breathing vastness into my soul

“There’s a vastness here and I believe that the people who are born here breathe that vastness into their soul. They dream big dreams and think big thoughts, because there is nothing to hem them in.”

— Conrad Hilton

this is the second and final post documenting my recent trip through Colorado and Texas. the last post highlighted the Colorado portion, and this one will focus on Texas. fittingly for the state, this post will be massive. grab a coffee/beer and settle in…

“She’d grown up believing in hell in an abstract nightmare way; but west Texas had given her something more concrete upon which to dread the afterlife.”

— Cherie Priest

west Texas doesn’t have a very good reputation. i’m not going to argue that this is undeserved, but there’s definitely a certain charm to the region. scratch that. charm isn’t the right word. charm implies a certain refinement, and west Texas is anything but refined. a more accurate description would be that it’s incongruent with what most of us have grown accustomed to, and the effect is a certain pleasing harshness. it kind of shocks you out of your rut.

i draw a lot of similarities between Montana and west Texas. particularly in the skies. both have skies that you can’t really describe as anything other than BIG. “big skies” doesn’t really mean anything unless you’ve been to one of those places. and if you have, it means everything.

we stopped in Marfa to get gas (which is surprisingly hard to find in west Texas…i don’t think i’ve ever had to pay attention to where the next gas station might be with 150+ miles to empty before this trip…) and have a late lunch. Marfa is supposedly a cool little town, but we were there on a Tuesday. and everything’s closed on Tuesday. why? as the guy at the gas station said with a hint of frustration at the ridiculous question: “that’s just the way it is.”

Texans, am i right? needless to say, i was unimpressed with Marfa.

from Marfa, we headed to the right and came at Big Bend from the west. we drove through the Big Bend Ranch State Park, which had some pretty spectacular scenery and excellent pavement. with oodles of nearly uninhabited snaking curves and hills, i would have loved to have a proper go of the pavement and let the turbo breathe…but after about 16 hours of driving i elected to opt for survival over speed. maybe next time.

we spent the first night in a motel with so-called excellent WiFi in Terlingua, a “ghost town” on the western edge of the park. i put ghost town in quotes because it seemed to be the most populated/least abandoned town in the surrounding 200 miles. what are the requirements for being a ghost town anyways?

labels aside, Terlingua was a pretty interesting place. in addition to seeing a skull embedded in a dune-buggy-tractor-thing, we got a sneak peak of the vastness of the Big Bend night skies the following morning. despite being a ghost town, Terlingua produced a decent amount of light pollution, so the sky wasn’t exactly bursting with stars…nevertheless, the patchy clouds and burning glow of pre-sunrise combined with the stars to produce one of my favorite shots from the trip. shortly after making that photograph, we headed into Big Bend for the first time…

after entering the park, we almost immediately turned onto a somewhat hidden narrow dirt road. as you might imagine, the ST wasn’t particularly thrilled with this decision. we weren’t exactly surrounded by tourists anyways, but the added isolation of taking the dirt road to view that sunrise was worth the ST’s protests.

for about 15 miles, we creeped along the desert floor through numerous bone-dry riverbeds. i’m not sure if it was drought or just a typical dry season, but water was nearly non-existent outside of the Rio Grande throughout the park.

we reached pavement again at the far southwest corner of the park near the opening of the Santa Elena Canyon. we planned on going for a hike here, and after searching for a few minutes and “fording” a dry riverbed, we found the trailhead. i imagine this hike would be pretty tough to do during the rainy season, but we didn’t have anything more than a trickle standing in our way.

the hike took us about a half mile into the mouth of the canyon before dead-ending at the riverbed. the hike has some of the most recognizable images of Big Bend, including the view looking back out of the canyon, framed on the right by a large rock that’s full of character (forth shot), and the view looking further down the canyon (second-to-last shot). it was an overcast day with soft light, and i spent most of the time shooting with the eye of a black-and-white landscape photographer. it was quite the contrast after being awed by that vibrant sunrise only a few hours before.

after our short hike, we took our time driving through the Ross Maxwell scenic route, stopping at various lookouts and landmarks. one of the things that most surprised me about Big Bend was how many mountain ranges there were surrounding the park. it seemed there were two or three levels of mountains everywhere you looked.

the last shot in the sequence above is another of my favorites from the trip. it was taken on the porch of the visitor center, and that bike just seemed so out of place in the middle of that vast desert.

our next stop was for the second short hike of the day. it was mid-day and the light wasn’t exceptional, so i struggled with my landscape shots and spent most of my time just enjoying the scenery.

after the second hike, we headed to Sotol Vista, a well-known lookout in the middle of the park. i was planning to come here for sunset/sunrise/nighttime pictures, so i wanted to scout out the location first. the view was absolutely incredible. i took a lot of shots here, but ended up with better versions of most when we returned later in the day for sunset.

these shots were taken at an old ranch that had almost disappeared completely. only a few remnants remained, including the shell of a shed, a single mud wall, and a still-working well windmill. after checking out the remains, we scouted our campsite for the night, grabbed some dinner, and headed back to Sotol Vista for sunset…

i don’t have words capable of describing that sunset, so i’ll just let the pictures do the talking…

after that magical post-sunset light had completely faded, we headed back to our backcountry campsite to settle in for the night.

it was nearly a full moon, so there was a pretty short window of time just before sunrise when the moon had dipped below the horizon, revealing the famous Big Bend night sky in all its glory.

the road to our campsite was being worked on by park staff, and they left the tractor at our campsite overnight. with the tractor, tent, and ST, there were plenty of opportunities for interesting foregrounds… i’d say that Rokinon lens was a quality purchase, wouldn’t you? 🙂

we got up early the next morning and traveled through a sea of fog on our way out of the park… Big Bend and Texas certainly impressed…

I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.

— John Steinbeck

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