Boston to the Bay- Mountains turn to desert

April 15, 2014 1:31 PM

The train is beginning to wear on me.  The peaks are beautiful and the tufts of grass interlocked with patches of snow are brilliant, but I want out of the artificial environs of this train.  I long to be on foot, breathing the crisp air for myself.

On the bright side, I’ve learned that Mountain Dew registers on a breathalyzer and that grapes, “really gas you up.”  

We are following a gorgeous canyon dug out by the Colorado River.  Conifers and shrubs are prominent along the otherwise dry, boulder strewn banks.  White tufts of water rush like graceful snow ants protecting their mound.

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Periodically, darkness encloses the train as we enter a cocoon-like tunnel.

We’ve passed the snow-covered portion and the land has begun to remind me of the dry desert lands of Big Bend I have grown to love.

The grass mesas at lower elevation seem more hospitable, stark, and real.  The snow-capped jewels of the Rockies, while stunning, never feel real.  Perhaps the beauty is too large to comprehend, simply not collapsible into the English language.  For this reason, I prefer the humble grass and shrubs of an open plain.

The difference between the western US and the Midwest is profound. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa give glimpses into what civilization and culture have wrought upon the US.  The route teems with failed habitation, factories puffing out smoke, cars and trains, a land unrecognizable to the natives of this land.

The Rocky Mountain stretch shows the audacity of incomprehensible geologic forces at work, and man’s pathetic attempt to saddle and ride a world as powerful and vindictive (rightly so) as an infuriated bronco.  The towering white peaks and the burning red sand makes an overt stand against human encroachment.

We’ve reached sharp, dry cliffs.  A land soaked in sun and shadows.  A land where bank robbers and villains lurked in caves.  A land of gold and theft, wealth and crime.  Land like this tests a man, pushes him to his brink, and brings him back with the promise of challenge and adventure.

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Big Bend Day 3- Just Don’t Collapse

After 24 draining miles, we still had 8 miles and 1,800 meters to climb.  Blue Creek Path, a winding trail through a dry creek bed, would be our path out.

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After two miles and multiple thoughts of collapsing, my little brother spotted massive caves adorning the rock walls above.  His initial request to scale the wall was not effective.  A combination of thirst and lack of oxygen flow to the brain resulted in an emphatic “hell no”.  After some hankering and a slow restoration of our senses, we agreed to fight the underbrush and make our way up the canyon.  While my older brother prudently hung back, Max and I climbed slippery sediment to a large, dark cave.

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Potential Bear Hibernaculum

We were uneasy as we imagined the animals inhabiting the dark shelter.  In a dim-witted last effort, we pressed on.

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Dark cave, why not?

We found a sprawling empty cave.  The enormity and dark shadows of the ancient room mesmerized us.  We basked in the shade and echoes of the immense caves and then headed back towards the trail.  Max taught me how to slide down slippery rock using my left foot as a rudder and we scooted right down the mountain.

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Hey Max

The next five miles nearly brought all of us to our breaking point.  In a moment of weakness and spite towards the unending upward terrain, I shouted something to the effect of, “make it stop!” and kicked a powerless shrub.  Heat, rocks, and elevation will change a man.

Still, the great expanse of this place captured our imaginations.  The scale and distance of Big Bend alters the way you think about limitations.  Land, rocks unending.  Sky floats forever.  Time stands still at the altar of infinite space.

As we reached the downhill portion of our journey, we reflected on an amazing test of our resolve and the unmatched beauty we witnessed.  We even appreciated the ten-mile section of the hike through the barren desert flats.  We will always grasp the effect of pervasive dirt, wind, and sun on life.  We now fathom the great oppression and beauty of miles of nothing.

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Big Bend Day 2- Sand, sand, cactus, cactus

“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks.  You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.  Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.” Edward Abbey, The Great American Desert 1977

Fast-moving low clouds filled the canyon.  Any fog from our angst-ridden sleep dissipated as we soaked in the mystical display.

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Low clouds over the valley

Around mid morning we reached the basin and entered ten miles of sand and desert that would erode our willpower step by step, grain by grain.

The sun beat down on us for hours and the weight of our water and food began to take its toll on our shoulders and feet.  Eventually, I focused in on my brother’s paws, watching them trample rock after rock.  I hardly looked up and when I did I was dejected by the slow-moving vista.  Miles of harsh flora stood between us and Homer-Wilson Ranch, our resting place for the night.

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I’ll always be a Texan

The only signs of life were an occasional deer track, some baked horse turds, and a large tarantula.  We felt frivolous for worrying about monsters of the forest when we saw so few critters.

By late afternoon, the drudgery of the desert had us disenchanted, openly questioning the use of this thirty-two mile trek.  In travel, and often life, you must pass the point of initial frustration to gather new experience.  We pushed onward for a few miles until we reached Homer-Wilson Ranch.

A spectacular red and orange sunset glistened off the towering canyon walls.  Behind us we saw the distant peaks of the Chisos Mountains stretching far into Mexican territory.  We headed up a hill and watched daylight slowly pale.  We scanned upward and saw the black silhouette of a man with a Cowboy hat striking a contemplative pose atop the cliff.  A perfect caricature of the American West made the long walk worth it, even if the man turned out to be somebody’s humdrum grandpa and not John Wayne.

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Here’s the payoff