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Location: DownByTheRiver, Central Iowa, United States

Husband of the world's most wonderful wife, father of the world's four most brilliant children, grandfather to the world's eight most beautiful granddaughters and two handsomest grandsons

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Window

Wednesday I returned home from working an unexpected night shift in the Big City. Fall is in central Iowa. The leaves are changing colors and falling. It was about 70 (f). The house was filled with the wonderful smell of the steak and onions Mrs. RRR had simmering in the crock pot. I fell asleep to the smell and awakened to her arriving home. We had steak and sweet corn from last summer's garden and Mrs. RRR's homemade whole wheat bread with jam made from Elder Raymond's peaches.

After our devotions we packed up Bay Toe Ven and drove over to the woods below the dam for a walk through the fall colors. Bay ran back and forth, sticking his nose into clumps of grass, flushing pheasants from their hiding places, chasing fat squirrels up trees and, like us, staring dumbfounded at the graceful beauty of white tailed deer. And that took Mrs. RRR and I back to August and the Deep Desert...

We had awakened to the slow creep of sunlight into the Basin. With mountains between us and the sun it was light hours before it actually rose above the peaks. The scenery was every bit as spectacular as the moonlight the night before had predicted. We crawled out of the tent to find ourselves in what appeared to be a giant volcanic crater. It is not, of course. The basin is just the lowest area in the center of the Chisos mountains. Straight to the south from our campsite was a low pass through the rock Basin perimeter called the Window. We wanted to go see it, but first had the daily issues of housekeeping. Around the tent and the campsite I saw dozens of small, cloven hoofprints. I knew we had night time visitors and from the smell what they were, but I figured the revelation could wait. We breakfasted and broke camp and drove up to the Lodge area of the basin to register. We discovered that while a week's access to Big Bend is only $14, each night in the basin campground would cost us $10 more.

More importantly we got a couple of maps and very best of all, six wicked looking long steel tent stakes like giant nails. One for each corner of the tent and one for the guy rope on each end. Those six stakes would earn the 75 cents each cost over and over for the rest of the trip. The literature had the usual terrible warnings about the danger of the desert and suggested never walking between noon and 4 p.m. We returned to the campground and decided to pick a much better spot and stay one more night and walk the Window Trail that day. We picked one with soft grass to put the tent on and Mrs. RRR went to use the restroom while I set things up. From 100 feet away I again heard her imperative calling of my name and then, "what IS that?". "That" was a javelina or peccary. The maker of the hoof prints had returned.

The guide books will tell you the javelina is not a pig. Stuff and nonsense. It is a pig. A hairy pig to be sure. And one with the scent glands of a skunk and a long sharp tooth sticking out of the side of each jaw like a javelin, hence the Spanish name... but a pig. It has the nose of a pig, it roots like a pig, squeals like a pig and even tastes like a pig. It is a pig. They are only dangerous in groups and this one was alone, so I walked over and squatted down and looked him in the eye and we silently communicated, one omnivorous predator to another. He wandered away.

At 1 p.m., the worst possible time for desert heat, we started down the trail. We each carried a walking stick. Hers is four feet tall and made of a sapling, with a tiny compass in the top. Mine is six feet and made of white wax wood from China, the source of spear shafts and kendo sticks for maybe 30 centuries. We each carried that day and every day a soft sided 2 quart U.S. Army canteen on a strap over one shoulder. Mrs. RRR wore her new hiking boots, I decided to stick with my New Balance 608's to see how they handled the desert. I returned sold on them. My leather boots never got out of the car and I'm wearing the same 608's as I write this. We both wore hats to keep off the sun, hers a desert hat of the French Foriegn Legion type and mine a surplus U.S. Army bush hat such as is worn by the troops in Iraq. We both wore heavy jeans to ward off thorns. She wisely wore a loose, cool, long sleeved cotton shirt, I a tee-shirt.

It didn't take us long to discover that speed across the desert slows down much as time on a slow river does. One to one and one half miles an hour is it. And the fuel is water, a quart an hour. This was a 3 mile hike and we could easily have used another quart each. The trail took us down a canyon towards the Window. We were roughly following the arroyo, Spanish for dry stream bed. Some few mesquite trees arched over the trail providing shade. And cactus. Cactus everywhere. The Prickly Pear were blooming with lovely red fruit. Mrs. RRR stopped to pick one and quickly dropped it. They are covered with tiny, hair like thorns that embed instantly into the skin. That brief touch buried hundreds into her thumb and forefinger. Out came my Swiss Army knife and its tweezers and I plucked them out, stopping often to wipe sweat from my eyes. Oh yes, more vital equipment for the desert, a large handkerchief or bandana. Mine was the triangular one issued by the Army. I wear one in hot weather knotted loosely about my neck, in cold weather tucked in a pocket. I've used them for almost everything from dishcloth to hotpad to makeshift shirt sleeves.

I didn't get all the thorns naturally and even now months later a small piece of prickly pear thorn will occasionally work itself out of my lower leg where it broke off after penetrating my jeans those months back. We began to see Octillo, or octopus cactus because it has long green arms like an octopus reaching up to the sky and many other types. And the insects and other bugs. Scorpions and their relatives with their hooked stinger tails and evil dispositions. The heat grew as the sun pounded down into the canyon. We stopped to rest in the shade of a wild olive tree by a damp place in the arroyo and I looked down the stream bed and touched Mrs. RRR's arm and pointed. It was a rare deer. A sub-species of white tale that lives only in Big Bend and on a mountain in Mexico. Few people ever see them. His antlers were still covered with velvet. He was pawing at a damp spot in the arroyo to find water. The sunlight beamed down through a break in the trees and spotlighted him. I was delighted.

We left him alone and quietly continued downward. We owed the ease of our travel to the CCC. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails all through the Basin and the rest of Big Bend. Our speed of 1 1/2 mph would have been cut to half that if not for the steps they chiseled into the rock and the switch backs they made. Always ahead we got glimpses of the notch in the rock wall below which rested the Window. At last we heard something. Water running! We backtracked a little and found where the tiny thread of water was running over the rocks. As we continued on it would sink into the sand for a while then emerge again. The canyon got narrower and deeper. The trail became toe holds blasted out of the face of the canyon wall. Then ahead of us, an opening maybe 10 feet wide and 20 feet high. The true widow. In dry weather like this, a perch overlooking the splendid view of the desert floor hundreds of feet below. During and right after a rain it is the head of a waterfall and the area where we stood would be a roaring torrent. A cool breeze blew in the Window. We sat and sipped from our canteens and wondered at the beauty. After a long rest we headed back. The trip up the canyon took even longer as we were climbing. When we returned to the campsite the sun had already dipped behind the mountain peaks to the west. I made us supper and we sat at the picnic table sipping our coffee, still under the spell of what we'd seen and experienced.


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