A Vacation in Four Acts
Act I: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift—the baffled king composing Hallelujah (Javelina, Javelina)”
My vacation began in a composition of cottonwood trees, grazing javelinas, meditation, literature, and Christmas. I chose the Cottonwood campground in a little used corner of Big Bend National Park because it was available—no reservation required. Three nights of stillness under the bright near-full moon with a serenade of great-horned owls. Days of small walks, intense sunshine, new scenery, warm conversations. The Sarajavoan/Italian man camping a few sites away was also reading Orhan Pamuk and had traveled to Istanbul. I shared some fancy Christmas sparkling lemonade, he shared some date-nut brownies. He didn’t like Pamuk as much as I do.
A waitress in Marfa made hiking recommendations; two of the three I achieved. I asked the volunteer at the Castolon visitor center, just up the hill from my camp, about the waterfall hike which will remain a secret here. He said it is not on any map, but if a visitor asks for it by name, he had a special hand-out outlining the great care that must be paid in visiting. The secret falls were not far, and a pleasant trek. He gave me directions to the enchanted maidenhair fern forest.
In my reading time at Cottonwood, I finished my Pamuk book, a story of people treating each other (and themselves) very badly. I appreciate this author because of his exquisite attention to detail and his creation (re-creation) of his very Turkish world in all the colors, flavors, and atmosphere for an outsider to enter with ease. At the same time, I took a meditation book with me that I began to re-read. The chapter that I began with talked about paying attention. Really, that is what meditation is all about—to practice paying attention. As I sat on my cushion under the cottonwood trees, javelinas grazing nearby, I also watched a young bobcat sit in the sun, stretch, walk with nonchalance down the fence row and into the woods. Be patient and pay attention, he said.
Act II: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
I next spent three nights at the Rio Grande Village campground on the other side of the park, down river many miles. One delight of this corner of the park was Boquillas Canyon where the Rio Grande, the object of our affection like that tall mountain is up in Denali National Park, cuts through a steep-walled canyon. Used to be, and will be again in the near future, that a visitor to the park could legally take a boat across the river to the village of Boquillas and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Today this is off limits, although the neighbors cross illegally to sell trinkets. I met one such a man and practiced my painfully limited Spanish: buenos dias; no, gracias; adios. One walks along the river, amazed that a short wade through lazy water could bring you illegally to Mexico; amazed at the power of water to shape rock, shape lives, shape history.
Another joy was the nearby hot spring. It is drivable, but there is a trail from near my camp over hill and Chihuahua Desert dale to the spring. After a cold night in the 20s, I awoke and dressed and hiked to the spring. Oh, the lovely soak. The natural spring has been harnessed by humans for over a century. It sits just by the river, so one can (if you are like me) hop in the river momentarily to cool down. Just stay on this side, please. The hike back made the most of what turned out to be a glorious 70 degree day. I actually got hot and found one tiny mesquite under which to take a short shady break.
Back in camp, I tackled the long awaited and twice attempted The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. Rich success this time as I completely gave myself over to the flow of uncommon voices. The lack of sense of my own time and the inability to do anything else in the evening hours led to success. The sun went down around 5:30 and I went to bed usually around 8:30. Big Bend does not allow for fires. So wrapped in my down sleeping bag, armed with hot tea, and sporting my headlamp, I made good use of the evening hours. All my nights at Rio Grande Village were in the 20s. One night across the river I heard a donkey braying.
Act III: “I’m walkin’ with a fortune teller. I can see my own way home.”
Traveled up to the Chisos Basin campground for three nights. Higher elevation, surrounded by a ring of mountains that makes one feel as if you’re in the middle of an ancient caldera—not the case although volcanism created the Chisos. Visited here in my camp by birds and a confused deer. Alas, as well, visited by clouds and wind and rain. Oh elusive stars: first the dazzling moon and then cloud cover.
Nonetheless, settled into a nice routine with a new book about the park itself, a collection of articles and memories from a naturalist/photographer who arrived in the Big Bend area in the mid-1940s. I spent my last few days following his trail and understanding the park through his eyes. I was also reminded of another photographer/philosopher who understood the value of a place “where the clocks stopped long ago.”
Hiked one morning before the rain down to the Window, a dramatic outlet for water from the basin. The trail led downhill to the top of a vast waterfall, dry this time of year. The view was fantastic and the trail took me through the higher elevation vegetation: pinons, juniper, oaks, and an assortment of cactus and agave.
The last day we achieved again sunshine and warmth. I drove west of the park to historic Terlingua, now a strange mélange of espresso joint, foreign tourists looking for The West, hippies, cowboys, and meth-heads. One of the chapters in the book I was enjoying: Smuggling and other Career Paths. I ate a delicious chorizo-egg burrito at the popular breakfast spot.
The brilliant German filmmaker Wim Wenders once made a movie called Paris, Texas. Part of it was filmed in the Big Bend area, including Terlingua. He wrote later that he had intended it to take place all over America. “But my scriptwriter Sam Shepard persuaded me not to. He said: ‘Don’t bother with all that zigzagging. You can find the whole of America in the one state of Texas.’ At the same time I didn’t know Texas all that well, but I trusted Sam. I travelled around Texas for a couple of months, and I had to agree with him. Everything I wanted to have in my film was there in Texas—America in miniature.”
Later I drove down to a state park education center named after a colleague of my naturalist/photographer/memoirist. Learned more about the nature of the area and got recommendations for a scenic drive and a slot canyon hike. Along the way I enjoyed again my new Calexico collection, a Tucson band named for a town in California straddling the Mexican border. I don’t really understand many of the words, but the sound is a rich blend of folk, Americana, and mariachi horns. A compelling soundtrack to the drive.
This night, this last night in the park, this New Year’s Eve in a place where the clocks stopped long ago, the stars came out to serenade me. The dark evening began with stunning alpenglow on the peaks of the basin, followed by the appearance of the international space station blazing across the sky. Then my beloved stars bloomed in the sky. Bundled in down, I watched the sky for nearly three hours. Attention must be paid! Until the clouds rolled in and to bed I crawled.
Artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, stars, small strange animals: guides along our path, shining a light.
Act IV: “And a screen without a picture since Giant came to town.”
Marfa, Texas, is known for being the location of Giant, the motion picture of epic 1950s Texas. Today it is rather arty and tourist-laden. I had previously ridden the Amtrak through Marfa. I knew I wanted to return. Alas, I was not able to secure a room for New Year’s Eve (and I therefore missed Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at Pedro’s, but fortunately didn’t know this ahead of time or I would have been tortured) so I arrived on the day of the New Year. I found late lunch at an airstream taco stand and ate up the last of his black-eyed peas and more chorizo-egg corn tacos.
Then I checked into the swanky and historic Hotel Paisano where I took a very long very hot shower. The actors of Giant stayed at El Paisano in the summer of 1955 and guests today can select the Rock Hudson suite or the Liz Taylor suite or the James Dean historic room (Dean evidently didn’t rank a suite). My humble historic room suited me just fine.
Next day I drove north a little to visit the McDonald Observatory and its giant telescopes. Remote and moderately high and dry, this facility—associated with the University of Texas, Austin—is truly world class. You may know StarDate sky updates on NPR: they originate from McDonald. And they offer popular tours for very little money, so I went. With our talented and enthusiastic guide, we went inside the large, squat, domed chamber and saw the telescope. Our man worked the controls and opened and closed the curtain, rotated the dome, and raised and lowered the floor. The only thing he didn’t do was open the bay—must keep the room at nighttime temperature. In the presence, we then were, of those who have taken stargazing to another level. Talk about paying attention.
My departure from Marfa was delayed by the annual west Texas snowstorm, so I had three nights here as well. Good and diverse food and a great bookstore kept me occupied. Picked up one day a book of…well, I think one review called it poetry, but not exactly poetry. But a treatise on love, loss, and life themed on the color blue. She wrote that for years she was writing about blue and that was what her friends knew her by: the person writing about blue. She pulled it off well, I would say, and offered me a good example of a festering writing project of my own inspired by something Pamuk wrote about. For my snow day, I went back and purchased Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which shamefully I had never read before. Perfect snow day activity as I did a pile of laundry.
Hated/needed to leave Marfa: my new Livingston, my new crossroads. Worth quoting more of my favorite Lyle Lovett song:
And this old porch is like a steaming, greasy plate of enchiladas With lots of cheese and onions and a guacamole salad And you can get 'em down at the LaSalle Hotel in old downtown With iced tea and a waitress and she will smile every time
And this old porch is the Palace Walk-in on the main street of Texas That's never seen the day of G and R and Xs With that '62 poster that's almost faded down And a screen without a picture since Giant came to town
Coda: “And I’m thankful this old road’s a friend of mine.”
Crawled out of Marfa Friday morning with much snow still on the roads. The 21 miles to Fort Davis took me an hour. The man at the gas station in Fort Davis, on being asked the road condition to Balmorhea, told me it would be fine because there hadn’t been any accidents yet. Impeccable logic. I continued and conditions improved. By Pecos the roads were mostly clear. Multitasking: learning to drive on the shoulder when others want to pass you while escaping the great New Year’s West Texas Blizzard.
Drove long into the dark as the sky cleared and the stars came out. Maybe I just wanted to make up for lost time with my stars. Crossed Raton Pass and settled in for the night in Walsen-Matilda-burg. Came on home at first light.
Spent a dang long time outside which was my goal. Slept ten hours a night, read five books, enjoyed quality time with javelinas and sunshine, learned a few new things about how this world works, got some exercise. And I do believe I paid attention. Yes, indeed.
I: “Hallelujah” Leonard Cohen by way of Jeff Buckley and others, as recounted in a new book called The Holy or the Broken, which was discussed in an NPR story sent to me by my sister while on vacation. Really, sing it replacing the title word with “javelina.” Big Bend locals find the javelinas to be annoying, but I was utterly charmed by these small pig-like ungulates.
II: Joni Mitchell’s “River” but actually I mean the great cover Vin Scelsa played last week by…I want to say Tracy Wolfe, but I can’t get confirmation.
III: “Fortune Teller” off the new Calexico. Listened to it 20 times in the past two weeks.
IV: Old favorite “This Old Porch” by Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. Absolut Texas.
Coda: Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton.” Great example of loving a song long before it became geographically relevant.