My vision faded to a nauseous blue and the voices around me turned into muffled echoes drowned out by anxious buzzing. My eyes were open yet soon I couldn’t see. The control of my faculties was fading. The beating of my heart was spinning out of control in a desperation. I was slipping into unconsciousness. To date, this is the one and only time I’ve fainted in a National Park.
Despite what might seem most unpleasant, don’t get me wrong. This day was a great one. It just ended with a flopping crescendo. I was in Big Bend National Park in West Texas where one of the nations most magnificent National Parks hugs the Rio Grande River bordering Mexico. This wonderland in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert ranks on the lower end of visitation when it comes to National Parks but it’s towards the top of my list of most impressive National Parks.
I would venture to say that for anyone not from this area this place would seem otherworldly, like a completely different planet. Plant life is so unique with giant agave plants of all varieties and orange twisted naked indian trees. Reading up about this park afterward, I learned one of the reasons why the plant life is so unique in this are of the Chihuahuan desert is because it is the biome developed from what is believed to have once been rainforest before land masses separated, the gulf of Mexico was formed, and the sea that covered much of the park dried out. This was also the land where dinosaurs roamed and swam. Deinosuchus, an enormous genus of crocodile swam in the shallow sea that covered the lower levels of this park where now tarantulas scurry. Looking around, the age of dinosaurs doesn’t seem so distant. The peculiarity of the landscape, the enormous rock pinnacles busting up from grasslands, and the oversized plants, like the aloe vera growing stalks up to forty feet high with giant insects feasting and pollinating, make it seem like a flashback to the jurassic or cretaceous.
The previous night I had camped in the Chisos Basin Campground located in one of the four villages in the park. Yes, Big Bend is quite big indeed. Some of the other hubs close down for the summer but this one remains the most popular one in this season. The campground was tight and crowded. Many people were packed in, but it was situated in a beautiful basin surrounded nearly completely by rock pinnacles except for a gap looking down upon the desert. Up here at the higher elevation the landscape is greener, more trees are able to grow, and the temperature usually remains about twenty degrees cooler than in the lower reaches of the park.
Today I had a significant hike planned up in the Chisos Mountains. The trailhead was conveniently accessible from a footpath leading from the campground. The footpath climbs stairs and turns left to a visitor center, general store, and the lodge but proceeds forward to join the Chisos Basin trailhead climbing upward and gaining two thousand feet into the mountains.
The sun had risen, but I was still getting a pretty early start. As I hiked around the campground I came upon a very friendly and pleasant young couple bidding me “good morning.” It looked like they were getting set up for something. Then I remember reading a sign by the bathroom about a campground worship service on Sunday mornings. I put two and two together. This had to be the “campground chaplain,” if such a term exists. I would assume they were the campground host, whom also led a worship service. I thought about stopping and joining them, but I also considered the many miles ahead of me. Regretfully, I did not stop. But the prospect of coming together with other Christians in the beauty of nature in a National Park seemed purely wonderful. John Muir himself often referred to beautiful spots in nature as “temples.”
Before I reached the trailhead, along the path was a sign titled “Lion Warning.” It went on to explain what to do in a lion encounter. It did not once mention the term “mountain lion” but simply “lion,” making it all the more intimidating. “A lion has been frequenting the area and could be aggressive towards humans,” it read. Mountain lions are a concerning creature, because unlike a bear which will make its presence known, a mountain lion stalks, unseen, unheard, and then pounces. It can break a neck instantly. Mountain lion attacks are rare, and it would be especially rare to encounter one during the day, but I had read that a mountain lion is less likely to attack a human if the human looks unnatural. So a good deterrent is to wear bright neon colors that make yourself look artificial and not like a tasty treat of nature.
The Chisos Basin trailhead was rather steep, quickly gaining elevation, passing by shrubbery, agave, and more naked indian trees. The first point of interest was Boulder Meadow where the land leveled and displayed a hidden meadow surrounded by boulder peaks. I had almost camped here, but I hadn’t arrived in the park the evening before with enough time to pack and get to this area before dark. Setting up camp alone, in an unfamiliar place, with the presence of mountain lions, just didn’t seem appealing. But seeing it in the daytime, I certainly acknowledge it would have been a great place to camp. This trail I was on led to a network of trails up in the Chisos Mountains to various areas, remote campsites, and natural features. I wasn’t exactly sure all I was going to hike. I did know I wanted to get to the South Rim. I had seen a brochure advertising the area with a man sitting on the edge of the South Rim. I wanted to be in that exact spot, but apart from that, I had an open mind, which ended with me hiking around sixteen miles.
I enjoyed the hike greatly. Nothing compares to the landscape of desert, grasslands, and forest all converging together, but at times remaining distinct, separated in patches up in the mountains.
For most of my hike I was alone, and I felt very alone too, always conscious of it, slightly concerned for my own safety. No one would be out here to aid me in the event of an emergency. The climate was very hot and very dry, and the sun was very powerful. I knew, not properly equipped, the climate could dehydrate me and claim my life. So i was very diligent to stay hydrated and calorie equipped. The one place where I saw others was at by Emory Peak. It was a mile and a half deviance from the main trail. Emory peak is the highest reach in Big Bend National Park at 7,825 ft. The trail to Emory Peak slowly dissipated, to the point where any resemblance of a trail was gone. There were two peaks of ragged rock spires, like two towers sticking up on the mountain. One of these two had to be the peak. Other hikers were there. questioning which was Emory Peak. The two peaks looked to be about the same height and there were only a mere thirty feet or so apart. In urban terms they were maybe four stories high. I chose the one that looked the most manageable to climb. There was clearly no established route, but I found places for my feet and natural steps to grab hold of and pull myself upward. At the top I sat on a small plateau viewing out upon the rock pinnacles below me and all the valleys and crevices of the landscape. I enjoyed it, and it was great no doubt, but perhaps it wasn’t the most memorable of summits, because I remember more about the climb up than the view itself. From up here I was able to look over at the other rock peak where a few climbers maneuvered their way down. Just the sight made me on edge because between these two spires was a cavity, a long and dramatic fall to any solid ground.
Back on the main trail I continued past the Pinnacles area to Boot Canyon- a very arid forest, which at one point the trail passed by a cabin which I assumed was a ranger residence. At one point the forest gave way to grassland where tall whispy brittle golden grass closed in upon the trail. Miles later I reached the East Rim, which traveled around to the South Rim. I had arrived! I found the place on the brochure and it was well worth it. I sat there by a prickly pear cactus looking down upon the sharp triangular mountains I was well above. They were all dark pale green or brown, reflective of the arid feel of the terrain. Far below I spotted a dried up river bed meandering among the hills, and nearing the horizon the plains of even dryer desert. While I was observing the landscape, I begin to hear a terrible buzz. It grew louder. The sound was approaching rapidly. From up above I began to see a cloud wisping through the air below growing bigger with every fraction of a second. I was very confused and did not know what this was, but it scared me. It caused me to crawl back from the canyon rim and stand up. I realized it was a swarm of insects. It seemed like it was heading right for me, and its sharp atrocious sound was piercing to my ears. I was prepared to drop to the ground and shield my head with my arms, when the swarm swopped to the right and zoomed off into the distance.
What exactly was that? I questioned. I have never in my life experienced a swarm of insects like this before. The sound of it made me think they were a type of fly or bee. The only thing in my life experience to relate it to is the Winnie the Pooh cartoons when the silly old bear is chased by bees after disturbing their hive. It might have been terrifying in the moment, but soon after I couldn’t help but revel in the unique experience it was, and the rather stunning visual display of thousands of insects flying in a coordinated manner with such rage. I wanted to ask a ranger about this, but the visitor center was closed by the time I got back.
This South Rim was the highlight of the hike with its stunning view. From here I looped back down to the Chisos Basin passing by the Laguna Meadows and Blue Creek which was largely dried up. Everything in my hike looked so desperately thirsty that it was strangely eerie. A bountiful forest is comforting boasting so much life, even a forest in the winter with it barren trees has its own charm, but a forested area so painfully thirsty comes across as hostile and desperate. But I wasn’t. I could certainly sense the dryness, but I wasn’t short on water. At one point I could even afford to poor some of my water supply on my head for a brief cool off.
During the last few miles of nearing my accomplishment of sixteen miles my feet became very heavy. I thought maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. The final steps down to the Chisos Basin village were some of the most heavy steps I have ever taken. I felt like my feet could just pop right of, or my legs would fall off from the pelvis. It was evening now. Around 7pm, I had hiked at least over 10 hours continuously up, around, and down a mountain range with only a couple of brief stops. I was more than ready to sit down.I wanted to stop by the general store in the Chisos Basin village first and then relax for a bit at the lodge.
As I was in line at the store to buy a sandwich and a Gatorade, there was a family in front of me, foreign, seemingly from India. With broken English they were trying to ask questions about purchasing a camping tent. I was so desperate to sit down that I wanted to make my purchase and be done with it. With my legs extremely sore, I began to feel a bit agitated when there was a problem reading their credit card. When I realized this might not be a quick in-and-out a is when I began to lose my senses. I began to faint. Then, it was my turn. I set the Gateorade and sandwich on the counter, but my vision left me. I felt myself falling towards the group, so I tried with all the control I had left to squat down in front of the counter. Consciousness left me, but a moment later I stood back up.
“Sign this,” I heard. I must have given him my credit card too, but I scarcely remember.
“I’m sorry. I just feel like I’m gonna faint,” I said. I still couldn’t see.
“Please don’t,” said the young man behind the counter. I already had for a moment.
I intensely tried to regain vision. It was faint and disrupted but I could see just enough to sign my name on the receipt.
The young man behind the counter seemed to have no idea how to react. He didn’t offer to help or provide any advice. I’m sure by this point I probably looked like a ghost. In the aftermath, I felt sorry for him. He was probably just a college student with a summer job, inexperienced with the outdoors and first aid, just trying to earn some money. The sight of me fainting probably scared him. As we would say in the South, “bless his heart,” and bless mine too after what I’d been through.
Right outside the store was a bench, where I collapsed. I unscrewed the Gatorade and drowned myself in its cold electrolyte bliss.
A young man- the hiker junky, hippy-free spirited type came beside me. “Are you alright?”
“I just came back from a 16 mile hike, but I have gatorade and food. I should be all right.” I informed.
“A similar thing happened to me earlier. I drank some whisky. It really helped. I have some. Would you like it.”
“No, but thank you,” I replied.
He left, and I doubted for a second if I really would be okay. I still felt very weak. I was concerned to stand up and move with the prospect of passing out again. It might not have hurt to ask him to stay for a moment. But whisky? Really? Drinking whisky when dehydrated did not seem like a good idea to me.
I hadn’t considered it before, but then it dawned on me. I wasn’t dehydrated. I had plenty to drink, and I actually had plenty to eat. I had nuts, dried fruits, and cliff bars, amongst other dehydrated snacks, but then it dawned on me: I had little to no salt. I was salt deprived. This is why I fainted.
I carefully went back to my car, self monitoring for all signs of faintness. I had a can of chicken noodle soup cooking in the heat of the car all day. I took it with me to the patio at the back of the lodge. I enjoyed it along with an orange.
And there in perfect view from the patio the sunset was framed between the rock pinnacles of the Chisos Basin. A bright and warm orange spread across the sky. It was beautiful and a wondrous work of artistry, but as sunsets often do, it caused me to reflect inwardly. I wasn’t as invincible and strong of a hiker as I thought I was. This was very humbling. My body was not adequately equipped for today’s hike, and I hadn’t considered salt intake. What else might I be missing? My confidence with the wild had been slashed. I couldn’t trust myself as much as I thought I could.
I locked my keys in the car days before, been stuck out in the lighting in White Sands, got reprimanded by a park ranger, and passed out in Big Bend. I was keeping track of misfortunes. What was wrong? Was it me?
Read my previous episode “Treasures of the Chihuahuan,” here: https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2019/04/11/treasures-of-the-chihuahuan/
Check out my new book “Canyonlands: My Adventures in the National Parks and the Beautiful Wild,” here: