The Palm of God – Chisos Basin
Terlingua is a desert outpost town that reminds us of Slab City (so many things remind us of Slab City in these parts). It seems to be made up of people who want to get away, who want to live their own private lives away from judging or prying eyes. We meet up momentarily with Ara and his dog Spirit. Three years ago, Ara set off for the road and explores the country with his motorcycle with a sidecar that Spirit sits in with his shaded goggles.
For dinner we eat at the Starlight Theater and drink beers on what is referred to as “the porch” which is essentially a long bench alongside the Starlight. Every evening locals and travelers alike sit on the porch with their beer to watch the fading rays of light hitting the mountains in the distance. Last night, someone tells us, someone played the fiddle. There is no music this night, just the chatter of travelers and the occasional ooohs and ahhs as the sky runs the gamut from pink to blue.
We stay at Las Ruinas, a hostel at the Terlingua ghost town. They have tent cabins you can rent or you can pitch your own tent for $12/night. There are showers, potable water and a gutted school bus that has been transformed into an internet lounge. We also run into Rob from Colorado who is one a bike tour exploring the Rio Grande. We meet another guy (didn’t get his name) also traveling by motorcycle who use to live in San Diego. Next week it will be his one year anniversary since he has been on the road. We are on our seventh month. We talk about how strange it is sometimes to step back and realize what you’re doing. “Life is a series of experiences,” we are told this many times by Michael in Alamogordo, by Chris and his hand built western town and now in front of the gutted school bus. You get to choose what kind of experiences you want before that light at the end of tunnel blinks out for good. Better make ’em count.
We leave Terlingua and head off to Big Bend. It is a few miles to the park entrance, then 18 miles to the turn off to the Chisos Mountains, THEN the 6 mile climb into the mountains. We pass through desert landscape up and over hills, the whole while we see this cluster of blue mountains in the distance. They look alien and improbable, more like a giant jagged ocean waves frozen interminably. As we get closer, we wonder where this ribbon of road will go. We are suppose to be camping in the Chisos Basin, somewhere in the middle of the mountains but it looks impenetrable, a fortress of rock and stone. “How the hell are we suppose to get in there?” we wonder aloud. The road to the mountains is a work of art in of itself. It seems to be designed to tease you, to break your heart to make you wonder how exactly it is you’re gong to get over those rock teeth in the distance.
The road meanders and we are climbing steadily and moving around the great cluster of mountains. Slowly a path is revealed straight into the heart of the Chisos. By the time we reach the turn off to The Climb we are already tired. It has taken longer than we expected. We pull off the side of the road and stuff our faces with a strange menagerie of foods praying our stomachs will forgive us (jerky, sardines in mustard with crackers, granola bars, cheese, etc.,).
When we begin the climb I wonder if my tires are flat or if my legs are just that tired because I seem to be moving abominably slow. Not even a hundred feet into The Climb I’m in my lowest gear and I’m moving at a brisk 4mph. I start counting, I try to displace and leave my body but it takes great concentration to keep the bike straight at such a slow speed. I look down and I’m moving at 3mph. In my head I do the math, at this speed it will take us 2 hours to reach the campsite. I try to not think about it. I try not to look up at the road that relentlessly climbs deeper and deeper into the mountain. To do so is folly. To do so is madness. I think of my favorite image for climbing, eating an elephant one forkful at a time but I wonder if maybe this time the elephant will have me for dinner. We pass a mile marker, it says “1” and I know it is going to be a long afternoon.
I won’t labor on the climb too much. Suffice it to say that it was long and it was hard. We did the math afterwards and found that we climbed 2100 feet in 5 miles with an AVERAGE of 8%, meaning that there were pitches quite a bit higher. When I saw the yellow sign with the truck descending straght to hell, I yelled to Laura, “I see the top!” and it was a glorious moment.
Now, I’m not a religious man, but once we crested the pass and began the fast descent into the basin I was nearly moved to tears. The afternoon light was raking into the basin exposing the ancient textures. It felt like we were in a crater of an ancient volcano. It was as if the great Palm of God itself had reached down from the heavens and laid itself flat on this earth in the center of the mountains. It was beautiful and grand and to see it on a bicycle zipping down the switch backs was enough to make your heart explode with the sense of the divine.
All I could think was, “Wow, we get to camp here!” Whatever weariness I had left my bones and I flew down the hill, the golden light hitting the walls of the basin, hitting the ribbon of road, hitting me and filling me with one of those “experiences” that I’ll remember until the very end when that light in the end of the tunnel blinks out for good.