A Rio Grande Affair

canyon photo by Molly

photo thanks to Molly Dumas

Some of you may have seen this post from July 11, 2013. “A Rio Grande Affair” was my first column for the Alpine Avalanche.

 

A Rio Grande Affair

 

Recently I had an opportunity to stick my toes into the Rio Grande. The river is no longer the formidable barrier it once was, and it can seldom be rafted, but the mud along the bank still squishes. Birds still swoop at the surface, turtles still dive into it, the water still moves downstream, and it still smells like damp desert. I still love it.

We have a history, this river and I. Thirty-three years ago, I saw it for the first time. It might have been its historical significance or cowboy movie memories, or the surreal beauty of the land it divides, but I had goosebumps at first sight. And I fell in love, not just with the Rio, but with the rugged, wild terrain on both sides of it.

This Florida girl, accustomed to sandy beaches, lakes, crystal clear streams, swamps, and more greenery than is healthy, fell hard for the Big Bend country—everything about it. The immense open spaces with nothing to block the view, jagged peaks, hidden forests, steep canyons, and the widest sky I had ever seen, spoke to me in a way nothing ever had.

At the time, my familiarity with Mexico pretty much began and ended with Speedy Gonzalez cartoons and of course, all those insulting stereotypes from old westerns.

I stood at the top of a nature trail at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park. The idea of a foreign land “right over there” was even more intriguing than the famous river. From the top of the trail I could admire both sides, the mountains that stretched out in all directions jutting towards the sky, the vegetation growing along the banks, and then I spotted a man, a Mexican man, dressed all in white and wearing a wide sombrero, hoeing in a garden in Boquillas, Mexico. Ordinary, you might say, but my heart rate sped up and I got a little teary-eyed. I wanted to laugh and cry and dance at the same time. And I had no idea why.

How would I have known that I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a Mexican man? Or that my future self would learn to speak Spanish and cook Mexican food? Or, that without question, I would take in a chubby little Mexican boy and raise him as my own? If you had told me I would stay up until two in the morning making tamales with my mother-and-sisters-in-law on Christmas Eve, I would have thrown up my hands and sworn there was no way that would ever happen.

I have spent so much time in Mexico it has become as much a part of my life as my country of birth. I’ve attended weddings, quinceañeras, funerals, births, and deaths—and more dances than I could ever count. I’ve wandered its shores, explored its mountains, and camped in its wilderness. I love its people with all my heart.

How would I have known then that I would go to work for a river outfitter and enjoy the work so much I would eventually own the company? I would raft all the canyons and most of them more than once, on trips guided by some of the most fun and life-loving people I have ever had the pleasure to know. Every river adventure was different and each held its own magic. There was always something new to learn or to admire or some side canyon to explore. After sumptuous dinners and campfire conversation, we would fall asleep under a ribbon of stars or stay up late to watch the full moon illuminate the canyon walls.

It runs in my veins now, this muddy river. Who knew it would be so hard to drag my toes out of its mud?

 

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The Diamond-Beaked Rockpecker

SE canyon

 

It started as a starry-eyed love for the Rio Grande and the jaw-dropping scenery that surrounds it. Before I knew it, I was buying a river rafting outfit.

Having a company that exists to help people have fun has got to be the best type of business. The behind-the-scenes work is daunting, though. When customers return raving about their trip, that’s not an accident. Every single thing you do is aimed at that result.

I assumed I would get to do a lot of “free” river trips, right? Wrong. I worked hard, but one bright morning a young trainee stood in front of the desk in our office. I wished her well because I knew she was going on her final “check out” run through the Rockslide rapid in Santa Elena Canyon. That meant she’d be alone in a raft. Senior guides would be with her, but not in her boat.

I should mention here that this was back in the day when the Rio carried plenty of water. We didn’t know how fortunate we were.

The new guide was tiny and beautiful. I remember her name well, but let’s call her Anne. She said, “They don’t think I’ll make it.” “They” being other river guides: big, strong men.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “of course you can do it.”

“Why don’t you come with me? Please. It’ll be fun—just take a day off.”

What I’d meant as a pep talk turned into a case of putting my money where my mouth was. I had to go. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

As we glided along, my worries evaporated. I don’t think it’s possible to listen to the steady gurgle of the Rio Grande and feel stressed. Water slapping gently against oars has a lulling effect. We passed turtles sunning themselves on rocks or sticks along the bank. Wildflowers nodded their heads in the occasional breeze. The weather was perfect, not hot or cold. It was a show-off day in Big Bend. As if that wasn’t enough, we rounded a bend and a steep slope on the Mexican side was solid purple with bluebonnets. There were so many the smell was cloying.

“Wow,” Anne exclaimed. “Aren’t you glad you came with me?”

At that moment I couldn’t imagine how anything could ever be more important than spending the day on the Rio Grande.

Anne did fine, as I expected. We talked about various things, including the ways in which women were underestimated by men. Mostly, we laughed. It was hard to care about anything serious on a day like that one.

I don’t remember whether the Diamond-Beaked tale came before or after the Rockslide. It must have come after because Anne was relaxed. She had showed everybody how a tiny woman runs a rapid like a boss.

Then, of course, the lying started. River guides are full of knowledge about the area, but they’re equally full of fun. It’s hard to separate facts and fiction when their mouths start moving.

Santa Elena Canyon has one surprise after another. I’ve been through it forty times or more and it’s never the same; you never see all of it. I commented on a pocked wall on our right, the Mexican side of the canyon.

A straight-faced Anne said, “Those pockets are caused by a rare bird that drills into the wall to make a nest.”

My river guide radar went up.

“It’s sad,” she continued, “because people kill them for their valuable beaks. They’re not protected in Mexico.”

She paused a moment before coming in for the kill. “They’re called the Diamond-Beaked Rockpecker.”

I laughed.

“I know you think I’m pulling your leg, but I’m not. I can’t believe you haven’t heard of it before.”

Why was I surprised that Anne would lie? She was a river guide!

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” the liar insisted.

How many times had I heard that?

When we arrived at the takeout, the company’s star birder was our shuttle driver. How perfect; I’d fix my clever little guide.

“Anne has been telling me about the Diamond-Beaked Rockpeckers,” I said, thinking he’d set her straight pronto.

“Did you see one?” He acted excited.

“Of course I didn’t see one. They don’t exist.”

“It’s a shame you didn’t get to see one.” His expression was sad. “They won’t be around long if people keep killing them for their diamond beaks.”

What was the use? They’re all a bunch of liars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Swing to the South

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Sometimes I’m at a loss for words. Yes; it surprises me too. I rarely have trouble drawing from the well of words in my…mind? heart? soul? Where do the words come from? I don’t know, so when I go to the well and bring up nothing but an empty bucket, I feel panicked. What if I never write again? What if it’s over for me?

“What if?” Those powerful little words drive the imagination of writers, researchers, scientists, explorers, deep thinkers. What if we could put a man on the moon? What if I could paint that? What if polio could be eradicated by a vaccine? What if nobody had wondered these things?

A couple of weeks ago I escaped to the southern end of Brewster County to answer a question burning my brain: what if a trip to where my writing life started would refill the well? In an earlier column, I spoke of swinging as a metaphor for being carefree, doing nothing, enjoying life. I set out to do that.

If you’ve ever driven down the main road of Terlingua Ranch, you know that when you begin, the Chisos Mountains are on the right side. You see them as you come down Highway 118. The Christmas Mountains stand in front of them but don’t block the view until you get close. By the time you turn left into the ranch, the Christmas Mountains dominate the skyline. But you know the Chisos are still there, right? They are, but…

The road winds and twists so subtly that by the time you near the Ranch Headquarters it’s a surprise to see the Chisos standing on the left-hand side of the view. The mountainous terrain opens up for seconds and—ta-da! We now present the Chisos! On the wrong side of the road. How can that be? Oh, it’s been explained to me a thousand times, but it’s a phenomenon that never fails to delight. I’m like a little kid who knows who Santa Claus is but still gets swept up by the enchantment of Christmas morning.

I know the surprise is coming but as I draw closer, I can hardly wait for it. A powerful feeling of awe comes over me because, you see, they are not just on the wrong side of the road, they are close. Because of the ever-changing position of the sun, the clouds, atmospheric conditions, and their own magic, they are always different. Every. Single. Time.

To test my theory, I turned my truck around to go back a few miles and drive by them again. I got distracted by an empty spot of land where there is a superb view of the Corazones. I parked and studied the ultra-rugged nature of them for five full minutes, challenging myself to describe those two natural wonders without using the words awe-inspiring, towering, rough, wild, rugged, jagged, twisted, rocky, tortured…you get the drift. I failed. All of those words fit and yet no words do them justice.

My friend was expecting me so I soldiered on, back to my Chisos Mountains experiment. Do I need to say that by the second time, ten minutes later, everything had changed? Clouds had come in from the south and were sagging over the Basin. Croton Peak had crept closer to the ranch. It was spotlighted for seconds and then the light moved on to a smaller mountain whose name I don’t know. I think of it as Beautiful Little Mountain. The entire Big Bend area of southwest Texas is full of them.

My friend and her wildly excited dogs welcomed me warmly. Her cats remained aloof and greeted me in their own time on their terms, except for the aptly-named Love Kitty. She had announcements to make about my arrival but she seemed positive overall. Maybe that was because I’d brought Emmylou, the singing kitty, back home.

I breathed in the peace that dominates my friend’s world and soaked up the scenery that always stirs my soul. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Every morning, from a comfortable bed, I watched dawn come to Big Bend National Park. Sometimes it would sneak in on quiet feet; other times it blasted in, showing off and splashing colors around. Every time it was beautiful.

I spent a full week mountain-gawking, thunderstorm-watching, laughing and talking, being quiet, porch-sitting, writing, and sleeping well. Like the little kitty Emmylou, I had come home.

 

 

 

 

 

A Rocky Adventure

hot springs canyonHot Springs Canyon, Big Bend National Park, TX

 

Back in 1981, my girlfriend Kay and I were camping in Big Bend National Park. We decided to rent a raft and float through Hot Springs Canyon at Rio Grande Village. We had never rafted, but we were assured it would be easy, the river was gentle through there, and “anyone can do it.” How hard could it be?

We lolled along, letting our fingers drag in the muddy water. The warm sun and cool breeze of a March morning were perfect accompaniments. Birds chirped and chattered and raised a ruckus in the green growth along the bank. They darted out to dip at the stars sparkling on the surface of the Rio or hopped along the shore picking at this and that.

Kay and I talked about the joy of living, even temporarily, in a place where nature ruled with such magnificence. There’s no bad view in Big Bend National Park. No matter where we camped, when we came out of the tent in the morning, we were stunned by some newly revealed cliff or peak or twisted rock formation. Or the sun would glint off something, making it shine or giving it a color it didn’t have before. It was so beautiful it made our eyes fill with tears and our hearts with wonder.

“Doesn’t it feel as though we’re the only humans to have ever been here?” Kay whispered with reverence as our raft entered the little canyon.

I agreed but my comments were hushed by the sudden shrill descending notes of a canyon wren. The sound was like nothing we’d ever heard. We didn’t know what it was but it was pure magic and not even surprising, given where we were.

To make a long story into a short column, I’ll just say that we were enamored of everything: the gentle downstream pull of a river that smelled like clean dirt, the bumpy-walled canyon, the peace, the blooming wildflowers along the shore, and the subtle lure of the foreign land drifting by next to us.

Suddenly we heard the loud sound of water pounding against stone. Never mind the assurances that it was easy and safe. Every scary whitewater tale I’d ever heard crowded into my brain. Then my relentless imagination kicked in and dragged me away with it.

“Rapids!” I screamed.

We panicked and paddled as hard as we could for the closest shore, which happened to be Mexico. We stood gasping and glad to be alive.

An old man crashed his way down an animal path and stood on the bank next to us. I spoke the only Spanish word I could remember under pressure, “Hola.”

He grinned and lifted his sombrero. “Buenos días.”

I returned the grin and felt stupid. I’d taken three years of Spanish in high school and one in college and “Hola” was all I had to offer?

There was laughter in his dark eyes, so he had evidently seen our mad dash to shore. That was embarrassing in any language.

In the manner of a true gentleman, he asked if we had a problem with the raft. What he said was, “You problem boat?” His English was not great, but it was better than my Spanish. I had a head full of his language, but it was as though I’d lost the password I needed to access that part of my brain.

Using a mix of English, mutilated Spanish, and mime, we explained that we’d heard cascading water ahead and were afraid to move forward.

He listened intently, nodding his head as we explained. Somehow he kept from laughing at us. “No is bad. You see.” He began walking and indicated that we should follow.

The “death-defying rapids” were a bend in the Rio where it widened and became shallower for a few yards. The rushing water tumbled over rocks and pebbles and caused the loud whooshing noise we’d translated into a dangerous waterfall. Well… I had translated it. My friend was innocent. I had failed to keep the reins on my imagination and it galloped away, turning a minor change in the river’s direction into a deadly obstacle.

Our Mexican friend wished us a good day and went on his way whistling. We walked back to our craft.

“That was stupid,” I admitted, “and embarrassing.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Kay said. “Maybe someday we’ll write about our adventures, real and imagined.”

Yes. Maybe someday we will.

 

 

 

 

 

Storming the Fortress

George Wright Peak

In an earlier column I spoke of my love of hiking. That brought to mind another fond memory of a solitary place in Big Bend National Park. At the time, a girlfriend and I were on a year-long journey from Florida to “see what the big deal was about the West.”

Kay and I were so in awe of the rough and rugged land of the Big Bend Country that we signed on to work for the concessioner in Big Bend National Park for four months. We were assigned a room in a trailer at Panther Junction, the park headquarters. If you’re familiar with “PJ,” you know there are three striking peaks that loom behind it: Pummel, Wright, and Panther. The first time I saw them I fell in love. I worked in the Chisos Basin but when I was “at home,” I sat on the front steps and studied them. They called me to explore their secrets.

I decided to hike into one of arroyos that led to a canyon at the base of Wright Mountain. I asked around and found out several things: it was called Mouse Canyon, it was not a recommended hike, it was a dead end with giant boulders and a deep pool, mountain lion activity had been reported nearby, and “nobody hikes there.” Cool. It sounded like my type of adventure.

The first time I went, I was so taken with the quiet and majesty of it that I didn’t get far. I spent much of the day examining rocks and lying on my back on a low, slanted wall of what eventually became a deeper, darker canyon.

I watched turkey vultures soar so far overhead I had no idea what they were. I thought they were eagles. I also studied the crumbling rock formation at the top of Wright, something that to this day I call “The Fortress.” And I took note of the various ways I could get from the arroyo to the top of the peak because no matter what, I was going. The route looked easy but would prove to be yet another learning experience on a real long list.

After many hikes into Mouse Canyon, I chose my route. By then, I’d been to the “end” and climbed on the giant boulders. I’d worn myself out trying to see what was on the other side of that colossal rock pile. I didn’t venture farther because I was alone and didn’t think I could drag out of there with a broken leg.

On the day of the climb, I was forced out of the arroyo before I got to my chosen ascension point because I met a herd of javelinas that had no concept of sharing. A large boar cocked his head, perhaps trying to decide what I was, and then he charged. Who would’ve thought I could climb so fast?

Even from the rim of Mouse Canyon, the view was to die for. I sat and admired it while my heartbeat returned to normal, and the javelinas moved on to do whatever. Then I stood and the challenge began. It was one lone woman vs. the slipperiest, deceivin’-est, aggravatin’-est mountain ever created. I made it about three-quarters of the way up by sheer force of will.

As with many goals, the closer I got the more difficult it became. For every step forward I slid back two. I’m a determined woman, but my legs finally said, “Hold up here, missy. This isn’t happening before nightfall.” So I did what all exhausted hikers do. I sat and pondered the wonder of it all. I was higher than the Dead Horse Mountains. The magnificent Sierra del Carmen was practically in my face. Sunset’s colors began to play on them. Even the thought of meeting javelinas in the dark did not deter me from the fiery red/purple/orange light and shadow show splashed against those mountains. Sitting on the slope of Wright and soaking up the vastness of the land, the aloneness, the majesty and grandeur that is Big Bend National Park, is one of my best memories of all time.

Behind me was the fortress I longed to touch. I wanted to walk in there and lean against the ancient stone. Without doubt, there’s hidden treasure, along with the wisdom of the ages. Those walls protect a sacred place. Isn’t that the purpose of a fortress after all?

 

The Hiking Fool

When I worked in Big Bend National Park years ago, I hiked all the time: days off, after work, and sometimes before work. I took every hike in the park literature and even some I wasn’t supposed to take. If I overheard rangers discussing a closed trail, I checked it out, assuming they were keeping special places to themselves. Recently, I learned the truth. One of my favorite Chisos destinations had been shut down because of an unusually high amount mountain lion activity in the area. What a lucky little rebel I was.

Another thing I ignored was advice. Always go with a buddy, people said. For me, the point of wilderness hiking is to be alone. I like to contemplate things and reconnect with who I am. When I first came to Big Bend National Park, I was trying to find my way back to being me after a life in the fast lane, pursuing the wrong things, and being “successful” but miserable.

At first I took all the popular routes, but I soon sought more isolated places. They provided the solitude I craved.

One gorgeous April morning I decided to hike to the Banta Shut-in. The trailhead was near Panther Junction, the elevation gain was only 300 feet, there was a spring and small stream, and the place looked weird and darkly forbidding in the photo in the trail booklet. Why wouldn’t a girl with an imagination as big as the national park jump on that?

I took water, a snack, my Walkman, my bathing suit… you know, the essentials. I told a friend my destination because she was working and wouldn’t bug me about tagging along. I advised her that I’d be back by dark and if not, something had eaten me.

That thought became less humorous as I started down a narrow arroyo with high walls. To my relief, it came out into another wash that was wide and bright. And at that point sat a rock cairn, which I assumed marked the route I’d need in order to find my way back. I continued on my blissful journey, listening to music, breathing clean air, and soaking up sunshine and scenery.

Gravel crunched behind me. I yanked off the earphones. At first I was nervous that a human was following me—a man, a stranger, an evil person! Then I was afraid it was something not human. I turned the Walkman off. For those of you too young to know, that was a prehistoric form of an MP3 player. They were the rage at one time.

Nothing grabbed me, and I arrived at my destination and sat in the water, but I couldn’t shake the notion that somebody was watching. The Banta Shut-In juts up out of a flat desert and there is something eerie about it. Then I noticed the wet imprint of a paw that had to belong to a mountain lion. I got up, gathered my stuff, and headed back, acting casual. Just be calm.

In the main arroyo I saw that there were many dark side canyons and they all had rock cairns at their entrances. Shadows grew longer. Panic set it. I wondered if any piece of my body would ever be found.

Then a loud “caaaacccckk!” echoed through the labyrinth of arroyos. A gunboat-sized shadow passed overhead. I didn’t dare look up. It makes no sense, but my thoughts went to the pterodactyls that used to sweep over the land that is now the park. My heart and imagination took off at equal speeds.

I stopped to drink water and try to access the intelligent side of my brain. Also, I managed to get a grip on my imagination. When I calmed down I saw a solution. If I climbed up high I might recognize something familiar.

The “pterodactyl” proved to be the largest raven I’ve ever seen, but he wasn’t so fearsome pecking around in the dirt like any other bird. He cocked his head and screamed, “caaaacccckk!” That’s ravenspeak for “you idiot.”

From high up, I recognized my arroyo. There was a boulder formation at its entrance with a hole like a needle’s eye. I scrambled down and ran for my life.

Near the trailhead I stopped to catch my breath and two fellows with backpacks walked up. They said they were headed to the Banta Shut-In to camp overnight.

“But you’ll be there in the dark,” I blurted.

They looked at each other and then back at the crazy person.

I started to tell them and then thought not. Let them take their chances. Besides, what was there to tell?

 

A Campfire Tale

This story is dedicated to Lee Smith, the best sport ever. RIP, my friend.  

Night settled on our backcountry camp in Big Bend National Park. We were washing down spicy corn chips with cold Mexican beer. I pointed out the first star, and we wished on it in case there was something to that. 

Within a short time, darkness took over the land. The moon was a tiny sliver, no competition to the light of a billion stars. 

“Lee,” I said, “do you know this area is haunted?”

“You are so full of it. I don’t believe you.”

          “Oh, never mind.”

          Within a few seconds, he grabbed my arm. “Girl, tell me what you know!”

          “You’ll just get nervous and hysterical.”

          “No I won’t. I refuse to let you scare me.” He glanced around with huge eyes. “Why did we make camp here if it’s haunted?”

          “Wouldn’t you love to see something weird?”

“I hate you. I should know better than to camp with you.”

          “Yes, but you never learn. I love that about you. So that spring near here has always been an oasis for travelers. Once, four evil American bandits crossed the river on horses and ransacked a prosperous hacienda in Mexico not far from here.”

          “You’re already telling it! Shut up!” Two seconds later, “So what happened?”

          “They killed the owners of the ranch, looted it, and rode off with the couple’s teenage daughter. She was beautiful, and they could barely wait to ravage her.”  

          “Oh God. How awful.” He sighed dramatically.

          “On the way back, they stopped here for the night so they could water their horses and refill their canteens. One of the men, covered in sweat and dust, reached up to drag the poor girl from the saddle. She begged him to at least let her bathe first.”

          “I really hope you’re making this up,” he said. 

          “There used to be a deep pool at the spring.” I waved a hand in the general direction for effect.  

          “The men made camp, and then sat to smoke and talk about the various ways they planned to enjoy their captive. After a while, lust got the better of them. They shouted for her to come out. When she didn’t, they went to check. Her body was floating face down in the pool. She drowned herself rather than endure their abuse.”

          “How awful. You can stop talking now.”

          “A furious cry came from the surrounding rocks. The wind roared in anger at what the men had caused to happen. They mounted and galloped away as fast as they could. To this day, her cry can be heard at night when the wind whips up and tears through the canyons.”

          “You couldn’t have mentioned this before we camped here?”

          “Where’s the fun in that?”

          As the air cooled, we dragged out our sleeping bags and got into them. We dozed off, but I was awakened by my friend shaking my arm and whispering, “Beth!”  

          There was a light across the arroyo, hovering at the bottom of a spectacular cliff. We watched it. I thought it had to be one of the mystery lights seen throughout the region and I said so.

          He gripped my arm. “It’s coming this way. What if it’s bad people?” 

          “It’s not people. Look how it’s hovering in the middle of the arroyo. If there was a person holding it we could see at least a shadow. There’s nothing, just a light.”

          “That’s worse, isn’t it? A light with no person carrying it?” His grip on my arm was starting to pain me.

          Then, just like that, the light was gone.

“Where’d it go?” Lee wondered.

          “The same place it came from I imagine,” I said.

          The next morning Lee said, “I guess you were right about the light.”  

          “Why do you ever doubt me?

          “Well, it could be because you lie so much.”

          “I never lie to you.”

          “Okay. You would call it tall tale telling. I call it lying.”

          He gave me a hug. “You can’t blame me for being suspicious, right?” 

          No, that would have been unfair. I do love to tell a tale.