Big Bend memories

2007 March 8
tags: ,
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Early tomorrow morning, Brian and I will get in the car and drive west. Destination: Big Bend National Park.

I won’t have internet access while I’m away, but here’s a little something to tide you over. This is an excerpt from some writing I did after Jason and I visited Big Bend in May 2003:

We seemed to be inside some cosmic goblet, hewn from solid rock in forgotten eons past. Ages of neglect had crumbled its proud rim into ruins spectacular and terrible—cliffs, peaks, canyons, spires, and ridges. Time had covered the decaying stone with the thick dust of oaks, pines, and junipers. I could almost believe that mine were the only mortal eyes to behold….

But voices from the neighboring campsite broke my reverie. We had safely reached the Basin Campground and set up camp at site number 41. In addition to a covered picnic table, the site included a bear-proof locker for our food. We soon discovered that we were in the front yard of a family of Cactus Wrens. They were quite unafraid of us and did not hesitate to scold us if we got out of line. They ran around the campsite like miniature roadrunners (as Jason observed) and sang their dry, rocky songs from atop shrubs and boulders. Canyon Towhees also resided nearby, and we saw a few Chipping Sparrows, Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a roadrunner, too.

One of our best finds that afternoon was a beautiful Varied Bunting, who perched at the top of a small snag in the afternoon sun. He was one bird that I hadn’t been able to imagine from pictures in the field guides. Some birds, you know, look just the way you had expected them to look, just like the book. Well, Varied Buntings do not. He had a rusty-maroon nape, a Varied Bunting-blue face, black lores, and an iridescent lavender-rose breast. I tried afterward to think of a description for the blue of his face, but I had never seen anything quite like it before.


To the north, the ground dropped away to the bottom of a gorge; beyond that, a mountain ridge swept up suddenly. Two small sewage lagoons, dimples of precious water, lay at the bottom of the gorge, some fifty feet below us. They had summoned a storm, a whirling flight of Violet-green Swallows and White-throated Swifts. Those living bullets defied gravity and ruled the air with their tiny, powerful wills. They skimmed the water, darted over our heads, wandered through the gorge, and executed exhilarating plunges and swoops. Oh, how we longed to join them.

We left the aerial ballet reluctantly and continued our hike through scrubby grassland, studded with spiky, blue agaves, softer, greener sotols, and small oaks. Before very long, the trail began to descend into a narrowing canyon and mingle with a dry creek bed. This sheltered environment supports taller trees, and the grassland gave way to forest. We saw a brilliant pair of Mexican Jays on the trail ahead of us, but they fled into the underbrush as we approached. Massive walls of red-gold rock drew closer and closer around us.

The path and the creek bed were one as we neared the destination. Huge boulders lay at the bottom of the canyon, and the cliffs rose sheer, close on either side. A few of the bravest plants clung precariously to small ledges and niches far above us, but mostly we saw rock. Warm breezes wafted up from the desert floor. The setting sun made the rich stone glow, and the craggy walls towered to exhilarating heights. It is a sacred place, an ancient place. It defies man’s camera, man’s brushstrokes, and man’s words. It overwhelms eyes and mind as it proclaims transcendence.

Then, the canyon walls drew to within two or three yards of each other, and our path took a ninety-degree turn—straight down. It’s called The Window, a drainage gap in the Chisos Mountains. The rock at our fingertips and under our feet was beautifully, terrifyingly smooth. The only thing between us and a two hundred-foot fall, Jason said, was common sense. We gazed out at a pastel sky, shadowy desert, and distant purple mountains. Looking from one world into another, that’s how it felt, and I belonged in neither.

Though we wanted to stay, to bask in the awe and peace of the place, we had to start back. Camp was two miles away, uphill, and light was fading rapidly. As we turned away and began our ascent, the plaintive, haunting voice of a Canyon Wren sang the sun to sleep and filled our hearts to overflowing.

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One Response
  1. Bob Ranney permalink
    March 19, 2007

    This was a lovely, descriptive article, David, and I enjoyed it very much on a day when I needed the peace. Thank you – Bob

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