2.27.2008,12:32 PM
Return to Big Bend: Terlingua Time

For all intent and purposes, schedules in Big Bend area are almost impossible to keep. Too much ground to cover, too much to explore, too many temptations to veer from plans, and, most assuredly, not enough time. Unlike my usual approach when traveling, this time I had a list of roads to ride, things to do and see. I realized halfway through the second day that the list and schedules be damned. I relented, as I should have in the beginning, to Terlingua Time.

Visiting the Big Bend area reminds me of living in the woods of Maine: time is dictated not by hands on a clock or digits on a watch. Human-contrived time measured by ascribed units -hours, minutes and seconds- means little in the desert and wild canyons. Nature dictates time: cycles of the moon and circling around the sun, rains, wind, blasting sand, heat and cold, hunger, sleep, thirst and adapting to what surrounds you. Learning to live with it, not fight against it.

Ironically, while watching the blood orange ball of a moon peek and rise over the Chisos one night, I recalled how only a few full moons ago I sat with others near a campfire and watched the moon crawl across the sky. Peeking over the Chisos Mountains to the east, it climbed the sky to hang and throw its light over the desert landscape like an eerie glow casting a spell over everything animate and inanimate. No wonder ancient civilizations equated emanating magical powers with the full light of the moon.

Just as when I lived in the Maine woods, I automatically began to refer to my previous visit there measured by cycles of the moon. Three moons ago I sat enjoying the same view of a Terlingua full moon. In Terlingua Time.

The rising sun and chirping of quails woke me; the desert was coming alive. Morning preparations were basically the same: coffee, food, clean up and get dressed, more coffee, then prepare the bikes. An early departure was planned for this morning because we had a 63-mile ride on blacktop to reach the head of Old Ore Road in the national park.

At the top of my list this trip was one of the several back country roads in Big Bend National Park: Old Ore Road. The 26-mile road runs north-south through some of the most interesting parts of the park. Several miles of the northern section run through Tornillo Flats, a dry river bed in which Tornillo Creek flows, and along the base of several ridges in the Sierra del Carmen mountain range to the east. The ridges closest to the road are named Sierra del Caballo Muerto, Spanish for Dead Horse Mountains. Alto Relex towers over you as you ride along its hem; as if a giant were standing next to you and you want to go by as quietly and softly as you can, respectfully so as not to awaken it.


Looking west the Chisos Mountains interrupt the horizon with their brown jagged peaks. Squat flat mesas protrude above the chalky flats where dinosaurs once walked eons ago when that area was a shallow sea. I tried to imagine what life was like at every stop on Old Ore Road, both prehistoric and historic, natural and cultural.


Parking the bikes, we walked around remains of human habitation at various places. I smiled at the irony that little evidence remains of the hundreds of people that lived near the springs, creeks and river in the park. Despite the rapid destruction by our hands of the more temperate ecology, nature has its own way of erasing our presence there just as quickly. Tit for tat, I hope nature wins in the end. This land speaks loudly of cyclic life and death. It is indeed a museum of both.


The road surface is primitive; rocks, boulders of all shapes and sized, ledge, ruts and holes, washes full of sand and pools of tiny pebbles, cacti and mesquite reaching over the sides of the road. Steep inclines and declines, sudden twists and turns, sometimes hard packed shiny clay. To think that settlers and ranchers traveled these same roads for days, sometimes weeks, to reach their neighbors, the schools and post offices, gathering supplies in the towns once or twice a year. Before them the Apache and Comanches walked and rode along trails in the park on their way to and from Mexico.


At a few points I tried to imagine what it might be like back then. Did they share the wonder and awe that some of us visitors have for the primitiveness, beauty and solitude of the area? Or were they so caught up in surviving and struggling for their livelihood and lives that it was all lost to them, or, at the worst, their enemy? I'll never know except for reading written accounts or recorded oral stories by earlier residents of this land. Yet sometimes, when I stand still and look up at the towering cliffs, the desert flats near the springs, or remnants of old adobes by the river and creeks.......sometimes I can feel them all here and around me. As if their voices and thoughts, their lives are imprinted forever in the stone and sand.

It was riding this road and exploring the landmarks and human-imposed remains that I realized I would never intimately know this place unless I lived here. The revelation that I wanted to live and experience the area permeated my entire psyche. It already knew I was home there; it just took a little while for my consciousness to comprehend.

I know I'm a visitor here; I'll always be a humble guest. But as if I was a starving pauper at a gigantic banquet, I don't think I could ever grow tired of, bored, or be satiated with the feast before my eyes and under my feet. Perhaps that is the advantage of being a visitor and not a native. Seeing and experiencing it all through fresh and new eyes. I hope that readers can see the wonder that I do through my eyes and words; and help preserve it for you and your descendants.



I am the child that stares in amazement and awe, mesmerized by the past, present and future, the untold and recorded stories of struggle and success by river, stone and life. It makes me feel like a newborn child and an old wizened elder; I want to cherish and protect it. Because it is representative of what we are made of and where we came from. It reminds us of what it is to be human.


We all know that places, things and people change over time. Time, often the common denominator of change, is also in flux. Nowhere else as much as in Big Bend is it evident the changing of time over time. The evidence and portrayal of hundreds of millions of years makes our time so inconsequential; yet at the same time, so precious.

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posted by Macrobe
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