Friday, March 28, 2008

Spring Was About to Leap

Spring blossoms had only just begun coming out when we were in Big Bend. We were there too early for the Dagger Yucca, although as we left at the end of our week, there were a few down in the desert that were beginning to push up spears. So we figured that we were too early for any spring color.

Yet as we looked closely at the ground beside our feet, we saw wild asters hidden beneath the blades of dry desert grasses.
photo of wile asters beneath dry grass
And here and there we saw lavender blossoms of what looked like a verbena.
photo of lavender blossoms like verbena
And there were other purple and yellow flowers that we couldn't identify,
photo of a purple flower we couldn't identify photo of a yellow flower we couldn't identify photo of a yellow flower we couldn't identify
and red berry-like proto-blossoms on the Evergreen Sumac that was everywhere.
photo of evergreen sumac blossom
And as the days passed, the red blossom-spikes began to appear at the end of the dry, stabby stalks of the Ocotillo.
photo of ocotillo blossom

So even though a casual look around you made it seem a bit like winter, when you looked more closely it was clear that spring was about to leap.

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 Thursday, March 27, 2008

What Happened to our Plans

We had grand plans for that first full day in the Basin. And of course, in putting it that way I've already given away the story. Whatever...

We had grand plans that involved a hike in the morning, a return to comfortable Room 215 for rest and lunch and another hike in the afternoon. We figured that two small hikes would break in our mountain legs without too much blunt force trauma. That was the plan.

In the event, however, we stayed cozy in our beds long into the morning. And we had a leisurely morning with hot, steamy showers and fried eggs and toast and butter and four-berry jelly. By the time we got our hiking boots on and got out to the trail head, it was 11:00am sharp.

The sun was at our backs, rising over the igneous peaks of Casa Grande as we made our way down the switchbacks into the heart of the Basin. The sky was blue. The air was cool. Our bellies were full. Our grand plans were already doomed, and yet you wouldn't have been able to tell it from the smiles on our faces. We were headed to The Window.

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 Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We Had A Plan for the Day

Now it must be said that this trip was the sole accomplishment of the fair and industrious Trudy. It was just about a year ago that she looked into it and got reservations at the lodge. And it was she who assembled the hike books and the geology books. And it was she who, before we left, actually did homework into which hikes were just right for the three of us.

So here we were on the morning of our first full day at Big Bend. We had taken hot showers and laid out our hiking boots. The camera was sitting ready to go. And our packs were packed with water and snacks. The electric skillet was plugged in, and eggs were frying, and toast was toasting, and butter and jelly were set out on the counter.

Then Trudy came in from outside where the sky was blue and the sun was shining and the air was cool and fresh. She had a smile on her face. She was holding the "Hiking Big Bend" book.

It's just the beginning of the week, she said, and I'm already feeling like we don't have enough time.

Time? We had lots of time. This was just the beginning of our week. Besides, the sky was blue and the sun was shining, and we had a plan for the day.

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 Monday, March 24, 2008

Big and Bright

After dinner on our first night in the Basin, we walked the Basin Loop trail, a short little hike that we figured was a fair warmup for the week ahead.

As we walked beneath the Oak and Pine and Juniper and Sotol and Agave and Evergreen Sumac that line the mountains there, the sun passed beyond Ward Mountain. Evening began to descend, even as an hour or two of daylight remained in the desert just to the west of the peaks.

Later, from outside our room, we watched the line of the shadow of the earth work its way up the pink face of Casa Grande as shadows began to deepen around us. We sat outside reading at evening passed into night and as the deep blue sky turned black.

And what a black sky it was. The Pleiades shined brightly, each one of the sisters plain to see. And Orion shouted down at us with his scabbard skirting the edge of the Milky Way. Blacker than black, that sky was, with the chalky smear of our galaxy passing in a great arc overhead.

We don't see enough of that in the city, where only the brightest stars shine in a pink glow of pseudo-night and the Milky Way is something kids only learn about in books. But deep in the heart of Texas (ok, south of that a bit), the skies are indeed big and bright, and there kids and anyone else can look up and see the sights that certainly must have started it all.

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 Friday, March 21, 2008

The Persimmon Gap Draw

The book said to walk back along the road until you come to a draw. Neither Trudy nor I remembered crossing one, but Ben did, and sure enough just 30 yards from the parking lot we found it — a dry, stony wash running under the road thru three large corrugated culverts.

Follow the wash the East until it splits, the book said. Then go left and walk until you come to a dry waterfall.

After the first split there was another split and then another. And at each, the rightmost path seemed to run to the hills (where one would expect a waterfall to be) and the leftmost veered north into the flats. But Trudy had the map, and against our doubts and protestations she led us into the flats.

The wash was littered with stones and pebbles of every color: red, green, maroon, white, brown, yellow, chocolate, black. Each step revealed another treasure and another question, for as you picked up a smooth yellow rock, you'd gaze around and wonder where in this world of Cretaceous limestone it came from.

Don't ask, Trudy said. Even geologists can't explain what happened here.

Gradually, the wash turned east, and hills began to climb out of the rolling desert. At this point, Ben wandered out of the creek bed along a rising ridge running north. We continued to the east, periodically looking back to mark his progress up the ridge.

As the wash wound its way into ever-growing hills, validating Trudy's hunch, the banks of the wash grew from slight mounds to ten-foot scrambles to high hills. We found ourselves in a different world as the creek turned left then right and the hills grew taller. Far to our left, we could periodically see Ben in his bright red shirt standing on a higher ridge, waiting to catch our eyes, waving at us as we turned to look.

Then we found the waterfall — 70 feet of sheer rock. To the right, a crude path split off from the wash and climbed the hills, taking us up and around the waterfall. And beyond it we soon came to another dry waterfall — a pour-off with layers of orange and black rock and a surface that was weathering green. This one was scalable, so we scrambled up and over, reassured by the cairns that appeared from time to time.

We were in a shallow canyon, and Ben's ridge was now hidden. After looking back periodically and seeing no red shirt or waving kid, I began to think that it was time to turn back. Trudy agreed, but felt our objective was near — a panoramic vista looking down into the plains to the north.

We walked over one rise and then another, still following a path with cairns periodically piled alongside. And still there were more rises ahead. And still Ben's ridge was hidden.

Just over the next ridge, I mumbled, thinking that this is just how a poor lost soul might walk forever in a desert convinced that an oasis was soon to come. But just then, the sloping plateau came to an end, and a window looking north and easterly opened up before us. The flats were laid out before us, under a stunning blue sky. In the distance, hills and other mountains rose up from the desert floor.

But I didn't absorb this view. I had instead visions of twisted ankles or broken bones dancing in my head. I turned to look for Ben.

And as I turned around, there he was, far in the distance on top of the ridge he had long ago begun to ascend, waving a dry Yucca stalk trying to get our attention. He saw me turn and waited for me to respond. I waved back and then turned to look at the view before us. And then maybe Trudy and I spoke, but I can't be sure, because Ben's red shirt seemed very small on that distant ridge.

He waved again and waited, as if to ask if he should come our way. I waved him over to us, and he started to descend the east face of his ridge, carefully choosing his way between Ocotillo, Sotol, Yucca and Prickly Pear.

Trudy started back, but I wanted to stay in sight of Ben, so we agreed on a meeting point back along the creek. The going was slow for Ben, due to the density of pokey things, but he made progress down the hill, periodically disappearing behind the several ridges between us. I climbed higher, so that he could keep me in sight, and I sat down to wait.

He disappeared from sight behind another ridge. And I sat there nervously waiting. And then there he was on the top. Then he disappeared behind the next ridge. And I sat there nervously waiting. And there he was again, his red shirt shining in the sun, surprisingly closer for the distance that seemed to separate us. Then he was gone again. And then there he was, shouting Yoo hoo! to get my attention. Then there we were the two of us, working back in the direction of Trudy's creek.

You missed quite a view, I said to him.

Missed it!? he said. And he pointed to the tall peak that lay just north of the ridge he had been ascending. I could see it all from up there!

As stunning as our vista of the plains was, I suspect that from that peak, he felt like he was on top of the world. And unlike my nervous memories of our stunning view, I bet he remembers his.

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Arriving at Big Bend

Trudy read to us as we ventured south from Fort Stockton on the road thru Marathon and beyond. She spoke of shallow Cretaceous seas and hard, white Ouachita limestone. She told us about continents in collision and pointed to flatirons heaved out of the ground at steep angles.

Eventually, Trudy grew silent, closed the geology book and set it in her lap. There was nothing more to read. There was plenty more to see. We drove though Persimmon Gap and with that had arrived at the northern boundary of Big Bend National Park.

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 Thursday, March 20, 2008

West Texas Windmills

Driving west from Austin to Fort Stockton, as you leave the Hill Country behind, the land gradually flattens out, and the Oak and Juniper get shorter and sparser until you're driving in a very straight line for a very long time.

Years ago, the drive took an eternity, but the speed limit then was 55 and now it is 80. You can cover a lot of ground in remarkably little time at 80 miles per hour. Objects in the side view mirror get smaller even faster than they normally do. The arid scrub and the flat-topped mesas go screaming by.

And then you come to this place, out in the middle of nowhere, where there used to be only more scrub and only more mesas. You come to this place and you think you've passed into a science fiction movie.

For here on the flat mesa-tops, lined up in rows, extending as far as you can see, are windmills. Not Aermotors pumping water into cisterns. No. These are brand new and as tall as skyscrapers, shining white in the sun, topped with immense three-bladed propellers, each the length of an oversized semi-truck.

One after another, shoulder to shoulder, they stand at the cliff edges capturing the wind, turning in synchrony. One after another, shoulder to shoulder, as far as you can see, marching into the distance until you lose sight of the propellers and the towers are but small spikes on the tops of distant hills.

On the way to Big Bend.

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 Tuesday, March 18, 2008


He was smoking beef ribs on the tailgate of his new, white Ford pickup truck. He was there when we left in search of dinner. And he was there when we got back.

I go by Chuck, he said, as we introduced ourselves. He was turning his ribs just a few more times. They were almost ready.

We stood there for a while talking about things. He told us how he had fashioned his smoker from a propane tank using a welding torch to cut it in half[*]. He was particularly proud of the little chimney he had added to the side.

And he told us about his job pulling windmill towers to the top of the mesas on the south side of the Interstate just east of town.

I drive a big KW, he said, and the thing is, I get a whole day's pay and only put 10-15 miles on it each day.

He though it was funny to be able to work a whole day and cover so little distance.

Trudy offered him a cold Corona Lite. He said no thanks and turned his ribs again and said, Just about ready.

In the hotel parking lot.
Fort Stockton, Texas

[*] Washing it out with soapy water first, of course.

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A Morning Departure in Our Usual Way

The night before we left for Big Bend, Ben asked if our morning departure would be late in the morning as is our usual way. I chuckled and said, No, we're packing everything tonite.

But there were two work things I needed to finish before I could pack my stuff, and of course it took forever to finish them. Near midnight, I was still not packed. Ben's suitcase, however, was sitting by the door in the living room ready for that early morning departure.

Early morning came.

I still needed to pack. We needed to finish packing our food. And eight days worth of stuff needed to be crammed into the car (which turned out to be quite a feat even though we were staying at the lodge and wouldn't be camping).

Early morning went.

We left just after noon — a morning departure in our usual way.

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 Sunday, March 16, 2008

Canyon Wren Song

There were blue skies. There was sun. There were the stiff canyon winds blowing thru the Pinyon Pines. There were blossoms just starting to bud. And there were the Canyon Wrens.

On every trail. At every switchback. On the cliffs. In the trees. In the Chisos Mountains or on the Rio Grande river. Nearby or far away. That cascading trill was with us every day.

If I could keep only one memory from our time in Big Bend, it would be that song.

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 Thursday, March 6, 2008

Pigs and Books and Letters

I treated myself to a splurge today, the first of its kind in a long time: a hamburger ... and fries. As I was walking to the car afterwards (in the drizzle and plummeting temperatures), I found myself wondering if I were to write a list of my favorite things, what it might contain.

I should compose that list, I thought. Maybe it would say something lasting about me, something more meaningful anyway than the rants or musings that often occupy these pages. It wasn't a morbid thought, mind you, just the kind of thing that you sometimes think when you write words down regularly.

What might that list contain?

When I was in fifth grade, the year from which I begin the reckoning of my adulthood oddly enough, we went to a farm. I remember nothing of that trip except for the pig pen. The piglets were small, pink and squealed incessantly, and they let us hold them. As they passed me my shrieking bundle of joy, it immediately went silent, closed its eyes and went to sleep. Shelly looked up. He'll make a good daddy, she said.

That's what my list would contain at the top: a boy sitting in his father's lap, the two of them reading a book, the boy absolutely focused on the pages, on the words of the story and on the turning of each page. The list would include other things, of course, but that would be one of two items at the top.

This morning, I ran into a YouTube video of a boy and a man. It brought me to tears. It's exactly what I had in mind.

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 Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What Do You Do?

What do you do when the night's so deep and the light's so dark and the silence so quiet that you can hear the beating of your heart as it thumps so hard that you can feel it in your throat? While the city has gone to bed and everybody sleeps but you, what do you do? When your eyes won't close and the thoughts won't stop when they should because it's late and it's dark and it's night and it's time to sleep but you can't, what do you do? Turning first one way then the other, flipping off the covers because you're hot and then pulling them back because of the cold night air, what do you do? You should be tired, but you're not, but you are, so just what on earth do you do?

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 Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Beginning and End of the Day

At the beginning of the day in the morning, I stood outside. The chill of the night was receding, and the shine of the sun against my back made me warm. The branches of the trees were lit in golden yellow by the rising sun in the east. My shadow stretched completely across the yard, reaching to the street from the place where I stood watching the boy walk off to school.

At the end of the day in the afternoon, I stood outside again. It had been warm, although I couldn't go into details with a friend from the north on the phone. The branches of the trees were lit in golden yellow by the setting sun in the west. A red Cardinal sat in the still-bare branches of the Ash tree singing not the musical Cardinal song that they sing but rather the high "chit" that they also do.

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 Monday, March 3, 2008

On Barton Creek

After breakfast tacos at a picnic table beneath some Live Oak trees, we crossed the street to the trail head and walked down the hill to where a path goes one way downstream and the other way up. We took the one way as having perhaps the better claim since I'd never trodden there and Trudy wanted to.

We walked for a while on the path and then climbed down the bank out into the full light of day and walked on the white, round stones that sometimes make the clear water rush and churn. Here and there were still pools where a spring must still run even though the creek hasn't for many months.

When we stopped to listen, we could hear Cardinals in the forest and the falling trill of a Canyon Wren, first on one side of us then on the other. And overhead once or twice we heard the cry of a hawk and saw it circling in the warm spring breeze. And sometimes we heard voices from the trees and could see people on the shaded path walking one way or the other, always oblivious to us out there on the stones.

Last night it rained and this morning, too. It came down slowly for a while and hard for a while, sometimes running around the corner of the house in a minor torrent. It has stopped now, and the ground is soft to walk on. But the sky is grey, and with any luck we'll get some more before the day is thru. We'll need it if the creek is to rush and churn this spring, and time is running out.

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