4.13.2007,2:48 PM
Black Gap Gasps
Black Gap Gasps
Or “Is that cow mad?!?!?”
(narrated by TexasShadow and her mascot, Wiley)

I was woken from my desert hilltop reverie by a large object crashing down on my stomach and chest. My buddy Zeke had decided it was time to wake up so he flopped himself down knocking the air out of me. Lying on either side of me most of the night he woke me a few times with a deep rumbling growl or an occasional bark. But I didn’t mind. He’s a good guard dog.

A quick survey around me revealed that the sun was creeping over the ridge and the moon was hanging high in the dark sky reluctant to surrender its rein of the heavens and below. Brisk cool air followed on the wingtips of the storm from the previous day and I procrastinated crawling out from the warmth of the sleeping bag. I could have lain there for hours watching the sun chase the moon. But I knew this was opportune light conditions and the show below me on the desert floor and mountains was about to begin.

Pulling on long-johns and three layers of shirts, I resumed my post at the camera and tripod trying to capture the rapidly changing colors, shadows and light all around me.

Colors on the ridges and desert floor changed constantly with the changing light as the sun rose over the ridge behind me. The copper hues were breathtaking:


And I delighted in the slithering shadows across the floor and over the hills, as if they were alive and moving like large ghosts.



I can’t think of another time in my life that offered such a majestic visual journey from twilight to day. It was if the entire world was being reborn and it existed only here, only now, and I was the only human to be granted such an audience. An observer can’t help but smile and control the trembling inside as the world awakens around you with such grandeur.


My coffee-deficient state finally drove me to put the camera away and help pack the Mule for the ride back to the ranch house: it was Black Gap Day. We needed to get on the road.

Reluctantly, I bade the hilltop and everything around me a silent farewell with an intense longing to return that still lingers.


We stopped and explored another abandoned habitat that was built and occupied some time ago. This one was made of solid timbers. I can’t imagine how these timbers were transported there.


And anyone that has a sense of place in deserts, any desert, knows the indicators for water sources. Here in this desert, the most obvious are cottonwoods with their lime green canopy standing stark against the brown, gray and white hues of the surrounding desert.


Returning to the ranch and making a pot of coffee, sandwiches and gathering water together we drove the now familiar desert roads to the highway and away we went: east of Big Bend National Park to Black Gap Wildlife Refuge.

Covering 100,000 acres, the Refuge shares 30 miles of the Rio Grande with Mexico. Two mountain ranges run through the Refuge: Serranias del Burro and Sierra del Carmen Mountain Ranges, which extend south into Mexico. Colliding plates formed these ranges as North America slid over the Pacific and thrust the earth’s crust up resulting in the Rocky Mountains. This upheaval and push of the great mountain range created faults, folds and blocks of mountains nearby resulting in several ranges of which the Sierra del Carmen Range and the Mesa del Anguila (Santa Elena Canyon is a slice through the latter) are examples.

In a wide and dramatic valley, the meandering Rio Grande river separates two countries, the US and Mexico, but the land recognizes no human borders. Nor does the wildlife; they travel freely between the countries by crossing the river. The lowest elevations and the hottest portions of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US are within the refuge area. The river surrounded by what appears as barren desert land creates an oasis here.

This refuge, maintained with a balance of wildlife research and preservation with limited hunting, is one of the last remaining remote and wild areas in the United States. Although still healing from the impact of livestock overgrazing, other human habitation is long gone. Only the remains of old and small adobe buildings are found.

The refuge is very remote and seldom visited. This is where the wild things are. And why I wanted to go.

Hey, hey!!!! My turn!

Okay, Wiley. It’s your turn.

Yea, I don’t like to call it a ‘Wildlife Refuge’. I call it 'Wilderness' because it is just that: wild. Of all the places we went to away from the ranch in the desert, this was more like where the wild things are. Not many humans go there; off the paved road, that is. Only one paved road runs through this area; it goes down to the river. The rest is rocky and sandy, up and down, and HOT! I panted a lot.

Coyote Master and TexasShadow rode in the long box on four-wheels and I rode on the dash. Big Canine Zeke stayed home again, so I was the big canine. Except maybe Shadow; sometimes she growls more than I do. We rode desert roads nearly all day! Saves my paws from those thorns out there.

We had to stop at the headquarters and sign in. Everyone has to do that, or they can get in big trouble. Two trucks were parked there with boats; I think there's a place where they go fishing on the river.

And we saw big four-legged things! Shadow told me they were mules. She said the park rangers may use them for packing stuff in and out of the desert and mountains.


The first thing we noticed is a change in the mountains and plants.


Some of the shrubs and cacti were flowering which made Shadow sneeze. The mountains were mostly like black fins from a giant fish sticking up out of the ground! Shadow told me that the basalt gap behind the headquarters is where the name of the refuge came from. Wow! It was big!



We found some ruins near the river; mostly crumbling adobe walls from old buildings. But no other sign of humans except for another vehicle or two. One was a park ranger; I wanna be his buddy and ride with him!

Wiley, I think you would hitch a ride with anything that rolled on wheels. Now be quiet for a few moments.

We searched for a place to access the river and found a very basic government-issued shelter: a tin roof with one side covered and built over a cement slab. We parked and found a path through the tall green and golden canes that border the river. A bank covered with green grass mowed short by wildlife jutted out from the steep chalky river bank, providing a place to sit and relax.


Randy headed down into the river while Wiley and I went exploring, camera in hand. A tunnel tramped through the river cane beckoned me and I ventured in through for several yards only to find the opening dumped into the river off the bank. The tunnel offered shade from the sun’s heat and muffled noises from around us. I detected the strong scent of musty decaying trampled canes and animals; and I wondered what animals traveled through here. The enclosure and smells reminded me of the forts I used to build with hay when I was growing up on the edge of another albeit much smaller wildlife refuge.


Remembering that bear and cougars roamed this region, I realized I shouldn’t wander too far without a pistol; a camera is not effective self-defense. Turning around and exiting the tunnel I noticed in the distance a large animal in the middle of the river.

Yea, it was big!! And had big horns! Shadow told me that it was a cow and I asked if it was mad. If it was, it might hurt my buddy Coyote Master who was sitting in the river, too. Right in its path! Shadow ducked down and slowly walked forward pointing her camera at the cow-that-might-be-mad. I was getting nervous but Shadow muttered something about she strongly doubted that BSE was an issue there. She knows about this stuff, so I relaxed.

We got closer and closer to the cow, but it was really cautious about anything that moved. And it kept staring at the weird thing in the river, not knowing if it was going to hurt it or not. Shadow got some good pictures of it before it wandered to the bank of the river and went into the really tall canes.

Yes, I did get some good shots of it.


Cows in the deserts of Big Bend have been present for centuries. The Spaniards taking them to settlements in New Mexico first introduced cattle to the area and then the Indians brought them back to the area after raiding settlements. Strays that survived formed the origins of the feral cows seen today. Amazingly, they manage to trick the many predators and calve in that region. The canes probably offer some cover, but their predators are many: cougars, coyotes and even the golden eagles which can easily kill a newborn calf. It’s a tough game of survival there.

We took a break and I wanted to go in the river, too! I thought maybe I could float in Coyote Master’s hat, but he told me it won’t float for long. So I decided to try fishing for awhile.



But all that water made me have to pee, so I found a bush to do my duty.


After that I sat under a bush. Shadow joined me in a bit and I got to sit on her boot while Coyote Master took a nap and dried off.



Shadow and I smelled something like the bottom of the river and we discovered that it was Coyote Master.
*chuckle, snort*
He sat in silt on the bottom of the river and it came out with him! Phew!

Wiley, behave yourself and stop waving your paws around. Or you won’t get a ride next time.

Ooops! I’ll be good.


I rode in style during the exploring with a rear view! I got to ride in Shadow’s back pocket!

I’m sorry, Coyote Master.

His name is ‘Randy’.

You can call him what you want but he’s Coyote Master to me! We’re buddies, right?

I suspect so. He took you for rides on his bike and he found a riding companion for you, remember?

Yeah; that was way cool!
What did we do next? I forgot.

That’s because you fell asleep.

The heat drove us back to the truck where we ate sandwiches and relieved our thirst. Then we began the slow journey back. Navigating the roads in 4-WD most of the duration, the slow speed allowed me to visually explore the area.

Because the lowest part of the desert is in Black Gap, temperatures were significantly higher than what we had experienced the last several days. And plants were ahead in breaking their winter dormancy and flowering.

We stopped by a clump of flowering mesquite for photos. The pendulous spikes were just starting to lengthen and their bright yellow soft flowers sharply contrasted against the grays of the desert floor and angular cliffs, and the black thorny stems of the shrubs.

And you sneezed a lot after that!

Yes, I did. Mesquite pollen is a notorious allergen.


Are you going to tell about the bikes we saw?

Oh, the dual sport bikes? Sure.

As we pulled out of the park entrance, three dual sport bikes pulled in past us. We suspected they were the occupants of the tents we saw set up in a campsite near the headquarters. Both Wiley and I had that wave of excitement run through us as we watched them ride by: we wanted to be on one of them!!

We drove the desert roads back to the ranch in time to grill steaks and steam asparagus for dinner. And then another campfire to lure me to sleep.

And I rode the howling coyote again! Yeeeehaw!!!!

Wiley, go back to sleep…… *sigh*


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