Monday, 19 March 2012

Backcountry Camping in Big Bend

Shortly before we left for this trip, Brahna and I went to Campmor in Paramus, New Jersey, and bought tons of new camping equipment. Our faith in the tent we’d used all last summer was diminished by the pummeling it took in an Irene-related storm on an island off Maryland at the end of August. Returning from dinner on the mainland, we found the tent flooded in almost a foot of water and flipped over by the wind. It was saved from being blown into the ocean only by the 15 pound dumbbell I’d placed in it before we left—the most action that weight has seen in awhile, I’m sure. Our sleeping bags were soaked through, forcing us to spend most of the next day in a laundromat in Ocean City. (Those bulky things date from at least the mid ‘80s, and, according to my father, had never previously been washed.) We really didn’t want a recurrence of that on this trip, the length of which seemed to make any new purchase of equipment a good investment. To that end, we bought a new tent and new sleeping bags: small, compact, and lightweight—perfect for an overnight backpacking expedition.

Driving west from Amistad toward Big Bend, the towns are small and rare. We did stop by the Pecos River, right above its junction with the Rio Grande. The river here carves out a massive canyon, which I remembered taking pictures of a few years ago when I first took the train across the country by myself. Stopping at the Pecos this time was important to me, because it was one of many places which I had passed before, from the distance of a speeding train, and vowed that one day I shall really return.

The Pecos River seen from the Sunset Limited, July 2009.

The Pecos River seen from a bit closer up, March 2012.
We filled up on groceries and gasoline in the towns of Sanderson and Marathon, about 100 miles north of Big Bend, because supplies are supposed to be limited in the park itself. The drive down from Marathon was absolutely gorgeous. As you enter the park itself, still far from the Visitor’s Center, the fencing along the roadside fades away and there’s nothing between you and the desert and the mountains.

The two important things about Big Bend are its remoteness and its immensity. At about 1,000 square miles and 100 miles from the nearest town, Big Bend is one of the least visited parks in the country, and perhaps the one where each visitor has to himself the most room. Thus, we were  a bit surprised to find, after arriving at the visitor’s center, that not only was every campground in the park completely booked, but so too was every roadside primitive site and every backcountry site up in the mountains. Our only option for sleeping in the park was walking out into the desert and pitching our tent wherever we could find a spot between the cacti and the yucca plants—so long as we were out of sight of any roads. We decided we weren’t quite ready for that at the moment, and opted to spend the night at one of the private campgrounds just outside the park. We did, however, secure a backcountry permit for the next night, at a site about two miles into the Chisos Mountains, a nuclear cluster of mountains in the middle of the brutally hot desert.

The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend.
 As we broke down camp the next morning—the “developed” private campground turned out to be rather primitive itself—I filled my large new pack with the sleeping bags, the sleeping pads, and the tent, and Brahna packed a backpack full of clothing, books, flashlights, and food. We drove the 30 miles back into the park and up into the Chisos Basin, a massive bowl surrounded by mountains. I parked Morty about a mile away from the visitor’s center, and hiked back up to where Brahna waited with the backpacks. We bought a map of the Chisos, filled our several water containers, and—excited, nervous, a bit surprised at what we were doing—headed to the trailhead and started climbing up.

At the bottom of the trail.
We are both horribly out of shape. Besides not being used to hiking with such heavy loads, neither Brahna nor I have done too much hiking in the past year. Moreover, the Eastern portion of our trip focused more on history than nature, and was meant more to put miles between us and home than anything else. Long, long stretches in the car every single day for the past month, plus a nutritionally unreliable travel diet, made us feel the pain those first few miles. Finally, though, we climbed a last steep incline and emerged onto the Juniper Flats area, where our campsite was located down a small path leading away from and nearly out of sight of the trail. The sun was by this point, around 11 a.m., already baking our faces, the air, and the ground, so we pitched the tent in a spot that we figured would have the most shade throughout the day. It was also conveniently located the furthest possible distance from the aluminum bear boxes where we’d store our food and our packs. Just in case.

For some reason, the flies in the mountains were fiendish, attacking us in swarms. Though we wanted to rest in our tent in the shade for awhile, the flies followed us in and ultimately forced us out. We packed the small backpack full of water and sandwiches and headed up the trail. After a short lunch break not too far away, and an unfortunate, if predictable, U-turn back to the tent for my hat, we were on our way.

After the Juniper Flats, the trail climbs quickly up the side of the mountain, mostly through dozens upon dozens of switchbacks. After every couple turns, we’d look back at the Basin and try to convince ourselves we were making some progress. “Really getting up there,” I said to Brahna, maybe 20 times, until it almost seemed true.
The Chisos Basin, from the mountains.

Our goal was the summit of Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend at about 7,900 feet. Most people on the trail—who, like most people you meet on hiking trails, were extraordinarily nice and jovial and empathetic—were either going to or returning from the peak. We established something like a friendship with a couple from Houston, a clownish ex-marine and his equally amusing girlfriend, who we kept passing and getting passed by as we all struggled up the trail. We found them again just below the summit, a 30-foot pinnacle of boulders at the top of which were solar panels, a radio tower, and three scary ravens. Brahna stayed below with the couple. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” said the ex-marine.

At the summit of Emory Peak.

With legs feeling like jelly, around four miles back to the campsite, and the sun beginning to set, Brahna and I started to book it down from the summit, greeting remembered landmarks like old friends—a debarked tree, the site of a bathroom break, where we had lunch. As usual, going down was at least as difficult as going up, much worse on the knees, and without even that sense of mission which accompanies the ascent.

By the time we got back to the campsite, we were sweaty, exhausted, thirsty, and, at least in the case of your ever-humble correspondent, impossibly smelly. I felt tortured by the Houston couple’s casual comment that they were getting “hot pizza” once they made it back down—the “hot,” in particular, seemed pointed, cruel, and unnecessary—and, with all due respect to the chef, not exactly compensated by the thought of the cold leftovers from the massive batch of rice and beans Brahna had made the night before, which were waiting for us in the bear box. With only a mile or two between us and Mortimer, and after such a long, sweaty, arduous day, it hardly seemed worthwhile to stop and sleep in our own grime and filth, with the amount of flies already in our tent surpassed only by the swarm of hundreds buzzing just outside the netting, aching to get in. We ate our rice and beans quickly while sitting cross-legged on the bear box. The dark came on very quickly, as Brahna has noted it always seems to do out here in the West. There seems to be a burn ban everywhere in the Southwest these days, so, without the comfort and light of a fire, we retired—sticky, smelly, unhappy—to the tent, read a little, and slept. Or, tried to sleep.

One of the things I’ve been most looking forward to about this trip is the opportunity to visit National Parks and actually see and do them my own way. While I’m immensely grateful to my parents for having brought me to so many parks when I was younger—Death Valley, Yellowstone, the Badlands, and, more recently, Denali and Sequoia—and for having instilled in me a general appreciation for them, I’ve often been frustrated by the inability to go on more extended and adventurous hikes. I remember looking longingly at the bearded hikers obligatorily watching backcountry camping videos at Denali, before they headed off into the Alaskan wilderness. Meanwhile, my family would hop on the ranger-led tour bus, where we aimed our cameras out the window at grizzly bears eating grass on the roadside—which, of course, was itself pretty cool, but I wanted to be closer to the action.
Brahna, burrowed deep inside her bag, was the first to fall asleep. I stayed awake, reading Walt Whitman and holding my breath with every sound I heard, in order to ascertain its source and potential for danger. The great irony of my insistence that we do some backcountry camping on this trip is that often in the middle of the night I suddenly become convinced that someone or something is behind every tree, waiting so patiently to strike. “We’re not alone,” I whispered to Brahna, very late one night while we were camping in an undeveloped (read: unsecured) site off the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. “There’s something in the trees.” Understandably, she hates this, because I’m always the one pushing for camping in the wilderness. Nonetheless, I can be a huge baby in the middle of a wild forest late a night.

To put what, at the time, felt like a very, very long story short, I barely slept that night. My concerns fell into two equally menacing categories: mountain lions and bears. When I had reasoned myself out of fear of the one, I would simply focus my attentions on the other. This cycle repeated itself into the early hours of the morning, when I finally somehow fell asleep. I was grateful, maybe even a little surprised, to open my eyes the next morning and to see my clearly innocuous, even peaceful, surroundings illuminated by the newly risen sun.

After an extremely sore valedictory hike back down to the parking lot, Brahna and I decided we wouldn’t stay for a third night in Big Bend, even though our backcountry permit also reserved for us a car-side spot elsewhere in the park. We—I—needed a shower badly, but we also needed a bed, homemade food, and an escape from the sun. Still suffering in our dirty clothes from the day before, we sped out of Big Bend along a different road than the one we took on the way in: State Route 118. The New York Times calls it “a portal to another dimension,” and it was, and we needed it to be.
That afternoon we checked into the Antelope Lodge in Alpine, Texas, a renovated old motor "court" from the 1940s. Despite its disagreeable proprietress, it came the closest of all the motels we’ve stayed at so far to the motor camp from It Happened One Night. We showered, did laundry, cooked, read, and just generally came back to life. By the time we left late the next morning, Big Bend felt more than just 100 miles away.

Soon we’ll write about Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, in southern New Mexico. Right now we’re in Santa Fe.


  1. What a delightful post. I'm so happy for the 2 of you. Be smart, be safe.

  2. really enjoyed this post and the pictures. I am anxious about the weather and not seeing/touching you for over a month now. Respect the mother and stay in touch more