March 21, 2005

Travel Notes: Big Bend

When you cross the Pecos River you feel like you’re leaving the shelter of civilization that you’ve been under all your life. In the old days “west of the Pecos” meant that you were beyond the reach of human law, except the law of saloonkeeper Judge Roy Bean. (At Langtry, the town he named after his idol Lily Langtry, you can visit the restored Jersey Lily Saloon where he dispensed justice.) On I-10 it’s 86 miles between rest stops—just a couple of blinks, out here. When you see the sign “El Paso 311,” you think unironically, “Is that all?”

We pass prairie dog towns and wind farms, the three–bladed high–tech windmills lined up by the dozen atop a series of ridges, all turning together. The roadsides are lined with bluebonnets and yellow desert baileya and white blackfoot daisies. On the KGSR BROADCASTS CD, John Hiatt is singing, “Across the plains of Kansas/ To the Colorado line.” But the song isn’t about escaping a posse—he’s singing about driving his daughter to college.

Then we’re in Big Bend Country. On the map of Texas, there’s a big southward–hanging lobe in the lower left corner, where the Rio Grande takes a big bend, hence the name. This is the part of Texas where you really feel like you’re in a John Ford movie. Mesas and buttes—vast open sky—snaggletoothed mountains banded red and light gray—low rolling lands covered with creosote bushes, yucca, ocotillo stalks, century plants, and the relatively unimposing lechuguilla, a succulent that’s the type species of the Chihuahuan Desert. In this season the desert is flowering gorgeously, purple and yellow and white everywhere among the grayish green of thorny stalks.

Big Bend National Park is a treasure of the national park system, 1,200 square miles and less than one–tenth as many visitors as Yosemite. Its sister park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, is more remote and even less used, only 25,000 visitors a year. The ranger there tells me the campsites have never been full in his fifteen years at the park.

We camp in a cottonwood grove in the national park, where the white fur of the trees’ seeds lines the dirt road. It’s colder than we prepared for—all I have is one sweater and one L. L. Bean River Driver’s Shirt. Next morning there’s frost on the car and the picnic table. Was it worth it to get the worst night’s sleep of my life in exchange for the clearest, starriest sky I’ve ever seen? During the night itself I swore it wasn’t, but come morning it’s already seeming like a fond memory. It’s worth it for the perfect breakfast of fried eggs on top of my own chili, and the memory of reading aloud to the kids in a body–warmed tent while sipping Maker’s Mark from the bottle.

We spend most of the daytime hiking canyons. Most spectacular is Santa Elena Canyon, a 1,500–foot cliff of sand–colored limestone littered with huge fallen boulders, eight miles long and only 30 feet wide at its narrowest point. One side of the cliff is the US, the other is Mexico. In 1852 the first survey team, as a scouting technique, sent an empty wooden boat down the canyon, and it emerged at the other end in the form of splinters. The trail climbs up into desert hills in full bloom—yuccas topped by pinkish white clusters of blossoms the size and shape of giant pineapples—Chisos prickly poppies with parchmenty white petals and yellow centers, so delicate–looking you want to stay with them and learn all their secrets—and ocotillo whose long, thorny tendrils end in red spearpoints made of clusters of berrylike buds, which D. H. Lawrence would have loved to describe.

Along the river we’re walking on cracked dry mud overhung with bamboo and desert willow. There’s a house–sized square boulder tipped onto its edge, like the cubical sculpture in Federal Plaza in Manhattan. The kids are climbing around it in one direction and I go in the other to meet them, and on the far side I hear a low, soft growl.

There it is, crouching under a rock ledge at floor level, orange–tan and white with dark gray rings: an ocelot. It’s bigger than the half–tame bobcat who walked with us a few months ago on our last trip here, and the body shape and coloring are nothing like. I stop, look, and pick up two nice–size rocks, planning on using Brush Knee Push if it attacks. Then I turn and walk away. And then we’re racing around the boulder in the other direction, calling the kids back, setting our voices at urgency–without–alarm. Kids are ocelot–size prey, but on the other hand, ours are so noisy that no level–headed ocelot would hang around as they were approaching. Having been rescued, the kids returned without comment to their eternal discussion of Pokemon cards. (There’s been at least one case in the past decade of a child being killed by a mountain lion in Big Bend. Last year we hiked in the very streambed where it happened. But I figure the victim must have been a quiet, docile child.)

Ever since, the kids have referred to my ocelot as “the ocelot that Dad took on single–handed and left a bloody mess.” It reminds me of the folktale “Seven at One Blow.”

Further note: on the trail we met a mom with two boys about our boys’ age, told her about the ocelot, and she said to them, “That sounds neat. Want to go see an ocelot?” And they rushed forward. I assume they’re all right since they didn’t show up in the news afterward.

Further further note: Ocelots have been sighted on the Mexican side of the canyon but not the US side, though the guidebook says it would be perfectly possible for them to cross. (And be deported, presumably.) But the volunteer at the park station didn’t believe it was an ocelot, even though I identified it in a wildlife handbook.

We drove into the state park to hike a slot canyon, where you can slide down slick white pouroffs or climb down a rope. (The kids did the rope; the adults stopped and declared it the end of the trail.) Yellow rocknettle grew high on the cliff wall in isolated single–plant clumps: long, trumpetshaped blossoms with long stamens, brave and isolated, how did they ever take root there? State road 170 is a beauty, winding along the Rio Grande for about 50 miles. Road signs tell of “Rock Slides” and “Loose Livestock.” There are places to camp right on the river, and if you wade 30 feet or so you’re in another country, but then you have to place yourself under arrest when you return.

Further in, we have to unlock a gate that crosses the dirt road, using the combination the park ranger gave us. We hike through desert hills where claret–cup cactus blooms in tight orange–red clusters, and feather dalea bushes show off: each tiny arrowhead flower has four purple petals and one yellow. We’re on our way into a streambed between narrow cliffs, a green patch of cottonwood and willow and mesquite, when we notice very long horns rising about the plants: a black bull. We walk quietly on our way, and when we return, it hasn’t moved.

In the closed canyon, my wife and I both imagine we hear human voices. When there are wasps humming, and a spring bubbling too far away to be identifiable, and a breeze in the cottonwoods, and branches bouncing and bark dropping when canyon wrens take off, it’s easy to see how people started believing in ghosts.

We drive back through tiny towns—Lajitas, Terlingua, Study Butte—Lajitas being revived as an upscale retreat with a salon hotel; Terlingua, a mercury mining town till the 1940s, then briefly a ghost town, then a hippie discovery in the 1960s–1970s, and now mainly a road construction site; Study Butte, the most practical of the three for motels, RV parks, groceries, and a gas station café with really good food (pork asado chili, catfish, malts). If you want to guarantee your family downward mobility, my advice is to decide you’re an artist and settle in a remote spot like Terlingua. Your daughters will get pregnant in high school, your sons will pull petty crimes with the local hooligans, and on a weekday afternoon in the convenience store, with your unemployed son–in–law drinking a beer and your three pretty granddaughters spilling food, you’ll dangle cigarette ash onto your Ace bandaged ankle and complain that your shipment of yarn from San Angelo is late.

The next night, our last in camp, I’m sitting in the car at 5am reading GILEAD, a book that is humbling for a writer to read. Marilynne Robinson's narrator is describing staying up with sick kids at the exact moment that we finish doing so. Then my wife knocks on the car window and tells me to come out and listen: it’s the mating call of two great horned owls, a rare sound to witness. The man in the next campsite, a birder, is taping it. A soft, deep, crooning whistle, four or five syllables on one steady note, first the male in a higher voice and then the female lower. It goes on a long time, and eases down into contentment.

Soon the sun rises over the butte, and we pack up our tent. At the park station I buy a book of photorealist paintings of Big Bend. A couple of us are sick, throwing up or threatening to, but it’s just a 24–hour virus. “We’ll all be glad to be home,” my wife says as we drive through the hill country toward Austin, but I’m not sure. A shower and shave will be great after three nights, and maybe we can get a cooked fresh vegetable, but I’ll be looking at those paintings a lot. I’ll be needing to.