I twiddle with the radio during the four-hour drive from the airport in Midland, Texas, to Big Bend National Park, trying to find a station, and finally just turn the thing off, preferring silence to static. Now, the airwaves match the landscape: vacant.
I was told this place was beautiful, even saw pages of blooming wildflowers in guidebooks. Images of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses had formed in my head, but maybe I just had images of a certain kind of man: the audio book’s narrator and my college roommate’s boyfriend, Brad Pitt.
The land is ironed flat, and you could hide a car in the cracks of the scorched ground. Creosote bushes dot the landscape that goes on to the ends of the Earth. Instead of cattle, a few oil drills feed on the land.
Off in the distance a hump of Earth arises, like an apparition. The park’s main attraction is the Chisos Mountains. “Chisos” means “deserted” in some Indian language. First, the Indians deserted this land, then, the Spaniards. Ranchers gave it a try briefly in the 1800s. Now, water has deserted it. Gulleys and washes lay bare where rivers and streams once flowed. I don’t know it yet, but soon my husband of 10 years will desert me, if only for a time.
“That must be what it’s like to see land after sailing for weeks on the ocean,” I say to Eric.
He’s as mum as the land is dry. A sign says, “Watch out for drifting sand.” Stray tumbleweeds roll by, destined for the far reaches of nowhere. My guilty mind is wishing we went on that tropical beach vacation like he’d wanted.
Eric is a construction worker, a plumber, and as his astrological sign, Aquarius, implies, a bearer of water. It’s physical work. I work in an office, my own. I put words on the page. It’s not physical. I wanted an adventurous vacation; he wanted to relax on the beach, sip umbrella drinks, cool off with a swim in the ocean. I dragged him to sporting goods stores, made him try on backpacks, buy new hiking boots, a portable stove, water purifier, sleeping bag, tent, headlamp and water bottles. I sold him on this vacation. Now, I have to make good on my promise of fun, adventure and nature’s beauty. I always figured he’d come around; he was a Boy Scout once.
Inside the park, the mountain looms. The speed limit drops, but our speed doesn’t, and a police officer pulls us over and hands out a $70 speeding ticket.
We head to the park store for camp fuel. The store sells postcards, cold beverages—Eric buys a beer—and snacks but very few camping supplies. We walk the aisles and peer behind dusty boxes but can’t find the brand of fuel required for our new camp stove. The man working the cash register calls another store a short drive away, but they don’t have the fuel either.
There is one last hope to find a source of the fuel we need to live for the next five days. There is another store, thirty miles away. I call. They don’t carry the fuel we need, but they do, however, have a different camp stove and fuel to go with it. Unfortunately, they are located at the end of a dirt road recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles only. We are driving the standard-issue rental car. We head out anyway, make it down the moonscape road, and make our purchases. For Eric that includes another beer. This time, a “tall-boy.” It’s like he’s planning for hibernation. He knows there won’t be ice-cold beer on the mountaintop, only three days of warm drinking water.
Back at our campsite, purchases complete, we pitch our tent with a view of the red mountains. With a little water our freeze-dried dinner blossoms into something barely edible over our new camp stove, the second one we’ve purchased in seven days.
The heat of the day has yet to abate. The air is as warm as a dog’s breath. Eric sleeps on top of his sleeping bag.
When the sun rises and shines on the mountains outside our tent window, I see another side to Big Bend National Park. It may be in the middle of a post-Apocalyptic setting, but it has potential. Reds. Oranges. Yellows. The colors saturate the mountain. I take a picture of the view from our tent for the scrapbook I envision entitled, “Our First Backpacking Trip Together.”
“Isn’t that beautiful,” I say to Eric. He nods his head as he chews his pancakes, and I know he’s still just going along with things. I hope the beatific views from the top of the mountain will stir something in him. Maybe we’ll hike through fields of blooming wildflowers, and he’ll warm to this adventurous vacation.
Before heading up the mountain, we check in with the park ranger, and she cautions, “Be sure to pack in plenty of water. The mountain’s dry.”
Dry. As in bone. Not a drop of water anywhere. Even in May, usually known as spring in most parts of the country when warm showers are supposed to coax tulips and daffodils out of the ground into blooming masterpieces, all the streams and creeks of Big Bend National Park are bereft of a trickle. Before heading up the mountain, we unpack our new water purifier and leave it alongside our unused camp stove in the trunk of the rental car.
“No Campfire” signs warn of forest fires and are posted alongside other signs warning of mountain lions and bears. I remember reading somewhere that bears can go a little crazy during droughts; the same is probably true of mountain lions, I think. Animal behavior is enigmatic when they have thirsts to quench.
We load up on water. Eric-the-Aquarian hangs three extra gallons’ off his pack, and I add a gallon. At the trailhead, Eric takes my picture. I can barely stand upright enough for fear the weight of my pack will leave me flailing on my back like an overturned turtle. “Let’s get moving, so I can get this beast off my back as quickly as possible,” I say to Eric.
Our campsite for the next two nights is five miles straight up the mountain. When we planned the trip, I thought, five miles is nothing, a short jog around the neighborhood. I ran a marathon the previous fall and considered anything less than 10 miles a sprint.
About three miles up the mountain, I think I’m in hell on a Stairmaster set to “10.”
When we finally reach camp, I unbuckle the waist belt to my pack, lean back, and let it fall to the ground. I pull out a postcard for my best friend and write, “Harder than the marathon.”
After a night’s rest, fitful from night noises I worried might be bears, I wake grateful to be in the wilderness far away from a telephone, computer and overflowing in-box. No press releases to write. No focus groups to moderate. No research calls to make. Even though my thighs are sore, we’re rationing water, and the air’s warm, I feel free, loosed from the strings of my marionette life with one editor pulling me this way, another tugging me that. I’ve traveled far enough to cut the ties. The hike to the top of the mountain is a salve for my sanity.
We load our daypacks—one water bottle apiece—for a hike to the South Rim overlooking the Rio Grande River, the demarcation between Mexico and the United States, some 1,500 feet below. The National Park brochures say you can see for 57 miles into Mexico from this point. But not today. We can barely make out the river below, a couple miles away. Wildfires are blazing across Mexico—no water there, either—buffeted by winds that carry walls of smoke reducing visibility from the South Rim.
Later that morning, we come across a group of birders on a day hike. They’re looking for the rare Colima Warbler, a bird found in one tiny valley on this mountain and nowhere else. “It’s a small bird with a greenish-yellow breast,” one woman says.
We trace her group’s footsteps, searching the air and trees for a bird that draws people from all parts to this spot, and I wonder where the Colima Warbler finds its water source.
Eventually, the birders go one way, and we go another. Suddenly, Eric freezes ahead of me. He holds his index finger up to his mouth. I immediately think bear and strain to hear movement in the dried leaves and brush. When Eric motions me near, I creep up and look in the direction he’s pointing. “Colima Warbler,” he whispers, “Keep an eye on it; I’m going back to get them.”
For twenty minutes, I stare at that bird. I remember what the friendly woman’s husband said a ways back, “She dragged me all the way up this desolate mountain in the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn; she better hope we see one of those birds. Me, I don’t understand the fascination, but here I am.” I smiled. Not because I sympathized with him, but because I liked the idea of another woman dragging her man up a mountain against his will. What happened to the Great American Mountain Man?
Finally, Eric returns with the couple. She peers through a pair of tiny birding binoculars, breaking the silence like an alarm going off in the middle of a dead sleep, with the words, “Oh, that’s just a Wilson Warbler.”
We sit on a log, snack on trail mix. Eric whittles on a stick. I pull out my book, Cities of the Plain, McCarthy’s latest in his trilogy set in the very land we’re exploring. I think about the book’s protagonist roaming the west on horseback and sleeping under the stars on a bedroll. Now there’s a man who’s at home in this part of the world.
I gaze at Eric. He’s napping on a pile of leaves but rises a few minutes later. He throws rocks into the valley below us. He paces circles around the table. He coaxes a squirrel near. Back home in the suburbs of Kansas City, Eric’s a doer, a producer, a creator of tangible things. When he finishes a day on the job, he can look back over his work and see what he’s done. He can touch it. Sitting about idly in the woods doesn’t come naturally to him, at least not with me, not now. Somehow, though, it does when we’re beaching it with a cold beverage in hand. I don’t get it.
Off into the distance, there’s a clomping sound that could be sound effects for the book I’m reading.
Around a bend, four cowboys draw near on horseback. They’re wearing big, black cowboy hats, cowboy boots, spurs, chaps and walrus mustaches. The first one nods in our direction, “Howdy.” The last one to dismount strides over to us, hand outstretched. “I’m Cody.” His rugged good looks make him every girl’s cowboy dream. He could be the hero in McCarthy’s book. He shakes Eric’s hand, and then presents his hand to me. He has a firm grip. I like that. We chat for a few minutes. He tells us that the four of them have all worked on this mountain over the years as park rangers, cattle rustlers and trail builders. Hard work, he says, but this time they’re out for fun, not work. He comments on how unusually dry the mountain is for this time of year.
I open my mouth. Not to speak, but in awe. I can’t get a word in edgewise. My husband is transformed. He’s plying Cody with questions and, worse, traitorous laughter.
“Well, enjoy yourselves,” Cody says, and he and the other three walk their horses to a clearing where they make camp.
Eric and I mosey back to our own campsite. I journal some more. Eric reads a park pamphlet on birds for exactly two minutes before he tosses it aside and sighs. His new-found joviality is dissipating in the humid air, and he grows restless again. He gulps down the last bit of water in his water bottle. “Hot,” he grumbles.
Must be the heat creating an unquenchable thirst, I think, remembering that bit about bears’ behavior in drought situations. I try not to take his discomfort personally when Eric gets up and announces he’s going for a walk. He’ll be back by eight, he says, for dinner.
I know what he’s doing. I know he’s headed back to those cowboys’ campsite in hopes they packed in cold beer, and I hope they did. Maybe that’ll sate whatever need in Eric needs filling, and I can write in peace and read without guilt, no longer worrying that I’m enjoying myself and he’s not.
The sun is starting its descent now, casting long shadows across our campground nestled among junipers and pines. It’s my favorite time of day, when things seem to slow down and time suspends. I like the way the light dances on the leaves of the trees. It’s then I notice our bear safe—the heavy-duty metal box in which we store all our food at night—is wide open. A plastic bag of trail mix sits on a rock nearby. Prickles tiptoe across my neck. I glance around, and then place the trail mix inside the safe and lock it up.
Eight o’clock rolls around. No Eric.
I go back to reading.
By eight-thirty, the sun has set. It’s growing dark. I think I should be concerned. Perhaps Eric is lying in a ravine with a twisted leg. Perhaps a bear or mountain lion got him. I grab my flashlight and half-empty water bottle and head down the trail.
I expect him around every corner. I stop periodically to listen for his footsteps along the path. I round another corner, and another, and, then, I see a black shape moving toward me. I stop, suck my breath ever so slightly. Before I can make out Eric, he blurts, “I told those guys I’d better get back, or my wife will think I’m bear food.”
I hand him the water bottle. We walk back to camp in silence, because now I’m mad. Wives get mad when their husbands desert them, right?
He makes dinner in the dark, whistling. Then dessert. When I can’t stand the silence any longer and my curiosity gets the best of me, I ask, “So, what did those cowboys have to say?”
“Remember Cody?” Eric asks.
“The good-looking one?” I say making sure Eric knows that Cody caught my eye.
He nods. “Yes. He asked, ‘How does Kim like it up here?’”
“He remembered my name?”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said, ‘She likes it better than I do right now,’ and he said, ‘A woman like that is hard to find, yet, there comes a time when you just want to be with the boys.’”
And then I got it. Eric didn’t know how to act with me in the woods. It felt more natural for Eric to hang with fellow Boy Scouts in the Chisos Mountains and banter about riding by the light of the crescent moon for ice-cold beer. To swap stories of mountain lions devouring pack mules and bears mauling trees to sharpen their claws. Man talk. Turns out, the cowboys hadn’t thought to pack in any beer, but, surrounded by a quartet of Great American Mountain Men, Eric didn’t mind a bit.
After dinner and lying on top of my sleeping bag, I finished my book and gazed at the stars winking through the trees. I realized I’d forgiven Eric even before I went searching for him, and, so, I dropped the silent treatment. It was just some role I thought I was supposed to play, and it didn’t fit me. After all, a woman like me is hard to find.
The next day, we used the last of our water to reconstitute powdered eggs and hiked out. When we reached the trailhead sign, Eric took my picture, and I took his. With my pack lightened of the weight of water, I stood upright. We’d survived. And we toasted with an ice-cold beer plucked from the shelves of the park’s dusty, general store. “Here’s to our next vacation,” I said.
“In Hawaii,” Eric responded.