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 km 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.
We started good and early — which for me means somewhere around 10:15 a.m. I thought it wise to carve a few kilometres off the long, sunny march so we 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?”
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.
“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 wi fi. “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 kilometres, 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 lifelong passion for long distance running. He ran marathons for many moons before deciding a 42-km 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 70s.
“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 200 years. Ancient petroglyphs on the nearby cliffs evidence the appealing — and supposedly healing — powers of these waters.
(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.
We watched as a horseman a hundred metres 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 kilometres 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 parent caught waiting up worried about a teenager, embarrassed when the youngster inevitably arrives home safely.
We left Big Bend very early the next morning — around 10. As we pulled out of the campground, Bob was outside the canteen pecking away at his keyboard, walking canes crisscrossed against a picnic table. I waved but he didn’t look up.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.