A lone buzzard circled the morning sky as we left the pavement and turned onto a dirt road with a sign that read, "River Road East--Road Condition: Four-Wheel Drive, No Gasoline at Castolon." Our wanderings had brought us back to Big Bend National Park.
I glanced at my wife, Darlene, as I got out of the truck to photograph the sign. The road looked easy, and I had confidence in our big Ford F-350--but I hoped the buzzard wasn't an omen.
We'd checked road conditions with the park ranger at the Panther Junction Visitor Center 15 miles northwest of River Road. As we examined the map, he told us that the last report had listed the road as passable and patrolled. Four miles southeast of Panther Junction, we'd been treated to a hilltop panorama of Mexico and the mesas across the Rio Grande, still shrouded in fog.
I climbed back into GGRRRR-1, fired up the diesel engine, and drove toward Mariscal Mine and Castolon, 51 miles away. The road at this point was washboard, but two lanes wide and level. Our tires stirred the fine dust into a cloudy trail as we idled slowly down the road.
About four miles from the main highway, we entered a wash area with the road surface three to four feet below the surrounding ground level. I could visualize how water and sand would roar through here during a flash flood and shifted our truck into four-wheel drive. Old wheel ruts were deep, but the mud had been baked as hard as the surrounding rocks.
We passed a barrier used to close the road when rain makes the clay surface impassable. There was no hint of rain today, but the road was rutted and dusty, and the numerous washes were strewn with rocks and basketball-size boulders, testifying to the powerful effects of a flash flood.
We passed the junction of Glenn Spring Road, a route we'd driven last winter, and continued on toward Mariscal. We were now about 20 miles from our starting point on paved road and the abandoned rock and adobe buildings of Mariscal Mine came into view.
We hiked up the edge of Mariscal Mountain to the old stone buildings where the furnace and condensers were located. At the edge of the trail, a rusted car body surrounded by pricklypear cactus and creosote bush seemed to symbolize the history of this place and the hard-working men and women who extracted a living from the rocky soil.
A mile west of Mariscal Mine, we came to a wash with a 90-degree stone ledge 12-14 inches high on the opposite side. After a moment of hesitation, I shifted into low gear and eased GGRRRR-1 up to the ledge, while holding one foot on the brake and the other on the throttle. I felt the front tires bite, and our big truck climbed up over the ledge and loose rocks. From the top of the hill, we could see Crown Mountain in the distance and the mountains of Mexico to our south across the Rio Grande.
We continued to cross washes (I lost count at 20) and up steep banks covered with loose rocks. Even in dry weather, four-wheel drive and high clearance were necessary to manage this section of road. The road was now one lane and so narrow in places that the brush scraped the mirrors on both sides of our truck. Thirty miles from the pavement, we drove past another barrier for road closures.
The remaining 16 miles of River Road were uneventful, even though we crossed many more washes and passed a third road barrier. The desert plant variety had changed, with ocotillo becoming plentiful. The road turned toward the north, and the Chisos Mountains were now visible on the northern horizon. We reached the western end of River Road, and Castolon was now only two miles away. Our F-350 had performed flawlessly, and I shifted out of four-wheel drive as we roared down paved highway, doing the legal speed-limit of 45 mph for the first time in nine hours of driving.
Be Advised:The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note: Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping seatbelt-tightening dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (color slides, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.