Shutdown is a big burden at Big Bend

Government shutdown shutters park and leaves workers jobless

TERLINGUA — As three wind-burned, graying Navy veterans rolled into town on their Harley Davidson motorcycles, they had covered nearly 2,317 miles of a trip of a lifetime. It was a journey to pay tribute to a buddy who died 30 years ago, and then cruise across Big Bend National Park to ride back home.

They got to pour a can of Budweiser on Ed “Claw” Pufal’s grave in El Paso, but a day later, when they arrived in this West Texas outpost, they couldn’t get into the nearby 800,000-acre jewel of cragged mountains and rugged desert.

A highway barricade that is sometimes manned by armed park rangers warned people that Big Bend park is closed due to the ongoing shutdown of all non-essential federal government operations.

The idea that a place where one can see the Milky Way at night, the Rio Grande flowing through it, and the nearly 8,000-foot-high Chisos Mountains towering above would be deemed non-essential doesn’t sit well with many.

“It ain’t like we are out a paycheck like some folks, but after a year of planning, we are mad,” said Homer French, 55, of Jacksonville, Fla. “When we left a week ago, it wasn’t closed.”

As the shutdown enters its second week, an array of visitors from across the country, as well as people who make their living off the park, are hoping Big Bend is back in business soon.

The closure could not have come at a worse time for folks here.

‘Give our jobs back’

While many national parks are busiest in the summer, Big Bend is just entering its prime season due to lowering temperatures. It was 55 degrees here Sunday, about 50 degrees cooler than just a few weeks ago.

“I want to talk to President Obama, tell him to give our jobs back,” said Aranni Thomas, 50, a motel housekeeper who is originally from Indonesia. “Use his salary to pay us.”

Government employees have been furloughed from their jobs. And for people who make a living off the park, everyone from tour operators to waitresses, to housekeepers, store clerks and musicians, there is concern about how long they can make it.

Some are not working because the hotels, gas stations or restaurants where they work in the park are closed to the public. Others are hit by the slowdown of fewer people coming and going from the region. Groups large and small have changed their plans.

As of now, the loss means local residents are not going out to eat or drink as much and being more frugal when shopping. It costs a hefty amount of gas to make the 300-mile round trip drive to the nearest Walmart, in Fort Stockton.

Terlingua is a place where very few people are from, and many more come to scratch out a simpler life clear of city woes. Most people know each other, and there is a bond in going through tough times.

“One of the reasons we came here is you can live inexpensively, but we all have bills at some point,” said Kevin Elmore, 48, who normally works in the park helping maintain hundreds of miles of roads.

Elmore has been gradually building a house for his family from shipping containers, and has solar panels for energy and a garden for vegetables. He said people who live paycheck to paycheck are hurting, and others who prepared themselves for a shutdown might not be far behind.

“Do not make it seem like we have the bull by the horns,” he said. “This will impact us.”

Don “Big Don” Staton, 43, tour director for Big Bend Overland Tours, would normally spend a weekend driving visitors around the park in a Ford Excursion with hefty tires and leather seats. Staton, who was raised in Terlingua, prides himself on sharing the park’s back roads and history.

While at some national parks, visitors would be lucky to even have a stretch of trail to themselves, at Big Bend they can go an entire day and not see anyone else.

Staton said he is already losing income, but made up a day’s work by taking a couple on a day trip to an area outside the park where NASA once used the unique terrain to train astronauts.

“I’d be making overtime and gratuity for my family,” he said. “This is when we make money for the slow time.”

While Big Bend National Park, which is about the size of Rhode Island, is the major draw, the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park and other areas are offering tourists options to consider.

Some companies have adjusted by offering rafters trips that start and finish farther up the Rio Grande and go through Colorado Canyon instead of coming down to the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, inside Big Bend.

An Austin-based film production company had booked 34 rooms at Terlingua’s Big Bend Motor Inn and Monday was supposed to go to Big Bend to film the finale of a 12-year project.

Producer Cathleen Sutherland said Santa Elena Canyon, which has walls as high as 1,500 feet, was perfect. “You try to button down as much as you can on a production,” she said. “You imagine other things might shut you down; you don’t imagine the government shutting you down.”

The film crew will stay in the town of Lajitas, 17 miles away, and attempt to film in the state park.

A two-year waiting list

Danny Ferguson, manager of the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which is inside Big Bend, said 97 percent of his rooms would normally be occupied, but the shutdown has left the hotel empty.

Among guests who have lost out are those who had reserved a cottage with an incredible view of the mountains and a two-year waiting list.

“It is a ghost town, there is nobody,” Ferguson said. “It is heartbreaking to see this.”

Dallas attorney Vincent Bhatti and six other members of his family drove here in a recreational vehicle. Three generations of his family were together for the long-awaited trip, which was timed to coincide with there being no moon so they could watch the stars.

“Everyone took off work,” he said. “It is very frustrating.”

Bob Wardlow, 62, who drove here from Mississippi, said he was just fine with the state park, where he planned to take a three-day horseback ride. “I think it could last forever,” he said of the shutdown. “It ain’t hurting my feelings.”

About the time Wardlow would climb on his horse, French and the other veterans were back on their motorcycles.

French isn’t asking anyone to cry for him, but said he and his buddies, Lee Stafford and Richard Bradt, made arrangements with family, jobs and other obligations for the journey.

Even if they won’t see Big Bend’s stunning views, they may forever be awed by visiting Edwin Pufal III, where he is buried at Fort Bliss, along with his father and grandfather.

“When you see that national cemetery, it really takes your breath away,” French said. “It got all of us at the gravesite. We got our composure before we got back on the highway.”