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!]