Sunday, January 09, 2011

Big Bend ~ December 29 ~ Driving and Packing

What with an entire day spent sick in bed and miserable, this trip has been a bit of a disappointment, but still, not completely so. Today I was well enough to drive from one end of the park to another, reading all the exhibit plaques along the way, stopping at all the overlooks. When I start home tomorrow, I’ll go up through part of the park and drive the leg from Panther Junction up to Persimmon Gap, picking up the only leg I’ve missed so far.

Today I felt again a sense of the spirit, the energy of this place. In a swamp, so very many things are alive and teaming that there seems to be a life-force that’s an aggregate of the multitude, that all the interconnected lives breathe an eerie spirit that stirs the murky waters and the Spanish moss. Here the many lives are thin and dry and brittle, and the essence that stirs in the wind whistling over the rock and sand is the breath of the land itself. Here, where the earth has heaved and gasped and bared its bones, its essence seems to pervade one as though it were resonating from the rock itself. One vast entity, not a myriad, a singular minimal power binding the elements together under the thinnest film of animal and vegetable.

Maybe the best part of this trip has been that for once it hasn’t been too cold to go out and enjoy the stars. Just now I packed up everything I didn’t need for the morning and didn’t mind leaving in the car over night, and I sent and loaded it in the trunk. I glanced up and was instantly captivated.

In sneakers without socks and wearing my nightshirt under my jacket and knowing I should really go up to bed to get an early start tomorrow, I found myself instead wandering away from the lights, into the darkness of a gravel sideroad. The desert grasses rustled around me with the wind, with water from hidden sprinklers misting the putting green, with Javelina, who knows? And me, sleepy and still sick, I only wished I could wander farther, leave the human lights altogether, and see only brilliance of the stars.

The stars! How could I have lived so long without picking out Cephus and Scorpio and the Pleiades and Cassiopeia, along with Orion, who moves me to tears whenever I catch a glimpse of him dimly in the city lights. And how do I not know more of them? How have I forgotten? And how long has it been since I actually saw the faint gossamer trace of the Milky Way? Why do I live so far away from where I can see them all? The only thing that’s ever made me want to go honest-to-goodness, middle-of-nowhere, no-shower-no-toilet camping is the idea of a perfect darkness on earth around me so I could see and know the millions of lights above.

My eyes have been turned down to this surface world, and that isn’t a bad thing, but I was touched, moved, almost broken by longing in those brief minutes I spent looking at the stars. I remember I used to do it all the time, when I lived out in the country. I forgot, fortunately, how much I miss it. Tomorrow, back to civilization. Tonight, soon, to bed. But the moment of this trip will be the starlight of tonight.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Big Bend ~ December 28 ~ Sick

One of the worse things that can happen on vacation has happened. I got home last night feeling exhausted (to be expected) and chilled (not quite expected). I took my temperature and found I was running fever. I felt a little sick to my stomach, too. That resolved into hunger at one point, so I ate some bread and cheese. That turned out to be a mistake. I was fevered and nauseated all night and most of today. I’m mostly glad it didn’t hit me on the Ward Spring trail. I only met two people coming back ans I was headed out, and no one on my way back.

I didn’t even make it to the end, to the spring. I’d thought it was just my usual hard time with the thinner air, and the fact that I’m really not very in shape. I’d climbed down and back out of one wash and almost fallen asleep when I stopped to rest. When I saw the next downhill stretch, the tall cottonwood trees around the spring already in sight, I knew I just couldn’t do it. I’d already frightened myself by the nearly drowsing off.

It’s a real danger, hiking by myself. If I’d slept until sundown somehow, I’d have probably still found my way back to the car, since I had a flashlight and the Garmin. But I’m glad I didn’t have to find out, and I’m REALLY glad I didn’t start throwing up out in the Chisos foothills. The ravens perched nearby must have known something, but I disappointed them.

Tired as I was, I didn’t want to quit after Ward Spring. I drove up into the Basin and walked the Window View trail. That one is a sidewalk, pretty much, and I’d have to be pretty badly off to not be able to manage it. Then I stopped at Terlingua Ghost Town, but the inverse sunset on the Chisos wasn’t very dramatic and the porch of the store was pretty crowded. I saw a man in a number 8 Manning Saints jersey, and thought about striking up conversation, but I didn’t feel like it. I came here to be alone, after all. And when I got home, I found myself sick.

So today I’ve been all alone indeed, shut up in my room, away from the mountains and the desert I came here for. And even if I feel well tomorrow, I won’t be doing any more hiking. I should be able to drive and walk a little, which will be nice, but I’m sad to have missed so much of my time here.

I am, at least, feeling mostly better now. I walked around Lajitas some while the sun set. I’ll probably eat some bread and honey in a bit, if I keep feeling hungry. Here’s hoping that doesn’t ruin tonight!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Big Bend ~ December 27 ~ First Day in the Park

I think I’ve done more driving than walking today. I’m definitely a flatlander from below sea level now. A two-mile hike to Burro Spring is worlds away from my two-mile walk to and from work. The sun and breeze and thin air make me so sleepy so fast! I did finally catch a second wind on my way back, after a sit and a drink.

I had just started thinking about how ridiculously soft I am when I heard children’s voices and was passed on the trail by three Suburbans’ worth of people of all ages. ( I saw the trucks when I got back to my car.) One of them, a beautifully-coiffed older woman in pristine and expensive hiking gear asked me with a laugh if it “was worth it?” I didn’t like to say that if she was already tired, after less than half a mile, then probably not. Her family probably wouldn’t have liked me much for that.

After my late start and slow progress, I’m thinking I won’t make it to all three hikes today. Maybe I’ll save the Blue Creek fragment I had planned for some time when I’ve either planned better, or might have more than one vehicle, so I can start in the Basin and go downhill the whole way. That leaves Ward Spring, which has lighter traffic, and which I wanted to do last year, but never managed. It’s almost 1:30pm. I’d better get started if I want to get through the 3.6 mile round trip before dark.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Big Bend ~ December 26 ~ Of Morning Frost and Drowsy Owls

Today’s odyssey began at roughly 6:30am just outside of La Grange, Texas. I packed up my belongings, grabbed the muffins and juice my hosts at the Big Tin Flag bed and breakfast had provided for my dine-while-dashing convenience, and stumbled out the door into the dim pre-dawn light to find my car sparkling with frost. I loaded my bags and breakfast, turned on the defroster, pulled out an old gift card, and scraped away as a dim avian shadow, high in a leafless tree, silhouetted against the brightening horizon, hooted at me sleepily.

With visibility adequately improved, I drove to my grandmother's to launch a brief hunt for my missing sunglasses. An abbreviated search in the dark front rooms revealed nothing, and I didn’t want to turn on lights or hunt in earnest, because two of my cousins were crashed on couches within my search perimeter. I also just didn’t have much time. I dug through the suitcase I stowed last night in my sister’s Tahoe, full of the gear I wouldn’t need for Big Bend, until I came up with my old French Market Jackie O shades. Non-optimal for rugged terrain, but better than nothing. Then I hit the road for real. (I later found the missing shades on the floorboards in front of my passenger seat. Mystery solved.)

I’d forgotten about that time of day, early early, before the sun is quite awake, where every passing instant brings a change to the light, and the world looks completely different after a blink. The dry tawny fields were silver with frost, and as I crossed the Colorado, I caught a glimpse of the pearly wreaths of mist rising from its still-seeming waters. I’ve got my favorite book of all time, Jane Eyre, on my iPod now, and the miles slid by as I listened, driving through fields, past farms, churches, agricultural equipment repair shops, in the strengthening day, racing the sun as it rose.

I made excellent time, in spite of stops in Austin for groceries, Fredericksburg for a snack, and a handful of other towns along Interstates and lesser highways for gas, breaks, and additional supplies, shifting from westward to southward to westward again across the biggest state in the lower forty-eight. (It helps that the speed limit on I-10 is 80 miles per hour out west.) The road seemed to jump over the rolling hills like a kitten running through tall grass, peak around the shoulders of more rugged heights, curve in a long stretch playing with the horizon like a narrow string, then finally sprawl tired and flat for long stretches.

Around 4:15pm, during the golden hour, when the sun droops gracefully toward setting, my heart jumped to my throat as I topped a rise and recognized the Chisos Mountains and Casa Grande Peak ahead. I have so many homes these days, but the few weeks I’ve spent in the park have been so unbelievably rich that this particular horizon has been etched into my heart like the profile of an old love.

I pulled up to my hotel, cut my engine, and opened my car door to absolute silence. No traffic on the nearby roads, no people walking the surrounding gravel paths, no birdsong and not a breath of air to rustle the dry grasses. Just utter stillness for several heartbeats, until I climbed out, swung my door shut, and headed for check in. I’d found my room and was starting to unload my bags when the soft call of an early owl drifted from a nearby grove of scrub, like an echo of the cold central Texas morning I left behind.

I went for a walk after sunset, and remembered how the deepening of twilight mirrors the early dawn in that every blink brings new stars to view. I sprawled out on a park bench on a putting green in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert with the blossoming night all to myself, ignoring the cold for as long as I could just for the joy of seeing six of the seven Pleiades. I’ve been told the seventh sister just cannot be seen by the naked eye these days, but I may try again tomorrow when I’m better prepared to outlast the chill of desert night.

Now I’ve unpacked and am enjoying one of my favorite indulgences: Summer sausage and cream cheese on sesame rice crackers and a glass of sweet red wine. I’m also enjoying the broken and sporadic free wi-fi here in the Badlands portion of the Lajitas Resort. On the agenda for tomorrow: Burro Spring, Ward Spring, and the Blue Creek trail to Cedar Spring. A few relatively short hikes (one to two miles one way) to get me warmed up and to figure out just what I’ll be capable of this year.

On the agenda for tonight, coming soon: sleep.