Coming in to Big Bend you are struck by the vastness of it all. A vast and stark landscape, reminiscent of some of the best scenery in Death Valley. My intent was to stay a week and explore everything possible with two dogs in tow.
We first stopped at Panther Junction, the central visitor center and hub of the park, where we got a permit to camp at Rattlesnake Mountain a back country campsite. Then we went West to Rattlesnake Mountain and set up camp. As it got dark the sky lit up with the Milky Way like I have never seen it (although I seem to recall that the sky was like this as a child). The first night we caught about 6 shooting stars, peek viewing of the Taurids were in the early morning after moon rise, so we were happy with seeing any. I could clearly see the space station as it made its periodic passage over head. There were more stars than I have ever seen, even with no moon the desert was lit below us. I spread a blanket on the ground and just stared (gaped) up at the sky. We went to bed at 7 and were up at 3 AM, a pattern that would repeat itself our entire stay. Getting up, the moon was bright and it was easy to see to make coffee, which we did…
Then we headed down to the Rio Grande where I hiked into Santa Elana Canyon and a refreshing hike it was. After this we simply drove a big loop and took in the scenery. We spent the rest of the day in the shade of the van reading The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot (an analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.)
The next day we drove up into the Chisos Mountains (where the above photos were taken), where we drove and took in the sights (much of the trip was sight seeing from the car–dogs are not allowed on the trails). After this we went up a four wheel drive trail as far as our trusty steed could take us, then got out to hike further up.
Almost immediately I realized I had locked the keys in the car. I was in disbelief. Miles from the road, no cell coverage and all of our water in the car. I felt like banging my head on the car. Instead I judged the back drivers wing window to be the cheapest to replace. I took a rock in hand, turned my head, and bam……bam…bam…bambam…bam. Nothing, just small chips in the glass. I got a bigger rock and stood back 5 feet and lobbed it at the window…bang, it bounced off leaving a larger chip. Angry, I picked up the rock and winged it at the window…bang…the rock bounced off…and…the window popped open. It had busted free from the motor that controlled it and allowed me access to the car. I still had to tape it closed but it beat the hell out of covering a hole with plastic. I felt like the luckiest man alive.
We spent another afternoon lounging and reading. The next day we did the same drives that we had done previously but did them at different times of the day to get a new view of things. Big Bend is full of wildlife…we saw road runners, numerous birds, javalina (collared pecaries), mule deer, hawks, and a coyote that I mistook for a wolf (a ranger set me straight later on).
The next day we moved camp to the other side of the park (Candellila camp) and did more driving and sight seeing.
Big Bend was my first introduction to the Chihuahuan Desert. I have spent much time in both the Colorado and Mojave deserts and once spent 3 weeks camped in the Sonoran desert (these are the four desert types in the US). That was the main thing that had brought me to Texas, to finally get the chance to engulf myself in this alien terrain. The dominant plants were creosote, ocatilla, yucca (agave and sotol), and various cacti that were new to me and I didn’t bother to learn the names of. The Chihuanhuan has more cactus species than any other desert and I saw and noted maybe 15 of the 65 that reside there. The main cactus was like beaver tail but it grew much larger and the spines were red, this gave the plant the appearance of having a red halo in the sunlight…a pleasing chimeric quality. The rocks and mountains are a mix of sedimentary and volcanic…they are very old and much worn down. The Rio Grande cuts a canyon that is the Southern boundary of the park. The river is a quarter mile wide oasis in the desert. This time of year (Winter) that is where most of the action is with the park having two major installations near the river (stores, campgrounds, visitor centers, and interpretive trails.) During the Summer the action moves to the Chisos Mountains where the park maintains a restaurant (pretty decent breakfast buffet at $8.50) and a lodge as well as the customary store, campground, visitor center, and interpretive trail.
That night I am reading by lantern light when I feel something brush my hand…i glance down…it is the biggest tarantula that I have ever seen, easily 2x the next biggest one that I have seen. I scream and jump up, throwing my book…I am watching the spider and at the same time dancing and brushing at the imaginary spiders that I conjured up. Shadow got behind me and Smokey went to investigate the spider. I don’t know what the tarantula did but Smokey jumped and moved away. I stomped my foot and told the spider to git and it ran under a rock about 10 feet from where I was sitting when I first spied it. Well I had the heeby jeebies and was pretty much done sitting on the desert floor in the dark for that night. So I stepped out of the lantern light to stand and gape a while at the sky. As my eyes adjusted to the night, the path to the road became visible and I decided to go for a walk. The dogs trailing behind, I left the lantern burning in camp and walked out the trail about 100 yards to the four wheel drive trail and then started up hill (whenever hiking I will always go uphill…when I get tired it is an easy saunter back to my starting place.) We followed the road up and around to the left where it passed above camp. And right there, running with its lights off, is a park service truck. WTF? As I approach I see the word volunteer on the side of the truck and leaning out the window the driver is scanning my camp site with binoculars. I am walking toward the front of his truck and he doesn’t see me until I ask, “Is there something I can help you with?” He starts like I had caught him beating off, and says, “No, no…I was just doing the final road check.” He continued, “You need to get them dogs on leashes.” “Yeah, I’ll do that”, I said just as sternly as I could and then stepped back. He turned on his lights and left.
Even though he had left, I couldn’t shake him. What was he doing? Was it that I had made an illegal crossing into Mexico earlier? Was it that I am a chronic pot head and pretty much commit a walking felony every time I leave California? Was it the dogs and the leash thing? Was he just curious? A pervert? A thief?
I got in the tent and read by flashlight. The next morning I got up and broke camp, things were weird and I don’t do weird.
I drove across the park and out the West side along the Rio Grande on Farm Road 170 toward Presidio. The road follows the river for about 40 miles and it is beautiful. It is curvy and mountainy with many short 15% or better grades and all the while the green oasis is off to the left in a picturesque canyon with a beautiful South Western back drop that leaves you stunned…like some one had punched you in the stomach. The dogs got to wade and frolic in the river and there were lots of turn outs. I sat upon a huge boulder high above the river with ravens cawing in the background and smoked a number and counted my blessings which are many. We visited an old movie set, a fake ghost town now…overrun and abandoned and a picture perfect day to enjoy it in. We went to Presidio a border town with a legal crossing.
I browsed a few clothes stores and discovered, much to my delight, that they stocked clothes that fit me…they even had clothes 2 and 3 sizes too small for me. It was a joy to shop for clothes and be able to buy what you happen to like as opposed to scrounging for stuff that fits. I bought a couple of pairs of jeans that I really didn’t need just to experience the joy of it all. And I realized that they had my size because they were catering to wealthy Mexicans who are regular sized people too.
Then we drove the two and a half hours up to Van Horn across the rolling Texas hills and got a room to shower and prepare for the next leg of our trip. We plan to go up to Tucson and spend a couple of days and then dry to scrounge up some Craigslist riders from either Tucson or Pheonix to share the driving as we shoot straight home at the end of the week.
I’ve intentionally filtered the racism–both overt and institutional–that I’ve observed as I want to digest it and give it a post of its own.
Item of note: I never saw an airplane while there. No contrails…not one in five days!
…to be continued…