Life In A Desert

“I like to take things one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.  I like to think things will all work out fine, and follow along behind.”

Mesa de Anguila 086I’d never hiked Big Bend’s Mesa de Anguila, and there is not much useful information available to prepare you for what is in store:  “offers an opportunity for solitude in an area with exceptional views.  The trails may not be obvious as animal trails diverge from the main trail, and sections of trail may be overgrown with grass and shrubs. The trek is recommended for experienced desert backpackers only.”  That’s about it.

Seven hour drive to park headquarters for the permit, another hour further to the trailhead at Lajitas.  There’s really nothing in Lajitas, but I still managed to not find the road the trailhead was supposed to be at the end of.  Stopped and asked directions at the town store, and the first person I asked said “I’ve only been here since September 19, maybe you should ask Natalie.”  It was mid-January, and although I wanted to learn more about how you could not know where everything was in Lajitas in that space of time, I was in a hurry and got directions from Natalie.

Loaded up and hit the unknown trail at 3 pm.  Hiking in, I met a really healthy looking couple on their way out from a day hike.  As is often the case in our National Parks, they were not from the U.S., in this case Namibia.  “This is our favorite hike here; we really love the views.”  I asked how long they’d been here, and they replied “since December 1st.”  Again, an exact date for how long since they’d arrived in Lajitas.  There’s something going on in that town.

Up to the top of “The Saddle,” which is an obvious landmark rising before you as you leave the trailhead.  That’s the steepest part of the Mesa de Anguila hike, and it’s not bad at all.  When you get to the top, before you head off toward where the sun will come up tomorrow morning on the mesa, don’t miss the little trail turning off to the right.  There’s a beautiful view that takes in the bends of the Rio Grande and countless unnamed mesas down Mexico way.  You won’t have any company.Mesa de Anguila 094

“And some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.”

This is the quietest place I’ve ever hiked.  No chirping birds, no planes passing far overhead, no trees to russle leaves in the wind.  Only your thoughts, which can be quite loud at times.  Just before leaving on this trip I’d learned that a friend from years ago had died.  On the day of her funeral, Alice’s sister had said “she just wanted to move on,” and I wondered what had made Alice want to hurry the pace and shorten the trip.

From the top of the mesa I knew of only one trail, and my plan was to walk it as far as I


Map I got at the permit check-in. I added little x’s before and after La Mariposa indicating the best camping spots I saw. Note particularly that the trail down to Santa Elena Canyon passes east of La Mariposa; there is another unmarked trail at that intersection that passes west.

could before I ran out of sunlight.  I had the whole next day to get a feel for the terrain and figure out how far I could go and make it back to my car after a second night out. Generally speaking, on most multi-day backpacking trips I try and walk as far as possible each day, but I have to make sure that where each day ends there is a decent place to pitch a tent.  It’s no good to walk as far as daylight permits and then find yourself half-way up a mountainside trail, which is what I did that evening.

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Where I found myself at sunset.

I suppose I could stay in one place and see and hear and smell all things new to me, but I have to walk.   There is so much to know, and I’m afraid I might miss something if I don’t keep moving.  And so I wondered that first night what had stopped Alice so short?  She still had a lot of ground to cover.

I backtracked a bit to find a flat spot for my tent, but got settled in as the light disappeared and the temperature plummeted.  My bag is rated to 20 degrees, and I was definitely cold.  Freezing in my bag and tired from the long drive, I was late hitting the trail the next morning, but made it to the north bank of the Rio Grande right at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon by noon-ish. Mesa de Anguila 054

The canyon is beautiful, but you can’t really get into it without a boat, and once in you are not coming back.  Check out my visit across the Rio Grande at the Park’s other end along the Marufo Vega Trail (  I dawdled at the river for a light lunch, soaked my feet in the cold, silty water, spritzed a bit, and turned north to head back out.  That’s another part of pacing yourself, remembering that whatever you go down, you eventually have to go back up.

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What I had to go back up.

Once back up on the mesa, I knew where I was going to camp my final night:  the last decent spot I’d seen on my way in, about two hours from the trailhead.  Excited to get back on the road and head back home, I planned to wake a half-hour or so before first light, break camp, and be on the trail as soon as there was enough light to see.  But now in tune with the desert vibe, I was up and about around 4:30 am, and everything you’ve ever heard about the night sky out in the desert is true.  Watched the stars a bit, saw a shooting star, and then had to look down because my brain was freaking as it gradually began to understand the depth of field I was looking at.  There really are more stars in the sky than you can count, or even comprehend.  It hurts your brain once you understand how tiny, tiny you are.

On the trail as soon as I could see it.  I hadn’t realized that up on a mesa, the sun would clear the horizon down below well before it made it above the mesa.  I had a good hour of light before I ever saw the sun.  Walking, pacing myself just right, moving along, I suddenly had to stop.  It was so beautiful, that light.  Like everything was new, and life was just beginning.Mesa de Anguila 065

“Some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.  Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy.”

Why give up looking at those stars and that morning desert before you had to?  It is a strange feeling, to know someone intimately yet not understand what would cause them to hurry things along.  Alice was a professional musician, from a family of professional musicians.  She was alive to all those notes and melodies, so far beyond what I could hope to understand.  I suspect the brief time we spent together was irrelevant to the great arc of her life, but the arc was there, full of infinite possibilities, nonetheless.  Just imagining what she might have discovered, had she allowed herself more time, is awe inspiring.  Like a map full of blank spaces instead of trails, or a night sky full of stars.

Big Bend is beautiful.  In a certain frame of mind, though, you look at it and think “but what does it all mean?”  This is a mountain, that is a sunset, those are all the stars in the sky–but that is all they are.  They don’t, by themselves, mean anything.  And what does it mean that I am here, in this place?  These mountains, this sky, are totally indifferent to my existence.  They just are.  As am I, or Alice.  We have to give ourselves meaning.  And then it can be quite beautiful.

“There are things that come too soon, and some things that come too late.  It’s the best thing to come too early so you have some time to wait.  Oh, have some time to wait.”




I like to take things one step at a time
One foot in front of the other
I like to think things will all work out fine
And follow along behind those
One act play-things can give you a thrill
Guess it depends on the actor
Dreams can come true, but some things never will
As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
I like to take things and make a design
Keep a low profile. Oh and
I like to take things and put them to rhyme
Like those things that are confusing
And the things that seem so clear
And the things that seem so far away
And yet they seem so near
There are some things I have lost
And a few things I have found
Well it’s so hard to keep track of things
There’s so many around
There’s so many around
And there’s things we have to look for
And a few we never find
And we all have things in common
You got your thing, I’ve got mine
And some things they just happen
And some things you can plan
And some of those things you just can’t help
But some of them you can
Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things
Are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
Some things turn out all wrong
And some things turn out all right
Some things don’t turn out at all
But then again they might
There are things that come too soon
And some things that come too late
It’s the best thing to come too early
So you have some time to wait
Oh, have some time to wait
Well it’s hard to talk with words
There’s some things you just can’t say
And it’s best to leave some things alone
In case they go away
You can share some things with friends
There’s some things we’ve all been thru’
Well it’s things like this and things like that
And how are things with you?
Oh, how do you do?
You can hang things on your wall
You can leave your things around
You can mark some things 2001, and put them in the ground
And maybe later on, they will dig them up some day
And ooh and ahh, and ‘how ’bout that?’
Who knows the things they’ll say.

Joe Walsh