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.”