“What if?” Those powerful little words drive the imagination of writers, researchers, scientists, explorers, deep thinkers. What if we could put a man on the moon? What if I could paint that? What if polio could be eradicated by a vaccine? What if nobody had wondered these things?
A couple of weeks ago I escaped to the southern end of Brewster County to answer a question burning my brain: what if a trip to where my writing life started would refill the well? In an earlier column, I spoke of swinging as a metaphor for being carefree, doing nothing, enjoying life. I set out to do that.
If you’ve ever driven down the main road of Terlingua Ranch, you know that when you begin, the Chisos Mountains are on the right side. You see them as you come down Highway 118. The Christmas Mountains stand in front of them but don’t block the view until you get close. By the time you turn left into the ranch, the Christmas Mountains dominate the skyline. But you know the Chisos are still there, right? They are, but…
The road winds and twists so subtly that by the time you near the Ranch Headquarters it’s a surprise to see the Chisos standing on the left-hand side of the view. The mountainous terrain opens up for seconds and—ta-da! We now present the Chisos! On the wrong side of the road. How can that be? Oh, it’s been explained to me a thousand times, but it’s a phenomenon that never fails to delight. I’m like a little kid who knows who Santa Claus is but still gets swept up by the enchantment of Christmas morning.
I know the surprise is coming but as I draw closer, I can hardly wait for it. A powerful feeling of awe comes over me because, you see, they are not just on the wrong side of the road, they are close. Because of the ever-changing position of the sun, the clouds, atmospheric conditions, and their own magic, they are always different. Every. Single. Time.
To test my theory, I turned my truck around to go back a few miles and drive by them again. I got distracted by an empty spot of land where there is a superb view of the Corazones. I parked and studied the ultra-rugged nature of them for five full minutes, challenging myself to describe those two natural wonders without using the words awe-inspiring, towering, rough, wild, rugged, jagged, twisted, rocky, tortured...you get the drift. I failed. All of those words fit and yet no words do them justice.
My friend was expecting me so I soldiered on, back to my Chisos Mountains experiment. Do I need to say that by the second time, ten minutes later, everything had changed? Clouds had come in from the south and were sagging over the Basin. Croton Peak had crept closer to the ranch. It was spotlighted for seconds and then the light moved on to a smaller mountain whose name I don’t know. I think of it as Beautiful Little Mountain. The entire Big Bend area of southwest Texas is full of them.
My friend and her wildly excited dogs welcomed me warmly. Her cats remained aloof and greeted me in their own time on their terms, except for the aptly-named Love Kitty. She had announcements to make about my arrival but she seemed positive overall. Maybe that was because I’d brought Emmylou, the singing kitty, back home.
I breathed in the peace that dominates my friend’s world and soaked up the scenery that always stirs my soul. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Every morning, from a comfortable bed, I watched dawn come to Big Bend National Park. Sometimes it would sneak in on quiet feet; other times it blasted in, showing off and splashing colors around. Every time it was beautiful.
I spent a full week mountain-gawking, thunderstorm-watching, laughing and talking, being quiet, porch-sitting, writing, and sleeping well. Like the little kitty Emmylou, I had come home.