If I had one word to describe Big Bend National Park, it would be profound. The landscape seems to stretch to an endless horizon. The vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert is punctuated with layers of mountains and scattered mesas with the winding Rio Grande tying it all together. In other words it is: Desolate. Enchanting. Dramatic. It is the Johnny Cash of National Parks.
I feel like the park had a way of asking me to notice each of its many different forms of beauty. It urged me to notice and appreciate its shouts and its whispers. These are the questions that Big Bend had for me, and that I’d ask you to consider for yourself.
Have you ever driven somewhere so remote that you had to plan out your next fill-up?
Big Bend is famously remote. The closest town is 100 miles away form park headquarters and has 5k residents. Ninety miles out from the park we pulled over at the last intersection to top off our tank. Then we continued into the dark on the featureless, carless road. It’s always an eerie feeling driving to a new place in the middle of nowhere seeing nothing but blackness. Then out of nowhere a giant elk is standing on the shoulder of the road and I almost peed my pants. A few deer sightings, one poor suicidal jack rabbit and two hours later and we cruise into camp at 11 pm to pitch our tent.
Have you ever watched the stars actually twinkle in the sky?
The stellar night sky at Big Bend had the twinkle-meter turned on high. You could even pick out the different red, white and blue tints of the shining stars. I saw seven shootin stars And of course the blury white streak of the milky way was easy to pick out. We’ve seen a lot of phenomenal dark skies in the parks, but Big Bend could be tops (It might tie with equally remote Great Basin or Capitol Reef). Every night we camped was an ideal mixture of remoteness, low humidity, altitude, zero clouds and a new moon. The first few nights we were shooed in by the cold, but then we ended our next day walking the Hot Springs trail. Soaking in a natural hot tub on the edge of the Rio Grand and watching the stars come out is a great way to end any day. The last night I just sat for an hour or so staring up. It was an indescribable feeling of serenity and awe. There were so many stars I started making my own constellations – Praying Mantis, Mini Dripper, Rocking Horse, Super Mario. Astronomers are lucky I wasn’t around in Ancient Greece (or whenever it was they made our constellations).
Unfortunately I have yet to master the night sky photos.
Have you ever experienced a foreign community?
Notice I didn’t say ‘have you ever been to a foreign country’. Big Bend is a unique park because it manages 118 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Even more unique is that there is an official border crossing where visitors can cross the Rio Grande on a rowboat and go a mile (by horse, burro, pickup bed or foot) to a tiny Mexican pueblo of 34 families. Boquillas is a former mining town that that has 2 restaurants, 1 church, 1 clinic, 2 schools, 1 solar field and one widely renown singing Mexican, Victor, who greets you as you cross the river. We walked down the main street and saw it all. It’s a tight-knit community, which happens when you are 3 hours from the next small pueblo. It’s an authentic community, which I know because they served us Margaritas and Mexican beer ;). Our visit was only for the afternoon, but it was long enough to now say I’ve been to Mexico, practice my Spanish and get a glimpse of a Mexican community that lives in the border of a country and of civilization itself.
Have you ever felt your adrenaline pumping from a surprise encounter along the trail?
On our second day we were in the middle of backpacking 12 miles into the Chisos Mountain trails when we ran into guy along the trail (one of very few human encounters over our 2-day hike). But that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was he informed Elizabeth (who was in front) he saw a bear up ahead. He said some other stuff too, but when I asked Elizabeth for the details about his sighting I found out said she hadn’t listened to anything past ‘saw a bear’ (she’s not a fan of bear encounters). We knew Mexican Black Bears had been migrating into the area, but they were supposed to be scarce and mostly hibernating this time of year. Not knowing where or how far to look, I got in front and we proceeded with our antennae way up. We spotted the bear foraging around near the trail when we were about 75 yards away. We slowed down and he ambled off. It wasn’t nearly as the time in Haleakala where a hissing Nene (goose species) chased me away after I got too close to his family. But it’s all about the anticipation.
Can you find him?
Have you ever relied on someone else’s body heat to get you through the night?
Okay, maybe a strange question. But Big Bend was surprisingly cold at night! Especially backpacking in the Chisos, when we were a few thousand feet higher, we couldn’t carry in all our blankets from the car and it dipped into the 20*s. The only way we could manage to sleep was wearing 2 pairs of tights and socks, our jackets, hats, gloves… and making sure we were wrapped tight together in our double sleeping bag and alternating the directions we faced every few hours as the pressure on our shoulders became to painful. It was a great exercise in teamwork, but maybe not one for the company picnic. (As an aside, I’m super excited to be writing this from a hotel bed (7th of the trip) and looking forward to some awesomely restful sleep.)
I’d like to think I listened to the questions Big Bend asked me to ponder. Hopefully I was a good student of the profound and subtle lessons she offered. Just like your phone automatically connects you to a familiar wifi network when you get in the area, I feel like Big Bend connected me with the network of nature. And that’s a pretty cool feeling.
Check out our Big Bend video for more incredible views of the mountain climbs, river kayaking and desert wandering!