Friday, March 7, 2008

Big Bend & Building A Bakery

Thought I'd update everyone on El Viaje.

Since returning to the US I've spent time in Big Bend National Park, driven across Texas, and done a lot of work on my sister's bakery in Texas City. Somewhere during this time frame Ann paid me a visit.

Big Bend is located in west Texas. The southern boundary of the park is the Rio Grande, which forms the border between Texas and Mexico. Anyone who's ever visited west Texas knows that there isn't much out there. Tiny towns are separated by great distances set in a vast landscape of mountains, hills, and desert. Big Bend is a large, remote park. True to its name (and the tendency of Texans to "call it what it is"), the park is set along a spot where the Rio Grande takes a big turn from south to north as it heads towards the Gulf of Mexico. Centered in the park is the Chisos Mountain range. Surrounding the central range is an arid, lower elevation stretch of the Chihuahuan desert.

I started my visit with a five day backpacking trip which took me through and around the Chisos. On my first day out I met John and Ray. They were a couple of Canadians who were on a seven week tour of the southeastern US. Big Bend was the westernmost point of their trip. I've always liked Canadians. Relative to most Americans they're more laid back and easy going. Ray and John proved to be no exception. Ray and John were partners in a window washing business located in Toronto. They were living out of a two door Honda Civic. Their Civic carried a ladder tied to a roof rack which had been drilled directly into the sheet metal. Turns out they'd been funding their trip by washing windows along the way. I learned quite a bit about the window washing business from them and admired their unique and ingenious approach to funding their vacation.

As it turned out that we were doing roughly the same route. We often hiked together, sharing food, water, and camp on a couple of occasions. Ray was an expert window washer. He was capable of simultaneously washing windows with both hands and had come close to the world record time for washing a standard sized window pane. I learned a lot about how to properly and quickly wash a window from him. If ever there was such a thing as professional window washer, Ray was it. John had a business degree and knew a lot about marketing. His advice will be very useful for the start-up of my sister's business.

We summitted Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, on the first day. While I was taking my typical "Slow and Fat" approach to backpacking, Ray and John were on the "Slow and Thin" program. Ray was hauling a type of small backpack more often used for hauling books on college campuses than for multi day treks in the desert. He was wearing heavy steel toed boots which he normally wore while washing high rise windows. John was carrying a slightly larger day pack. They were hauling almost no food, no stove, no shelter, thin Coleman sleeping bags, and what turned out to be an inadequate amount of water. They had an abundance of enthusiasm, however. Neither of them had ever been to the desert or even undertaken a real backpacking trip. They were in a constant state of wonder and awe as we trekked along the route. I taught them what I'd learned about desert backpacking, provided them with hot food, and gave them some of my water when they ran out. Near the end of our trek I invited them to join me for a float down the Rio Grande in the Sea Hawk. They readily and gratefully accepted my invitation. After some car shuttling we set out for a two day trip which started at the western end of the park.

The Sea Hawk was billed as a four person watercraft. With three guys and overnight gear it was a tight fit, but we all managed to squeeze in. The Rio Grande is a dirty river. The muck in some parts smelled like sewage, no doubt due to livestock and the fact that one of its banks was a third world country. It's also very shallow in parts, requiring on multiple occasions that we exit the Sea Hawk and pull it along as we waded through the shallows. During our trip I saw a dog, a cow, and two women cross the river. All of them were heading from Mexico to the US. The day our trip ended I saw a minivan with Mexican plates drive across the river from the US to Mexico. I was surprised at how permeable the border was. While in Mexico I was asked on a couple of occasions if I'd be willing to take carry my inquisitor across the border to the US. At the time I thought it was a ridiculous request given my previous experiences with international border crossings. My most recent border crossing experience had only reinforced this view. (The van was searched for 20 minutes by five border patrol officers and a dog when I crossed from Mexico into the US.) After spending two days on a remote section of the border, however, my view changed substantially. It'd be pretty easy to get just about anything through this part of the border, especially if you're on foot and have some desert backpacking experience.

We spent our one night out on a beach on the Mexican bank. We joked that the Mexican border patrol would pick us up an deport us. In my case it would have been a short journey, just 30 feet to the opposite bank. In the case of Ray and John it would have been a good way to save money on their return trip, which they were planning on undertaking immediately after the river float.

What the river lacked in water quality it more than made up for in scenery. The Santa Elena Canyon was especially spectacular. I had not realized that such canyons existed along this river. The Santa Elena is a narrow slot canyon with shear sides rising over a thousand feet. In some places boulders the size of office buildings had fallen into the river. Some portions held deep water. John and I took turns scaling the walls along one deep water section. The canyon also held the most challenging rapids of the float. They were class three rapids. Not very high given the one to six scale used for rating rapids, but with our craft and incompetence we managed to come within a hair's breadth of emptying the Sea Hawk of it's contents.

Our float ended soon after exiting the canyon, somewhat later in the day than we had expected. After a hasty goodbye, exchange of contact information, and expression of desire to meet in Houston in December, John and Ray immediately began their return journey to Canada. I enjoyed their company and their excellent stories (best left unrecorded) and hope to see them again some time in the future.

After some solo hiking in the park I began winding my way eastward along back roads towards the Gulf Coast. It seemed to get hotter the further east I went, so I stopped for a haircut in a border town. I'd planned on just a trimming, but when the barber attempted to run his comb through my matted hair I remembered that I hadn't bathed in quite a while. Unwilling to tolerate the thick hair I somewhat reluctantly told him to cut it with clippers all the way around.

Further on the Water Buffalo's engine suddenly died while pulling away from a stoplight just as I'd answered a phone call. The fellow behind me helped me push it across the intersection to a safe spot. After checking a few things I witnessed a car accident at the same intersection. The driver of one of the cars pulled up next to me and, without getting out of her car, asked me how badly her car was damaged. I told her that the right front wheel was at an odd angle and sheet metal was rubbing on the tire. After suggesting that she find a place to park and wait for the police she made a remark about "not having any other vehicle to drive" then took off down the street. After the police took my statement I tried starting the van. It seemed to be running as well as it ever had. It was an odd sequence of events, as if the engine had died just so I could witness the car accident, and the whole sequence had been triggered by a phone call. I shrugged my shoulders and after a night's rest kept driving.

After stopping to enjoy the surf at a beach, I reached my sister's house in Texas City in the early evening. The next morning the van died and refused to restart. True to it's beast of burden nature, the Buffalo had carried me to my destination, but once it had arrived, it stubbornly refused to do any more work. A $30 voltage regulator cajoled it into running long enough to discover that it was overheating again. Another $30 to replace the fitting that was repaired in Mexico fixed the overheating. Since then I've changed the oil, given it a good wash (free with the oil change), and driven it minimally. I figure it's earned a good rest, and it's still got a lot of work left to do.

Within a week of my arrival Ann flew in for a long weekend. We hung out with friends and family, and visited the local attractions. I even put her to work on the bakery construction. It was great to see her and my friends and family enjoyed meeting her. My sister's pets especially enjoyed her visit.

Other than the few days Ann was here I've been working every day since my arrival on the bakery business. The plan is to convert my sister's garage into a cake and cookie bakery with all the necessary permits. So far we've added drainage on the exterior (the garage had been flooding when it rained), built a shed, moved everything out of the garage, and gutted the garage's interior back to the frame. I'm ordering the construction materials today. The work has gone a bit quicker than I thought it would. Many friends and family have helped (my sister's racking up the free cakes) and even more have offered to help (don't worry, I won't forget to call you). I've also learned a lot about demolition and construction. I'm happy to report that the "safety third" philosophy has been successfully deployed in a new environment. I'm hoping to have it all finished by the end of March. Once we have the permits we'll be doing some marketing for the business. (Gotta put that new capital to use!) After the start-up is complete I'll be heading back to Mexico to visit family. I expect to leave for Monterrey some time in April.

That's it for now. Hope all is well back in Oregon. Photo links are here.

1 comment:

BoomerSusan said...

Bring your Mom back with you!!

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