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Prickly-pear cactus
Samuel Solomon

An hour later, there is still no sign of human habitation. The sun beats down on my neck and head, making sunblock feel more like cooking grease. I crest hill after hill, scanning the desert with binoculars. Nothing. I can’t see the white speck of my rental car from the bottom of the swells, and without that landmark, the desert seems endlessly repeating. I now understand why people who are lost in the desert walk in circles until they expire.

A mania grips me, a distant echo of the stubbornness shared by the Spaniards who crossed here seeking El Dorado. The big discovery may lie over the next hill, so you climb it, swallow your disappointment, harden your resolve and climb the next. Presumed clues conflate into omens: a rusted-thin metal can, a shard of broken glass, a piece of petrified wood, complete with scorch marks from what I assume was a campfire decades ago.

I look up and see the sky bruised by storm clouds, bringing welcome relief from the heat. Curtains of rain in the distance are moving my way fast. A stab of pale white lightning flicks across the sky, surprisingly close. I recall that bolts can stretch more than a mile before striking ground — and it occurs to me that the wood may have been set ablaze by lightning, not Starr family ranch hands.

By the time I make it back to the road, the first drops of ice-cold rain are falling around me and thunder is booming above. The storm arrives with heavy winds and hail that sounds like gravel on the rental car’s roof. Now I need shelter as well as information. I can get both at the Chisos Basin, a cluster of peaks at the heart of the park. Like the earliest humans, I head to the mountains for
  • Image about Solomon Albert Starr
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Samuel Solomon
safe haven.

The rainstorm peters out as I drive up the winding road, climbing 5,400 feet to reach the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The only hotel in the park, the lodge is located in the shadows of several peaks, including the highest in the park, Emory Peak (7,800 feet). I am only half surprised to see a small black bear — a 2-year-old male, hungry from a long hibernation and lean from years of drought — in the parking lot. Two Japanese children pose in front of it for a picture as it sniffs around on the ground, seeking berries and food left by humans.

The trees decorating the Chisos Basin are a welcome change from the desert bushes, knee-high shrubs and cacti. After the last ice age, the area climate changed, resulting in a forested mountain “sky island” in the Chihuahuan Desert. Now the dry land below is dominated by an endless carpet of thorny plants and hardy flowers, interrupted by tall eerie strands of green ocotillo, standing in green tangles like frozen undersea grass.

The area’s deep remoteness and extreme environment repelled permanent settlement, but those qualities are what make Big Bend a priceless national park today.