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Past the End of the World, Part 1
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 • Posted March 25, 2009

As the great philosopher Descartes once said, “The longest journey begins with a single flat tire.” That’s also how most of my short and medium journeys start. So when my family decided to go to Big Bend National Park and float part of the Rio Grande River during Spring Break, I expected some car trouble. I was not disappointed.

The car trouble, though, was not necessarily a bad thing, since we were headed west. We had planned to leave about seven in the morning, but ended up not getting off until after ten, which put us in Junction a little before noon. So naturally we stopped at Cooper’s Barbecue for dinner. Which is pretty much what I had planned to do anyway.

From Junction it’s only about 1349 miles to Ft. Stockton, where we turned south and drove another 763 miles to the entrance of Big Bend National Park and Dangerous Animal and Reptile Preserve. It was closed. Well, not exactly closed, but we got there too late in the day to get into the visitor’s center at Panther Junction and get a permit to float the river.

The Rio Grande River is actually what they call International Waters, which means it doesn’t belong to either the United States or Mexico. So naturally the National Park Service requires everyone who wants to float on it to buy a permit. This costs ten bucks, which is not refundable in case of drowning. Or anything else. But that’s not all. Oh, no.

See, the motto at Big Bend National Park is ‘You Can’t Do That Here.’ ‘Without A Permit.’ Anything you want to do, from drive through the gate to park to walk the trails to look at the rocks or whatever, you need a permit, plus some other stuff, to do it.

Americans have the attitude, mostly, that if something is not specifically proscribed it must be permitted. In Big Bend National Park, the opposite it true. If you can’t buy a permit to do something, you’d better not do it. Or else.

When we got to Panther Junction, even though the Visitor’s Center was closed, we saw a Park Ranger type woman and caught her before she could get away. Which is how we found out that we were flagrantly In Violation. And we hadn’t even done anything yet.

I told the lady that my boys and I planned to float Santa Elena Canyon during the next couple of days, and camp overnight along the way. So she proceeded to tell me what we needed to be allowed to do that. I thought we already had everything we needed. As it turns out I am a total idiot.

See, if you want to float the river in canoes or kayaks, you have to make sure everyone in every boat has a paddle, PLUS an extra paddle for the group, AND an extra paddle per canoe, or something. You also have to have a life jacket for everyone on the trip, PLUS an extra life jacket for the group. Or else. But that’s not all. Oh, no.

You also have to have a portable potty for the group. Yes. And I didn’t have one, because I’m an idiot. And I couldn’t rent one from the park people, because they were closed. Which was why I also couldn’t get a permit, until the next day. Maybe.

So we left and drove on through the park to Terlingua, where we had a room reserved at the Big Bend Resort & Adventures, which belongs to a company called Forever Resorts, part of this complete breakfast. If you’re ever in Terlingua, that’s the place to stay. Not that you have a lot of choices in Terlingua anyway, but the folks at Big Bend Resort & Adventures are extremely nice and accommodating, even to idiots.

It was just about dark, but we decided to look around and see if we could learn anything about the river, so we drove down to Big Bend River Tours. Sure enough, it was still open. And sure enough, the owner was there. And sure enough, she had all the extra stuff we were required to have for our trip, including a River Potty. She sort of reminded me of Mr. Haney from Green Acres. For the mere price of five dollars a day, plus a thirty-dollar cleaning fee, she rented us a River Potty. Which is WAY less than I would charge, if I were going to have to clean one of those things.

She also told us we could get a permit to float the river in Lajitas, which is where we planned to put in anyway. So that all worked out very well, and it seemed we were all set for the next day. But then, any river trip is an adventure, and a trip on the Rio Grande is more adventure than most, so you never know what’s going to happen. Plus, I’m an idiot . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who plans to write about the actual river trip next week. Maybe. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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