By Mikhail Orlov
Having worked in the outdoor industry for almost 10 years, I often have people tell me that they envy my opportunity to play with the latest outdoor products and gadgets, to travel and hike far away places and to watch or hunt exotic animals or birds. However, truth be told, their perception is only partially correct. I do have the opportunity to put my hands on some of the latest outdoor products, but my experience has been that the work-life balance is more of a wish than reality because of the time and demands of running a company.
When we launched Webyshops, we wanted to put into practice things we strongly believe in. Living out the “work-life” principle is at the core of the process. It begins with connecting with the outdoors by taking the time to explore your own “back yard” and gradually expand to other “cool” places beyond your town, state or country. Secondly, connecting with other people – people who share the passion for the outdoors and all the different recreational activities that it offers, such as hiking, backpacking, bird-watching, mountain climbing, rafting, hunting and fishing just to name a few.
Although I have lived and worked in Texas for the past 14 years, I had never been to Big Bend National Park until this past weekend. I had heard about the hiking, rafting and backpacking opportunities, but have been put off by the 9 hour drive and lack of familiarity with the terrain AND the fear of all the crawling desert creatures. But when a good friend mentioned to me that he had a friend that had been there 25 times and would volunteer to be our guide, I put all of my reservations aside. So, on a recent Friday morning at 6:30 a.m. we jumped into his Suburban and headed west.
When you travel with people who share similar passions as you, time seems to pass more quickly. The 9 hour drive flew by with us listening to Terry ‘s (our more experienced friend/guide) stories of his different hikes and trips he has taken for the last 30 years, from backpacking in the Chisos mountains in Big Bend (where we were heading) to sea-kayaking in Costa Rica. For lunch, we stopped at KD Barbeque in Midland, Texas – a “must eat” place if travelling from DFW and have a craving for good BBQ.
We arrived at Chisos Mountain Lodge Campgrounds around 4:30 in the afternoon and immediately set off on a “Window” hike – a leisurely 4-mile round -trip hike to a picture perfect view of Big Bend from a water spillway that cuts between two of the mountains forming a perfect V. While the temperature was a Texas cool 70 degrees, I could tell that with the elevation gain and the sun being out in full force, a good bunch of sunscreen was going to be a “must”. I also brought my trusted Maui Jim’s Big Cahuna sunglasses. When travelling to Big Bend or any other arid places, good polarized sunglasses are essential if you want to see all the different hues and the fine details of the beautiful nature surrounding. Take my word on it: you don’t want to be squinting your way through the trip. I also decided to finally tryout my Vibram Five Finger KSO’s. I have been wearing them around the house for a few days and was itching to put them to the test. I was concerned whether 3.5mm rubber sole would be sufficient to absorb the rocks of Big Bend and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the they performed. If you have sensitive feet or simply do not have experience in walking barefoot at least some of the time – I would recommend practicing for a week or two walking on grass and slowly graduating to rocky terrain.
As we hiked down to the “window” (it’s a gradual descent from the parking lot to the spot, so you need to save some energy for a hike back up) we ran into a husband and wife that looked like they just went for a leisurely stroll in the city park. They wore white tennis shoes, tube socks and “Huckleberry Finn” straw hats. (You get the picture?) As we passed them, they told us to watch out for a BIG bear. They told us with smiles on their faces how BIG the bear was and how CLOSE he was to the trail. We told them “thanks” and carried on wondering whether the bear was real or not. Five more minutes into the hike, a solo middle-aged hiker strolled by telling us that he had to turn back before reaching the Window because he saw a BIG bear. He passed us so quickly that we did not get a chance to ask him any details. But a short time later we ran into his friend who told us that his partner turned around and left him behind. He asked to join our group to try to sneak with us past the bear to the Window. At this point, we were starting to wonder if this bear thing was an urban legend. “Maybe there is a sign at the end of the trail that says: “Tell all the hikers you pass on the way back to the campground that you saw a BIG bear.”?
The trail winds through the canyon, dipping up and down with changes in the elevations. In one such dip, where the trees formed a canopy over the trails and surrounding rocks, is where we were told by the “straggler” the bear was hiding. It took us a couple of seconds to spot him. It WAS a black bear sitting next to a large rock about 15 yards off the trail, sniffing the air and gently rocking back and forth. It looked like he had just awakened from a deep sleep and was gathering his spirit to get up and on with his day. We thankfully passed him in one piece, and were also relieved that we were not the butt of a bad joke after all. Terry said that in his 25 trips to Big Bend, this was his first encounter with the black bear and it made us feel special to have been a part of this rare sighting. The Window was a short distance down from where the bear was sitting and when we got to it, we could see the valley opening up several hundred feet below us to the west side of Big Bend. It was as if we just landed on some foreign planet and were looking trough the window of our spaceship on the rugged landscape below. The spot is likely any photographer’s dream.
The hike back to the campground was uneventful and the bear was already gone by the time we passed the same spot. Spring is beautiful in Big Bend. Cacti were flowering and agave plants were growing these tree-like stalks with flowers and seeds on top that looked like something out of sci-fi movies. We read later that these stalks and flowers are the last act of life for an agave plant, when it spends all the energy that it stores up over they years to send the shoot to the sky to be pollinated by bats and then die.
Not fully separated from civilization, we grabbed our “last supper” at the lodge (they have a great menu) and pitched our tents on a campground by 9 pm. Not far from us, a group of Harley Davidson riders made their camp for the night. They sat around their fire, modern day “cowboys”, singing songs to an acoustic guitar, their iron “horses” neatly parked nearby with a “supplies wagon” bringing up the rear. I kept waiting for the playful shrill of the harmonica that never came. Tired from the drive and full of first impressions of the hike to the Window, we crashed immediately, eager to get up the next morning for more exploring.
When you camp in the mountains, be prepared, regardless of the forecast. Big Bend greeted us with 70 degree temperatures and cool breezes, when we arrived. Once the sun set, however, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees and the winds turned into snappy gusts that tried all night long to take the rain fly off our tents. Sometime in the night, they succeeded – followed by a morning shower that left the outside of our sleeping bags soaking wet.
The morning came early. We ate cold cereal, packed our daypacks with sandwiches and gorp, put up our camp and drove to our launch point for the hike. The night before, Terry told us about Emory Peak, the highest point in the park and we were giddy about tackling it first thing in the this morning. My feet were slightly sore from wearing the Five Fingers the day before, so I opted for my 5.11 Tactical Coyote boots instead. They are light, have great ankle support and also have unique quick lace up feature, which allows you to put them on and off quickly and with minimum effort.
As we stood at the trailhead and looked up at the pursuit ahead, a sense of awe and self-doubt quietly crept into our minds. The rock formations of the peak jutted out from above already fairly steep mountainsides that were covered with thick brush and other vegetation. You could not see the switchbacks and I started to wonder if we bit off a little too much for our first hike in the Chisos. Terry assured us that he has done the climb many times before and he told us to just pace ourselves as we worked our way to the top.
Not a 100 yards from our starting point we came upon 2 young deer horsing around in the morning sun. Accustomed to the visitors in the park, they looked at us with no fear and kept on hopping around the rocks and cacti encouraging us to do the same. The first mile and a half was very gradual in its ascent and looking back at the campground below, we were surprised by how fast we were able to gain elevation. On the way up, we passed several groups of birders. Decked out in what looked like safari gear, they usually with them a tripod with a large spotting scope, a couple SLR cameras for digiscoping and every member had a binocular dangling from a bino harness. These were serious folks for most of them were equipped either with Zeiss or Leica birding binoculars, Swarowski or Nikon spotting scopes and the rest of their gadgets were obviously not from Walmart. Big Bend is a great place to come bird watching. Some of the species are unique to the area, such as the Mexican duck, the Lucifer hummingbird, the Mexican jay, the black-capped and gray vireos, and the Colima warbler.
As we climbed higher and got closer to the rock formations, the switchbacks became steeper and we had to make more stops just to catch our breath. At each one of these stops, we would look back through the brush to an ever widening view of the park below us, campground becoming smaller and smaller, valleys and mountains of Big Bend stretching further and further with every step up. If you are not an experienced hiker/climber, your mind may end up playing tricks on you. From the moment that we stood at the trailhead, the goal of reaching the top seemed insurmountable or at least very distant. And yet, with every stop, it was equally hard to believe that we were covering so much distance and elevation in such a short time. This reflection gave us renewed confidence to keep pushing forward reinforced by the ever more beautiful views from the higher elevations.
At the 3 mile point, we reached what felt like the top of the mountain only to find a fork in the road that gave options to either continue with our ascent to the top of Emory Peak or stay leveled and proceed to another hike around the Southern Rim of the Chisos. We took this a sign to pause, break out our sandwiches and get a short rest before venturing on. We also decided to put our daypacks into the bear lockers and finish the final part of the climb with only carrying water. The park rangers and the volunteers at Big Bend have done a tremendous job in creating and maintaining the system of trails in the park that sometimes borders on having too much civilization present. Yet it makes the hikes and climbs much more pleasurable and we felt grateful for the wonderful work that they have done. When you look at the stone stairs that the rangers and the volunteers have created by carefully chiseling out the rocks and cementing them together with what looked like color matched mortar, you cannot help but be blown away by the scale and enormity of work that went into creation of the trail system. The area is very rugged, the stones are heavy and it looked like 99% of all the work was done by hand. Simply amazing.
The last part of the climb called for 1.2 miles of hiking to the top and yet this short distance proved to have some of the toughest spots on the hike compared to what we encountered so far. The stairs got steeper, the rocks sharper and only the closeness of the goal kept our feet moving. When we set off on the hike, the skies were clear, but by the time we were getting closer to the summit, a few clouds started to roll in below us. We have all seen the clouds from the comfort of a window seat on an airplane, but when you see the cloud gently sliding up the slope of a mountain as if a giant white slug climbing a rock, it’s hard to remain unmoved.
The top of the Emory Peak is crowned with a solar panel and radio antennae. We pulled out our cell phones out of simple curiosity to see if they would work (they did not work even by the main lodge in the center of the park) and sure enough we had reception. We had to climb to 7800 feet to be able to talk on our cell phone in the middle of the lunar landscapes miles from civilization. It was somewhat ironic, but we ended up calling our loved ones just to say we made it. The last 10-20 yards to the top is somewhat of a bouldering event, but does not require any tools or support. One just has to be careful with foot placement and remember the path up, for climbing down is actually the hardest part. We sat at the top for a few minutes admiring the view and still not fully believing that we made it. I now know the appeal of summiting described by avid climbers and mountaineers: you feel a sense of accomplishment for you conquered not just the mountain but also something inside yourself. You feel intimate with the mountain for it allowed you to see the most sacred view from the top. You feel the high of adrenaline – all the ingredients of a “healthy addiction” are present.
We took the “long way” down and by the time we got to our truck, it was close to 5 pm and it was time to set up camp and think about supper. For our second camping spot Terry took us to Cottonwood campground – a spot located on the western side of the park. The night was quickly approaching and our stomachs were growling. Terry’s wife has packed one very mean meatloaf in the cooler and witnessing Terry cook it up in a Dutch oven surrounded by 20 smoldering pieces of charcoal was better than any food tv show that I have ever seen. After an 11 mile hike to a top of a 7800 foot mountain, nothing felt better than a homemade meatloaf and good cold beer. The gear geek in me also got a chance to pop the top off a cold one with the help of my Leatherman Flare. Nice.
The next morning we did what felt almost like a ritual by this time: ate our cereal, packed our sandwiches, broke camp and drove out in pursuit of new adventures. On the list for the day were trips to Santa Elena Canyon, Cattail Falls and if we had time, a soak in the Hot Springs on the bank of the Rio Grande.
The Santa Elena hike is a short 2-3 miler that crosses over a tributary over Rio Grande and goes into the body of the canyon via a man made path. The canyon is one of the most picturesque sites in the park. It is visible from 10 miles away and is the opening for the Rio Grande as it enters the park after flowing between the cliffs for several miles. Terry, the avid kayaker, told us that next time we should paddle through it. There were river beaver tracks in the canyon and a few very loud splashes on the water told us the fishermen in us that there is a possibility for same fun hunt for a river monster. The literature talks about prehistoric alligator gar as one of the dominant species, but as we found out later, Rio Grande also has some large catfish in it.
Our second stop was Cattail Falls. It’s another relatively easy hike – approximately 4 miles round trip that starts off from an unmarked dirt road and goes to the foothills of the Chisos. The high-point of the hike are the many waterfalls at the base of the mountains that are tucked away and are not visible until the last 100 yards of the hike. The landscape turns from desert into almost jungle and the feeling is surreal. I was wearing my Gameguard shirt and hat and my friends were joking that they “could not” see me due to the strikingly concealing pattern of the camo. I simply enjoyed the breathability and sun protection of these well-made products designed by Gameguard out of Denton, Texas.
By the time we finished our second hike we were feeling pretty grimy. On the way to our final campground of the trip (Rio Grande Village) we decided to get in a good soak at the Hot Springs that the area is known for. Word of advice: If you have ever been to other hot spring areas around the world, leave those notions before you get to the park. Everything about Big Bend is consistent with its rugged almost surreal nature and the Hot Springs are no exception. The old bathhouses are still there but they are in disrepair and look as if they were converted into historical monuments instead of being maintained. But given the climate and how few people actually come here, it is no surprise. Today, people bathe in a man-made square looking pool, filled by 105 degree water mixed with local sand and mud, with the excess running off straight into the Rio Grande that literally touches one of the walls of the pool. This proximity is actually nice for those that like to vary the water temperature and get a dunk in the cold and refreshing waters of the Rio Grande after a long, warm soak in the springs.
Mexicans from across the river peep at you through binoculars, but they are not getting some cheap thrills. They are simply watching their trinkets that are laid out next to the hot springs with a can for money and a simple note describing the values of each item. This trading is illegal but like many things on the border seems to go on anyway and in this harsh and unforgiving landscape you almost feel sorry for the people that have to make their living in this way.
We pitched our final camp at Rio Grande Village – probably the most advanced campground in the park. We were some of the few that actually set up tents, while the majority of the visitors simply pulled up in their RV’s and set up their satellite dishes. (Hey, some day that may be me too.) Dinner that night was bean and chicken soup that Terry concocted from a smorgasbord of different metal cans with some homemade corn bread (another care package from Terry’s wife). When you combine physical exhaustion, fresh mountain air and campground meals made by an adventurous virtuoso, you have a recipe for some heavenly goodness. That final night we watched the stars in the clear sky and relived and retold the stories from our previous three days of travels. We tried for one more night to push away the thoughts of going back into reality and the concrete jungle.
On our last day in Big Bend, we got up early and drove out to Boquillas Canyon. It was another short hike – less than 2 miles round trip. And, reluctantly, by 9 am we were back on the road that would take us to “civilization” – full of projects, deadlines and responsibilities. It was a bittersweet farewell. Our spirits were recharged through connection with nature in its basic and almost untouched form. It was also inspiring to experience what the world has to offer outside the boundaries of our air conditioned offices and cars. It re-energizes us to work harder to bring about more of these types of opportunities for exploration and contemplation for ourselves, our families and to the help the community around us.