Change of scenery nourishes the soul

Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 09:31

People have asked me, “if for any reason you couldn’t live in Alaska, where would you go?” Without thinking, I quickly list Canada, New Zealand’s southern island, Switzerland, the southern tip of Argentina, Patagonia — in other words, places that look a lot like the 49th state.

But over the years I’ve discovered that one can become captivated and even fall in love with locales that are entirely different than Alaska. I refer here to the Chihuahuan Desert in southwest Texas — an area that I visited often during a five-year stay in Houston. On the southern edge of the Chihuahuan bordering Mexico lays Big Bend National Park. It is a fascinating area, crowned with the Chisos Mountains that rise more than 7,000 feet above the desert floor.

The Houston area is as flat as a phonograph record. So this Alaskan, who was raised amidst the Kenai Peninsula’s rugged mountains, didn’t mind spending more than half a day driving 600 miles to find some vertical relief.

On my first trip it was only the mountains I cared about. But on subsequent visits I learned that the seemingly dry, barren and lifeless desert expanse was quite the opposite. It was home to diverse and abundant life — and in its far-reaching silences, held an aura of mystery that was spellbinding. It was a feeling that I believe many of us experience in Alaska — as if someone stopped all of the clocks, including nature’s, and suspended time. It was as if the land were holding its breath, waiting for something.

The desert invited me to pause, look and listen. It stirred the imagination and created a heightened awareness.

Within its 1,252 square miles, Big Bend National Park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants (including approximately 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds and about 3,600 species of insects. The park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

During many hikes there, I invariably found myself looking at the ground because of my mortal fear of snakes. After all, I’ve lived in Alaska most of my life. Fortunately, I never came across any.

But I did have close encounters with a mountain lion, a black bear, deer and javelinas. More properly called collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), peccaries are an even-toed, hoofed mammal in the order Artiodactyla. They are often mistaken for pigs, but are in a different family. It’s almost comical to see the way groups of javelinas walk around in the brush in single file.

Neither the mountain lion nor bear bothered me, even at a close distance. But the way the mountain lion crouched in the brush and shadowed me on the trail for a minute or two was rather unsettling.

Lion attacks on adults are quite rare, but they have been known to go after children.

To avoid extreme heat as well as thunder and lightning storms, I did most of my hiking between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. On a few occasions, especially in lower areas near the Rio Grande, I hiked in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F. I found that even if one is hydrating properly, heat exhaustion is a real danger. It is surreptitious, sneaking up on you unexpectedly, and perhaps more dangerous than hypothermia. More than once I had to seek shade and wait for the telltale light- headedness to pass.

But for me, the harshness of the desert was part of its allure. Like the frigid extremes of Alaska, it could easily kill you. Every year, someone succumbs to the ravages of the Chihuahuan desert’s heat. Carrying heavy quarts of water and hiking early in the morning, I was determined not to be one of the victims.

Some of my mountaineering friends travel south to Utah every year to take on some of its big rock walls and towers. I know they are drawn there not just by the technical climbing challenges, but for some of that same magic I feel in the mountains and canyons of Big Bend National Park.

I think we all need to find places like this to kindle our imaginations and help us dream — places that spur us beyond self-imposed boundaries and horizons. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back to Big Bend and the Chihuahuan desert, but I do have lasting memories. I’ll conclude with a poem I wrote several years ago about Big Bend, my other “Alaska.”


“Where the winds begin”

There are places I like to go that I’ll go back to again and again, like the South Rim of Big Bend, hanging out there over the sleeping desert where the winds begin.

On a clear day you can see far into Mexico, down to Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande; the parched, folding hills adrift in the morning haze, shrouding secrets from days of Spanish explorers, Indians, pioneers, miners, ranchers; reaching for horizons, pitting themselves against the stark unknown, the discoveries: Some made together, alone …pushing north across the Rio Grande under the glaring, unforgiving sun; until they came here — a mountain bastion rising from an endless desert plain, a lofty refuge that gathered water, life; and they returned again and again.

The Apache and Comanche were mystified by this conglomeration of rock towering 7,000 feet above the desert floor; this place that hid the sun, where clouds were born, water flowed, trees grew, animals ran; and only the bravest would ride into the narrowing canyons at twilight, when shadowed, ghostlike rock figures shifted restlessly under looming peaks.

Unlike the valleys of Alaska I’ve walked since childhood, I felt no belonging here.

But at the dawn of another day something told me to pause, that this small moment was part of something bigger — a new day in a long succession of days over hundreds of years, of people who had lived and died in these mountains searching for something they weren’t sure of…a new place in the world, a chance, a new view of themselves.

On the sun-painted desert this morning every grain of sand was coming alive…grains of sand that held memories of this place--all it had been and ever would be.

A cool breeze dashed nimbly up the cliffs and lightly ran its fingers across my face, hanging out there on the South Rim of Big Bend, looking out toward Mexico where the winds begin.

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