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Thursday, October 29, 2009

First day in Big Bend National Park is a bust

Hundreds or even thousands of years ago, Native Americans, before trying to conceive, would pray at what is now called Balance Rock at Big Bend National Park in Texas. Well, I don’t know this for fact, but it’s a reasonable assumption. The rock, bigger than a stand-alone freezer, is supported at one end by what looks to be a giant penis. I find no literature to confirm my suspicion about Indians praying for fertility, but the symbolism is hard to miss.

Mark and I almost miss Balance Rock because he zooms past its access road on our way out of the park. “Hold on! Turn around!” The day is still fresh enough as the sun has not yet met the horizon, but Mark is less than excited to witness more of what the park has offered so far: desert, desert plants, and the Rio Grande. This late afternoon, Balance Rock is a welcome change.

Our day starts excitingly. A javelina is rooting roadside as we drive into the park this morning. A javelina looks like a small wild boar but is more closely related to hippopotamus. They are about two feet tall at the shoulders. A roadrunner crosses our path too. Texans call roadrunners paisanos (pie-SAH-nos). Along a trail, Mark sees a snake.

Unexpectedly to us, Big Bend’s desert is loaded with botanicals: prickly pear cactus, yuccas, juniper trees, even patches of grass. More than 1000 species of plant.

We make the customary stops at visitor centers, eat our picnic lunch at a trailhead and take several short hikes.

One hike along the Rio Grande to a slot in a canyon passes a Mexican selling carvings and felt artwork. A ranger told us that we would likely encounter this muchacho. It wasn’t so much a warning, but she encouraged us to ignore him as he should not be on the U.S.-side of the Rio Grande. I look at the man’s wares but buy nothing.

Near the end of the trail, at river’s edge, we are serenaded from the Mexican side by a man we also expected, thanks to the heads-up from the ranger. According to sources, he’s a bit loco. Loco or not, his voice is lovely. The highlight of the day so far.

The Rio Grande here is neither deep nor wide. Mark, in his Gortex boots, wades out atop the rocky bed.

The Rio Grande is absent in other parts of the park where it usually runs during rainy season. The wettest months are July, August and September. Cracks in this February’s dry riverbed are 4–5 inches deep.

Our first day in the park ends with a hike at the Balance Rock area. We hope the southern and western parts of the park, which we’ll explore tomorrow, offer scenery as interesting. The eastern side of Big Bend has been a bust.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Friendliness overcomes desolation in Marathon, Texas

Driving in Texas near the Mexican border, Mark and I are stopped by a uniformed officer with a German shepherd. The dog sniffs around the exterior of our car and the officer visually scans the back seat, which is a mess of snacks, jackets, magazines and sunscreens. Neither finds anything suspicious. We confirm that we’re U.S. citizens when asked, and I suppose we seem rather harmless because he takes our word for it, doesn’t ask for IDs.

Westward ho! Our destination is Big Bend National Park.

At 6:45 p.m. we arrive in Marathon, population 455, the town nearest the north entrance to Big Bend. Neither of the two motels here have vacancies. The next town west is more than 30 miles away, and who knows if it has lodging? The last intersecting road was 55 miles east, and there was a little motel, but we really don’t want to backtrack 55 miles and then in the morning drive it west again plus another 30 miles into the park.

The proprietress at the later motel we check in Marathon must recognize the desperation on our faces and calls a friend. Whew! The friend leases us a place in the little neighborhood for the night.

We’re mighty hungry, and it looks like the only place we can purchase food, besides a small grocery, is a bar packed with locals. Mark and I sit at the bar and order every dish they are serving that night: pulled pork sandwich, wings, and quesadillas. He gets a beer, I get a cranberry juice, and we talk with the twenty-something bartender, Matthew, who’s lived in Marathon for 10 years.

I ask what he does for fun in such a small, isolated place. “Lots,” he says. “The young people meet for game night once a week, I’m in a band.” At this, I wonder what venues they possibly could play, so far removed from anywhere. “We go hunting sometimes.”

“With a gun or bow?” I ask.

“With guns.”

“So you own a gun?”

Matthew shrugs and shakes his head. He stammers as if embarrassed, like he has to hunt with his pump BB gun while his friends blow game away with bazookas: “Well, not…well, just the basics—a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol.”

Someone from the other end of the bar shouts an order, and Matthew busies himself filling it while Mark and I look at each other wide-eyed and grin in disbelief. The basics? I guess it’s true: You don’t mess with Texas.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Remembering the Alamo and other historical places

Remember the Alamo? Neither did I until we visited. We buy audio tours for $5 apiece. I’d have wanted to read everything if we didn’t.

Supporters from many states arrived to help defend the fortification. Even Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey and Maryland all sent one man. Ever optimistic, the Alamo defenders never gave up hope that reinforcements would come any day; sadly, every last white man died. But the Mexicans spared most women and children and the few fighting black men.

A woman whose leg had been injured in the battle walked 75 miles to deliver news of the defeat. The Mexicans were defeated soon after the Alamo, and Texas gained its independence—for 10 years until it joined the United States.

In San Antonio Mark and I brush up on our knowledge of the Alamo and attend the rodeo before driving west.

After an early afternoon picnic at Amistad National Recreation Area, we drive halfway across a dam just for the view. We don’t go all the way because the other side is Mexico, complete with border guards. The crossing is not at all busy; no car passes in either direction the few minutes we are on the dam.

I would love to cross the border, just for the experience, but, alas, we did not bring our passports, now required for entry into Mexico.

So on westward. Our destination is Big Bend National Park, smack-dab in the middle of Nowhere, South Texas, but for a diversion we stop at Seminole Canyon State Park and take a guided hike 1 mile into the canyon to a rock shelter with pictographs, dated to 4,000 years ago.

From a park brochure “Seminole Canyon received its name in honor of the U.S. Army’s Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts…. The scouts protected the West Texas frontier from marauding Apache and Comanche bands between 1872 and 1914. Known for their exceptional cunning and toughness, no scout was ever wounded or killed in combat, and four earned the prestigious Medal of Honor.” The four earned their medals after rescuing their captain, a white, from his band of about 75 captors. Four vs. 75, and they all survived!

The guide leads us past certain plants and cacti and tells us how the canyon inhabitants made use of them in the exhausting heat, a heat that is obvious on the canyon floor this February afternoon. It’s so hot I find it difficult to concentrate on what the guide is saying. It’s hard to think of anything besides the heat and how to escape it. I consider plopping down and rejoining the tour on their climb out of the canyon, but the shelter with the paintings is only about 100 yards further, and that’s the nearest shade as well.

A line of pictographs runs the entire length of the overhanging rock. They are of a resin of mineral pigment in animal fat or in urine and painted with fibrous plant leaves. Supposedly, these are some of the best examples of rock paintings in the world.

The guide says that scientist continue to learn more about people who lived there. For instance, weather continually unearths petrified poop! Adding a certain chemical to the rock-hard poop brings it back to “live” poop—with the smell and everything, our guide tells us—and the poop gives hints as to what the people ate—seeds and such.

Once we start our climb out of the canyon, we catch a bit of breeze, enough to energize Mark and me to separate from the group and take a side trail for an additional mile or so. Our curiosity of what the other side of the canyon looks like overtakes our thirst but we are, as we say, “bookin’ it” because we don’t have water. I am reminded of the horses I rode when I was young. The horses may have been only limping along and may have sweated through their saddle blankets, foam at the corners of their mouths, yet once reined toward the barn, when they knew their service would be over once they got there, it was tough to hold them back.

I feel like one of those horses now, hurrying to the car and water. When will Mark and I learn to take water with us, even for short hikes?

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