Trails Through the Desert
Perhaps one of the most intriguing characteristics about the Big Bend area is the terrain: ups, downs, rounds, drop offs, steep cliffs, exciting extreme topology and geology. The typical response when I mention going to the canyons in Texas is a look of bewilderment. Even from some native Texans, "Huh? There are no canyons in Texas! It's all flat."
Texas covers a lot of territory with a large variety of terrain, topography and ecosystems. Even the Panhandle with a reputation of the most flat area in this country has many endearing and interesting features. But the Big Bend area has it all (except for humid coastal): arid desert, temperate oasis in the Chisos Mountains, basins, dry and seasonal creeks, springs, canyons (even hidden slot canyons), and all that is associated with a river -valleys, tributaries, and aquatic life.
It's harsh, extreme, and unforgiving. Yet the juxtaposition of its beauty and sublimity, desolation and harshness, may be what draws us to it. The Beauty and the Beast. And when you are out there, off the ribbons of roads that technology smoothed for our techy boxes of steel (and plastic), you are at its mercy. But remember, the desert gives no mercy. It's us that provides our own mercy.
I remember overhearing a visitor to Big Bend tell her companion, "No human could live here!" I bit my tongue, but I wanted to tell her that people have been living in deserts for eons. The Chihuahuan desert is no exception.
Living in this environment is not easy and many people have come here with their northern and eastern attitudes and technology to dominate it. It may work for awhile, but not for long. No Sun Cities will appear here, no Disneylands or SeaWorlds, no malls or sky scrapers. Even the local resort has never flourished as originally conceived. Most people don't want to live here, many don't even want to visit. It's not the mythical frontier.
Evidence of people living in the Big Bend area is all around. Archeologists have discovered and studied signs of human presence throughout the area. Yet, until the late 1700's, few people set up 'housekeeping' here; there were few settlements. The region was mostly a 'pass through'.
Native peoples on both sides of the river traveled north, south, east and west through the region. They moved across the land to hunt, gather, trade, battle, and flee. The only places where habitation was more than temporary was along the river where crops could be grown and harvested. Even many of these settlements moved on during droughts or periods of raids (by other indigenous peoples and invaders, like the Spaniards).
Like any area of land, movement of life makes trails. Wildlife make paths to water and shade. People make trails for the same reasons, but also to navigate between settlements and hunting or trading grounds. Several trails in the Big Bend region exist with a rich history: Comanche war trails, trading trails, primitive roads for commerce, and now we have roads -primitive and groomed- built with modern technology.
Aren't these one of the draws to Big Bend? The roads. Everyone loves the roads. Driving in luxury cars, hauling in trucks, challenges for 4-WD rigs, peddling mountain bikes, riding street-bikes and playing with dirt bikes. But these roads have history. They weren't there just to play on. They all began as a trail firmed and marked by thousands of feet and hooves. Barely a hundred years ago, heaps of bones piled alongside one stretch of a now modern road near the river. It was once the primary trail used by the Comanche on their raids into Mexico. Many captured cattle died on the drive north and they were left there.
Then, there we were, driving a Desert Rat mobile in the Terlingua Desert. Referring to maps and GPS to guide us, the terrain was getting rough as we went north. So did the roads. I knew from the map we were coming to an arroyo, although I didn't expect the road to disappear. But it did.
The road had hugged the edge of a drop off down into a large wide arroyo. Actually, I think this was a good candidate for a small canyon. And we had to get to the other side.
I could see the road on the other side, but not down in the canyon. It wasn't until the road disappeared that I had a feeling of uncertainty. I buckled my seat belt.
"You've been down this road on your bike, ya know."
Something is different when you are on a bike or in a box on four wheels. I'm not sure what it is, but I buckled my seat belt. I didn't have my helmet to put on........
Gearing down we slowly drove over the crest of the road and the bottom of the canyon filled the windshield. We were going to be eaten, engulfed by a mouth of yellow, beige and green with sharp jagged edges. Maybe that's it: the scene in the long rectangle of a windshield. Peripheral vision is disrupted and what's in front of you cuts off the rest of the world providing information. Maybe that's what a falcon feels like with a leather hood on. Or a horse with blinders on. Except I'm not comforted like they are. I want the entire view of information in front and to the sides. Like when on a bike.
While we crawled up the other side of the canyon, I was craning my neck to see the beautiful adobe house on the cliff that overlooks the canyon. Wow, what an awesome view they must have! Off the grid, the house and occupants appeared to be fully serviced with four large cisterns for rain water catchment, solar panels, propane tank and generator, and a receiver or transmitter on top of a pole (radio?). "Yup, I could live like that." That came out easily because I did for many years, except my gravel drive and road weren't this long.
Passing by below the adobe house, we rounded another canyon where the road was right on the edge for about 75 feet. You don't want to drive off that edge. It's a long way down. On the other edge was a fantastic sight, a showcase of natural terraforming millions of years ago. "Stop!!!" I was compelled to jump out and get some shots of this.
Then the terrain flattened out like a short undulating plain and we concentrated on the maps and GPS looking for a specific landmark. Around a prominent hill was what we were searching for. But, like many places in the desert, distances are deceiving. It was further than it appeared. Finally, we found the turn-off for the land we wanted to explore.
From the base of the hill, I could see the jagged tiara of the Christmas Mountains, flat-topped Santiago, the bowl of Agua Fria, long and towering Blue Ridge and that fairy ring, the tops of the Chisos Mountains. It was a beautiful view. Unfortunately, it was not the tract we were looking for, which was down the road and lower elevation. Most of the view was lost there, but it still had redeeming qualities.
One especially intriguing view was of the two roads snaking up the ridge and lost into the unknown. We had just been on one of those roads.
A shining surface caught my eye to the north and I had to go explore. Walking across the gravel (almost two-track) road and down a hill, I saw a view that knocked my socks off - and my boots. All I could utter was "Whoahhhhhhh.........." A valley fell away below with a canyon slashing through the bottom as if an eagle talon had ripped it open. On the other side off in the distance were several mountains and landmarks I recognized. "I want THIS tract!" I could live here on this ridge. Oh yeah.......
I dragged myself away and we headed back. On the way, hidden under a mequite bush was my first flowering Big Bend cactus. With a resounding "STOP!!!", I jumped out and nearly ran (You don't run in the desert unless you wear steel pants and shoes; instead you pick your way through. Carefully.). The colors of the huge petals stood out against the beige desert floor as if someone had spilled spots of vibrant paint.
Several hours in the desert left me feeling strange as we approached Hwy 170 near the Ghost Town. We were in civilization again. Funny that; how relative it all is. I feel extremely alienated when ever I return north from down there, and now I felt dissociated from Terlingua after being deep in the desert for several hours. I know I could stay out in the deep desert for days at a time if no commitments forced me into town. Then going to the Ghost Town would be like a Sunday drive into civilization. Again, I felt like I was back in Maine, but at the polar opposite of climate and ecosystem. That made me giggle.
After a rest and two bottles of water, Roger, Ed and I spent time at a local establishment for dinner and toddies, visiting with locals and relaxing. As with every evening this trip, we finished it off with a visit to The Porch. And then moseyed up to the Mansion for some shut-eye. Tomorrow would be a busy day.