I’m sure park rangers see people like me all the time waltzing into their visitor centers full of excitement and stupid questions. This was my second visit to Big Bend, a huge and isolated national park at the southern tip of Texas where the Rio Grande makes its first major loop. And I WAS very excited to be there.
“First, I’d like to do some backcountry camping,” I burbled, “then I’d like to move to the Chisos Basin; then, maybe to Cottonwood…”
The ranger, a burly, no-nonsense guy with long hair looked at me as though I were a two year old.
“Look,” he said. “K-Bar is the only backcountry site you can get into with your rig. And I suggest you stay there. This is the busiest weekend of the year. All the campgrounds will be full.”
Well. That wasn’t what I’d planned, but I wasn’t about to dicker with this dude. Besides, backcountry camping cost barely a dollar a day.
Over the course of the week that followed, as I camped in splendid solitude amid miles of Chihuahuan desert, I sent thoughts of lovingkindess to the hardass ranger who’d saved me from my overblown enthusiasm.
Big Bend is wild, remote, and large (800,000 acres). From the pine and juniper forests on the high peaks of the Chisos Mountains (8,000 feet), which rise in the center of the park, to the banks of the Rio Grande (2,000 feet), Big Bend presents a rugged and sometimes scary face to those who visit.
The Spanish called it El Despoblado (the uninhabited). You can get lost there, and the desert is unforgiving. People visit this country; nature owns it.
Yet, it has been inhabited over time. Indigenous peoples left pictographs on the cliffs near the hot springs. More recent residents have left evocative remains of adobe homes with willow and pecan trees planted nearby, mercantiles, and post offices.
The Homer Wilson ranch was occupied until 1945, when FDR established Big Bend as a national park just 6 days after D-Day. But the land has never been easy on its inhabitants. “That damned country promises more and give less than any place I ever saw,” said J.O. Langford, who tried to make a desert spa of the hot springs near the Rio Grande.
From my campsite in the middle of the desert, the sun illuminated the layers of the Sierra del Carmen in the evening and of the Chisos in the morning. The full moon was bright enough to cast shadows. (I was able to see the Milky Way on only one night when the moon rose later.)
If the picture/word ratio is correct, the following represents some 13,000 words. Much more entertainingly. (Click on a photo, and they’ll look MUCH better. You’ll be able to scroll through them all.)