Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


Read posts by Ruth

Listen to interviews with Ruth

Sign up for Ruth's Mailing List



“We drove miles across the endless Texas desert, the only vehicle on a road striping through sand and cactus and greasewood for so long that I forgot we were going somewhere.”

That’s the opening of the Big Bend chapter in OUR NATIONAL PARKS, a book David and I did together.  It was my first trip to Big Bend.  I had never experienced the kind of space I was entering. The Chihuahuan desert, mountains erupting out of it like a mirage, a muddy Rio Grande and the countries it separates, rock, cactus, agave, lechugilla, sand, all of it going on forever. 

After numerous visits I am as awed as I was on my first.       

Ocotillo are profusely in bloom as we drive toward the Chisos Mountains.   David is here to lead a workshop while I’ll spend the time hiking.  On my first visit, David and I hiked to the peak of the Chisos’ highest mountain – 7832 foot Emory Peak.  I haven’t done it since because of back problems that caused me concern about doing it on my own.  (David is usually leading a photography workshop when we’re here.) But this trip, I will do it. Two easy hikes first.  Warmups.   Then my peak.

Day 1.  The Window trail begins with a 980 foot descent from the Chisos Basin (site of the lodge, visitor center and store).  After that it is a mostly level 2.8 miles to the narrow slot canyon – The Window—that channels all rainwater from the Basin to the desert below.  (Water is piped 1500 feet back up to the Basin, for use in all tourist facilities.)

Following the Oak Creek Canyon drainage westward to the pour-off,  I cross open chaparral slopes, pass century plants, cactus, oaks, Mexican drooping juniper and  pinyon pine.  The trees provide delicious shade on a warm day.  Shortly beyond some fresh bear scat, there is a yellow sign.  “Warning,” it says, “Bear activity in the area.” 

Not long before reaching the slickrock leading to the pour-off, a babbling Oak Creek emerges from trees and brush, glittering dark in deep shade. When the trail reaches rock, steps cut into the stone edge pools of water. Water falls in narrow ribbons  from one level of stone to the next, ultimately pouring through the Window to plunge 200 feet to the desert below.  A rainstorm the evening before produced more water than I’ve ever seen here and the wet rock is slippery. The high rock walls forming the Window--Amon Carter Peak on the south, Vernon Bailey Peak on the north-- create a space both monumental and intimate, the perfect lunch spot.  Above me, an ocotillo leans over the top of Vernon Bailey Peak, as if wanting a view of the pour-off.

Day 2.  The Lost Mine Trail is the first hike David and I did on my first visit to Big Bend.  Then, as we started, I noticed a sign announcing that lions had been seen on the trail.  For that entire hike I checked every boulder we passed for the crouching lion I knew was on top. I looked behind me every few feet in case one was following.  I hiked that trail essentially missing the entire thing.    

This time I focused on the environment through which I walked.  I identified plants presented in the nature trail guide available at the trailhead.  I learned the differences between alligator, one-seed and drooping junipers.  I saw prickly pear and claret cup cactus blooms.  I experienced the subtle distinction between sotol and nolina, which look similar but feel different.  I looked at views!   Letting go of lions, I was fully present to my hike.    

The trail climbs 1,100 ft. in 2.4 miles, ultimately trading desert mountain vegetation for a broad ridge of red rock that ends – more or less -- in mid-air when a 10-foot wall rises up in front of you.  On both sides (and beyond the wall), the ridge plunges steeply down to canyons and green forests.  There are mountains in every direction. It is a high and gorgeous place. 

Day 3.  Emory Peak.  Beginning in the woods behind the lodge buildings, the trail to the peak crosses open meadow, switchbacks up through forest, gains about 2250 ft. in 4.5 miles, then ends on the rocky peak.  I have imagined this trail so often that I assume I know it.  I remember a broad stone wall built by the CCC at a curve in the trail, an old madrone hanging over it.  I remember a sloping meadow on the outside of the curve where I watched the little Sierra del Carmen deer.   

There are, indeed, CCC built stone supports at various turns, and occasional madrones, but the place in my mind is only in my mind.  I wonder if my eagerness to do this hike is based on eagerness to come to a place I invented, and found magical. 

At a broad turn, I meet a man with an enormous camera lens who tells me he saw a Colima warbler and managed to photograph it.  “Not very well, though,” he says.  Colima warblers, rare, local birds, are found only in the oak/pine canyons in this area (and in Mexico in winter) and, usually, only on the Colima Trail, a trail beyond my turn-off for Emory Peak.  I’m fascinated by birds, but I am not a birder, and I have never before actually considered the Colima warbler.  After talking with the man, though, I needed to see it.  When, later, I encountered two other men at the junction to Emory Peak who also saw the warbler, I am  certain I will see it.   Not only that, but this now seems the sole purpose of this hike.

From the junction the trail climbs steeply a short way before contouring around the  mountain.  Much of the rest of the trail is newly cut or newly groomed. Tarp-covered caches of trail-building equipment lie to the side of the trail.  I blame the newness for the fact that I remember nothing about this top section of trail.  In my memory, I came out of forest into meadow before reaching the rocks of the summit.  But since the earlier part of the trail did not coincide with my memory of it, there is no reason  my memory should be more reliable here.  The views from this part of the trail are vast, the trail comfortable.  But there is no meadow.  The trail simply ends on the rocks.  On the peak I meet a couple who passed me on the trail.  (This is not difficult to do.)  They are leaving as I settle in, but we talk a bit.

They, too, are from Montana. 

The woman asks, “You’re not afraid of lions, hiking alone?”

“No.  I think they’ve got plenty of better things to eat here,” I say, realizing how far I’ve come since that first hike on the Lost Mine Trail. It’s not that I’m unconscious of the presence of lions, but feeling at home here, understanding better how Big Bend lives, I am no longer frightened.  This peak is, indeed, a triumph . . .

I never did see the Colima warbler.

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Rudner