We returned Seattle to find the lilacs in full bloom, filling the air with their gentle floral scent. We are home again.
Why do we travel? There are many good and valid reasons. We just returned from spending a rather whirlwind two weeks as tourists in Texas. It was good fun to look with curiosity at new places, but vacationing like this just scratches the surface. One of the reasons I travel like this, from time to time, is to make memories with my husband or family and friends.
For true understanding, for deeper experiences and connection to new places, we would have to travel differently. I am not sure how to do this, but I yearn to learn. Perhaps in retirement, with more time, we can figure out how to travel better, not just as onlookers.
In the meantime, it helps to practice by living more thoughtfully at home.
“It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community?
It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you’re not going to go away. It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in ‘casserole diplomacy’ by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.
That way we can begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons, we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the strength within ourselves and each other to hold these lives.
That’s my definition of family. And that’s my definition of love.”
— Terry Tempest Williams
We spent our final two nights of our Texas vacation at Port Aransas on Mustang Island, another of the area’s barrier islands. Our hotel was just three blocks from the Gulf-side beach.
Mustang and North Padre Islands struck us as being less touristy than South Padre Island. Much of North Padre Island is a National Seashore. We had planned a full day to drive 60 miles up this island, but little did we know that the pavement ended after about five miles, and the remaining “road” into North Padre Island National Seashore was beach driving. Well, we did not feel comfortable driving our rental car on the beach, especially since the water was already quite high. So we did not see as much of this “wild” island as I had wished.
Back in Port Aransas, we watched the sunset from the tower at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center.
On our final night in Texas, clouds came. It was time to go home to Seattle.
We drove one long day from Fort Davis to Laredo, and then the following day arrived at the Gulf coast. On the way we stopped at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge for some birding, but it was just not the same on our own without our expert birding companions. This part of Texas is known for its excellent bird-watching opportunities, as it is a popular flyway for migratory species.
My husband and I both enjoy being by water, so we were happy to spend a night on South Padre Island, one of Texas’s long barrier islands. It was a touristy place, we thought, but the endlessly incoming waves on the long Gulf shore gave Nature precedence.
South Padre Island also has a birding center, but we looked for birds instead along the boardwalks and grounds of the island’s convention center. We saw black-bellied whistling ducks, buntings, red-breasted grosbeaks, yellow warblers and prairie warblers, spoonbills, the ubiquitous great-tailed grackles, and others.
We viewed the sunset from the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island.
“I am stardust, comets, nebulae and galaxies. I am trees and wind and stone. I am space. I am emptiness and wholeness at the same time.”
— Richard Wagamese, Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations
Before parting ways with my brother and sister-in-law, we spent one more evening together in Fort Davis. We had tickets to the McDonald Observatory’s Twilight Program and Star Party.
One of the best things about our time in Big Bend country was the clarity of the night sky. I can’t remember ever seeing so many stars. And in the dead of night, we could see the Milky Way. So I was looking forward to viewing some heavenly objects through the big telescopes at McDonald Observatory.
We were crossing our fingers when we arrived at the Observatory, worried that our Star Party might be cancelled due to clouds that had moved in. But we were lucky. There was a window of clearing overhead when darkness arrived, and we had the opportunity to look in three different telescopes before the clouds brought an end to the party. We saw a spiral galaxy, Jupiter with four of its moons, and the lunar surface.
I wish I knew how to take photos of the night sky to share with you. Here is one I found on the internet:
“[T]he main purpose of the place in Marfa is the serious and permanent installation of art.” — from Donald Judd Writings, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
After leaving Big Bend National Park, we headed north to Marfa and Fort Davis for a couple of special activities I had booked. In Marfa, we had tickets for an art tour at the Chinati Foundation. I had long wanted to go to Marfa after reading about Donald Judd’s contemporary art installations there.
Donald Judd’s vision and philosophy embraced the theme of art in context. He believed that artwork, the architecture that houses it, and the land/setting should work in harmony. He worked mostly in large scale.
“The purpose of the foundation is to preserve my work and that of others and to preserve this work in spaces I consider appropriate for it. . . . The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself. . . . Somewhere there has to be a place where the installation is well done and permanent.” — from Donald Judd Writings, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
“My work and that of my contemporaries that I acquired was not made to be property. It’s simply art. I want the work I have to remain that way. It is not on the market, not for sale . . .” — from Donald Judd Writings, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete is a collection of boxes set outdoors in a long line. Another of his installations, 100 Boxes in Milled Aluminum, is housed in two old artillery buildings. I loved all the variations in tension with the overall unity of the boxes, and how the light and reflections enhanced their beauty.
We saw some of Judd’s smaller works housed in a special collections exhibit. These were Horizontal Wall Works housed in a former barracks.
The Chinati Foundation now holds the art of Judd and 12 other artists. We did not stay for the full tour, as we had another appointment to get to. But here are some photos of some of the other works:
I loved this sojourn to Marfa. I like the whole idea of a town as an art destination. My husband, however, was clear that he did not consider most of what he saw as art. A circle of stones?!? Some crushed cars?!? Some aluminum boxes that a company manufactured to spec?!?
I, on the other hand, respect Judd’s vision and philosophy of making art as permanent (as much as possible) installations. “The art and architecture of the past that we know is that which remains. The best is that which remains where it was painted, placed, or built. Most of the art of the past that could be moved was taken by conquerors. Almost all recent art is conquered as soon as it is made, since it’s first shown for sale and once sold is exhibited as foreign in alien museums. The public has to idea of art other than that it is something portable that can be bought.” — from Donald Judd Writings, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” — Aristotle
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” — Picasso
“I want to be absorbed into someplace larger and more expansive than the human brain. I am seeking a different kind of circuitry, the nervous system of rivers and deserts and mountains born of fire. . . . This is my desire — to simply walk and witness the Chihuahuan Desert, where thousands of species of cactus will ask nothing of me but to be left alone beneath an overarching sky.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickers, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals. Something about desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.” — Edward Abbey, The Journey Home
We saw all manner of needled and prickly plants in West Texas. In truth, I do not know the names of all of them. Here are a few:
The agave is sometimes referred to as a “century plant.” As it blooms, it sends out a tall flower stalk, which looked to me like a giant asparagus stalk. “Succulents with fleshy leaves that store moisture, agaves are protected by a waxy coating. They are long-lived, but bloom only once, putting all of their life’s energy into shooting up a rapidly growing stalk as high as fifteen feet and panicled with numerous upraised flowers that bloom at night and are pollinated by bats. After blooming the entire plant dies, although root runners often sprout clones, called pups, around the parent plant. Some large agave species are century plants, giving the erroneous impression that they bloom only once in a hundred years, though typically they live for five to thirty-five years.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
“The word agave derives from the Greek agave, meaning “noble” or “admirable,” a name that honors the plant’s many uses. For most of its life, the agave is handsome cluster (sometimes roughly the size of a dinner plate, sometimes much larger) of gray-green, serrated leaves, each ending in a long sharp point. Thanks to these terminal spines, a common Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert agave, lechuguilla, is sometimes called “shin dagger,” a phrase impaled hikers often utter preceded by an expletive.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
“Spent agave look like rib cages pried open by ravenous coyotes.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
And here are the lessons from these hardy desert plants:
“Desert strategies are useful: In times of drought, pull your resources inward; when water is scarce, find moisture in seeds; to stay strong and supple, send a taproot down deep; run when required, hide when necessary; when hot go underground; do not fear darkness, it’s where one comes alive.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
“Santa Elena Canyon provides our first glimpse of the Rio Grande. The water is slow moving and pink with morning light, mirroring the red-streaked cliffs rising on either side of the river. . . . Most deserts have a memory of the sea and here is no exception. Fossils embedded in the limestone create an ancient brocade woven through the stratigraphy of stone.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
Our second hike in Big Bend National Park was in the Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande River cuts through it — Mexico just a few yards from the trail on our shore. The river ran so low that we saw boaters wade in it knee deep. In the canyon, natural walls of stone separate our two countries.
“These canyon walls, fourteen hundred feet high, resemble Puebloan pots — black paint on red clay. Gradations of black, gray, and blue come forth in late-afternoon light on burnished walls, red-orange. . . . The canyon narrows. White sculpted boulders create a calm found in Zen gardens.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
We spent our days in Big Bend National Park hiking, eating, bird-watching, and eating. Our first hike was short, about 3.6 miles to Window Rock. The trailhead was right in our campground.
Our last (of three) hikes was a 10+ mile loop in the Chisos Mountains, taking us on the Pinnacles Trail, Boot Canyon trail, Colima Trail, and Laguna Meadows Trail. (I was proud of myself for making it!)
I find that my hiking experience is greatly enhanced by knowledgeable companions who can call my attention to birds and plants and other things. My hearing loss puts me at a severe disadvantage for birding — I have to rely solely on catching movement or silhouettes to locate birds. So it was helpful to have companions point out their finds. With their expertise, a song and a glimpse was sometimes enough to identify a particular bird.
Here are some of the birds we saw on our hikes and sojourns in Big Bend National Park:
“The Big Bend country is an ‘oversized pocket of imponderables,’ wherein several of our Eastern states could rattle around like marbles. Yet, this small section of Texas covers only two of her 254 counties. Shaped something like a pocket, the Big Bend is that multi-million-acre piece of Texas which juts down into the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. It is the Rio Grande’s gift to Texas, for it was the river, excavating on its circuitous course, that gave Texas its Big Bend country.” — Virginia Madsen, Big Bend Country of Texas
“Big Bend National Park is the long view — stark, lonely, and soul saving.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
We met up with my brother and sister-in-law, both wildlife biologists and birders, in Big Bend National Park. We spent four days together, camping under the majestic presence of Casa Grande peak. For all four of us, this was our first trip to this remote national park. It gets fewer than 400,000 visitors per year.
Big Bend is situated along the Rio Grande River and shares a 118-mile border with Mexico. The Chihuahua Desert covers part of the park.
“There’s no denying that compared to many other kinds of environments, deserts are landscapes of exposures and extremes: heat and cold; wind, space, and bare rock; rain that vanishes long before it reaches the ground and canyon-carving flash floods; starlight bright enough to read by and blinding sunlight; nuclear bomb tests and spiritual quests; proximity to divinity and a version of hell.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
However, parts of Big Bend NP are mountainous, reaching elevations of over 7,000 feet. “In the American West and northern Mexico, some mountain ranges rise more than seven thousand feet above the surrounding desert, creating ‘sky islands,’ isolated landscapes of much wetter and cooler climate surrounded by a sea of desert.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
Our campground in the Chisos Basin was at this higher elevation, and temperatures were quite comfortable. “From the desert pavement of evenly spaced creosote and mats of prickly pear and ocotillo, and the broad dagger yuccas and sotol, the Chisos Mountains bring geographic relief — shade from piñon and juniper forests and pockets of yellow pine.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
White-winged doves were the roosters of our campground, announcing the dawning day with their repetitive coos. (My sister-in-law believes they are saying, “Too hot for youuuu; too hot for youuuu!”)
“The Chisos are a force in progress, changing hourly in shadow and light.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
The sunrises were generally a gradual arrival, with soft pink and lavender skies. The day was already well on its way to light when the sun finally rose over the Casa Grande peak on the horizon of our campground. The sunsets, in contrast, were brilliantly colored.
“[Big Bend] is a brilliant land, flaming and impudent in its wildness and freedom. The sun sets in a burst of color, which fades to return briefly in an afterglow, as if the sun had laid a fluorescent mantle over the land. That, too, is drawn away, revealing twilight.” — Virginia Madsen, Big Bend Country of Texas
Big Bend is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and after dark it is a remarkable place for star-gazing. We saw the Milky Way!
“It would not have been preposterous for one to tip-toe and essay to touch the stars, they hung so bright and eminent.” — O. Henry, “The Missing Chord,” from Heart of the West
“There are times when one just feels like driving . . .” — Larry McMurtry, “A Look at the Lost Frontier,” from In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas
We drove a total of 1,952 miles on Texas highways in a loop from San Antonio, to Big Bend National Park, then south along the borderlands of the Rio Grande River, to the Gulf of Mexico, and back along the Padre Islands before heading north again to San Antonio. As we headed out of San Antonio on the first leg of our drive, I admired the wildflowers growing in the ditches along the road. By the time we arrived in Sonora about two and a half hours later, trees had pretty much disappeared from the landscape. We were in the arid West now.
My Country by Dorothea Mackellar, from My Country and Other Poems, 1909
“I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror —
The wide brown land for me!”
“The air was so clean and dry she scarcely felt the need for inhaling and exhaling. Pure as it was, it felt as if it might permeate the flesh without bothering to trouble the lungs.” — Nevada Barr, Borderlands
I loved the immensity of the skies on the wide open land of Texas. I loved the wind and the fresh air. It called to mind this poem by William Stafford, where he quotes the wind saying, “I spend my vacations in Texas.”
Things the Wind Says
“Everything still ought to move.
Of all plants I believe my favorite is the tumbleweed.
There are places in the mountains I am afraid to tell about,
but at night you can hear me hint about them.
Islands aren’t so much.
I never saw a cloud I didn’t like.
Steam is all right, but I prefer smoke.
I was born in Kansas, but now I travel all over the world.
I spend my vacations in Texas.
The best job I ever had was with Sir Francis Drake.
My cousins live in water: they’re a slow bunch.
I’ll dance with anyone — royalty, commoners,
but especially refugees . . .”
And yet, I was aware how privileged we were to be seeing this land from the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned car!
“We toiled across sterile plains, where no tree offered its friendly shade, the sun glowing fiercely, and the wind hot from the parched earth, cracking the lips and burning the eyes. . . . As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, and worthless.” — John Russell Bartlet, Personal Narratives of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua
The land is dotted with plants that stick, sting, or stink. O. Henry calls the prickly pear a “demon plant.”
“With dismal monotony and startling variety the uncanny and multiform shapes of cacti lift their twisted trunks and fat, bristly hands to encumber the way. The demon plant, appearing to love without soil or rain, seems to taunt the parched traveler with its lush gray greenness.” — O. Henry, “Caballero’s Way,” from Heart of the West
“Cracked mud is the violence of heat waves made visible.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
Just once were we lucky enough to be on the road early enough to watch the light some slowly into the country, illuminating the sky with a brilliant sunrise sky.
“There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world is suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchmen walking the periphery of darkness and calling out that all is well.” — Paulette Jiles, The Color of Lightening
“The country was dim and lovely, as it always is at dawn or dusk, when the smells and colors have their full substance and have not been neutralized by the dust, the flatness, and the heat.” — Larry McMurtry, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas
The only things that interrupted our grand Texas road trip were the border patrol checkpoints we were subjected to. Five different times along US highways, all cars were made to stop at border patrol stations. These highways were not right on the border, either; they were miles away from crossing stations. The officers there, accompanied by K9 dogs, simply asked us if we were both US citizens and waved us through. But I wonder if we had looked like we were Hispanic or Mexican, if we would have been subject to more rigorous questioning or if we would have had to show proof of our citizenship. Do Texans know that other states do not subject their drivers to checkpoints along their highways, highways not right on the border? How effective are they, really? (After all, if you were an illegal, wouldn’t you avoid these portions of highways?) I never thought I would see something like these checkpoints in America in my lifetime.