Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 104-110 Big Bend National Park, TX

2 Comments

January 10-16, 2013

The morning after the unexpected snowstorm was sunny. The snowfall was quickly compacting and melting, the thick blanket of white dwindling into a lacy, fragile covering. Moisture dripped from every roof, creating thin waterfalls. After a morning of tasks and errands In Alpine, we were on the road to Big Bend again.

The hills, mountains and mesas were awash in white. For a few miles we race a train running parallel to the road. Eventually the snow was left behind and the landscape turned to shades of brown. As we approached Big Bend, geological features of all configurations arose: sharp peaks, tall bluffs, flat-topped mountains, craggy outcroppings. The air was mild, though windy.

Just before the park entrance we passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint (our third of this trip). The officers were friendly and asked us basic questions, where are you from? Are you United States’ citizens? The canine member of the team and her human partner walked slowly around the truck. We thought we might have to open the back but the dog sensed no problems and we were given the go ahead to continue. It is unsettling to be scrutinized by men and women with guns.

From the variety of campgrounds in the park, we chose Rio Grande Village. Because of its low elevation, it was likely to be the warmest. The Rio Grande River was a short walk from our campsite. We were in a pleasant spot surrounded by mesquite trees in the “No Generators” section (something we later wished that all parks had). We pulled out all our bedding – sleeping bags, pillows, foam pads – which had become wet from the previous days’ precipitation. The wooden platform of the sleeping shelf was quite damp as well. We had an unidentified leak that was at its worst when driving in rain. Everything was draped over picnic table, grills, chairs and the “bear box.”

We find out that the bear box  – a large free-standing locking metal storage cabinet – was there to protect food from javelinas, not bears. Javelinas, or collared peccaries, are pig-like omnivores that live in small groups of 5-20 called bands. The park recommends that you do not keep any food in tents as the javelinas will shred them to get in. They will attempt to kill dogs. The information is accompanied by a photo showing several successful javelinas nonchalantly peering out of a large tent. During our stay my only encounter with them is sighting a band roaming at dusk at the far end of the campground.

Soon after arriving, the cold I caught from Chris reached full force. He was on the mend while I became increasingly overtaken by nose blowing, coughing and vague malaise. Some details of our stay in Big Bend have been lost in the haze of illness and fatigue.

Small campground scavengers are common; they are usually birds like jays and ravens, or rodents. Here the two parties most interested in our crumbs were a male cardinal and a golden-fronted woodpecker (a new bird for me); they became colorful companions during our stay. The birds visited regularly, flying from branch to branch, apparently very curious about our activities. This gave me ample opportunity to photograph them.  Also, twice, a roadrunner casually walked through our campsite seemingly unconcerned by our presence. When I saw a roadrunner standing by tall dried grass, his exquisite camouflage became obvious.

It was here in Big Bend that I learned that Texas is a tremendous birding state and that winter is good opportunity to see unique birds. I consider myself a half-assed birder (otherwise I would have known about birds in Texas already), with inconsistent knowledge and an erratic drive to find and see birds. But my latent fanaticism was beginning to be awakened. A few weeks later Chris would say about The Big Trip, “I didn’t know this was going to be a birding trip!” Neither did it.

The first few days were warm. I attached my hammock for the first time in six weeks, stretching out and gently swaying in the balmy air. Ahhhhh . . . . I also displayed my Tibetan prayers flags, draping them across the thorny mesquite trees. We separated the camper from the truck, letting it stand alone on its four jacks and allowing us to come and go in the truck without disturbing our living area.

Some days I was well enough for short hikes. A trail nearby led to vistas of the river, the park and Mexico. On the way was a boardwalk passing turtles, fish and a lonely pied-billed grebe through marsh and reeds. On the dry ground, many species of cacti made their home here. During one hike, I saw a completely unfamiliar plant, an attractive deep green rosette of fern-like fronds about 10-inches across. It was resurrection moss. In dry conditions it curls up into a dead-looking clenched fist of brown twigs. But within hours of a rainfall, the plant unfurls miraculously becoming green and lush again.

Along trails we frequently saw small collections of hand-made crafts with donation jars placed by enterprising Mexicans; these included scorpions and other desert inhabitants created from twisted wire as well as painted wooden walking sticks. From one hilltop we could see the Mexican town of Boquillas Del Carmen. Below us a Mexican cowboy crossed the Rio Grande on horseback, much like they have been doing since the Spanish arrived.

There were warnings against crossing the border (the river) or buying anything from Mexicans who came in the park (illegally). The National Park rather diplomatically said that in the past, people went back and forth freely but now political and economic issues had changed that.

Later, I discovered that the border crossing was eliminated after 9/11. This devastated the town of Bosquillas who depended almost entirely on tourist trade from Big Bend. Less than a third of the residents remained after ten years. In 2011, the park announced plans to reopen the legal crossing with a ferry but this has yet to happen.

The rain and snow that we had experienced on our way to Big Bend was now flooding the Rio Grande. It was roiling: turbulent and opaque, the color of a latte, complete with froth. The natural hot springs on the banks of the river north of the campground was temporarily obliterated under the high waters. After several days, the river receded and the springs resurfaced. The hot waters seep through the sand into the crumbled foundation of a long gone resort building, one of the remnants of the resort ghost town there. When we arrived at the hot springs, we joined another couple already soaking. Chatting, we discover the woman had practiced Zen at The Upaya Center in Santa Fe. Her partner, an ex-cop, asks me questions about meditation. They were motorcycling around Texas seeking warmth like everyone else.

I’d also hoped to do some kayaking. Many long stretches of the Rio Grande are usually so slow that paddlers can easily go upstream as well as down. But now it was dangerously swollen and fast. By the time the waters calmed down enough for kayaking, the weather had turned sharply colder and I lost interest in boating. Our last morning was 14 degrees, quite cold for this low altitude in southern Texas near the Mexican border. We’d hoped to fill our water tank but the park faucet was frozen.

I was due in San Antonio to catch a flight to New Orleans to teach a retreat for the weekend. There was still much of the park we hadn’t seen but we left with the hope of returning some day.

This gallery contains 34 photos

DAYS 102-103 Marfa and Alpine, TX

Leave a comment

January 8-9, 2013

UNSOLVED MYSTERIES
From Aquirre Springs we planned to take two days to get to Big Bend National Park in southern west Texas. As we approached El Paso, we stopped for coffee and to search online for a possible camping place midway there. Checking the helpful website, freecampsites.net, I discovered the perfect spot. The Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Station! You can stay for the night for free in the parking lot (just like Walmart) and there are even bathrooms. What could be better than a night with unexplained phenomema?!

The sun set when we are still sixty miles from Marfa. The desert and sky turned opaque with few lights to penetrate the surrounding darkness. I was looking down at something (probably my iPhone), when Chris cries, “Did you see that!?” No, what did you see? Dumbfounded, he claimed that we drove past a small, almost miniature, lit-up storefront displaying high-heeled shoes. Huh? This is truly a remote area, no towns, no gas stations, no houses, just a vast plain of flat desert. I couldn’t imagine what he actually saw. High heels?

The answer is as weird (in a good way) as it looked. We find out later that it was an art installation constructed in 2005, called “Prada Marfa”. Prada shoes and purses are in a mock store in the middle of far west Texas, an area more commonly hosting cattle ranches, armadillos and BBQs. (See more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prada_Marfa) My only regret is that we didn’t stop and go back so I could see it.

Farther along Route 90 we see a contained brightly lit area ahead on our right. Its isolation in the darkness is strange. Chris speculates that it is a prison; a good guess I think. Closer, we see a large circle of intense yellow lights shining inward onto a huge object at its center. It is some kind of ship or blimp, but not your average Goodyear blimp. Glowing yellow from the lights, it has the shape of a bulbous cartoon bomb. It appears to be hovering off the ground. Huh? What is that?

Later we find out that it was the “Marfa Blimp”, or Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS),  a low-level radar providing surveillance along the southwest border of the United States and Mexico. It is usually floating at 12,000 feet while being tied to the ground. The blimp tries to detect low-flying aircraft in support of the United States’ drug interdiction program as well as gathering information for other agencies. Locals joked that since its multi-million dollar installation in the late 90’s it has led to exactly one arrest. I recently came across articles saying that the blimp may be retired soon.
(See more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tethered_Aerostat_Radar_System)

Continuing down the road, gazing ahead listlessly, tired from a long day of driving, we were both jolted awake again as a large green ball of light arced across the sky, descending to earth and disappearing. The Marfa Mystery Lights? Or was it a meteor? Or  . . . . ? This is a strange neck of the woods.

The name Marfa sounds less like a town and more like an acronym for a government agency or a trade agreement, or like a small child’s mispronunciation of Martha. The viewing station is a few miles past the town center. We often look for unusual remote places where we might rent a room for a month someday, just see what life is like there. Marfa has been put on our list. With a population of about 2,000, it has a thriving arts community and has been the site of many films. Its name supposedly comes from Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov. Texas is full of surprises.

When we arrived at the viewing station, there was one other person there. Apparently some nights draw a crowd. We checked out the facility, an adobe style building with decks for viewing. The night was bitter and windy. We were bushed but stayed up for a while sitting in the cab of the truck, hoping to see more lights. Nothing unusual appeared but there was a marvelous canopy of stars to stare into. Soon we retired. People came and went during the night. To see the lights? To use the restrooms? To traffic in something illegal?

About midnight rain started. I thought it might be a light shower but it became a heavy constant downpour. At times the wind blew hard and buffeted the truck. I wondered, wakened from my sleep, if they have tornadoes here. Probably. People say that an approaching tornado sounds like a train coming, and just as I had that thought, I heard the roar of a train – fortunately, a real one, rushing along the tracks across the road.

In the morning it was still pouring. We were eager to get to Big Bend but the weather was demoralizing. The sky was so low and dark that it was if daytime never really arrived. The rain was cold and was whipped violently by the wind. The next town was Alpine, and we spent the morning resupplying and doing errands. Walking out of a luncheon restaurant, we were dismayed to see that the rain had morphed into soppy, big-flaked snow, creating deep slush everywhere. Someone told us that the road into Big Bend was becoming impassable. Defeated, we looked for a cheap motel for the night as snow quietly covered this Texan town in the Chihuahuan Desert.

This gallery contains 2 photos


4 Comments

DAY 101 – Aguirre Springs BLM Recreation Site, NM

January 7, 2013

From White Sands National Monument we drove toward Las Cruces looking for Aguirre Springs BLM Recreation Site. A guide book author described it as “one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever camped.”  Sounded like we shouldn’t pass it up. But all I could think of was “Aguirre: Wrath of God”, the disturbing film by Werner Herzog that I saw many years ago. (After recently reading two books about the Amazon, maybe I’ll watch the film again. BOOKS: The Lost City of Z, State of Wonder.)

We were on a trajectory toward Texas and Big Bend National Park, still searching for that elusive warmth. We forgot that maps are two-dimensional and land is three-dimensional and find we were unfortunately gaining elevation as we neared Aguirre Springs. The side road leading into the campground took us even higher toward pointy crags. The desert floor dropped away like a trough below a great tsunami. Snow cover increased and patches obscured the road. The view was spectacular but also strangely unfriendly, even intimidating. The two nearby trailheads had stern warnings, informing hikers that others have died in this area by underestimating their ability or the situation.

In the great valley below, the town of White Sands could be seen, isolated in the White Sands Missile Testing Range. As night quickly fell, the town sparkled like a galaxy in empty space. It was self-contained, seemingly oblivious to the grandeur around it.

The next morning, I explored the area in dawn light. The sun shown brightly in a welcoming blue sky; the mountains did not seem so formidable now. In daylight, the town of White Sands shrank to a small, less obtrusive, cluster of buildings. The pinnacles above us, called the rabbit ears, glowed in the growing light.

While sitting at the picnic table, gazing into the vast expanse, I saw, far in the distance, a large white cloud burst into being. An explosion. Using my camera’s telephoto I looked for details, but saw no structures, people, or equipment. Then an enormous KA-BOOM resounded as the detonation reached our ears. A missile test I presume.

We left early, on the road to Texas.

DAY 101 – White Sands National Monument, NM

2 Comments

January 7, 2013

After watching the short film in the visitor’s center about the history and geology of White Sands National Monument, I was eager to explore the beautiful alabaster waves of the dune fields. I have been to Great Sand Dunes National park near Crestone CO. Those granular hills are made of typical quartz sand, the usual tawny color. Here, the sand is milky white. Gypsum from the surrounding mountains dissolves in running water and reconstitutes itself as large crystals of selenite in lake beds that dry each year. Winds blow and batter these crystals into small, then tiny particles. White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

The soft swells of white looked just like snow, as if we had landed suddenly in the heart of Antarctica. The illusion was added to by the presence of actual snow sloping down the north sides of most banks. Their color was slightly distinct, the snow a cool white and the sand a warm one.

The bulk of the drive through the park was on hard-packed plowed sand and we joked that we were on an episode of “Ice Road Truckers”. (Which for you non-TV people, is a reality show about, yes, ice road truckers in arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. Chris likes to watch it.) We thought about sharing a photo of this place on our blogs and explaining that we had decided that we wanted a REAL winter after all and were on the Alaskan tundra till spring.

This illusion was also supported by the popular activity of sledding down the dunes. Brightly colored plastic saucers are sold in the visitor’s center. The false impression of snow may have also been a conditioned seasonal association. It was January after all and I had been in snow at Vallecitos as well as Massachusetts.

After lunch in an uninhabited picnic area, we wandered into the powdery hills. The dunes were dense and even frozen in places (although the temperature was mild mid-day) so footing was firm and walking easy. There was little of that experience of the sand giving way, when feet are sucked downward and headway seems impossible.

Walking the tops of the dunes opened the view to endless undulating mounds of light and shadow. Between the hills were flat areas where grasses and a few yuccas tried to hold on. They would eventually be covered by the slow moving swells of sand. The white landscape was cupped between two mountain ranges, that rose up like the sides of a giant sandbox. To the west were the San Andres, and to the east were the Sacramentos. The dark mountains, silhouetted against the brilliance of sky and desert, added visual drama.

You are invited to walk directly into the sandy veld. There are a few short trails but walking without a path is what is special here. Footprints of previous visitors were everywhere. The dunes would not look pristine again until the next wind storm when all the tracks of all the travelers would be erased. It would be easy to get lost in this landscape, since once you can no longer see the road, the dunes look alike; it was hard to distinguish anything as a landmark, except the far off mountain ranges.

We did not see any animals, although their feet left imprints in the pulverized gypsum. Over thousands of years of evolution, several species of insect, lizard and rodent have adapted to this white world by becoming paler. Perhaps in a few more thousand years, they will be completely white.

There is no camping here except for a few backpacking spots so after several hours we head on to find a place for the night.

This gallery contains 12 photos

DAYS 99 – 100 Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, NM

Leave a comment

January 5-6, 2013

It’s finally 2013 on my blog!

After Vallecitos, we spent two days at Ojo Caliente Hot Springs and three nights with friends in Santa Fe. I flew to Boston just before Christmas and was there until January 4th. Chris stayed in New Mexico during that time.

At last, on the road again! The interlude in Massachusetts felt like someone had suddenly switched the channel of my life from a travel film to a situation dramedy, complete with a new location and a different cast of characters. Now the TV set had been returned to the original road movie.

I realized then that after ten years living on the west coast I have become, sadly, what I call a California Weather Wimp. The cold seems more penetrating, the snow more inconvenient, the icy ground more threatening. After resupplying in Albuquerque, we headed south, once again following the promise of warmer weather.

We were trying to institute a “zero tolerance policy” for camping in snow and cold. So far we were unsuccessful because, even though more southerly, we were still at relatively high altitudes and we had been enveloped by a massive cold snap that covered the entire southwest.

Staying at Vallecitos in the snow was one thing, with its indoor space, woodstove and hot running water. Camping in winter weather was quite another. Our objective on this trip was to spend as much time outdoors as possible. The camper, as great as it is, is small and not suited to 24-hour living. It’s a bit like staying in a walk-in closet that has a sleeping shelf.

Chris was sick of the cold and sick with a cold. He longed for warmth and sun as if these alone would cure his illness. Due to his constant coughing, I called him “The Coughy Man”, a pun on his obsession with coffee.

We stopped for the night at the BLM’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Carrizozo, NM. Like many places, we were almost the only ones there. Although the weather was mild, we were discouraged by patches of snow that stubbornly resisted melting. We arrived too late to explore the petroglyphs so I resolved to see them first thing in the morning.

The night was cold. After waiting a while in bed for the morning to warm, I eventually climbed over Chris who was sleeping off his cold. The trail with the petroglyphs meandered along the ridge of nearby hills. Unlike the cliff or cave art we have seen before, this rock art is scratched onto scattered boulders  Some 21,000 petroglyphs have been identified in this area. As the path ascended the hill from the campground, images started emerging from the blackened flat faces of the stones. Many of these pictures are larger, more sophisticated and detailed, than markings at other sites. Human faces peered out as well as animals and birds. Geometric designs, both curved and angular, adorned the rocks. Many of the carvings were in very good condition and seemed fresh. Others were fading, losing the contrast between the black rock and carved lines.

The petroglyphs were carved in the rocks by the Jornada Mogollon people between about 900 and 1400 AD. The specific meaning and purpose of these have been lost. They are, in any case, expressions of their world view and a glimpse into another time and way of life. Many questions about the artwork arose for me. Which members of the community made the images? Was it both the young and the old, both men and women? Could anyone with an impulse and idea create a drawing there? Or did people make the petroglyphs only after a ceremony, vision or dream and with permission from the tribe’s shaman?

How did the village relate to the stone gallery? Did they visit it regularly or was it left alone to the spirits and the artists? Was it seen as a sacred temple? Was it a community bulletin board? Was it meant to communicate to ancestors and future generations? Were there rituals associated with the art? As far as I know, no one can answer these questions with any certainty. As an artist, I understand the urge to make pictures, the satisfaction in it, and the inexplicable magic in doing so.

There was another trail near our campsite that led onto the flat desert floor. It was the site of the ancient village, the home of the presumed creators of the petroglyphs. What is left are some depressions in the ground that are the vestiges of old house foundations dug into the earth. Two have been excavated. One is a round hole that once was the floor of a mud hut. Another site, from a later period, is rectangular and made of stone and shows the base of wooden support poles. Other than these two spots, the obvious evidence of centuries of village life has disappeared. This area was mysteriously abandoned about 1400 before the Spanish arrived, they left at the same time as the cliff dwellers near Sedona.

This gallery contains 14 photos


2 Comments

Snow Fall by May Sarton

Serendipitously, the following poem was sent to me by a friend as I was putting the finishing touches on my blog piece describing the wonders of snow at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch. Below is May Sarton’s ode to snow. It captures much of what I was trying to express. I am also dedicating this post to all the people in the northeast who were not so adversely effected by the recent Nemo blizzard that they are able to enjoy the white beauty of winter.

Snow Fall
by May Sarton

With no wind blowing
It sifts gently down,
Enclosing my world in
A cool white down,
A tenderness of snowing.

It falls and falls like sleep
Till wakeful eyes can close
On all the waste and loss
As peace comes in and flows,
Snow-dreaming what I keep.

Silence assumes the air
And the five senses all
Are wafted on the fall
To somewhere magical
Beyond hope and despair.

There is nothing to do
But drift now, more or less
On some great lovingness,
On something that does bless,
The silent, tender snow.


2 Comments

DAY 81 Leaving Vallecitos

December 18, 2012

THE GET-A-WAY
We’d let Carl know that we had received about fifteen inches of snow, aware that that amount was about the limit for what was drivable on the unplowed mountain road. Carl said he would come by on the 18th, two days before our planned departure, to “open up the road”.

He arrived at 11 AM with his two teenaged sons and announced that he thought we should leave immediately. Another snowstorm was forecast for the following day and it could bring 4-12 more inches. Better to leave now when we could. He said it had been a bit tricky getting to Vallecitos as it was. Snow drifts had made parts of the road impassable and they had driven through meadows instead.

We had planned to spend the following day packing and cleaning so little was ready for our sudden exit. Chris and I went into high gear, throwing things into the truck and wiping, sweeping and washing best we could. What we thought would take half a day we did in an hour. Admittedly, it was all a little slipshod.

Hoping everything wouldn’t freeze in the two days before the next caretaker arrived, we filled up the wood stove. (He would likely be snowmobiled in.) We said our brief, but heartfelt, goodbyes to Vallecitos, and left. Carl’s 4WD truck had chains and he’d brought an extra pair for our truck. Unfortunately, they didn’t fit.

The way out would be on a different road than we came in. It was longer, eleven miles instead of seven, but at slightly lower elevation. Also, Carl’s ranch was on the way and we’d be stopping there to pick up some turkeys. They had taken all the animals from the ranch into town for the winter, except for the turkeys. To carry them, they hooked up the horse trailer from Vallecitos. The trailer would also help plow the way out for us.

We have 4WD but the possibility for some sliding or getting stuck was significant. Carl had brought shovels, wenches and other equipment in case of trouble. Chris was nervous. I was nervous. Chris is a good skilled driver but has little experience with snow (remember what I said about shoveling?) To drive in snow you must curb normal life-long reactions. For example, in a slide you must resisting braking and, most counter-intuitive of all, turn into the direction of the skid. In a crisis, the old-wired responses take over and that’s what worried me.

The scenery was beautiful but it was hard to notice. Even the elk running through the forest only got a cursory glance. We were focused on the road. Chris kept his eyes on the tracks left by Carl’s truck and trailer, following it precisely. We traveled about 15 miles an hour about 50 feet behind them. In two places we drove across fields instead of the road where snow had become too deep. Occasionally, the truck would slide but each time Chris was able to quickly recover. We briefly got stuck in a drift with the wheels spinning uselessly. But with a little backing up Chris was able to get traction again. As we made slow progress, I gave Chris periodic encouragement, “Your doing good.” “Take it slow.” “Breathe.”

About halfway to the plowed highway, we arrived at Carl’s family ranch. One of his sons was raising heirloom turkeys, Bourbon Reds, to sell for breeding. Cages were brought out of the barn and placed on the horse trailer, then each turkey, two toms and four hens, were carried out manually.

Unlike the breed of turkey usually sold in supermarkets, the Bourbon Reds are self-reproducing and physically functional (mass produced turkeys lose the ability to mate and to stand.) These turkeys look similar to wild turkeys but have reddish feathers with white patches. The toms had impressive multi-color heads and wattles. You may have learned about raising these turkeys in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. You can read an except describing her Bourbon Reds at: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/essay-bourbon-for-dinner-raising-heirloom-turkeys

Volunteering to carry out one of the hens, I was given the hen most used to being held. She was calm and warm as I embraced her against my chest making sure to cover her wings. I talked to her soothingly, letting her know she’d be okay, that she would like her new home and that she wasn’t going to be Christmas dinner.

As we get back on the road, Carl explained that the worst was over, but that there were a few scary parts left, which immediately filled me with dread. In the end, I actually felt the second half was scarier than the first. I do not have any photos of the frightening parts because I was too focused on breathing and praying. Also, I didn’t want to distract Chris in any way by playing with my camera. Even if these roads had been dry and well-maintained I would have disliked traveling certain sections. With ice and snow, they felt treacherous.

For a long stretch the one-lane road, cut into the side of a mountain, climbed. On our right was a long vertical drop to the valley floor. There were few trees to break the fall of a vehicle if it should go over the edge. Several moments of the truck sliding sideways tightened my throat and breath. I tried reassuring myself that I didn’t need to worry about falling off the cliff until it happened. That helped a tiny bit.

Turning onto the clear pavement of Route 64 brought tremendous relief. Chris said if it hadn’t been so stressful, it might have been fun. We head south toward Santa Fe.