Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Big Bend National Park - The Jewel of Texas

View from "The Window" in the Chisos
I spent Christmas day hiking in Big Bend National Park in west Texas.  I can think of no better way to celebrate all things spiritual than to stand in the Chisos Mountains and gaze across the Chihuahuan Desert.  I lost my heart out there while discovering this absolute gem of a spot along the big bend of the Rio Grande.

The ash deposits at Cerro Castelan
The amazing thing about this place is the distinct and different ecosystems all contained within the same area.  You have the flood plain of the Rio Grande, the desert plain of the Chihuahuan, and the cloud-brushing reach of the Chisos.  Our visit was very brief but we tried at least to drive through each area to appreciate its beauty and wonder.  We saw volcanic ash deposits that looked like they were dumped just yesterday.  In fact the interpretive sign compared the area to a photo of Mount Saint Helens.  The difference is that the ash piles in Big Bend are millions of years old and are as hard as a rock.  It reminded me of Crater Lake in that respect.

The Chisos Mountains are volcanic in origin and reminded me a lot of the steep rock faces of the Columbia Gorge.  The mountains form a basin that has kept a little Eden away from the desert.  There is more rainfall in the basin than in the surrounding plains, and as a result the prickly pear and agave grow along side my old friends the Madrone and Douglas fir.  The plants are remnants from millennia past when the area was more temperate.  Black Bear and Cougar roam these parts along with Javelina.  I felt so at home in this area because it was a little Texas and a little Northwest – just like me!

Of course the soaring landscape was only part of the show.  I had my nose to the ground most of the time looking at plants and cool rocks.  As we hiked along the Window trail we traversed over a rainbow of scree.  It was only a 6-mile round trip but I had to stop every few feet to take photos.  I rued my cheap camera but the truth is that no lens, or even the human eye actually, can capture the beauty and majesty of this place.  I bought the DVD at the gift shop to send to Oregon for family to see.  When I got home and watched it I felt a little better – because even the professional photos were crap compared to the real thing.

Snow on Agave flower stalk.
A storm had swept over west Texas and we actually got snow December 23rd and 24th.  We drove down to the park with snow on the ground.  We had our chains, snow shovel, etc that we always carry in winter, but didn’t have to use.  The snow was very dry and there wasn’t much ice.  This weather actually turned into a special treat because we were able to visit the park while it still had a bit of a covering.  There is nothing like seeing agave flower stalks dusted in white thrust up against that violet-blue Texas sky.  The Yucca, Sotol, and prickly pear were all decorated in a magical way.  We feel very fortunate to have been there.

It is about a ten-hour drive from Austin, but it goes quickly because of the scenery.  The arid Texas panhandle makes it possible to see all of the geologic formations.  Texas was covered in a sea at one time and the stratum of the seafloor is really beautiful.  The colors are in near perfect horizontal bands of red, orange, yellow and white.  You can just imagine the creatures that once swam there.
Purple prickly pear
 I love how the sea floor now sports colonies of prickly pear where the coral must have once grown.  Just outside of Marathon Texas we drove through an astrobleme.  It is a huge area and I can’t even imagine what type of meteor collision caused it.  Between Fort Stockton and hill country giant windmills have been installed atop the mesas to harness the famous panhandle wind tunnel.  What is interesting here is that oil wells are still active and wooden windmills still pump water into livestock water cisterns.  It is an amazing juxtaposition of new and old technology that people have employed to exploit the area.  Against that skyline the attempts seem puny.

We went through Marfa Texas to visit an art museum and to go to the observatory.  Unfortunately the McDonald Observatory was closed since it was snowing – something about limited visibility.  We went to the Chinati Foundation art museum, which occupies a former army installation.  It features modern art that we were told by other visitors that is very famous.  The art is in the form of minimalist installations of stainless steel cubes, neon lights, metal and concrete statuary, plus a vignette of an abandoned Soviet classroom.  Here is the link: http://www.chinati.org
I tried really hard but could not appreciate any of it.  It was too cerebral for me and it seemed so arrogant and small to have a bunch of boxes in a room when outside the window that magnificent landscape stretched far into the horizon.  There was no attempt by the artist (who created the whole place) to celebrate the stunning natural beauty around him.  I found the play of light on the spears of yucca and the cubist forms of the eroded landscape much more moving.  I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic.  Note to self:  don’t pay admission to modern art galleries in future (although I LOVE Jackson Pollock – just to show I’m not a complete cretin.)

In whole that part of Texas gets under your skin and you can’t shake it.  I am going to try to go back in April to try to see the prickly pear in bloom.  There are a couple of areas where whole plains are full of Sotol, Yucca, and cacti that stretch to the horizon.  I can’t wait to go back!