Texas has two national parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Culberson County and Big Bend National Park in Brewster. Both are in far-west Texas, remote and quite roomy (Brewster County is bigger than the state of Connecticut and three times the size of Delaware). Guadalupe State Park is mostly a hiking park, designed for backpackers and bicyclists. But Big Bend, nestled along the Mexican border, is just a world unto itself.
My first adventures into Big Bend were in the back section of the family station wagon, an ancient beast of questionable qualities. The worse part of the journey was the 700-mile ride with my parents and brothers from the Gulf Coast of Texas. My parents were both smokers and Dad refused to lower the windows more than just a crack due to decreased gas mileage because of wind drag. But after two or three days of riding in a claustrophobic four-door metal capsule of doom, we arrived. And I was instantly enraptured by the area’s immenseness, the mountains and the outlaw nature that it has always evoked. We camped; we fished the Rio Grande River and had a grand time—although I do remember coughing a lot.
My first ride to Big Bend on a motorcycle was in 1972, coming back from a trip to New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns. I was with a buddy and his girlfriend. We rode in late and, at dusk, while hastily building a campfire to cook dinner, I sliced my foot open with an axe. It needed stitches but with no immediate medical access, three 18-year-old kids did the best we could to tend to the wound. The bleeding finally stopped a few days later, but I had left my bloody imprint in the Chisos (the major chain of mountains that comprise Big Bend). Once again, it was a grand time.
In 1980 I launched out once more for that Big Bend in the Rio Grande. This time my scheme was to ride the whitewater of the Rock Slide, spending a three-day adventure exploring the Robbers Cave and Fern Canyon while my bike sat back at the outfitters shack under a tarp. Later I discovered a unique underground bar, La Kiva. And when I say “underground,” it truly was. Established at the foothills of the Christmas Mountains, La Kiva was once labeled by GQ Magazine as “the most #1 bizarre bar you must visit before you die.” Literally forged into the rocky banks of Terlingua Creek, the name comes from the subterranean ceremonial chambers used by the Pueblo Indians. Entry was through a low-slung door with a counterweight attached that caused it to slam down behind you. Within was a weird world of underground grottos and inner rooms. What a grand time.
Two years later I was escorting some newbies to the area. We camped at Seminole Canyon on the way out and, once inside the park, swam in the long-abandoned hot springs that was established by J.O. Langford in 1909. Later, after crossing the river and renting a $5 burro, I rode the dusty road to the tiny town of Boquillas, Mexico, ate cheap tacos and indulged in 50-cent Coronas. And of course, I had to take the crew to La Kiva, where I met two “working girls” who had conducted demographics of the area and realized that the male-to-female population was 10-to-1. But, once they arrived in this barren oasis they quickly realized that no horny male had any money, so they became waitresses at La Kiva. By that time, La Kiva had been proclaimed by the locals as the “living room” due to its comfortable atmosphere, eclectic nature and friendly staff. Its use as the occasional venue of string quartets and Mad Hatter parties only added to its mystique. Needless to say, it was a grand time.
The Big Bend area has always encapsulated the very essence of the Wild West. While a majority of Texas has become populated and civilized, the towns of Terlingua, Study Butte, Lajitas and Presidio still resonate with the tone of a different era, raw and edgy. And that has always been its appeal. Cowboy tough, weather-hardened, with just a touch of the Mexican. And although it’s a rough-and-tumble kinda place, it always seemed safe somehow, like a refuge of innocence lost, a place that can be lawless but continues to be a tight-knit community where folks still look after one another. It was one of the last places to escape the madness of Texas big-city life.
On February 4, the owner of La Kiva, Glenn Felts, was bludgeoned to death in the La Kiva parking lot after an apparent heavy night of drinking with a friend. The entire community is shocked and even more wary of outsiders and even those in their own environs. The “friend” has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but states he has no recollection of the event. La Kiva remains closed at this time.
I’m heading to Big Bend and Terlingua in a few days for a week’s worth of R&R. And I will be aboard that same Shovelhead that I rode through there my first time in ’72. I only hope I can still find that grand time once again—just not sure where to go without my underground lair, La Kiva.