This post is basically a photo album of our winter break near Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. This is the fourth and final post about our visit, a reflection of family time enjoyed in the desert environs of Terlingua, and all photos are courtesy of Alyssa and Brent Franklin. If this is your first visit to the Big Bend series here on the blog, make sure you check out the three previous posts which have fuller narratives as well as stimulating photographs. As always, thank you for the time spent along the winding trails and waterways of Rivertop Rambles.
[For this third installment of my Big Bend series, all photos, again, by Brent & Alyssa Franklin.]
Start the day with coffee on the patio, with wren and quail and thrasher stepping near, with three dawn coyotes hunting leisurely in passing. Start the day by having been observed, by being ready for the desert drive and the mountain slopes to Boquillas and beyond…
Start the day by asking, “What’s in a name? Is there a picture for this ranger outpost also known as Rio Grande Village, Texas, a story hidden by yet another place name in the wild?” Well, sure there is… Boquillas used to be a mining town, a store, a restaurant, serving miners at Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico until the roughshod days that followed 9/11/01 and, then again, when Covid struck. The times were tough, but the international border has reopened.
I started off by learning that the Spanish name Boquillas translates into “little mouths,” a reference to the small streams and arroyos draining into the Rio Grande nearby. Boquillas Canyon, also known as Dead Horse Canyon, is alleged to be the site where the first U.S. surveyors in the region, floating down the river, saw a herd of horses at the canyon mouth and had them shot, suspecting that live animals might be useful for unfriendly natives.
Our passports secured, we began our Mexican venture by crossing the river in a rowboat, ready for variety, novelty, and maybe even some depth. For the short haul into the little village of Boquillas del Carmen and beyond, we hired burros, with a local guide named Abraham. Yeah, we could have walked the mile-long route, but the young folks had decided that beasts of burden, well-kept for days like this, would be appropriate, especially for the older Americans. Ah, romanticism, with a dash of humor.
I would think of other times, of Robert Louis Stevenson buying a donkey for 65 francs and a glass of brandy for his nineteenth-century journey through the French Cevennes. Stevenson recorded his adventures in an essay called “Travels with a Donkey,” and I’m confident that his equine servant shared some characteristics with my chocolate-colored burro– stolid, dutiful, nearly elegant, and sometimes painfully slow. Our walking tour of the economically struggling village was an eye-opener but rewarding for the sense of kinship and camaraderie involved. We came prepared for the hopeful children who’d approach us with beadwork for a sale to help their families. Our limited supply of dollar bills vanished quickly.
We could start the Mexican day and finish it rhythmically, perhaps like the sure-shod narratives of author Stevenson. The writer chose his words carefully (our guide Abraham was well-versed in both Spanish and English). Stevenson composed his sentences with a delicate and modulated touch (our guide enjoyed introducing us to his rural village and its surroundings). The remoteness of eastern Mexico, thankfully clouded over and comfortable on this winter day, unfolded like the sonic paragraphs of a captivating travelogue.
[Stay tuned for one more post from Big Bend & beyond, primarily some favorite photos… Thanks for visiting the blog, and don’t forget, your comments are always welcome!]
For this second post of my Big Bend National Park series, all photos are by Brent Franklin or Alyssa Franklin and accepted here with thanks.
It’s been said that to really know the world of your environment, you’ve first got to make an effort to enter it. Makes sense, but what does that mean? In my case, a recent example may provide some insight. Whether you make an entry into your place at home or in some new location miles away, there’s usually some expenditure of energy required. As we launched our way to Big Bend National Park in late December, Southwest Airlines suddenly folded wings across its airways, stranding and inconveniencing not only us but thousands of other, less fortunate, holiday travelers. After two cancelled flights (Dallas to Odessa-Midland, with our luggage stowed mysteriously for the next full week), we escaped the turmoil with a rental SUV and hit the trail for the “ghost town” of Terlingua, Texas, gateway to one of the most remote national parks in the Lower 48. We finally arrived at beautiful Villa Terlingua at midnight, pleased for the turned-on lights, the propane heat, and the snacks provided by our hostess. Four exhausted bodies were prepared to enter a new realm.
Among the numerous excursions taken into Big Bend National Park from our comfortable domain were the Lost Mine Trail and the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off. To beat the crowd to the Lost Mine Trail deep inside the Chisos Mountains, we rose for a pre-dawn drive across the desert, hoping to make the 4.8-mile climb and descent of Casa Grande Peak. In this, the busy season for hiking at Big Bend, we were pleased that parking was available at the trailhead site, and we set forth with our food and water, energized by an excellent sunglow from behind a ridgeline of the Chisos. Admittedly, I had doubts concerning my ability to tackle the occasionally steep but well-kept trail in the lee of back surgery in the summer, but the old bones were kindly enough, and I enjoyed the work-out.
This is mountain lion country, with Mexican black bear, mule deer, and even some elk, but my first real sign of entry here was crossing tracks with Mexican (gray-backed) jays, a small flock commonly seen in the pine-oak woods along the lower trail, their raucous call notes blending imperceptibly with a flash of blue in their flight across the understory. As I’ve mentioned in my book, Learning the Terrain, “Voices from the landscape seem to call us…” Soon, a pair of mule deer, a doe and a fully antlered buck, crossed in front of us and sidled down a steep ravine. It was time to feel apprenticed to the wild here, to allow our preconceptions to alter and allow the plants and animals to have their say as to where we all fit in.
The trail reaches a saddle at about the 1-mile point, with views over Juniper Canyon and a southern reach into Mexico. It felt oddly new, refreshing, for a Northeasterner to be soaking up clear vistas such as this in late December. Naturally the views expanded as we progressed; the wind grew stronger and stronger as we felt the mountain give the measure of who we were. The parental units, Leighanne and I, bailed out from the climb about a quarter mile from the summit but the kids, Alyssa and Brent, continued on and topped out with some photographs. Enjoyable for all!
On another morning, following a light desert rain, we ventured into a box canyon called the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off. This is an easy two-mile walk (out and back) that’s long on pleasure with a sense of edginess. The globular nest of a desert songbird known as a verdin could be seen in a yucca plant near the parking lot. The gravel path absorbed our entry into the narrowing canyon, and the quietude, along with the smell of desert rain exuding from the creosote, kept us centered in the moment, wide-eyed with expectancy.
I began to hear the tapping of a woodpecker, so, as the others rambled around a bend, I stepped off the walkway into cactus and thorns, hoping for the sight of an unusual bird. As the source of the tapping receded and I thought of heading back, I heard different noises– scratching sounds emanating from the canyon wall, as if from the movement of hooves. I paused to study the vertical cliffs: layers of dark volcanic rhyolite at the top, a thick yellow band of breccia underneath, and rough conglomerate with heaps of ash, closer to the bottom. Interesting stuff, but the scratching noise ballooned and rumbled suddenly from above. A boulder, loosened by an earlier rain, broke free and tumbled toward me, gathering clusters of adjoining rock. Fie! A thundering noise, a slag-brained whoreson of the cosmos, filled the canyon stretch. I leapt for the trail, thankful that a brushy buffer zone would catch the moving earth. The others, well ahead of me on the trail, had given pause at the boom, and readily accepted my return.
The box end of this lower canyon was a stunner. Like a church of the gods, with alcoves and embrasures and yellow flower candelabras on the shelves of scree. The rocky chute above us tipped down from a place called Javelina Wash, from rough slopes and mesa country that were usually dry except when they weren’t– and then, a summer torrent might occur and remind the wayward hiker why the trail is called a “Pour-off.” In that case, an entry to a place that’s otherwise resounding with the song of canyon wrens and shaded by persimmon and buckeye trees might not be the one you want to be in.
[Stay tuned for more. We’ll cross the Rio Grande in a rowboat & take a burro ride into Boquillas, Mexico!]
The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park have been described as “sky islands surrounded by desert.” I’ve had an opportunity to delve into those remote volcanic isles, to note their varying temperatures and moisture levels, from the Rio Grande, at 1800 feet above sea level, to Emory Peak, topping off at nearly 8000 feet (2438 meters) above the distant Gulf.
Big Bend National Park, in far western Texas, is renowned for offering splendid isolation and the darkest sky in the continental U.S. The wooded Chisos are surrounded by spectacular desert scenery, and to climb the slopes there is to gather a sense of the incredible diversity of flora and fauna in the region, among the greatest on the continent. Winter and spring are probably the best times to explore Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecological wonders, for the summer can be brutally hot.
The park’s 800,000-plus acres are a fine place for hikers, birders, fossil hunters, and geology students, and are, in fact, a likely paradise for anyone interested in wild nature and the challenge of escaping into one of the country’s most remote areas. My views of Big Bend’s variable landscapes sometimes made me think of pristine territories in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. It was great to finish off the final weeks of 2022 at Big Bend in the company of my wife and offspring who made the visit possible.
Looking through the Chisos Mountain notch referred to as The Window, you might get a picture of the American Southwest as it was for eons. The Rio Grande and its limestone, temple-like canyons such as Boquillas and Santa Elena can be felt nearby, and, beyond them, the remoteness of eastern Mexico. Looking through The Window you might see an invisible international boundary line (no artificial man-made Wall) between protected lands– the Canon de Santa Elena on the U.S. side, and the Maderas del Carmen on the Mexican side. Looking through The Window of the Chisos you might get a feeling for the backcountry here– a place for several developed campgrounds and numerous primitive camping sites, for more than 150 miles of desert and mountain hiking trails.
At rest on the islands of the sky, you might gather a sensation of the lower Rio Grande, much of the higher flow diminished by humanity and drought conditions but replenished here by input of a Mexican tributary. Resting on an island of the sky, you might gather an understanding of the region’s archeological sites extending 10 millennia into the limestone and volcanic depths, as well as a recent history of the former ranching and mining life. You will almost certainly get an overwhelming sense of what is presently here: some 1200 species of floral life among the mountains and surrounding desert, plus 75 species of mammals, 56 kinds of reptile, and (yes), some 450 species of birds, including America’s only breeding population of Colima warbler.
All photos (with thanks) courtesy of Brent Franklin. As for this writer, my camera & other valuables were among two suitcases that we lost on arriving at Dallas-Love Airport & couldn’t repossess until the trip’s end, thanks to the great SouthwestAirlines debaclethat persisted through the holidays. I’ll havemore on that madness, so… Please stay tuned. The Rivertop Rambler is recharging for 2023 and will soon relate his humbling but mostly charmed adventures at Big Bend through a series of several posts.
Responding to my previous post about removal of the Klamath River dams, a friend ofRivertopRambles, Tio Stib, responded favorably to the prospect of environmental change and also reminisced about his angling in the Klamath region. One of Tio’s favorite rivers, apparently, is the Williamson in nearby Oregon. I was reminded of a 2008 fishing tour of Western rivers and my words about the Williamson that I included in the book, Sand & Sage, The Trails Beyond(2010). I’d like to share that segment here and add some photos to spice it up. Thanks again to Tio and to all my readers at this blog.
It was wonderful to launch northward out of sweltering California and to swing into semi-orbit around lofty Mt. Shasta. We enjoyed various perspectives of the mountain till we left its cooling gravitational pull and coasted through the Klamath country with its sandhill cranes and its wars over water rights. We camped on the Williamson River where the clear Spring Creek empties its exceptional flow. Both of these premier trout streams were running full and lively.
[Above photos by SummitPost, MI Audubon, and The Fly Syndicate]
Spring Creek is only two miles long, but the stream is home to a strain of Klamath rainbows that can reach 30 inches in length. I saw only one behemoth, probably because the trout population viewed early August as a good time to be elsewhere. But in the green and turquoise clarity of the creek I saw a depth that almost shouted, “What you see is what you get!” I looked at a bedrock blend of gravel, crustaceans, and occasional fishing lure.
The Williamson is often considered to be one of the most difficult Western rivers to fish successfully. I had no luck with it near our Chiloquin, Oregon campsite. This was drift boat water, and the anglers I saw wading in the catch and release section weren’t doing much better than I was. When I did get into range of rainbows feeding on emergent insects, I caught nothing.
Next morning, Spring Creek was more forgiving. Even though the storied spawners weren’t available, I had luck with blue-winged olive imitations in the numbing 45-degree water. Six or seven trout rose from a bed of gravel and pumice to nail the dry fly. One fish was a scrappy footlong specimen. It was small success, perhaps, but when you’re new to a pool under blue sky in a stream thousands of miles from home, there isn’t much room to gripe.
I’ve seen the Klamath River but have never had the chance to fish it (yet). I remembered it recently when the good news filtered through abominable stews of economic, political, and environmental turmoil. Four dams on northern California’s Klamath River would be taken down, allowing restoration for endangered salmon habitat. More than 300 miles (483 kilometers) of free-flowing river would be opened up by 2024 to benefit the salmon that had been closed off from their spawning grounds. Environmentalists, nature lovers, and especially the several tribes of Native Americans whose culture has been twined inextricably with the fish have reason to rejoice.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted on and approved what would be the world’s largest dam demolition and river restoration project in history on 17 November 2022.
Above photo by Flaccus (The Associated Press), the Iron Gate Dam, Klamath River, one of four aging hydro-structures to be removed.
Granted, the decision to remove the dams was business based. Relicensing, with the cost of upgrades, would be prohibitive. But the cost for the owners, PacifiCorp, would be capped at $200 million, assisted by another $250 million from a California water bond (approved). All in all, this looks like a victory for deserving native people, for endangered salmon, and for anyone interested in survival in the region and beyond.
Eventually the power supply once furnished by the dams (diminished as it was) will be replaced by renewable energy sources (wind and sun) and by “energy efficiency savings.” One can only hope that construction of new energy sites does not bring unforeseen ecological damage (wishful thinking?). Anyway, demolition of the dams within the Klamath watershed will create the largest reopening of its kind by human beings, and I’m pleased for that. I was tired of hearing all the mostly rotten media reports of late and think it’s time for a bottle of the best beer in the house. Hey, do we have any brew from Klamath Basin?
There were golden days this autumn, brilliant afternoons delightful for occasions on the trail or on the stream. I tried to make the most of them, getting outside when I could, and trying to fit some angling time into a year that had seen far less than what I was used to.
I experienced another mellow afternoon on a local river. The continued dryness of the landscape was a little worrisome, and the water remained low and clear. Still, my recent fishing hours had to be among my finest of the year to date.
Many of the fish were in a spawning mode and hardly interested in my artificial offerings. But every now and then a streamer took a hit when drifting at the right level of the water column. I had seen a fish leap at the head of a riffle with an overhanging bank, and so I made a slow approach. A powerful brown trout grabbed the Woolly Bugger and quickly came to net. Its length, with tail slightly suppressed, was 20 inches, and its highlights (not to be captured by the small Olympus camera) were close to a golden hue.
I walked downstream to one of the larger pools and, where the riffles dropped off into the depths, surprised myself with the second and final hook-up of the day. Like the heavy rainbow that I captured and released a week or two ago, I was battling another fish of similar size. I’m glad that the barbless hook and 3X tippet held. The 7-foot cane rod held. My breath held –till the landing net finally held what must have been a 10-pound trout.
The fish was no golden brown but an unbruised rainbow of impressive dimensions. My landing net measures 22 inches from tip to tip, and this particular trout surpassed that by at least three inches. It did not appear to be the same rainbow that I photographed earlier this month. Two fish made this autumn day complete, the river and the hillsides golden brown.
I’ve returned to fly-fishing the local rivers and smaller streams, my first solo outings on the water in quite some time. These were modest outings, casting bamboo and smaller graphite rods, catching and releasing a few nice browns that rose to a dry Tan Caddis pattern. The streams have looked dispirited, still low from the dry conditions of departed summer, hobbled by fallen willow trees, by fallen leaves, by beaver dams unkind to water temperatures suitable for trout, and even by lost tackle used illegally in water that’s reserved for the use of artificial lures only. But all in all, I was glad for a return to places that could only see improvement of conditions in the weeks to come.
Things were looking better by my fifth outing of the autumn season. I had found some larger brown and rainbow trout in the deeper pools of my rivertop terrain. These fish were not at all interested in feeding, as far as I could tell, and acted as though spawning was the only energy worth expending now. We’ve got to give these stocked fish credit for not losing all their instincts and piscine dignity while growing up in hatcheries. Some of them might have glanced at the drift of my small dry flies or my slightly larger nymphs but, in general, their refusal to completely check them out told me I was wasting my time if I really wanted success. I would come back the next day with a different strategy and a different set of tackle.
As H.D. Thoreau once commented, “Many go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Some of us are familiar with that line and may have even thought about it. I, too, have ruminated on the writer’s words and would add but one qualification. Fishing is like many quests pursued outdoors. It might be a favorite activity, or it might be a lesser one, but it’s usually considered very pleasurable. And there’s more to it than meets the eye, of course; there’s more to it than catching fish. But to catch a fish and to note the beauty of its form and its place of life, where so many other wonders can be found, is a key to knowing what we’re really after.
I had come back to the river with a set of streamer flies, with a shorter leader and a tippet of considerable strength. I saw shadows and reflections of large, slowly cruising trout. I had no preview of the fish that seized my chartreuse imitation. It was powerful and heavy, leaping from the surface and pulling me around for what must have been 10 minutes or so. My landing net came in handy, although in this case, it did seem rather small. After several quick photos and a measurement of 25 inches in length, the big fish slowly swam away and disappeared in the depths. Soon the wind and cold rain began to pummel the riverbanks. I climbed the rocky staircase to my car, almost brimming with an unexpected pleasure.
Flipping through the pages of my old literary magazines, I recently found a piece that I had written long ago and had published in a Philadelphia magazine called LaZer (1994). I’d completely forgotten about this personal reflection from my youthful bartending days not far from where I currently reside, but I thought to share it with you on the chance that “Crazylegs” might still entertain…. [photos: autumn rose. delphinium, wild sunflower, Jack-in-the-pulpit… Greenwood, NY environs]
Spike, a human fixture at the Sycamore Hotel, was prone to calling Daniel Woodworth “Crazylegs.” In recent years old Dan had begun to lose control of his left leg and so resorted to the use of canes, but the nickname didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, his retaliatory and affectionate name for Spike was “Dago.” Crazylegs and Dago got along just fine.
I was tending bar at the Sycamore when I first met Crazy. He was short and stooped, a long-retired farmer now with sunken cheeks and thick-lensed glasses. Because of his alcoholic tendencies, Crazylegs wasn’t the official Town Historian of Grayville, but he was, nonetheless, a true historian. Drunk or sober, he could speak articulately, accurately, and with intelligence and detail on almost anything pertaining to the Grayville area.
With the quickness of a warm computer, he could spiel out genealogies for any rooted family; he could speak of Fall Creek, Hiram’s Gully or Grouse Hollow, for example, and inform one of the natural and human history there; he could people all the buildings in the township with men and women who had known them, and he could talk of how they mobilized both socially and geographically. Crazy’s memory was nearly photographic, but he seldom flaunted it. He kept his knowledge locked within himself unless someone indicated an interest. Arguably, he knew more about the place than did the Town Historian, but undeniably Crazylegs was friendlier and more accessible than his official counterpart.
I never knew him well or saw him much outside of his occasional appearance at the bar. He seemed to be a humble man of wisdom, one who stayed in touch with the traditions, who could see both the torn fabric of existence and the wholeness of the cycles that were life. Surely my view of him was limited by my own selective interests. For all I really knew, Crazylegs could have been a life-long alcoholic, one who poisoned dogs, molested children, beat his wife, and picked his nose in church. I knew that he lived in a dumpy shack out in the hills, that his farm animals were history, and that his kids had grown and left him in solitude, but these were facts I could easily attribute to the ravages of modern life on rural dwellers, rather than to personal irresponsibility.
There was something in his speech and manner that portrayed him as an amiable, independent and compassionate fellow. Symbolically, he might represent the old and vanishing rural community– where community meant more than the assembly of volunteers at the Fire Hall for beer or cards on Thursday nights. As if to balance these reflections there was also something of the tragic in his mien. Old Crazy was approaching blindness, but I saw his inner eye glancing back and forth in time, perceiving some kind of hope still glimmering for us as a culture, although growing dimmer day by day.
Several men were sitting at a table talking casually about the trapping season. Harry Sanford said he was buying mink and beaver skins this year. On the television there was news about a local free-lance writer just released from her status as Iranian hostage. She reported that major publishers were interested in the book she planned to write about her months behind the lines. Crazylegs hobbled through the door and sat near Spike at the bar.
“Must have been around New Year’s when I last run into you,” said Crazy when I served him a can of Genesee. I didn’t need to remind him that we talked then of the vanished farms out my way. “Sure, we talked about Minnie. She was sumpthin’,” added Crazylegs.
“She had lots of kids, huh?” said Spike.
“Fourteen. Nine girls, five boys.”
“Some of them died real young.”
“Let’s see, ” continued Crazylegs. “Little Sam. Died way back around 1920; and Thomas– died a few years after that.”
Spike ran his hand indifferently through his slicked-back hair. Moments later he was staring at the doorway when he said, “Helen I remember good. Went off to Minnesota and died.”
“And Marie,” added Crazylegs.
“She went nuts,” declared Spike.
“Yeah, but she pulled out of it, though. Tough bird.”
I wondered how much sadness surfaced through the recollection process and how sharply Crazylegs reacted to the more significant happenings of long ago. Was there still a pretty face, a someone who would never change through time and could allure him always to events as he had lived them?
I imagined him laughing as he looked down the hallways of a grim and tottering future. Would his days unwind at the “Old Folks Home” where the dayroom television blared to offset the existence of faded magazines, potted geraniums, and white-gowned female companions now unable to answer questions such as, “Would you like a baked or a mashed potato with your dinner?”
Suffice it to say that such a future wouldn’t be for him. We are living in a strange and dangerous time like frogs in a crock of water slowly heated over a fire. Many of us, if not already spiritually dead from exploitation and our own insensitivity, will be boiled to death in time. But I don’t think Crazylegs will forget how his life once was or how it might be lived tomorrow. When others knock upon his door to take him to the city, Crazy’s lame left leg will kick like a swimming frog’s; the cane will bear the body’s weight. He’ll stumble toward an open window and be gone unnoticed.
On the last full day of summer, I experienced a somewhat inspirational event. It was a simple event but one that I could not have known earlier this year, prior to surgery on my spine in August. My brother and a friend (trail names “Bob” and “Porky,”) and I were camping at World’s End State Park in northern Pennsylvania when we decided to climb the 5-mile gravel roadway (up and back) to a summit view of the canyon formed by Loyalsock Creek. It was a modest climb compared to many of our hiking “bludgeons” of the past, but Porky was suffering septuagenarian back pains and I was only six weeks out of a three-day hospital visit, so the general feeling was that we were lucky to be out at all.
Two mornings later, on the first full day of autumn, I was working at my desk at home when I heard a sickening thud on a nearby window. I knew immediately that a songbird had gone down. I went out and found the lifeless body of a warbler known as an ovenbird. Sometimes a small bird nesting in or near the yard will gently strike a window and be briefly dazed before recovering. But in late September many local species will be in a restless migratory mode, and collisions are more likely to be fatal.
I held the little olive-backed creature and recalled “The Oven Bird,” by poet Robert Frost, a non-traditional sonnet. The last six lines of the poem remind us that a songbird, like a poet, can resound the melancholy truth of time’s swift passage (from the fullness of a songful spring to the relative quiet of late summer and early fall) and the loss implied therein:
… And comes that other fall we name the fall./ He says the highway dust is over all./ The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing./ The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.
So, an inspirational climb, a small transition, and a thud. We take it all in stride, knowing, hopefully, when to sing and when a wordless time is preferable.