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Destination: Texas

Wide-Angle Park on the Rio Grande

Awesome distances and a diversity of wildlife in Big Bend National Park

September 06, 1998|DAVID S. DAVIS | Davis is a freelance writer based in Sloatsburg, N.Y

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — In the small ranching town of Marathon, where Mary Ellen and I stopped to get gas, I couldn't quite shake the impression that Dwight Eisenhower might still be president. A layer of Chihuahuan Desert had settled over the place, seemingly holding time and town in stasis. Inside the gas station, I purchased a quart of oil and a six-pack of soda from an elderly Mexican woman who sat behind the counter watching "Seinfeld." For visitors to Big Bend National Park, located deep in the heart of West Texas, Marathon is a last stop for stocking up on fuel and supplies before the park's northern border.

The Spanish explorers referred to Big Bend as El Despoblado, "the uninhabited land," and driving south on U.S. 385 from Marathon it was 68 desolate miles of bunch grass and creosote bush to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Vast, isolated and supremely beautiful, Big Bend sprawls across an area grander than the state of Rhode Island. Yet despite its size, the park has remained something of a mystery to most Americans. At a time when 5 million people per year crowd into the more popular parks such as Grand Canyon, Big Bend has stayed refreshingly elusive, with fewer than 300,000 visitors annually.

The road to Big Bend follows an old Comanche war trail that led across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and as we approached the park's northern entrance at Persimmon Gap, the washed-out peaks of the Dead Horse Mountains to the east glowed with the captured hues of the dying afternoon. In the orange-and-purple light, the silhouettes of solitary buttes and gnarled rock formations took on monstrous proportions, and the spiny arms of ocotillo and agave plants seemed to reach out to us in a twisted welcome. We'd spent most of the day in the car driving from San Antonio, 400 miles east, and by the time we made the steep, nine-mile climb up Green Gulch into the Chisos Mountains, we were road weary and ready for our sleeping bags.

Below us the road descended into a series of hairpin turns that eventually led into the Chisos Basin and the campground, one of three drive-in camping areas in the park. It's a few hundred feet below the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the park's only indoor accommodation, which began as cabins for Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the '30s and '40s and now includes a motel unit, a lodge and several stone cabins.

But we had planned to camp all along. We found an unoccupied campsite straight away in the 63-site campground, and by headlight set up our tent in just a few minutes. It was the beginning of April, and in the Chisos Basin it was cool and comfortable, in the 70s and 80s during the day, down to the 60s at night.

Mary Ellen grabbed a flashlight and set off for the bathroom, but I soon heard her frantic voice calling from across the campground. I took off to find her pinned into the ladies' room by a Big Bend welcoming party--two frisky javelinas in search of a free meal. With its grizzled coat, stumpy legs and long, pointy snout, the javelina, or collared peccary, looks like a small wild boar but is actually a curious, nearsighted mammal more closely related to tapirs and horses than to wild pigs. The javelina's musky smell is worse than its bite, and these two campground renegades slipped away as soon as I appeared.

That night in our tent we listened to the wind howl through the natural amphitheater created by the Chisos Mountains and the basin floor upon which we slept. We turned restlessly to the sounds of javelinas sniffing just outside our tent and to the yips of mournful coyotes whose calls echoed to us in our dreams from across the desert.

Big Bend is a land of three distinct regions: the Chisos Mountains, the Chihuahuan Desert and the Rio Grande. So diverse are the park's landscapes and life forms that it has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, giving it elite status even among national parks. To get a better sense of the place, the next day we drove leisurely over the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 30-mile route that slopes down the western flank of the Chisos toward Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande. The river traces the park's southern border for 107 miles. We stopped for a short hike down to the abandoned Homer Wilson Ranch, and later pulled into the overlook at Sotol Vista, where one can see the broad alluvial flood plain of the Rio Grande cut like an incongruous ribbon of green across the Chihuahuan Desert.

I'd seen Santa Elena Canyon in the black and white of an Ansel Adams photograph and, fine as that is, it can't compare to the real thing. This we discovered from spending the rest of the afternoon hiking a 1.7-mile trail that fords the mud flats of Terlingua Creek before entering Santa Elena Canyon. Pink and yellow blossoms of cholla and prickly pear cactus adorned the canyon's walls as the trail twined past giant boulders and through shoreline vegetation before ending abruptly where the canyon wall met the Rio Grande.

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