Rene Medellin and Sergio Tristan have a few things in common. They’re both U.S. military veterans. Both of them were born in Texas and trace their family roots back to the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. They both are huge soccer fans, a passion they share with their sons. But last Wednesday night, they found themselves at opposite ends of the Alamodome, divided by the length of the field and their love for rival teams.
Before 2008 the residents of Dallas–Fort Worth had rarely felt the ground shake. There had been a couple of tremors over the years, but for the most part, the area was seismically stable. That is, until the fracking started.
Among the well-wishers and reminiscers who observed the retirement of Paul Burka with fond testimonials (some of which can be read below) were a number of Paul’s media brethren and a handful of politicos he’d spent his four-decades-long career covering.
It was thirteen years ago that I set out with two friends, John and Chris, on a three-day backpacking trek over some of the most extreme terrain anywhere in the state, humping over the Chisos Mountains and down thousands of feet to the Chihuahuan Desert. The first night we camped at Juniper Canyon, if memory serves, and our water bottles froze solid. On day two, the heat left us all pink in the face. With our reservoirs nearly empty, we were glad to find Dodson Spring below the ruins of an old homestead, where we filtered fresh water, but we were thirsty again by the time we reached Homer Wilson Ranch, on the park’s west side. Fortunately, we’d stashed gallon jugs of water there for the 2,500-foot climb up Blue Creek Canyon and back into the Chisos, but by this time John had decided to bail. As Chris and I set off, John found the road and hitchhiked back to my old Toyota 4Runner, parked at the trailhead with a cooler of beer.
This year, I revisited this same trek, known as the Outer Mountain Loop, all by my lonesome. The contours of my life have shifted since 2002: neither John nor Chris lives in Texas anymore, and I’m a father now, with a mortgage and car payments and, most noticeably, a stubborn beer gut and decidedly less responsive leg muscles. Still, as a perennial dirt diver, I liked the idea of returning to the trail all this time later. If Cheryl Strayed could take on the Pacific Crest Trail, I figured I could handle Big Bend. Besides, the forced break from technology and human company seemed a net-positive way to escape the aggravations of midlife. I added a couple of detours to our original route and planned for a fourth, extra night in the backcountry. I packed moleskin in case of blisters.
As I went about securing provisions and permits, auspicious signs suggested I had a better-than-average journey ahead. The miserable weather that had greeted me when I arrived at the park gave way to clear skies and sunshine, while the rain and rare snow that had fallen on the mountains guaranteed plenty of water. The ranger who inspected my paperwork told me that crews had recently cleared the thorny brush from Dodson Trail, the rugged ten-mile traverse that nearly cooked John’s noodle back in the day. I still had plenty of daylight left when I hoisted my pack and hit the forested ascent of Pinnacles Trail.
Once up, I hiked the eight miles straight to the South Rim, which, although technically not part of the loop, was too alluring to bypass. I got confused at a trail marker and spent a nervous half hour figuring out that I needed to backtrack to locate my campsite, but this in turn gave me extra time to appreciate the desert views (in fact, the South Rim is considered of such high scenic value that most of the sites are off-piste). At long last, I located my site among the oaks. After the bruising ascent and moment of uncertainty, I was ready for dinner, a foil packet of freeze-dried chicken à la king.
It was just after we hit our first major-league dip in the road that I sensed something was amiss. My wife and I were in the bed of a pickup somewhere in the Chihuahuan Desert, cruising on an unpaved route south from Boquillas, headed for a night in Sierra del Carmen. The ride seemed pleasant enough to me. We had good company in the truck bed—Big Bend photographer James Evans and his longtime steady, Marci Roberts; Big Bend Gazette publisher John Waters; trip organizer Ernesto Hernandez Morales; and a former park ranger named Marcos Paredes—and our perches were cushioned by bedrolls and overnight bags. But when we hit that dip, we caught a little air. I turned to Julie, my sweet ballerina bride, with a big smile on my face; nothing had flown from the truck. She looked back with narrowed eyes. It occurred to me that we might be taking two entirely different vacations.
Mine was a reporting trip. It was April 19, 2013, and the border crossing at Boquillas had reopened the previous week after eleven long, shuttered years. Unelectrified and remote, the tiny Mexican village had, at one time, been home to some three hundred residents, who survived almost entirely on business brought by day-trip visitors from Big Bend National Park. But then 9/11 happened, and the informal crossing at Boquillas—the two-minute boat ride across the Rio Grande had always been illegal but never an issue—was closed. Boquillas’s tourism industry shrank down to handicrafts left by villagers on the riverbank for paddlers to buy on the honor system and performances by Victor Valdez, the Cantor of the Canyon, who sang corridos across the water for tips. The town’s population withered to seventy. Now the crossing was open, as an official point of entry no less, with a passport-reading kiosk on the U.S. side that piped a video feed to agents in El Paso and a FEMA-style trailer on the Mexican side staffed by real customs officials. My assignment was to see how Boquillas was responding.
Julie, on the other hand, had in mind that we were celebrating our second wedding anniversary. I should point out that I had not forgotten the blessed occasion. It had fallen four days earlier and been my first thought when the story was assigned. Not one to place work before marriage, I’d invited her along. I should also point out that we are accustomed to vastly different styles of travel. Julie is, in fact, a former professional dancer who owns a boutique garden design firm in Austin; before she married a journalist, hers was a life of first-class flights and five-star resorts, and her CV lists, under the heading “philanthropy,” multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaigns she marshaled for arts organizations. My résumé lists “hitchhiking” under “activities.” But we navigate that gap. When we travel, if I pick the hotel, she packs bedsheets. It’s a thread-count thing.
We enter the park at Persimmon Gap just before noon, and the desert landscape, still damp from a lashing rainstorm the night before, is lit with a preternatural glow, the creosote bush and prickly pear vivid green. Roadrunners flash across the road so quickly and well-camouflaged they are like shooting stars—I can’t point them out to six-year-old Ford or three-year-old Emerson because the birds are gone by the time they look. It’s spring break, the most crowded time of year in Big Bend, but my wife, Stacy, and I have decided to come anyway, braving the eight-hour drive from Dallas in the family Volvo (plus an overnight stay in Marfa) to experience this untamed corner of Texas for the first time in our lives.
We stop at a sign marked “Fossil Bone Exhibit,” and our son and daughter sprint up a path and mount a platform of red rock, spreading their arms and spinning in circles, taking in the immensity of the space around us, the vast martian landscape lit afire, the Chisos Mountains a bronze Stonehenge assembled by titans. I already regret all the time I’ve spent not being here. I want to break into song. I don’t. Back in the car, our cellphone reception slips away as we head deeper into the park. Stacy and I hold hands as civilization dies on the screen. “Is this where the animals are?” asks Emerson. Yes. “But why can’t we see them?” Because we have to be patient. We have to wait.
We’ve been lucky enough to get a room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, on the southeastern slope of Casa Grande, a 7,325-foot garnet butte that’s visible for miles. The Chisos Basin occupies the center of the park literally and figuratively, a kind of metaphysical anchor, a deep bowl ringed by mountains and mesas, lined with crumbling striata of sandstone. After checking in, we go to the visitors center across the parking lot, where Ford and Emerson get their national park “passport” books stamped and receive journals to record their experiences. A life-size statue of a mountain lion dominates the exhibits on flora and fauna, and the kids marvel at the paw prints and pictures. We take a stroll down the Window Trail just outside the lodge as raptor birds circle above the peaks, coasting on invisible thermals. The air is so clear that the smallest hint of movement draws your eye: a distant jackrabbit stealing across a path, a lizard scaling a rock face, a boy standing on a boulder across the valley, waving his ball cap.
When I consider the childhood memories that inform my present being, I think of moments outdoors: in the woods, in the park, in the creek. Nature offers a rare oasis of privacy for children, a respite from close adult supervision. At home, the kids play in the postage stamp of grass in our backyard, but the rest of their time outside consists mostly of soccer practice or trips to the playground. Ford cracks open geodes from a boxed kit in the garage, Emerson creates magical forest hideouts in the stunted shrubbery, and Stacy makes “fossils” out of chicken bones and plaster for the kids to find in the sandbox. Nature, as we know it, is predictable. I think about this when dusk falls and we settle into the soft mattresses in our cinder-block room. Lying next to me, my son whispers in my ear: “I want to see something that’s not in the zoo. An animal just out there in the wild.”