a Rabbit Windshield Darkly
Part 2: Pecos, Texas, and the Night in the Big Bend
Saragosa: This last May the little town of Saragosa lost more than twenty-five citizens, mostly children, when a tornado slashed through the middle of the elementary school on graduation day. I drive through not aware of this and not noticing anything out of the ordinary. In retrospect, I assume that the physical damage was repaired or cleaned up; otherwise, I am not very observant.
Balmorhea is located along the northern foot of the Davis Mountains. The Davis Range marks the southern boundary of the Pecos plain; the country begins to go uphill again. I have been watching these mountains get closer for the last hour or so. I am reminded of my impressions of this area before I ever traveled here; through the topos, I figured that this area might be pretty interesting simply because of the expanses of plains exclamated with the various ranges.
One night in 1982 I was driving back from Dallas with a friend of mine after a somewhat failed entrepreneurial adventure. My girlfriend of the time traveled regularly to Dallas as part of her job. She would bring back the various classified ads for used cars. We had discovered that the prices asked for used Volkswagens in Texas was substantially less than the selling price for the same model year of car in Los Angeles; we figured to fly there and buy a couple of cars, then two one back with the other, sell them here and make a clean profit.
Greg and I were fortunate enough to get this crackpot idea in our heads just about the same week that a new airline was inaugurating service to Dallas/Fort Worth. The airline was promoting this new service by offering one-way fare to Dallas of just over four dollars. There was some numerologic significance to the exact price, but I forget that now. The catch, for most travellers, that is, was that the return fare was about ninety-six bucks, for a grand total of a hundred dollars. The other catch, for all, was that to get this special deal, one had to participate in a circus of sorts; the airline company was staging an all-night waiting line for tickets.
So we waited in line all night. We each got two one-way tickets to DFW, for a grand total of sixteen bucks and change. Suited us perfectly.
On the ninth of September, we boarded the flight to DFW with two tool kits, tow bar, tow hitch, cb radio, antenna and personal stuff. Around each of our waists were money belts with 1500 dollars in cash. We were the consummate entrepreneurial capitalists.
Chatting jovially with the stews, who were all interested in our strange assortment of very heavy carry-on luggage (yes, we carried everything on board - yes, we set off all the metal detectors - no, they didn't seem to care that our carry-on luggage weighed two hundred pounds), we had a delightful flight to the great foreign land of Texas.
Landed at DFW about midnight. We had nowhere to stay - we were saving all our money for the great buys that we were to find. So we tried to sleep at the airport.
DFW, like most other big airports, is not vagrant friendly. First attempted to find a quiet piece of carpet to sleep on. The custodial crews were out in force though, with the turbine-like whine of vacuum cleaners roaming the floor. This was bad, but the sight of the big brown cockroaches scooting across the very same carpet kinda kept us awake. Bugaphobia.
Onward we pursued a resting place. Tried a variety of places - took a ride on the go-cart that travels around the airport. Couldn't sightsee from it because of the filth on the windows and the very bright light inside; couldn't sleep in it either. Finally bedded down in one of the tram stations; it was cool and dark there. The mosquitoes kept me awake for awhile, but I draped a piece of netting over my head and fell asleep soon after.
Two hours later we awoke to the sound of passengers arriving and departing on the tram. At this point there was little hope of getting any more sleep; the sun was lighting up the outside and it would be day very quickly. Called up the rental car agency at about eight; they proceeded to come out and get us. Soon we were in the town of Irving, where after picking up the car we holed up at a local coffee shop for a few hours while we scoured the local paper and prepared for our day of telephone calls and the beginning of our bright futures as used car salesmen.
To make a very long story short, we ended up leaving Dallas that Sunday midday, driving back to LA in a orange VW superbeetle while leaving behind us a VW bus with a blown engine.
The drive west from Dallas took us through the very verge of the east Texas rolling lands and smack into the middle of the Permian Basin. Soon the land was stereotypically Texan and the sun had settled down low in the west. Big cumulonimbi had begun to stack up all around us. This, believe it or not, was my first introduction to the "west". California and its desert really isn't the west. In spite of my fatigue and disappointment, this was a heady trip for me.
By late afternoon we'd passed through Abilene, Tye and Colorado City and now found ourselves in Big Spring at sunset. Picked up a pizza and beer at a local joint, studied our maps and adjusted our contingency plans.
After dinner, we followed the Missouri Pacific west along I-20 out through the vast expanse that west Texas is. The thunderheads that had been scooping up moisture all afternoon were now beginning to let it all back out: there were jaggers of lightning coursing across the blackness of the southern sky, down where on the map it said "Fort Stockton", "Glass Mountains", "Davis Mountains". Exotic names when seen from my limited frame of reference. Exotic weather. Not from around here. The romance of being in motion, going from somewhere to someplace else. Out here, making it through our own initiative, always modulated by that undercurrent of fear and desperation, not for our own physical mortality, but for our economic well-being. It was an exciting and awesome trip for us.
I knew that someday I would come back here. I would find the Davis Mountains, seek out the University of Texas Observatory up there in those mountains. I read somewhere that this observatory was built out here in West Texas because there was so little population; no light sources to mar the night sky. There it is again: the isolation of this country. Another attraction. When you grow up in the knot of inhumanity known as LA, you often seek the extreme.
So all through the evening we traveled along, Odessa, Midland, Monahans, Pecos. Stopped in Pecos for fuel; I called my girlfriend back home. I mean, how many times do you get a call from the heart of the old Texas West? This is the Pecos of legend, astride the muddy Pecos River. Again, the otherworld feelings. A fresh breeze, warm and fragrant, pushed past me, standing there at the phone booth, coming from some unknown place out there where the thunder is born, wending its way to some other unknown place, each out of my view and reach. All this from a phone booth on the corner of a gas station lot next to an interstate in a gritty West Texas town. Amazing what the imagination is able to achieve. I finally come back to this place. I have fulfilled a goal, however minor in the grand scheme. I am once again in my mind's Texas, that lone star of the west.
Limpia Canyon is a very pretty canyon; Texas Route 17 tracks it between Balmoreah and Fort Davis. On my AAA map it is not shown as a scenic route, but believe me it's worth the drive. The whole canyon is limestone and extrusive volcanics, all well-layered, with pretty green meadows where the canyon gets wide enough. It looks good enough to be in the movies. Fort Davis is nestled in the Limpia Valley, up at about 4200 feet or so elevation. It's one of the many forts set up a hundred or more years ago when these here parts were even less populated than they are now. The valley is surrounded by the Davis Mountains, the peaks of which generally range from six to eight thousand feet in height. Mount Livermore is the tallest at 8382 feet and a possible site for a 250-inch telescope to be built and operated by the University of Texas.
I drift through Fort Davis, promising myself to stop here on the way back, but regretting the lack of time. I want to get to Alpine before tonight.
Marfa is twenty-six miles distant. I have two choices of route to get to Alpine, but I want to see Marfa (I like the name), the home of the famous Mystery Lights of Marfa. I feel like I am dropping down from Ft. Davis, falling away from the Davis Range, but in fact I climb nearly 500 feet by the time I see Marfa on the horizon.
Marfa has a huge, stately, courthouse in the center of town. Quite attractive, even with the passage of eighty years since its construction. Across the street from the courthouse is the police station. Really neat. After all, how many police stations have you ever seen, out in the wilds of the west, that have a art deco design and are faced with black and white tile? This isn't some sort of modern reconstruction; it is telling of the age of the building - and also of the tastes of the builders, some sixty years ago. Amazing. Time to scoot.
The sun is low behind me as I take an easterly heading, paired with the Southern Pacific Railroad, both of us headed for the same immediate destination. Again the romance of the railroad; I have followed these rails for many miles in California. These are the eastern extension; a single pair of 150 pound-per-yard rolled steel bars. The mileposts out here are declining. 600 - 599 - 598... I suppose Houston is the end of this count. It seems to be about six hundred miles distant. I'm still in the West.
Alpine is approaching. I enter sweeping curves in the highway, following valley drainages. I watch the Southern Pacific peel away from me to the north; I cross over the tracks of the Santa Fe on their way to Mexico, crossing the Rio Grande at Presidio.
The SP rejoins me to my left. The sky is a soft, radiant blue, the air is clean and fresh and the smell of the long dry grass of summer is abundant. The hills that surround me now don't remind me of the hills of Bavaria; someone told me (liars everywhere) that the town of Alpine was so named because of its similarity to a German alpine village... So I thought perhaps, since Alpine was in a relatively high valley, surrounded by higher mountains, that it might be a bit more heavily forested. Sometimes my imagination creates a different reality. But I enjoy very much the sensations of this Alpine. This country is one of the more sparsely populated areas in the United States. The land is vast, with mainly cattle ranches, farming and a few small towns sprinkled here and there. The frontier is still alive here. A rancher may live fifty miles from the nearest town; on his property he may be the only law for at least that many miles.
Frontier justice still makes its mark out here in both good and bad ways. There are bandidos, drug runners, illegal aliens, cattle rustlers, desperados, survivalists here. To a cityboy like myself, being here stirs up feelings of excitement, mystery and a little trepidation.
The miles south out of Marathon are long and lonely. The prairie vegetation gives way to the flora of the Chihuahua Desert, eighty percent of which is in Mexico. Far away to the south are rising the Chisos Mountains, an alpine island in the Chihuahua.
I pass through Persimmon Gap into the National Park, then head along the Santiago Mountains past Dog Canyon, through which came the first American military exploration parties of more than a century ago.
The highway continues to drop in elevation, bottoming out in the wash before beginning the gradual climb up to Panther Junction. Big Bend is a vast park; although only about one thousand square miles in area, it is set in the middle of a vast frontier, so that its apparent size and reach is much greater. The Chisos Mountains stand arrogantly in the center of the park; they defy the desert. The desert attacks and retreats, depending on the season and amount of precipitation.
After stopping at the Information center, paying the fee and getting some maps, I head on up to the Basin. The core of the Chisos range is almost circular; there are high peaks arranged so that there is a cool alpine valley in the center, and the only road in is a steep and winding one that climbs a north-south trending canyon, peaks out at about 5500 feet and then drops into the cooler Basin. The Basin has a campground, store, motel and horse concessionaire.
Many of the park's trails head here and wind through the Chisos, some returning here and others ending out on the desert. It's late in the afternoon and I opt to hike one of the shorter trails down the drainage path of the Basin out to a point called the Window. The trail drops down below the central Basin winding down into the watercourse; the path follows the narrowing canyon as it drops, becoming more spectacular as it goes.
Soon the walls are hundreds of feet high, and rock scour marks can be seen on the walls many feet above my head. This must be quite a place when there is a raging thunderstorm in the Basin. The trail is 2.4 miles in length. It is almost all downhill along the path to the Window, dropping a total of nine hundred feet.
About two miles along, the horse trail ends and there are hitching rails there. The path continues, with steps hewn out of the walls of the narrow, deep canyon. Soon I near the very end of the path; there is a sign warning hikers to go no further. The rock down here is polished very smooth by the torrents that must roar down this canyon.
My boots don't stick to the rock very well, so I drop to my hands and knees to crawl a few feet beyond the sign for the view ahead. This point is called the Window for a very good reason: the canyon ends in a spectacular waterfall which I can't see from here. The view from the Window is of the Chihuahuan Desert, with the peaks and buttes as far as a hundred miles visible there in the narrow slot described by the sheer rock walls at the mouth of the canyon.
Here the rock is polished to twenty or twenty-five feet above me; the volume of water here and the power that entails must be immense. To be an eagle and to pause just outside the Window when the Basin is raging with storm would be a thrill.
There are mountain lions here. In the last year two people have been attacked by these majestic and fierce cats. Although tragic, this is their land on which we're trespassing and we must be wary.
Night falls and I attend the ranger's program, then retire. The night sky is glorious and I fall asleep easily. At sunrise I pack up and head on out of the Basin, then to the east toward Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Canyon, the exit for the Rio Grande from this park.
It is along this drive that I first notice the millipedes. Looking like four to seven-inch long snakes, they randomly march across the pavement. They are rusty brown, segmented and about a quarter to three-eighths inch in diameter. They are not slimy; I touch one to make sure.
Driving around Rio Grande Village I notice that there are very few people camped down here. It is hotter and more humid here than in the Basin. I travel back toward the Basin; along the way there is a site called Dugout Well, with trees and shade. I stop there and find that I'm the only one. I end up falling asleep in the shade for a few hours after working on my log for awhile.
Afternoon arrives and I drive back up the Basin road to the Lost Mine Peak trailhead. I have decided to be athletic and go for a hike especially since I snoozed the morning away. The trail is 3.4 miles long with an elevation gain of about one thousand feet. I pick up one of the trail guides and go for it. The trail is a freeway and pretty easy; I complete it sooner than I expect. Late afternoon arrives and I decide to camp at the west end of the park, along the Rio Grande at the Castolon campground. It's about a thirty mile drive there. Along the way, I hope to catch a glimpse of the Window from the outside, just to see where all that water lands after it leaps from the Window. Unfortunately the road doesn't come within five miles of the area and I can't see it using binoculars although I can tell where the Window must be.
I stop at all the scenic views along the way; especially interesting is the Burro Mesa Pouroff, an apt name for the narrow high chute that turns into a waterfall when the rains fall on the higher Burro Mesa. One trail from the highway leads down the draw from Burro Mesa to the Pouroff; down the road a few miles later there is a turnoff that allows one to drive to within a thousand yards or so of the bottom of the chute, up in a narrow canyon.
Later, as I drive back out the side road to the bottom of the pouroff, I see a huge snake on the pavement ahead of me. It is as long as my lane is wide, which makes it at least seven feet long. I slam on the brakes to avoid running over the beautiful silver-red snake; the action seems unnecessary as the snake, aware of my approach, does nearly a cartwheel as it speeds back into the chaparral along the road. It is the last I see of it although within seconds I am out of the car and looking.
I continue along the main road, conscious of my isolation and separation from civilization. I haven't seen another person in an hour now.
The late sun casts a warm hue on the ruddy rocks, bringing out the natural colors of the hundred-million year old strata. My descent from the higher country is gradual, but the air is becoming hot and moist as I near the river.
Just out of the village of Castolon is the butte that gives it its name; a impressive standard, a huge orange and cream watchtower that inspires thoughts of castles of old. Travellers of past centuries used this landmark to guide themselves to the pueblo and its low river crossing; they named the village Castellon. But somebody had to come along and corrupt the name...
The road winds down a dry watercourse, passing the preserved village of Castolon, past the ranger station, general store and filling station. It veers to the west, heading along between groves on the riverbank to the south and a rock ridge along the north. In a mile or two there is the turnoff into the Park campground.
I turn and drive down the dirt road, over the cattle gate and into the camp. It is empty. Not one single person is here under the swaying, slender cottonwoods, which have been pruned and maintained so that they now form a canopy some forty to sixty feet above the ground. It doesn't even look like anyone has been here recently. I pick a site and decide that before anything else, I will take a much-needed shower. The fresh breeze out of Mexico dries me quickly.
I get out the bike that I have been carrying with me for a thousand miles, take off the toeclips, and go for a little spin wearing just shorts and sandals.
Riding to the camp entrance, I fill out the envelope, stuff in the three dollar fee and push the whole thing into the steel pipe vault provided. I continue to ride, reveling in the isolation I have found. I ride out to vistas on the river, follow trails through the low woods along the river bank, get out on the pavement and ride toward the ranger station, glorying in the luxury of my private world with the warm, fresh, clean breeze.
As I head along the pavement, up ahead there is a signpost marked "Santa Elena, Mexico", pointing down a dirt road heading south toward the river. This is one of the few good crossings of the great river for a couple hundred miles along the river. I head down the trail, through a dense grove of cottonwoods and shrubbery on either side, the occasional roadrunner or two being the only other living things I see, unless you can also count the omnipresent millipede. I am tired of seeing them.
The isolation in which I find myself immersed is somewhat unnerving. There is something alien, foreboding here. I am becoming the victim of decades of stereotype generated and reinforced by television and film and a good dose of Los Angeles-brand paranoia. The combination of the distance from home, the weird animals, the "swarthy and shiftless" Mexicans just a few hundreds of yards away. I continue down the dirt path to the river: winding slightly, never able to see down the broadly undulating path more than a few hundred feet, it seems about a thousand yards to the river. All along the way the hot breeze, the humidity, the lush verdure, those damn millipedes. Why don't those good-fer-nothin' roadrunners eat them? I suppose those ugly insects are poisonous.
The path rounds a bend and dumps out onto the sandy apron of the river bank. There, in front of me, lies Mexico. A ramshackle little village across the way, with no sign of life. A six-inch pipe drops down into the river from the hamlet; I assume that this is an intake for fresh water of sorts. Here I rest, taking in the ceaseless flow of time that the river is; the few steer that I see motionless across the way, on the bank well upstream toward Mesa de Anguila.
I wonder what arrangements must be made to travel across this river here? Is it something informal? Could I just wade across, visit Santa Elena, bebe una o dos cervezas, then meander back when the evening had grown more long? Or is there regulation, requirements, official protocol, a bunch of governmental hoo-hah that causes this swift stream to be a virtual concrete and steel barrier? I must find out sometime. Too many questions for this hot, languid evening. The sun is setting. Night will follow soon.
A lone Mexican comes into view over in the little town, appearing out of nowhere; he looks at me with avarice, murder, larceny in his black eyes. I feel the stab of icepicks, driving shivers all through me. I don't belong here. Hastily I turn the bicycle around, push my way through the sand, find the path again, and pedal like the wind, away from that foreigner, away from that gulf, through the hordes of millipedes, insipid roadrunners, lush tamarisk groves back to my own isolationism, my own nationalism. I am worried that tonight, that Mexican will come swimming across, with perhaps several other desperados, stealing all that they can find from that foolish lone gringo who is encamped on the opposite bank. They will come; they will not hurry; they will bide their time.
My heartbeats pace off as I near the pavement; somehow the paved surface reassures me, reminds me that I am in a civilized country, one where life is held in great stead, where people surely do not sweep down in the night and gruesomely slash one's throat all for the desire for a few pesos more. I turn west into the twilight, riding at ten, fifteen miles an hour, with the syrupy wind, find the camp entrance and turn in. It is still empty. I am the only person on the planet, except for that murderous cuthroat just a hundred yards across the all-too shallow Rio Grande, the Rio Bravo del Norte. There is a destiny here; I will meet it tonight, I am sure. OK, so it's a little melodramatic...
I circle the camp once, a distance of about a quarter-mile, graveling down the wide path that lies under the sweeping cottonwoods. Ending up at long last at the truck, my psychic fortress for the night, I get out the bag of grub, find a can of corned beef hash and settle down to a quick, cold and greasy meal. Having already parked myself in a cot on the bed of the truck, and being too indolent to want to get up, march on over to the trash dump and toss the can, I deposit it temporarily in a cubby in the truck bed. I will regret this later.
The wind continues its fresh surge; the air is redolent with scents, flavors, questions and answers. Twilight is nearly over; the cottonwoods are becoming less and less as the night sky blossoms above me. I have made another mistake; I have parked so that I will sleep facing north. I cannot see the southern sky at all, the northern sky is broken into small blotches by the intervening cottonwoods, the sky is alien to me. As night grows, the firmament glows brighter until the cottonwoods, originally framing the stars, vanish and all that is left are the stars, glowing in these artificial coal sacks. What planet is this?
Several years ago, I travelled below the Equator for the first time. Until that time, I had never been below 32 degrees north latitude; the trip took me first to Hawaii, where stars I had never seen in thirty years of life were now within my realm. At eighteen degrees, the constellations changed. Suddenly there were new bright stars, the more familiar ones far higher in the sky than back home. I realized then that the trip would be one of soul- and mind-altering importance. These stars, which I had known of from books, photos and maps for perhaps two decades, ever since my earliest interest in astronomy, were now beginning to sneak up over that southern border and invade my consciousness.
The next stop was Fiji. For the first time in my life, I was beneath the Equator. I could prove this to my satisfaction; the water drained out of a bath, twisting in the clockwise motion, according to the Coriolis effect. Amazing. (I later discovered that this was a myth; it is purely a matter of the design of the spouts ringing the bowl of the toilet.) There was a couple of Canadian girls along with an American family from Boulder, Colorado, where I stayed in Nadi. I fell in love, lust, with one of the Canadians, probably just from the feeling of alienation, perhaps from a true desire - it is unimportant now.
I saw Crux Austrialis for the first time with her. The Southern Cross was the only constellation that I could recognize in that weird, twisted, upside-down sky; only she, that North American woman, nearly from the same global town, was real. To this day both those stars and that Canadian woman are one in my mind. I wonder if she knows?
The Coal Sack, the Large and Small Magellenic Clouds were waiting for me. Not nearly as spectacular as I thought they should be, I realized that they had suffered the inadvertent hype that goes along with full-color, full-page glossy photos in Sky and Telescope or in Astronomy. I learned to appreciate them for their essence.
When I finally arrived in Australia, I had to wait a few days for clear weather to get the opportunity to go out into the night and enjoy the show. My night came; I bundled up warmly, for the nights outside Canberra, cultural and social hellhole of Oz, were very cold during that ice clear, black winter.
I drove west from town about 15 miles, down into the Murrumbidgee River valley, away from the paucity of lights that gratefully don't call out Canberra to the rest of the world. Scratching off the highway onto a graveled road, I rolled a couple hundred feet away from the few headlights that might happen along during the evening and found a good open spot where a view of the whole sky was virtually unimpeded by vegetation or terrain. Dragging out a blanket scavenged from my motel, I threw it out on the ground, put a pillow under my head and lay down to study the sky.
What disorientation. I had done as I always do: lay down facing the south, so that all my familiar constellations would be strung out before me, like brilliant trinkets, souvenirs on my personal, celestial necklace. Each with its own memories, feelings, circumstances. Only the necklace wasn't anywhere near where I expected it to be. Past overhead, well into the northern sky, and much attenuated, my home stars were barely in evidence. Instead, a bizarre assortment of dim and murky points displayed themselves to me, indifferent to my confusion.
I knew that down here all these stars would seem to revolve around a spectacularly ordinary point in the sky; this point is special in that there is no light source to mark such a unique spot, no Polaris to guide me to a first bearing, to set my ordered mind at ease that all is right with the sky and thus by inference that all is OK in my head. I had read of various geometric constructs to create this invisible point; I performed them, assigning to a particularly black void in the blue-black hemisphere above the designation of South Celestial Pole.
Not very comforting. I arched my neck and head well back to see Antares, Arcturus, Spica - my spring and summer companions. They didn't look well at all. Canopus, a rare visitor to my shores, Alpha Centauri, never before seen, both glowered above me with an evil, sneering visage that warned me of great peril. I ignored their fire and took in the sky. I tried to come to terms with it. It would continue, whether I could or not. I was the only one who could calculate gain or loss through this episode.
Enough of this foolishness; enough of this cold, this icy reception to me, a curious visitor from the north, come to look upon the celestial splendors of the South. Time to go back to my cold and dark and dismal little room in a third-rate Canberran bed-and-breakfast house.
This must still be the Earth. Last time I checked, well before the sun dropped like a glowing blob of lead behind the Mesa De Anguila, all was right here. No aliens had transported me away to stick needles into my navel and perform unspeakable and hideous experiments on the hapless human, dragged far away from his home. No Betty and Barney Hill here, not yet. Perhaps later. My mind will continue to work overtime, searching for fuel.
I think it is about ten-thirty; a noise has startled me awake. My heart is beating like a trip-hammer. Have my worst fears come to pass? The compound is laid out along the river, roughly along a southeast-northwest line; the trash cans are housed in two enclosures, one at each end of that line. I am about one hundred yards up that line from the south end and 30 yards northeast, perpendicular to that line. The cans inside their fenced areas are heavy steel, like household 33-gallon cans but made of heavier-gauge steel with especially heavy lids, chained to the main can. That way critters have a difficult time getting into the cans. Just now, something has rattled the cans in the south enclosure.
I instantly recall the film Forbidden Planet, the invisible monster of the Id that traveled out during the night and stalked the planet, consuming all minds in its path. Christ - the line that projects from my camp here, through the south trash enclosure, intersects with that horrible alien visage I saw on the other side of the river, only hours ago! Could it be that it has begun? Have the aliens come across, seeking me out, wanting my life force? Calm down!!! Relax. It's only some possum or rat or other harmless, small-type animal scavenging in the trash for a late-evening snack. I don't know, I think; It could be one of those jaguars or big cats that inhabit the park. Not likely - I listen for a while, my heart fades back to a dull roar, the exotic air carries my sweat away. I don't hear the sounds of gravel under leather-soled shoes, the pad of animal paws. Nothing but the wind, the cottonwoods up there in the blackness, the Rio Bravo flowing past. Nothing.
The only light to see by this evening is starlight. There is a lot of that. However, with the cottonwoods forming this tremendous canopy above my head, the light leaks in through the holes in that canopy and, reflecting off the ground and my eyes, weakly illuminates the trunks of these awesome trees. In my state, they are great grey gnarled witches' arms, like in Snow White or Fantasia or any of the other harmless fairy tales, reaching out of the ground, trying to pluck the very few stars that I can see out of the sky, trying to extinguish the night forever and doom me to blackness. The wind gives them animation; or is it that they push the wind? If they are truly animate, perhaps this wind is the result of the breathing, living creatures that I see as cottonwoods. I know that the Indians regard them with awe and reverence; perhaps for the same reasons, or perhaps for totally different ones, I do also.
I must be starting to crack. Too much isolation. Too much imagination. Best get to sleep; my dreams will be lively enough.
The truck moves with a jolt; my heart stops as I snap to full consciousness. In a moment, it moves again. Not the gentle swaying driven by the occasional strong gust of air; a definite, look ma, I'm jumping on the bumper-type of movement. I hear the chains, attached to steel eyes at each corner of the truck bed, rattle and slap the side of the truck bed.
Oh shit - I'm gonna die. That damned Mexican's gotta two-foot long dagger and he's gonna slash my neck wide open. I just know he's coming around to my side of the truck right now, even as I think, even as I hope and pray that some noise somewhere will scare him, alert him, draw him away. I don't even have a weapon, for chrissakes. I have all my sensors turned to maximum possible sensitivity. I'm afraid to move- I'm absolutely paralyzed. I retreat to a very small space behind my eye sockets, in this big empty space called my skull, and peer out over that expanse that I have heard called my body. I wait for the gleam of the blade to appear out of the left peripheral vision field.
No sounds but the wind. The cottonwoods sway lugubriously, languidly above me, not caring, not concerned with what is transpiring just 60 or 70 feet below their crowns. No concern of ours, I hear them murmur. Too busy listening to their private, personal celestial symphony, dancing their endless, mindless waltzes.
I still don't hear the crunch of gravel; I don't hear whispered foreign voices beseeching one another to stay quiet, to wait until we've stuck the gringo pig and then we'll party it up. Could this all be some product of my twisted mind? If I was a druggie, I could understand some of this; it might be all par for the course. But I'm not; no alcohol in me either, just an imagination gone insane with its limits ripped away. But something moved my truck. Twice. Had to be heavy enough to do so with enough amplitude to rattle the chains. I don't like those chains. All those foolish superstitions that I, a clear thinking, intelligent, rational human, slap away as distractions for the feeble mind. But here I am, with those and other feelings erupting, squirting out of every fear-filled pore, rushing up to the head as if they were never hidden. I know what it means when they say that an animal can smell fear; I am exuding it right now and its odor is overwhelming.
I am appalled and amazed at my monolithic behavior during this last few minutes/seconds/hours. Why don't I defend myself, jump up to leash out at whatever malevolence is lurking behind my head? I want to know what this phenomenon is - what is causing all this racial memories to come welling up from within; if I jump up, I might break the spell, I might scare away that which confronts me here. What is life after all, but the understanding of being?
In what probably has been a few dozen seconds, I have lived a lifetime. Not that the few stars that expose themselves to me, slyly winking to one another the real knowledge, the truth, have betrayed the real amount of sidereal time that has elapsed since my heart stopped. I remain still; I bide my time: perhaps it isn't my time to go, not yet.
Minutes pass; time goes on. The wind, the sifting cottonwoods, the rilling river beyond are all that exist in my sensory world. I perceive no other sounds. Then comes the third event in this trilogy; at the northwest end of the camp, something is there now, moving the metal cans of the other trash dump. Some entity, moving essentially on a straight-line course from that village across the river, has traveled through my campground, now leaving it to the northwest. Because of its unswerving, plodding motion, it must be some sort of cloudlike being; something entombed in a swirl of electric energy, perhaps a creature that tries to reach out and touch any other life force it detects, to warn, to commune with, to teach?
It has gone now. The wind still blows; the cottonwoods, mesmerized by the night warmth and breeze, drag great swaths across the night, awaiting fulfillment. I begin to relax. I get into the truck, grab my big milled aluminum flashlight, that leads a double life as lamp and club. Soon I am asleep, an exhaustion no doubt enhanced by the earlier rushes of adrenaline. The flashlight lies cradled in my arms.
Shit! Not again! There is something in the truck with me. Something is rattling chains, making the hollow clank of metal on metal, the scratch of claws. All sorts of images shriek to the forefront: demons, gnomes, trolls, strange Lucasian or Speilbergen critters that have slavering fangs, deadly incisors, razor-sharp claws. Small hard-skinned animals that move with blitzkrieg, that fear no mere 170-pound man. My adrenaline stores are all used up; I seem to be able to move while earlier I was frozen rigid. I slowly turn, ready to pounce with my aluminum light-saber; the sound has moved. It is now beneath me, under the cot on which I am perched, separated from IT by only a few inches. It can't be very big, that I can't feel it now. Maybe it's long and scaly, but not too big around.
I point the lamp, push the activator: the light-saber streaks out, slashing through the unknown, illuminating exactly nothing. Nothing but the surface of the truck bed. Hmmm. Whatever it is, it's pretty fast. Probably not scaly, since scales sliding sounds like corduroy-clad legs walking. I search around the immediate area for the foe; I find no sign, no evidence of its existence. The light goes off. I lie in waiting. Perhaps my visitor will return.
Within a few hairs' breadths of circumpolar star movement, I hear the same noise. A scrabbling on the plastic liner, the now-familiar rattle of metal and chains: I triangulate my intruder as being between the inside wall of the truck and a truck bed-box mounted to the bed. There is here a gap of perhaps 4 inches. Not too big an animal can hide here. Very quietly, stealthily I roll and pivot from my cot, with flashlight at the fore, ready to zap this critter. At the very moment I have completed aiming the light and triggering the switch, the surge of photons reveals the beige rump and tail of what looks to be a mouse rocketing its way over the edge of the truck into the darkness beyond. By the time I can move further, to pan the light around the area, my apparition is gone.
I investigate further. I look into this little hold that my invading rodent had secured himself. I find his attraction: the discarded can of food that I ate earlier this evening. I fling both the can and the spoon out onto the ground some few yards from the truck. I'll get them in the morning. One of two mysteries solved.
All of the jump juice has been squeezed out of me. I am shot, both physically and mentally. I fall asleep quickly; my last visions are the few nomadic stars that have somehow fallen into the hole in the sky above me.
Four a.m. comes around; the wind has died. The mosquitoes are debating whether to serve me as appetizer or as main course. I think that, given I am the only large warm-blooded animal in the immediate vicinity, that I must be destined to be all seven courses. They lash into me with a vengeance. I am wrapped with netting, wrapped in a bedsheet, covered with shorts and a tee-shirt; yet they are able to find holes everywhere and eat me alive. I can only hear and feel them now. They somehow are able to work themselves under three or four layers and get their nasty proboscises into the skin on my belly, my hips. This is driving me mad. No sleep, no rest, and soon no blood. I squash every one I can get. Blood, my blood, everywhere. Big giddy pools of it.
The twilight preceding the dawn begins to warm the eastern sky. With it I can see the little buggers, hunting their way through the netting, poking their great nasty needles through the netting, sniffing out that warm blood, not exactly sure where it is, but knowing that if persistent, many will eventually find the mother lode. Eureka! Another gusher, echoes the cry from my left arm. Swat. That prospector will never have the opportunity to spend his ill-gotten wealth.
This goes on for another endless period; I think by six am or so I have given up all hope of sleep, and now must seek shelter from these bedeviling creatures. I assemble my plan of retreat: first, leap out from my cloth prison, jump off the bed of the truck, then grab the bicycle and heave it up onto the cot where I was sleeping. Then, close the tailgate so that everything doesn't slide out, go get the can and spoon that I discarded earlier, then shed the rest of the cloth and wedge it under the weight of the bicycle. Then scram.
The plan is a success except for one part: the can is covered with ants. Big ants. So, I apologize to the Park Service for my shortsightedness, start the truck, get it into gear and get out of this place. As I roll up to the entrance, swatting more of the little monsters that have decided to accompany me on my journey, I see my first human of the day. The Park Ranger. He wants me to stop. He wants to talk. I don't believe this. The guy's a big goofy-looking type, too. He wants me to roll down my window.
Good morning, Sir. Yeah, hi. What's so good about it? These damn mosquitoes are killers here. Oh, them? Well, I suppose that's so. Say, did you stay here overnight? Yeah, sure did. Well, that's fine. Say, did you pay your fee? Ya'know, it's three dollars per campsite - it's on the honor system, you know. I hope you took a moment to clean up your campsite - you know, make sure that you didn't leave anything behind. Yeah, yeah, sure did, well it's been real nice, but I gotta go, the little buggers are eatin' me alive. Well, that's fine. Say, do you have your permit handy - oh, there it is, right in the window. Remember, take only pictures, leave only footprints...
I leave him spouting his spiel as I tool off away from the sunrise. Turning left on to the main road, I motor west for a half-mile or so, to get up and away from the river a bit, and to air the vehicle of the last few dozen malingering mosquitoes. I find a wide spot in the road; I stop. Minutes later, I have packed the hastily-torn down camp, strapped in the bicycle, beaten off the last few critters and am almost ready to greet the dawn with a smile. Kinda. Sorta. I feel like I slipped and fell in a hypodermic needle factory.
The morning is much nicer from this vantage point. Not only is the air not thick with sharp-nosed, voracious midges, but the colors of the desert and the early morning angle of that orange-yellow ball of fire complete a sublime image. Motoring north by northwest, following the Rio Grande a few hundred yards or more to my left, I see the Mesa de Anguila approaching out of the west. Somewhere in that massive monolithic step, there is a small notch where the Rio Bravo has spent the last couple million years cutting its way through while the Earth pushed that step up into the path of the river. Best image is that of a bandsaw represented by the river, dragging its way past the workpiece, in this instance the rock step.
I can see the notch now. As I approach, it grows from an insignificant mark on the riser of that step until the opening is now two thousand feet high and a couple hundred yards wide. Behind it winds the serpentine course of the Rio Grande, on its way down from El Paso, and other points north and west.
I find myself at the end of the pavement. I get out of the truck again, spy some folks down at the river's edge, perhaps fishing or preparing to boat. Although I have nowhere I need to be in particular, I am tired of this place. I also have it in the back of my mind that the ranger will find my ant-filled can next to my campsite, call out the Park Strike Force, close off all the highways and set out to gun me down for committing such a serious offense. So I plan my escape.
There is a dirt road that goes from near here, up along Terlingua Creek, around Rattlesnake Mountain, west of Tule Mountain to meet up with the main park road near the entrance to the park at Maverick Station. If I make a run up this road, I'll save many miles and perhaps not run into some of the now-forming SWAT team that must surely be out there soon to deal with scofflaws like me. I bet that my ranger is leading the posse: I'll get that Californian, his scalp is mine...
I take to the trail; it is a good road, recently graded, a good thirty mile per hour road, even with the poor shocks in my truck. Only twice are there watercrossings where fortunately I am able to avoid problems. Inside an hour or so, I approach the end of the dirt road and the beginning of the pavement. I slow, look cautiously, checking for Ranger Trucks disguised as Gila Monsters, Sotols, Lechugilla. Nothing yet. I blast my way through their boundary, flaming out of the park, on my way to freedom. Not this time, suckers.