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During Spring Break I had the opportunity to return to Big Bend.  As usual, the first days were spent exploring up in some of the smaller towns to the North.  Because the road between was closed from floods the last time we were there, we headed southwest to the border town of Presidio down along the Rio Grande before going into the park.  Not quite having the expected charm, we were soon on the road that follows the river and border to Terlingua and the Big Bend.

The road is a bit torturous, just like I like them, with rapid climbs and drops and a multitude of those roller coaster swales that make little boys exclaim, with some embarrassment, “Mommy, that made my wee-wee feel funny!”.  The problem is that there are many blind curves and hills and the road is long and, to those in a hurry, hot and just plain deserty.  Of course, I take it very leisurely, spending the time to look at the incredible countryside and frequently stop along the way.  Too many, though, have some need to get from point A to point B and never seem to quite figure out that it is what lies between that makes life worth living.  So more than a few times one of those hasty cars would swoop in on us and, not wanting to slow down, pass across the solid line around those blind curves or over those opaque hills.  Now, I wouldn’t care but then I have to slow down even more hoping to avoid the flying flesh and metal that seems so perilously close to a reality.  Besides, I am very queasy at the sight of blood!

4 inch spines on these suckers!

Well, we made it safe and were soon checked into our old motel and off to discover the land and the many sharp things awaiting us with every step off the road.  One of the beauties of the desert is really the vast diversity of the plants but the danger is the lack of diversity in that about everything has the ability to impale you at any moment.  There were times when, not remembering the exact path in, it seemed there were no good escapes.  Having already suffered the surgeons blade to remove a deeply seated Lechuguilla spine, we were a bit more careful about what we stepped over or how we got around things.

Ancient markings

So we spend most of our week driving the back roads through the park and surrounding areas, stopping whenever and where ever the mood would strike.  Being married to a photographer as well means hours at unmarked locations with no one complaining of being bored or hungry, you just fend for yourself as you would if alone.  In fact, after a few minutes, we rarely see the other until we return to the car again.

Even though landscape hasn’t been a primary, personal photographic interest for me lately, I love to explore the way the one truly scarce resource out here, water, can shape the terrain with relentless force and effect.  Seemingly endless miles of flat desert quickly become nearly impossible to traverse because of deep ravines and tunnels carved into the precarious sands.  What appears to be a solid crossing can easily cave into a crevasse as deep as the arroyo you thought you were avoiding.  So, again, you find yourself moving slowly and deliberately, discovering something new with every step and hoping your footing holds and you don’t fall victim to the spikes all around you.

Always seem to spend much time in Bentonite!

Amazingly, with all the warm weather and sun, no snakes were seen or encountered, something I have been fortunate to avoid in the 30+ years of exploring deserts and other habitat.  We didn’t even see any reptiles, tarantulas or javelina herds this time, although we think we might have smelled the latter at one point.  My wildlife encounter this trip was maybe one of my most unique yet however.

There are several remains of settlements throughout the park and one of those was actually in a somewhat lush and overgrown area.  As I walked beyond the working windmill spring, I heard the small sound of leaves crackling in the underbrush.  I used to think these were small animals but over time have generally found them to be hopping birds reacting to my approach.  So I looked into the brush and seeing nothing stepped forward again.  Another quick rustling.  This time I saw what I thought was some fur, one of the rabbits that are so plentiful here, but looking down at my feet, not 3 feet away, was the head of a gray fox.  As our eyes met, it bolted off into the brush and froze again some 10-15 feet away.  He was just so incredibly camouflaged that he was almost invisible.  They say sightings are rare of this shy animal and by the time I could signal Carol to come over, he had slinked away, probably still hiding in plain sight somewhere in the underbrush.

In a state where small two-lane farm roads are routinely blessed with 70mph speed limits–one was 75mph on this trip–I thought how apropos the clerks response in the local store was to a vacationer boasting to another of their being able to reach the 80 mph feat coming into town.  The clerk looked at the woman and said, “why would you even want to go that fast, you are in Terlingua?”

Gratuitous Self-Portrait

(all photos here from December 2008, gotta develop the new ones!)

all rights reserved © 2010 John Acurso