Friday, July 18, 2008

Big Bend Inspires

It has been nearly two decades since my friend Vince first suggested I accompany him to far West Texas to see Big Bend National Park. Last week, I finally went.

Over the last 18 years, while I dithered, my uncles and cousins and my father have all made the journey west to the Chihuahuan Desert. Vince has made the thousand-mile trip more than two dozen times; that's about the equivalent of driving entirely around the earth.

In deference to my editor at, which will publish a story on this trip next summer, I'll limit this blog entry to just the highlights.

It was hot. No kidding, the desert in mid-July is baking. The highest temperatures we recorded during four days were right around 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher elevations, in the Chisos Mountains for instance, can be 20 degrees cooler.

Despite the heat, even the lowlands never felt terribly uncomfortable. I'd have to dig to find the formula to figure out heat indices, but I'm guessing that 100 degrees in muggy old Austin may feel worse than 116 at the Croton Spring campground.

Turns out July and August are great wildlife viewing months, since these are the months when the park gets most of it's annual 12 inches or so of rain. The park, as one ranger told me, was "fat."

While we never got rained on there, we did see rainshowers off in the distance, and many of the washes and dry creeks in the park held evidence of recent runoff. There were even pools of standing water in some stream beds.

Millipedes were everywhere, and -- after dark -- so were tarantulas. Leopard frogs dove for safety in the tinajas as we hiked past, and red-spotted toads wandered the tarmac at night. We spotted the park's two largest lizards -- a colorful male western collared lizard and a delightfully polka-dotted longnosed leopard lizard. The leopard lizard was nearly 15 inches long.

I was entranced by the canyon towhees and Mexican jays, birds we don't often see in Central Texas. The large ravens -- I couldn't tell if they were common ravens or Chihuahuan ravens -- seemed as curious about us as we were about them.

Javelinas, jackrabbits, cottontails and kangaroo rats -- the last are fearless nocturnal visitors I know from Padre Island National Seashore -- were abundant.

In the desert, three species of ceniza bloomed. This is the plant that we've always called "purple sage" or "sageb(r)ush," but of course it's not at a salvia at all. Creosote bushes were blooming in yellow, as was esparanza, or trumpet flower. With the exception of a few strawberry pitayas, the cactuses were mostly bloomless.

Big Bend National Park encompasses about 1,100 square miles of desert, alpine and riparian habitat. It's the 15th-largest of the national parks but in 2007 ranked 138th in number of visitors among the National Park Service's 360 units. Padre Island National Seashore, by comparison, receives about twice as many visitors (more than 600,000) in a year than does Big Bend.

The park also is a geology buff's paradise; a cheerfully jumbled monument of metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary rocks in a rainbow of colors. There are bears, too, and mountain lions, and pictographs and petroglyphs.

But mostly Big Bend is vast, largely empty of people. It's one of the very few places left in Texas where one can camp under the stars and not see an electric light from horizon to horizon.

I find that spirit-expanding emptiness inspiring.