Husband Dan and I have just spent a week in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Containing over 1,200 square miles of land and set in the Chihuahuan desert, it is a place of miles-long vistas and magnificent, severe rock mountains. Unlike our tree-dressed Smoky Mountains, these mountains show off their various rock formations and dress themselves in cacti and various colors of soil.
To the untrained eye, the park initially looks as one would imagine the surface of the moon would look. Once one settles into this subtle landscape, however, one sees an amazing variety of plants with an occasional glimpse of wildlife. There are slot canyons here, canyons that funnel precious water from deep springs and when one comes across these spots, the ferns there are brighter than any previously seen.
The desert may seem deserted, but it is home to such animals as mountain lions, javelinas, bears, mules, donkeys and horses. The horses and mules are mostly tame, and have wandered over the Rio Grande River, part of someone’s herd and likely from Boquillas, Mexico. Silent men quietly cross the river, gather their animals and melt back to their homes. It is an understood necessity.
Hiking in this park requires vigilance, and a sharp cactus prick in my leg reminded me to walk, stop and look rather than walk, look and stop. Hiking on shifting, slippery rocky trails keeps one constantly balancing, while intense sunshine requires one to carry at least a liter of water per person and to hike in long sleeves, long pants and a hat. A slight desert wind blows almost constantly and the unaware can become dehydrated quickly. When a hiker’s body is covered, one doesn’t lose the moisture sweat produces while protecting the body from the intense heat.
The sky here demands to be noticed; it is a giant dome that cannot be ignored. The nighttime sky does not have to fight light pollution, making the stars so bright, you feel you have never actually seen the sky before.
If one is in the desert long enough, one can step into the social scene there. Step with caution, however. The population contains earnest scientists along with notorious motorcycle-gang members, desert rats, lifelong cowboys, and those who wish to distinguish themselves as non-societal norms. Dan and I were at a locals’ place where one can have good food, listen to live music, dance and meet many people. Twice I caught the stare of a man wearing a notorious motorcycle gang’s jacket. It was unsettling. It is an interesting mix of folks who know they must depend on each other in an unforgiving landscape.
After a week in the desert, I found myself remembering writer Dewey Bunnell’s 1972 song, “A horse with no name.” When asked about the meaning of this song, Mr. Bunnell said that during his childhood he spent a lot of time in the deserts of New Mexico and when he was there, whatever was troubling him was erased as he settled into the serenity of the quiet. After a week in the desert, I agree. Dan and I have found a place which, for us, is a place of heaven. May everyone find their earthly heaven place and, having found it, find as we did peace, serenity and contemplation.
Cindy Arp, teacher/librarian, retired from Knox County Schools. She and Dan live in Heiskell, Tennessee.