Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17, 2009 Beautiful Big Bend

What can I say about Big Bend? I NEVER expected to fall in love like this with Texas. And I never EVER expected to fall in love with the desert! The more you look at it, the more you realize that it is totally alive. Not barren, not scary, not nasty. It is beautiful and magical and filled with the most incredible living things that have managed to figure out the rules and learned to do what they must to endure the heat and cold and lack of moisture. The colors are intense. Rocks change with every minute, as the sun moves and the light changes. You can smell the creosote bushes, the junipers, the acacias and the mesquite. We wind our way to the very base of the Park, very near the Rio Grande, to Rio Grande Village campground. We are "dry camping", which means we have no hookups. We use our own water tank, our propane stoves and heaters, and our propane generator for charging our batteries to have lights at night. I am much more comfortable with this way of living, now ... had practice in Corpus Christi. It is a pain to wait for the coffee maker until 8AM, when we are allowed to start our generator ... next time I won't forget the coffee press!! But the real beauty of this place is the Sierra del Carmen Escarpment that is just over the hill at the base of our campground. It is so beautiful! It glows magenta and purple every evening when the sun goes down, and just doesn't look real. More like something from those good old View master toys I always got a Christmas when I was a kid .... you stick in the round card with the color slides and pull the little lever down while you look at the light. These cliffs are actually in Mexico, but we get to see them for breakfast, lunch and diner from our picnic table.

It is a 30 mile drive to the main Ranger Station and Park Headquarters. That is also the place where we can sometimes get a phone signal in one corner of the parking lot. So ... no phone and no Internet. (Also no TV, because there is a tree over our RV ... and the DirectTV satellite is VERY hard to find in this latitude, anyway. the guys with portable dishes are going nuts trying to pick up a signal! (So much for Mr. Wonderful's fancy schmancy rooftop dish!!)
We spend a day resting and getting settled, than start driving around to places near by. Big Bend is a little over 800,000 acres... the second largest Nat'l Park ... and the least visited. You don't come here by accident! You have to WANT to come here. You have to work to get here. The nearest airport is more than 100 miles away. You don't just jet in for the weekend. But once you come, most are hooked. We have met several people who are in the same situation that Jeff and I are sampling. They travelled around the Country for several years after retirement, and then found an area (or areas) that they really loved. They have settled in to a pattern of volunteering or "work camping" in State or National Parks for several months at a time. Winter in the South, Summer in the North and many of the folks in Big Bend have been coming here for years.

One woman told me that big Bend was like an onion ... you kept discovering layers and layers the longer you were here. We spent 6 days driving and hiking and looking ... and we "experienced" a small part of one quadrant. The Hot springs (real hot springs that you can sit in .. that have been used for thousands of years), Dugout Wells (an abandoned spring that was once a "cultural center" with families, a school and a store), abandoned mines, nature trails where you can come face to face with a mountain lion or a bear!!, areas that teem with birds ... song birds and raptors (hawks, owls, ospreys, falcons, eagles, buzzards), huge cliffs and stretches of desert. And then there is the Rio Grande. Not always GRAND, but a real reminder that we are at the very edge of our country.

Mexico is just a stone's throw. BUT ... there is no legal point of exit or entry WITHIN the park. Presidio to the west, and Del Rio to the east are the two nearest border crossings... each a very long trek. For years and years and years, the town of Boquillas del Carmen welcomed the folks from the US ... and depended on being able to sell their crafts and serve the customers in their restaurants and bars that came over from the Park. They also depended on being able to travel up Rt 118 through the Park and get groceries, work, seek medical treatment, etc. BUT ... one day in 2002, the US decided that the Border had to be closed within the Park boundaries. All the contact was severed. It is now a drive of more than 100 miles to get to a point of entry. The town is disappearing as the people leave to find work, but there are a few who try to sell things illegally to the tourists of the Park.

When you get close to the River, you come across piles of walking sticks made from mesquite or ocotillo ... painted and carved, scorpions and beetles and roadrunners all fashioned from copper wire and beads, necklaces, bracelets, big chunks of amethyst or quartz crystals .... all with price tags and a crudely lettered sign asking for "Donations" for the school children of Boquillas. There will be a jar with a few rocks in the bottom to weight it ... but usually no sign of a person. You learn in the ranger stations that it is "Illegal to purchase anything that has not been legally imported into the US, and a fine can be imposed upon anyone who violates this policy". Now, they sell the same trinkets in the Park stations .... at 3 times the price ... with disclaimers that these things have been brought in through legal channels and the artists are paid fairly for them. Whatever. I think that secretly, the Rangers are sympathetic to the plight of the people in Boquillas, but they have to give the official "line".

One hike we were determined to complete was the one into Boquillas Canyon. Up a fairly steep rise, and then down into the canyon of the Rio Grande. There are great, flat areas of rock where there is evidence of ancient occupation. You can see the holes in the rock that were chipped there by the Indians who used them to pound and grind the acorns, mesquite beans and Juniper berries into flour.

Farther down the canyon, there are people on the other side, waiting with horses or burros. A little boy is calling "Hello!" and singing songs in Spanish. There is the display if walking sticks, hand crafts and crystals ... all with the sign asking for "Donations". Rangers all say they "don't know" how the folks get across to get their money ... I think they just don't look.

The real star is a guy named "Victor". He sits on the top of a large rock along the water and sings in Spanish, song after song. In between songs, he tells you he is the best singer on the river and he will sing songs that make you happy and bring you joy. His grandson is "fishing" in the river in a beat up canoe (he uses a plastic soda bottle to wrap the line around, and something to cast the bait out.)... never too far away and always ready to beat it over to the Mexican side if anyone important comes along ... but always ready to scoop the money out of the jars and collect the goods that are displayed for sale.

victor shouts,"Hey, Amiga! In the red sombrero! (That's me!) I sing a good song for you! What you like to hear?" I ask him to sing me his best song, and he obliges. "You will be very happy! I sing you anything you want to hear!" He has the best stage in the world, and his voice echoes off the incredibly high rock walls of the canyon. He yodels and sings and I put $10 in his coffee can. "Gracias, Amiga!", he says,"You come again to hear me sing." "Gracias, Senor. Vaya con Dios.", says I ... feeling very happy. And we hike back out to our car. One of the better days in my life.

We go to a program one of the Rangers is giving ... "The Night Sky in Big Bend". Cool! Lawn chairs or recliners, blankets to keep warm ... sounds relaxing. We are all gathered in a circle by 7:30 and the sun obligingly goes down. The night gets darker while she is beginning her talk. Venus is so big and bright it is like a floodlight on the neighbor's garage. Orion is wheeling across the sky with Betelgeuse and Rigel, and he is chasing Taurus the Bull with the two dogs Canus Major (with Sirius the Dog Star) and Canus Minor at his heels. (Did you know that Betelgeuse translates to "armpit of the central one"?) The Milky Way is like lace ... and I only remember seeing it like this when I was a very little kid. We can see the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), the Dippers (with Polaris at the tip of the little one), The Gemini twins with Castor and Pollux, Cassiopeia and the Andromeda Galaxy ... a blur of light that only appears when you don't look directly at it. There is no flight path across the Park ... so the things whizzing across the sky in every direction are satellites. My wish on the brightest shooting star I see is obvious ... I want to come back.
Leaving Big Bend is very sad, but I have to remind myself that there is always something unexpectedly delightful around the next corner. I just have to drive there.

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