The Big Bend is a holiday destination for so many

Our home is too quiet. My sister and her family made the trek from south of Houston across Texas to spend the long weekend with us in Fort Davis, and left early in the week to head back home. We squeezed as much West Texas into those few days as we could.

On Saturday, we ventured down south to Big Bend National Park. My Houston people had never been to Big Bend, and the weather was perfect for a visit. Our first stop was Terlingua so they could check out the Ghost Town during the daylight hours.

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We ate our picnic lunch (leftover Thanksgiving ham sandwiches) at the shaded picnic area across from the Terlingua Trading Company, and did a little shopping before heading to the park, where my just-turned-five-year-old niece wanted to “climb a mountain.”

Entering the park, we were met with “Campgrounds Full” signs, which wasn’t a surprise for Thanksgiving weekend. We decided that for a one-day visit, we’d head straight to Santa Elena Canyon. I have never seen the parking lot for Santa Elena Canyon so packed with cars and visitors as it was.

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The last time my husband and I visited the canyon, we were able to walk directly to the path that led up to the lookout.

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Apparently, the river was high because people were taking off their shoes and socks, rolling up their pants and wading through knee-high water to get to the steep muddy bank that led to the pathway.

 

Those folks that went up to the lookout had to climb up the muddy embankment, many of them boosted by the people behind them. We decided we didn’t need to see the canyon from up there and kept our shoes on and clothes dry. After throwing rocks to Mexico, we decided to head to the next attraction.

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Next on our one-day adventure through just a smidgen of Big Bend National Park was a visit to Luna’s Jacal. Located at the edge of Alamo Creek, (I’ve only seen the creek dry) is a small home built of stone, earth and ocotillo cactus stalks by a farmer named Gilberto Luna. Local legend is that Luna outlived 11 wives, sired 30 children and raised 54, and was in his late 90s when he finally moved in with his grandchildren in Fort Stockton. His decedents still live in Alpine. Other sources say that he lived in his jacal until he died at about 109, and that he lived peacefully with the Comanche Indians in the area.

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When we visited Luna’s Jacal about five years ago, it was a remarkably smooth drive down about 23 miles of dirt road. Not so anymore. There were lots of washed out portions of Maverick Road where seasonal creeks roared through during monsoon season and moved the earth, and we understood why the signs recommended four-wheel-drive. We miraculously made the drive unscathed in my brother-in-law’s low-profile sedan, but if you’re headed down south for a visit, be aware.

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Dinner at the Starlight Theater is a must, and it never disappoints. We arrived at about 4:40 p.m., with doors opening at 5 p.m. for dinner.

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We were among the first seated, and the restaurant was filled in no time. We saw two different groups that we’d run into at the canyon and the jacal during the day. It’s so funny that Big Bend National Park is such a small world.

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I made a big pot of Terlingua Chili the week before, so I’d had my chili fill for a little while and ordered the big salad with a grilled chicken breast and creamy dill dressing.

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My husband had a Terlingua Chili cheeseburger with an egg. My mountain-climbing niece ate all of her grilled cheese and French fries, and some of my enormous salad. My brother-in-law had the quail with blueberry sauce, and my sister had a bowl of Terlingua Chili because well, she was in Terlingua.

Chili Cheeseburger at the Starlight Theater.

We’re already planning their next visit so they can experience a little more of the Big Bend. In the meantime, here’s a taste of Terlingua you can make wherever you live…

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One Version of Terlingua Chili

  • Difficulty: easy with patience and a good knife
  • Print

(rumor has it this was The Original Recipe)

  • 2 lb. very lean ground beef (I use round steak and cut it into small cubes)
  • 7 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons masa
  • 1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

Brown beef and drain. Stir in tomato sauce and 2 cans of water. Mix in all ingredients except cayenne pepper and masa. Simmer 30 minutes to one hour, until the meat is tender and flavors have blended. Add as much pepper as desired, and add a little water here and there if it gets too thick. The longer and slower you cook your chili, the more tender the meat will be. Mix masa and ¼ cup warm water and add to chili and stir well. Simmer another 30 minutes… just be sure and add your masa during the last 30 minutes of simmering.

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