse

Earlier last fall, our son Riley and his wife Sam, now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had had front row seats for the October annular solar eclipse. They are total science nerds and decided they wanted to see the total solar eclipse next. The path of totality for this one was within driving range for them. And southern Texas seemed the most likely place in the United States along the path to have clear skies in April. Also, Big Bend National Park was nearby, a park Eric and I still hadn’t seen. I started making plans, even convincing our daughter Montana to come join us. 

Del Rio, Texas, was the first U.S. town in the path of totality. I found an AirBnB next to Amistad National Recreation Area, a few miles outside of Del Rio. We wanted to watch the eclipse in a natural surrounding and this was a perfect location, as the reservoir is the focus of the recreation area. We arrived a couple of days before the eclipse and spent time relaxing, catching up, playing games, hiking, and picking out a great eclipse viewing location on some rocks above the shore of the reservoir.

Amistad National Recreation Area - a perfect place to watch the sunset and to see the solar eclipse

Hiking in Seminole Canyon State Park

Unfortunately, April 8, the day of the eclipse, dawned cloudy for most of Texas. The total eclipse wasn’t until 1:30 PM, so we waited. Eric went for a run and, Riley and I went for a bike ride. A couple of hours before totality, we headed over to the spot we had picked out earlier. Even though we were several miles outside of Del Rio, the spot we had chosen was already starting to get crowded. We got set up and then waited nervously. 

Luckily the clouds started thinning. The skies never cleared, but as the eclipse started, we kept getting occasional glimpses. That made things more dramatic. We were treated to amazing views through openings in the clouds. Most of the time, we didn’t even need to wear our eclipse glasses, since the cloud cover provided a natural filter. But we kept wondering – what would happen with the clouds during totality?

Partial eclipse.  Almost time for totality

Totality came and the clouds thinned enough for us to get a great view! And the time of totality was just as cool and awe-inspiring as predicted. It was eerie to have it get dark and see some stars, and then have the light come back again. It was such a special moment to share with the family. I’ve seen a few partial eclipses, which were wonderful, but this was even more special. It was worth the travel.

Total Eclipse

Big Bend National Park

Montana and Sam had to head back to work but Riley, Eric, and I headed west to spend three days at Big Bend National Park. 

Tuesday morning, we left early for the four-hour drive from Del Rio to the Panther Junction Visitor Center. After getting a park map, we headed down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the first item on the ambitious itinerary I had devised for the park. 

Along the drive, we first stopped at the Upper Burro Mesa Pour Off Trail. I thought the hike was two miles roundtrip, but it ended up being two miles one way. That wasn’t a big deal, but it did get us a little behind schedule. The hike was relatively easy, except for lots of soft sand and some rock scrambling at the far end. The trail follows a drainage to a small canyon that ends at the top of a cliff. When water is running, it pours over the cliff edge and falls 100 feet to the bottom, which is accessible via another trail. Just as we got to the pour off, we saw a couple who had hiked in on the lower trail. That trail was already on my itinerary. 

Lots of soft sand to hike through

Looking down over the pour off at the hikers below

A little scrambling was involved

After getting back to our car, we drove to the Lower Burro Mesa Pour Off Trail and hiked a mile back to the bottom of the pour off and looked up where we had been just an hour or so earlier. It seemed even more impressive from the bottom. We then got back to our car and kept driving, stopping at all the scenic pullouts.

At the bottom of the pour off

Looking up at the pour off

We headed toward Santa Elena Canyon, stopping at Castolon to get something cold to drink and then at a boat put-in/take-out for the Rio Grande River. We were surprised at how small the river was there. One spot was only a couple of feet across, and we jumped over into Mexico and then back. How strange! The river really varied in width, probably because a lot of it seeps into the dry porous riverbed. But we also found out that due to water diversions and irrigation along the river only about 25 percent of its natural flow reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

I jump across the Rio Grande 

Riley prepares to leap back over the mighty Rio Grande

We finally arrived at the Santa Elena Canyon about 5:30 PM. The canyon has a popular hiking trail. It was busy but not horrible. Getting there late in the day made for some wonderful light. It was my favorite place in Big Bend. The park service says the hike is 1.7 miles roundtrip, but our GPS units got very confused in the deep rock-walled canyon. They showed us doing double that distance with a lot more elevation gain. Our GPS tracks showed us scaling the vertical canyon walls! One of Riley’s friends, who is going to Big Bend soon, almost decided not to do the hike after seeing Riley’s Strava!

After the hike, my itinerary had Riley and I biking the gravel 14-mile Old Maverick Road to the highway and then several more paved miles to our accommodations for the night. But Riley and I had already decided against that because 1) it was getting late and we didn’t want to bike in the dark, 2) we didn’t know exactly where the place we were staying that night was located, and 3) we would have had to battle a 20-mph headwind. Yes, we wimped out, but it was a smart decision! Besides, we had to save our energy for the next two days of my packed itinerary.

Instead, we drove the “improved” gravel road, which was NOT improved. It was doable but slow. The drive allowed us to make a loop but there wasn’t a whole lot to see. Once we were back on pavement, we headed to Terlingua, a small town to the west of the park, just as the sun was setting. 

Dome Glamping

I had wanted to camp in Big Bend but was unable to get any campsites. April is a popular time of year for Big Bend and the eclipse may have increased the crowds even more. I had to search hard to find us any place to stay. Big Bend is extremely remote for the Lower 48. The nearest big town with chain hotels is a two-hour drive away. 

But small Terlingua offered accommodations. As I perused the internet, I came across the website for “Summit at Big Bend,” which had availability for our dates. This funky little place has 34 geodesic domes out in the middle of nowhere. Each dome has a bed, a couch, a sink with running water, and a small fridge. Communal showers and bathrooms are in separate buildings. And it’s only 30 minutes away from Big Bend! It was quiet with great views of the night sky as there was minimal light pollution. If you don’t need a lot of amenities, this is the place to stay. Glamping at its best!

Morning view from our dome

Several other businesses in the Terlingua area offered similar clustered accommodations. We saw another with domes, two with small A-frames, and one with small adobe buildings. The town also has several restaurants, a grocery store, and a gas station.

More Biking and Hiking

The second day, we drove back in the park toward Rio Grande Village on the east side of the park. Eric dropped Riley and me off at Glen Spring Road. Riley and I biked 25 miles on the rugged gravel road and then a few more on the paved highway to Rio Grande Village. The gravel road was rough and chunky in spots. It was do-able on our gravel bikes, but I was often wishing I had my mountain bike with front suspension. I would have been faster, especially on the downhills. Riley was nice enough to wait for me at all the intersections. We saw almost nobody for the three-and-a-half hours we were out there. It was a great way to explore the park. We did find Glen Spring and decided if we wanted to backcountry camp, that would be the place to do it.

Should have brought my mountain bike with front suspension!

Glen Springs - a little oasis in the desert

Meanwhile, Eric had his own adventure, running and hiking the Ernst Ridge Trail. He got some nice views of the Rio Grande River and reached Hot Springs at the far end of the trail. He wasn’t tempted to soak in the springs since the temps were in the upper 80s. Plus, the hot springs, which are also accessible by a short hike via a different trail, were crowded. 

The Rio Grande from the Ernst Ridge Trail

Hot Springs was a little crowded - Eric skipped soaking

After we met back up, we hiked into Boquillas Canyon, another short hike into a pretty river canyon where Riley and I went wading – Riley all the way across to Mexico again. Then we headed back to Terlingua for dinner and bed. 

Boquillas Canyon

Riley wades to Mexico and back while I only go a little ways.  

Hiking and Biking to Summits

Our third day in the park, we headed to Chisos Basin in the center of the park and did a 10.5-mile hike up to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. We started early to beat the crowds and to hike uphill when it was cooler. The trails were in great shape with nice grades but there was a bit of scrambling to reach the very top. Only a few other people were on top. 

A little scrambling to get to the top

On top of Mt. Emory

We had considered doing a longer loop but instead chose to head back the way we had come so we could enjoy a little down time at our geodome.

After dinner, we decided to head up a two-mile gravel road behind our place that led up to a ridge, where we could watch the sunset. Riley and I biked, and it was steep – between 8 and 16% grades for most of the way. Eric drove up and did some hiking while waiting for us. He found an old hard-rock mine shaft that we all ended up exploring. The views from on top were expansive and we saw another incredible sunset. Afterward, Riley and I got to bomb back down the hill back to our place.

An old quicksilver mine

El Paso and Beyond

The next morning, we drove back to El Paso. From there I was catching a plane home, Riley was renting a car to drive the four hours back to Albuquerque, and Eric was going on to Arizona to spend a few days with his mom. But since my plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon, Eric and I had time for one more hike before my flight left. We did a loop in the Franklin Mountains State Park, a huge recreation area smack dab in the middle of the El Paso city limits. We checked out the Aztec Caves (which weren’t really inhabited by the Aztecs) and headed to Mundy’s Gap. This was a nice area with lots of hiking trails right in the city. We might have gone further and summited North Franklin Peak, the highest peak in the park, but Riley had some problems getting his rental car, so we cut our hike short and headed back down to help him. 

Aztec Caves

We made it to the saddle below the peak but not to North Franklin Peak itself in the distance

We packed a lot into one week in Texas:  a total eclipse, time with our kids, several incredible sunsets, lots of desert wildflowers and birds, and a trip into Big Bend National Park with lots of hiking and biking. We probably won’t be heading back to Texas anytime soon, so we were glad to have done so much in a relatively short amount of time. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

Struggling to the Finish – A Well-Earned Sonot Slog

Post by Eric 

Sometimes finishing is winning – literally.

Even if you are left far behind by your wife.

Originally, I had higher hopes for my Sonot Kkaazoot 50-kilometer ski race. Sure, I hadn’t done enough skiing this winter, but I had done a lot of running. And running is a lot like classic skiing, right? Well, without the poling or the kicking and gliding. But, you know, kind of similar. At least, that was my reasoning.

On one of my many runs (but I usually didn't run with poles)

I hadn’t even planned on entering the 50K Sonot. I decided the 30K would be a good choice. But pressure started mounting. 

Susan Sugai, Mother SCUM, told me she was going to enter the 50K, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone at the back of the pack. The SCUM – Susan’s Class of Untrainable Men – are a ski group I remain part of despite showing up to only one or two practices a year. How could I NOT be part of a group called the SCUM? And Susan told me Bill Husby, another SCUM, would also be doing the 50K. 

And Corrine, who only classic skis, said she would be doing the 50K. Unlike me, she did a lot of skiing this winter. She even skied the Oosik 50K Classic Race in Talkeetna on March 9. But with all my run training, I was sure I could keep up with her.

Friend Amanda got this picture of Corrine during the Oosik

We had both planned to ski the 50K Birkebeiner in Wisconsin in February, but an almost complete lack of snow resulted in us cancelling the trip. They did hold the race, but as a 30K for most entrants. Three laps on a 10K loop of manmade snow. We decided we’d rather stay in Fairbanks, where the skiing was much nicer. 

But my focus was on running. I had entered to run the 26-mile version of the Chena River to Ridge in early March. I had been trying to do it for the previous three years and had to bail due to injuries or illness. And this year I actually did enough running training. 

Me at the start of the Chena River to Ridge

I kept injury and illness at bay and finally ran the CR2R 26-miler on March 2! The Sonot wasn’t until March 23, so I still had time to get in some skiing. But there were some bike rides I wanted to do, and a snowshoe race, and I accompanied a friend on a bike ride between Nikolai and McGrath. By the time the Sonot rolled around, the last real skiing I had done had been on February 4. And before that January 3. The longest ski I had done before the Sonot was 18 kilometers. Now that I write that all out, it doesn’t seem all that smart to enter the 50K, but there was all that pressure. And I’ve never been known for intelligent training, so why not go for it?! 

More of the wrong kind of training - accompanying Nikki on a bike from Nikolai to McGrath

Of course, after I signed up for the 50K, Susan told me she had decided to do the 30K. And the morning of the race, Bill said he was doing the 30K. Ah well, I still had Corrine to keep me company at the back of the pack. 

As the race started, I still was full of delusion, convinced I could convert my running training well. At first, Corrine and I skied close together along with Susan, Bill, and Dermot Cole, another SCUM, who was also skiing the 30K.

Several SCUM (and Corrine) at the start of the Sonot

With the warm temps, Corrine and I both decided to use our skin skis (classic skis with patches of traction fabric in the kick zone). I had gotten mine earlier that winter and had used them only a couple of times. But I struggled in the beginning with my kick on the uphills. Then at about 8K, I remembered that my bindings are adjustable. I stopped and – after struggling to remember how to work them – I adjusted them one more click. That helped quite a bit. 

My first ski with my new skin skis in October

But by then Corrine was long gone and Susan, Bill, and Dermot had passed me. I eventually reeled in those three and saw Corrine just ahead of me as I climbed the Tower Loop. I was reeling her in, too!

I didn’t see Corrine again until almost the end. 

But I didn’t know that at the time. I felt good and just knew I was catching up to Corrine and leaving Susan, Bill, and Dermot behind. 

But I was overheating. I was wearing only a windbreaker as an outer layer, but the temps were just too warm. I had planned on taking it off after I caught Corrine, but I couldn’t wait anymore. At around 25K, I stopped at the far end of the White Bear to take off my windbreaker and have a quick snack. 

And along came Bill and Dermot. I thought I had put a lot of distance between me and them! My confidence at catching Corrine started to waver. But I finished my snack and started chasing my SCUM compatriots again. I caught and passed them, then hoped that at some point I would come around a corner and see Corrine.

On the Sunnyside Trail, still hoping to catch Corrine

I kept that hope up for a long time. But every time I came around a corner and didn’t see Corrine, that hope got a little fainter. Finally, at 43K, as I was dropping down the last big hill at the far end of the White Bear, I saw Corrine coming up the other side. She was several K ahead of me. I cheered her on, but I also sighed. There was no way I was going to catch her. I glanced at my watch, then looked at it again when I got to the spot she had been. Fifteen minutes. Ha! No way was I going to make that up. 

But at least I had the last straw of motivation. I didn’t want to dink around on the course because of the volunteers who would be waiting around for me. I needed to push a little harder for their sake. At the next feed station I said, “Well, I guess I’m the last skier.” No, they said, there’s one or two more skiers behind you. I looked back. No one. 

I sure as heck didn’t pick up any speed after that. In fact, I finished 25 minutes behind Corrine, so I lost another 10 minutes after I had seen her last. I finished in 5 hours, 24 minutes. Corrine finished in 4:58. I did a lot of trudging and plodding at the end. Mostly I saved my energy so that I could look good for the finish. Not particularly inspiring. 

Except that I won! 

The pose of a true winner!

My age class for the 50K, that is. I was the only entrant in the 60-64-year-old Men category who started.

Sometimes all you have to do to win is to finish. I’ll take it. 

Corrine also won her age class – 65-69-year-old Women. Also, the only entrant in her category. She would like it known that there were only seven women who raced the 50K and all the other women were less than half her age. Also, that she beat one of those younger women! Her goal was to finish under five hours and she made that goal with 90 seconds to spare! She was also a minute faster than her Oosik 50K race two weeks earlier. The Oosik is basically flat while the Sonot has over 4000 feet (1220 meters) of climbing. Not sure what that means, but I guess she prefers hills.

Corrine at her Sonot finish. She says that leopard skin tights make you faster!

Corrine has reminded me that we can use our time on the Sonot to request a higher wave placement at next year’s Birkie. (We’ve tried to go unsuccessfully for the past three years.) The race has so many skiers it starts in waves with elite skiers going our first and skiers without any recent 50K race time in the last wave. If they accept our time, it looks like Corrine could start in Wave 2 and me in Wave 3 instead of both of us in Wave 6. Less people to pass, but more pressure.

Skate skiers at the Birkie (photo from the internet). Doesn't that look fun?!

But there shouldn’t be that much pressure. Not if I train intelligently. Ha!