Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Big Bend National Park 2010 - Greatest Family Vacation Ever!

We all have memories, and lots of them. Most are benign. “Last time I turned on the shower and walked in immediately, the water was cold. I should wait until it warms up this time.” But I believe that there are a handful of a select few memories we accumulate in our lives that really make a lasting impression on us. I don’t mean that we simply remember them until we die, I mean they permanently change the direction of the path we’re traveling in life. They force us to self-evaluate and learn more about ourselves…what makes me happy, what are my priorities, what do I want to accomplish, what do I truly ‘need’ in life, what do I wish I could change in my life? In other words, “Who am I and where am I going?” For me, this trip was one of those memories. It was one I’ll never forget. And it was amazing.

Pardon the philosophical meanderings. I’ll chalk it up to a Big Bend hangover. We can only live in the now, but I hope this was the first of many such memories with my family. I want to accumulate as many positive, life-changing memories as I can before I die. I’ll touch more on that at the end of this, but for now, let’s get to the more proximate, short-term highlights of this incredible trip.

Here are some quick stats to start off, or as I like to call it:

Inside the numbers:
Miles driven: 1,400+
Shaded temp at mid-day: 100 F
No. of pictures taken: 578 (145 by Melanie, 433 by me)
No. of bird species positively identified: 46
No. of reptile species found: 11+
No. of bee stings: 2 (Melanie’s was much worse than mine)
Most hours spent in the park in one day: 13.5
No. of whining kids who were afraid to hike up steep mountains and through hot desert valleys in 100+ F heat: 0

First off, I’m a biology and science dork, so of course a place like Big Bend with all its unique features will appeal to me. But when the first words out of an accountant’s mouth are, “Wow, this is really cool,” that should speak volumes of how incredible Big Bend is. Phrases like that were one of the first things Melanie said when we got there. She said it multiple times on the trip. So did I. So did the boys.

I’m not a great bird watcher, so many species were left as ‘unidentifiable.’ Irks me to not be able to ID them (I think of it as solving a puzzle, which is fun for me), but there were a lot that were new to me but I couldn’t figure out. Of those 46 I could positively identify, 14 species were ones I hadn’t seen before. That was cool. We saw some cool herps, most common were the whiptail lizards (no pics). There are multiple species of whiptails in the park and I can’t ID them without having in-hand, hence the 11+ count. I’m counting it as at least 1 species, but probably a couple more. We did find one species of snake that I had never seen before (Trans-Pecos Rat Snake), which was pretty cool for me. The boys thought the lizards were all pretty cool and Brady was really good at finding them.

Cophosaurus texanus - Southwestern Earless Lizard

They also got to see their first Texas Horned lizards in the wild as we found some in an area just west of San Angelo on the drive out there. Got some DNA samples for a project that I’m helping to collect data. :) The boys thought the rattlesnakes were pretty cool (they stayed in the truck) and got to hear it rattle when it dashed away from me while trying to take a picture. I did get some good pics of a young one.

Day 1
On the first evening being there, we basically drove around and got an idea of where we wanted to hit for the next 2 days. We drove all around the south side and did a short amount of exploring. We drove back to our cabin after the sun had set and stopped to get pics of snakes: one Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (no pics, Melanie spotted it but it darted off too quickly), a huge Bullsnake, and a Trans-Pecos Rat Snake. It took a lot of restraint to not grab the rat snake to get better pictures! (Because it’s a National Park, handling any specimens is illegal. I don’t need marks on my record if I were caught handling anything given that my job requires getting permits for research!)

Pituophis melanoleucus - Bullsnake

Bogertophis subocularis - Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

Day 2
On our first full day, we hit some of the major overlooks on the Ross Maxwell scenic drive. We also hiked down to an old abandoned ranch (Blue Creek/Homer Wilson Ranch) in one of the valleys (Blue Creek/Red Rocks canyon trail).

It was a hot, but short hike. The boys were pretty excited on the hike, which was a good sign for us—didn’t want to force them to hike, so having them excited about it meant that we’d be able to see a lot more stuff without a fuss. From there, we went down to Santa Elena Canyon and had lunch. We hiked the 1.7 mile trail, which included going up and over a pretty high overlook to get back down into the canyon. Both the overlook and canyon were really impressive. Brady loved it, but Alex had to be carried a bit on the hard parts. I was still impressed given the temps and how difficult climbing up was…the boys did great.

View into Santa Elena Canyon. Note the 3 hikers in the lower right for scale.

Looking up from within Santa Elena Canyon.

Our super little 3 year old hiker!

Canoes on the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon.

View looking out when climbing back out of the Canyon. You can see my red truck on the left.

We then spent the rest of the day in the High Chisos Mountains walking around the Basin. Lightning rolled in, so we had to call it an abbreviated day. I also found out on this day that a license plate that says LIZARDS arouses the suspicion of park rangers…had to answer some questions a ranger had for me regarding just how much I liked lizards and what exactly I was doing in the park. Personally, I’d rather get grilled with questions than have lack of regulation of illegal collecting. I was actually relieved by this.

Day 3
With a shortened day, and resting up the previous night, we hit it hard on the second full day! We started in the Chisos Basin in the morning and hiked up into the mountains.

Brady was phenomenal…I could hardly keep up with him. Alex was pretty impressive for an almost 3 year old. I don’t think we ran across anyone that didn’t say “Wow, I can’t believe you guys are up here hiking like this for your age.” They were paid lots of compliments and they liked that everyone thought they were ‘cool’ for hiking. After a little over a mile on the way up, Alex was tired but Brady didn’t want to quit. Melanie and Alex walked back down and Brady and I continued on for about another mile. It was an excellent time and it was clear to me that he and I are really going to have some epic hikes as he gets older.

Brady didn’t even mention his legs getting tired until we got back down from the mountain after a good 2-3 hours of hiking in elevation. But he and Alex scarfed down some Fun Dip candy (i.e., pure sugar) at the bottom of the trail and they were ready to hike again! We grabbed lunch and then started up another long hike in the mountains toward Emory Peak/Boot Canyon. It was great and had some really good views and lots of really neat birds. I was hoping to see a Colima Warbler (a Big Bend specialty), but no such luck. The boys, once again, were quite impressive with their hiking abilities. And most importantly, they were loving it!

After the Chisos Basin, we drove down toward Rio Grande Village campsite and went to Boquillas Canyon.

We hiked this trail during the heat of the day, so it was a slow journey. We made frequent shade stops so the boys could get water. They were hot, but were having a lot of fun laughing and running. We made it to the canyon which was neat, but not nearly as cool as Santa Elena Canyon. At the end of the trail, the Rio Grande is really narrow. The boys were throwing rocks into the river, so I told them to throw one as far as they could. They each made it just past the halfway point in the river, so I told them they just threw a rock into Mexico. They thought that was pretty cool. After Boquillas Canyon, we went to Rio Grande Village picnic area for a dinner of sandwiches. We saw some cool birds, including Vermillion Flycatchers (one of the brightest birds we have in the U.S.).
He wouldn't sit still, so this is the best shot I got that shows how bright the orange/red is.

We hiked up a steep slope and saw a whipsnake, a beautiful Blue Grosbeak (they are pretty common around there), and had a great view of the valley.
Blue Grosbeak

But it was getting a little steep on the trail edges for our comfort level with the boys, so we headed back down. We drove to Hot Springs next and the boys got to put their feet in it and yes, more rock throwing into the Rio Grande (rock throwing is one of their favorite past times). The rock formations at Hot Springs were really neat and we saw lots of Canyon Wren nests.

Rock formations at Hot Springs

Canyon Wren nests

Canyon Wren

There were also some old abandoned buildings from the 40s—an old store and hotel. These were some of Melanie’s favorite places from the trip. We also saw the mother of all palm trees, actually about 4-5 palm trees in one cluster. If you stood in the middle, it was like a cathedral overhead. It was very cool.

Looking up inside the palm 'cathedral.'

To conclude the day, we drove back up to the Chisos Basin, got a few sunset pictures and then headed back to the cabin. A total of 13.5 hours in the park and not one complaint from the boys.

Day 4
On our last morning, we packed up all our stuff from the cabin. I say cabin, but it’s really a mobile home trailer at a place called Wildhorse Station in Terlingua (just outside the park). If you ever visit Big Bend, I HIGHLY recommend you stay here. Although simple, it was a great place to go back to at night that felt a little bit like home. I think this ‘home’ feeling went a long way with Melanie and the boys. And when it’s 100+ degrees, it was nice to be there and showered in the morning instead of in a tent. I particularly enjoyed the peaceful mornings on the porch listening to the Black-throated Sparrows.

After leaving Wildhorse, we decided to drive back to the park and then leave via the north entrance/exit…we hadn’t even sniffed the north side of the park, so we at least wanted to drive through it. On our way out, we saw several roadkill Desert Spiny lizards (a beautiful lizard when alive), a Texas Horned lizard, and a small diamondback rattlesnake. I got some great pictures of the rattlesnake as he/she just laid there and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. The only hard part was making sure I wasn’t roadkill from other vehicles.

After leaving the park, it was back to Fort Worth. The boys travel so well, so it was really nice. No major meltdowns from kids or parents! We made frequent stops to stretch the legs which slowed us down a lot, but the trade off was that everyone stayed relatively happy the whole way home. The only unhappy part was that this amazing family experience was coming to a conclusion.

And on that note, I’d like to conclude this long-winded post by coming back to my philosophical meanderings I touched on at the beginning. On the drive home, Melanie asked each of the boys what their favorite part was and then I asked her the same. We went around saying what each of us liked the most. Spending time together was the obvious one that we all agreed upon, but the boys had multiple answers for more Big Bend specific items: the mountains, birds, snakes and lizards, etc. When it came to my turn for a Big Bend specific feature, my answer will probably surprise most of you that know me. As much as I love herps and birds, my favorite part of Big Bend was the geology. I had been thinking about the geology when we first arrived. It stood out to me. Here, you have these massive features with exposed layers of rock. These once nearly-horizontal layers were now essentially vertical in many places. The force of the tectonic plates smashing into each other had to be amazing. I’m not a geologist, but I think these mountains were formed at the time of the Marathon Plate, about 300 million years ago. Despite erosion and weathering trying their best to make these massive structures ‘less impressive’ over time, there they stood, 300 million years later, still impressive as ever. But this is a point I try to get across to students in biology class, most people really do not understand just how long 300 million years really is. A lot can happen in that much time. Look at it this way: think of how short 1 second is compared to 1 year; it’s nothing, not even a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. But if I asked you to stare at a clock for 1 million seconds, you’d be sitting there for 11.5 days. If I asked you to stare at a clock for 300 million seconds, you’d be sitting there for almost 9.5 years. Think of how much can happen in those 9.5 years, especially if you were only alive for 90 seconds or less of it. What’s the point of these geological musings? Our human life span is virtually nothing from this perspective. It may seem like a long time, but it’s not; our lives are over almost as soon as they start. We don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. And here I was, in an even shorter time span—only 4 days out of my already short-life—and I was as happy and content as I have ever been. I was spending time in an amazing place with my family. You can draw your own inferences as to what you see as important, but what I took out of this was a realization of how happy I can be in such a brief glimpse of time and how other things pale in comparison to these events. Times like these, they won’t last forever. And time is always changing; I won’t ever be able exactly recreate that same feeling I had at Big Bend, but I look forward to adding new life-changing memories similar to this one before my blink-of-an-eye life in this universe is up. And I’ve got the best family I could ask for to travel along that path with me.

A complete set of my Big Bend photos can be found here:

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