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.
The next morning, I fueled up on coffee and oatmeal and waited for the sun to clear the ridge. Later, upon reaching the shady intersection of Boot and Juniper canyons, I experienced a sense of déjà vu strolling past a cabin next to the trail. I had seen it last time—right? From there, the hike dropped six miles down the eastern flank of the Chisos, where I filtered water from a bubbling spring. I turned from my perch on the ridged and ropey caldera to admire the inverted stone cowboy boot that marks its namesake canyon.
Over the years I’ve taken enough solo adventures—in the West Texas desert, on Rocky Mountain rivers, overseas—that I’m used to traveling alone. I am rarely forlorn. In the quietude of the wilderness, there’s a sense of connection to larger powers, though I am reluctant to name them. Geologists tell us that volcanic extrusion helped shape this corner of Texas, a phenomenon that works as a metaphor for memory: gazing upon the igneous rock below, I felt a few seismic waves of nostalgia remembering my earlier adventures in these parts.
My shoulders ached. John popped into my thoughts, a figment daring me to quit. Then I sniffed a handful of sage and recalled Walter Prescott Webb’s words about Big Bend in 1937. “Men of literature [cannot] confine on the printed page the essential quality of the land, or convey the sense of unreality and romance that overwhelms the spectator and leaves him with a recurrent nostalgia for a land in which he [cannot] live.”
By the third day, following the rock cairns that marked the wash at the bottom of Blue Creek Canyon, I was feeling that unreality. The climb traveled 5.5 miles from Homer Wilson Ranch back into a mountain woodland of oak and pine. Along the way, I passed red spires that looked like the famed hoodoos of Utah; though I knew I’d passed them before, I had no memory of them. I could see the saddle above, an impossible distance away as the trail wrapped around the mountain. A roadrunner zipped ahead and gave me the stink eye. When I finally reached my camp, below the southwest portion of the Rim, ominous clouds were gathering overhead. Hail began pelting my skin; I hastily set up my tent and dove in. A puddle formed in one corner, and I found myself perched on my inflatable sleeping pad like a man on a life raft, hoping to keep my sleeping bag dry. It would be a long night.
The next day, after an easy hike back to the trailhead, I stopped by the visitors center to alert the rangers to my success. I felt a pride of accomplishment that I didn’t recall from my earlier trip; it occurred to me that I am the same fellow who conquered the trail before and yet also a different man. Then again, in the eternal time of the desert, a decade is nothing. The ranger raised an eyebrow. “We don’t seem to have a record of you doing this as a solo trip,” she said. “Good thing you made it out. It could have taken days for somebody to notice and look for you.”
I grinned. There are those who say there is no winning in the wild, only survival. I had blisters on my heels, sunburn on my neck, and dirt in my hair. But I had hoofed it forty miles, with no help, and won. “I’m glad I made it too,” I said.
A Quick Guide to Backcountry Success
The Outer Mountain Loop is usually hiked clockwise. You’ll need to discuss logistics (weather, trail conditions) with a ranger and acquire a backcountry permit ($10). A hiker requires three gallons of water for a three-day hike; store one gallon (per person) uphill from Homer Wilson Ranch to pick up for your last stretch.