Saturday, January 8, 2011

Big Bend National Park: Initial Impressions

Seeking mid-winter warmth, I made a pilgrimage to the Rio Grande. If the Colorado is the mother river of never-ending life, the Rio Grande is the father. Having seen its source east of the Continental Divide near Creede, Colorado, I wanted to visit the river at the bottom of the country.  In Big Bend National Park the Rio defines the park boundary and the border between United States and Mexico for 118 miles where the sliding plane of water shifts from flowing southeast to northeast.

Sierra del Carmen, Mexico, across the Rio.
While all roads end at the river, Texas Farm Road 170 winds just above it between Lajitas and Presidio where the canyon-cutting waterway shows off beneath cliffs, bluffs, palisades, and mountains. Most of the River Road is within Big Bend Ranch State Park. Stop in at the Fort Leaton State Historic site (west entrance) or Barton Warnock Visitor Center (east entrance) to inquire about hiking permits and camping. For a short, delightful driving diversion, walk 0.7 mile down Closed Canyon.
I am a woman of the American West.  Now I fancy you can't call yourself a Westerner unless you've been to Texas.  It is the land of All The Pretty Horses, Lonesome Dove, and "True Grit".  Eight hundred and fifty miles from home, 200 miles into the state, I was still in Far West Texas, the mere western reaches of a measureless landscape. Texas gives new meaning to "vast". On lonely roads in the middle of this enormity, I'd raise one casual finger off the wheel when passing locals.  There are many opportunities. "The sun has risen, the sun has set, and here I am in Texas yet."

East into Texas and south into Mexico from the Southeast Rim of the Chisos Mountains.

I hiked extensively for seven days and saw only a minuscule portion of the 801,000 acre park. I'd start early in the morning under solstice light, imploring the sun to power up over the trees.  "Come on.  You can do this!"  Wearing four layers on top, the suffering continued in mittened, finger-nipping chill while the sun insisted on raking low across the sky as meager, dappled, half-tone shafts of light filtered through drooping juniper, Texas madrone, Arizona cypress, Chisos oak, bigtooth maple, and even aspen. While I heard rumors of stalking cougars and bears, I only saw plentiful Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer and a few javelina.

East view from Emory Peak, 7,825', high point in the park; yet another landscape that could gobble up an explorer's lifetime.

The Chisos is a mountain island in a sea of desert. I intended to climb Casa Grande but it must wait for a warmer day.

On Christmas Eve Day I climbed Emory Peak, sharing the lower trail with three Europeans, four Japanese, two from India, three Africans, two Spaniards, two from Poland, and hospitable Texans. Our national parks are international treasures.  Our campgrounds, places of refuge where kids ride bikes, couples drift at night greeting fellow travelers, one is invited for conversation over steaming cups of coffee in the chill light of dawn, and single men are hopeful.  "Please come over for chocolate and tequila.  I've got 12 liters for 14 days!"

Camping in December, I don't care where you are in this country, is all about cold management. Sun falls, the day diminishes and all too soon, vanishes. Darkness drifts down and crowds in.  I leap into the back of my truck at 6:30 and plow down to the bottom of my 30 below bag and settle in for 13 hours of winter night.  At 5,300 feet, space is shot with drifting stars and I measure time by the siderial clock.  By morning my feet are numb.

Enough!  I moved camp down to Rio Grande Village, elevation 1,850 feet, at the eastern edge of the park.  It was slightly warmer and a considerable coyote pack yelped through its yippee yap yowling repertoire all night long. Now I was on the river and in the Chihauhaun desert which extends deep into Mexico.  This is what I came to experience.

Chisos Mountains, Emory Peak, from the campground at Rio Grande Village, evening.

I walked an entire day without seeing a footprint into large-caliber roughlands.  Solitary cactus country, pierced by rare silence, I exhilarated in pure Chihuahuan remoteness. Most days I stayed on the treadway.  It was considered odd indeed to be hiking alone in a place where people find safety in numbers.  There is that side of Big Bend.  Park literature warns of drug runners and robbery.  I kept my valuables on my back or in an unsecured javelina-proof food locker at my camp site rather than in my truck at the trailhead. I felt safe enough.

People commonly canoe or ride horses across the Rio from Mexico into the park. Creosote bushes are in the foreground.

Not a dull-hued desert, even euphedra is carmine tipped.

Purple prickly pear are common.  Lechuguilla is the signature plant of the Chihuahua Desert.

Off-trail once again, I just had to climb the mountain on the right, working my way up through a spheroidal weathered granitescape and cactus obstacles. Oh the cat claw!

Driving home in a massive storm was harsh and exhausting but I got back to Durango in time for a seven degree snowshoe along the Animas River on New Years Eve.

Go to Big Bend.  The flowerscape will be truly amazing in the spring.