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Big Bend Birthday

November 1, 2009

Three delightful days soaking in a warm spring, camping at the confluence of two streams in a steep-sided canyon, exploring old mines and ghost towns, and discovering a desert shared by saguaros, blue yuccas and Joshua trees alike. A Thanksgiving feast for the senses!

For my 56th birthday, I realized a fantasy I've entertained as long as I've lived in Tucson: to take that train that pulls out of Tucson around 1:00 in the morning, bound for points east including (almost) Big Bend National Park. The train was two hours late leaving Los Angeles, so by the time we boarded, it was nearly 3:00 a.m. We climbed to the top of the double-decker superliner for a short night in a "roomette" that was a lot smaller than it looked in the photos on the Amtrak web site. There wasn't room to slide a small suitcase — let alone two large backpacks — between the bed and the door. So I shared my bed with the packs while Dennis folded himself into the upper bunk. It was a magical night on the train all the same, with the full moon streaming in the window. And we woke up to a rosy dawn over the desert of southern New Mexico.

Incredibly, the rental car we had negotiated with a tiny garage in Alpine, Texas, was waiting for us at the train station with the keys in the glovebox, as promised. Our plan was to backtrack about 30 miles to Marfa, and spend the night at the Hotel Paisano, where we enjoyed a memorable dinner with our friends during last summer's trip to the Texas Star Party. Dinner at the Paisano did not disappoint, and although we did not see the famous "Marfa Lights", we had a lot of fun speculating on what they might be (either headlights coming over a distant mountain pass, or clouds of steam from Chinati Hot Springs).

The drive south to Big Bend was spectacular, especially watching the high plains fall away to reveal distant blue bumps that gradually resolved into the very tops of the tortured summits of the Chisos Mountains.

We were hoping to follow the Old Maverick backroad to Santa Elena Canyon, but a passing motorist advised against it for low-clearance vehicles. So we continued into the park along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the trailhead for Santa Elena Canyon. Unfortunately, a recent dam release in Mexico had backed up the Rio Grande into Terlingua Creek, burying the trail in one foot of sticky clay.

Retracing our route into the park, we stopped to tour the ghost town and former general store at Castellan, and photographed the full moon balanced like a big white beach ball on the tip of Emory Peak from Sotol Vista. At Burro Mesa, we hiked the lower pouroff trail just before sunset. Signs of major flooding in the recent past made for lots of false starts, but we eventually followed the wash to a dry waterfall about 90 feet tall. On the return trip, I got a two-raven flyover in honor of my birthday!

By then it was almost dark, so we followed the twisting road high into the Chisos Basin to our home for the night: a CCC-era cabin with a killer sunset view of the v-shaped window at the top of Oak Canyon. We had planned to hike the Window Trail the following day, but at breakfast we learned about another trail to a permanent waterfall that's not shown on park maps. It turned out to be a pefect choice, leading across the desert about one-half mile before dropping into an oasis where a Mexican oak with a canopy at least 50 feet wide provides a welcome respite beside a bubbling stream. From Oak Creek, the trail rounds a sotol-studded ridge and continues about another half-mile to an enormous wash, comparable to the largest washes in Organ Pipe. Here the trail turns inland along the lip of the wash, eventually disappearing into a tangle of small trees and shrubs. The waterfall is hidden in a recess at the top of the canyon, with a clear black pool at its base. We later learned that these two small springs provide 100% of the water for the Chisos Basin lodge and campground.

Since it was still early, we decided to explore the other side of the park, climbing to Panther Junction and then falling ever so slowly 2000 feet in 23 miles to the Rio Grande. This road provides the best perspective on this remarkable region, which rivals the Grand Canyon for sheer drama, and reveals the Chisos Mountains as giant red massif with absolutely vertical strata rising 6000 feet above a very, very big bend in the river. Across the Rio Grande, the banded cliffs of Boquillas Canyon were glowing like a mirage.

Almost out of time now, we decided to explore the rough backroad that provides the quickest access to Boquillas Hot Springs. I have fond memories of the hot springs from my first trip to the area in 2000, but the shoreline has been badly damaged by a recent flood. Where I recall a sandy footpath between the reeds at the water's edge, today there's a dusty swath where a caterpillar has smashed its way through the flood debris, flattening everything within 20 feet. But the hot springs was still there, on the site of the old resort, although this time the river was so high that it was lapping at the edges of the retaining wall.

We had imagined we'd have time for one more hike the following morning, but of course counting backwards we realized that we could only manage breakfast and the drive back to Alpine. Two days isn't nearly enough time to explore Big Bend. We had to whittle down our short list of hikes from more than 47 enticing possibilities. At least we could look forward to a great train ride back to Tucson. The evening's entertainment was watching a fiery sunset from the dome car. And just before the oversized moon ignited the opposite horizon, a giant meteor came crashing down, the biggest one I've ever seen, and it seemed to take forever to disappear. Mother Nature deserves a standing ovation.