Blood Marks the Trail

If you love the outdoors, and especially the desert outdoors, then you have probably read Edward Abbey, and in particular, Desert Solitaire.  The line in that book that has forever branded itself into my psyche reads, “In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

This past week, I parked my Jeep beside a dry wash, a desert artery that carries only lizards and dust during most of the year. However, at unpredictable times, this dry wash runs with water…sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent of mud, rocks, and small trees. It has been my desire to trek along this dry wash and enjoy its quiet, and its history, left behind in the wonderful palate of textures and colors, seen only when “traces of blood begin to mark your trail…”

I shouldered my backpack, knowing I would stay out overnight, not wanting to rush, and headed west, upstream toward the wonderful desert evening of the Big Bend. Here it is easy to see the flow of the water over small rocks, and the ripples mirrored in the sand as they rolled across the surface of a temporary rain runoff. Also visible is the higher waterline left behind by a stronger flow of deeper water:P1020499

Further upstream, the flow has cut away the bank to a depth of 6-8 feet or more:P1020504

The spiderweb of roots and branches left airborne by the flowing water create art unequaled with brush and canvas:P1020505BWSeveral stories told here…as a very large mammal, probably an elk or mule deer, followed the path of least resistance, walking slowly along the wash. Then, an undetermined digger moved across the wash, digging as he went, perhaps following the burrow of an underground dweller in search of dinner:P1020509More tracks, this time a fox perhaps, and multiple well-defined water courses, dredged by a silent carver of the sand:P1020511BWAway from the wash, as I prepare to make camp for the evening, the limestone layers of this slab, turned on end to form a chair for Paul Bunyan, and shade for me in a shadeless land:P1020520BWThe sun begins to set against the limestone cliffs of the Madiera Sierra del Carmen, rising to a height of 8000 feet across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, with the distinct landmark of the Taj Mahal Hoodoo beginning to silhouette in foreground right:P1020541The layers of evening, a rising moon, the golden glow of the warmer layers of light filtering through the low levels of atmosphere, the shadow of the earth itself just above the tops of the Dead Horse Mountains:P1020548P1020538Next morning, as I begin the 4 miles back downstream, the colors of the sand warm to the morning light:P1020566More tracks from a mule deer, heading upstream:P1020569A tributary enters from the north, perhaps a drainage from nearby Grapevine Hills, showing evidence of water flowing at levels ranging from flood to a trickle:P1020575BWOne of the earliest flowers to bloom this year, growing in the soft sand of the creek, attended by an opportunistic flying critter:P1020578Among the myriad of smooth, round river stones, and set apart among the millions of remnants of limestone deposits, this multi-layered rock of sandstone, three feet across, created elsewhere at another time and washed here from some far-away mountainous perch:P1020579And finally, as if still flowing, this river of sand creates eddies behind rocks that have seen the water come and go, and come again:P1020580BWGod really does surround us with masterpieces, if we will only crawl.

Marufo Vega Revisited

It has been awhile since I threw on the backpack and headed out the Marufo Vega Trail, one of my most favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park, and one of the best kept secrets in the entire park. With two consecutive days of 80+ degree sunny weather, the timing was perfect, as were the night skies, free of a bright moon, so off I went.

The Marufo Vega Trail is a 12-mile loop trail on the extreme east end of Big Bend National Park, and covers some of the most beautiful terrain you can imagine. However, it is one of the least populated hikes in the park, and one that receives perhaps more search & rescue episodes than any other, due to extreme desert conditions, lack of shade and water, and visitors who underestimate the physical demands of this trail. My favorite hike is an 11-mile out-and-back with an overnight on a bench a thousand feet above the Rio Grande River, and 5000 feet below the peak of the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, which rise to nearly 8000′ altitude on the Mexican side of the river.

The hike starts at the Marufo Vega Trailhead and follows a dry creekbed that drains Telephone Canyon, near the Mexican town of Boquillas:P1020273P1020275At 1.5 miles a trail junction splits and the Telephone Canyon trail continues on, while Marufo Vega turns and climbs sharply up 400′ over a ridge into another drainage:P1020284P1020291A look back up Telephone Canyon from the saddle:P1020292From the high bench, you get your first look at the top of the del Carmen mountains, still nearly 4 miles away:P1020293The trail wind across the desert into secondary drainages with interesting dikes and rock formations:P1020301P1020303P1020304At 3.5 miles the trail splits, forming a 5-mile loop that eventually drops 1000 feet down to the Rio Grande River, then follows the river for 1.5 miles before climbing back up the 1000 feet and re-joining at this point:P1020308Following the drainage marked “South Fork,” the trail winds through the hills and out onto a wide, flat park before disappearing over another low saddle to begin the traverse around an escarpment and the final push to the bench above the Rio Grande River:P1020309P1020311P1020315The first look eastward at the “Lower Canyons” of the Rio Grande, dropping over 1000 feet below the trail down to the Rio Grande River, carving its way southeast, the border between Mexico and Texas:P1020316P1020317This photo taken on another trip showing the river from a closer proximity to its channel:IMG_0802_3_4_5_6_fusedAround one more corner, the first look at the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, looming to a height of nearly 8000 feet just across the river in Mexico, the highest point being the small, thin spire called “El Pico” just to the right of the pointed direction of the trail:P1020318P1020330Another half mile and the panorama of the Del Carmens rises along the southern skyline, beginning their stunning color change as the sun begins its long, slow journey into sunset:P1020346P1020349P1020374P1020366The Milky Way is generally not visible at this time of the year, because we are not looking at the most dense spiral that is so familiar during the spring, summer and fall months, but out here the skies are so dark that the less dense spirals of the Milky Way are visible, occasionally streaked with a passing meteor:P1020381P1020383P1020392P1020408Next morning, the sun breaks upon the mountain peaks lowering over the lower canyons of the Rio Grande:P1020411P1020413sP1020420P1020436And so begins the 5.2 mile journey back to the trailhead, with an overview of the last 1.5 miles of trail, following the old path of the Ore Trams, cabled buckets much like ski lifts, that hauled fluorspar ore, used in steelmaking, from Mexico to the railhead in Marathon for processing:P1020457P1020459P1020462BWAnd so ends the tour of the southern loop of the Marufo Vega Trail. This is not a hike for the summer, so if you plan to go, the cooler days of late fall, winter, or very early spring should be your goal. Hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy visit to my backyard.