Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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"Many species here are at the extreme limits of their range."

The words from Big Bend National Park’s brochure seemed personal to me. The brochure meant that some Latin American species come this far north while several northern species migrate this far south, but I interpreted the words to suggest Big Bend as a place of transition, a crossroads, a border. The line that divides things.

It was the right place for me to spend my birthday.

The Chisos Mountains, an island range completely within the Park (the only mountain range totally inside a national park), form a unique habitat in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. Isolated thousands of years ago as the ice age climate retreated northward, it stranded animals and plants that once moved freely across land we now call Texas, call Mexico. Most obvious is a small deer -- the Sierra del Carmen white-tailed deer-- who live only in the Chisos Mountains in the U.S. and only in the Sierra Madre del Carmen in Mexico, the mountains you see to the south, wherever you are in Big Bend. Before the ice age faded, before the Chihuauan Desert became the dominant landscape, the little deer moved back and forth between the mountains. (There are some small whitetails in mountains not far north of Big Bend, but they seem to be considered separate species.)

Trees – Arizona pine, Doug fir, Arizona cypress, aspen, bigtooth maple—are remnants of that long-gone ice-age forest. Black bear live here, some crossing the Rio Grande to come up from Mexico. There are mountain lions and, the goal of the myriad birders flocking to the Park, the Colima warbler. This rare warbler seems to like the oak-pine forest the little deer favor. The forest also succors the Texas madrone, which grows in other places, but which is, to me, the world’s most beautiful tree with the smooth red bark of its dancing limbs.

I’m fascinated by borders, by the idea of a line that divides things. But this year it is also how I feel about my birthday. One that feels like the extreme limit of my range. I’ve come to the frontier and Big Bend is the only place to cross the border. Hiking up a mountain on my birthday is always my preferred approach to a new year. But this year’s mountain seemed a different sort of challenge.

Emory Peak, a mountain I love and have hiked several times, loomed more proving ground than celebration. At 7832 feet, the highest mountain in Big Bend, it climbs over 2400 feet in about 4 ½ miles from the Basin to the summit. The Park rates it as a strenuous trail. I decided that if I could hike it with no problem, the year would be alright.

The Park was different this year than on previous visits. We usually come near the end of April,as we had now, and, usually, find the desert filled with cactus blooms. Not this year. "You’re about two weeks too late," the ranger at the entrance station said.

After an early spring, the desert was dry, brittle, summer hot. Since our last visit, three Aprils ago, there has been a hurricane, a deep freeze, a long drought. Many plants were brown, desiccated. Like most desert plants, they will wait until rain comes.

And if it never comes . . . ??

For the sake of David’s photography, I hoped we would find cactus in bloom higher up, although prospects did not look terrific. The welcoming madrone next to the road leading from Park Headquarters at Panther Junction to the Basin stood dead along the road. And here we were above the desert. Signifying the grace, the beauty, the life of these mountains, the madrone seemed a dried skeleton waiting for fire. It seems as if much of the park is waiting for fire.

Fire is a healthy, cleansing, rejuvenating event for wildland, but when the wildland is tinder-dry from too prolonged a drought, fire seems something other than restorative. I do not want to see fire following the hurricane, freeze, drought. I want the summer rain to come. I want this world green.

A yearling black bear foraged grass near our room. He lay in the grass at the edge of the road and chewed, stood up, moved slightly, lay back down. His mother (I found out later) had been sleeping under the restaurant deck, or hanging around near the lodge, teaching her cub her lifestyle. By the time we arrived, Mama Bear had been moved to Cattail Falls. The cub had a sibling who died without the Park realizing there was a second cub. He’s learned to ignore visitors, but eventually some visitor will do some stupid thing, and the bear will pay the price. He’ll be moved when he’s older in any case, hopefully before that happens.

On the day of our Emory Peak hike, a white/grey blanket covered the sky. Smoke from fires in Mexico drifted across the morning, lay heavy on the still air. No grass moved. No plant. Muggy, close air wrapped itself around us as we hiked up beyond the first camp sites, the first meadows. I believed we would move out of it, but it was not the morning I’d imagined. The trail wound higher, past rock and madrones. The sky changed. A blue opening here, there, a breeze, a perfect pathway winding up and up my mountain, winding into the right kind of day.

Leading, I walked slowly, pacing the walk so it would be comfortable for David as we climbed up. (I’m in better shape than he is.) It was a kind of discipline for me – don’t rush, measure, measure, maintain, one step, the next, continue, continue. (It was the way we walked in the Alps. Americans go faster.)

Of course, though, we had to stop for every cactus in bloom–and we were finding them-- and for many madrones. There’s no way for David to build a rhythm when he must stop so often to photograph.

We’d passed several birders on the way. They’d heard, but not seen, the Colima warbler. At the campsite junction to the Boot CanyonTrail, about 3 ½ miles into the hike, we stopped for a rest and a stretch. A jay settled on the tree above us – waiting for a snack. Beggar. He waited a fair time before deciding we were worthless. A birder stopped to chat a minute before heading to the Boot Canyon Trail in his attempt to see a warbler. He was already excited about the Painted Redstart he’d photographed.

From the campsite to the peak, the trail winds along the western edge of Boot Canyon. There were many more cactus in bloom as we came out against sky. Breezes accompanying us since the trail junction had cleared out any remnants of smoke. Now, rounding a sharp corner, wind whipped full at us. This corner always seems to me the gateway to the world of rock and forest leading to the rocky summit.

My concern about my own borders proved itself to be nothing. I was hardly aware of walking uphill. I wasn’t tired. Approaching the peak, the rock was nothing to scramble up, or back down. What I felt was exhilaration at my strength, a celebration of myself, of this place I so love. I’ve never understood the expression–the idea–of "conquering" a mountain. Not really a term hikers use, but the sense is the same, whether one is hiking or climbing. No one conquers a mountain. The mountain is not changed by the climber. (Except for garbage often left on top.) The climber may have conquered her or his own fears, but the mountain remains as it was. Maybe it is why I love mountains. They send down stonefalls or avalanches, but nothing is personal. They simply exist.

After lunch on top, David searched for his claret cup cactus–a gorgeous image made some years back (that the Park uses in its brochure). Not finding it, he found others. And the magnificent jumbles of good, solid rock this peak offers.

I love rock. I love the Chisos. I love my birthday.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner