Friday, October 07, 2011

Big Bend With Baby by Rob Hodges

Rob and Zadie
“Ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball!”

“BALL!”

My 15-month-old daughter may end up being a jock. Zadie has a limited vocabulary, but the choice word in her repertoire is ball. Her favorite toys are balls, she throws tantrums in stores when she sees them, and I’m pretty sure she prefers the word to pedestrian terms like “mama” and “dada.”

But why was she frantically yelling “Ball!” during our hike on the Window Trail in Big Bend National Park? We were halfway into the hike, there was no one around, and she was throwing a conniption fit while strapped on my back and pointing at… what?

Then, I saw it. Of course. The pads of prickly pear cacti. At this stage, anything circular is a ball.

Zadie was the x factor in planning a trip to the Big Bend region about a month ago. Prior to the trip, my wife, Kate, and I questioned ourselves constantly. Were we completely insane trying to do a road trip with a toddler? We want to raise an intrepid traveler and curious explorer, and already she has accompanied us to Connecticut, Colorado, Portland, Seattle, Galveston, Houston, Port Aransas, San Antonio, and parts of the Texas Hill Country. But during those trips she was a subdued infant. Now she’s a willful, mobile toddler. We call her our Drunken Frankenstein—a teetering, stiff-limbed, belligerent, and cute babe—with the potential for monstrous outbreaks. What were we getting ourselves into?

But the trip turned out to be pretty incredible, though not without its challenges. More than seven hours each way in a backward-facing car seat is a lot to ask of a spirited toddler, so we took it slow and stopped several times to let her work out some energy. Particularly memorable pit stops were a beer hall in Fredericksburg, the park in front of the Crockett County Courthouse in Ozona, and the natural swimming hole at Balmorhea State Park.

Our first destination was Marfa, where we spent two nights in a 1951 Royal Mansion trailer at El Cosmico. The property is a hotel and campground with renovated vintage trailers, safari tents, yurts, a teepee, and spots for tent camping. Aesthetically, it has an artsy, do-it-yourself, Burning Man vibe, with eclectic Mexican and chic touches—a pretty good microcosm of Marfa. There is a large art installation constructed from telephone poles, and recycled materials are used in the landscaping, outdoor showers, and outlying buildings.
When we arrived well after dark, the first thing we saw was a lighted maze of walking paths illuminated by solar lights, which evoked the brilliant constellations overhead and the Marfa Lights. Our little rock hound, Zadie, loved walking the paths and picking up rocks by day, though we had to be ever-watchful and discourage that beloved activity since the underside of West Texas rocks is a preferred resting place for scorpions. A less challenging activity was bath time. When she saw we had filled up her inflatable ducky bathtub outside, Zadie squealed with excitement at the prospect of bathing outdoors.

We brought food and utilized the trailer’s kitchen a few times, but it was hard to be disciplined with all Marfa’s great restaurants close by. Fortunately, we brought a booster seat, too, as many establishments in the region did not have high chairs. The minimalist patio at Cochineal was a great option for a roaming toddler, and we enjoyed a fine meal. But it was Miniature Rooster that left the greatest impression. The unique Southern comfort food/Indian menu reflects the two owners’ backgrounds and results in unexpected and amazing flavor combinations. If this place were in Austin, I would frequently fight the crowds.

We spent a couple days in Big Bend National Park, staying at the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The room was fairly standard and nondescript, but the setting was great for a family with a baby. Days before the trip, we had purchased a baby backpack off Craigslist, which turned out to be a great investment. We used it on short dayhikes, including the aforementioned Window Trail—where a black bear ran across the trail about 40 feet in front of me!—Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and the Pinnacles Trail. Zadie was a trooper, tolerating about two to three hours at a time in the backpack, and even napping in it once. For the most part, she seemed to love taking in the stunning scenery as much as we did.

One thing we had worried about prior to the trip was how we were going to get Zadie to take her afternoon naps. She’s at a stage where it’s hard to get her to sleep anywhere unfamiliar. So we ended up rolling with that, quite literally. Every day at nap time, we would take a long drive, and she would snooze in her car seat. Fortunately, the region is blessed with some of the most scenic drives in the country. With Zadie napping, we tackled the hills and curves of River Road/FM 170 from Presidio to Terlingua, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park, the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, and SH 17 from Fort Davis to Balmorhea.
During one of those drives, we were near Terlingua when Zadie woke. We were all hungry, so we stopped into the notorious underground—really, it’s partially in a cave!—bar and restaurant, La Kiva. The Star Wars cantina comparison is overused, but it really does provide a sense of the outlaw vibe and the motley cast of characters found in this strange place in a strange part of the world. La Kiva’s d├ęcor might best be described as primitive Western—mostly skulls, bones, hides, chains, and cauldrons adorn the walls and ceiling. The signature drink is a supposedly dangerous concoction called a Mind Eraser. We overheard snippets of conversation about an illegal gun purchase and the etymology of the word, yankee. This is not the sort of establishment that sees a lot of babies.

But, probably because she was such a novelty, everyone loved Zadie. She ran all over the place while we waited for food, and all the grizzled regulars fawned over her. When it was time to leave, she had a fan club. I darted into the bathroom before hitting the road and discovered that the urinal was a cauldron—and there was a live baby snake climbing the wall above it.

Back in Marfa, we stayed another night at El Cosmico, this time opting for a safari tent. Unfortunately, we never got to see the Marfa Lights, but we marveled again at the dazzling starry sky. This trip taught us that traveling with a toddler means being extra patient and flexible. Kate and I had to give up some things such as the Marfa Lights, a late-night dance, the Chinati Foundation, and certain difficult hikes. But we all gained through discovery.


Rob Hodges is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Houston Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Austin Monthly, Edible Austin, South American Explorer, national meetings magazines, and Texas Historical Commission travel guides. Having traveled through about 30 countries on five continents, and about 40 states in the U.S., he can say with authority that Texas is a great place to live. His home is about a mile from the Capitol in Austin, where he lives with wife, Kate, and daughter, Zadie. His work can be seen at robhodges.com

The photos in this post were taken by Rob Hodges and Kate Ellis.

Our heartiest thanks to Rob Hodges, Kate Ellis and Zadie for a week of wonderful posts for our blog!  
--Texas Mountain Trail

1 comment:

Me said...

You get good parent points! Keep taking her! You'll never regret the extra effort...and she'll love you extra for it! My boys are 9 and 10 now...and Big Bend is one of our favorite travel spots. We've played poker as a family at many of the stops you mentioned. Long road trips? Piece of cake now!