This week I celebrated my first anniversary as a volunteer at the Big Bend Ranch State Park. I’ve never done anything more satisfying or lived anywhere I liked better. I’ve found everything I expected to find here and have harvested more than I could ever have imagined.
I’ve loved this park since the first time I saw it over 20 years ago. I came to hike the Rancheria trail. I left determined to come back and spend some serious time here. In my naieveté I believed that I could see most of the park in a year. Now I know that even a casual viewing will take much longer than that.
People sometimes ask me “why here?” In West Texas we have nothing like a Grand Canyon, no forests of giant cacti like the Saguaros, no massive snow-capped mountains, no limitless dunes, no vast areas of red rock, or wind-carved canyons – none of the icons that form the average American’s mental images of deserts.
My answer is that our desert is unique and that loving it is not difficult. The traditionally compelling attractions of space, silence, and solitude are here in abundance. Wearied spirits and frazzled nerves are quickly healed in the silence of this place. I have spent days simply listening to the sounds of wind as it rushes through draws, ravines and canyons; the rumbles, howls and whistles of the wind intermingle in a constantly-shifting tapestry of desert music. If you sit very still on a hot windless day, the silence is absolute; soon the sounds of blood flowing through your veins, air traveling in and out of your lungs, and joints and bones shifting as your body maintains its balance become the loudest noises in your universe.
You can travel for weeks here and never see a comtrail. The absence of this industrial graffiti makes the sky, once again, a joy to photograph. Gentle pastel sunrises, blazing sunsets, or clear twilights still carry their full visual force in the Big Bend region, and our photographs are the better for it. Smoke and haze are often present, but even they can exhibit a strange beauty that somehow doesn’t seem “civilized.”
Sleeping in the open here is an incomparable joy – our clear air reveals the sky as a black velvet sphere thick with glittering stars. Though it is no longer possible to see the Milky Way in most parts of the country, here it is thick and creamy and spreads across the sky from horizon to horizon. As the heavens wheel about the North Star, outdoor sleepers become aware of the turning from brief glimpses seen during moments of wakefulness. The sky’s changing composition becomes solidly linked with the seasons in the outdoor sleeper’s experience.
During our cold clear winters and extended dry periods creosote withdraws nutrients and protective chemicals from its leaves and turns to a coppery orange color. Many bluestem grasses do the same. Other grasses assume golden straw colors; fluff grass grows in white balls that glow in the backlit sun; the Chihuahuan Desert’s dry-weather palette is the perfect complement for the warm light of sunrises and sunsets.
The Chihuahuan Desert has the most abundant plant life of any desert on the continent. The timing of our rains keeps the average soil temperature down and allows many species to survive here that otherwise could not. During the rainy season the Chihuahuan Desert gets greener than any other. Shrubs cover themselves with flowers, Ocotillos become wrapped in leaves, and wildflowers rush to grow, flower, and seed before the moisture disappears. The transformation is all the more remarkable for the speed with which it is accomplished. An Ocotillo can become fully leaved in a few days. In a week the world can be transformed.
The climate’s harshness is legendary and the possibility of death is never far removed. Here you learn to watch where you put your feet and hands, observe the ground carefully when walking, and obey all the rules of heat and water. You learn to let other people know where you’re going and when you’re returning. You carry equipment for emergencies and you do all you can to make yourself visible and easy to find. And after awhile none of this is disturbing – it all becomes part of the pattern of desert living, like rising early to work in the morning’s cool air, napping through hot afternoons, and returning to activity in the evenings.
When I came here I thought I was the luckiest man alive. I still do.