Like Putting Socks on a Rooster: A Hike in Big Bend National Park
Words and Photos by Naomi J. Brown
There are a million ways to die in Big Bend National Park in far South Texas. Every living thing evolved to conserve water. Plants and animals stab, snag or bite with sharp fangs. Non-living things don't care either: the sun dehydrates, rocks bend ankles, altitude kills. And blood–yours–is precious as water, a cheap commodity.
Knowing how to read a compass, map, carrying water, food, clothing, and attitude were necessary survival skills. The rest is dumb luck.
Big Bend, a National Park, is a wild, primitive place. There are plants and animals seen nowhere else on Earth. It's worth experiencing. Now.
Hard getting to, a stone's throw to Mexico, it looks like an alien land, something creative Sci-Fi people thought up.
Remote, un-forgiving, wild, un-predictable, yet; evocative of past eons, forgotten landscapes, folklore, cathedral rocks, and dark skies–just the place for a trek.
I spent months preparing for Big Bend, dehydrating food, scheduling dental and medical appointments, training, making arrangements for the dogs, preparing Power of Attorney, studying the terrain, buying special equipment, refreshing my map and compass skills.
Waiting until it cooled to a mere 90 degrees, it was cheaper to fly to El Paso, Texas, then hitch a ride south to the Bend. It was indeed remote. I carefully examined the map. I decided on Santa Elena Canyon, Cattail Falls, Lost Mine Trail, Persimmon Gap, The Pinnacles Lost Canyon, and a Slot canyon.
The Chisos Mountains basin had a small store, flush toilets, cabins built by CCA, and limited essentials. There were NO medical facilities. Humans were on their own.
Perhaps this is a good time to share that I am 70 years old. Even though I'm hiking, biking, and in the outdoors all the time, I am not a spring chicken. Yet, I'm as restless, healthy, and willing as an 18-year-old. Wisdom, stubbornness, deliberate parsimony, and slowness are my only limitations.
Researching and buying light equipment is easier on the joints and is important and necessary.
Before leaving home, I triple-checked my gear. Everything dehydrated, light to carry, necessary. Warm. Cool. Lifesaving. Credit cards, money. Identity and proof of inoculation. Was I forgetting anything?
Deeming it too dangerous for my two rescue dogs, I left my itinerary, P.O. Box, and my will with the dog boarding lady, promised my return, and left for the wild.
It took me two days to get to Big Bend, even though I lived in Houston.
The silence was tangible. Vistas were amazing.
People, heavily tatted, extra tires strapped on 4-wheel drive vehicles. Everyone was very friendly–these were my people. I hiked up Persimmon Gap and Lost Mine, climbing slowly, envious of younger, faster couples, but grateful for my pricey poles. Carefully watching my feet as I made my way up The Pinnacles, I marveled at scenery and ancient petroglyphs.
The sky was the bluest I'd ever seen. Examining plants while resting, all were festooned with spines or very sharp; even rocks were jagged. Clothing was snagged, wool socks had burrs, toes were full of sand. I watched a tarantula make her way across the path.
Staring at a single, bright red ocotillo bloom, I tried to imagine the winged pollinator it needed and considered the fragility natural world. It was grand!
Cattail Falls was on the other side of the desert park. Purposefully purloined to save endangered plants and animals, including rare orchid plants, it was beautiful.
Hitching a ride, it misted, highlighting delicate spider webs. I had rain gear for gear and for myself.
Cattail Falls were awe-inspiring. Reminiscent of Appalachia, there were huge boulders, a high waterfall, soft greenery, and climate harboring exotic plants.
Rocks were slippery, and being prudent, I did not climb the entire Falls. Human words defy the rarity and weirdness.
The next day, I hiked Santa Elena Canyon. Staring at the rock precipice, I marveled at Mexico's proximity, grateful for years studying Spanish. I admired the sandy, shallow Rio Grande, understanding how migrants over the centuries made this their home.
Then I ventured into a damp, shady slot canyon on the other side of the park. If it rained, I was dead. I considered Albee's books.
Big Bend is a wonderful Park. One worth your List.
It's remote, wild, wonderful. Pleasantly un-populated.
Just keep this wild place wild.