To El Paso (Days 10, 11)

5.23.2013


Having made it to Big Bend the previous night, I woke early, with the sun, and like a child on the morning of a trip to Disneyland, I hopped up, got dressed, and set out in minutes. My first stop was the Rio Grande herself, which I had paralleled for hundreds of miles but had not yet seen. Following a short trail from the campsite, I climbed a small peak for a lovely view of those waters, though I will admit that I found that slow, lazy river to be something more of a rio pequena. So gentle that I watched Mexican vaqueros trot across it on horseback, this river did not seem to deserve its esteem as a dividing line between nations; I'd seen wider channels carve their presence through unitary towns.

In any event, glimpsing another country, another country I had driven to on a scooter, was a momentous, empowering occasion. Pleased with how this trip was turning out, I set off for my next stop at Big Bend, a bumpy trail that led to the abandoned nineteenth-century town of Hot Springs. The centerpiece of this tiny village, of course, was a natural mineral spring at the edge of the Rio, a soothing pool of hundred-degree water in which to rinse and relax.

Arriving at the spring, I stripped down and slid in, my skin instantly electrified by the water. It felt good to wash away the dust of Texas, the worries of another, more complicated life, to do nothing but sit and soak and give thought to where the day would take me next. Without having to think long, my stomach suggested a restaurant for the next stop, and not having eaten a proper meal since Austin, I gladly obliged. The climbing sun made quick work of drying me off, and by noon, I was back at the scooter and off to the centermost section of Big Bend, the Chisos Basin.

The Chisos Basin, which I had not seen on my way in, made the rest of Big Bend, the splendor I had witnessed the previous night, look merely "nice." The basin and its surrounding mountains were of unimaginable scale, striated formations touching the heavens, dwarfing everything around it in shadows that stretched for miles. The Chisos Basin Restaurant, which sat as small as a kernel of corn in the center of a massive bowl, was my first stop; it was here that I got some much-needed nourishment and some trail advice from the establishment's lunchtime waitress.

The Pinnacles Trail, she had recommended, and so the Pinnacles Trail it was, leaving from a trailhead just outside the restaurant and dipping into the forest, past a sign warning "BEWARE OF MOUNTAIN LIONS" and another adding "OH, ALSO BEWARE OF BEARS," and then up, up and up and up, up into the mountains that tower overhead, so high that I thought "I can't possibly be climbing that, can I?"

As it turns out, I wasn't climbing that; I was climbing something even higher. Emory Peak, the tip of the Chisos Mountains crown, was but a short, intensely steep detour off the main trail, and so when, after several sweaty hours, I arrived at the turnoff, I made a right and continued to climb, only now with bigger, longer, more deliberate steps. Hiking soon turned to scrambling, dropping me to all fours, forcing me to pull myself up my by arms, each grunt bringing me ever closer to the glinting radio tower in the distance.

About fifty feet from the summit, the trail all but evaporated, and so I simply worked my way up, climbing rock after rock, reaching the narrow summit after just a few minutes and no more than a handful of mild scrapes. Here, I had expected to stand, arms proudly outstretched, taking in the world around me, but the peak was so slim, and the winds at this altitude so strong, that I wouldn't dare to do more than crouch and peek over the mountain's precipitous edge.

Exhausted from the long hike, and seeking to savor the magnificent vista a bit longer, I unwrapped a Clif bar and opened up a Vonnegut paperback I had been given by Kevin back in Austin. I spent a touch of time reading, then as the winds politely ushered me off the peak with increasing blows, I packed my things and headed back down.

I always find a challenging ascent to be far more enjoyable than a descent, and this climb was no exception. The boulders I had so effortlessly scaled on my way to the top required careful maneuvering to get back down, and the further down I climbed, it seemed, the more difficult the terrain became. About thirty yards down from the peak, I recognized something was wrong, that I had perhaps taken the wrong route back, and anxiously scanned my surroundings. They didn't look particularly familiar, or unfamiliar for that matter, for the mountain was an infinite texture of shrub and cactus and rock, but try as I did, I couldn't seem to locate the trail I had followed up to the far radius of the peak.

My calm slowly turned to panic, that dreaded realization that one is, indeed, lost in the woods. Returning to the peak was no longer an option, as a few boulders I had jumped down proved too smooth to climb back up, and so I began to circle, tracing a downward spiral around the mountain's uppermost cone. Here and there, I was thwarted by a particularly large tree, a viciously prickly bush, or a decidedly unpassable chasm, and by mid-afternoon, I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be finding the trail, which was so less apparent toward the hike's end, and would instead have to try to pick it up again on lower ground. In other words, I had to get off that mountain all by myself.

It's astounding how something as simple as one's bearings can completely and utterly alter one's perception of a landscape. Just minutes earlier, I found this terrain to quite likely be the most beautiful act of nature I ever had the good fortune to behold, and now, watching this landscape transform from a national park, with friendly rangers and wise talking bears and vending machines down below to this, to this wild swath of land so remote and inhospitable to the untrained foot that bandits once roamed its canyons to evade the law, I was terrified, paralyzed, angry. I gazed out at the Sierra del Carmen before me and found it hideous, a mutation, an obstruction, a tumor upon this planet. At that moment, I wished to see the Chisos leveled to the ground, their magnitude nothing more than an obnoxious stunt. I cursed the wind, which had moments ago cooled me from the midday Texas heat, but now seemed to be hissing, taunting, threatening me with an incoming storm. The clouds, which had so generously shaded me from the sun every now and again during my ascent, they now appeared grey, ugly, menacing.

I began to climb down, slowly, cautiously, navigating the mountain's natural maze, a maze with no promise of anything more than infinite dead ends. The loose dirt gave little support underfoot, cascading down the sharp slopes just yards ahead. I stepped, I slipped, I stumbled down a ledge and hit the ground with a crushing thud.

I rose again, sucked blood from a fresh cut on my left palm, and took another attempt at descending the peak's outward rim. But I had lost my nerve, knees shaking below, and again I crashed to the unforgiving earth. This time, my foot had the misfortune of sliding into a cactus, a foot unprotected by a proper shoe because I had, hours ago, chosen to bring only a pair of minimalist shoes, shoes that offered no structural support and wrapped each toe individually, shoes that lacked anything more than a nylon membrane on their upper half, shoes that put up little resistance to the cactus needles that jabbed and stabbed at my toes so mercilessly.

Yes, I cursed the elements around me, but really, I knew, this was all my fault. How arrogant I had been to rush off without a map, without taking my bearings, without telling a soul where I was going! How arrogant I had been to scramble up to Emory Peak, to conquer the monarch of the Chisos, without so much as turning around to track where I had been. I was in far over my head, lost somewhere in a maze of canyons so tall I could no longer spot the restaurant below. Injured, tired, panicked. And dusk was approaching in only a matter of hours.

Embarrassed, ashamed, I unhooked my whistle and brought it to my lips, issuing a hearty call to any other trekkers who may have been able to signal me in the direction of their trail. Instantly I heard a whistle returned, but my momentary relief was just as promptly drowned by the crushing realization that what I had heard was merely an echo, a cruel practical joke from the canyon before me.

I whistled again, the instrument's shrill cry doing little to stand out among the bird songs that rose from the forest, Big Bend, after all, a birdwatcher's paradise with its nearly five hundred different species. I intensified my whistling, now alternating between short and long bursts, calling "SOS" to any who could hear me.

Nothing.

Panic and frustration boiling over, I thrust myself into the brush, wildly pushing forward and downward without a care for the cuts and scrapes carving their way into my skin. When I stumbled, I made it deliberate, tucking and rolling and sliding through difficult stretches of terrain. I knew not whether I was going in the right direction, but I did know that I was going down, down from 7,000 feet to 6,000, from 6,000 to 5,000, until I hit the valley floor.

The valley was narrow, smothered by years of unkept brush, but at least it was level. Exhaling a small sigh of relief for having made it off the mountain, I next set out to follow the valley west, where I imagined I'd be sure to pick up a trail at some point. And so I trudged, through pits of decomposing leaf and tangles of unforgiving branch, all the while on the lookout for rattlesnakes and black bears and mountain lions, all the while growing ever more unnerved by the preponderance of mountain lion droppings scattered about the valley floor.

Finally, after miles, I eyed a log, three feet in length, half buried in the ground, and then another, a few feet beyond, at a slightly higher level. I raced toward it, on my left, and shouted with glee when I was sure it was of human origin. I bounded those two steps, and raced toward more, each climbing a bit higher from the valley.

I knew I was rising, returning toward the peak, but I didn't care. I didn't know where I was, but I knew that trail would lead somewhere, and that was good enough for me. Eventually, it brought me to an intersection of several small spur trails, and spotting a sign for the trailhead, I turned left and skipped gingerly toward civilization. I was still miles out, to be sure, but my refreshed enthusiasm brought me back in a breeze, delivering me to the Chisos Basin parking lot just before sundown. I was saved.

Originally, I had intended to spend the next day in Big Bend, exploring other sections of its vast and varied landscape. I had aimed to complete several more hikes, enjoy a pair of supposedly gorgeous scenic drives, and camp for one more evening before heading north the next morning. But as I returned to my scooter, my sole companion against this cold, harsh country, I found myself wanting nothing more than to run from that foresaken canyon, that unwelcoming corner of earth, that cruel, ugly place. And so I fled, not looking back, vowing never to return to those unforgiving parts.

In retrospect, I was probably being dramatic. Truthfully, I had only been stuck on the canyon for a few hours, and never was I more than seven miles from civilization. Moreover, mountain lion aside, I would probably have had little trouble camping out that night, even without my tent and sleeping bag, which I had left at the visitors' center earlier that day. But nonetheless, the terror of being lost was, indeed, real, and though my hatred for Big Bend may have mellowed significantly since that frightful afternoon, for I admit it is still a beautiful, otherwordly place, I do stand by my decision to leave then and there.

And leave I did, with the sun setting on my left. Due north I traveled, until I hit Marathon, and then I veered northwest, for the small town of Marfa, where I intended to spend the night. I had heard terrific things about Marfa in preparation for my travels, tales of a hidden mecca of arts and creativity tucked in the far corner of Texas. This, I'm afraid, was not my experience with the town.

Back in Austin, I had met a man named Stefan who had so passionately said of the place, "Marfa? Bah! Don't even bother. I don't even stop when I drive through Marfa!" Stefan was right. I found Marfa to be a disappointment, a severe one, from its unimpressive Marfa Lights on the outskirts of town to its lack of hostel or open campground upon my arrival. To be fair, I arrived to the town late on a weekday evening, and thus my experience may have been soured by arriving at the wrong time of the week. But based on what I saw, Marfa was not a particularly exciting place to be in west Texas, it was merely something in west Texas, and that alone was enough to make it noteworthy.

Absent other options, I checked into an expensive and unremarkable motel on the edge of town, from an innkeeper who, when I asked if the rooms were at least nice, given the price, replied "no, they're shit." Yes, that was Marfa.

I woke late the next morning, getting my money's worth with a cool shower, and then took off for New Mexico, a short day trip to Carlsbad Caverns. Buried under the southeastern corner of the state, Carlsbad is an incredible place, one of the world's longest stretching cave systems, and the world's very largest continuous cavern. The Big Room, as it was called, was nearly a mile and a half in circumference, a space of mind-boggling dimensions, hundreds of feet high, without a single joist, column, or architectural consideration supporting it. Upon arriving, I was amazed by the variety of its formations, both eerie and beautiful, of staggering size, and impressed by the thoughtfulness of its lighting, so much softer and subtler than its counterparts on the east coast.

But just as lovely as these underground caverns was the land directly above it, long rolling stretches of hill and mound blanketed in golden shrubs. And that sky! Never have I seen blue like a New Mexico sky, so rich and vibrant, with such tremendous contrast against the yellows and greens of the earth below. Yes, that memorable palette followed me from Carlsbad to the far west stretches of the state, before stopping at the Texan border, which I passed once again en route to El Paso.

I arrived in El Paso in the early evening, and checked into a historic and well-cultured hotel with a few dormitory offerings. The owner of the establishment was a friendly, gregarious man, thrilled to hear that it was my first time in the city. On cue, he produced a map from seeming thin air, and a pen from behind his ear, and he got to work circling and drawing and annotating with dizzying speed. He rattled off the names and locations and environments of dozens of local bars, checking with me after each to ensure I was paying attention. He then asked if I was going to Ciudad Juarez, to which I said yes, and just like that, another map appeared, with accompanying commentary on what was worth seeing and what wasn't, on where it was safe to travel and where I should probably not go alone.

This encounter took the better part of a half-hour, but I appreciated the care and attention more than were I to receive no recommendations at all, and though I wouldn't be staying in town for three months and thus wouldn't have time to explore each of his points of interest, I did vow to make an effort to stop by a few of them. After a brief night at a locals' bar in which my rusty Spanish did little service to my growling stomach, I returned to my bed, slept, and, the next morning, headed to the border for a short visit to Ciudad Juarez.

5 comments:

  1. You are such a talented storyteller. I am at the edge of my seat as you encounter these dire situations and emerge heroically at the end. Stay safe.

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  2. Carlsbad is stunning. I hope you get the chance to go back sometime in the fall when the bats fly out at dusk =).

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    1. I was intending to stick around for the batflight, but yeah, the ranger said the bats were few this time of year and that it probably wasn't worth me hanging around for another four hours. :(

      I do hope to see 'em one day, though!

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  3. Just catching up on your journal. You're a pretty talented writer.

    Glad you got to see El Paso and Juarez. I live vicariously through you in that...for now.

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    1. Thanks Reggie! By the way, I saw a commercial the other day while passing through a gas station for a new show called "The Bridge": crime drama that takes place in El Paso/Juarez. Might be something worth checking out.

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