Over the course of the past 13 days, I’ve met individuals whose original destination had been Big Bend National Park and whose plans had to change because of the closure of our National Parks; individuals from other states in the U.S. as well as Texans, and citizens of Switzerland, Germany, Finland, France, and Canada, just to name a few. Some came to the area despite knowing of the closure, in hopes it would reopen by the time they arrived; some came to the area not realizing the National Parks would be impacted given that the National Park Service is a Federal agency; and some hadn’t even heard about the goings on in Washington. Of those individuals, the overwhelming majority knew very little or nothing about Big Bend State Park thinking that Big Bend National Park referred to the entire area. A couple traveling from Finland headed here from Austin on September 30 only to be turned away at the entrance. They weren’t aware of the State Park and said no one mentioned it to them as an alternative so they drove to Alpine, spent the night there, and then headed back to the Texas Hill Country. A handful of folks came intentionally to the State Park as they’ve either been here before or they read or heard about it from others. The majority of people I’ve met recently say the only reason they discovered the State Park was because the National Park was closed and, as much as they lament the closing, they would not have found the State Park otherwise.
That said, I have met a handful of folks who intentionally set out for the State Park. One threesome is on a father/ sons’ annual trip. They are Texans and decided three years ago to begin taking an annual trip together. While the National Park was on their itinerary, the heart of their trip was to the State Park because they’d seen it in National Geographic’s feature, “Drives of a Lifetime – 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips; featured on the Motorcycle Roads and Rides of Texas’ website; and because the friend of one of the sons said they had to do it! Danny Snook, Sr. and his sons Danny, Jr. and Dustin hooked up in Uvalde from Abilene, Cedar Hill and San Marcos, respectively. They were leaving the Barton Warnock Center as I was and we began talking about their trip. They started out this morning at the Warnock Center and went to Presidio. Along the way, they stopped at the Contrabando Trailhead as well as Fort Leaton and said all points in between were spectacular. The adjective “spectacular” has been a common descriptor amongst all the people I’ve spoken with these past days. The only change the Snooks had to make to their original itinerary was having to bypass the beautiful US Highway 385 that cuts through National Park lands. Instead they rode to Alpine and came south on 118 – also a beautiful drive. I asked them if they’d hiked any of the Contrabando Trail when they stopped there and, almost in unison, they assured me they were not hikers. I then asked them if they were heading home the same way they came and they’re not – they’re going to go back to Presidio, up to Marfa, Ft. Davis, and Balmorhea before leaving for home. Danny, Sr. said he’d taken his family to Marfa and Balmorhea more than 30 years ago; long before Big Bend State Park was established. We agreed the drive from Marfa to Ft. Davis and Ft. Davis to Balmorhea should also be on the Top 500 list and, for now, they plan on enjoying 2-4-1 burgers at the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua tonight before heading along 170 for the final time – this trip.
One of the other people I’ve met who intentionally came to the State Park is a young woman who is moving from Alabama to California. She told me that she travels a lot and always makes it a point to stay in the State Parks. When I asked her why, she said it had been her experience that they were somewhat less crowded and that the rangers and other staff, as well as local or nearby residents, knew so much more about the area. She’ll be here for two days before continuing west; her next stop is a state park in southern New Mexico. Although she won’t begin exploring until tomorrow, she said the drive in was more beautiful than she expected.
Inside the Warnock Center there was a flurry of activity. Warnock is the state park station where I get my daily permits when I head into the park and it’s also the center where I volunteer. On many days, the only cars in the parking lot are those of the rangers. Today the parking lot was crowded and there were upwards of 25 people in the gift shop/ office. I looked at the visitor book and there were six pages of names since October 1 compared to only four pages for July through October 1. Signing the visitor book certainly isn’t a requirement but it’s a good measure. The comparison in visitors to BBRSP the first two weeks of October 2012 and the first two weeks of October 2013 are expected to be staggering. The staff at Warnock has been busier than they’ve ever been and one of the rangers said they’ve been coming in around 5:00 each morning just to get things ready.
Their seasonal volunteers, Rita & Tom Lawton, arrived yesterday. Their timing couldn’t have been better. When I got there today, they were busy restocking the shelves of t-shirts, cards, caps and other memorabilia while the rangers were issuing permits (including special use permits) and speaking with newcomers to the park to help them decide on the best hikes based on their abilities, interests, and time in the park. One difference at Big Bend Ranch State Park as opposed to some of the other Texas state parks is that Special Use Permits are required for many of the sites. One of the aspects of the park that sets it aside from others is its rugged beauty – and that rugged beauty exists for many reasons, one of which is the extreme elements of the Chihuahuan Desert. Each individual who is issued one of these permits is asked to step on the backside of the permit so that a boot print will be on file should they run into trouble. It’s a safety precaution and a sensible measure.
While talking with Tom and Rita, I overheard numerous visitors ask about Closed Canyon. As I mentioned yesterday, Closed Canyon is one of the magnificent, if short, features of the Park. The rangers were quick to point out how important it is to look at the sky and forecast before heading in, as it is on any trail in the desert, but especially here. You can literally stand with your arms outstretched and touch both sides of the slot canyon. I know that for me, my arms won’t even extend their full width. It’s part of what makes it so incredible but also something to take seriously if rain is in the forecast. If you’ve never seen footage of a flash flood in a slot canyon, you might want to check it out. Antelope Canyon in Arizona had a massive flash flood this summer and footage of it is easy to find on the Internet.
Back to Tom and Rita. They have volunteered at Big Bend State Park for the past 7 years, typically arriving around the 2nd week of October and leaving the first part of April. They’re from Wisconsin but call South Dakota home. “If you can call it home,” said Tom, “we’re really all over the place in between.” Other parks at which they volunteer are Nails Creek State Park in Burton, Texas and Government Canyon State Natural Area near San Antonio. I know the staff at the Warnock Center has probably never been happier to see two people walk through their doors.
A serious storm was brewing on my way out of the park. Storms can arise as quickly as they can disappear in the desert – like a child’s fever – and I hope the visitors who were interested in Closed Canyon heeded the ranger’s advice.
Tomorrow I’m off to do my volunteer work at Barton Warnock and the following day I hope to get to the ranger station at Sauceda. They’ve issued more camping permits for the area than ever and I hope to speak with some of the backpackers and campers as well as the staff.
As I rounded the last bend toward Terlingua, the clouds had obliterated the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend National Park much like the government shut down has obliterated peoples’ right and privilege to experience these magnificent places. The employees and friends of Big Bend National Park, many of who are my neighbors, are frustrated beyond belief. While The National Park Service is charged with the trust of preserving the natural resources of America, these Park employees have their hands tied. The majority of these individuals are passionate about Big Bend and have made it their life’s work; that it is also their life’s joy is readily apparent. One staff member told me that there is nothing more frustrating than to know how many people have come here, from all over the world, only to be denied entrance to this masterpiece. She said, “We could assemble enough volunteers to staff this park within hours and we could maintain that indefinitely but that’s not an option. It’s shameful that we have to remain shut down and deny so many the gift that is Big Bend National Park.”
As I sat down to write this, I looked out my window and saw a double rainbow over Emory Peak – the highest point in the Chisos Mountains. A double rainbow purportedly symbolizes a transformation. I hope the hearts and minds of those in Washington can be transformed so that an end can soon be put to this tragedy; the National Parks, Monuments and Memorials being only one aspect. If we look for the pot of gold in every misfortune, however, the discovery of more than one treasure in the Big Bend area would be at the top of the list. There is magnificence all around us. As the musician and artist, Butch Hancock, says – what a planet.
Sharron Reed is a resident of Terlingua, Texas and a correspondent for KRTS, Marfa Public Radio.