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.