About the time I was coming down with my severe case of wanderlust this summer, I started tuning back in to our National Parks. As I said previously, I was pretty enamored with these destinations as a child. I remember a big beautiful book I had full of big, glossy photos, and how I would look at it and dream of visiting those (mostly) far off places.
I do not, however, remember dreaming about Big Bend during that time. The park has actually been largely out of my consciousness. I think I finally started noticing it after following their Facebook page this summer (along with about every other national park and monument around). The photos I began to see called longingly to me – I had to go and experience this wild, beautiful swath of west Texas!
So, for the past couple of months, I tried to devise a location to stay nearby, a route that made sense to drive me near, or any way I could make my way to Big Bend. Nothing seemed to make logical sense. The fact of the matter is, Big Bend isn’t close to anything or on your way anywhere. If you want to visit Big Bend, you just have to visit Big Bend.
After weeks of overanalyzing the decision, I booked three nights at the lodge in the Chisos Basin in the middle of the park. If I was to visit this wondrous place, I would do it right.
I was to stay in the park Tuesday to Friday, but Monday, the anticipation got the better of me. It would be a seven-hour drive from Austin, and I hated the thought of losing a whole day to driving. I found a cheap place to stay in Fort Stockton, two hours from my final destination, and got a head start.
Tuesday, I arrived at the park around 10 a.m. At first, it didn’t seem all that different than some of the other amazing places I’ve seen recently. It was a beautiful desert with some mountains. When I hiked down to Hot Springs, I started to see some of the magic in the lush green vegetation along the banks of this desert river. I also saw the first signs of clandestine border crossings, with various Mexican souvenirs set out adjacent to a container in which to leave your money.
I followed the river to the east to Rio Grande Village, along to where it enters Boquillas Canyon. I hiked up the beginning of the trail to where the river enters the canyon and stood gazing down at Mexico on the other side. There were men in cowboy hats wrangling horses, and dogs joyously scampering around. It was all very picturesque, and it entertained me for quite a while. I finally continued on the hike toward the canyon, but – I’m going to admit something here – I started to get scared.
I had passed a couple more spots displaying Mexican crafts, and I just started to feel unnerved. Where were the people who were peddling these items? There was no money in any of the jars, so either no one was buying or someone was watching and collecting. When you are by yourself, that thought is a little bit creepy, and unfortunately, it ruined my hike.
A little upset with myself, I left. Sure, it was extremely likely that the people who were selling the crafts were the nicest people you would ever meet... but what if they weren’t? Where is the line between believing that others are generally good (which I do, truly, believe) and being irresponsible? As I have felt at other times, I was also slightly angry at having to feel this way more than a man would. Yes, I carry a knife, but it’s hard to know how a confrontation would end.
I tried to shake off my disappointment and pointed the car toward the Chisos Mountains, a volcanic island in the middle of the park. It is believed that these mountains were formed through a series of eruptions a long, long time ago. The low point in the midst of them is called the Chisos Basin, and this is the location of the Inn I would call “home” for the next three nights.
The rooms are a bit dated, but my view was phenomenal. I enjoyed a nice hike down toward the “Window,” an opening in the mountains that frames the desert below. Soon my bad feelings had found their way right out of that window. In fact, they burnt up into one of the most phenomenal sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.
Wednesday, I set off for the western part of the park, stopping at various vistas and formations along the way to Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande spectacularly emerges from between two towering cliffs. There were no Mexican crafts to be seen here, probably owing to the much more rugged terrain on the other side of the border.
I hiked up into the canyon and descended into a cool, shady, and verdant green oasis along the riverbanks. The trail went as far as nature allowed, when the embankment butted up against the sheer walls of the canyon.
From there, I adventured down Old Maverick Road, a bumpy, sometimes nearly washed out gravel road that showed me some park backcountry. Badlands, brick red cliffs, and a swift coyote greeted me.
I took a deep breath and started up the Lost Mine Trail on Thursday. I was a little anxious, as I had noted that this trail was closed due to high bear activity right up until my visit. However, none of my Big Bend adventures had included the park’s mountain terrain, and I hated to leave without experiencing the forested green elevations of the Chisos Mountains. My mind was definitely set at ease by the number of hikers I had seen at this location the days before. I would not be alone there, that was for sure.
It quickly became obvious why I would not be alone on this trail. I feel sad for those who visited during the closure, because it was spectacularly beautiful. I felt like I took a hundred photos of the same vista, because each angle was more breathtaking than the next. The cloudy mist below only added to the magical beauty, and when I reached the top – oh, when I reached the top! Boom! Wow! Fantastic!
The other pleasurable part of this trail was the opportunity to converse with other travelers. There’s something about our national parks that I believe to be the “great leveler.” Maybe we should all head out to a park and become a better nation, because I had some great conversations on my way up, up up, at the top, and on my way down, down, down. How can you not be of one mind when you are sharing something so beautiful, so spectacular, so life affirming? It certainly brought me back firmly into my belief in the good of others.
The Lost Mine Trail was undoubtedly the highlight of my Big Bend adventure. I easily conquered Grapevine Hills Trail that afternoon, and ate some terrible canned soup (I have decided that all canned soup is horrible!) on my balcony that evening, sated nonetheless.
Nine hours of driving behind me, Friday night I was back in Austin. Yes, I blew my budget a bit with the Big Bend excursion, but no, I wouldn’t take it back for anything.