I was climbing higher, but my body still seemed reasonably acclimated. For the past four months I had hiked in elevations ranging from being on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean up to 9000 feet above sea level. My breathing was slightly taxed, but the air was cooling and becoming soothing, almost methylating, as I lumbered higher through the perfumes of Rose-Fruited Junipers, Honey Mesquites, Scrub Oak, Piñon Pine, Texas Madrone, and Manzanitas. Their redolence encircling the trail as I approached 6850 feet, a 1200-foot elevation gain from where the trailhead began.
The desert floor beneath me stretches to eternity. You can easily see 100 miles or more across the horizon in all directions from the top of the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains. The innumerable red, orange, brown, and lavender hues paint the mountainous landscape.
A watercolor wonderland.
Sky Islands floating above what seems like a completely barren reddish-yellow-beige terrain. But that view of what’s beneath is as deceiving as this mountain range is enchanting.
Regardless if this cordillera derived its name from the Native American word “Chisos,” meaning “ghost” or “spirit,” or if “Chisos” came from the Castilian “hechizos,” meaning “enchantment,” you’ll feel an enduring presence in these mountains. The Ancestors are still here in this once favored stronghold of the Mescalero, Apache, and the Comanche. Sharing space and time with the Black Bears, Roadrunners, Javelinas, Ravens, Mule Deer, Mountain Lions, Hawks and Vultures, Coyotes, Horned and Earless Lizards, Rattlesnakes, and Tarantulas.
And there is so much More.
My last few posts have sort of been following chronological order about my travels this past Spring-Summer-Fall, but I thought I jump ahead to the end. To the last place I visited.
It was Big Bend Texas.
Another place I’d put on the list of Magical and Awe-Inspiring. Beauty of a different kind will flood your senses here.
I had traveled from SouthEast Arizona, near the Mexican border all the way up to Blaine, Washington, directly on the Canadian border, and now, all the way back down to the Mexican border in Texas. The border being demarcated by the “Great,” “Big,” or “Grand” River – the Rio Grande.
Depending on what side of the border you stood on, and what translator you use, the River might also be called the “Rio Bravo” (the brave, wild, fierce, savage or furious River) or the “Rio Grande del Norte” (the Great, Grand, or Turbid River of the North).
I’d go with “Turbid.”
This River definitely has that appearance of chocolate milk, at least the parts of it that I saw. An eternal churning of brown sediments winding some 1896 miles through Colorado and New Mexico, and along Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The Texas-Mexico River border measurement varies (just like the River’s name) and ranges anywhere from 890 miles to 1250 miles. Regardless of what you call it, or how you measure it, it is the fifth longest River in North America.
And as one would have come to expect, where there is a River, there will be flora, fauna, and humans.
Now I’d say the desert in Texas is a much harsher environment than the desert lands in Az. Much harsher. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t life here. Life forms of all types are here because of the “Big River” and it’s “Big Bend” in that River. And there is still plenty of life that will remain adapted to the desert that’s here regardless of the River’s existence.
As I mentioned, the view of the desert floor from above is deceiving. This part of the Chihuahuan desert is thriving with Mesquite, Creosote, Tarbush, Agave, Yucca, Prickly Pear, the Arizona Rainbow Cactus, and Mexican Fire-Barrel Cactus. Many grasses abound including Bush Muhly; Blue, Gypsum, Black, Side Oats and Hairy Grama; as well as Purple Three-awn.
There’s the Dodder plant. An orange, tangling, filamentous, parasitic plant that uses phytochromes to seek out it’s hosts by sight and smell. Once found, it wraps itself around the stems of the host, punctures those stems with “haustoria” (root like structures) that hijack the host’s nutrient supplies.
The seemingly dead Ocotillo, or vine cactus, that punctuates every part of Big Bend National Park and beyond. Its adaptation is really a method of conservation of water. Rather than lose water from leaves, photosynthesis occurs in its stems, which can reach 20 or 30 feet long. Leaves are considered an extravagance and are only produced in rare times of rain, when they also burst forth with red-orange, tubular flowers.
I was fortunate to be there in one of those rare bursts from the Thunderbeings. Bringing barren sand to life and filling it with color.
Candelilla, or the wax plant, has long, erect stalks literally covered in a wax giving it the appearance of candle sticks. And indeed, the first settlers here burned them as candles or extracted its wax for soap, polish, and ointments. Commercial use of Candelilla continues to this day.
Hechtia, a bromeliad growing alongside cactus and succulents, are xerographic and survive long periods without water by slowing their growth rate. They’re lined with an array of large teeth and sport a flower spike that is almost 8 feet tall. Flowers are usually small, white, and born on a branched inflorescence that comes out of the center of the plant.
Agave Lechuguilla (“small lettuce”) is an Agave species native only to the Chihuahuan Desert. The fluid in its flowering stalks is rich in salts and minerals and is sold as a sports drink in Mexico. But you have to get past the plant’s protection to harvest that precious fluid. Its long, tough, and rigid leaves have very sharp points easily penetrating clothing and even leather – giving them the colloquial name of “shin-daggers.” I can attest to this fact and happy I had my first aid kit to patch up a couple of spikes I received chasing a Leopard Lizard through these plants.
I never was able to get a picture of that sly Lizard. 😊
As seeming barren as it is, one might expect the human species to go elsewhere, but there is a rich history of human occupancy in this region. While I was visiting, I stayed in Terlingua.
The City of Terlingua’s population hovers around 58. Immediately West, the town of Lajitas boasts some 75 people. So why are these people here, and how do you find out about the local history?
You book yourself a River rafting trip, that’s how.
To be continued . . .
Photos: The feature photo and second pic are in the Chisos Mountains. Then there is the River and the Ocotillo at Sunset. And below is back in the mountains. The Chisos Mountain range is the only mountain range that is completely contained within a National Park’s boundaries.