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Big Bend: Rocks and Hard Places

After hearing innumerable accounts of the raw beauty of Big Bend National Park, two fresh-faced LFer’s embarked on a four night excursion in the Chisos backcountry. Repeatedly battered by the unforgiving wilderness, what were once the innocent, emerged weathered, salty adventurers. For those pressed for time: snakes, unknown creatures in the night, wind, rain, fog, mud, and mud. Their (abdridged, but still lengthy) story follows. Clockwise from Left: A struggle from the beginning-Thomas couldn't make it atop the sign before the self timer, view from Emory Peak, Western Diamondback on the trail Thomas and Claire set out well equipped, both with significant experience in the backcountry, and yet somehow proved fully unprepared for what lay ahead. Arriving Sunday evening at sunset, the first night was spent in the Chisos Basin campgrounds without incident. In the morning a backcountry permit was obtained along with suggestions to camp lower in Boot Canyon to seek shelter from the storm that would likely blow through in the night. After a pleasant meal atop gusty Emory Peak, a lone hiker was seen coming up the trail. From the elevated vantage, the traveler appeared to be talking to himself though his words were unintelligble. As he came closer, his mantra of “Hey Bear, Hey Kitty,” became audible. When he reached us at the summit, he introduced himself as Kevin, and appologized for his chatter. He excitedly related his run in with a black bear on the trail just before the Emory Peak spur. The three were clambering down the trail together when their conversation was interrupted by a sharp rattling sound and Claire stopped dead in her tracks. Directly alongside the trail was a rattlesnake, head fully erect in a striking position. Claire danced backwards as Kevin looked around in confusion. “It’s right there.” “I don’t see it.” “Right there.” “Ohhhhh, my goodness. There it is! Oh wow. This is incredible. How lucky! A Western Diamondback! I have always wanted to see one!” Kevin quickly pulled out his iPhone and narrated the entirety of the snake’s slow crossing of the trail. When they reached the main trail again, the group parted ways and Thomas and Claire trekked farther into the Chisos to set up camp in Boot Canyon, their base for a planned dayhike out to the South Rim the following morning. Shortly before bed, the wind kicked up and ominous clouds began spilling over the surrounding mountain rims. The pair sought shelter in their tent, only to find it buzzing with a cloud of black flies. The ultralight shelter relied on a tarp streched over a bathtub floor, keeping water out, but allowing flies, and potentially other creatures, in. The tent had to be released from the bottom, shaken out, and restaked before bed. In the darkness of night, Claire and Thomas sat up in bed looking at each other, wondering if the soft footsteps outside the tent were real or imagined. “Hello?” Claire asked into the pitch black. A gentle sniffing was heard immediately outside the tent. The ruckus that ensued inside the tent was unparalled. Shouting, whistling, clapping. “G’on, git! Git outta here!” * *Thomas inexplicably transformed into a Southern redneck in an effort to further deter whatever creature was interested in the occupants of the tent. When hearts finally stopped racing and it was assumed the unknown creature was gone, rain started to fall lightly on the tent and wind started to whip through the trees. A deep rumbling, seemingly from within the earth, slowly rolled out, while flashes of lightning lit up the interior of the tent. It was a sleepless night. The thunder grew so loud it could be felt on the ground, like sleeping atop a volcano. Wind gusts were strong enough that tent poles had to be grabbed to keep the shelter from being blown away. In the foggy morning it was seen that stakes for all the guylines had been pulled from the ground, as well as three of the five holding the tent in the ground. Bleary eyes surveyed the surroundings. The dry creekbeds on either side were invisble, completely filled by clouds. Visibility down the trail was not more than 30 yards. The combination of adverse weather and lack of sleep led them back to the basin without a trip out to the rim. Clockwise from Left: Black flies in the tent, cooking in the wind-sheltered truck bed, scanning the trail ahead, the "boot" of Boot Canyon in the fog   It was decided that a trip to the hot springs 30 miles east would be the perfect way to recuperate and cope with the cool 65 degree weather. The night’s stay in a backcountry site overlooking the Rio proved brief, as strong winds prevented the tent from even being pitched, and black clouds visible from the improvised sleeping berths in the bed of the pickup forced a 1 AM drive back to the shelter of the basin. In the midst of deciding the course of action, headlights flashed along the barren dirt road. A sedan raced by in the dark. The rangers logbook showed no other campers in the Big Bend backcountry. A Coyote bringing immigrants across the border? The midnight drive through the desert offered glimpses of foxes, jackrabbits, and tarantulas. The following morning, the pair set out early with plans for a leisurely day traveling the scenic Ross Maxwell Road with a variety of short dayhikes along the way. Upon arrival to the trailhead for Santa Elena Canyon, the “major” hike of the day, the road was found blocked. Limited fuel forced the pair to an early retirement at the backcountry site in Terlingua Abajo, the long abandoned farming village 30 miles south of the current town. That night a third storm rolled in, wind forcing the abandonment of the tent. Again, plans for sleeping in the bed of the truck were foiled by the onset of rain. In the cramped shelter of the cab, Thomas and Claire watched as torrents of rain soaked the ground around them. After a few hours, areas of the desert site held four inches of water on the surface. Awakening after a fitful sleep to a gray dawn, most of the water appeared to have seeped into the ground. The pair elected a mad dash out of the park as clouds blew in from the opposite direction. The dirt of the Old Maveric Road had turned to a deep sludge, but the rear wheel drive pickup powered through a few miles northward before slowly, gracefully, sliding sideways into a small gully at the edge of the roadway. After a few rounds of spinning tires, a call was made to the park dispatcher for help. Not a moment after the answer of “911, please state the location of your emergency,” a pounding of hail assaulted the car.   Clockwise from Left: Nighttime downpour, final undoing of the Ford Ranger, hail and flooded roadway Four and a half hours later, after multiple attempts of pushing the truck out of the mud, help arrived. A ranger in an F-150 raced past, sliding in the mud. “Man, you two made a mess. I can’t pull you out of here.” Stunned silence. “S’why I called the loader.” A belch of black smoke appeared on the horizon, and a frontend loader rumbled forward through the thick mud. With tow straps attched to the rear trailer hitch and the shovel on the loader, the truck was pulled backwards for 6 miles to the paved road. After reaching the asphalt, the pair were informed that the entire park had lost power in the storm, there were no working gas pumps at which to refuel, and all roads had been closed because of debris and flooding. Escorted by the ranger, they drove the 45 miles out of the park, rolling the last 20 on fumes before coming to a muddy halt in Terlingua. There was never such pleasure in purchasing gas, and salvation was a few hours away in a pristine white tent at El Cosmico in Marfa. Clockwise from Left: The return of the sun (only further illuminating the problem), muddy resignation, help arrives, the "lift home" The most refreshing shower ever taken, the coldest beer ever sipped, and the most restful nap ever taken has these warriors ready for more. Clockwise from Left: Outdoor shower at El Cosmico, Safari tent accommodations, Donald Judd's Untitled Works in Concrete
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