Texas - Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park

Texas - Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park

From: "Bill Smith"
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com
Date sent: Tue, 3 Mar 1998


I have attached a Word 97 file that is an article I wrote about my experience hiking the Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park. If it is worthy, publish it. I would like to hear your comments and suggestions. Thanks.

I am an old man. At least compared to my two companions. We thump and jar along the narrow two-lane blacktop in its three-year old, pot-holed state of repair. We swoop down, up and around as we cross the sage brushed dunes toward the trailhead. I dodge the odd Mexican pickup careening toward us as the day-hike gear rolls around in the back of my truck and our cooler of beer slides and bumps the box walls. My friends murmur and grunt about the last time that they went this way, but it's all new for me. It is pre-noon and we are about an hour late if we really want to hike the whole twelve-mile desert trail before we get risky-close to loss of daylight. Not a good prospect in this desert. So we hurry. The sun is intense in a sparkling, pure blue sky and it is beginning to feel warm through the windshield.

At the trailhead parking area we lock the truck and stride off without discussion, buckling on our day-hike gear and checking our water as we go. We know that the trail splits about 3 miles out, take the right hand branch to the river, loop around and re-join the main trail on the way back. Simple. We've all got our own water, we know we will move at different paces, and we head out, content to see each other in passing or at the end of the hike. It is noon. The hike is 12 miles, round trip. The sun sets at six.

The trail begins in a dry wash with fine gray, soft gravel. My boots seem heavy as they sink above the sole-edges and little puffs of dust accompany each footfall. I reflect on my companions as they begin to move ahead of me. Jack is the youngest and biggest; calm, quiet, and quick with gentle laughter. Jack's thighs and calves would be the envy of any NFL running back and yet he is a marathon runner and carries a tiny butt-kit with, at most, a pint of water. Doug is short and thick shouldered with tight, wiry legs and quick, busy eyes. His head is covered with heavy, curly black hair that shows all around under his Aussie-style campaign hat. They continue to murmur and grunt to each other for a few minutes and then the pace separates them, too, as Jack moves ahead.

I am an old man. My pace is slow, but steady, and unlike my strong companions, I use a long, strong walking stick. I listen to myself as I move. It is a crunch, crunch of boots on gravel punctuated by a snicking sound as my walking stick stabs and withdraws from the gray sand. Too, there is the already increased breathing interspersed with the rustle of my butt-pack and water bottles.

The trail leaves the wash by way of a steep bank covered with low, scruffy bushes. The soil changes to a tan, talc-like dust. When I emerge on top of the bank, a small flat valley lies before me. It covered with bushes and red and tan rocks and rises to the base of a steep, red-rock ridge. About half a mile ahead I can see the trail become a series of switchbacks that disappear into a crack in the wall of a rusty cliff. I just catch sight of two miniature men disappearing into the wall.

I stop and listen and breathe. There is only the sound of a very faint eagle whistle; no wind and only the trail itself. Nothing reminds me that I am not the only human on this Earth. I am alone in the Chihuahuan Desert. It is silent, bright, warm and magnificent. I am happy.

I cross the valley and as I approach the ridge, the trail quickly becomes serious. Climb up, switchback, climb up, switchback, climb up. I stow my walking stick along my back, quiver-style, and grab outcroppings to pull myself up. I know I shouldn't - snakes and all - but it seems the only way to make any progress. The trail is covered with loose, grapefruit sized rocks and it plunges into the wall of the cliff along a steep water-cut chimney. It makes many short, quick turns and is often almost a rock ladder. Climb up, climb up, climb up.

At the peak of the ridge I pause, breathe, take water, and gaze in all directions. From here, the next section of the trail is down and easy. Again, I rejoice in the beauty, silence and solitude. .I can see over another ridge to the southeast to the tips of blue mountains on the Mexican Side. Closer, there are great, red, brooding cliffs against a cobalt-blue sky with occasional puffs of cotton-clouds. I fabricate an ear-covering headscarf with my bandanna and proceed down the back slope in search of the trail split. With my scarf, I look like an old-time farm wife. The air is delicious.

The trail is made on sheet rock; red and tan and layered with almost no soil. The old trail markings are there, but require a careful eye. I coast down the back slope and start up a long slow rise. I can see the trail far out in front as it bears off to the east. A couple of ravines pop up and are crossed and, suddenly there is a strange object in front of me: a sign with human letters on it. As I read it I realize this is a trail split, but one that I didn't know was here. I open my butt kit for my map. Not there. This is not part of the trail I am supposed to be on, so I ignore it and stay with what I judge to be the main trail. As I walk, I wonder what else I forgot.

I cross a low ridge and before me the land slopes toward the center with the beginnings of a dry creek starting at my position and descending down between ridges topped with craggy red boulders that are suspended over sandy slopes descending to the creek-bed. As I walk down into the wash, the bushes and low trees are taller than I am and I get a small bit of shade. The vegetation also makes the view shorter and directions harder to judge. I follow the wash as it gradually turns south toward the river. As I walk, I notice that the ridge to my left has turned south with me. I round a big bend and the wash opens up into a sizable flat with a steep up-slope to my left (east) and a tall, shadowed red cliff on my right. In the middle of the east slope is a large, boulder-strewn wash. Directly in front of me is a pylon of rocks and a crude arrow scratched on the facing surface of an ancient boulder. It points East. I am confused. The river should be to the south, flowing easterly. But I know it does curve to the north for part of its course. This must be the trail split, I reason, so I climb to the east, up the boulder wash.

Immediately the going gets rough. The boulders are house-sized and there is no simple trail on the surface. It is a mountain-goat trail, jumping from rock to rock and balancing in between. At about the halfway point up the slope the trail becomes a normal dirt-rock track, but quite steep. As I stagger to the top I gasp, not from the effort, but from view. It is an amazing, awe-inspiring view. I stand at the edge of a huge drop-off. The view to the east must be a million miles! The river valley is below, and the Mexican side is a vertical wall of red and gold rock that is both far above me and out of sight below me. I disregard time, sit and soak in the splendor. How can a simple human being be allowed such a vista?

I peek over the edge and see the trail as it winds down the wall toward the river. It appears and disappears as the walls curve and open. I start down. It is steep, but footing is good and the drop off is less precipitous that it at first seemed. As I near a switchback, a small grove of trees appears and I hear human voices. On the next turn I am in the grove and two young couples, speaking what seems to be German, are there. The women eye me suspiciously. Both of the men get to their feet, hands loose at their sides, and face me with neutral expressions.

"Do you speak English?"
"Have you seen two men pass by? One big, one short and dark?"
"How long ago?"
"Maybe half hour."

I thank them and keep moving. Those young people had backpacks and, from the looks of them, had been in the backcountry for several days. As I work my way down the trail toward the river, I ponder what brought them here and wondered what they thought of the sprawling grandeur and dusty beauty of this place compared to the tidy, lush green of their homeland.

The trail is a combination of mountain-goat stretches and dirt paths as it winds along the wall of the gorge that leads to the river. To my left, the wall soars straight up, to my right the earth slopes steeply down to a narrow, brush-clogged slot in the rocky bottom of the gorge. As I walk, I am in brilliant sun or in deep shadows. Up on the walls there are great holes where the wind and water have worn immense caves that aren't accessible except by flying. In some cases the canyon wall has collapsed to form cathedral-like arches that seem to loom out over the trail. The rubble forms conical piles in the bottom of the canyon and the trail follows around them. My forward view shows the trail descending to an edge and then disappearing, as though another drop-off is near. The Mexican wall is now seems close, vertical and staggeringly high.

The trail's slope is gentle as I approach the next edge and I find myself loafing and daydreaming. Suddenly I see two miniature men appear over the edge, climbing toward me. I squint and walk on. Minutes later, Jack and Doug hail me and I stop to wait for them to climb up to where I am. Why had they doubled back? We all missed the trail split. Back at the pylon of rocks and the scratched arrow, we had turned left instead of right. Going to the right would have been correct and would have made the loop as we had planned.

We all start the return trip in the same way as we started the outbound leg: each at his own pace, "see you at the truck." As the two strong ones started to separate ahead of me I thought about what would have happened if one of us had not made the trail split mistake. One of us would have probably spent the night in the desert.

The hike back is easier because of my state of mind. I had made a magnificent trip. It was good for the soul. I found myself feeling peaceful, and I ambled along, almost loitering. I gazed for a second time at the beauty I had seen before and saw it more deeply. Suddenly, a shadow caught my eye and I realized that I was still over an hour away from the truck, the sun was nearing the horizon, and I was out of water. I lowered my head, dug in the walking stick and strode forward. As I puffed past the boulders and the washes and the bushes, I made small thank-you comments for the wonderful day. I wondered if these creatures knew that they lived in a beautiful place.

When I topped the backside of first ridge of the first climb, I looked west and north and could see where the trail dropped into the wash on its way back to the trailhead. I could look almost straight down and see the steep chimney at my feet and the switchbacks carved in the side of the ridge above where the trail leveled out onto the valley floor. The sun was about an hour above the horizon and was beginning to show streaks of gold, red, and some purple very near the horizon. I plunged down the chimney, feeling a great surge of exuberance and joy! As grueling as it had been, I found myself almost at a dogtrot as I entered the last stretch of the wash and the truck came into sight. My young friends were waving and shouting encouragement to this old man. As I neared the truck, their calls became clear: "Hurry up! Where are the keys? We can't open the beer!"

Written by Bill Smith

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