There are three kinds of roads at Big Bend. The roads to most of the major sights are paved. And then there are some improved dirt roads to other "should sees." But the park is also laced with dirt roads that were built long before the park was a park, when people were living here and trying to make a living. They were probably decent dirt roads for the time, but because they are not maintained by the park service, they make for an exciting drive today. This area doesn't get much rain, but when it does, it apparently gets a lot at once and the water doesn't soak in. Instead it rushes down hillsides and gullies and carves new rivulets across those dirt roads. In some spots the side of the road has eroded away; in others the water has swept all the dirt away and we drove over rock chunks. Boulders the size of bowling balls get carried along with the torrents of water and plow through all that lies before them. We saw deep ruts where the dirt had been turned into mud. It is obviously a bad idea to be anywhere near these dirt roads if rain is in the forecast.
But today the sky was bright blue and we planned a route through the desert to what remains of commercial activities here before World War II. The Mariscal Mine was a mercury mine; mercury is used in preparing drugs and as a detonator in explosives. Although a Mexican first discovered the quicksilver ore, the claim was filed by an Anglo, who operated the mine with the help of Mexican laborers, who worked here six days a week. Originally, ore was shipped out on the backs of burros to be smelted fifty miles away, but during World War I, a refining building was erected on site. Records show that 894 flasks of refined quicksilver, each weighing 76 pounds were shipped out. After World War I the price of mercury went down and the mine closed until the next war made it an economically viable operation once again. We were cautioned not to wander around too much, since the area is still laced with open mine shafts. The mine buildings were visible from miles away, and were built so sturdily that it was easy to imagine all that went on here. It was much harder to imagine how it was all schlepped up here in the first place.
We almost missed the second major stop on our route - Glenn Springs. There is nothing more precious in the desert than water and Glenn Springs was a little settlement clustered around such an oasis. However, the village was here in 1916 and short of a dunk tank and a few creosoted corral trails, we almost drove by the place. All the other buildings were long gone. A more savvy desert traveler would have noticed that this was the only spot that sported a real tree with green leaves. The cottonwood is a welcome sight to any desert wanderer.
Overall, the drive was not exciting enough for Ken. He chose to go down a side road, just so he would have a chance to actually utilized the four wheel drive on the jeep. There were a few spots were the wheel ruts were deep and the rocks in the middle tickled underneath the car. Otherwise an average 15mph guaranteed a safe and uneventful drive though the back country.