Time in the Desert

We drank our instant coffee amidst the snowy seeds coming off the Cottonwoods that give our campsite its name. I started packing up before realizing that for once we were spending more than one night in the same place. We set out for the Chimney Trail before the heat of the day began.

It was a flat walk among the prickly pear, creosote, and yucca, with the volcanic dikes of the chimneys growing larger. Though nothing moved except the occasional bird, the various sized holes in the ground told of critters in their burrows. Scat was all over the trail as well, some sun-bleached to an ashy white, some still fresh enough to attract flies.

After an hour we reached the stone pillars and climbed up to the base, as people have been doing since prehistory. On the sheltered north side of the pillar are ancient painted pictographs and carved petroglyphs.

On the other side, with a tremendous view stretching for miles across the floodplain to Santa Elena Canyon, the linear etchings in the walls and the bowls bored into the floor were evidence that this is were people lived and prepared their food. Sitting where they had sat in the quiet morning I could feel the huge sweep of time and our shared humanity. Humans have spent way more time living like them than living like us. Today we know that these monoliths were created by volcanic magma that filled faults and fissures in other stone, which eroded away over the eons leaving these chimneys in the desert. What did the people who called this place home believe?

It was these thoughts that I carried with me as we returned the way we came. Though the day was overcast and I drank almost half a gallon of water, the dry heat was definitely starting to get to me. Four flat miles would usually be nothing to me, but desert miles aren’t normal miles. A few more and I may have had my own shamanistic experience, or returned to civilization bearing prophecy. Kate almost followed a small hopping bird off trail into the desert, and I was waiting for the yucca to lean over like a Miyazaki character and tell me its secrets.

Dusty, dehydrated, and happy, we made it back to the car and got gas in the park. We spoke to a few fellow travelers and got some recommendations for New Mexico and the next leg of our journey, and shared what we knew about Seminole Canyon and points East. Here’s hoping Steven makes it to the Everglades.

Tired of hiking, we checked out the fossil discovery exhibit. Apparently Big Bend is a paleontologist dreamland, and we saw fossilized remains of prehistoric monsters from when this place was an inland sea prowled by huge dinosaur sharks, a coastal zone walked by Triceratops bigger relatives, a forest prowled by T. Rex, and a volcanic highland roamed by mastodons and saber-toothed tigers. They’ve also found remains of quetzalcoatlus here, the largest flying creature known to ever roam the earth. I was admiring the T. Rex skull when I noticed the huge winged skeleton looming over me, suspended over the exhibition space.

With thousands of years experienced at the Chimneys, and millions of years viewed through the fossils, we came back towards the present by visiting a century old ranch. The windmill still pumps well water, fueling an oasis. Yesterday the turn of the century adobe ruin would have felt old.

And back to geological scales of time. With a little daylight and energy left, we explored a trail down a slot canyon that felt like the perfect setting for an old west ambush. At the end we found the “pour-over,” where flash floods form a waterfall on the rare occasions it rains. The flowing water has carved and polished the mesa exposing layers of sedimentary and volcanic rock. Sometimes space can make me feel small in a comforting way, but my life in relation to the vast expanse of time is much more disquieting for me to confront.

Now, as I write this at night in our tent, a cricket has set up shop somewhere beneath our rain fly. It is driving Kate crazy, and she’s been shaking and smacking the tent while I do my best to ignore it and focus on these words. “Ryan!” she just yelled at me, “come on!” Irritability is an early sign of dehydration.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was responsible for crickets.” I can be a smart ass under any conditions.

“I scared him off of my side, now he’s on your side, so it’s your job.” I hit the tent a few times rather than protest, buying us shrinking amounts of silence with each whack. We were about to bicker about it more when something scurried up to the tent, sniffing. We listened, judging it to be pretty small. The cricket sounded again and there was a burst of movement from our other unseen visitor. A few moments of small crunching sounds, and all was silent. Educated guessing and wishful thinking converged to lead us to believe it could have been a kangaroo rat, Kate’s spirit animal come to guard our peaceful night’s sleep, and in turn our relationship.

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