Heaven around the Bend

Two issues back, I mentioned being at the airport in El Paso, Texas. Here’s why: Big Bend National Park.

I and two birding-oriented associates had put this trip together for an ostensibly avian purpose: the pursuit of the Colima warbler, a sparrow-sized tweeter seen in the United States only in the summer and only in the high mountains of Big Bend. Fear not. I’m not gonna lull you into a slow doze with stultifying bird-watching stories from West Texas. (I will say this, for that tiny segment of readers who might be interested: We finally did get the binos on Mr. Colima on our last day in the park, but only after the little bastard made us hike three miles up a mountain trail).

My objective here is to tell you that, if you’re a desert lover, you might put B.B.N.P. way up there on your list of Hot Spots to Get to. Quite the place. While we were there to hunt down The Coliman, the unexpected bonus was getting turned on to the park itself, for Big Bend is to the Chihuahuan Desert what Yosemite is to the Sierra Nevadas.

Note, please, that I’m talking specifically to desert lovers. If you’re hung up on trees, keep your reservations to Lassen. Big Bend is a wide-open-spaces place, a place where there are few trees to get in the way of your eyeball. A place where, at sunset, you can look through a mighty crack in the Chisos Mountains called The Window and see about six or seven mountain ranges, all this corrugated geography, all in various moody shades of gray, dirty blue and indigo. And winding through them, the silver ribbon of the Rio Grande. A view that allows one to say, “OK. I get it.”

In the Chihuahuan Desert, the flora is ostentatious and remarkable. Blooming ocotillos tipped in red flowers, great clumps of prickly pear cactus drenched in yellow flowers, and mighty century plants throwing up priapic stalks of new blooms 10 and 15 feet tall. No Joshua trees, no saguaros and only the occasional spring-choking cottonwood. But still, great stuff. And somewhat nasty. Like its Sonoran cousin, everything growing has pricks, barbs and thorns. You can usually find room to walk in this desert, but you quickly learn to not be sloppy about it. The careless walker in the Chihuahuan Desert is one who will soon be using needlenose pliers on the spiny calling cards left in his thighs and calves.

And yes, the Chisos. On the map, nothing special. A short bunch of bumps rising to a ho-hum 7,000 feet. On the eye, though, very special. An extraordinary range, completely contained within the boundaries of the park. Scenically spectacular and looming with grandeur, the Chisos (ghosts) provide a very large wow factor, indeed.

One final note to serious hikers: This is a park you should visit and cherish. A fantastic network of trails winds all throughout the Chisos. You’ll be in Clif bar/Nalgene heaven in Big Bend.