NEVER SAW IT COMING
When I looked back, I couldn’t see her. She was somewhere below, around the bend, invisible, lagging behind. I told the others to go on ahead. When I got to her, her sunglasses were sliding down her nose and she was slogging ahead, one foot in front of the other, one pole stick prick at a time, piercing the earth, like an alpinist, sipping air through the tightest lungs. Her head was almost purple. Only thing was, we were only half a mile up the trail.
We were told to park at the overflow parking lot below the Chisos Basin visitor center. And doing so is tacking on a half-mile of straight-up, in clay, with all that heavy-ass water you have to bring to Big Bend. 2.2lbs a liter. Texas water is scarce, and counting on Boot Spring to be flowing, is a risky hand.
I saw the whole thing go down. The group had given me the lead, and I took to climbing and took it seriously. Forty-five pounds on my back, and straight-incline is right up my alley. I like to mush. I was quiet during the first part of the hike, measuring my effort and swatting all those doubts that crawl inside your head like Daddy-Long-Legs trying to get you to bow out. I could hear my wife just chatting it up behind me like a teenage girl on the phone in the 80s. Like sped-up cassette tape recordings, giddy giggling and the sound of four women joyously agreeing about things.
I knew she was making a mistake. She had delayed taking her oral medication to avoid nausea and the chemical tastes in the mouth from puffs of albuterol. Her asthma was a greedy thing, and it would not share the air. I had made this mistake in Skagway, Alaska, years ago, hiking up the Upper Dewey Lake Trail with a Marine who hiked about like a giddy billy goat happy to be free of his rucksack. My mistake was asking him to teach me some marching ditties while we hiked up. Those black mud, rocky switchbacks were like a thousand switchblade slits to my oxygen. I was also wearing cowboy boots and jeans. Didn’t go so well. Left me gasping like a defeated Darth Vader imploring Luke to leave him behind. Ended up becoming a trial of survival. But that’s another story…
I told her colleague from work to go on ahead to our first campsite. It was his wife’s first birthday in four years: February 29th, and she had invited her sister and friend from Arizona. We would take the Pinnacles Trail, overnight, and climb over into Boot Canyon to Laguna Meadows, camp again, and hike down to the Chisos Basin Visitor center and head back home to Austin.
But we always run behind.
We had an AirBnB reserved in Marathon, but I had worked the night before trying to tie up things for our trip, so there was no way I was going to get up ‘early.’ I don’t even know what that means. We woke up late, had tacos at our favorite taqueria late, and hit the highway late. All of our backpacking supplies were in a tote box, like a box of legos, full of pieces to a puzzle that would take hours to assemble. We also had a new tent we hadn’t tested out for
temperatures. We always burn the first day; but it burns brighter when you give yourself a hard time about it. We tsk-tsked ourselves quietly and tried not to look at the clock. Good thing the sky does its disco dance-floor thing when you start to reach Far West Texas. At first you get a bucket of purple spilling across the sky and then a desert furnace glowing just above the ranchland. That’s when your trip starts.
We stopped in Ft. Stockton to fill up on gas before heading to Marathon. We parked in front of a minivan parked at a pump, with two silhouettes inside casing all the motorists, to see who to hit up for gas. The driver had a 10 gallon gas can and he immediately approached me to ask for some fuel. Nicest demeanor, but he wanted gas at that moment. I told him to back up, sternly. I told him I was going to take care of my wife first. He backed off like Doc Holliday with a patient grin. My guess was they were driving cross-country on I-10. No telling how many motorists “crowd-funded” their trip. One of their passengers came out of the convenience store with one of those $4 dollar fountain drinks, slurping the straw, and gave me a big smile for helping out. She was watching the hustle the whole time. Oh man. I did score a great Texas Tech cap at this gas station, but I wanted to get outta Dodge.
We drove onto the Dark Highway. Southbound road that leads you to Big Bend Country proper, and boy, could we tell. All sorts of critters danced and scurried on the fringe of our high-beams. Deer, javelina, birds, and more birds. It was like a light-tunnel into a desert zoo. But what we witnessed next was outside of the box. On my right, we saw an elk the size of a horse, stagger back on its hindlegs on the side of the road, and struggle to make it into the brush. Our air bnb host told us later that it was probably struck by a vehicle and trying to come-to.
We made it to Marathon and I guess I thought it would be bigger than 400 residents, but it wasn’t. Looked like a movie set. We found the Big Bend information center, a shed with thumbtacked photos and a swinging light bulb, and found the dirt road and ranch gate to our rental. The host was on the porch with a lantern leading us in. Her blue heeler stepped right in front of our headlights fearlessly like an MP. My wife rolled down the window and did her dog-whisperer thing and coaxed him out of the way. I asked the host if we were at the right place and we stepped out. She said yes and told us that she was “normally a hugger,” but with the virus, she kept it polite.
I was overcome by the great black vault of sky stretched heavily over us, with its patches of green stardust and nebulae of new universes swirling above our heads. We made our way in and started unloading the car. Learned how to work a gas heater again, and really enjoyed the pleasure of walking by the ranch dogs, at once guarding the homestead, and at other times lounging on the deck, like an old guitar resting in a corner. I found a book in the house that was a novel but in wood etchings, no words. Loved the black and white tones and shading that glowed energy like a Frank Miller story.
Upon our host’s suggestion, we decided on the White Buffalo Bar for dinner. How is there food this good in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert? The cornmeal fried oysters and grilled bavette steak tacos washed down with Pint & Plow Blonde Ales were crisp and cold. Meghan the bartender took great care of us. We headed back and immediately got to work packing the backpacks because we knew that we wouldn’t do it in the morning. It took us three long hours, and we hadn’t even broken out the tent yet. My wife got inside, played house, and by the time we made it to bed it was 3 a.m.
The Gage Hotel had a coffee shop on the same street so we went there first thing in the morning. I was decked out with Tech apparel from head to toe and found a kindred spirit in the coffee shop. Put a smile on my groggy face. We had our oatmeal and coffee and headed to Big Bend. We met my wife’s colleague at the Chisos Basin Visitor center, and I found a spot by the picnic benches and started on some joint mobility exercises...or there would be no mobility. When you’re pushing 50, you better grease the groove or hiking becomes like a scene from a car chase movie in the 70s where the giant sedan topples over the cliffside, tumbling like shoes in a spinning dryer.
I was the fat guy who looked like he was doing Tai Chi. A few girls stopped by to set down their packs and they started giggling. Hey, I had to get cranked up for the hike.
As soon as my wife willed her lungs to make do with sips of air, we marched, one step at a time, up the Pinnacles Trail. Day hikers with their little purses and cameras tap-danced up and down the stairs, too busy to talk. Occasionally, we would see an elderly man hike down with a Zen-like gaze, whistling worries away, sun hat cocked just so, with a wide lens camera slung over the shoulder.
Every time I looked back, my wife’s color would improve. I knew she’d found her sweet spot. No matter the challenge, she’d find her sweet-spot-pace, where she could handle anything, even the Pinnacles. She did it at McKittrick Ridge, and she did it at Big Bend. Each look back, the view of the Window got better and better, and she would smile with delight, completely forgetting her tight chest and wheezing breaths. The Window, with its Far-Off Azure and Purple mountains, daze and quiet the mind. We could stop and look back at it countlessly.
We made it to the campsite, and marveled at the great, golden Pinnacles, spires of Golden Rock, glowing from grapefruit sunrays piercing through the top of Toll Mountain. At once, the cool set in, and we made camp. We set our tent up between two boulders, just right, like Goldilocks, and we turned giddy for the weight off our backs. I’d been on a Charley Crockett kick lately, and started listening to “Good Time Charley’s Got the Blues,” over and over again. Drove my wife crazy, but I was happy crooning, and setting up my stove for some chow.
We walked over to our friends’ campsite in flip-flops and chatted about the trail, the views, and our takeaways from Day 1. I noticed some unexpected guests. Bees buzzed and buffeted the air around me. I did not expect this insect at my party. At first I tried the Zen thing, ignoring them until they fizzled out, and then I tried swatting them down like King Kong vs. airplanes. Neither of them worked. In fact, I ended up getting stung. One of the bumbles got between my flip-flop and my foot and buried a butt-stinger in my skin. Stung for a minute but the pain subsided. Strangely, after a strong, cool breeze, all the bees vanished. In fact, this seemed to happen each evening at the same time.
We retired for the night cozy under our tiny L.E.D.s in a lime-green tent, guarded by the towering, brass Pinnacles behind us. The next morning we woke up late, and encouraged our friends to go on ahead. We packed up camp and made our way to the clay switchbacks. I reminded my wife to hike her own hike, as I challenged myself to push through long stretches as fast as I could to test my mettle. I kept running into hikers who gave me Guns Up for my Alma Mater and shared their Tech connections. I was feeling pretty good with my fitness and progress. The Tortoise was below breathing very carefully, and whispering prayers to herself, and the Hare was polishing his nails and patting himself on the back for all of his speed….until the last flight of clay stairs. Toll Mountain sent a cold chill onto the Hare’s sweaty windbreaker and closed up his airways until his eyeballs floated in his head, nausea simmered in his guts, and his voice wheezed.
I’ve never done well with sudden cold and altitude. And this time was no different. The tortoise arrived with a gentle smile, refreshed, and spoke many wisdoms to the fool, until they made it to the bear boxes on Toll Mountain.
I caught a chill I couldn’t shake and was too flu-like to consider Emory Peak. And I was a jerk. Like a fratboy kicked out of the bar, who drank too much too fast. I regret it to this day. If I had paced myself, we would have had another jewel of memories. Lesson learned. But that’s what I said last time in Alaska.
We crossed over from Jekyll to Hyde mountainside. Cold and damp on one side, and now, this two-faced mountain was Arizona, warm with the Chihuahuan desert air.
I was happy to warm up, beanie over my ears, but my nausea was still there, just enough to make me tighten my stomach to stop it from rocking. I grouched at my wife to help me with my pack, and an older fellow, dressed like Mark Twain with a top hat, wide lens camera slung over his shoulder, stopped by and asked if he could give us some advice. I snarled to myself. I wanted no part of the comment box drop. My wife was happy to entertain his nuggets of wisdom, while I looked at the man not unlike Moe to Larry right before he erupted. I wanted space and no suggestions from anyone.
About the time we neared the Colima Trail, I started to feel good again, and I got giddy and saintly, so happy to be back to myself doing what I love to do.
In Boot Canyon, I definitely felt like I was in bear country. Colima, however, felt like big cats. I could just feel it. We were in a Goldleaf Forest. The leaves just shimmered in goldflake, like castanets, matching the coat of the puma. I told my wife I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. Too much cover, too many blind-spots for my now vivid imagination and camouflaged cougars. As we hiked the last stretch of the Colima, we could see across Laguna Meadows, and the large green patch of meadow under Emory Peak. There was a lone green tent there with a trail visibly leading to Laguna West. As I hiked, and felt my second wind, I became grateful, and started humming the old Sunday School hymn. I have no idea why it came over me. Kind of like that chill on the other side of the mountain. I sang, “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong,” over and over again, more than I sang Charley Crockett earlier.
When we made it to Laguna Meadows campsite #2, we started laughing. Every sign on the way into Big Bend said “Campgrounds Full.” LM2 had over 5 pad sites and it was all ours. 5 bedroom, one bath, guesthouse; all we were missing was a jacuzzi. And when you looked up, the rockslide and cliffs of the Great Emory Peak above. We made camp and our friend Nick stopped by to make sure we made it safely. We followed him to his camp, LM1, and oddly, it was ¼ mile away, right by the Laguna West campsites. Turns out they were camped in the meadow patch we saw earlier from the Colima. We broke out the flask, and took modest pulls of Wild Turkey, trading stories, and swatting away bees. My wife somehow had wine and her face gradually turned red, grinning continuously like a Cheshire cat.
I decided to take a stroll on a trail that led out of their campsite. Every step I took, I wanted to go further. I felt uneasy, but I might as well have been on another planet, taking in every new rock formation, studying the flora, cacti, and trees. I ended up at the Laguna West Campgrounds and decided to turn back. I could really take in the scope of the valley and the tension in the land between the lush and the arid earth. I started to feel uneasy again, so I picked up a rock, and doubled my pace. I began to worry more than hike and I didn’t know why. I made it back to camp and we decided to head back to our site. We discovered a hidden view just behind the bear boxes from a ledge behind a lone tree. We risked injury for our photographs and my love and I had our own little South Rim of Heaven. I made some coffee, we had some hot chow, and we slept our last night in Big Bend. Little did we know, two weeks later, this National Park would be closed to all camping due to the Coronavirus.
The next morning we packed up, with transformed backpacks, 19 and a half liters of water lighter. They felt like jetpacks now. We were dirty, hungry for junk food and cold beer, but very satisfied with our two night trip in Big Bend.
When my wife saw her colleague Nick at the office the next workday, she overheard someone asking him if he saw any wildlife, he turned to my wife and said, “I forgot to tell you…” Ten minutes after we left their campsite that night, he heard rustling in the bush. He went to have a look and saw a stalking figure slink across the meadow, just beneath the grass. He rushed back to the campsite and told the others to start making loud noises. They grabbed pots and pans and banged them together over and over again. Now dusk, he grabbed his flashlight and pointed it in the direction of the shadow. He saw the shine and gaze of two eyes staring back at him. The rest of the night our friends sat in their tents yelling and talking loudly to another until they dozed off from the wane of adrenaline . He asked if we could hear them from the trail banging pots. He said he tried to text us, but he couldn’t get through.
Happy Birthday, Shelby.