America’s 50 Year Awakening: Big Bend National Park (now designated the largest “International Dark Sky Park” in the world)

By Dave and Virginia Fricker (April 11, 2012)

About 46 years ago, Lady Bird Johnson visited Big Bend National Park; her visit was well-received and subsequently documented in the January 1968 edition of National Geographic.

I vividly recall our initial visit to Big Bend National Park, in November 1968. During the entire drive south on highway 385 from Marathon to Persimmon Gap we never encountered another vehicle.

When we entered the Chisos Basin Lodge reservations area, it was all but deserted. I remember ringing the bell at the reception desk and hoping someone would respond. Finally, I heard a voice: “Is someone here?”

“Yes,” I replied. We had our pick of almost any motel room or cottage. During the evening park ranger programs, the tales of Lady Bird’s recent visit to the park were chronicled in some detail. In the late ‘60s some of these programs were given by the very rangers who had guided Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson on her raft tour down the Rio Grande. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Mrs. Steward Udall, also accompanied Lady Bird on her historic river trip.

We traveled the park and purchased some high priced gasoline at the Castolon General Store for almost 30 cents per gallon. I can never forget the young entrepreneur stationed at the river crossing between Castolon and Santa Elena, Coahuila. For just 50 cents, this young gentlemen would shuttle anyone across the Rio Grande on his custom-built wooden raft. The Rio Grande ran swift and deep in those days and life jackets would have been comforting. We would treasure meeting this brave river raft captain one more time so we could thank him for that unforgettable ride across the river.

Many south Brewster County locals harbored mixed emotions about publicizing park activities since the area was touted as “America’s Last Frontier.” In the ‘70s I was informed that if we chose to live in the Big Bend, we, too, would be subject to this incurable Big Bend affliction, sometimes known as “Last Settler Syndrome” for which there is no known cure.

Here is the rest of the story. We were so impressed with the magic of Big Bend that I felt we should share our experience in a more public way. I contacted National Park Concessions (NPC) at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, the folks responsible for virtually all visitor accommodations in Big Bend National Park. I spoke with Mr. G.B. Hanson, President and General Manager of NPC, suggesting that they run some radio commercials for the concession on one of my radio stations in central Texas. I owned country music station KAWA AM, which covered some 50 Texas counties and had access to a large audience. Mr. Hanson asked to hear a sample radio commercial, which I sent him on tape.  I guess he liked the commercial since he approved the very first one that we mailed to him. While I personally wrote and produced these commercials for NPC, most were recorded on tape by my best announcer, Mr. Jack Hudson, who later became an anchor announcer with the Texas State Network at KRLD in Dallas. (I wonder if Jack Hudson ever  had the occasion to visit Big Bend National Park?)

We aired a number of commercials for National Park Concessions but many were subsequently lost because of magnetic recording tape deterioration. These NPC radio commercials began airing across central Texas, from Dallas to San Antonio, in early March of 1974.

In 1990, I was able to save the very first original Big Bend NPC commercial. The tape was literally falling apart in my hands, but I managed to splice and piece together the recording and immediately transfer it to a master CD disc.

On May 31, 2003, I had the high honor of presenting a CD copy of this first radio commercial to retiring Park Superintendent Frank Deckert. (This CD should still be safely located in the BBNP archives at the Panther Junction Park Headquarters.) No need to worry ever again about losing this historic first Big Bend Park radio commercial, since it will now be safely in your hands; here is the original 1973 Big Bend Park radio commercial: Commercial Big Bend Park

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