Big Bend, Day 1

We woke up at dawn on the surprisingly cold and windy ridge over Seminole Canyon and started our long drive to Big Bend National Park. We traced the southern border for hours, passing little besides mesquite, purple sage, cacti, and wire fencing marking the boundaries of ranches. The relatively flat landscape we’d been driving through since Florida gave way to rolling hills, then angular mesas rising out of the desert. We gassed up the Versa in the tiny town of Marathon, grabbed $2 breakfast tacos, and finished the final leg to the park.

Except we weren’t done driving, because like the Everglades, Big Bend is huge. From the entrance we were still nearly fifty miles from our campsite beside the Rio Grande. We stopped about halfway to take a short hike and get a feel for the Chihuahuan desert, and marvel at the Chisos Mountains looming on the horizon.

We got some good hiking in at a natural oasis and also around the sight of an old resort built beside a hot spring bubbling up beside the river. This is my first time in an environment like this and my mind kept calling up images from Westworld and every Cowboy movie I’ve ever seen. Even without these reference points though, the landscape is still a dramatic backdrop.

With Warner Bros. cartoons supplementing the knowledge I’d gained from John Wayne films, I expected the desert to be an empty wasteland, dotted with the occasional cactus or tumbleweed. What we’ve found is a world covered in strange, new plant life. Yes, many of these plants will stab you if you so much as think as getting near them, covering themselves in thorns, spines, serrations, and dagger sharp points to protect their precious moisture from thirsty animals. (Prickly pear, lechuguilla, and sotol all got a piece of us.) But they are also beautiful, and I spent much of our first day wondering at the profusion of wildflowers.

It was definitely interesting to walk along the Rio Grande and see Mexico on the other bank. A state of emergency has been declared, but I’ve rarely seen a place more peaceful. Fate seemed a funny thing standing there; how different life can be if you are born on one side of a river or the other. As if where you were in relation to an imaginary line that keeps moving should mean anything.

As the heat of the day broke, things became a little less peaceful as animals began stirring. We were getting into the car at Boquillas Canyon when I heard a single, questioning chirrup and there was that icon of my childhood: the roadrunner. He gave us a little show, hopping up on a stone, then jogging around the parking lot a bit. We drove back to camp immensely satisfied and got another surprise on our sunset hike, a Mexican beaver busy gnawing away in the pond his kind had made.

At the top of a mesa we watched the sun set beside the Chisos mountains, turning the Sierra del Carmen across the river orange, then red, pink, and purple before ultimately fading away. The moment it did it seemed that the winds rose up and the temperature starting dropping. The hot day gave way to a cold night, and some of the best stars we’ve witnessed on this entire trip.

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