The first time my feet touched Big Bend National Park soil I was a mess, a runaway. Left behind was a man I had loved for eleven years. All I had to show for it was a divorce decree, memories, and experience—and the experience part I couldn’t appreciate yet. I was in a relationship but wasn’t ready for one, and it was going nowhere; and on top of that, my career had failed me. Or I had failed it. Success had been mine, but at what price?
When a friend and I planned our trip, our ultimate destination was Alaska, but that would be after several months. The first stop was Big Bend because it was February when we left home, and the park was in Texas. How cold could it be, right? My friend wanted to skip Texas altogether. “Nothing in Texas but miles and miles of miles and miles,” was her favorite witticism.
I always replied stubbornly, “You’ll see,” because one time I opened a book about America’s national parks to a page showing a deep canyon. Muddy water flowed through it, and standing at the edge on a pebbly beach was a cowboy on a horse. The text spoke of mountains and canyons and hundred-mile vistas. Without knowing anything more, I longed to go there. The header on the page read: Big Bend National Park, Texas. Texas? I didn’t care; I was going.
Approaching the park from Marathon, our first glimpse of The Chisos Mountains was surreal. They looked like a mirage, no more real than the mountain-like clouds you sometimes see on a distant horizon. It was a cool, misty day and for a while they disappeared altogether, and we decided they had been dark clouds after all.
Santiago Peak drifted in and out of the mist as we passed it, and my friend said, “Typical Texas, they brag about everything, and even claim to have mountains—and this is it?” She was insulted.
“That’s only one mountain.” I was losing patience.
“Huh.” She was unconvinced.
There were more; I had seen the photographs.
As we progressed through the park, the entire landscape seemed alive, coming and going and disappearing again in the fog.
“This is kind of creepy,” my companion commented. “Wasn’t that weird rock formation on the right a few miles ago?”
“Yes, but the road is winding. And I think there’re a lot of weird rock formations all over this park.” I already had a sense of it.
“And the plants are all prickly-looking,” she complained.
“Those are cactus,” I said, “and they’re beautiful.”
“Did you notice the tall, spindly plants with lots of branches? They look like spiders lying dead on their backs with a bunch of legs in the air.”
I laughed; they were weird all right.
The mountains were getting closer. Clearly they were not clouds. As the mist lifted, some new part of them would be exposed then it would settle again, hiding what had just been revealed.
Meanwhile, we had not passed even one other vehicle. With the slinking fog and abandoned road that seemed to never get anywhere, the oddly shifting landscape was horror movie-ish.
At last, we neared the park’s headquarters, Panther Junction. A sign declared there were three peaks behind it, Pummel, Wright, and Panther. We could see the bottom parts but whatever was above was shrouded in clouds, yet those three mountains had a presence—that’s the only way I know to describe it. The promise of more was there, and we only needed to have patience.
We parked and got out of the car. The air was wet, but not tropical wet. This air was fresh and cool—mountain air. We breathed deeply of it.
“This is great,” my friend admitted.
Then we stood at the farthest point of a nature trail, staring at the canyon’s deep cut and the rough rock formations and giant boulders and plants all over the big, wide, hugeness of it.
“I told you there were mountains in Texas,” I said.
She shrugged. “Who knew?”
We hadn’t even seen the mountaintops and we were enthralled. While we stood there wondering at it all, the clouds dipped low and the sun burst out and we saw the peaks for the first time.
“Holy ...,” my friend said in a whisper. It was a lot more reverent than it sounds.
I had no words. I felt I had come home, and I would never be the same.