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Spurs on a Single-Track

The Contrabando Trail at Big Bend Ranch State Park doubles the pleasure of a pen-wagging paragrapher.

By E. Dan Klepper

The horse’s name is Hank. Or Bunk. Something simple and cowboy-sounding like that. The rider can’t quite remember, because the rider suffers from a youth-wasting disease called “getting older.” The horse is calm and even-tempered and doesn’t much mind when the rider drops into the saddle like a hoisted anvil. Hank, in other words, is a good mount.

Hank and the rider share character in that they are both laggards on a trail and take every opportunity to eat. The horse will be delighted when, after a full day of accommodating his burden halfway down the trail, he will be traded in for a mountain bike.

In mountain-biking terms Hank is clean, meaning he can negotiate a trail without crashing, a push-push in that he alternately puts each foot down to move forward rather than spinning, and the only wild pigs or disconcerting mechanical sounds he makes emanate organically from, well, his backside.

The bike’s name is You Lousy, Yellow-bellied, Chain-sucking, Face-Planting, Shark-biting Corndog (Corndog for short). How does the rider remember such a long, complicated name? Symptom of the same youth-wasting disease. He is intimately familiar with the bike and rides it regularly to stave off the affliction’s debilitating effects. The results are all in his head but let’s not tell him that. Even if we did he would forget it 15 minutes later, just like a cuckoo clock — a new chime every quarter hour.

In cowboy terms the bike is flaxey in that it is of a yellow color, a member of the rough string as it has a tendency to buck every time it is saddled, and is fond of swapping ends since, when bucking, it goes up facing one direction but lands facing the opposite. In addition, the rider is owl-headed as he likes to look around a lot. He could also be considered a drag rider. This term does not mean he likes to wear pretty bows and matching calico hogwashers. Rather, it means he enjoys riding at the rear of the works or roundup. He is also an adventurer, always searching for the elephant or seeking out new and different country to experience.

This last bit explains why he is alternately riding a horse and then a bike over a trail. The trail is called the Contrabando and it meanders through the washouts, eroded pans and dotted fields of volcanic ejecta in TPWD’s Big Bend Ranch State Park. It has been called the Contrabando for more than 100 years, cutting across the formidable Chihuahuan Desert landscape and providing cover for trade in both raw and illicit materials. Now, thanks to a partnership between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the recently formed Big Bend Trails Alliance, more than 20 rugged and remote miles of it can be enjoyed with relative ease by hikers, bikers and horseback riders alike.

Big Bend Trails Alliance president and mountain bike athlete Jeff Renfrow, in very un-cowboy-like khaki hiking pants and river sandals, is attempting to pace Hank and Hank’s rider on his own steed. The two riders are trying to carry on a conversation about the Big Bend Trails Alliance and the grand opening of the Contrabando Trail. However, due to their combined lack of riding skills, the riders move like suspended ball bearings on a perpetual-motion gizmo, rushing apart the moment they meet. As a result, their conversation goes something like this:

“…are…the trail?”

“…WHOA!…”

“…follow…creek or…?”

“…yes…”

Later, on solid ground, Renfrow explains that the Big Bend Trails Alliance is a coalition of hiking, biking and equestrian interests pursuing a broader range of trail options with the private landowners and state and federal parks of West Texas. Just more than a year in operation as a non-profit organization, the alliance has already accomplished a strong working relationship with TPWD’s Big Bend Ranch State Park and is racking up funding from sources including the Texas Recreational Trails Fund, Bikes Belong and the Environmental Science Research Institute. Its board of directors draws on a wealth of outdoor experience from professional outfitters to federal and state park veterans, pairing the best of private enterprise with public resources. A testament to the alliance’s effectiveness and Renfrow’s skills at diplomacy is the completion of the Contrabando Trail within a year of the organization’s coalescence. The alliance was able to pool talent from both the private and public sector, two sources often at odds, to create a recreational opportunity for end users — mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders — who have also traditionally harbored differing philosophies.

So it seemed like a stroke of genius, or perhaps just a really bad idea that sounded really good, to celebrate the alliance’s first accomplishment by bringing the two most contentious user groups — mountain bikers and horseback riders — together for one big, happy trail ride. If nothing else, they could all find common ground in the amazing variety of aches caused by bikes and horses to the human hindquarters.

The group of avid mountain bikers and traditional horseback riders assembled for this two-day stampede — er — trail ride, have done so with the understanding that the first day’s travel would be exclusively by horses and the next day by mountain bikes. Most members of the group have had superior experience in one sport and little to none in the other, but all were looking forward to witnessing some rim-fire (the kind of action seen when a cowboy accidentally catches his rope under his horse’s tail). It was to be a bloodbath — um — a funfest of the challenging outdoor kind. OK, only a few were looking forward to some rim-fire and the rest just wanted to have a good time. OK, only one member of the group was looking forward to some rim-fire but, as has been mentioned before, he suffers from a debilitating affliction and can’t be held responsible for his juvenile interests.

The Contrabando, on the other hand, was chosen for its proximity to the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, where the trail may begin or end, depending on the trail rider’s desire, and the fact that it is readily accessible to visitors in a vast region where access is a relative term.

“It’s a nice day ride on horseback,” explains Renfrow, “or a morning ride for mountain bikers. Plus you can hike it halfway, camp overnight, and finish it the following day.” The trail includes a primitive campsite with stunning views of both Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Mountains and the rim of the state park’s formidable Solitario.

The trail is an amalgam of historic livestock trails, creek beds and old ranch roads. “All the trail-breaking labor was done with a volunteer force, including folks from TPWD,” Renfrow reports. “We modified some of the eroded places, built cairns and defined the trail’s precise route. Then TPWD came back in with some nice signage.”

Hank doesn’t read signs. He prefers to spend his quality time, much of which is courtesy of his rider’s poor horsemanship, occupied with something more gratifying. Like grazing. His rider is somewhat oblivious, however, because of his own constant owl-heading, an activity that the rider soon realizes is much more affordable from the top of a horse than the saddle of a bike. Any owl-heading performed by the rider on his flaxey Corndog is usually involuntary, meaning that his head-turning is caused by the impact of his bike helmet with the ground.

There is much to see along the Contrabando Trail by horse, bike or foot, including the remains of the 100-year-old McGuirk ranch headquarters, once consisting of a rock house and corral alongside Contrabando Creek springs. On down the trail lies an interesting location where the native candalilla plant was processed for its wax. The site illustrates the primitive nature of early Trans-Pecos manufacturing and includes ash mounds, fireboxes and rock shelters. The wax was skimmed from a brew of candalilla and sulfuric acid, then poured off into pit molds and allowed to solidify. The bulk wax was loaded onto pack mules then transported to Lajitas Trading Post where it was sold to manufacturers and refined.

Hank’s rider likes Big Bend history but loves the country’s volatile weather more and is pleased to owl-head with impunity as rare storm clouds balloon and explode in the 360-degree-sweep of the West Texas sky. Later in the evening, distant lightning sharpens campfire faces at the Contrabando campsite. The moon is four days shy of full and illuminates the remaining blow, striping the sky like a ghost tiger.

Camp chat meanders around the differences between horses and bikes while the camp cookie, Renfrow, rustles up some delicious chuck. Hank’s rider makes a feeble offer to act as hoodlum, or cook’s helper, but quickly realizes that the technique of coughing his offer inaudibly into his sleeve relieves him of any duties whatsoever. Instead, he listens to the horse/bike commentary:

Reflecting on her horse’s affinity for grazing, Rebecca Evans points out that her bike doesn’t eat nearly as much. “I could find the fast button on my horse and I could find the slow button but I never could find the button in between,” says Evans, a mountain bike athlete who participates in Trails Alliance activities.

“Just as much a pain in the butt, literally, only in brand new places,” says Crystal Allbright, fellow Trails Alliance betty, on comparing her new horse-riding experience with her weekly bike routine.

“But it sure is nice to have a chance to look around,” offers Hank’s rider.

Silly Owl Head, Corndog hisses.

The riders eventually gravitate to the camping area’s tent sites. Each site is on flat, solid ground. The excellent tent-site selection attests to the Alliance’s attention and experience for outdoor comforts. The Contrabando’s primitive camping area is a perfect place to pitch some cover or just crawl into your hot roll al fresco.

It is late in the monsoons and, as the riders sleep, the night creatures continue to click and snap and chirp, confident that one more rain is always possible. Hank has happily abandoned the trail for the barn back home and is no doubt resting, like his rider, in the comforts of the surrounding midnight. Meanwhile, Corndog is waiting patiently in the dark, coldly calculating the hours until sunrise.

But first blood is not to be Corndog’s reward for tossing his rider the next morning. That victory belongs to David Long, experienced horseback rider and TPWD interpretive ranger.

“I was just as comfortable on a bike as on a horse,” claims saddle-savvy Long at the end of the ride, “except for when I tumbled down that hill end-over-end on my bike….” Long sports a nice strip of bacon across one forearm. “I saw the mountain bikers just zoom down the hill. So I followed them. They made it look so simple.”

Yes, that’s the deception, nickers Corndog as he throws his own rider to the ground.

Linda Walker, a lifelong horseback rider and the group’s bell mare, has a surprisingly good time on her tire-treaded critter.

“I didn’t expect to be able to do this,” Walker confesses, after dismounting her bike at trail’s end. “The reality is that riding horseback and riding bikes are both about balance, and that was a big surprise. Biking is an activity that is accessible to a much larger number of people than I thought.”

Walker, a board member of the Alliance, is a veteran of Big Bend’s outfitting business. Her horseback-riding concession, Lajitas Stables, began with only seven horses and one “beat-up” truck. Now, 19 years later, she runs five stables, 75 head of horses and eight “beat-up” trucks.

“A whole lot of my clients, I believe, would not be seeing any of this country except out of a car window if they didn’t have the opportunity to get on a horse and see it from trails where horses are allowed,” Walker explains. “I think some of those folks, like me, would have also thought that a mountain bike was out of the question. And now I know that it is not.”

Rod Trevizo, a handsome charro (or gentleman cowboy) if ever there was one, and unit manager of the Barton Warnock Center, was born and raised on a ranch. But this trail ride is his first chance to negotiate single track on a bike.

“I realized that on both a bicycle and a horse you need to relax and have your body weight in the back and vice-versa on the uphill,” Trevizo reports. “It makes things easier on the horse, on the bike and on you.”

Would he ever try rounding up cattle on a mountain bike? “I don’t think I can ride as fast as a cow can run.”

Who could? Well, Renfrow might, but as cow boss for the Alliance he has something more compelling in mind to achieve. “We are just trying to get people to as many beautiful places in the Big Bend as possible.”

Whether on a Hank or a Corndog, riders couldn’t find a better reason to hit the trail.

For More Information

Connect with the Contrabando and fellow trail riders at the official website of the Big Bend Trails Alliance: www.bicyclebigbend.com

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