It turns out I have a lot more to say about cities, architecture and people than I do about nature. This mirrors the division of labor Greta and I have when we go to a natural history museum – I look at the exhibits that involve humans and culture, she looks at the exhibits that are about the natural world. Blog posts that are about places or people take me a lot longer to write – hence the extraordinary backlog on this blog: we are in Bryce Canyon, but the blog is still back in New Orleans. Since my landscape posts are mostly photos and a little narrative I can do them much faster, and in a last attempt to catch up on the blog, I’m going to change my protocol. I’ll continue the sequential posting about cities and people, but I’m going to jump ahead on landscape posts, to catch up with where we are. The Southwest has relatively little architecture and cities, and no friends, so it’s all going to be about landscape and parks, starting with this post about Big Bend.
If you’re driving west from Dallas on I-20, and after about 400 miles you realize you are in the middle of absolutely nowhere in West Texas, just turn left, because only 150 miles to the south is Big Bend National Park. I wondered about Big Bend the same way I’ve always wondered about Austin – is Austin really cool, or is it just cool in comparison to the rest of Texas? Is Big Bend really beautiful, or is it only interesting after you’ve been driving for 500 miles in Texas?
My prior knowledge of Big Bend came solely from watching the movie Boyhood, but it did look cool enough to warrant a side trip. It’s a relatively unknown National Park – they get about 300,000 visitors a year (Zion gets 4 million), because it is so far away from anything, and because it is just too hot to visit for much of the year (the visitors’ center closes in summer). The Big Bend referred to is the big bend in the Rio Grande at the southern tip of the Texas Panhandle, so while you’re in Texas, a lot of the landscape you’re looking at is in Mexico.
You drive across the Chihuahuan Desert, and in the distance are the Chisos Mountains. We got a campsite in the Chisos Basin – you can only get there with a trailer under 20 feet or an RV under 24, as the switchbacks into the Basin are steep and tight. The campground is at 5400 foot elevation, surrounded by mountains over 8000. Here is a photo taken from 6500 feet or so, pointing out our trailer in the campground. The scale is enormous, and it is remarkable to sit at your campsite, looking at beautiful mountains in every direction.
The size restriction keeps out the monster RVs, which inherently changes the types of campers and the social dynamic. There are no people who are bringing their whole house with them (while towing an SUV), and sitting inside watching TV at night. Everyone here has come for the experience of the place, and as the sky darkens (in what is probably one of the least light-polluted parts of the country), everyone sits outside and looks at the stars. We saw stars we’d never seen before. I remembered from books that Orion is a hunter and has a bow, but I’m not sure I’d actually ever clearly seen that bow before.
We also met some lovely people in the Chisos Basin. Patty and Danny, two young retirees (and Patty a refugee from academia) were from the Carolinas, travelling in a small Airstream. They had the site next to ours, and we got to know them after hearing Danny pull out his banjo in the evening. On the Lost Mine Trail one morning, we met another couple from Dallas, and had a running conversation with them as we crossed paths (literally) a few times throughout the day. (We’ve noticed that when they learn that you’re not from Texas, reasonable Texans emit a subtle signal to indicate that they are not crazy like most of the state. If you respond with the secret handshake, you get the inside scoop on life in Texas.) Then there was the couple from California, with whom we turned out to have mutual friends in Eugene. I’ve always been wary of getting old and hanging around mainly with older people, but the older people we’ve been meeting in National Parks have been great. I want to be that 85-year-old slowly climbing that mountain trail.
The trails in the Chisos Mountains and Basin were fantastic, with astounding rock formations and long vistas over the desert.
The desert itself had a range of flora we’d never seen before, and the remnants of 100-year-old ranches and cotton farming settlements (which had been irrigated by the Rio Grande).
But the most spectacular spot is the Santa Elena Canyon. You drive south across the desert towards the Rio Grande, and a 1500-foot tall continuous rock cliff appears off in the distance. As you get close, you notice a notch in the cliff. You leave the car, and walk across the desert that is blazing hot even in February. A short climb up some switchbacks and you are in paradise. The Rio Grande (which is awfully small for such a name) has cut this narrow canyon through the cliff. You can throw a rock into Mexico. You wind along a path for a mile or so until the whole width of the canyon is the river. It is quiet and cool, with lush vegetation (including invasive species such as bamboo). You walk around huge boulders that have fallen from above. The water is a mirror, until broken by a canoe trip gliding past. We strolled there for hours, stopping every few feet to appreciate the different elements in the view.
Finally we had to leave, and we emerged back into the blinding West Texas desert, even hotter than when we had entered. It would be a long way to the next oasis.