12.30.2012,1:43 PM
One to Remember
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 vine plants.

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 remain.

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 agave.

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 trees.

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 opening.

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

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posted by Macrobe
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