It's Saturday morning, and I'm up before dawn to get on the road to Big Bend. As I drive out of the campground, the sun is just breaking over the horizon. The sunrise is a singular ceremony in that it may be performed a million times but is never the same and never gets old.
On the way to the park I am pulled over on two separate occasions by Texas Troopers who don't exactly appreciate my California driving habits. Apparently, you don't add anything to the speed limit in Texas. Thankfully, both officers only gave me warnings, upon receiving which I gulped down my pride and impatience and slowed down.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll confirm that I've talked about visiting Big Bend for years. It is remote, wild, and lonely: a veritable backpacker's paradise. This was to be the hardest, hottest hike, and serve as the closing chapter and the grand finale of the whole venture.
Last night, Paradise Springs Campground (in Guadalupe) being full, I wound up sharing my campsite with an Indian doctor from Houston who came in late and was headed into the backcountry the next day. We enjoyed some friendly and animated conversation into the evening, and he gave me some pointers about the hike I was intending to take in Big Bend. As in Guadalupe, there is no water available in the backcountry, and when hiking the 32-mile Outer Mountain Loop, it is necessary to cache water ahead of time at a certain location where the trail passes near the road.
Accordingly, I purchased several gallons of water from a gas station and once inside the Park proceeded directly to the cache location. From there I drove up into the Chisos Basin to obtain a backcountry permit and begin my hike. Had I not known about the cache strategy ahead of time, I would have wasted valuable hours in preparing for the trek.
Inside the Visitor's Center, I explain my plans to the Ranger on duty. As soon as she learns I am going solo, she becomes rather grave and goes into the back room, returning momentarily with a special form and a camera. In addition to the normal questions regarding where I would be staying each night, etc., I have to provide detailed information about my physical characteristics, level of experience, and even the color of my clothing and tent. The ranger then takes a picture of my face, my pack, and the bottom of my boot, all the while clicking her tongue and generally insinuating that if I've never drawn up a formal Will and Testament, now might be a good time to do so.
Packing my Osprey on the tailgate in the parking lot takes longer this time, because I will be out for two nights, in unfamiliar country, alone. Finally, all the necessary equipment is properly stowed in the pack, sunscreen is applied, truck is locked up, and everything I'm bringing has in some way or another been strapped on to my person. Stopping at the sign at the trailhead, I note the time, say a prayer, and psyche myself for the climb. From here, it's 3-1/2 miles and nearly 2,000 feet of gain to the crest of the ridge, which is about halfway to the open camping zone in Juniper Canyon, my destination for the night.
I set an aerobic pace up the trail, concentrating hard and pushing myself forward over the steps and inclines. The afternoon sun is hot, and the pack is the heaviest it's been so far, with upwards of 6 liters of water - enough to get me to my cache sometime tomorrow afternoon. Before long, however, the sweat and stride pay off, and I'm at the top.
After consulting the topo map I purchased at the Visitor's Center, I stow my pack in a conveniently located bear locker and dash up the spur trail to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. It's a little over a mile and another 800 feet of climbing, but I don't think I'm going to be this close anytime soon. Jog up, snap some pictures, run down. I always find trail running mentally and physically exhilarating: flying over rocks and obstacles, making split-second decisions about foot placement, keeping your momentum and balance under control. On the way down I misjudge one step and fold my left ankle under slightly. I slow down, remembering that I need to be careful. Fortunately, it's not serious, and will feel fine after a few miles.
Retrieving my pack, I notice one of my water reservoirs is leaking slightly, and has dampened my sleeping bag. I tighten the lid on the reservoir, and folding my sleeping bag in half, strap it to the outside of the pack, and let it hang behind me to dry - not particularly fashionable, but it sure beats crawling into a wet bag.
After another few miles, some beautiful Texas Rainbow Cactus, and a young Whitetail buck in the trail, I locate a nice campsite in Juniper Canyon and set about preparing a belated supper. Following that, I gather my food into my empty tent sack and tie it near the top of a small juniper. It won't protect it from the bears, but it should require them to make enough of a ruckus to wake me up and give me a chance to scare them away.
As it happens, however, there are no bears, and the night passes quietly. I'm up at dawn, eating my breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and preparing for a long day on the trail. A few more miles brings me to Texas Shoe campground and the start of the Dodson Trail - a 14-mile trek through the desert on the south side of the Chisos.
Most people picture the desert as hot, desolate, and interminably flat. I suppose the origins of this stereotype are honest enough, but in reality it falls far short of describing the depth, complexity, and variety of the real thing. As I grind out the miles on the Dodson Trail, cross gullies, walk through washes, and scale ridges, I am amazed by the diversity of the landscape. Dozens of different species of flora decorate the hillsides and brush past my bare legs. It is hot, yes, but decidedly un-flat, and very much alive.
I've been carefully gaging my water consumption to ensure that I will not run out before I reach my cache at Homer Wilson Ranch. I have enough, but no more, and I'm obliged to drink less than I would normally, especially given the heat and distance. Around 2 o'clock I reach the Ranch, retrieve my water from the bear locker, and head up to the Ranch overlook along the highway.
Though the water is rather warm, I'm glad to have it. I drink my fill, replenish my reservoirs, and pour the rest over my head. Some motorcyclists stop by, and lacking anything better to do, take a few minutes to question me about my adventure. Mentioning nonchalantly that you've just hiked 16 miles through the desert and you have 4 more to go before the day is out is one of the best ways I know of to impress a big, tough, tattooed biker.
Since I don't have that much farther to go today, I decide to take a couple hours in the old Homer Wilson Ranch house to rest, do some reading, and have a little church. This way, I can take advantage of the shade (something of a rarity in the desert) and avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day.
Starting up the Blue Creek Canyon trail, there's a warning posted about an aggressive mountain lion in the area, advising against taking small children up the trail. Great. According to the Park literature I received at the entrance, there are about 150 lion sightings reported annually. Though 90% of these sightings occur along roads, not trails, I would venture to suggest that this figure is somewhat misleading, because most people who visit Big Bend never set foot on a trail. As a matter of probability, then, you're much more likely to see a lion along a trail than you are along a road, because fewer people hike the trails and more people drive the roads. Have I confused you yet?
There have been two lion attacks during the last 20 years, although neither of them proved fatal. The Park brochure offers the standard tips about making yourself appear larger and never under any circumstances showing fear, and concludes by advising the visitor to "Avoid hiking alone, or at dawn or dusk."
I locate a campsite for the night, in a sheltered glade just off the trail. Nearby there is a long branch overhanging a dry wash, over which I throw my parachute cord for a nice high Sierra-style bear hang. Following my dinner of ramen and beef jerky, I spend some time reading before turning in.
Alone, with the wild night noises all around, statistics somehow become less comforting. My small L.E.D. headlamp throws a whopping ten-foot beam, and that not very brightly. While I'd still like to see a lion during the day, on level ground, I'd just as soon not meet one in the dark, thank you very much. As is my habit, I lay my trekking poles outside my tent door, and also pile up a few good-sized rocks for good measure. If any lion decides to jump me during the night, he's going to have a surprise.
Brave talk aside, the lion threat makes for a wakeful night. I am glad for the morning, and waste no time in breaking camp and hitting the trail. I have a thousand feet of climbing before I crest the ridge and drop back down into Chisos Basin, but it doesn't take long. When I reach the top, though it has been light for some time, the sun is just beginning to break over the mountains in places. Rich, heady wildflower scents come wafting across the path, laden with the memory and promise of the day's warmth, contrasting with the delicious coolness of the desert morning. It's a fine day, and though I'm tired, hungry, and more than a little dirty, I'm thankful to be alive and thoroughly at peace with myself and everything else.