I don’t know where to start. I can hardly wait to return to Big Bend, Texas.
Lt. Marine, Chandler, in charge of the 1852 U.S. and Mexican Boundary Commission, captured it perfectly when he wrote: No description can give an idea of the grandeur of the scenery through these mountains. There is no verdure to soften the bare and rugged views; no over hanging trees or green bushes to vary the scene from one of perfect desolation. Rocks are piled one above the other, over which it was the greatest labor that we could work our way.”
The 800,000-acre landscape (dipping down in the arms of the Rio Grande which separates Texas from Mexico) is equally beautifully and brutal. In some 1964 combination of surreal and factual, the Apollo astronauts spent time in Big Bend where they studied the volcanic formations, a geological preview if you will, prior to their moon landing.
Joining my brother-in-law and sister, Ron and Chris Torrence, we stayed in Alpine, Texas north of Big Bend National Park itself. Alpine has numerous attractions, but The Museum of the Big Bend based at Sul Ross State University is a great introduction to the Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology.
The museum had me from the get-go. Walking in, you see the following words: The Rio Grand may be a border but is not a barrier. The people of the Big Bend region regardless of citizenship or ethnic origin share an appreciation for their heritage – a heritage tied to the land and its rich history.” (So much for Donald Trump and his fence!)
In 1999, archeologists discovered the bones of an alamosaurus the largest flying dinosaur. It measured 100-feet in length and had a 40-foot wingspan. Immersed as I was in the landscape, it was easy to imagine the dinosaur flying overhead… looking for meat… maybe for me. Hanging from the ceiling are the bones of one wing. Looking from the wing tip on the floor and then up to the ball-joint, you can only shudder.
Another truly amazing feature of the museum, especially if you are into petroglyphs, is the re-creation of Tall Rockshelter to be found in the Davis Mountains. Based on floor deposits at the site, the rock art was probably the work of people living during the Livermore Phase – some time between 700 and 1300 AD.
Nearby, just west of Alpine, is the The McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis. Especially if you appreciate Dark Skies and telescopes and informed docents, you must stop and be led by the hand through the night sky.
Restored historic hotels abound. Next time we’ll stay at the Holland Hotel in Alpine, or Hotel Paisano in Marfa or El Capitan in Van Horn or… The 1956 movie Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean was filmed in Marfa. According to my sister, one night after one drink too many, Elizabeth Taylor who was staying on the second floor dove off the balcony and into the swimming pool below. What a great story. As for my sister, she slept, not with James Dean, but in James Dean’s room… possibly the same bed. Hopefully, on a new mattress.
One of our final side trips was to Terlingua, now home to old hippies and some clingons and lots of history. Thanks to the mining of cinnabar which we know as mercury, Terlingua was a boomtown in the 1880s. The town hung on until the 1920s, and then stone by stone it crumbled. My sister and I especially liked the cemetery. Given the unforgiving, cement-like soil of the place, bodies were buried beneath heaps of rock. Silver coins lay scattered: money for the ferryman to pay for passage over the River Styx.
Our personal story relating to burial above ground was our attempt some years ago to bury Mom’s ashes next to Daddy’s casket in Cimarron, NM. My sister had come up from San Antonio, and we met in Taos. I was supposed to be in charge of bringing the shovel. The day was hot – too hot for Taos. I had forgotten the shovel so I went to the local Tru-Value where I asked for shovels. The employee asked, “What kind?”
“Just a small one,” I answered, “the kind you might keep in the car in case you are stuck in the snow.” The employee was suitably impressed, “Now that’s what I call thinking ahead’!
Arriving at the Cimarron cemetery, we tried to dig. No one could do more than scratch the surface. Why we never thought to forget digging and heap up stones is beyond me. We should have built up, not dug down!
Heap the stones up if you must, but don’t forget that I want to follow the Egyptian practice of mourners throwing in items needed in the next world. No need to mourn: I’ve lived a great life, but don’t forget to bring my baggage. Do not forget my computer, a case of Snickers, and as many books as you can carry. xo