On the Edge of Texas
The primal landscapes of Big Bend lure the harried city dweller. Where else can he commune with thousand-foot escarpments, magnificent panoramas, and Townsend’s big-eared bats?
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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 luxuries. For centuries it offered little but suffering and frustration. It was a cursed, unfathomable desert country with a single unnavigable river and a confusing welter of isolated mountains formed from the broken linkage of the Rockies and the Sierra del Carmens. It was a great knurl in the landscape that obstructed the natural grain of commerce and habitation.
The present boundaries of the park comprise about 11,000 square miles of this wilderness. The Big Bend is formed by the Rio Grande, where it pivots suddenly northward from its southeasterly course, cutting through a series of magnificent and nearly unapproachable canyons. The river is the southern boundary of the park, which rests securely in the center of its immense crook. On the United States side of the Rio Grande is the northern expanse of the Chihuahuan desert, whose dominance of the park is broken by scattered freestanding mountains with names like Mule Ear Peaks and Cow Heaven Mountains, and by the high bastion of the Chisos range, which rises over 7000 feet above sea level. In the Chisos there are stands of Douglas fir, aspen, and ponderosa pine, stranded there when the lowlands turned to desert; and there are still black bear in the Chisos, too, as well as a shaky population of peregrine falcons.
None of these creatures appeared within the beam of our headlights. We saw another mouse or two, and a flattened kangaroo rat that Oliver did not feel was worth climbing out of the truck into the thirty-degree cold to inspect.
It took us almost an hour to drive from the park entrance to the Basin, which was five thousand feet up in the Chisos. The Basin is the place where most of the park’s amenities are concentrated, a picturesque little aggregate of buildings — lodge, restaurant, store, ranger station, campground, and amphitheater. All of this was closed when we arrived. We could see little more than the glow of the Coke machines and a few lanterns alight in the campground. The campsites were rented on the honor system: one put $2 in an envelope, left the envelope in a receptacle, and then cruised around looking for a vacant site. At most other times of the year we would have had to reserve a site months in advance, but in the dead of winter there was plenty of room. We pulled up to a picnic table, unloaded the truck, and did our best to secure our tent stakes in the rocky ground. Garza and I would be sleeping in my tent, a little green job about as water-repellent as cheesecloth. Garza’s own tent offered better protection, but it was considerably heavier, and since we would be backpacking we had decided to leave it in the truck. Though he had doubts about the wisdom of this plan, Garza remained unruffled. He was the perfect traveling companion: tireless, omnivorous, utterly adaptable to any social or climatic conditions. He did not grow moody or sulk, and did not seem to mind when other people did. He was built like a tree trunk, and in his bearded winter phase he looked compatible with the country, like one of Pancho Villa’s soldiers decked out in hiking knickers.
Once both tents were up, we crawled into them, numb from the cold and from the all-day drive across half of Texas. The wind gusted all night, snapping the fabric taut and shaking droplets of condensation onto my forehead. I was reminded again of how my love of sleeping outdoors was merely a romantic illusion, that in fact I did not sleep outdoors, but rather lay on the ground waiting for morning, occasionally lapsing into a semiconscious state in which I moved about in my sleeping bag like an inchworm until I had found and settled upon the most uncomfortable portion of the immediate terrain.
Garza, of course, dropped off right away. He was a machine. I listened to his light snoring and checked my watch every hour. When it read 7:30 I unzipped the tent flap and drew it back to get my first look at the park. The scenery was extreme, what little of it was visible through the clouds. Then I realized that the clouds were the scenery; we were on their level. They moved through the Basin swiftly and gravely like a dense current, leaving little eddying pockets in the hollows and drainages of the mountains. The sun was not yet up, and the light in the Basin was cold and steely. The peaks themselves, revealed intermittently through the clouds, were monstrous and abrupt. They surrounded us completely, a perfect bowl expect for the one giant chink to the west, a natural drainage known as the Window. The Basin had begun as a great cyst, a dome of bedrock rising beneath the most recent deposits of volcanic ash and sandstone. Erosion undermined the softer rocks in the dome, collapsing the center and leaving a ring of mountains. Some of the mountains were smooth, having been eroded through to the original intrusive rock. Others, like Casa Grande, the most imposing fixture in the Basin, were dominated by blocks of lava that were reminiscent of the temples found on the summits of Central American pyramids.
Oliver and Iverson were awake, looking sadly at their tent, whose rear half had blown down during the night. Next to it stood a century plant, twelve feet high, each branch holding out its withered platelet of flowers. All about the camping area were taut mountaineering tents from which people were beginning now to emerge, bleary and silent, walking to the full-service rest room trailing the untied laces of their hiking boots.
Despite the collapsed tent, Linda Iverson was in high spirits. She stood about braiding her blond hair and looking south to the highest elevation of the Chisos, where we were headed. She was 26, a native of Minnesota who had happened upon Austin and taken up residence there, working for a while as a waitress in a restaurant that specialized in omelets, and then enrolling in the university.
We spent the next few hours taking the tents down and rearranging the loads in our backpacks. The sun finally made it over the mountain rim, and the essentially monochromatic winter landscape was subtly enhanced by its presence. The peaks ringing the Basin were just as imposing in the full sunlight as they had been when they were veiled in the clouds, but they were more accommodating to our perspective. They were closer than I had though and not quite so sheer. I wondered how hard they would be to climb.
We ate breakfast at the restaurant and then browsed in the little gift shop. I bought a half-dozen polished rocks for my daughter and put them in a plastic coin purse that read Big Bend National Park. We made two more stops: at the park store, which featured racks of Harlequin Romances and freeze-dried food; and at the ranger station, where a genial, middle-aged volunteer park ranger in a yellow felt vest gave us a “backcountry permit” that looked like a luggage tag, and admonished us to carry plenty of water, since the springs were dry.
The backcountry we meant to explore was known as the High Chisos Complex, a fourteen-mile loop along a well-maintained trail that would take us along the South Rim of the Chisos. It was a walk that could be made easily enough in a day by a casual hiker, or by a tourist riding up the trail in a train of sure-footed, sleepwalking horses, but we planned to take our time and spend as many as three or four days. Consequently, we were loaded down with water and food. We hoisted our packs in the Basin parking lot and ambled off to find the trail. There were roadrunners on the asphalt, pyrrhuloxia and house finches in yucca plants outside the lodge, and on the fringe of the Basin we saw six or seven mule deer, surprisingly heavy animals with ears the size of a donkey’s.
The trail looped about pleasantly in the foothills for the first mile or so and then grew progressively steeper until it got down to business in a long series of switchbacks. The Basin dropped away all at once, as if it had been jettisoned, and every time I looked back I was astonished at how far we had risen. The mountains across the valley looked sheer, the vegetation sparse and grasping, but the slope we walked on was well-timbered with juniper cedar, piñon, and oak, plus an occasional madrone tree with its strange reddish-orange bark that looked like oxidized metal. I felt the weight of the water in my pack, which was scientifically designed to distribute its tonnage alone some imaginary force field high above the shoulders. I secretly pined for my old Boy Scout Yucca pack, which was secured to a wooden frame with a diamond hitch, whose weight was felt directly and not as a vague, unaccountable sensation, as if some invisible beast were perching on the hiker’s neck.
Every few yards Oliver would crouch down and look off into the brush, at a brown towhee kicking through a pile of leaves, at a nondescript rodent he identified as a Texas antelope ground squirrel, at an acorn woodpecker. “Take a good look at his eye,” he said. “There’s something about that yellow ring around their eyes that makes them look insane.”
We stopped more often as the trail got steeper. Looking down through binoculars I could see the Day-Glo backpacks of a group far below us, but they were the only other people I had seen. We had come two or three miles, but I had given up trying to gauge the distance. I was merely relieved when the trail began to level out, passed over a saddle, and led to a broad mountain meadow carpeted with stipa grass. We walked past a pair of fiberglass outhouses and then veered off into the meadow and dropped our packs in a bower formed by the drooping branches of alligator juniper. Then we took off our shoes and attended to our separate lunches. I watched with revulsion as Garza opened a can labeled Potted Meat Food Product, spread the contents onto two pieces of rumpled white bread, and then proceeded to eat his sandwich with inexplicable pleasure. I opened a can of chicken spread, which was not much more appetizing, and ate a few dried apricots.
After lunch we set up our tents and then followed Oliver around as he laid out a series of small aluminum live traps, baited with peanut butter and rolled oats. Trapping is of course rigidly controlled in the park, and collecting permits of any kind are hard to come by. Oliver was, in his way, a fastidious ecologist. He trapped his animals alive, measured them, checked them for ectos, then released them in the same spot. He worried that this procedure might traumatize the creatures, a concern that would strike most conventional zoologists as eccentric, if not absurd. I had once watched a group of zoology graduate students at work in the field and had been appalled at the slaughter. They set out traps (brand name: Havahart), recovered the small mammals that entered them, injected them with sodium pentathol, eviscerated them, cleaned the carcasses with cornmeal, stuffed them with cotton, and arranged the resulting specimens in a laboratory tray with others of their kind.
“Most people are into this collecting syndrome,” Oliver said. “I’ve had people outright say that my data were no good, that there’s no way you can get the proper identification from a live rat. These guys who go out and kill tend to be descriptive rather than interpretive biologists.”
When the traps were baited and set, we made our way up the slope of Emory Peak, which loomed at the east end of the meadow and whose summit — at 7835 feet — was the highest elevation in the park. There was a cave somewhere in the peak that Oliver had heard about, the maternity colony for the Big Bend long-nosed bat. We worked our way up the steep slope of the mountain, above which sat the stark lava cap, jointed into long parallel blocks that had formed under the heating and cooling effects of Cenozoic weather. Oliver found a group of snails under a dead agave plant, large round striped snails that he arranged on the palm of his hand and stood for a moment admiring. They were named Humboltiana agavophila, for the great German naturalist who had discovered them as well as for their affinity for agave composts.
Oliver replaced the snails and we trudged upward again. The face of the cliff, when we arrived there, looked massive — there were no doubt dozens of caves in the seams of the rock. Oliver set out and in a matter of minutes had found the cave entrance he was looking for, a high vault obscured by brush. Inside, the cave was dry and strikingly angular, made of smooth, collapsed boulders that fit together like masonry. There was a damp, ammonialike smell&mdashguano. Oliver squatted down under a low ceiling and motioned the rest of us forward, with his finger on his lips.
“I’ve found two hibernating Townsend’s big-eared bats,” he whispered, pointing to a furry clump on the ceiling. “I am going to attempt to get some parasites off them while they’re still asleep.”
It struck me as an ominous, eerie statement. “I am going to attempt to drive this stake through the vampire’s heart while he is still asleep.” I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it, but I watched, enthralled, as Oliver reached up and plucked the two bats from their roost in one bare hand.
“Yeah,” he whispered again, looking down almost tenderly at the bats. “They’re hibernating all right. They’re very cold. Feel them.”
I knew that Oliver had been inoculated against rabies. I reminded him that I had not. He said that the Townsend’s big-eared was “not a bad rabies bat.” I reluctantly poked one of the bats with the end of my finger — it was indeed cold — and then wiped the finger on my pants leg.
Iverson crouched nearby, holding a vial for the parasites. The bats were too drowsy to feel fear as Oliver spread their wings and probed around with his forceps, occasionally blowing softly on the fur to expose a mite or a louse. The bats had very long, fibrous ears — like the feelers of a moth — that converged in the center of the face, creating an expression of alien wrath. When hibernating they ordinarily kept one ear retracted, but the more Oliver handled them the more that ear began to rise. By and by the bats shook off sleep and grew active. One of them twisted his neck around, made a strange whining sound like a tiny disengaged motor, and bit Oliver on the finger, which did not distress him in the least.
He was glad to discover two species of parasitic flies, which he held up for our inspection; they looked like pieces of grit caught in his forceps. A moment later he reaplced the two bats on the ceuiling as if he were hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Once their feet were securely rooted to an almost microscopic irregulatrity in the smooth rock, the bats flapped their wings once or twice, cloaked them around their bodies, and then, astonishingly, went back to sleep.
There were more bats farther back in the cave, which rose upward in a series of lofts to another entrance fifty of sixty feet above us. In some places a few square feet of roost accommodated dozens of bats, aroused now and watchful, with both ears extended. None of them were the long-nosed bats that Oliver had held out a faint hope of seeing. He searched the cave floor for a skull or some other evidence of the species’ presence, but then the light outside began to fail he had to give up the effort.
Back in the meadow I lay in the grass, exhausted, studying a hummingbird nest that had been constructed on an agarito branch. The nest was about the size of a plum, perfectly formed and covered with lichen that resembled a ceramic glaze. Up on Emory Peak, the sunlight ebbed and flowed, playing across the surface of the rock.
Emory was William H. Emory, who headed the 1852 U.S. Boundary Survey Team, which made one of the half-dozen forays by engineers and geologists into the Big Bend, attempting to establish roads and trade routes. The region was no more hospitable to them than it had been to the Spanish, who had tried for 250 years to secure their authority along the frontier of Nueva Vicayza. They sent entrada after entrada into the wilderness, searching for gold, souls, slaves, finally for lines of defense against the Apaches. The surveyors met with the same problems — a grave lack of food and water and constant threats from the Indians — and they suffered in the detached way of scientists, sketching their maps and tending their instruments while almost senseless with thirst.
It was the Indians who made the best use of the Big Bend. The Apaches were driven into the region by the Comanches, and the Comanches were in turn driven there by the Americans. Both tribes adapted, learning when the land could be depended upon to sustain life, when the springs were running and the tinajas, the waterholes worn into the bedrock, were full. The Mescalero Apaches traveled with their water stored in thirty-foot lengths of animal intestines that they entwined around their packhorses. They established rancherías — periodic campsites — here in Chisos, in this very meadow. Every year in May, during what they called the Mexican moon, the Comanches would follow the war trail down from the high plains, raiding the Mexican villages on the other side of the river and living primarily on the spoils.
All of that carnage and enterprise seemed now to have faded away, absorbed into the rock. Over these very mountains had swarmed Chisos Indians, Apaches, Comanches, bandits from both sides of the border, prospectors, businessmen, scalp hunters, refugees, Texas Rangers, miners, Pancho Villa, and General Pershing. Now there was the occasional Happy Hiker.
Before dinner the four of us passed around a canteen and a squeeze bottle of biodegradable soap and washed the bat guano off our hands. On my little Svea stove we cooked freeze-dried Chili Mac and made hot chocolate with crunchy dehydrated marshmallows. After that, though it was early, there was little to do but go to sleep. It was very cold, and the sputtering gasoline stove neither warmed us nor drew us into conversation. When we turned off our flashlights the night was complete: there was nothing visible or audible in it. There was simply its presence, the same night that had presided over the Chisos since they had risen through the crust of the earth.
By eight o’clock the next morning the sun was way below Emory Peak, and the wild grass in the meadow was as cold as steel wool. The clouds moved across the peak in droves, or in fast, spritely shreds that reminded me of spirit forms.
In the middle of the field George Oliver was already at work, combing the fur of a yellow-nosed cotton rat with his forceps. “I’d like to find another flea,” he was saying. “It’d be great to find another flea or a louse.”
He discovered his flea after ten minutes of picking over the rodent and inserted it into the vial Iverson held out. He let the rat go, watching for a moment as it scrambled through the grass to its burrow, and moved on to check the next trap, which was also full. “It’s like opening presents on Christmas morning,” he said.
Almost all of the traps were inhabited either by yellow-nosed cotton rats or by harvest and white-ankled mice. Oliver measured each one carefully, writing in his notebook the length of its tail and feet and body, and then checked it over for ectos. The rodents crouched and shivered in his grasp. Some bit him, and others sat still as he parted their fur with his breath.
Oliver was delighted with the traps’ success. He mentioned that his hands were numb from the cold, but otherwise he seemed happily preoccupied. He belonged here. His home in Austin was a minimal, transitory place, a rented house with a mattress on the floor and a few pieces of furniture that no one had bothered to haul to the dump. It was a ranchería, a foraging base.
I wandered about with my binoculars and watched a raucous group of sleek blue Mexican jays. I saw a woodpecker and a wren, some kind of wren. In my secret heart I knew I could not tell one bird from another, or one tree or shrub or flower from another. I required constant tutoring; I needed a course in Remedial Basic Knowledge. Every trip I made into the wilderness seemed to subtract from my already meager store of information. I envied Oliver his field identification skills — “Look! There’s a white-throated swift. Its markings remind me of a killer whale”— because they were so obviously not just skills, but gifts.
I was restless. Even here, on the second day of a recreational camping trip, outfitted and made shamelessly comfortable by a technology that would have stupefied one of those early explorers, I wanted to move on, to cover ground, to get it over with. I fingered the polished stones in my pocket, anxious to take them home. That was my problem: an absurd, pervasive homesickness. I knew I would have to keep one step ahead of this feeling, to outmaneuver and contain it. But to do so was a bother, and seemed out of keeping with the grandeur of this place that I wanted to love and in fact did love. I desperately wanted my emotions to be in pitch with the landscape.
During the morning the temperature dropped steadily. We ate lunch in my tent, and afterward I broke into my store of Del Monte chocolate pudding, the one food item that experience had taught me was absolutely indespensible for wilderness travel. By the time we had gathered up our camp, slung it up on our backs, and headed out the trail for the South Rim, it was three o’clock. It must have been about thirty degrees, and it grew colder with every foot of altitude we gained.
We moved into the clouds, following a canyon where all the trees were covered with frost. Another mile or so after that the trail opened onto a plain where the grass had been worn down into the sod by hundreds of horseshoes and Vibram soles. A few hundred feet farther on, where the plain ended, was the most magnificent sight in Texas. The South Rim is a sheer lava bank that looks out upon what a casual observer might take to be a sizable portion of another planet. I walked up to the rim itself and felt a flourish of wind behind me trying to shove the surface area of my backpack forward as if it were a sail. I took a few steps back and studied the view. The Chisos, the high, self-contained bastion in the center of the park, dropped and then surged outward to meet the desert and a field of remarkable landforms. Far off in the haze was Rio Grande, and I could see the other mountain groups — Punta de la Sierra, Chilicotal, that part of the Sierra del Carmens known as the Dead Horse Mountains — as clearly as the three-dimensional model at park headquarters. The mountains presented a tableau of arrested motion, an everlasting instant of geological time. The ancient rocks rose and subsided like waves; they pulsed with light, and the light itself seemed generated by the power of the wind.
We walked on for another mile or so, following the rim, stopping every now and then to look out at the new perspectives it offered. We made camp in a little grove just off the trail. There was frost everywhere and the wind was intense. Little snowdrifts accumulated in the creases of our clothes. Garza and I put up the tent, and then I tried without success to light the stove in the wind. I was sapped. We climbed into the tent and resolved to wait out the cold. I was wearing my long johns, several layers of clothing, and a bulky coat filled with some miracle synthetic; I was bundled up in my sleeping bag, which was rated to ten degrees above zero; and I was shivering uncontrollably. I had never been this cold. It was growing dark. We would be lying here with out teeth chattering for fourteen hours.
“You know,” Garza said, “I halfway think we ought to walk down tonight.”
I had been halfway thinking the same thing. The Basin was six and a half miles away, a long walk in the dark, but it was mostly downhill. In another few hours we could be sitting in a heated room in the lodge watching television. We considered it for a while and then pulled down the tent and wadded it up inside my backpack. Oliver and Iverson called out from their own tent that they were comfortable enough to wait the cold out, and would meet us in the Basin in a few days.
We got our blood circulating. The trail led out along the rim, then cut into Boot Canyon. It turned dark almost immediately, but we could see well enough with our flashlights to main a good pace. We followed the canyon down to Boot Spring, where there was an empty horse corral and a ranger hut and a few picnic tables, at which we sat and wolfed down some canned goods. Then we started off again, following the contour of the canyon, passing the Boot, a freestanding column of rock whose dark shape was strangely delineated against the night sky. Soon we came upon the steep, never-ending series of switchbacks that led back down to the Basin. We rambled down them, rarely speaking, overcome by monotony and fatigue. We could see the Basin far below us, a grouping of lights that never seemed to come nearer. It was one of those occasions when it was possible to lose all belief in progress, in time itself. I knew I would be walking down this hill forever, and when my feet finally did hit the asphalt I had the feeling I had simply appeared in the Basin in some ghostly form, that my real self was back up on the switchbacks, wandering in the void.
I lay on my back on a little swath of curbside greenery in the parking lot, looking up at the stars and removing pieces of ice from my beard. The lodge was full, so we drove to the campground and set up Garza’s tent, an advanced apparatus that was supported by a cat’s cradle of flexible aluminum poles and was as roomy inside as a pavilion. I lay down in profound weariness, as washed out, as eroded, as the landscape.
In the morning we hobbled up to the restaurant for pancakes. There were only a few people there: toothy, radiant young women in down vests, and their ruddy, bearded companions, with whom they played footsie under the table in hiking boots that weighed five pounds apiece.
All at once the Basin seemed like a metropolis, alive with opportunity. I went into the store and looked at the cans of food displayed there, weirdly fascinated by everything I saw. To get our legs working again we climbed a small mountain, and in the afternoon we drove forty miles west to Santa Elena Canyon, descending all the way through desert, through the very scenery we had viewed from the South Rim. All along the way were strange formations, dikes and rills topped with freestanding rocks like the spine plates of a stegosaurus. There was an area quaintly identified as the “jumble of volcanoes,” a place of low, bone-white hills strewn with nuggets of red volcanic rock that looked as if they had been unloaded there by a dump truck the day before.
Santa Elena Canyon is a deep gorge cut by the Rio Grande through the Mesa de Anguilla, a corridor 1500 feet high that simply stops in its tracks at the junction of the Rio Grande and Terlingua Creek. At this point the river makes a right-angle turn to the Southwest, leaving a great floodplain on the American side.
The mouth of the canyon — with its concrete walkway and observation stanchions — is considered a must-see spot for visitors to the park, but in the middle of the winter few people were there. A hundred yards back into the canyon there was a stunning silence, or rather a stunning suggestion of silence, because I could hear a dim, thrumming sound, a constant tone that might have been a bird call echoing through the canyon or the operating sounds of some faraway piece of machinery. The whole thing was extraordinarily, soporifically peaceful. The river was as calm as the rock walls it reflected.
For the next several days we hung around the Basin, taking our meals there and driving back and forth through the park in the truck. It was as if, after a life of consequence and rigor, we had fallen into a decadent lethargy from which we could not escape. The food in the restaurant was consistently acceptable, and as we sat at our table, staring out the picture windows at the brute scenery, we came to recognize the other regulars. Most of them were retired couples wearing identical quilted jackets or vests with patches obtained at the other stops they had made on the national park circuit. They sat at their tables in comfortable silence, the wives with a look of loving forbearance, an air of humoring their husbands on this vast itinerary, this connect-the-dots odyssey of natural wonders. The windows of their motor homes were covered with decals — Yosemite, Royal Gorge, Mammoth Cave. There was no place for these big, lumbering vehicles in the prevailing backcountry ethic. Hikers came down from the mountains, their blood purified, their spiritual priorities in order, only to encounter the noxious fumes of a Chinook. And yet there was something guileless and credible about these people; they were staking their last years of life on the notion that in these government-certified vistas there was something profoundly worth their attention.
One day we drove east, into a stark low-elevation desert sparsely covered with creosote bushes and agave and candelilla plants. Near the river we took a road that was little more than a jeep trail and followed it north until it deadended on the top of Cuesta Carlota, a low, regular ridge that put me in mind of an earthen dam. On the other side of the cuesta was Ernst Basin, a desert savannah bounded on the east by the Sierra del Carmens. The brush on the basin floor was thick, and there was a barely noticeable trail of greenery running through it.
We walked down on the other side of the ridge, following an unanimated trail that frequently disappeared into the hard alkaline soil, marked only by occasional piles of rock. I was looking for a place I had read about in one of George Oliver’s poems — “Syzygy at Ernst Tinaja.”
M.A. Ernst had been a storekeeper and public official around the turn of the century at the little town of La Noria, a few miles north of here. He was ambushed one day as he rode home on his horse, shot in the back by parties unknown or at least never convicted of the crime. They found him leaning against a Spanish dagger plant, still alive and holding his intestines in place with one hand. He had written a note for his wife, who did not find it until just after he died: “Am shot. . . . First shot hit, two more missed.”
The trail snaked back into a deep canyon that cut through the cuesta to the basin. We followed it toward the desert and came across not one but a series of tinajas, swirling, polished depressions in the limestone that were all but dry. We stopped by the largest of them and watched the water bugs swimming in the few inches of water that remained. Compared to the outright grandeur of Santa Elena Canyon, it was nothing special, but the magic of place is an arbitrary phenomenon — I felt comfortable here, among the bleached, rococo rock forms. I would have liked to stay there all day, but the sun was going down and I was not sure we would be able to find the trail again in the darkness. Still, it was tempting. We were nearing the crepuscular hour, when javelinas would begin to snort and rise from their wallows, ready once more to face the desert gloaming.
That night George Oliver and Linda Iverson walked down from the South Rim and pitched their tent next to ours in the campground. They had had a good time, had climbed to the summit of Emory Peak and had experienced continued success with the traps. No sooner had the two of them touched ground in the Basin than they wanted out again, back into the solitude of the wilderness, back into their natural habitat. We ate some chili and then got into the truck and drove to Grapevine Hills, a weird, haunted region composed of seemingly random piles of soft, scruffy rock. In the darkness we could see the haphazard silhouettes of the formations. It looked as if they would collapse at any moment, but they were obdurate and, to the fleeting perceptions of the creatures who beheld them, timeless. But they were part of it too, at their own pace, part of what the novelist Wallace Stegner calls “the mystery of transitoriness.”
For a moment I felt suddenly displaced, removed from the scene by a new wave of homesickness. It took more of my attention to combat it than I was willing to relinquish. I decided that one way around this intrusive emotion might be to think of Big Bend as home. I did. It worked immediately.
We stood on a bed of sand in the center of the canyon. We were the only people around for twenty miles.
“Maybe I can attract a predator,” George Oliver said. He put the back of his hand up to his mouth and made a sound that he hoped approximated the cries of a small rodent in distress. It was a terrible, high-pitched wailing and squeaking sound. For a long time it had no effect, and Oliver finally put his hand back in his pocket and turned to go.
“Wait!” Iverson whispered. “I think I hear something.”
The four of us stood still and listened. We could hear it faintly now, the sound of a predator moving toward us through the brush.