PART I: The Arrival
When I pulled into the designated parking spot for my campsite at Big Bend, I became immediately concerned it was, in fact, just a pile of rocks. I couldn’t see any semblance of a campsite from the car. The website said the sites weren’t level, sure, but this seemed excessive. Where was my picnic table? Where was my critter-proof food storage container? Where was any small patch of ground on which to pitch a tent?
I sat in the car staring at the rock pile, willing it to make sense. I pulled up the campsite reservation email again, the one I’d already six or seven times and found that, incredibly, it didn’t contain new information.
Finally, I got out of the car.
As it turns out, the mere act of standing up can drastically alter your perspective. Mere steps from the car I realized the rock pile was both a large pile of a rocks and a (very) rough approximation of a staircase. My campsite, of course, was just up the “stairs.” Upon climbing them, I found all the things I needed for a successful camping experience, including a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and a perfect vantage point from which to gaze down disapprovingly at my neighbors. I named them all, internally chided them for leaving out their trash, for hopping around on one foot to change their socks, for leaving their car running for no conceivable reason and for playing a god dang harmonica.
A very long time ago, I went camping for the first time. It was in the middle of my divorce and I was terrified. I wasn’t even an hour from home, but still. It felt like a scary, big thing, and not just because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to set up my tent or start a fire. That was part of it, sure, but the being alone in the wild thing, even the mild wild of a state park campground, felt pretty significant.
I had no inkling then how things would spiral, how I’d morph into a lunatic who flies across the country to camp, hike and explore on my own for days at a time. Or that I’d become the sort of smug jackass who records herself setting up her tent for no actual reason, but, here we are.
PART II: Lazy Stargazing
In December, the Geminids meteor shower rains down across the winter sky with something like 150 meteors per hour. I’m almost never in a place with clear skies to witness celestial phenomenon. I live in a city and get in bed at 9 p.m. Truly my only chance at witnessing sky shows is when I’m on a scamper. But last year, when the Geminids peaked in December, I was at Big Bend.
Big Bend, for those unfamiliar, is a national park nestled in the southern bit of Far West Texas. It’s got less light pollution than any other park in the Lower 48, which means it is an A+, top-notch spot for stargazing.
So, there I was in, camping in Big Bend. The cosmos were putting on a wild display, but still, I couldn’t be bothered to get out of my bed. I was cozy. It was cold. Instead of getting up, I just opened my rain fly, scooted myself as close to the door as possible and gazed into the night sky.
It took seconds before I saw the first meteor shoot across the sky. It was 5 or 6 a.m., early, still dark. I could only see half the sky, but I lay there until the sun came up, counted meteors until I got to 25 and then I just kept looking up until the sun started to rise and it was time to go climb a mountain.
PART III: Trail Drinking
I’ve traveled more miles with beers than I have with friends. They’re lighter to carry.
At the top of Emory Peak, the tallest mountain in Big Bend, I took off my pack and flopped myself onto a rock, much like a sea-wary walrus. Then, as I often do after hiking three or five or seven miles, I dug into the very bottom of my bag and pulled out a beer, still mostly cold. Then I just sat there, eating my jerky, drinking my beer, taking in the view from the top.
A pair of college-aged boys climbed up next to me and asked if I’d take their picture.
“Of course,” I said, beer still in hand, as they handed over an iPhone.
They both stopped, looked at the beer and then back up at me.
“Is that a beer?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I think it was a revelation for them, that you can combine beer-drinking with day-hiking and really, that’s the sort of knowledge I’m hoping to impart on today’s youth.
PARI IV: Chasing the Sun
I don’t know how many spiders were living in by hair by the time I finally got a shower at Big Bend. Two? Eleven? Hard to say. I’d hiked 30 or so miles and spent four nights sleeping on the ground. The spider count was unknown, but likely high.
For $2, I got a five minute shower. The water was hot, the showerhead low. I changed into soft pants and my camp shoes and swore off any semblance of real clothes and shoes until at least the next day.
The plan was to go back to camp and lounge like a lizard, but I got distracted in the parking lot. The couple parked next to me was talking about the beers they’d just bought and I couldn’t help myself, I had to chime in.
“MICHIGAN,” I yelled about the Bell’s Light-Hearted Ale they were discussing. They looked bewildered, which is reasonable. I assume most people are not used to having state names yelled at them by strangers in parking lots.
“Hi, I’m sorry, but it’s from Michigan, they make my favorite IPA of all time, the Bell’s Two Hearted, it’s incredible,” I said.
“Ohhh, ok, thank you so much,” they said, laughing, before explaining that they weren’t planning to buy anymore beer, that they drove down from New Mexico, but they saw a bunch of beers they’d never seen before and wanted to try them.
“Yes, same,” I told them. We talked for maybe ten minutes, giving brief overviews of our travels, what we’d already seen, what was next. I asked for trail recommendations and they told me the little nature trail right next to my campsite was lovely and, if I kept following the trail, it would eventually lead me to the Rio Grande.
Back at camp, I sat for a few minutes and tried to read. I couldn’t focus. I’d moved campsites, moved to a whole other side of the park, and I could see the entrance to the nature trail from my campsite. I had to go, I figured. So I did. Camp shoes and sleep clothes on, nothing else but my phone and my water bottle, I went. I walked all the way down to the river, yelled hello to a grazing cow and then made my way back along the trail just as the sun started to set.
There’s something special about that part of the country. The sunsets defy logic. They don’t just happen on the western side of the sky. It’s an immersive experience that requires you to spin in circles, watching as the sky goes to watercolor, as colors fade and reach across the mountains.
Standing on the trail watching the sky, I met an older couple who told me they’d been coming there for years.
“I’ve never seen this peachy pink before,” the man said. “This is extra special.”
We watched, silent, for a few minutes, then they told me the best place to see the sunset was the hill behind us, but, they said, only in “appropriate shoes.”
I looked down at my dust-covered, sandaled feet, smiled back up at them.
“Well,” I said. “These feet climbed a mountain today, they’re done with appropriate.”
- I spent most of my nights at Big Bend camping at Chisos Basin, which I’d highly recommend. My rock pile campsite was #58 and it was excellent. Good views, good vibes, close to all the things, and a decent cell signal if that’s a thing you’re into. Would recommend. Reservations available up to six months in advance.
- My last night in the park, where I caught the sunset, was at Rio Grande Village Campground. It’s a great spot if you’re planning a hike on the eastern side of the park, or if you’re planning to hop across the border to Boquillas, but the sites are much less private and scenic. Reservations available up to six months in advance.
- Favorite hikes: Lost Mine Trail: 4.8 miles, out and back, stellar mountain views; Emory Peak: 10.5 miles out and back or get creative and loop it, includes a legit rock scramble at the top and stunning views of the surrounding landscape; Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail: 3.5 miles out and back, requires a few scrambles, including one over slick rock at the end of the trail.
- Desert hiking is a different thing, always take more water than you think you’ll need, even on short hikes. Also, eat food, carry snacks, know what to do if you encounter a mountain lion or bear.