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!]
“Slag-brained whoreson of the cosmos” made me laugh, and this piece had some new perspectives. I’m glad Alyssa got the spot of me under the pouroff: It gives a better idea of the scale of the formation. Nice post!
Fantastic terrain. Your story makes me want to go there!
Thanks, Neil. It’s a great place to visit in winter/spring. Not the easiest to reach, but that also makes it rather special!
Beautifully written, captivating story, a welcome diversion on a rainy Saturday morning. thank you!
You’re welcome, and thank you very much, Tio. I’m glad you enjoyed this.
Fie, indeed… a matter of good (bad?) timing on the rock fall… Glad you saw it out, and enjoyed fine vistas and stunning rock formations. Speaking of stunning, that photo confirms your legs are in sturdy shape.
Thanks, Walt, I’m enjoying learning about this scenic corner, and there’s more to come – great stuff!
Adam, Thanks for noting that hikes are good for keeping the legs in shape! I try. And thanks for reading & being open to the scenic wonders of this relatively little-known corner of the land.
Absolutely delightful, Walt. whew! I was scared when that boulder came down…holy cow!! Your descriptions are a joy, photos are terrific, and I laughed quite a while at the sexy photo. Sorry to hear about your Southwest Airlines debacle, ugh. So you were one of the unfortunates stuck in their meltdown, ugh. But what a terrific adventure. I liked hearing about the jays and the other wildlife who greeted you. And although I enjoyed every description and even re-read some for their beauty, this one was my favorite: “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.”
Thank you very much, Jet, for your thoughtful and detailed response! I’m glad you enjoyed the narratives here (not to mention those startling legs) from our misadventure with the airlines to the wonder of the desert & beyond.
Those are some fabulous gams you’ve got there, Walt! I’m wondering, have you ever added up the total on your birding life list?
Yeah, I retain a bit of that youthful “western” look, right? Still sober at that point… As for the life list, Bob, some recent calculation gives me a modest 412 North American at this point, plus another 250 (or so) European & Central American birds. Counting is not as important for me as broadening the base of my experience with the critters, but it is a way of seeing how small I am when looking at a world with almost 10k species of avifauna.
The scenery in Big Ben is unreal, the perfect terrain to film Western movies. I did a Google search and discovered that the following Westerns were filmed in the park—–BARBAROSA (1982), ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (2000), THREE BURIALS (2005), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)—–Great read –thanks for sharing
Thanks for digging into the Big Bend cinema-history & sharing what you found. I had a vague idea of movie interest in this broad expanse but wasn’t aware of the specific films. The village of Terlingua, where we were staying, has an interesting history & forms a good base for artistic & scientific exploration.
Great pics and story. Hope there’s more to come.
My wife and I visited Big Bend last year. We drove there from San Antonio where we were visiting our son and his wife. They did some outback camping there and recommended we check it out.
We weren’t able to hike very much because of some health concerns, but there was still a lot to see in the park. It’s huge! We checked out where the Rio Grande enters the park in the far southwest corner. It was smaller than most trout streams around here. We were able to walk across, although on the other side were sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high. Cold, clear water.
The Chisos Mountains were awesome. Jean and I had lunch at the Mountain View Restaurant in the middle of the Chisos and it wasn’t half bad. It’s a hub for some of the hard-core hikers and a road runner hangout.
You’re braver than we are to spend time in Terlingua! That is remote. We spent a few nights in Alpine Tx not too far from Big Bend. There’s a great indie bookstore there, Front Street Books, where I was able to find a few Texas authors to bring home (Their books, not bodies). Alpine was close to the McDonald Observatory and the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens outside Fort Davis. Both worth the trip. There’s some beautiful hill country and rolling grasslands nearby, and a 70+ mile scenic drive to take some of it in. Been back to Texas again. It’s an interesting state, far more enjoyable than we expected, even those damn Dallas Cowboy fans!
Great to hear from you, and thanks for sharing your experience with the Big Bend country. You’re right, the place is huge & remote, and even though we spent a full week there, with Terlingua as our base, we hardly scratched the surface. Glad that you & your wife had a positive experience at the park. Your reference to the Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio exits from the mountains, takes me back. A beautiful site. Saw a couple guys wade across the river foolishly, just to say that they set foot on Mexican soil. We took the legal route at Rio Grande Village, with passports in hand, and then on the back of burros. Your report inspires me to write more on the subject. By the way, I think I saw that bookstore in Alpine, but on holiday a lot of shops were closed. We did settle on the brewery there, which was good, and then moved on homeward, pausing to enjoy the hill country around Fort Davis Nat’l Historical Park. Thanks again, and stay tuned!