Group of Snowbirds tour Big Bend What it’s like to be their guide


Santa Elena Canyon








Spring Break 2013 is almost over, and statistics show that we have had plenty of visitors this year, helped by the strong showing of wild flowers. But what has it been like for those residents who cater to the visitors? I work on demand as a step-on guide, joining coach tours of visitors touring the region. Here is a report of a recent 6-day trip in Big Bend and the Davis Mountains.

In early February I got a phone call from McAllen, Texas. The caller was Majed Khuffash, an immigrant from Palestine, who has been running, through his agency, Winter Texan Budget Tours, tours for Snowbirds for 25 years. Previously, 90% of his trips went to Mexico but, since four years ago, this business dried up completely. He was now looking for other winter trips to offer McAllen’s Snowbirds, and had chosen Big Bend. He needed a step-on guide.

“Snowbirds” or “Winter Texans” in the McAllen area number around 150,000 and provide a huge economic boost annually. They come from northern states, and Canada, and spend the winter months enjoying the Valley’s warm climate. They live in trailers and RVs in 500 trailer parks; some act as volunteers locally, others scour nearby flea markets and all have a heavy schedule of on-site activities.

Snowbirds  watch their pennies, and Winter Texan Budget Tours trip to Big Bend was priced accordingly: 6-days, 1,200-miles in a coach, four nights hotel with breakfast, two dinners, daily visits to museums, parks or historic sites, and a step-on guide – me. Price per person: $599.


Lunch at Castolon

Most of my step-on guide work consists on joining groups upon arrival in Big Bend, and spending 1-3 days with them. In this case, Majed wanted me to start and finish in McAllen. This required an overnight train to San Antonio, then a 5-hour bus ride to McAllen. Thus I found myself at 6.00 a.m. on March 4th on a 52-seat coach owned and driven by Cesar Caballero picking up our group from various trailer parks before heading for Del Rio, the first night’s stop. Fortunately the group numbered only 24, and the driver was well experienced in the tour business.

None of the group knew me, and most knew only a few of the other passengers. But, with the anticipation of a trip to a new destination, the group, mainly couples, bonded well. These were easy-going country folk from Indiana, Iowa and further north, including an amiable couple from Canada. Frank, a North Dakota farmer, told me he had got up each morning at 4.30 a.m. for 24 years to milk his cows. Another man had been a firefighter, yet another a salesman. They had earned their retirement.

The Gage Hotel

After a McDonalds breakfast in Rio Grande City and a Golden Corral lunch in Laredo, we were in Del Rio by late afternoon of the first day, in time for a short hike to Amistad Lake, down 51 feet from its full level. The following morning we watched a short movie at the Amistad Visitor Center, before moving on to Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry, lunch at Mama’s Café in Sanderson, a walk through the Gage Hotel in Marathon with a peak into their bedrooms, finishing with a splendid lecture by Matt Walters at the Museum of the Big Bend. These folks were getting their money’s worth!

Next day was a full day to Big Bend National Park. As I unrolled my spiel, which ranges from Cabeza de Vaca to Sheriff Thompson to the Burro Lady, I am reminded of how lucky we are to live here: mountains and desert as backdrop, a dramatic history as sound track, rocks and plant life as props, and an amazing, continuing cast of residents as actors. As we progressed, the group was less impressed by the blue bonnets but loved dipping their feet in the Rio Grande. All were happy, particularly after a picnic lunch at Castolon under the shade awnings. I had prepared them for the Terlingua Porch crowd, and some in the group were up for engaging in dialog with the local sages.

St. Genevieve Wine Tasting

About 6-7 hours daily in the coach was the norm but, fortunately, well-timed breaks alleviated the travel time. At the Annie Riggs museum guide Jim Harris looked and sounded the part as local guide. Across the street, at the refurbished Grey Mule Saloon, we had a wine tasting and quite a few in the group bought bottles of St Genevieve to take home. Then, heading east, we looped back via Sonora (the caves had excellent guides, worth $20/head), then Uvalde for a surprising dance performance by Sahawe Indians. Six days overall was about right, and the group was generous with praise.

My formula for talking to a group of seniors such as this one is to treat the commentary  as information through entertainment, trying not to get too technical with geological descriptions, adding personal anecdotes, mixing in contemporary tales with stories from earlier times, and sometimes reading a passage from, say, Tales from the Terlingua Porch. When I see eyelids closing or chins dropping, I know it is time for a pause in the commentary.  I sometimes feel self-conscious about bringing large coach groups to Big Bend National Park, but these folks deserved their vacation and are as entitled to it as anyone else. They were an easy-going bunch, and fortunately we ran into no real problems along the whole route.

Chisos Mountains Basin

Leaving the Grey Mare Saloon

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change


  1. Mary Luzius says:

    This senior would love to go on another trip with you! Mary

    • Jim Glendinning Jim Glendinning says:

      And I would to to take you, Mary. If you are out this way, I’ll give you the Big Bend tour, free, gratis etc., (not often you get such an offer from a Scotsman!).

      • Phil Lyons says:

        We were on the Big Bend tour with Jim G. as tour guide. One of the best & most interesting tours we have taken! Do not hesitate to take a tour with Jim G. as guide.
        You will not be dissapointed !!

  2. Jerry & Jeanette Hohbach says:

    We enjoyed our tour of Big Bend, and especially with you as our tour guide. Hopefully our paths will cross again in the future. Take care and God Bless.

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