Editor’s note: Well, damn. It’s Wednesday, Dec. 19, which puts me nearly two weeks behind in this journal of no wide circulation. I have no excuses, yet I’ll trot them out presently. We were out of range of the Internet for a couple days, the stories kept piling on top of each other, and then we had to streamline our wanderings to get to Philadelphia in time for my mother’s 83rd birthday. We made it, with an hour to spare. Happy Birthday, Mom.
Now I loiter at the Starbucks in my hometown, Paoli, PA (19301). It wasn’t here when I was a clueless kid. Now I’m a clueless old man, and pretty much everything has changed. I walked nearly three miles to get here. I better have something to show for the effort besides a nice walk through a bracing chill. Weather Underground says it’s 43 degrees Fahrenheit in Paoli. But it feels like 41. Compared to the sunblasted landscapes of the Sonora and Chihuahuan deserts, it feels like 29. Anyway, I’m going to try to get caught up before I’m forced to make any New Year’s resolutions regarding consistent writing regimens and all that rot. I’ll do my best to sacrifice quality in the cause of meeting artificial deadlines. Thank you. And Merry Christmas.
Big Bend National Park, Dec. 6. – Not being a naturalist or a poet, I am poorly equipped to describe the scene we walked into upon exiting the behemoth this morning.
The rugged Chisos Mountains encircle us. We stand in a sunken basin more than a mile above sea level, yet are dwarfed to the point of insignificance. To our rear, the sun streams in over the squared-off eminence of Casa Grande Peak. To our front, rugged peaks rise, fall and rise again. They were pushed up more than 30 million years ago. Since then, erosion has been doing a remarkable sculpting job.
Warning signs are posted. There are mountain lions and black bears here, but no Walmarts or McDonald’s. Mescalero Apaches once made their base camp in the Chisos. It was a jumping-off point for raids on Spanish settlements on the other side of the Rio Grande.
When exiting the camper last night, I had to be careful not to get carved up by the long, barbed leaves of the sotol which brushed against the driver’s door. I thought it was lechuguilla, but I thought wrong. Black bears dine on the succulent base of the sotol, while Mexicans distill the spiky perennial into a tequila-like liquor.
Our entrance provided us a vista every bit the equal of this one. We drove in last night from Panther Junction in the dark. The sky above the scalloped silhouette of the Chisos was ablaze with more stars than I’ve seen in my life. It’s dark here. It’s a stargazer’s paradise.
I walked with great trepidation through the dark to the bulletin board at the campground entrance to drop off the $14 camping fee. Mountain lions! Bears! It doesn’t take much to stoke the fear in my cowardly soul. I’d never see them coming. They’d make mincemeat out of me. Who would write this drivel then?
This morning Becky cooked up egg-and-cheese tacos, and we began to prepare for a hike.
First Max wandered over to meet our next-door neighbor. John Lawson came here for the first time 50 years ago, when he was just 16. He’s a bit of a stargazer himself.
He came here in his Porsche 900 convertible with his hulking labs, Sam Adams and Chardonnay. They derived their names from the libations he and his ex-wife used to drink.
“She drank wine, and I drank beer,” he said. “Then we switched.”
He graduated from Ohio State with an astronomy degree and worked as a lens designer. He still works as a lens designer. Mostly he wanders now. He put 14,000 miles on his car lately, driving to and from Michigan to hang out with his girlfriend.
“I’ve still got two kids Ohio,” he says. “My daughter runs two business schools in Columbus, my son is a mom in Dayton.”
Last night he filmed the incredible star show above Casa Grade. He says he has more than 300 cameras. He favors old-school relics from England and Germany.
We have a nice chat, then say our goodbyes. I take a walk to the restroom, and on my return notice the sticker on his rear bumper:
“One Nation Under Surveillance,” it reads.
“No kidding,” I say with a wry grin.
He nods, saying he knows a bit about the national surveillance state.
“I work with drones,” he says. “They’ve got ones the sizes of birds. The other day I saw a dragonfly come up to me. It just sat there, hovering in front of me. Then I saw a camera hanging underneath it. I tried to swat it with a stick.”
He says he’s also been followed by the big ones with 50-foot wingspans.
I ask if he works on the scary little ones or the scary big ones. He says he works on the big ones, the ones you might see flying high above you if you’re a farmer in Pakistan or a shepherd in Yemen. Yes, the big ones. The ones with lens the size of basketballs. The ones with 16-640 mm zoom lenses.
“I work on them while I’m on the road,” John says. “The one I just worked on was thermal. It can spot bodies moving in bushes. Pretty scary stuff.”
We decide to give the Lost Mine Trail a go. It’s a 4.8-mile round-trip trek featuring a gradual but relentless incline, but we figure Max’s up for it.
He’s a junior ranger, after all.
At the trail head we are greeted by more ominous warnings of mountain lion danger. It is not recommended to hike this trail with small children, the sign says. Or maybe it’s “do not hike this trail with small children.” Who can be sure?
It’s a difficult spot for a parent to find him or herself in. You don’t want to needlessly endanger your beloved child, but you don’t want to deny him the wonders of nature with excessive coddling, either. Fortunately, there’s a large tour group right in front of us, so the situation seems pretty safe for humans of all sizes. Besides, Max has his bear bell on his wrist.
For a $1 donation you get a pamphlet which guides you through the 24-point tour of Big Bend flora. Max carries his Junior Ranger book from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and he’s eager to record all his findings.
He wants to stop and document everything we encounter. Agave and alligator bark juniper. Oak and ocotillo. Pinyon pine and prickly pear. Sotol and strawberry pitaya. And more. We try to hurry him on, reminding him we might not make it to the ranger station at Panther Junction in time to pursue another badge. He’s greedy for the badge, so we’ve got that going for us.
It takes us a while, but we make it to the top. The view across the valley at Lost Mine Peak is nice, but no more inspiring than the views of Casa Grande and other peaks we saw along the way. Still, it’s always nice to reach the apex of the trail.
When we get there, a man lounging atop a rocky promontory initiates a round of applause that evolves into a rousing ovation. We can’t help but be cheered by the way the hikers from Road Scholar and their amiable guides, Chris and Patrick, encouraged Max from beginning to end. More than one tells him he’s definitely earned another badge.
Patrick engages Max in an animated fist-bump. Max punctuates it with the pantomimed explosion that my sister’s hair stylist taught him last year.
“He even knows how to explode,” Patrick says in exaggerated admiration.
The fellow on the rock is Jonathan Kiel. He’s a Long Island native. He’s just turned 60, and he’s already retired twice, first from the Navy and then from FEMA.
He’s a physicist by trade.
He attended graduate school at Washington State then recruited the Navy, instead of the other way ’round. As long as they were serious about letting him teaching nuclear physics, he would join up. And so he did.
He tells us a bit about Road Scholar, the organization that set up their tour. Formerly known as Elderhostel, it was established in 1975 with the mission of encouraging travel and continuing education for senior citizens. His mom, who lives in Chicago and is still active at age 89, has been involved for more than a quarter century.
We say our farewells and begin our descent. Jonathan soon overtakes us, but I manage to slow his progress with incessant questions. I ask for recommended hikes, and he says the walk along the Rio Grande at Boquillas Canyon is pretty awesome. And he tells us about the sub rosa international trade that takes place along the banks of the big river (the Mexicans call it Rio Bravo. Somehow, I never knew this. My ignorance is limitless).
Back in the sleepy days before 9/11, Mexican peddlers would cross the river and sell their wares to U.S. tourists. Now their jewelry, hats and walking sticks are treated as contraband by U.S. customs and border patrol. There are signs everywhere warning tourists not to buy from Mexican merchants. They can be arrested if they’re caught.
Since they no longer can legally sell their goods, they come across in the morning and lay them out on the bank. They also leave a jar for money. An honor system to foil Homeland Security. Pretty sweet.
And how fucked up is it that our national mania for security has outlawed trade between simple Mexican merchants and insatiable U.S. tourists? As Becky points out, the stifling of free commerce across the Rio Grande can’t help but exacerbate a climate of desperation on the other side of the border. And that can only fuel more illegal immigration, not to mention greater participation in illegal commerce.
We reach the bottom, feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves and ready to take off on a mad dash for the Visitors Center and the great junior ranger badge quest. While we were hiking, a young couple encountered car trouble. Now they are stranded in the parking lot at the trail head. The call goes out: Anyone know anything about cars?
Not us. Don’t know shit about that.
While we prepare to leave, Jonathan wanders over to see if he can help. As we make our way uphill and out of Chisos Basin, I can’t help but feel like a slimeball for getting the hell out of there without at least making a token offer of help.
Someone says the problem is a leaky radiator hose. Hopefully Jonathan will find a way to MacGyver them out of their despair and get them going again. He’s a scientist, after all. He’s a hell of a lot more useful than me.
Still, we might’ve offered a ride. At least that. Someday I fear we will be the ones in need and karma will leave us stranded in an unenviable position. If so, I’ll know I had it coming.
Wherever you are, stranded travelers of Big Bend, I am sorry.