“I don’t see the desert as barren at all; I see it as full and ripe. It doesn’t need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty.” ~ Joy Harjo
‘Counting the Days’
For fifteen years now, that’s been the standard answer to the question of our next Big Bend adventure. Once upon a time, when the two of us lived on opposite ends of Texas, we would meet as friends in The Big Bend to strengthen our bond with each other and with nature whenever we could. Big Bend National Park was our camping and hiking paradise, the foundation for building what would become a life-long marriage and friendship.
Among our many hikes and memories there, a few of them stand out. There was the windstorm that threatened to carry us and our tents away. Another dangerous brush with dehydration taught me the wisdom of drinking often and helped seal our fate as a couple. The energizing skinny-dip in a natural hot springs might have been daring to do with friends, but the skunk who nosed its way into our tent while we were sleeping is the best one of all. (My dear friends who watched that chaos ensue from the warmth of your idling vehicle, you know who you are. Thanks for the memories.)
Since that last, skunk-y trip at the dawn of a new century, we’ve tripled our family size, traded contracting for full-time work, and gave up collegiate aspirations. Together, these wonderful life changes — many of which were unplanned — also ripped open a 10-year wide travel hiatus. The Big Bend would have to wait.
Counting the days.
Now that the kids are old enough, they know exploring remote areas is consummate to hanging with Mom and Dad. A trip to The Big Bend for them not only means hiking rugged terrain in the desert and mountains, it also means carrying their own water ration for the entire hike. They are capable. One day, they’ll either love us or hate us for making them do it, but for now, we all celebrate National Park Service’s 100th birthday by returning to Big Bend Country together…and getting a centennial stamp for our first national park romp of 2016.
As Nature As It Gets
The Big Bend could not contrast our life in the Houston suburbs more starkly. Sure, we’re already used to the half-hour drives across town; Houston is a rather sprawling city, after all. But with few other humans in the desert to get in the way, there is that notable absence of traffic and signals. The best roads to the best spots require a 4WD and a hefty helping of time to spare.
The Hot Springs
(4WD Access Recommended)
Any concrete or structures have a specific purpose in mind, but they’re generally non-existent.
Camp Ruins, Hot Springs
In Big Bend Country, it’s a 45-minute drive to anywhere…on the highway. If you want to go off-road, be sure to check your spare tire and pack more water than you think you’ll need. If you get stuck, you’ll want to live until help arrives.
The Window Trail
The day becomes day again, and night is night, and a more natural circadian rhythm quickly resumes with each wobbly spin of the earth. Spotty wi-fi and walkie-talkies fill the void of FM radio, TV, cell phones, or email. It’s like stepping back in time 30 years, where the relationship between you and the person looking back at you is at least as important as the water quenching your thirst.
It’s personal — not business — out in the desert. Everything is.
Sisters Getting Along
It is one of our nation’s most remote national parks, which also makes it one of the least visited. Within its boundaries is an entire mountain range swallowed up by desert and geology tens of millions of years in the making. It snuggles up to a whole ‘nuther country (some Texans like to think of ourselves as a stand-alone country) to the south with only a river separating the two. Humans on both sides of the river cooperate to protect the border and — in the name of eco-tourism — to keep the park alive and kicking.
Downhill Slide To Terlingua
Boquillas Canyon Dunes
Named for a 90-degree curve in the Rio Grande from southeast to northeast, this vast Texas land was deeded to the federal government as our servicemen were storming Normandy Beach on D-day in 1944. A week later, president Franklin D. Roosevelt brought it into the national park system and continued his cousin Teddy’s legacy of protecting pristine lands from human defacement and exploitation, which is good because people just can’t seem to stop messing up a good thing.
A handful of paved roads and the more popular hiking trails were carved by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) way back in the 1930’s. Not much has changed since then. There’s still only one airport and a train station nearby, but recently a golf course popped up, went bankrupt, and popped up again. In the middle of a desert. Again, messing up a good thing.
Spring and fall are the most popular tourist-y times for good reason; it’s super hot days in the summer and freezing nights in the winter. We prefer the winter to all other seasons as bears and rattlesnakes are both relatively absent, reducing our risk on the trail with kids, and this time, we wouldn’t be camping in the elements. The birds are awesome at every time of the year, and tamer wildlife like deer, auodad, fox, and small mammals entertain children and adults alike. Cougar generally stay away from groups of people, but well-placed bear spray and pocket knives are with the parent units at both ends of the group — just in case.
As the days warm to only 55 degrees, jackets and layers can’t come off fast enough. This particular trip was shrouded in clouds for the first few days, so no sun and c-c-c-cold for most of our hikes. The kids endured.
Texas ‘Rain Sage’
Cenzio with Chisos backdrop, Cattail Falls Hike
Whether the sun is shining, hidden by clouds, or peeking over the horizon, the views from every part of the park are nothing short of spectacular. Sure beats the Houston flatscape.
Chisos Mountain Range
Over Cottonwood Trees
The Chihuahuan Desert is a giant rain forest except that all the plant life is under six feet tall. Just because there is little rainfall doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of life! Most of the park’s flora have evolved clever ways to hold onto their own water whenever it’s available. Succulent species — cacti, agave, cholla, ocotillo, yucca — have adapted thorns and spines to deter the local fauna from stealing their stores.
It works. And it sucks to get ‘hit’ with one of them. The locals say that in The Big Bend if a thing doesn’t bite, stick, or sting, it’s probably a rock.
Water Source (If You Dare)
Pretty, Tiny Wildflower
(No bigger than my pinky fingernail.)
And if you can’t make a living in the desert, you probably won’t. Many species (like us humans) simply go make an easier living somewhere else.
Food Source (If You Can Catch It)
A few self-proclaimed ‘desert rats’ have opted to call this park home all year long. They’re a special breed, these wonderful folks, generally conscious conservation types, keen on living right with the land and day-to-day survival.
The miles-long view out of the basin into Mexico
The Endangered Rio Grande
Billy, our river guide, arrived to The Big Bend as many other desert transplants did: he first tent-camped as a visitor. Pretty soon, two years had passed and he decided that he was ‘more probably a resident now than a visitor;’ he settled down with a local girl and started his family in the place he loved. One thing is for sure. Billy is hands-down a most fantastic river and area guide as he is an invaluable historian on West Texas life. We — and especially the kids — appreciated every little tidbit of history he shared with us on our half-day ride through the state park.
Riding the Rio Grande
Like other natural American icons, the Rio Grande River is in trouble. In many places along the park you can walk across this once deep, raging river without even getting your knees wet. Worry is for good reason, too. This river makes up the entire Texas — and a good portion of the American — southernmost border with Mexico. With currently 75% of its head-water being taken annually for agricultural use on both sides of the border, this yield will only increase with population pressures, draining the river dry.
Hiking A Dry River Bed
With the changing climate, headwaters aren’t exactly replenishing. In fact, they’re shrinking. Heavy rains up-river may cause the floodplain to swell and ebb naturally, but the reality of the situation today appears to be dire.
Tossing Rocks Into Mexico
Breaking The Law
Kids and Mexico Mud
It’s sad to think that this once great river, which formed the park’s beautiful canyons in much the same way the Mighty Colorado formed The Grand Canyon — over millions of years — might one day be gone.
Darkest Skies In Texas
To get anywhere fast in The Big Bend, a 45-minute drive is usually in order. Fewer people also mean fewer cars to drive past. The small townships actively avoid the bright lighting that washes out the sky in less thoughtful cities. This results in little light pollution and what may be the remaining darkest skies in the country — at least it is here in Texas. There are only four such ‘Dark Sky’ reserves in our state and boasting 800,000 acres of space, The Big Bend is by far the biggest.
At 8:00p, once the cloud cover lifted, it was easy to see the arm of the Milky Way gazing upward with the naked eye as we lay across the park’s concrete entry sign. Put a basic pair of 8X binoculars to your face and you’ll see stars in every nook and cranny of the sky. Eons of time it took for this starlight to reach our eyes here on earth; just be sure to cover your eyes as cars pass to save your night vision.
Small and insignificant never felt so amazing!
Big Bend Dark Sky
(Photo credit: Tyler Nordgren)
This trip marks both the end of a long, busy chapter in our lives as well as a very new beginning of the next wonderful one. We couldn’t think of a better way to start fresh than in the desert — clean, striking, vibrant desert.
And Big Bend National Park is just the kind of natural clarity we needed to carry us into a second 20 years together.
Big Bend National Park 2016
Only a short 15-year, 10-hour drive to get here.