Somewhere, at some time, you might find a glimpse of a fleeting reality
where every triviality, all the daily complexities and demands dissipate
into the air. The old rocks welcome you and remind you that you are
small. Trees and plants of all sizes and colors invite you to look
closely, touch and share their space. You can't see the animals who call
this place their home, but their tracks and sign let you know they play
hide and seek. The child inside that we have too often discarded, or
buried in our own personal dungeons, surfaces and is delighted. And like
a mother wrapping all her children in her big comforting arms, the wild
outside us merges with the innocence of our inner child and the
cautious adult armor we sometimes bear like a cross. We become whole.
It was my birthday. I don't often celebrate or even acknowledge the day,
often forgetting it myself. I sometimes go off on my own and reflect on
the year, my life, the future; then shrug it off and carry on like any
other day. November seems like a month of contradictions for me every
year. So I was born on this day in this month. So were thousands of
other people. It's no big deal. I'm not special.
I'm not big on presents. I don't like the attention because it's not
special and I don't subscribe to obligations of buying and giving
presents dictated by tradition. Presents should be given based on
genuine caring. I only want to do something special: go camping, go to a
movie, go for a long bike ride, do something different. So I did.
I suggested to Ed that we invite Bob and Gloria to go on a day's hike in
the Chisos Basin, something I have not yet done. I chose the Window
Trail because it was relatively short, ~5 mile round trip, with a drop
of 980 feet, and top it off with cobbler and ice cream at the Basin
Lodge restaurant. So we did.
Packing hiking boots, camera, snacks and water on the bikes, we rode up
to the campground in the Basin and struck out on the trail. We were
joined by a new addition to the Trickster family, a large coyote puppet,
compliments of Ed. Indeed, the two of them make a really good team, as
you will see.
After a short but quite steep beginning, the trail began to reveal
cliffs tinged with orange, brown and muted green where lichens form
large patches indicating moisture and shade from the sun. Tall rough
grasses and other interesting plant life begin to dot the typical low
shrubby desert growth of mesquite, prickly pear and creosote. Soon we
see unusually tall yuccas, some with flowering stalks, interspersed with
giant clumps of agave. And I'm constantly distracted by unknown tiny
wildflowers that blast with color and gray-green foliage, or branches of
shrubs I've never seen before.
The trail gradually becomes a winding gravelly path with a moderate
descent. It's easy to keep a comfortable pace in the wide open space.
Soon my attention is directed up and ahead as giant upright boulders
appear, like monstrous flakes of skin shed by the inside of a great
mountain. Grasses hugging the ground begin to give way to shrubs with
gnarled branches and small evergreen leaves. Some small trees have
yellowing leaves stubbornly hanging on and it reminds us that the
temperatures here in this microclimate are very different from those
that we are used to on the warm desert floor. At times we all just stop
and absorb the views around us.
I am attracted to the Chisos Mountains like a food magnet pulls a
starving person. This group of mountains defies the desert stereotype of
drifting sand dunes and absence of life (topic of an essay in
progress). Like the surrounding rugged and angular valleys and dry
arroyos, these mountains were created by a changing landscape: landmass
collisions, continental distentions, and an ancient river basin whose
origins began with mountains that rose far to the northwest.
Unlike in the east and north, the landscapes of mountain ranges in the
Chihuahuan desert are relatively new. Earlier land mass collisions far
to the west caused deposited sediments of an ancient sea to rise and
form the Sierra Madre mountain range along the eastern edge of the
desert in Mexico. More tectonic collisions initiated volcanic activity
for thousands of years, during which the western Sierra Madra mountain
range was formed. This was following by periods of several millions of
years during which the North American continental plate stretched and
distended. The last known period of tectonic loosening (called the Rio
Grande distension) began over five million years ago, and which we are
currently experiencing. The isolated groups of mountains that we know
today, as well as the features associated with the Rio Bravo, were
created during this period. And will continue long after we are gone.
Anyone visiting the southern Big Bend region of Texas associates it with
the Chisos Mountains, an isolated group of stark rock sharply thrusting
upwards out of the northern Chihuahuan desert. This group, and others
like it, are known as 'sky islands', isolated oases surrounded by an
entirely different environment. Because of their often perceived abrupt
change in terrain, they are considered 'islands in a sea of desert'. Yet
even though they are often widely separated by several to hundreds of
miles of hot and dry desert, these islands are cooler, wetter and create
their own ecology, even weather.
The steep slopes of these mountains transform from low elevation desert
to high mountain tops. Along these transitions are
overlapping ecosystems that favor a changing myriad of vegetation. From
the typical hot- and dry-adapted cacti and low scrub brush, vegetation
zones transition to lush zones containing many species of oak and
junipers, then soaring cliffs of pines, finally to clumps of fir and
spruce trees at the top. And, because each sky island is ecologically
isolated, some species of plants and small animals cannot move easily
from one island to the next.
The complex and changing nature of diverse life and its surrounding
geomorphology is what captivates me. Like a child in a new world, I can
spend hours, even days, exploring the small and large rocks, diversity
and richness of wildlife -from lichens and moss to the big predators and
tiny birds. It's a playground for the inquisitive child inside and the
largest field lab for the scientist that was the successor of that
child. This is what I try to do on my birthdays; celebrate that child
and adult because they are connected. And I loved every minute of that
hike, sharing it with people I cared about.
During our hike, our companion coyote demonstrated his trickster self
with the help of Ed's child inside. Coyote traveled most of the hike
cradled on Ed's hand, and often in his folded arms. Because of its size
and surreal resemblance to a small live coyote, most fellow hikers of
all ages reacted to its presence; from surprise, amusement,
entertainment, and, with one adult woman, fear.
Reactions ranged from identification as a small dog, a raccoon, a cat, a
cougar cub, to plain perplexity. Some of the younger children (and an
occasional adult) stopped to stroke its 'fur' as Coyote's mouth 'panted'
and his muzzle 'smiled'. Ed actually became very adept at imitating an
adolescent canine through his arms and hand, down to a wagging tail.
And, of course, we derived immense amusement from the mini puppet shows.
As the trail descends deeper into the Basin floor, we are ringed with
towering cliffs whose colors overlap with yellow, orange, rose and dark
brown. Some of the towering crags are angular rock almost resembling
spikes of geological teeth. Others are giant round boulders as big as a
house. On closer inspection, some of these reveal themselves as huge
amalgamations of different types of rock all fused into one resembling
some giant transparent and complex dead organism. Some have waves as if
the dead organism spasmed while being melded together and belched from
the throat of an angry volcano. Almost a juxtaposition, and an example
of endurance and perseverance of opportunity and adaptation, life grows
in and/or out of these hard geological remnants, finding any pocket or
crevasse to take hold and squeeze out water and food, from moss and
lichens, to succulents to small trees. And we are amazed at how they
thrive even in glazed and fragmented black rock born of fire.
The trail begins to wind and descend into Oak Creek Canyon. The changes
in vegetation are testimony to periods of flowing water and lingering
moisture. Grasses and tens of wildflower species grow alongside the
trail where light penetrates easily. Off the trail, the canyon thickens
with gnarled and intertwining trees and shrubs. As the trail leveled
next to the dry creek, we came around a corner to enter a tunnel of
vines that do as vines do: seek opportunities to twine themselves around
shrub and tree branches, or attach themselves by little vestigial stems,
commonly called 'tendrils.'
One look at the leaves and I knew right away I had found the elusive
'canyon grape'. Fewer vines are found in the Chihuahuan desert than in
the Sonoran desert, which both share a boundary. That is attributed
solely to the evolution of the desert's geomorphology: its mountain
ranges and elevation. Because the Sonoran desert has had a historically
greater influence of tropical climate, due to the Gulf of California,
many of the existing species there are tropical remnants, especially
Conversely, the Chihuahuan desert has been isolated from most tropical
influences because of the long bordering mountain ranges, and is at a
higher elevation. Therefore, it has had a more temperate and cooler
climate history and few plants of pan-tropical neo-tropical origins
However, two vines of note, and my favorite, grow here in the Chihuahuan
desert: Clematis drummondii (Old Man's Beard), found over a wide range
in the Big Bend area; and the canyon grape, Vitis arizonica. The latter
has been a rather elusive plant for me to find here in this area. Until
now. And here it forms a tunnel under which we walked, and I lingered to
relish my discovery. Now if only I can get cuttings, I can root them
and establish plants to cultivate (and eat the grapes!)
The Chisos Basin is home to the most diverse wild collection of agave I
have ever encountered. Probably my most favorite plant of the region,
agaves come in many sizes, shapes and forms, but with similar
characteristics. And they are the most photogenic to me because of their
color, texture and shapes. In the Basin, they grow as big as a child
and even shorter adults. Most of them show the dolphin-like colors and
texture that I love to photograph and touch. Even Coyote likes the
Soon the trail began to descend again and the canyon walls narrowed in
on us. We were now in the Oak Creek Canyon. As I started the decent on
the trail that has been built into the side of the towering orange and
tan cliff, I began to feel small. I must have eaten the one pill that
makes you smaller. Or entered the land of the Hobbits. I felt the kid
inside taking over the rest of me and giving in to wonder and
mouth-dropping awe, and tended to drop behind the rest of my fellow
hikers to wallow in this majesty.
I'm a canyon addict and these canyons always leave me feeling
wonderfully small and insignificant with a primordial pleasure that I'm
sure my caveman ancestors did not share. Or perhaps I share the
spiritual connections of the Navajo, who consider many canyons as sacred
places. The light was just right on this overcast day; no bright blue
sky and light distorting the deep greens of the evergreen oaks and
madrones, or blinding my eyes from bounced light off the canyon walls.
Indeed, the overcast day and light only deepened the mystery and
magnificence of the canyon cliffs towering over the gravel bottom and
If one stopped in their walk to look up at the cliffs, the waves and
fissures in the cliff rock, these grandfathers, would evoke a movement
inside your body that might be hard to resist. But I realized that
others might be waiting for me, so reluctantly I continued on my hike.
Then, rounding the corner of the cliff base revealed
another section of the canyon. Here, a chasm is carved from the creek leaving undulating smooth gray slick rock and small pools of water. A hiker
can hop from rock to rock, but if wet, it could be dangerously
slippery. Sections of steps are tastefully built to aid navigating the
descent closer to the window pour-off.
Soon the steps disappeared at the bottom of another drop-off and small
tinaja in the chasm. The rock surface alongside the bottom reminded me
of gills, whale's gills.
The last quarter of a mile to the window pour-off is slick rock. Here,
thousands of years of rainwater rushing down the creek and through this
canyon have polished the rock baby smooth. It's impressive to feel how
smooth it is. It is also very dangerous to get to close to the Window
There we met a young couple from Russia, and we all took a break to chat and devour a snack.
The pour-off, appropriately named the Window, frames panoramic desert
vistas through a V-slice in the cliff walls, 220 feet above any surface
below. I hope that some time I will be able to see the water falling
through his slice some time.
After resting and marveling at the slickrock canyon, and the views
below, we turned around and made the hike back with discipline. aka, I
did not stop to take any photographs. We all knew that the return hike
was up, up, and a long up. By this time, several hours after we started
with bubbling enthusiasm, we were tiring and looking forward to a late
lunch at the Basin's restaurant.
I was literally dragging my self up that last steep ascent to the
restroom. Where I realized my clothes were drenched with salty sweat
despite the relatively mild and overcast day. Luckily, I had packed a
spare pair of dry socks and I exchanged those on my feet for the wet
sweaty ones and hiking boots. We slowly donned our riding gear and rode
to the Basin. Where we had to wait for 35 minutes for the restaurant to
reopen for dinner (we missed lunch). Outside on the patio, I took a
group photo while we sat and relaxed.
After dinner, I was too full and tired for cobbler. And it was getting
dark. Not really relishing riding down the Basin Road on the DR with a
little flashlight of a headlight, I rode behind Bob and Gloria on his
Motoguzzi, Ed following behind.
It was the best day I have had here thus far, and the best birthday
ever. One I will remember and cherish for a long time to come.
"The world crumbles as it turns into distance; countries become
abstract, and even absurd notions; one simply comes to feel one's own
existence on the planet, in the bosom of what -not without contradiction
and a certain dose of pagan spirituality- we still call Nature." - Enrique Servin Herrera
Labels: Adventures, Big Bend