Midsummers' Night in the Big Bend
Copyright ©1987, 1997 Jon Trent Adams
Sunset falls soon in the West Texas Desert, here on the Rio Grande in the Big Bend National Park. It is the summer, the month of July. I have been exploring the park for the past few days, hiking trails, avoiding the ubiquitous millipedes, chasing evanescent mountain lions, attending ranger talks in the evening. A magnificent, spectacular place, isolated and eternally simmering during this long, dry season.
Today I leave the Chisos Mountains, center and topographic high point of the Park, and wend my way down toward the west to spend the night in the Castolon Campground, directly on the Rio Grande. The drive is long, glorious in its solitude, and mostly downhill, twisting and turning its way along the bajadas that skirt the Chisos, trending southwest through the Chihuahuan Desert.
Just north of the village of Castolon is the butte that gives the now-ghost town its name; a impressive standard, a huge orange and cream watchtower that conjures visions 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 Castolon and Park Ranger outpost. The trail turns west and follows the thin line dividing the lush tamarisk and cottonwood groves along the bank of the river from a rocky, alluvial ridge immediately north. A mile or two along this there is the turnoff into the Park campground.
I turn onto the dirt entrance road, roll over the cattle grate and into the camp. It is empty. Not one single person is present 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, one-hundred-five degree breeze out of Mexico dries me quickly.
I get out the bike that I have been carrying, unused, with me for a thousand miles, remove 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, revelling 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 hot, fresh, exotic wind.
As I continue east along the pavement, I notice up ahead is a signpost marked "Santa Elena, Mexico" which points down a dirt path heading south toward the river. This is one of the few good crossings of the great river for a couple dozen miles along the river. I leave the paved road and ride down the trail, through dense groves 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 those tobacco brown, multilegged, four-inch long insects that wriggle like a dead man's finger.
The isolation in which I find myself immersed is somewhat unnerving. There is something alien, foreboding in this place. 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 territory, the weird animals, tales of drug runners and smugglers told to me earlier by my West Texan friends, the "swarthy and shiftless" Mexicans just a few hundreds of yards away all conspire to twist my sensibilities.
I ride 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 bugs are poisonous; if not that, they probably are as unpalatable as they are nasty-looking.
The path rounds a bend and dumps out onto the sandy apron of the river bank. There, in front of me and the source of this open-hearth furnace blast, 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. I pause, taking in the ceaseless flow of time that the river is; the few animals that I see are cattle, motionless across the way, on the bank well upstream toward the Mesa de Anguila. I wonder what arrangements must be made to travel across this river at this ford? 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 shove 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. 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 just with 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 cutthroat just a hundred yards across the all-too shallow Rio Grande, his 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 an open compartment 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 thirty-two degrees north latitude; the trip took me first to Hawaii, where stars I had never seen in all my 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. 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 Magellanic Clouds were waiting for me. Not nearly as spectacular as I thought they should be, I suspected 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: each glowered at me with baleful eye, presaging great peril. I attempted to ignore their fire and tried to take in the sky. I strove to come to terms with this new-found upside-down universe. It would continue, whether I could or not. I was the only one who could calculate gain or loss through this episode.
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 more or less right-side up here. No aliens had transported me away to stick needles into my navel. No bug-eyed beings lurking in the shadows, preparing to conduct unspeakable and hideous experiments on this hapless human, dragging him far away from his home planet. 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 refuse cans are sequestered within two enclosures, one at each end of that line. I am about one hundred yards up that line from the south end and thirty yards northeast, perpendicular to that line. The cans inside their fenced areas are heavy steel, like household thirty-three-gallon cans but made of heavier-gauge steel with especially heavy lids, each chained to its container. That way critters have a difficult time getting into the cans. Just now, something has rattled the cans in the south pen.
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, 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 lifts 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 into 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 motion; or do they stir the wind? If they are truly animate, perhaps this zephyr is the result of the breathing, living creatures that I perceive as cottonwoods. I know that the Indians regard them with awe and reverence; perhaps for the same reasons, or perhaps for totally different and subconscious 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, the vehicle 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 senses reaching out with 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 airy 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 these racial memories to come welling up from within; if I jump up, I might break the spell, I might frighten away that which confronts me. 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 fate to die right now, 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 grab the big milled-aluminum flashlight that leads a double life as lamp and club. With the heavy, black cylinder heald tightly against my chest, soon I am asleep, an exhaustion no doubt enhanced by the earlier rushes of adrenaline.
Shit! Not again! There is now 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. This provides a gap of perhaps no more than 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, the minute, furry apparition is gone.
I investigate further. I look into this little hold that my invading rodent had secured for himself. I find his attraction: the discarded can of food that I ate earlier this evening. In disgust, I fling both the can and the spoon out onto the ground a 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 have 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, swathed 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 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. Great 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 mesh, 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 clear of the 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 looming from 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 particularly pernicious 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 can hear him now: I'll get that Californian, his scalp is mine...
I take to the trail; it is a good path, recently graded, a 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.