What is it about Big Bend?

“According to Apache legend, after creating the universe, the Great Spirit tossed a large pile of leftover boulders and debris on the Big Bend.”

“Oh, so you’ve been to Big Bend . . .”

Yes. I’ve been so many times that I have lost count. I was married in Marathon, Texas, about 70 miles north of the ranger station. When I die, it is where I want my ashes spread.

Poster by Doug Leen and Brian Maebius done in the style of the WPA posters of the 1930's.
Poster by Doug Leen and Brian Maebius done in the style of the WPA posters of the 1930’s. Available through the Big Bend Natural History Association.

What is it about the Big Bend?

The park’s name comes from the 100 mile long big bend in the Rio Grande river that forms the Texas-Chihuahua-Coahuila border. At over 1,250 square miles, Big Bend is approximately the size of Rhode Island. It’s so remote that it remains the least visited of the National Parks in the United States.

I went the first time in the summer of 1993, when a dear friend from the Netherlands came to spend the summer with me. I wanted to show him a big western landscape, and I didn’t have the money to fly us out to Utah or to the Grand Canyon. Texas Monthly magazine ran an article about the Big Bend a month before my friend arrived. I was transfixed. Here was this amazing, wild space — that I had never considered — in easy driving distance from Houston. Okay, perhaps not easy. But we could get there in one long day’s drive.

I have been visiting Big Bend for twenty three years now, and I really have lost count of how many times I’ve been.

Why do I keep going?

Vast open spaces speak to me. Sky and the rocky terrain take turns dominating. The wind blows a rushing,”Shush Ssh, Ssshhhh Ssshhh,” through the needles of the juniper and pinyon pine of the Chisos mountains. I travel on the wind, up and over peaks, then fall back towards the desert floor. A cactus wren perches on a prickly pear pad and tells of the glory of the day in liquid song. Peregrine falcons call, their voices bouncing back and forth, down the walls of the canyon to mingle with the water flowing around boulders. I hear thoughts. I see time. I feel eternity. God, in all mystery — resides here.

Rosillos Mountains by James Evans
Rosillos Mountains by James Evans.

James Houston Evans has devoted his life to capturing the landscape and the people of this part of Texas. His photography is extraordinary. Sometimes grand. Often intimate. Time and true understanding of his subject make him the visual expert on this corner of the world. If you visit the Evans website, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful collection of images. It was James Evans’ work that drew me to this wild place. His photographs in a Texas Monthly article compelled my first visit in 1993. He photographed my first wedding in 1997.

“I moved here in 1988 to dedicate my life to the Big Bend and its people. I don’t shoot pictures and leave and make a book. This work is a slow accumulation of years of being here. The mountains are familiar friends and the people my heroes. I am one of them.”

— James Evans

Link to Camping by myself in Big Bend.

Three Distinct Ecosystems and an Extraordinary Birding Area

The area along the Rio Grande, the desert, and the high alpine forest in the Chisos mountains attract many different kinds of birds. Over 450 species have been documented in the park. Because Big Bend is on the central flyway of North America, over the course of a year it is possible to see nearly 2/3 of all the birds found within the continental United States.

National Park video on the birds of the Big Bend.

Road into the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend
Road into the Chisos Mountains. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

When To Visit

The most popular time to visit the park is during the spring, when milder temperatures and flowers are the big draw. Wildflowers and blooming cactus bring rich color to the rocky desert. The two main blooming seasons are in the spring and late summer. Wildflowers begin in the lower elevations of the park near the Rio Grande in late February and continue gradually up into the higher elevations near the Chisos mountains, finishing in late April. If you want to visit in the spring, you must make lodging arrangements well ahead of time.

Prickly Pear blooms
Prickly Pear blooms. Photograph by Kevin Gassiot.

Flowers in the desert are beautiful, but during the spring people often miss the architecture – the bones of the landscape — as they are drawn to the bright colors. I love other times of the year equally well, and the huge bonus is that the park is not crowded. In the summer, the century plants bloom and and attract hummingbirds during the day and nectar-feeding bats at night. While it is very hot on the desert floor in the summer, since the Chisos mountains are from 5,300 to 7,825 feet above sea level, it is much cooler there. An early in the morning hike is in order, before relaxing during the hottest part of the day, then get back out for incredible sunsets. Often the summer heat creates massive thunderhead clouds in the afternoon, and if you’re lucky — you get a desert thunderstorm (seen James Evans’s photo below).

The winter in Big Bend is a lovely time of the year. Birds from the frozen north visit, choosing the water along the river, desert arroyos, or pines in the high elevations.

I’ve spent half of my life returning to the Big Bend, and I love taking people along. Care to join me?

Storm from Dugout Wells by James Evans
Storm from Dugout Wells by James Evans.

 

Along the Ross Maxwell Drive in Big Bend
Along the Ross Maxwell Drive in Big Bend. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 


 

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**** Opening quote at beginning of article is from:

Jameson, J. R. (1996). The story of Big Bend National Park. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ann Fisher

The Fedora Rides Shotgun

Painting from the Gage Hotel

“Mom, you’re so weird.”

I just returned from camping by myself in Big Bend National Park.

I had not been camping since 2009, and as I looked at what to do with a few days off in September, all I could think of was what it sounds like to wake up in a tent.

Fedora on headrest of car
The Fedora Rides Shotgun

There have been times in my life that I slept in a tent to drop the overall cost of a cross-country vacation. I moved from New Orleans to Seattle and eventually back to NOLA, and multiple times both direction I camped with my cat, Jenny, and my bird named Charlie. Then when my daughter was going to Girl Scout camp in the Davis Mountains, I took my tent and launched out to various places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I don’t need to camp anymore, but I’ve found that I miss it. This is where I need to be really honest. I don’t camp in the haul-it-in-on-your-back way. No, thank you. It’s car camping, so I have a cot and a nice tent and a great camp stove.

Catherine saw my grocery list for the trip. “You’re bringing red snapper? Orzo? Normal people make easy stuff when they camp.”

Preparing steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill
Steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill

Yes, I like good food, and I enjoy cooking. I’ve learned that there are many delicious things I can make with a grill, some foil and a little ingenuity.

At the end of the day, what this is really, really about  — it’s seeing the stars, and hearing the breeze pull at the tent. It’s sitting with my coffee in the morning and watching the last stars fade out, the light grow until the sun peeks her head above the horizon.

Campsite
Fixing another cup of coffee

Big Bend National Park. It happens to be my personal park.

No, really. I have been many times, simply because it was the closest big western landscape to Houston. I can go and get my desert, big sky, big rock fix in less than a week — if I have to do so.

When I came here with Drew in 2010, it was before he was diagnosed with cancer. On the Lost Mine trail, there is a vista that opens up between the peaks in the Chisos mountains and the desert stretches out into the far distance. I told Drew that right there, that spot, behind the big rock we sat on as we enjoyed the view, that would be where to bring my ashes when I died. He looked at me and said, “it’s perfect. That’s what I want, too.”

We thought we would live to be . . . well, old. I promised to chase him around the breakfast table when we were eighty.

Life had other plans for us though, and we took them as gracefully as we could. We talked several times about where he wanted me to take his ashes when he died. He never wavered.

Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010
Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010

Wasn’t he a beautiful man? I did go spread his ashes in January of 2014. Several of his siblings were able to join me, and it was a very special pilgrimage.

View from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend
The view from our rock

So now the fedora rides shotgun with me. This time, my trip was not about ashes and it was not about mourning. It was about feeling the Big Bend again and being very, very alive.


 

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Ann Fisher