Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park
Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional.
By Brooke Williams
Three camper-backed trucks are parked a the exhibit turn out off of north-running Highway 385 in Big Bend, National Park, which seems strange. We thought no one was here. It is late January. We’ve seen no blooming plants and very few birds in our two gentle days. The trucks are empty and no one is standing at the interpretive sign. The truck’s occupants must be out hiking as this pull out is, according to the guidebook, the parking area for the Dog Canyon Hike.
Dog Canyon can be seen on the horizon… a deep crack (a cut, a scar, a fissure, anything but a canyon!) as if the time-eaten rock forming the horizon had been bent too far—beyond its breaking point. Dog Lake will no longer be the name of this place. I will call it Dog Gash.
Three people, I’m sure belonging to those campers, appear in the distance. By the time we’ve pulled and filled our packs the hikers are near enough for us to see that they are older, fit, and—by the way they move and their hiking poles, lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and big-brimmed hats—comfortable with this desert, these distances.
We’ve been talking to everyone and everyone seems comfortable talking to us. It’s as if we all share three things: we’re not from here; this desert has lured us here; we’re not sure exactly why.
By hearing ourselves speak to one another we might hear clues coming out of us.
Five of us gather where their hike ends and ours begins. The two women are open and friendly, energetic with the glow from a six mile walk in perfect weather. The man is serious. We find out quickly that they are volunteers for the Park Service—living in their campers, they answer questions at information desks, pick up trash, sell guidebooks, maps, and tee-shirts, and issue permits at the Visitor Center’s that seem to have been carved into this desert.
The serious man is all business.
Do you have water?
3 three quarts.
Yes. That too.
Although I pride myself in the comfort I feel wandering in the desert, I consider it bad luck to ignore another’s warning.
You know it’s four hours?
No, I lie. Thank you.
Of the packs, his is the largest and I wonder about a gun.
We all smile. Terry and I turn toward the gash in the horizon and begin.
A grey, hard-panned surface spreads in every direction. I’m wondering if we find our own way across the desert expanse to Dog Gash when a footpath appears through a small patch of dried plants, suggesting a trail. Or at least a route. I prefer routes to trails. Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional. Routes are prompts for our own creative wanderings. Seductions. In some cases, routes provide security, comfort when needed. Routes are suggestions. The Dog Gash ‘trail’ is really a route.
Some routes are marked by cairns, and cairns have been ‘built’ along the route to Dog Gash. I use the word, ‘built’ loosely, because these cairns are nothing more than piles of stones.
I like the art of stacking stones and where better to practice my art than here, where the cairns—whatever they might once have been—need significant work.
The stones are perfect, some long, all of them with angles surfaces, which with the right touch and patience, I’m able to turn random piles into statues.
I follow one to the next, stopping, kneeling on the hard desert, creating structure from chaos.
After reforming three cairns, I move along the route into a vast field of creosote. These plants define this desert. They can be shoulder-high or shorter than one’s knees, and evenly spaced or random as if dropped from high in the sky. All of which depends on the source of water from which they draw. Creosote roots exude a toxic substance which keeps other plants at bay, from competing for valuable moisture. It is these distances these brilliant plants have created between themselves through which I follow the route, cairn to cairn. Creosote exudes the “scent of the desert” which I breathe in knowing that I am much better having done so.
Terry has moved on out of sight. Looking down, I notice that my path is sidewalk smooth and I stop to shed my shoes and socks. In the months since I walked barefooted outdoors, I’ve missed it. My feet are white and tender and marked by creases left by my socks. I’ve read about the benefits of walking barefooted—the chemical exchange of important ions; the massaging of points on one’s feet which are connected to our various organs. I don’t need to believe any of that to know that walking barefooted makes me happy. I stuff my shoes and socks in my pack, take three glorious steps, calculating: If walking barefooted feels this good, walking naked will be that times ten. Or twenty. I look around to be sure I’m alone, as I would feel sorry for anyone accidently seeing what six decades of time and distance can do to a body.
Dressed in my floppy hat, I move like liquid across the desert. I stop to re-build six cairns. The February sun is perfect, its beams hitting my pale body at such a low angle they’re deflected rather than absorbed. Pinching my skin, I find no redness. The route, which has been straight and directly east, turns south and winds between creosote which grow closer together here, suggesting they share more abundant water. The trail roughens and the small stones and sharp sticks require more of my attention. It turns sharply west and becomes tube-like as it drops into the large wash through which water running over the eons has created Dog Gash. Terry is there, waiting.
She laughs briefly at my naked state and we walk toward the gash which becomes a portal between two worlds. There are many rocks, which although rounded from ten thousand floods, are too much for my just-born feet.
Now with shoes (no socks) I follow her toward the Gash. We stop in bank shade to eat and drink and glimpse a small bird on a dead branch. A wren, its white eyebrow telling us it’s Bewick’s and not Rock Wren or Canyon Wren. Two insects buzz around us and across the wash a brilliant orange butterfly surfs an invisible breeze. Terry makes notes in her journal and I get up and move.
As I enter the gash the air thickens, compressed by the rock walls rising high above the dry wash on both sides. The gash is filled with shade and the cool air charges my skin. I wander along in a trance, wondering how I would explain this place to someone from another planet or Omaha.
A million stones of different sizes and colors and shapes pave the creek bed. I pick up those with the most unique shapes and notice they are all the same color—a pink shade of white, not grey or beige. What could shape have to do with color? Two ravens croak high in the cliffs where a cloud casts a boat-like shadow.
Terry joins me where I’m sitting on a sandy bench looking out over it all. We don’t say much, but watch time pass slowly in front of us as if it has taken on form and color.
Chilled, we get up and move back through the gash, sensing that the end to this short day is closer than we think.
Terry’s shoes come off when the trail smoothes. We walk slowly, nowhere else to be, two miles to go. I work on three more cairns. Terry follows a small brown bird. A large beetle recently crossed our path, I can tell by its tracks.
The sun melts on the horizon, spreading bright color along it. I stop to put on my clothes, which feel like they belong to someone else.
Looking north, in the fading sunlight, I can see where a massive chunk of rock has fallen from a cliff, and smashed into white powder on the dark talus slope below. I swear that it happened today, while we were in Dog Gash. I’ll find out later the rock fell in 1987.
The shadows grow as we move through the creosote. Tomorrow, we’ll head south toward the Rio Grand. We’ll see Mexico across the river and the creosote will be starting to bloom there, as the spring will be further along. I’ll wonder if I’ll be older there—further along—and long for Dog Gash where I can be young again.