Trouble in Terlingua

This story was originally published in the March 2007 edition of Ride Oklahoma.

Last October, I saw a posting on the “Ride Oklahoma” forum about a bunch of guys who wanted to have one last hurrah down in Big Bend country before Old Man Winter put the kibosh on riding. Today is the culmination of several subsequent discussions along those lines. Four guys, all hovering around that half-century birthday mark and just too stubborn to heed the weather forecast, decided to ignore what little judgment they may have cumulatively possessed and press on, regardless.

Bill Dragoo on his KLX-250 in Big Bend National Park after a rare rain. The bentonite clay turned into sticky cement as it dried.

Bill Dragoo on his KLX-250 in Big Bend National Park after a rare rain. The bentonite clay turned into sticky cement as it dried.

We leave Gary Miller’s house in Edmond late in the day, and drive all night. Gary and I share windshield duty, while David Hemphill and Rodney Copeland,(Z-Rod, to his friends), doze in the back. After battling our way through snow flurries, suicidal deer and jackrabbits, we arrive in Terlingua at 8:30 a.m., anything but refreshed.

After a night spent in the freezing desert unprepared for the cold, Gary Miller scratched out a message on his frozen KLR seat.

After a night spent in the freezing desert unprepared for the cold, Gary Miller scratched out a message on his frozen KLR seat.

We meet up with a group of fellow dualsporters from Tulsa at the local Fina station, grocery and diner. Their motorcycles are parked outside, ready for action. They are all riding 650’s; a KLR, a DR, and two brand new XR’s.
Dressed in multiple layers of foul-weather riding gear, they look well prepared to tackle whatever waits beyond those ragged peaks.

While we unload, our friends from T-Town make one foray into the wilds of Big Bend country. They return a few hours later, their enthusiasm for exploring thoroughly dampened. After discovering what happens to this place when it rains, they decide to hole up in their cabin, play cards and make up stories about their exploits on the Mexican border.

The mud and clay clogs up the front and rear wheels as it begins to dry. It is very hard to remove and caused clutch damage on two motorcycles.

The mud and clay clogs up the front and rear wheels as it begins to dry. It is very hard to remove and caused clutch damage on two motorcycles.

We are warned about the impassable roads by the silver-haired proprietor of the Chisos Mining Company, where we’ve rented a small, pink cabin. We brush off her counsel as fear-mongering, believing that we are far too experienced to cower to a little mud. She has lived in Terlingua for 38 years, but what does she know about riding motorcycles in the desert? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Historically, when a local says the roads are “bad,” that usually means they are rough, gnarly or awfully twisty and hilly. Bad for pick-ups and campers. Great for me and my bike. She provides us with a crude map on which she has marked the danger-zone with green highlighter. I later recommend marking these roads in red or decorating them with black diamonds and perhaps the Jolly Roger. Before we head out, we try to coax our friends from Tulsa out of their shelter, but they chain themselves to the plumbing fixtures and threaten to blow the place up with us inside if we don’t go away and leave them alone. We go on without them, scoffing at their waning adventure spirit.

The hotel/motel/convenience store in Terlingua, Texas where the Okies stayed before venturing into Big Bend National Park.

The hotel/motel/convenience store in Terlingua, Texas where the Okies stayed before venturing into Big Bend National Park.

Wind chill is only a factor for the brief road portion of our ride. We warm up fast once we get down to the business of scrambling over loose rocks, pebbles and occasional mud crossings as our route takes us deep into the Chisos Mountains. The rougher the roads, the better the scenery, a combination enticing enough to lure us a bit too far into the forbidden zone.

The bentonite clay turned to cement as it dried, clogging up wheels and burning out clutches in two motorcycles.

The bentonite clay turned to cement as it dried, clogging up wheels and burning out clutches in two motorcycles.

Sparse civilization gives way to nothingness.

Our troupe presses on, deeper into this magnificent desert wilderness, drawn by our sense of adventure and the security of digital breadcrumbs recorded by mounted GPS’s. There’s no easy exit if things go bad.

Trouble rears its ugly head when David and I decide it would be manly to test our skills against a steep hill coated in a sticky layer of Bentonite clay.

Bentonite is a mineral used for everything from drilling mud to intestinal cleansing. It’s also used to seal underground homes water-tight. We learn that it will seal a knobby tire to a swingarm in about a hundred feet. Our bikes bog down in the gluey muck collected on our tires, chains, and fenders. We each collect at least 100 pounds of this gravel-impregnated compound packed into every crevice in as many seconds.

We stumble upon a long, rock-bottomed reservoir and splash some of the mud off our fenders and tires, then continue deeper into the desert.

Multiple falls happened in the slippery mud at Big Bend. The area experiences infrequent rains.

Multiple falls happened in the slippery mud at Big Bend. The area experiences infrequent rains.

As the day wears on, we become more complacent. Mud stretches get longer and the hills grow steeper. It’s the classic “Boiling A Frog” syndrome. We’re almost “done” before we realize how much trouble we’re in.

Suddenly, Gary’s KLR spits the bit and grinds to a halt. We spend 15 minutes digging what feels like day-old concrete and rocks from his rear tire and swingarm, using finger-sized twigs. Z-Rod’s fork boots look like over-torqued candy canes, twisted and torn from extruding a thousand cubic-feet of warm peanut taffy through his forks.

We take the hint and decide to backtrack while it’s still daylight. By now, we’re all showing signs of fatigue from fighting our overburdened bikes through the mud and we’re ready to find the easiest way out of here. Too late.

On the way down, Gary’s bike clogs up again and the clutch…won’t.

David and Z-Rod release a barrage of colorful exclamations emphasizing their disbelief. Gary proves his point by demonstrating that his bike will idle happily in first gear, with the clutch engaged. This is never good.

Gary Miller nurses a makeshift fire that he and Bill Dragoo built to survive an unexpected night in the desert. The fire is built out of mesquite twigs.

Gary Miller nurses a makeshift fire that he and Bill Dragoo built to survive an unexpected night in the desert. The fire is built out of mesquite twigs.

Gary and I start collecting mesquite, the only firewood we can find, while David and Z-Rod go for help.

We joke about how our friends might abandon us out here, grab a burger and fetch us the next morning after a cold beer and a good night’s sleep. Our laughter dwindles to nervous chuckling, and then fades to silence as we watch the day come to an end. Warmth, hope and thoughts of sleeping in a bed die with it. South Texas is enjoying their worst winter weather in a long time and we’re about to experience it first hand.

It’s quiet out here. Distant coyotes strike up a chorus, adding a forlorn air to our predicament.

More rain or snow tonight and we’re in serious trouble.

It’s time to start the fire, but everything is wet. I’m not in a mood to take chances, so while Gary fusses with a Boy Scout one-matcher, I go for the sure thing and dip a mesquite stick into my gas tank. We detonate a small “Indian fire” to conserve our meager fuel supply and manage to keep our fingers and toes free of frostbite.

Gary Miller carried a "space blanket" and wrapped up in it to survive the frigid temperatures. He claims it didn't help all that much.

Gary Miller carried a “space blanket” and wrapped up in it to survive the frigid temperatures. He claims it didn’t help all that much.

Sleeping on the cold ground is a problem. Gary produces an emergency, “Space Blanket” bag, folded to the size of a small Kleenex package.

“Hey, Bill. I’ll share my sleeping bag with you.” Gary bravely offers.

“Oh boy. Our situation is definitely getting worse.” I tell him with waning wit. “We’ve gone from sleeping in a pink cabin to sharing a tin-foil sleeping bag.”

Humor is where you find it when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and hypothermia lurks behind every mesquite bush. But I appreciate the gesture all the same.

Gary’s first attempt to sleep results in a fitful, futile few minutes of thrashing around until his heavy Sidi boots blow through the bottom of the bag. The cold ground sucks heat from his body faster than we can gather fuel and feed the fire.

We finally manage to harvest a few tufts of non-prickly grass and make a thick bed to insulate us from the ground. Gary settles into his nest and manages to catch a few winks while I feed the fire.

Orion’s Belt makes its way across the southern sky toward its own bed below the horizon. The Big Dipper climbs up from the mountain tops to the east, slowly circling the North Star, and satellites move like white chiggers across a dark velvet blanket. The whole display is punctuated irregularly by shooting stars. It occurs to me that this is a show well worth the price of admission. I say as much to Gary, interrupting his slumber. With a tired voice, finally snug in a suitable bed, he agrees.

We take turns feeding the fire and dozing, until the eastern sky starts to glow with the first signs of morning.

Dawn greets us with an awesome display of ice-covered desert foliage, clear skies and, when the sun finally peeks over the horizon, warmth! The temperature is up to 31 degrees within an hour of sunrise, bringing with it renewed hope for rescue.

We feed the fire for another hour or so before deciding to take matters into our own hands and get out of here. We can’t imagine what’s happened to our friends, but clearly, their efforts to get help aren’t going too well. We stash Gary’s gear in the bushes and lock his forks right where the bike is parked. Pushing it with all that mud packed into every moving part would take more energy than we can muster on a bad night’s sleep.

We scramble to the top of a nearby hill and make plans to leave, two-up, on my KLX. Just before we mount the bike, I hear a motorcycle in the distance. Then the sound fades away as quickly as it came. We shrug it off. Must have been our imaginations. We’re getting accustomed to the idea that we’ll have to be our own saviors if there is any saving to be done.

With Gary driving, I assume the passenger position and we work the maze of washes and dead end roads, back toward civilization.

After 15 miles and about an hour perched on a postage stamp-sized piece of foam, we ride past the office of the Chisos Mining Company. As we pull in, we spot our friend Z-Rod, standing by his bike like he’s been waiting for us all morning. We motor on up to our cabin where David walks out to greet us. Why aren’t they looking for help or better yet, why hadn’t they already come to fetch us by now? Had we just been left there to die, or what?

The glaring absence of David’s bike is our first clue. They quickly explain that they’ve been back less than an hour themselves. They were in the process of calling around to find someone with a truck capable of negotiating the mud and hauling our sorry butts out of there.

It turns out that David’s DRZ 400 suffered a similar fate to Gary’s KLR 650.

The mud claimed his clutch about five miles from where we’d camped. They’d had their own adventure, only they were lucky enough to find a partially constructed cabin for shelter. It was them, on Z-Rod’s bike that we’d heard shortly before we started our own trek back. At least we weren’t hallucinating.

Everybody has a good laugh and gets down to the task of finding someone who’ll risk thrashing their vehicle for the sake of retrieving our defunct machinery.

We get lucky and discover that a couple I met on a trip to Terlingua 16 years earlier, fetch and tow stuck vehicles for a living. Steve and Debbie Calvert are what my grandmother would call “a sight for sore eyes” when they drive up in a lifted, camouflaged Ford diesel van and a fourwheel- drive Bronco with a winch. They promise to get us out for a reasonable fee or they won’t charge us for trying. How could we say no?

Trouble-in-Terlingua-1The next day we retrace our route on borrowed motorcycles that haven’t suffered the abuse ours have, and find the roads in better condition after two days of drying. The retrieval is relatively uneventful
with our well prepared local citizens and enough muscle to hoist a 450-pound, mudcaked Kawasaki into the back of a van.

With two of our four bikes out of commission and the other two looking like they’d lost a chocolate pie food fight; we call an end to any further exploration of Big Bend country at its worst. Nobody complains though. We’ve shaken out our winter wiggles and had an adventure we can tell our kids about.

Oklahoma sure looks good when we cross that ol’ Red River. Next time a Texas woman tells me where I should and shouldn’t ride, I’ll listen. And the next time a bunch of guys post something on Ride Oklahoma about a winter ride down south, I’m going to pay more attention to the weather man.

Comments

  1. I ignored the half-century mark half a decade ago, and this sounds all too familiar, Bill! Keep up the good riding, and the good writing. If you’re ever out in Northern New Mexico, give me a shout.

  2. Max, thanks for touching base. I agree, we must keep riding until we can’t. It will keep us young…for awhile anyway.

    Bill

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