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.”
In the morning we drive to Rio Grande Village, park the car, and set out on foot along the Boquillas Canyon Trail. You can’t ask a three-year-old to hike too far, even with piggyback rides, and this path is about a mile and a half round-trip overlooking the Rio Grande, with views of majestic cliffs and rocky buttes. As we walk, we hear a man on the other side of the river singing a full-throated version of “Cielito Lindo,” the song’s echoes following us in the winding canyon. On the path we find a small bowl with a note: “Donations for the Singing Mexican—Jesus.” I have to assume his name is Jesús, but it’s possible he is making a different kind of appeal. The kids search nearly in vain for wild creatures, finding only the distant shapes of birds, the whisk of a reptile tail under a rock.
Ford and I climb a steep white sand dune to a dark cave mouth high in the cliff face that looks like it might contain a desperate gang of train robbers. “We are mountain climbers!” my son yells to the hikers a hundred feet below us. “We found a cave!” We watch a group of men across the river trying to capture a loose horse, some on horseback, some on foot, lariats at the ready. The horse is night-black and prances through the shallow river, pursued by the men in unhurried fashion, as if this were all a performance for our benefit alone. Sliding down the dune, we join Stacy and Emerson at the water’s edge and pour the sand out of our shoes, while the singer’s somber tenor continues to echo:
Canta y no llores
Porque cantando se alegran
Cielito lindo, los corazones
Cielito lindo is a term of endearment but literally means “pretty little heaven.” We take off our socks and soak our hot feet in the slow, milky-blue current.
That evening, we walk up the path from our room to the lodge’s restaurant, where we order elk chili and chicken Parmesan for dinner. I had expected dusty rooms, barely potable water, cactus, and pit toilets on this adventure of ours; instead, here I am, sitting on a patio with a cocktail, watching the sun go down over Burro Mesa, the golden light making the rock burn chestnut, copper, salmon, rust. There are white-tailed deer everywhere around the lodge, but they are so tame that even the kids seem to dismiss them as real wildlife. Afterward the two play in a small grassy area littered with stones in front of our room, both of their heads down, Emerson stacking rocks to create cairns and Ford doing a rough version of flint-knapping. Stacy and I drink a glass of wine and have complete silence for at least half an hour.
“But where are the bears? Where are the mountain lions?” our children ask. I try to explain how wild things have sophisticated methods to avoid detection. “But there are bears out there?” Yes, I say, we just don’t know where. Not exactly.
The next day we hike a trail off Old Ore Road to Ernst Tinaja. We walk for about half a mile in a narrow, deeply carved river channel of layered sandstone. The rock walls are contorted and twisted, with exposed synclines and anticlines creating bizarre shapes. There are muddy patches with animal tracks, mostly belonging to javelinas and birds.
I find Ford squatting by a set of large paw prints that definitely look feline. The term tinaja denotes a depression in the rock that holds water, and the water holes at Ernst Tinaja are spring-fed, deep and smooth-walled, brimming with filmy green water. The mountain lion must have come here to get a drink, I say, probably at night. I can tell by the way he looks at me that this boy thinks I know everything there is to know about nature, as if adulthood brings complete, revealed knowledge, like turning over a stone and finding a golden scorpion curled in sleep.
“Can we wait for the lion to come back?” he asks. When I explain that we can’t, he nearly bursts into tears. Instead we climb the crumbling shelves of rock to rest in the shade. Ford and Emerson dribble pebbles into a tinaja, the tinny clattering and splorp into the water reverberating like otherworldly sounds.
On our fourth day, we visit the famous hot springs. It is the one place in the park that feels crowded, as we share the flat trail with families, groups of college students, and European tourists (what is it with Europeans and springs, anyway?). The grassy thicket that surrounds the concrete-box hot tub is trampled and overrun with clothes, towels, picnic supplies, and parents changing babies. The springs would be a nice soak after a day of hiking, if you enjoy being packed cheek by jowl (literally) with stout fellows wearing goatees and wrap-around sunglasses. On the way out, we search for the pictographs still visible among the modern graffiti on the crumbling cliffs. Ford pauses to record the symbols we find, contemporary and ancient, in his journal. The wildlife of the American Southwest.
In the afternoon we hike to Balanced Rock, north of Chisos Basin. By this time Ford and Emerson are seasoned desert hikers, and as we make our way through the area’s surreal rock formations, they prowl off the gravel path, weaving between nests of spiky tree cholla and dagger yucca. The final third of the trail involves some rigorous climbing on pillowy boulders of orange sandstone; at the summit, Stacy and I sit beneath the iconic boulder, chewing on beef jerky as the kids scramble around, playing a game that involves imaginary creatures. Though the breeze is constant, it is a still tableau. A few birds cross the bright sun, crying out to one another. Nobody has mentioned the word “cartoons” or “TV” for four days.
On our last day, we amble down the Window Trail again. White-tailed deer pick among the lechuguilla and sotol on the mountainside, searching for tender greens. Ford points out what looks like a fossilized shell embedded in a rock just off the trail, then takes out his journal to record the find. He and Emerson seem to grasp the idea that natural forces of heat, pressure, wind, and water helped create these landforms. The concept of geologic time is a bit more difficult, as is trying to explain how the sedimentary rock forms along such straight and even lines. Or how nature’s antic geometry creates repeated shapes and symmetry. Why do the pine trees on the hillside grow straight and tall? Why do the mountains rise only to crumble? Why is there an order in nature that survives only at the mercy of chaos? And where are the mountain lions?
Sitting by the trail, I try to tell Ford about how when I was a boy I spent many lonely, important hours by the riverside skipping rocks, how the ditch behind my house was a wizard’s den, how I would lie under the trees in the dark and try to single out the individual in the roaring chorus of cicadas. I tell him that nature teaches us how life is forever and momentary at the same time, like an unbroken loop. I tell him that the wilderness must always be just out of reach, and that we can only put ourselves in the right places and be vigilant. I tell him that he must watch after his little sister and care for her always. “I know this already,” he says. “I know all this.” We leave the fossil where we found it.
The following morning, as we get ready for our departure, Ford pours cereal for Emerson and brushes her hair while she eats, her face ruddy and swollen from five days of mountain air, wind, sun, and near-perpetual astonishment. My beautiful wife drinks her coffee in the doorway, watching peregrine falcons circle high overhead. Or perhaps they are turkey vultures—too far away to tell. A few minutes later, we walk over to the visitors center for the “junior ranger” test, where a kindly, silver-haired ranger gives the kids patches and certificates. I show her the pictures we took of the tracks at Ernst Tinaja, and she agrees that it was likely a mountain lion searching for water.
Emerson stares at the lion statue as the ranger talks. Her white-blond hair is still wild, despite Ford’s brushing, and her eyes are bright as she holds her mother’s hand. A small world of our own, a private chasm of crystalline wonders. Cielito lindo.
“Will we come back?” asks Ford from the backseat when we start our trek across the long flatland to Dallas. Yes, I say. We may have to wait, but we’ll be back.
A Quick Guide to Family Happiness
The Chisos Mountains Lodge is popular, so book well in advance; basic rooms start at $138, stand-alone cabins at $154. There is a market, a visitors center, and a full service restaurant and bar with incredible views (chisosmountains lodge.com, 877-386-4383). Some of the best trails for children include Window View, Window Trail, and Lost Mine Trail, all accessible from the lodge; Boquillas Canyon and Ernst Tinaja are a short drive away. Need that perfect shot for the annual holiday card? Head to Balanced Rock