On my drive to or from work four days a week, I usually encounter wildlife of one sort of another. Two coyotes were in the road once, and three times now I’ve seen the coyote with an injured back leg scamper into the brush. Last night (Dec. 19) a gorgeous mule deer 6-point was ambling across the road, completely oblivious to my headlights, and if I hadn’t braked he would be venison. At some point he came out of his reverie, realized he was in danger, and bounded away.
Jackrabbits and cottontail bunnies, javelinas, deer, and various birds often feed at the roadside where the grass is more lush. Twice at the entrance station I heard a faint but haunting melody of coyote song in the distance, a weird cacophony of yelps, howls, and barks. Pure wilderness.
There was a rattlesnake in the maintenance shed before I arrived in the park. I’ve yet to see any snakes at all here, and I’ve only seen two tarantulas in the housing area. I haven’t had the courage to pick them up, although I know they are sold as pets (maybe a different species) and rarely bite. At home in Maine I won’t kill a spider. I pick it up with a tissue and, like Pee Wee Herman rescuing the snakes from the burning pet store in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” I scream “EEEEEEEE” all the way outdoors. The tissue and spider both land outside, lest the creature actually crawl on me. Spiders are good, I tell myself. They won’t hurt me. Eeeeeee!
Out here in the Texas desert, brown recluse and black widows could be lurking, and those I would kill if I saw them, as they are poisonous. As a kid growing up down South, I learned to turn my shoes over and shake them to dislodge any brown recluse that might be lurking there. It’s an OCD habit I have to this day.
At the Taco Stand, the canyon towhees and rock wrens sometimes glean dead bugs from my van’s fender and wheel wells when I arrive in the morning. Reminds me of those birds that pick ticks off the backs of rhinos in Africa. Glad I could be of service, little ones.
We also have the resident ravens, which Doug has named George and Gracie, and Gary calls Heckle and Jeckle. (You’d have to be people of a certain age to know both sets of characters.)They usually pay a visit mid-afternoon, with one sitting on the roof and croaking at me, as if to say “don’t you have any goodies for us today?” Uh, no feeding the wildlife, remember?
“That’s right, women are smarter. Smarter than a man any day” – C. J. Chenier
And strangest of all, we have the locoweed birds. Those are the ones, males all, who continually bash their reflections in the visitor center windows. They all think it’s another male in their territory, and will go on for fruitless weeks with this. The resident curve-billed thrasher, who I named Locoweed, particularly loves the west-facing picture window in early evening, protecting his Missus from the invincible intruder. I think the thrasher taught the cactus wren how to do this, too, as I saw him watching Locoweed curiously one evening. The next day Mr. Wren was in on the act, too, “thrashing” away at the audacious duplicate, teacher and student side-by-side.
One day, after I had finished up and sat in the visitor center watching the sun go down behind the distant mountains, Locoweed was doing his thrasher thing when the Missus flew to the ledge beside him. Their sweet cooings and chatters went on non-stop, and she had a calming effect. Occasionally he’d make a feeble stab at the “intruder” and she’d give him a little peck as if to say “Grow up, Dodo Head.” They appeared as if they would roost right there for the night. It seemed rather exposed should a great horned owl come prowling. But what do I know? They were still cooing to each other when I turned on the alarm and left.
Last week a coyote sauntered lazily past the Taco Stand (photo at top of blog) and up the road, and several days later I saw him in the visitor center parking lot. We haven’t seen Locoweed the crazy curve-billed thrasher lately, so I hope he didn’t become the coyote’s meal.
Doug once videotaped a roadrunner bashing himself against the front door. Its long tail wagged to and fro in its frenzy, making a comical scene. Somehow I can’t see the Warner Brothers Roadrunner acting that silly.
Here are some photographs a roadrunner behaving properly.
More critter updates as they become available.
My art show experience set me up perfectly for this job.
The Taco Stand is about the same size as my 10×10 foot art show canopy, and there are periods of little traffic interspersed with a mob. I’m selling fees and park passes instead of art, but I don’t have to worry about the booth blowing away in the wind or collapsing in a deluge, which is what happened to me after a six-inch downpour in Lafayette, LA one April. I hit the road in the dark to open the stand by 8 a. m. and drive home in the dark this time of year. And I answer the same 10 questions and give the same spiel all day – with a smile.
There’s heat and air conditioning in here, plenty of light, a great view, and I can even shut down for lunch and eat in peace. In between tending to visitors, I brush up on the fee collection regulations, the uniform regulations, the park regulations, and anything else that looks official and informative in here. I also research things on the computer (yes we have internet in the Taco Stand) that visitors ask me about, so that next time I will have the answer. For instance, “how many national parks are there?” Fifty-eight, with a total of 391 units managed by the National Park Service. That includes National Monuments like Devil’s Tower, National Seashores such as Cape Cod, National Battlefields like Gettysburg, and a whole bunch of other National This’s and That’s.
I also research the identification of flowers and plants I’ve photographed, using the numerous books I checked out of our natural history library. All this between “Welcome to Big Bend. The Entrance Fee is twenty dollars,”and the various other chores.
The mesquite tree in front of my picture window is sometimes decorated with birds, as if they all decided at once to become impromptu Christmas ornaments.
There have been verdin with their yellow heads, sassy cactus wrens, drab rock wrens, quiet canyon towhees, inquisitive rufous-crowned sparrows, and just as I wrote this, a male pyrrhuloxia which alighted long enough for a splendid photograph. (Of COURSE I keep my camera handy!) As you can see, these birds are related to the familiar cardinal.
A cactus wren found a feather under the mesquite a couple weeks ago and carried it in its bill for a few minutes before realizing that it wasn’t nesting season after all and let it go.
The resident ravens, George and Gracie (or Heckle and Jeckle depending on who you’re with) show up mid-afternoon and we have a little chat. They most likely have a territory they cover, looking for road kill or live food, or dried berries or whatever strikes their fancy. At night they often roost on the vigas of the maintenance shed behind the visitor center. I’m never sure just which one’s George, since they both look alike.
Yesterday I saw six desert bighorn sheep on the tall mountain outside the Taco Stand. I told Gary at the Visitor Center and he put a scope on them. The visitors were tickled to see them. Later that afternoon there were 14. Some of the rams would butt horns, and it took two seconds for the sound to carry. (Okay schoolchildren, if sound travels at approximately 1125 feet/sec. how far away were they?) Now I know if I hear a sharp “crack” in the distance to look for the dueling bighorns way up high.
Mule deer often come close, too. Mulies don’t run so much as they bound, almost as if they are on a pogo stick. Whitetails run, their tails high so the white flag will flash a warning. We have a species of smaller deer in the Chisos Mountains called the Carmen Mountain Whitetail Deer, which often show up at the lodge, as do the javelinas.
And once, a gray fox with its extra long tail crossed the road while I watched from the Taco Stand.
That’s all folks!
>Disclaimer: what follows are not the views of anybody else but me. I do not speak for the National Park Service. I just work here.
From former park ranger and environmental rabble-rouser Edward Abbey:
As a one-time employee of the Park Service, I was always impressed by the high esteem which the general public seems to hold for Park Service rangers and naturalists. Impressed and a little puzzled. Most of us most of the time feel toward the uniformed functionaries of the state, especially police and quasi-police like rangers, no more at best than a grudging tolerance, as of a necessary evil. Why should the Park Service enjoy a special privilege in this regard?
Now, today, it seems to me that I have hit upon the answer. Maintaining the national park system is almost the only nice, decent, friendly thing the Federal Government does for ordinary people. Nearly all of its other activities, carried on at our expense, are for the benefit of the rich and powerful, or for the sake of secret, furtive, imperial causes that can inspire feelings only of shame and dread.
But the national parks belong to everyone. To the people. To all of us. The government keeps saying so and maybe, in this one case at least, the government is telling the truth.
I fell deeply in love with the young African-American park ranger, Shelton Johnson, in the series who told in a most poetic way of his own love for the wilderness he protects. Having been to many national and state parks across the country in my half-century I am thankful for the foresight and dedication to this ethic of preservation. I now wear the uniform of the National Park Service with pride, hoping I can be a good ambassador to the visitors who have both loved Big Bend National Park for many years, and to those who are discovering it for the first time. It is rewarding when someone stops on their way out of the park and tells me how happy they were that I recommended the Lost Mine Trail to them.
As for that uniform, it needs a little taking in, as I’m shaped like a sack of potatoes and I think (I hope) I’m losing weight. I also need to wear my hat right, according to the Director’s Order #43: Uniform Program, but not everybody’s heads allow the precise tilt of the ranger hat required by DO #43. At least I don’t refer to the uniform as a “monkey suit” like we did the Army fatigues worn in the mid-70s. I’m aiming for “sharp” like my associates and superiors here.
Visitors sometimes take my picture, as if I’m a “real” park ranger. I feel like a big fake. Go take a picture of Ranger Rob or Ranger Bob (either one) or Ranger Natasha or Ranger Jennette, I think. But I’m the one they see, so I try to look sharp.
I did point out the desert bighorn sheep on Persimmon Mt. this afternoon to those who brought binoculars through the Entrance Station. That’s what my uniform allows me to do, even compels me to do. To share an “interpretive moment” with the people who have come here to experience the very things that excite me.
>There’s a gal in Waldoboro, Maine who gave herself an Indian name. She’s not Native American, and her distant relatives immigrated from Germany and stole the land from the Abenaki tribes who already lived here. But she’s crazy about Indians, the romantic notion of them anyway.
I understand the appeal. In my crazy years (my mid-life crisis) I was drawn to Indians and their ways, too, at least the traditional holistic views of nature and relationships. I was also drawn to the dark eyes of an Indian man I had no business with, but that’s another pathetic tale of unrequited passion.
In the process I made several friendships, only one of which was true and real and lasts to this day (Sheila). I realized that today’s Indians can be just as dysfunctional as the rest of us, and that I’m just as proud of who I am as they are of their heritage. Their ways are not my ways. I am curious, outgoing, gifted with the ability to write and make photographs, and sometimes call a spade a spade. I was told outright by a self-proclaimed medicine man that those qualities made him and many others uncomfortable. I needed to be demure, quiet, unquestioning, and pretty much invisible to “fit in” according to him and some of the others who are put off – and often rightly so – by white ways. “That’s so white” is a favorite put down my friend Joann used to use.
Joann was half Indian, raised white, and had recently begun connecting with that part of her heritage the rest of her family wanted nothing to do with. She was on a path of self-discovery and fit in well, even though she also had those white gifts of self-actualization, organization, self-confidence, and self-awareness. She took me under her wing and we had many wonderful experiences together. We attended the winter dances in eastern Washington held in someone’s home, and ate traditional (bland) foods, and prayed and danced. We attended retreats with Catholic Indians, a healing Mass by Father John Hascall, and belonged to a talking circle run by a Native American/white Methodist minister. We shared the joys and heartbreaks of our own journeys. But the rift in our relationship came when I realized she wanted to mold me in her image, and did not respect my gifts and “whiteness.” It was then that I was no longer lost. I could claim ME back. She could not accept that truth and we parted company.
Once I ascended a pointed peak overlooking Mount Baker in a stupid and desperate “vision quest” to purge myself of a great disappointment. I fasted for three days and nights, and in the dark a song came to me, my own song, which helped me see more clearly the folly of my perceptions. Yet the experience was not diminished by the reason for going. It was powerful and necessary. I was visited the first night by a great gray owl, who evidently used this peak as a perch from which to spot prey. Most likely nobody, at least nobody in their right mind, had ever spent the night atop this crazy peak. The huge ghostly owl circled several times, almost within touching distance. The flap of its wings was absolutely silent. Was this my spirit animal? Did it mean death, as it does to some tribes? It returned the third night with its mate, circling silently, then leaving. Wisdom? Death? Coincidence?
I told Joann of this experience, and the song. Within a couple of weeks, she insisted on going to Snoqualmie peak to get her own song. I tagged along, with her son and his cousin merrily squashing innocent mushrooms growing beside the path. I advised them it wasn’t very respectful of nature to destroy something that wasn’t hurting them. Joann did not seem to believe in discipline, and ignored what I considered obnoxious (and un-Indianlike) behavior in the wilderness. She was pressed for time as the sun was going down, so I stayed behind with the brats. In a half hour she returned with her song. (Yeah right I thought.)
In my time with the Indians I also attended the Seyowen smokehouse ceremonies with the Lummis, the Sundance in Oregon, and the sweat lodges in Washington state. I even took a workshop with a Huichol shaman from Brooklyn who was adopted by a Huichol medicine man. Even though this sounds hokey, it was there that I lost (mostly) my fear of being outside alone in the dark, which I needed to conquer for my upcoming solo backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier – a vision quest of sorts in itself.
I met Sheila in a screenwriting class in Seattle. It turned out we’d had similar experiences with Indian spiritual men, and were both engaged in cathartic and artistic attempts to ficitonalize those experiences. Sheila – a hip Californian – is always seeing the greater meaning in events in her life. She’s done her share of suffering, yet believes it is a way of the Universe refining her spirit. If not in this life, then in the next will she attain peace and harmony, as will we all who seek it. We may not have kept in regular contact these 16 years since I left Tacoma, but we are still friends, and true to each other being who they are, not who they “ought” to be.
To this day, my friends, no matter where in the world they now live, are people like Sheila, who see the big picture, who keep “doing good” even when others put them down for it, or misunderstand it, or question the motives for doing so. It makes encounters with the small-minded inhabitants of this planet a little more bearable, and the journey more hopeful.
You can see a long way in the desert.
Panther Junction, the park HQ and where I live, is 800 feet in elevation higher than Persimmon Gap, where I work, and the Chisos Mountains Basin is 1700 feet higher than PJ. So at night when I drive home I can see car headlights that are probably15 to 20 miles away as the crow flies. It’s disorienting to see those bright lights halfway down the Chisos Mountains, exiting the Basin like jet planes lining up to land. Even the faint lights at Panther Junction seem incongruous from so far away on a road where I might meet three vehicles in 40 minutes.
Mornings and evenings are when the best light happens, the “golden hour” in photographer language, being that time of day around sunrise and sunset. The light is golden, low enough for shadowy texture, and as the sun sets, the landscape glows red, then pink. Pure magic.
Despite being hundreds of miles from cities and industry, Big Bend’s visibility has been marred by haze over the years, but that sometimes adds its own charm. Layers of hills and mountains grow succeedingly faint, filtered by a veil that renders a picturesque tableaux of line and form.
Driving down to Rio Grande Village just after sunrise is jaw-dropping; a waterfall of light falls from the Sierra del Carmen into the lower foothills, almost too bright to apprehend.
One morning another park employee and I leapfrogged every few miles to photograph an extraordinary sunrise that shot cherry red flames over the landscape. Punching the clock be damned. There’s a “happening” here, and it won’t be seen on rerun.
“It pisses God off if you pass by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice.” -Shug in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”
I call dispatch at 6 pm to say “Persimmon Gap Entrance Station is now out of service.” If I have finished early with my closing routine, I watch the sun dip behind the distant mountains from the picture window at the visitor center. Each day since I started working here, the sun sets about a minute later each day. By 6 it’s already gone. I say goodbye to Locoweed the crazy thrasher tapping at the window (more on him later) and set the alarm.
Sometimes I see a great sunset on the drive home. I usually encounter an animal that causes me to hit the brakes – javelina, cottontails, jackrabbits, a great horned owl, deer. The speed limit in the park is 45 mph and it pisses me off when some tourist zooms by me at 65 mph. Wildlife be damned.
One night as I drove home I tuned into one of the three radio stations that barely come in at night, 1080 AM in Dallas. “There’s a backup at such-and-such and the commute will take 30 minutes from Point A to Point B” intoned the traffic reporter. I watched the red clouds tint the mountains and saw nothing but creosote bush and mountains for miles, and smiled.
The wind was strong and cold yesterday afternoon as I stood at the top of a small peak in Rio Grande Village, but I was too overwhelmed by the spectacular and lonesome scenery to want to leave my magnificent perch.
The river, by size, is hardly “grande.” In many places you can toss a stone from the Texas shore and hit Mexico. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in the sheer power of water and silt abrading rocks over eons, creating canyons, unveiling volcanic forms extruded from the bowels of the planet and sedimentary fossils deposited in an ancient sea. The result is the “grande” scenery we call Big Bend.
Although the boardwalk at the nature trail in Rio Grande Village was washed away by the flood of 2008, part of the nature trail is still accessible via the service road. It goes past a fenced-in gambusia (mosquito fish) pond of a rare species found only here. As the waters rose last year, park workers managed to save many of these fish, which were bred from the last three representatives of their species. This photo is of another, smaller, pond nearby.
The trail rises to a viewpoint of the autumn-tinged cottonwoods at the campground, with the setting sun behind what is clearly Mexico. But the Sierra del Carmen range to the east, and the hills to the south are also Mexico. How can this be?
The answer is evident from the top of the peak, where the little bend of the river is clearly visible. I am on a small peninsula of American soil. The birds don’t care whose soil it is. The Say’s Phoebe flies across on a whim. The Mexicans don’t care. They cross to set up their little souvenir “shops” at strategic points on all of the river trails. But it is a forbidden crossing to law-abiding Americans, since the border here was closed in 2002. One must cross at Presidio or Del Rio to legally visit the small village of Boquillas now.
The sun, veiled by clouds, reaches out yellow fingers to swath first this Mexican peak, then that, with the last golden light. The Sierra del Carmen, with sheer, pale cliff faces, turns red, then cotton candy pink as the sun leaves its last mark of the day. The little houses of Boquillas have already entered the night. The chartreuse, yellow, blue and white structures dim. Nobody has come to check their “donation” jars. It looks like a five dollar bill in one, which threatens to blow away in the gale. Perhaps they have seen my uniform.
Earlier I hiked the Boquillas Canyon trail nearby. Both hikes were part of my Special Project Day which some of us get twice a month. It’s a chance to do something different from our usual job. I’m in uniform, of course, and it’s a public relations thing. Many people are bursting with questions. “What is this interesting pattern in this rock?” I don’t know, I say. Ask me about birds and I might have an answer. But with the wind there are few birds visible. “What’s with these little souvenir stands? What are these holes in the rock? (Mortar holes the early inhabitants ground their grains and seeds in.) What tribe of Indians was that? ” I don’t know that either, so I mention the Comanches that used to travel through the area in their autumn raids in Mexico. I must look up the answers so I can answer authoritatively next time.
One couple with long ties to the area saw two Mexican nationals crossing the river, and wondered if one was Victor. I hear a lot about this Victor. I saw his sign once, and a donation jar, for his songs. I have never seen Victor, and hope to hear him sing one day.
But the two men who were now on “our” side of the river didn’t get far. They saw my uniform and “vamanosed.” They stopped to talk to a group of visitors while I studied the river stones and sand patterns. Then the visitors passed me and asked if I wanted them to hang around awhile, in case the men caused problems. Thanks, but I’m sure they will be across the river before I get there. And they were.
Safely on “their” side they waved to me, and I waved back. “What you doing?” one shouted. “Hiking,” I shouted back. “You park ranger?” “Yes.” Then I didn’t see them again.
I talked to 12 people on the Boquillas Canyon trail. There was not another soul on the trail to that lonely peak on the little bend of the river.