BIG BEND
BACKPACKING TRIP #1

Big Bend National ParkFebruary 10, 1988 TEXAS: Brewster County
 
K-Bar Campsite in Big Ben National Park; elevation about 3000 feet.

After three days of "test walking" around K-Bar, this morning at dawn I strap on my backpack and head west-northwest down the dry stream bed, or arroyo, passing about a hundred feet north of camp. One thing learned during these last days' test walks is this: Walking cross-country through lechuguilla is crazy. It's better to walk in dry arroyos and on regular trails. Here are my notes from this walk:

FEBRUARY 13

During the walk's first moments down the arroryo I see two signs of spring along the arroyo's banks:

At noon, reaching Tornillo Creek, which the ranger had said probably would be dry, I find a stream of clear, cold water about a yard wide, and I'm very relieved. Already my shoulder muscles burn from the weight of extra water being carried in the backpack. The moment I see the stream, the backpack comes off, I drink all the water I can, and dump most of what's left.

Despite the stream of water's narrowness, Tornillo Creek's sandy bed is about a hundred feet wide and strewed with uprooted willows and large boulders, obviously deposited by huge amounts of floodwater. On sand next to the stream many footprints of peccary, mule deer and coyote appear. Bordering the stream, ten foot bands of blindingly white, crystallized residues of soluble salts left by vigorous evaporation of water encrust the sand. Imagining the salts to be mostly or entirely table salt, I examine the white powder with my handlens but see no cubical crystals. Moreover, instead of tasting salty, it's bitter. Apparently it's some kind of carbonate.

Here in the first half of February, six species of wildflowers blossom along the stream!

Most transfixing is the fourteen-inch high, blue-blossomed lupine called Big Bend Lupine, Lupinus havardii, a species that, in the whole world, is found only in this region -- it's endemicto this area. A member of the Bean Family, it bears tall spires of pea-like flowers. Its leaves are hand-shaped, usually bearing seven radiating leaflets.

Nearby grows an evening-primrose with 2-inch wide, yellow flowers. Because its fruits are bottle-shaped, the books call it the Bottle Evening-primrose, Oenothera primiveris. It looks more likea dandelion than an evening-primrose. Its leaves and flowers arise from one spot on the ground and its leaves even looklike a dandelion's.

Also nearby growe two members of theMustard Family, a yellow-flowered one called Fendler's Bladderpod, Lesquerella fendleri, and a white-flowered one called Bicolor Mustard, Nerisyrenia camporum. And here's a blue-flowered Bean-Family member called Nuttall's Locoweed, Astragalus nuttallianus, and, finally, the Desert Marigold, Baileya multiradiata, also dandelion-like, with outrageously bright-yellow and large blossoms. Each of these wildflowers is so large and robust that seeing them now fills me with summery feelings. I'd not expected such exuberance as this, this early in the year, not even in Big Bend.

FEBRUARY 14

At noon the thermometer on my backpack reads 78° in the shade and sunlight stings my skin. Sometimes hot winds come down the canyon whipping up from along the stream fast-moving clouds of white salts. While one such cloud storms around me I stick out my tongue and the cloud tastes bitter. Seeing my reflection in the binoculars' objective lenses, I'm astonished at how sunburned I am, and at how the hair of my beard and scalp sticks straight out, in unmanageable shocks. Very wild, very isolated and somehow violent this region seems to me and it's beginning to leave its imprint on me, and I am satisfied.

During parts of two days, for about twenty miles, in the sands along the Tornillo, I follow a set of human footprints. The prints display a cross-hatched pattern so in my thoughts I refer to the one who walked before me as Cross-Hatch. I assume that Cross-Hatch is a Mexican heading north to a better life.

Now, always I've considered myself to be an exceptional backpacker. With one sweep of my eyes I take in the topography before me, note the presence of spiny plants or muddy ground, analyze the general difficulty or desirability of a hundred different potential routes, and then quickly come up with the best path. Thing is, along the Tornillo, Cross-Hatch seems always to have anticipated each of my perfect choices...

Even when I can't say why one possible route is superior to another, and choose one path over the other from what seems to me pure whim, inevitably Cross-Hatch has chosen that way before me. Visiting a cactus needing to have its spines examined, I find that Cross-Hatch has had his own reason for circling that cactus, too. Now the river makes a grand loop. Instead of staying right on the sands next to the trickling water I cut across the uplands, even though it's thick with Cat-claw Acacia, Acacia gregii, Cross-Hatch has made the same decision. Later in the day, when the heat is bad and adventurous routes seem less desirable than just trudging unthinkingly along the water's edge, when the same kind of short-cut opportunity offers itself, I choose not to take it. Of course, Cross-Hatch was in the same mood, so I suppose he had been hot and tired, too.

On any long walk, in one's memory the miles blend together and it's easy to forget whether a particular scene was an hour ago or five hours ago -- or today or day-before-yesterday. It's like being on a ship in the ocean knowing that the ship is going forward but feeling that it's just sitting still. It's almost a kind of meditation.

Today, with Cross-Hatch, this meditation becomes a dance, and when he chooses the same resting-rock that attracts me, he is my dancing partner, always faithful, never forceful. Once I think of jagging away from my chosen route -- going cross-country for no reason at all, just to see if at that precise moment in his own journey Cross-Hatch had yielded to a similar notion.

But, I don't, and just follow Cross-Hatch's lead.

FEBRUARY 15

Abandoning both the Tornillo and Cross-Hatch, this morning I cross the uplands to the east and walk southeastward along a one-laned, washed-out, rocky and crooked gravel road. At the "primitive campground" called McKinney Spring the first real tree seen since Amistad appears. It's a Cottonwood, genus Populus, with its buds bursting, issuing two-inch long, glossy-green shoots bearing this year's beginnings of stems and leaves. Maybe this tree was planted by someone years ago, and I thank that person. Now I cannot avoid sitting for half an hour, simply drinking in these trees' peaceful symmetry and fresh greenness.

In the evening, after a long day of hiking a Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, hoots its Oooh, oh-oh call.

FEBRUARY 16

At Roys Peak Vista Camp, beside an old shed more fallen down than standing, a fifteen-foot tall, mostly leafless Mesquite, Prosopis juliflora, stands with branches heavy with mistletoe, Phoradendron sp. The mistletoe's tiny flowers draw a variety of pollinators. On the shed's corrugated tin wall, long ago someone penciled in Spanish, "Pasaron dos mojados." "Two wetbacks passed through... " We're about twenty miles northwest of the Mexican town of Boquillas. Above these words is drawn an airplane of the type used by the U.S. Immigration Service. Almost I hear voices in this shed... "¡Aiiiiii!  ¡Viene un avión! ¡Cabrón!"

FEBRUARY 17

At 9:00 AM five mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus, atop a hill not fifty feet away look very much like the white-tailed deer seen at Amistad, except that these have black-tipped tails, and their manner of bounding across the landscape is different. For an instant during each leap, mule deer sail with all four feet off the ground, and with their hooves held pointing backwards. Their flight could not be more buoyant and graceful.

These mule deer sightings are made during this morning's three-hour walk between the primitive campsites called Willow Tank and Ernst Tinaja. The landscape consists of low, rocky hills vegetated with creosote-bush, sotol, grasses, cenizo and candelilla. On this walk I list the birds encountered, and that list can be viewed here.

FEBRUARY 18

For a couple of days I've been walking toward the southeast, paralleling the Tornillo, passing far south of the spot where I entered it. Now I cut back toward the west, find the Tornillo's streambed, and begin heading northwest again, toward K-Bar. Here the Tornillo is completely dry -- nothing but sand and boulders. The last three springs visited were dry, so I'm very low on water and I'm a bit worried. Here the Tornillo's sandy bed is "braided," consisting of several dry, interconnecting channels. The whole system is about a third of a mile wide.

At noon, feeling very hot and thirsty and with my eyes hurting from the sun's glare, across the Tornillo's shimmering bed I spot a thirty-foot tall, gray-green tree swaying gracefully in the wind, looking impossibly inviting. For twenty minutes I walk toward it. Finally, twenty feet from the tree I can feel cooler, somehow moister air, and hear the wind restfully streaming through its boughs. Seeing that it's a Casuarina, Casuarina sp, an Australian species now planted in arid regions worldwide as windbreaks and for firewood, I have mixed feelings. Always I dislike seeing exotic species planted by man in places where native species should be given the chance to develop, but right now this Casuarina's shade is generous and much needed. For an hour I cocoon in the refuge of its deep shadows.

At 2:00 PM, powerful, brown dust-devils, or whirlwinds, develop on the Tornillo's flat bed. In a bluff's shade it's only 75º but on the river bed one foot above the sand, in the shade, it's 87º. Sunlight on my skin feels so hot that it's hard to believe it's this cool. According to my reckoning the part of the river with water in it should be less than three hours away. But I'm almost desperate for water so irrationally I keep thinking, "What if I've made a mistake in my navigating? What if I'm in the wrong river bed? Several times I sit down and triangulate my position on the map, using distant peaks as reference marks. Intellectually I know I'm not lost. But it's a fight to keep from panicking.

FEBRUARY 19

Having yesterday afternoon reached that part of the Tornillo with water in it, this morning I pee on a Devil Cactus and see one of its long thorns move. The "thorn" is an inch-long, straw-colored walkingstick, of the insect family Phasmatidae, related to the praying mantis. I'm accustomed to seeing walkingsticks only in mid and late summer.

At 9 AM I enter the dry arroyo heading back toward Henry at K-Bar. I spot a yard-high, wiry bush that when I passed here six days ago certainly was not flowering. Now it bears several tiny, purple, Pea-Family blossoms with feathery sepals. It's the Feather Dalea, Dalea formosa.

At noon I reach Henry, very thirsty, very hot, very hungry, and very content to have experienced these last six days.

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