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Another Magical Day in Big Bend

By | March 30, 2009
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Waking up at the Chisos Mountains Lodge in Big Bend National Park this morning was refreshing for both body and mind. The early morning sun was pristine and soft, beckoning all to take full advantage of a spring day in the park. The chatty cactus wrens around the parking lot seemed to be excited as I felt about the day ahead.

After breakfast, we set off on a hike near the lodge, enjoying the brisk air while the sun was still at a low angle in the sky. The Chisos Mountains rise like a verdant island in a brown desert sea, offering pine trees and cool morning and late afternoon air. I’m constantly amazed at how well Smithsonian travelers hike. Bill, 73, had a knee replacement less than a year ago and walks with no limp or pole, leaving me hopeful that I’ll be hiking as well at that age. Hiking in the Chisos on a gorgeous spring day like today leaves one feeling exceptionally privilegedlike there is no better place to be in this world on that particular day. While on the hike we spot a roadrunner, several rabbits, a horned toad, and two javelinas (Spanish for peccary).

The Tour Manager Leslie Stoltz is exceptional in both dealing with the people and passing along her knowledge of the park’s birds, flora, and fauna. She could easily have been the Study Leader for this tour. As a geologist, I always appreciate working with someone who can add a different perspective on the land, giving the participants a more well-rounded understanding of the places we visit.

After lunch we set off for Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande emerges from a spectacular limestone gorge onto the relatively flat Big Bend plains. Returning here is always exciting, especially hiking the easy, well-maintained trail that enters the canyon, revealing the massive limestone beds that tell of an inundating sea over Texas during the Cretaceous period. Fossils are everywhere in the limestone. Living things also love the river-canyon setting, from flaming Ocotillo cacti to invasive bamboo and salt cedar. As we hike we watch a canoe gently navigate the calm waters at the mouth of the canyon.

After our exploration of Santa Elena Canyon, we visited several roadside stops with impressive vistas and bizarre volcanic rock formations. We continued on to our dinner destination in the always amusing, hippie-biker-artist town of Lajitas, just outside the park’s western boundary. Fortunately we arrived just in time to order prickly-pear cactus margaritas, and enjoy some local culture and funky architecture before our dinner reservation. The late afternoon sun seemed tired and hazy, nothing like its youthful eagerness in the morning. My body felt the same way…

After a superb dinner, including musical entertainment, we boarded the bus for a quiet ride back to our Chisos Lodge retreat. After a long day of taking full advantage of the park, I think everyone was content to just look out the window and watch the desert gradually disappear into nightfall. A fearless coyote watched our bus pass from the side of the road. Really, it is the coming of night when most of the desert wildlife begin their “day.” The bus driver knows this, and proceeds with high beams and caution so as to avoid any unfortunate encounters. Tomorrow will be our last day in the park, another full day of desert sights and sounds. Surely, it can’t match our experience today. But then I’ve said this twice before in the last three days!

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Kirt Kempter

Kirt Kempter is a Fulbright Fellow and Ph.D. graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, where he conducted his dissertation research on Rincón de la Vieja volcano in Costa Rica. For the past 11 years Kirt has worked for the New Mexico STATEMAP program, studying the geologic history of northern New Mexico. Kirt is also an instructor for the NASA astronaut training program, teaching NASA’'s 2009 astronaut candidates geologic mapping techniques in northern New Mexico. Since 1993 Kirt has led numerous educational tours for the Smithsonian Institution, from Iceland to Antarctica.

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