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Gerry Feehan

Big Bend Bob: Gerry Feehan takes us on a stunning tour of the Rio Grande River

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The Rio Grande River wends through Big Bend National Park

When I first spied Bob he was hunched over a computer in the dark outside a bathhouse on the Rio Grande River. We were camped in Big Bend National Park, Texas. I nodded hello as I passed. Bob looked up, grunting inaudibly. What an ornery old geezer, I thought.

Later that evening I watched as he folded up his laptop, grabbed his canes and teetered tentatively across the parking lot toward his van. I felt bad. He was entitled to his grumpiness. He could barely walk from the john to his beat-up old RV.

As I fell into slumber thoughts of Bob evaporated. We had a big day ahead: a long hike through parched desert on a rim trail overlooking the Rio Grande. Our destination was an idyllic hot spring seven kilometers upstream; a place where soothing thermal waters spill into this river famous for separating America from Mexico. After a dip and picnic lunch we’d retrace our steps through the dry wilderness. It’d be dark by the time we got back to camp.

G

We started good and early – which for me means somewhere around 10:15 a.m. I thought it wise to carve a few kilometers off the long, sunny march so my wife Florence and I rode our bicycles from the campground to the trailhead. As we pedaled, I was surprised to see Bob wandering down the road, wobbling on his two walking sticks. I waved. He didn’t look up.

We secured the bikes at the trailhead, donned our packs… and promptly headed in the wrong direction. When we finally gained our bearings and started up the proper trail, there was Bob gamely climbing the first steep ascent. As we overtook him I thought it polite to slow and make a final offer of greeting; after all we were headed into the same scorched Chihuahuan desert and there wasn’t another soul around.

“Are you going to the hot springs?” I asked as we passed, masking a patronizing tone; no way was this old guy tackling the hot desert terrain alone all the way to the springs.

“Yup,” he said, opening up.

We marched on but when we stopped briefly to admire a viewpoint where the Rio Grande cuts a scenic narrow gorge between Texas and Mexico up walked Bob, peered over the ledge and said, “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Big Bend Bob surveys the Rio Grande

After that the conversational floodgates opened. We introduced ourselves and spent the next four hours bantering back and forth in clever repartee, philosophizing about life and just shooting the breeze.

Bob is a retired professor of law from Oregon. When his wife passed away a few years ago he bought an old RV and hit the road, solo. Bob proclaims a healthy disdain for authority and a hearty dislike for close-mindedness and fundamentalism of any stripe.

Bob didn’t move very quickly over the rough landscape. Now and then we’d lose sight of him on the rocky trail but eventually he’d mosey up to where we’d stopped to admire a new vantage of the Rio Grande.

“Look, those are spiny soft-shells,” he remarked at one particularly beautiful spot, pointing to a group of turtles spinning slowly in a foaming eddy far below. Above, in a scraggly tree, a vermillion flycatcher regarded us with disinterest.

Vermillion Flycatcher

“Have you two spent much time in those fancy RV resorts?” asked Bob, in a swift change of subject.

“Some,“ I reluctantly admitted, thinking wistfully of hot showers and free wifi. “Why do you ask?”

“I prefer the State and National Park campgrounds. Life is simpler and the company decidedly more enjoyable. In the posh private places there’s always a big mouth in the hot tub. Have you ever noticed that those who talk the most have the least to say?”

For the next few kilometers I spoke only when spoken to.

My concern over Bob’s solitary walk-about into the thirsty desert was ill-founded. Although advanced in years he continues to exercise a life-long passion for long distance running. He ran marathons for many moons before deciding a 42-kilometer run was too short: he moved on to extreme long-distance events.

“But those days are behind me now,” he said. “Mostly I stick to short jaunts like this.”

I smiled knowingly. My feet were killing me.

He continued. “I know it’s not much but once a year on my birthday I still have a decent jog: my age plus the miles run add up to 100.

“How far did you go this year?” I asked, thinking he must be well into his seventies.

“It’s getting shorter all the time,” he laughed. “My birthday was last week. I’m down to 15 miles. A few more years and I won’t even have to get out of bed.”

He hopped off a small outcrop, balanced on his canes and grimaced slightly, “Damn, my knee hurts!”

Eventually we arrived at the hot springs, pulled off our shoes and soaked our toes in the same healing waters enjoyed by pioneers and cattle rustlers alike for over two hundred years. Ancient petroglyphs on the nearby cliffs evidence the appealing – and supposedly healing – powers of these waters.

Ancient Petroglyphs

(At the risk of imprisonment in or banishment from the United States) I decided to flout Homeland Security and waded across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande to set foot in old Mexico. The mud on the south side of the river felt just like American mud.

Gerry on the wrong side of the river

We watched as a horseman a hundred meters downstream did what caballeros have done for centuries: gracefully (but now illegally) ride his mount across the brown waters and up the steep bank into Mexico.

Our long day with Bob was sprinkled with solitude and quiet chuckles. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. So does the lesson of the tortoise and the hare. On the return trip he insisted we march on ahead. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll be fine.”

I thought, “Bob’s a big boy… were it not for our chance meeting, he’d be out here in the desert alone.” Off we trundled, arriving back at our bicycles just as the sun set. Although I wasn’t his keeper, I couldn’t help but keep an eye on Bob’s camper as the light waned. After darkness had fully descended and he hadn’t returned, I hopped on my bike and rode back toward the trailhead. I found Bob wandering happily down the road – canes bumping in the darkness – still
a couple of kilometers from the campground.

“You weren’t waiting on me, I hope?” he asked. “I should have been back before now but I got to talking with a couple of interesting folks back up the trail.”

“No, no, I just felt like going for a spin.” I felt stupid, like a worried parent waiting up for a teenager, embarrassed when the youngster inevitably arrives home safely.

We left Big Bend very early the next morning – around ten. As we pulled out of the campground Bob was outside the canteen pecking away at his keyboard, walking canes crisscrossed against his legs. I waved but he didn’t look up.

 

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

Croatia – Pedal and Sea

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On our second day of riding, while huffing and puffing up an absurdly steep Croatian road, I said to my wife Florence, ‘Perhaps it would be wise if you were to switch to an e-bike. The guide says the grade is going to get even tougher over the next few days.’ As she pedaled away, Florence remarked, ‘You use electricity. I’ll use electrolytes.’ Then she accelerated up the slope and disappeared around a bend in the lane. I stopped disheartened, dismounted and examined my bicycle, hoping to discover a low tire or some other mechanical excuse to abandon the climb.

We were on a seven-day ‘Pedal and Sea’ adventure on the Dalmatian Coast. We’d been forewarned that it’d be a tough slog. Preparedness being my motto, I spent weeks before departure supplementing my strict training regime with long-distance cycling. The calculations were precise. Twice a week I’d do 4 kilometers of pedaling — followed by a beer and a small nachos plate. Or was it 3 kilometers of pedaling, 2 brewskies and a medium quesadilla? No matter. The critical thing was to arrive in Croatia in tiptop condition, ready to pedal.

Ironically, the town we flew into was called Split. A Roman Emperor named Diocletian was among the first to vacation on the Dalmatian Coast. He loved Split so much that, after subjugating the locals and burning a few Christians at the stake, he retired here in 305 AD and built a gargantuan palace hewn from local limestone. Today, his enormous fortress still overlooks the quaint harbour. From the palace it’s a short walk up into Marjan Forest Park, which offers splendid views of the city and the surrounding Adriatic Sea.

We boarded our bark, The Azimut in nearby Trogir. We enjoyed a spread of fresh seafood as the boat motored out of port and into the open sea. Our guides Antonio and Andrei introduced themselves and outlined the program for the upcoming week. After lunch the whole group sat on deck marveling at the pristine, azure water as the Azimut skipped across the flat sea.

Two hours later we landed on Solta island. We disembarked, mounted our steel steeds and enjoyed a leisurely ride to the stony interior of the island. We returned to the boat in time to watch the sun sink into the flaming Adriatic. Then cocktails, then a scrumptious supper, then a few late-night laughs — then off to our berths for some well-earned jet-lagged shut eye.

In the morning I emerged from our stateroom, ordered a latte and watched the crew undertake the laborious daily task of manhandling a boatload of bicycles, bucket-brigade style, from the mezzanine deck to the dock. After breakfast we gathered en masse on the quay, strapped paniers to bikes, secured helmets to heads and awaited instructions. I surveyed my fellow Azimut shipmates, many of whom donned colourful attire advertising past cycling glories. The advanced age of some instilled in me a degree of cockiness. I decided to take it easy on them this first full day of riding; let them know it was okay for old geezers and geezerettes to share the road with me. On the first steep hill four septuagenarians pedaled by me in unison, peloton-style, instantly leaving me in the dust. As they rotated away, not judging a book by its leathered cover came spinning into my mind.

The itinerary was pretty much the same each day — one beautiful Croatian Island after another, but with ever steeper terrain and longer rides. Our flamboyant, able skipper was Captain Jadran. Every morning he stood at the helm, clad in a pink shirt, orange shorts, flip flops and a groovy Navy hat, part Humphrey Bogart, part Austin Powers. A cigarette dangled perpetually from his lips, which he removed only to shout sharp commands at the crew.

Our dapper Captain

There were 36 guests on board the Azimut. Antonio and Andrei our large, male mother geese, patiently and attentively looked after the whole flock, guiding us from start to finish every day, on every ride. They replaced chains felled by faulty gear changes, fixed flattened tires and bandaged the occasional scrape.

Although most of us started out using good old-fashioned human power, slowly but surely more and more e-bikes started popping up on the quay in the morning.

Before the week was half over the hard-core contingent was whittled down to less than ten. And those that made the switch did not switch back. But they certainly smiled a lot more. E-bikes have enabled the family to play together — and stay together. If mom is hard-core but dad and the kids aren’t as enthusiastic, they can still bike together the live-long day.

Fantastic Views

Pristine Harbours

Spoiler: we were not the first travellers to discover Croatia. Although we arrived in September’s shoulder season, the ports, even at smaller remote islands, were crowded — boats often stacked 6-deep, necessitating a circuitous, ship-to-ship hopping expedition to get ashore. Dubrovnik, the gem of Dalmatia, was crawling with visitors. Circumnavigating the City’s famous wall, a 2-kilometre stretch offering heavenly views of the ancient city and port, was a push and shove affair.

Fortunately, we didn’t spend too much time with the maddening crowd. Our days were occupied riding bucolic island byways, our nights rocking on board with the boisterous satisfaction of having conquered thigh-burning mountain passes.

Most of our ocean crossings took less than a couple hours and land was always in sight. The longest haul was from Hvar to the island of Vis — a two-pack sail for the captain. At the height of cold war fears, communist strongman Marshal Tito installed a secret submarine base along Vis’ rugged coast. But frankly, after an arduous cross-island ride, I was less interested in consuming cold war trivia than in downing a large serving of Viska, traditional island dough aroused with olive oil and stuffed with onion, anchovies and tomatoes.

Lunch!

Relaxing on deck after a hard day

The toughest ride was on Korcula. This leg was only a little over 50km, but there were several brutal climbs. Fortunately the pain was abated by frequent stops to admire the stunning white limestone cliffs spilling into the aquamarine Adriatic. The day ended at a small roadside shop where we quaffed a well-earned Radler (a delicious concoction of flavoured soda and beer) purchased from an indifferent Korculan shopkeeper. To be clear, not all Croatian shopkeepers are indifferent.

Some are also grumpy.

Radler time

On our last night on board the ship, at the Captain’s dinner, Jadran thanked us and offered a toast to all his guests. I manufactured an impromptu rendition of the Azimut Blues on my ever-present ukulele. When I finished the ditty, the captain, who had exchanged his colourful garb for proper navy attire, ceremoniously adorned me with a Croatian captain’s hat. An unlit smoke hung from his lips. I looked down at his feet: flip-flops.

Gerry

If you go: https://www.pedalandseaadventures.com/

Lights out

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

A Rainy Day in Montenegro

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Dubrovnik City wall

Room 703, Valamar Hotel, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had a strange dream last night.

Well past midnight there came a quiet rap on the door. An apologetic bellboy pointed to a small man standing quietly in the hallway. The man sported a fine suit and monogrammed luggage. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the bellhop, ‘the Valamar is sold out
this evening. This gentleman needs a room. Only for tonight. Perhaps you can accommodate.’ Naturally I declined. However my wife, speaking from her comatose oblivion, insisted we invite the stranger in. ‘Sshh, it’s fine,’ she said simultaneously
snoring, ‘for today, we go to Montenegro.’

What my dream-world wife didn’t anticipate—but I did—was that our uninvited, nocturnal guest would soon become an unpleasant somnambulant nuisance and ultimately transform into a weapon-wielding demon. By the time I finally, politely
asked him to depart our quarters, the intruder had morphed into a loud, apocalyptic earthquake. I awoke in a heap of sweat to a thunderous lightning storm, crawled from bed, pulled closed the trembling illuminated curtains—and swore off rakija for the balance of our Balkan holiday. I tossed and turned the rest of that uncomfortable night, occasionally glancing irritably at my happily reposed spouse. The alarm tolled at 6:15am.

In a post-hallucinogenic stupor I stumbled into the hotel lobby and ran smack dab into the selfsame night-watchman who, in my torpor, had invited Armageddon-man into our room at witching hour. ‘And you call yourselves a 5-star hotel,’ I remarked testily. He regarded me uncertainly, shrugged and opened the lobby doors. Outside, standing curbside beside a dark blue Mercedes van, stood a veritable giant of a man; our driver for the day. He grinned grimly, swung the passenger door open and commanded us to climb in. I was fearful the nightmare was continuing. But as we pulled away from the dewy curb our mountainous chauffeur politely introduced himself as Zoran and began a casual, intriguing introduction to the history of Montenegro.

Incessant rain made for a dreary day

The downpour began in earnest as we neared the border. The Croatian exit authority inspected our papers with palpable disinterest—then stood up, exited his cramped cubicle and promptly disappeared into the mist. ‘Between shifts,’ explained
Zoran with a resigned shrug. After a 10-minute, stiflingly humid delay, an equally apathetic replacement arrived to re-scrutinize our passports. Documents eventually back in hand, we were permitted to depart Croatia and make the short descent into neighbouring Montenegro where another listless guard repeated the same agonizing process.

Everyone loves passport stamps. I entreated Zoran to ask the guard for some evidence that we were actually entering mysterious Montenegro, bragging rights for the folks back home. ‘This not good idea,’ said Zoran apologetically—but
unequivocally—and we pulled away from the tiny damp station and into a strengthening deluge. It was a half-hearted, bureaucratic, blustery beginning to a soppy day. (For no discernable reason, other than inane custom and mutual distrust,
countries of the former Yugoslavia demand perusal of papers upon both ingress and egress. But I digress.)

Montenegro. The name evokes visions of a small, opulent seaside protectorate where luxury yachts bob in an idyllic harbor surrounded by spectacular mountains. But while the country is indeed small, and is on the ocean, and does have a stunning mountain backdrop, Montenegro is certainly not well off. In fact Montenegro is one of Croatia’s poorest Balkan cousins. Together with Bosnia, Serbia and a few other newly-formed states, they were all part of Yugoslavia. In 1984 Yugoslavia hosted the Winter Olympics, welcoming the world’s best athletes to a snowy paradise. Nine years later the entire federation would descend into anarchy and civil war, the lid of a centuries-old pot, boiling with religious and ethnic hatred, finally blown off. Our destination was the walled city of Kotor, a Renaissance-era gem of narrow, picture-postcard lanes. As the European crow flies, the town is not far from the Croatian border, but getting there entails a long circuitous drive around the Gulf of Kotor, which perforates deeply, fjord-like, into the Montenegrin coastline.

Kotor

On arrival, we exited hesitantly from the van, unfurled our umbrellas and splashed into town. What should have been an interesting, leisurely stroll down blind alleys and through colourful curio shops turned into a quick excursion—hurdling
overflowing gutters and dodging the deluge spilling from dilapidated gargoyles in the old fortified town. Overall, the morning was a wet bust. Zoran was apologetic, as if he were personally responsible for the obscuring rain. ‘I wish you could see our beautiful mountains.’

But then came lunch—and, nonpareil, the best meal of our three-week Balkan adventure. I stepped, glasses fogged, into the Konoba Akustik Restaurant and discarded my broken umbrella amongst a stack of equally derelict parasols.

Rainwater, dripping from the ceiling, clanged into an ancient metal pail in the foyer. Expectations were low as we dodged around the overflowing bucket and took our squeaky seats at a rustic wooden table.

Then the food began to appear. First a hearty veal soup served with fresh jecmeni—barley flatbread. Then a platter of green olives and prosciutto. Then gnocchi and pasticada—beef marinated in wine vinegar. More jecmeni arrived to sop up stray sauces.

Perhaps a cocktail with your jecmeni?

The dishes kept coming. Stuffed to the gills, I declined desert, sat back in my rickety chair, and focused my attention on the adjoining table where Zoran and two large companions sat, surrounded by three nonplussed waiters and a gesticulating chef.

In unwavering concentration, they methodically devoured every dish we’d been offered plus massive plates of crni rizot—black risotto, and ajvar—spicy red pepper paste. Between mouthfuls they’d wedge in a large portion of Pag cheese. When the
skewers of lamb kebab arrived I could watch no more and directed my attention to the restaurant’s ornate opaque windows and the passersby sloshing outside.

Montenegrins are not the tallest people on earth—the Dutch stubbornly cling to that lofty position. But I can state (anecdotally at least, having spent one full day in the
country) that the people of Montenegro are really, really tall. And apparently it takes a lot of calories to develop that degree of vertical span.

Zoran is on the right… in case you were confused 

It was a full day. On the long drizzly drive back to the Valamar Hotel, the windshield wipers flapped incessantly, hypnotizing me into a sleepy daze, interrupted only by Zoran’s occasional, meaningful collision with a muddy pothole. Nearly home, we passed through the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik. At a bus stop, under a portico tucked into the ancient city wall, I spied a small tidy man huddled under an umbrella, expensive luggage stacked neatly by his side. The fellow from my nightmare. I wiped my eyes and peered again. He was gone.

I slept dreamlessly that night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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