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Big Bend '17: No. 15 - Rio Grande Village

The Chisos Mountain Range is the most commanding feature in Big Bend, but there is a lot to be found in the rest of the massive park that spreads across 800,000 acres of West Texas desert. In the Easternmost corner of the park, just before the Rio Grande cuts through the Sierra del Caballo Muerto range, sits the diminutive outpost of Rio Grande Village on the US side, just West of the small Mexican town of Boquillas Del Carmen. After days of hiking, the leisurely calm afternoon sight seeing was a great way to recharge our tired bodies.

We completed our hike at balanced rock feeling hotter and more sun-burned than when we started, so we hopped in the truck and headed East with the air conditioning blasting our sun-parched bodies, and some calm tunes filling our ears. We had visited Santa Elena Canyon the day prior on the Western edge of the park, so we decided to head down to the Southeast corner of the park to see how it differed.

We rumbled onto Park Route 12 and followed the winding asphalt through undulating dunes of sand, rock, and desert scrub. The road generally followed the rolling terrain except for a small section where a short, concrete bridge lifted the road over a wide and currently dry riverbed. Long, interlacing curves of eroded sand across the bed hinted at the important role the bridge must play in the rainier months.

The road continued until it passed through a small tunnel cut into the side of a billowing chunk of limestone known as Ernst Ridge. It is my understanding that the road once traveled around the ridge, but the park later bypassed the dangerous stretch of road (known as "Dead Man's Curve") to make travel to Rio Grande Village area safer. In no time at all, we were finally in Rio Grande Village were we stopped by the Visitor's Center and talked to the Rangers about the area. After stopping by the only other building in the area that served as the grocery store, laundromat, and showers, we caught sight of a small, red bird streaking between the tree tops next to the building.

On the spindly tip of a barren mesquite tree, a diminutive adult male Vermillion Flycatcher perched momentarily before darting out to catch one of the many insects flying above the trees. The bird's speed was incredible, and it barely spent any time on any one perch.

The vibrant red chest of the flycatcher was flanked by two black wings that lead to a short black tail. The black continued up the birds back and streaked across the side of its face below the eye and ending at the edge of its narrow beak. However, the black plumage stopped short of a vibrant red crest that shone brightly in the glare of the late afternoon sun.

Unfortunately, I was only able to grab my 1.4x teleconverter in the few seconds that the bird was in view, and my FX camera didn't add anything to the range of the 300mm f2.8. However, I carefully and slowly moved closer each time the flycatcher bounced from tree to tree, and I was fortunate to catch a brief moment were this elusive bird stood still in the range of my setup. I would like to spend a little more time on avian photography in the future, but for that specific endeavor I would likely be better served by my 2x teleconverter (even with the slight drop in relative aperture and sharpness) and a DX camera like the Nikon D500 (which I have rented in the past, but don't currently own). I have a second FX body, a Nikon D600, that I am looking to sell to potentially purchase a good DX camera for long-range camera work.

We ate dinner under the awning in front of the store and talked with a few other travelers. We would have loved to stay and hike one of the many trails and canyons in the area, but the sun was dipping ever lower into the sky, and we still needed to set up camp and get ready for a long night of photography. We jumped in the truck and headed back Northwest with the glare of the ebbing sun glistening off the broad edges of the limestone escarpment that made up the Western edge of the Sierra del Caballo Muerto range.

The golden sun rays prompted us to stop on the side of the road for a moment to soak up the solemn beauty of the open desert. I was amazed at how intense the glow of the limestone was even at this range. The shadows of the carefully spaced desert scrub began to stretch long across the ground and accented the depth of vegetation that surrounded us. The desert didn't seem as devoid of life when you were standing in the middle of it instead of driving past.

The sun was low on the horizon by the time we made it back to our primitive campsite just south of Grapevine Hills. A plume of dust billowed in our wake and glowed a vibrant orange as the small dust particles dispersed the sun's rays. The truck bounced down the rocky path until we finally reached the small patch of rock and sand where we would spend the night.

The open desert was teaming with life. A coyote darted across the road so quickly that I couldn't even get my camera up from my lap before it disappeared into the brush again. Birds erupted from the trees as we drove by, including a small flock of Scaled Quail. They quickly took cover in the shrubs flanking the road, but I managed to hang out the side window and catch a lone Quail that got separated from the others.

From a distance, the desert floor could seem like a wide, barren wasteland, but once you ventured into the heart of it, it became clear very quickly that it was teaming with life. The dense scrub was home to a myriad of animals, and it was surprisingly good at providing cover even though the plants were widely distributed. While there is a decent amount of space between each piece of vegetation, the vegetation was so internally dense that we generally had only 10 to 20 feet of visibility. We would see animals for only a second, and then they would disappear, lost in the desert labyrinth.

From the height of the truck, the desert scrub compressed until it looked more like a forest extending far off towards the mountains on the horizon.

The Grapevine Hills Primitive Campsites are just south of Balanced rock. Our campsite was located about half way between Grapevine Hills and Gano Springs Rd. The experience of the primitive desert campsite was substantially different than the well-manicured and accessible conveniences of our campsite back in the Chisos Basin. The campsite consisted of a few logs that designated the space, and a large metal bear box for food. The mountains were all far off in the distance, and were largely blocked by the surrounding scrub that stood just above our heads. The stillness and closeness of the environment made us feel incredibly isolated and vulnerable. It was impossible to see more than a few feet in most directions before the scrub blocked our view. Any coyote, mountain lion, or bear could have walked into our site out of nowhere and we would have had little to no warning.

While we were setting up camp, a pair of women stopped by our campsite to warn us that they had seen a mountain lion and her cub roaming the area. We couldn't confirm their claim, as we never saw nor heard any animal as large as a mountain lion, but we kept a constant eye on our surroundings (and our backs) just in case something was lurking in the brush.

In the fading light of the afternoon, we started setting up camp, and I started prepping my camera for the moonrise. The entire reason we left the Chisos Basin was to make sure that we had a clear view of the moonrise in a location with fewer obstructions. As I set up my tripod, I was excited that it was finally almost time to witness the Supermoon in Big Bend.

© 2017-2019 Shaun C Tarpley

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