big bend

Big Bend V - It's getting dark out here... by Josh Trudell

One important lesson was reinforced during our hiking trips in Big Bend – always ask the park rangers before you believe any printed material. According to our guidebook, Balanced Rock was an easy hike. And the flyers in our room claimed it is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Um, no...and oh wait. No.

With the sun heading toward the horizon, we bounced over six miles of rutted road, headed for the trailhead. The rented SUV proved its worth here - my gas-efficient Matchbox car would have been beached more than once.

We pulled into the parking lot to find a trail leading through a narrow valley, with steep hillsides already growing dark.

It was our last night in the park, so we started double-timing it along the trail, hoping to catch the sunset. Hustling along the trail, which switched from gravel to sand and back again, we reached what looked like the end.

Or not.

A small arrow pointed us up a rock wall to a goat path of rock outcroppings. Stretching and reaching from one spot to the next, we monkeyed up the path, winding our way across the rock on little more than a hiking boot's width in spots.

After about 15 minutes of this, with the light dimming all the while, we reached Balanced Rock. The rock is balanced on two other boulders, and the mountain rises behind it.

On the west side.

Where the sunset was.

We had a nice view to the east, and in 12 hours, it would be a lovely sunrise. And if we stayed out there all night, we'd be rattlesnake snacks.

So down the hill we went, feeling our way along in the quickening dark from rock step to rock step. Finally, we got to the bottom and trudged back to the car in the dark. One turn nearly led us out into the desert, but we made it back without any mishaps.

A much more relaxed and pleasant hike was up the Lost Mine trail. The trail, starting from the road leading to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, winds up into the mountains encircling the lodge.

It's a walk with a little challenge to it - the mountains are steep and there is altitude - but it was a gorgeous day. Recent rainfall had the mountainsides covered in yellow blooms.

There are benches along the path, and you can stop anywhere along the second half of the trail for gorgeous views of Casa Grande - a huge rock formation looming over the surrounding hills.

The cool breeze at the top felt like it came straight from the Rocky Mountains. The trail immediately leapt into my top five hikes I've been on in Texas.

Next up - a few odds and ends...

Big Bend IV - Or, A Little Banjo Music by Josh Trudell

When we walked into the Starlight Theater in Terlingua after our rafting trip, I thought they’d play both kinds of music there – country AND western.

Then the cowboy-hat wearing guitarslinger behind the mic started playing Cole Porter songs. The stuffed goat with a Lone Star in its jaws seemed unimpressed.

Terlingua is one of the more interesting small towns I’ve ever visited. As it was described by one person, it’s where the hippies from Austin came after life started getting too intense there.

Bikers, tourists, river guides and others hung out on the porch connecting the Starlight with the Terlingua General Store, a small town scene if I’ve ever seen one. Strangers five minutes ago, we chewed the fat with another transplanted New Englander who was attracted by my New Hampshire t-shirt.

After a steak, we sat on the porch for a bit as the sun started to set behind us, lighting the Chisos Mountains in golden tones. A pickup band of banjo pickers brought back the country sound, with classic Willie and Waylon tunes.

Terlingua was originally a mining town, and the ghost-filled remains of ruined stone huts sit in front of the general store, covering the slope down to the graveyard.

The scattered piles of stones glowed in the evening light, the yellow and orange rocks keeping their warm hue. Fresh wood and plastic toys showed that a few huts are still being used, even with roofs held down by tires and rope to keep them from blowing away.

Rubble sprawled across the ground, spraying in worn and weathered lumps. Walls yawned from fatigue, getting a little closer to joining those on the earth. The rocks leaned downhill, as if all they wanted was to roll off the hillside and down into the cinnebar mines.

The wear of desert wind and weather is visible on every surface. Some of the older graves are as featureless as if they had endured decades of New England winters, but here they’ve been wiped clean by the sand. Splintered and shattered crosses lean defiantly – others lie broken, their post lost. In the fading light, it’s a mournful vision.

And yet…the banjo notes float across these tombs, calling the workers to come up from the mines and out from their huts, calling the children to laugh and run and play, calling us to dance, to love, to live.

Next up: Climbing the peaks

Big Bend, Part II - Or, That's as Close to Lightning as I Need to Be by Josh Trudell

As I carried the box holding my camera bag back to my room, lightning flashed to the south. Backing up for a second – the Chisos Mountain Lodge sits in a big bowl in the mountains. The Window is a crack in the west side of the bowl, making a beautiful spot for sunsets – or lightning watching, if you’re into that kind of thing.

From where I was standing, lightning buzzed and flashed through the clouds to the west – still far enough away that it wasn’t raining, but making for some great views through the Window.

Racing back to my room, I pulled out my bag and tripod and headed for a small scenic overlook trail in front of the lodge. The storm seemed to be drifting to the left of the Window, behind the mountains, but some long exposures helped me capture a couple of lightning strikes.

After about 20 minutes of shooting, I went back to the room to see what Superwife’s plans were for the evening. We had talked about going for an evening hike, and I was hoping to find a place where we could continue to watch the storm.

Not a problem, as it turned out.

We packed our gear, stepped out of our room, and found a cloud monster had eaten the surrounding mountains.

The storm had shifted course, bringing the lightning and rain right into the bowl around us. The wind picked up fast, blowing hats off and sending papers swirling. Rain began to pelt us, hard drops that sprayed off the ground. Thunder boomed around the timpani drum of the mountains.

Immediately giving up on the hike, we started for the lodge. I stopped in amazement as the clouds rolled down the mountain behind our building, disappearing the trees and rock formations.

I stopped to try and capture the swarming clouds, but the wind and rain made it almost impossible. I shot one frame:

And then we ran for the lodge, where we sat and felt very small as the storm raged around us.

The turning point was a sudden change in tone from the roof and windows. Quarter-sized hail started bouncing off the deck and dinging the cars in the parking lot.

After about 15 minutes of that, the storm lessened quickly, leaving a watercolor-smeared sky.

Next – Why all that rain in a desert isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Big Bend, Part 1 by Josh Trudell

I’ve wanted to go to Big Bend National Park for the last eight years – since the day we decided we were moving to Texas, in other words.

The mountains, the rivers, the rugged edge of the back of beyond – I was all over it. The idea of photographing that level of wilderness was making my camera salivate.

Thus, it was a trifle distressing that three hours into the eight-hour drive out to the park, I realized I FORGOT MY FRIGGING CAMERA BAG.

Commence head-to-steering wheel connections, made early, often and with many expletives.

Lemme ‘splain.

When I was packing the truck we rented for the trip, I took my camera bag off my shoulder in the bedroom before carrying another bag out to the truck. When I went back to help Superwife with her bag, she was already out of the bedroom, meaning I didn’t go back in, and THE BAG was left on the bed.

On a lunch stop in Del Rio, three hours drive from home base in San Antonio and four hours to Big Bend, I opened the back door to find…no bag. Meaning no camera. Meaning all the photographic dreams that I had had of Big Bend…just disappeared.

Commence headbanging, to the tune of “You’re a Dumbass.”

As we ate lunch, we kicked around our options. Drive back and get the bag. Get The Friend with The Key to ship us the bag overnight. Bite the bullet and do without.

I hoped to sell stories and photos from this trip to help offset the cost, so biting the bullet didn’t work. We had finished lunch and started heading east when we finally were able to raise a FedEx office. Yes, they were open late. Yes, they could get the bag there tomorrow.

Thankfully, we had a Friend. Said Friend went far, far above and beyond the call, driving out to our house, finding the bag and schlepping to the Fed Ex store, where for $200, they flew it from San Antonio to Memphis to El Paso before finally putting it on a truck for the Chiso Mountain Lodge in Big Bend.

Conflicting reports had it arriving anywhere from 10 in the morning to five in the afternoon. When it didn’t show up by 10, we decided to take the least scenic hike possible and still get a taste of Big Bend – a walk through the Chihuahuan Desert to the rock formations called the Chimneys.

Hiking out, I expected the family from The Hills Have Eyes to come stumbling down the hillside at any moment – it’s scenic, but once you’re out of sight of the road, you can forget civilization even exists. The hike is a relatively flat walk through a giant bowl, and before long we started to feel very small.

Returning to the lodge, I found that my camera bag had arrived…and then the thunderstorm rolled in.

Continued In Part II…