4.17.2009,6:13 PM
Big Bend Again: Land Shark

One of the several motivators of this trip was 'window shopping' for property. I use that common cliche because intent was to explore candidates as well as one piece of land in particular, although, not through a window. Nor on a bike.

Thanks to the generosity of a good friend in Terlingua we borrowed a genuine 'Desert Rat Mobile' (Isuzu Amigo) and drove the back roads into the Terlingua desert. The slow but steady pace offered the best way to really explore and study land features, road and terrain conditions, with a 360 degree view by simply turning the head in any direction.

Some of you may recognize the landmarks in the following photos. Despite the several times I've ridden this road, I have missed possibly 50% of everything I saw this time. Unburdened from focusing at least 75% on the road surface, from restrictive gear and dust, it was almost a maiden 'voyage' into this part of the desert. And I loved every nanosecond of it. So much so that the camera remained in its bag for most of the drive. (that, and using it is more frustration than its worth given its dysfunctions).

So, although this is a brief four-wheeled segment of the trip, you might enjoy it anyway. I sure did.

The was the first time I have seen this desert this green. Except for a day trip into Black Gap Wildlife Refuge where the vegetation was progressing into spring sooner, many areas of the desert this time were the greenest I've ever seen. Hidden pockets of vibrant color caught my eyes, such as flowering cacti, and other woody and herbaceous plants.

Cottonwoods reveal moist areas with their almost fluorescent green clouds of leaves. Any observant visitor to the desert learns the 'canaries' of the terrain and it's characteristics: cottonwoods indicate springs, natural tanks, and creeks. There is always water nearby.

Mesquite with their extensive root systems also suggest water presence. Although most common in dry creek beds (arroyos) and alongside water-holding creeks and rivers, their tap roots can reach subsurface water 50 feet below the surface. A large lateral root system 'catches' and absorbs rain water within 6-12 inches below the surface. The delicate foliage adds a bit of colored charm to otherwise black craggy trunks and branches.

Although mesquite is commonly considered a noxious weed, and in many cases it is, it forms a symbiotic relationship in the ecosystem as a 'nurse' shrub for other plants and a protective canopy for animals and birds. Indeed, I flushed a flock of huge quail hiding from the sun while trekking across a ridge. They also provide feed for many animals and were an important dietary source of nitrogen for native Indians and other nomads (some day I'm going to try my hand at grinding the beans -or seeds- for flour; I understand it is good stuff.)

Nearly all the occotillos were in bloom, their red spikes waving in the wind. Some yuccas pushed up their massive spearheads of pink and white blooms. Clumps of pinks blossomed alongside the roads near Terlingua Creek and bunches of tall green and yellow grasses flowed like colored waves across the desert. And the gems: the brilliant large jewels of flowering cacti.

Progressing along the road, we rounded a curve......

......and vistas opened up to a green valley: Terlingua Creek.

We also passed through and by hillsides of tuff, compacted ancient volcanic ash. I love these geologic remnants of a violent history. Ash spewed from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, settling on the ground like snow. The bands of colors form from the rock that it came from and sometimes it looks like a soft polar-fleece blanket with colored stripes on a whitish background. It appears soft and you can almost feel that softness surrounding you as you ride or stand amidst it. A foot placed on its surface slowly sinks into the fluffy dust and I feel as though I've tread on some sacred fairy dust where no man should tread. I try not to walk on it lest I disturb it.

'Way Back When' (late 1880's and early 1900's), most of the land between the Chisos Mountains and through the Terlingua desert - north to Alpine and west to Lajitis- was grazed by cattle. The earlier ranches covered hundreds of thousands of acres. But even later as the large ranches broke up into smaller individual operations, the land was a common ground for their cattle. Unlike Eastern states' ranch management where operations were smaller and grazing land was divided by fences, the tradition of 'frontier' cattle grazing in the West was common range. Animals of several outfits were branded with a recognizable symbol and the cattle ran together on common ground. During round ups, they were herded and separated according to brands, with new calves being indoctrinated into domestication.

Although nearly all of the old ranches are gone now in the southern Big Bend, their lands integrated into both parks, a few signs of their presence remain: fence posts and ubiquitous barbed wire. They can still be found in both parks (the state park still has a small herd) and various places in the Terlingua desert.

During a conversation one night on The Porch with an interesting character from near Ruidosa, a few still run their cattle communally near his ranch. He said they are scraggly and like feral cattle. My sister (an agricultural accountant) asked me recently how viable these ranches are; I wish I could provide an answer. I just don't know, but a few still exist. I hope that some day in the near future I will meet a few of these ranchers and record their history and stories.

We were winding through hillsides and along ravines, sometimes perilously along canyon edges. It seemed as though we had crawled along 20 miles of gravel. Then this appeared...........
and disappeared.

Where did it go????

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posted by Macrobe
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