In the darkness, in the semi-wilderness, we tuned the radio to 1610 on the AM dial.
“Bienvenidos,” an unctuous male voice said, “and welcome to Big Bend National Park. We’re glad you’re here! Vast vistas and sweeping panoramas are just two of the things that make the park unique.”
The voice was familiar. It sounded like the same guy who came over the car radio on the outskirts of Disney World, directing drivers to parking lots named for the Seven Dwarfs. Now here he was, filling us in on the park rules and accommodations. I turned the radio off—I did not need to know where to hook up a motor home—and looked out the window. The “vast vistas and sweeping panoramas” were not visible at night, but I thought I could feel the landscape open and contract as we drove through it. Out in the darkness were great set pieces of geology—grabens and laccoliths and cuestas—pure fundamental forms that somehow made their presence known. A sign on the side of the road pointed off to Dog Canyon, through which Lieutenant William H. Echols had passed in 1859 with a train of 24 camels. The road itself followed the same route as the great Comanche War Trail, a thoroughfare that had once been trampled into definition a mile wide. We passed landmarks I could not see but had read about—Green Gulch, Pulliam Bluff, a mountain that supposedly formed the profile of Alsate, the famous Apache chief who was betrayed by the Mexicans and sold into slavery with his people. All of this was invisible, all of it taken on faith.
The road planed upward, and my ears cleared sharply, without effort. The truck’s headlights caught a small group of javelinas—dusky, spectral shapes that made me think of tiny prehistoric horses. Several miles later some creature a few inches long skittered across the road.
“Pocket mouse,” George Oliver muttered from the back seat, almost to himself. He was sitting upright, alert as an owl, his eyes fixed vigilantly on the road ahead. He had been that way ever since we left Austin, nine or ten hours earlier. He was looking for dead animals on the highway, road kills that had not yet been completely flattened, had not yet moldered and seeped into the asphalt. There were, of course, lots of them: dogs and cats, deer, jackrabbits, porcupines, armadillos, skunks, mice, squirrels, and even great horned owls. Every few miles Oliver would say, in his reserved, rather apologetic manner, “If, uh, it wouldn’t be too much trouble, there’s a pretty good hog-nosed skunk coming up here on the left,” and O.C. Garza, who was driving the truck, would say with the elaborate courtesy one usually reserves for extreme cases, “Hey, no trouble at all. Can’t pass up a good hog-nosed skunk.”
Then the fours of us would pile out of the car and stare down at a smushed pile of fur and bone and sun-blackened viscera. Sometimes the unfortunate creature’s carcass would be too far gone and Oliver would leave it, maybe taking its head along in a Ziploc bag for further study. More often he knelt to the task, taking out his forceps, searching the carcass for ectoparasites—lice, mites, ticks, and wingless parasitic flies—and then dropping them into vials of alcohol held by Linda Iverson, his unskittish associate.
Oliver was a freelance zoologist who worked as a consultant for various state and federal conservation agencies. His main interests were reptiles and amphibians—“herps”, he called them—as well as birds and mammals. The ectos were a sideline, something he had fallen into. He sent the parasites to a colleague in Iowa for identification. The results of this research were sometimes published, with Oliver as junior author, in obscure entomological journals.
I knew Oliver from another discipline. Five or six years ago, when I was editing a poetry magazine in Austin, he had appeared at my door one day with a group of remarkably accomplished and strangely moving poems studded with off-the-wall references to natural history, poems that took note of turtle plastrons and pikas and “the piss ritual of copulating porcupines.” He looked much the same now as he had then. He still wore his straight brown hair below his shoulders, and in his field clothes—which included flat-bottomed work boots and an old straw cowboy had that fit his head imperfectly—he managed to violate every precept of wilderness chic.
We kept climbing, heading up into the Chisos Mountains, the park’s heartland. The Chisos are also known as the Ghost Mountains, for Alsate and others, who are still supposed to haunt them, and for their basic demeanor. I was anxious for morning, so I could see them.
I was casually familiar with the region, having camped in the Chinati and Davis mountains and floated down the lower canyons of the Rio Grande in a canoe, but my efforts to visit the park itself had been consistently thwarted. Now I had made it — in January, at the height of the off-season, before the desert bloomed and the weather turned fair and the campgrounds and trails became congested with college students on spring break, with hard-core backpackers, and with the birders who come very spring and summer from all over the world to catch a glimpse of the Colima warbler, a rather ordinary bird that had the distinction of occurring almost nowhere else on earth.
During 1944, the year the park officially opened, there were 1409 visitors. Last year there were about 350,000. It is a popular place, but it exudes a certain gravity that makes it seem less an outdoor playland than a genuine public trust. The people who have been there, or who plan to go, or who simply take comfort in the fact that it exists, speak if it reverently, longingly. For thousands of harried urban dwellers throughout the state it is a recharge zone, someplace pure and resolute, an imaginary ancestral home.
Such reactions to the Big Bend — the despoblado, as the Spanish called it — are modern