Big Bend in the Dark

June 13, 2016

 Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

 

 

I like to think I have an adventurous spirit, a tendency to say, Sure, why not? before, No, I don't think so. Adrian calls me his little "goer" because I'm usually willing and excited to try new things, especially if those things make me slightly uncomfortable. Many evenings, we've sat at the dinner table and fantasized about doing long road trips on his motorcycle, cross-country or on entirely different continents. We'd travel with only what the bike could carry. He'd take photos and I'd write about our experiences. We'd start a new website to chronicle our travels--hell, maybe there'd even be a book there one day! 

 

I'm self-aware enough to realize that much of this is romanticized. Because while I like saying yes and love experiencing new things, I also like comfortable beds, hot baths, and cute shoes. So we've talked about starting small--weekend trips, light on planning, easier on finances and our bodies. Big Bend was a place Adrian brought up often. It's one of only 10 "International Dark Sky Parks" in the world, drawing stargazers and astrophotographers for the midnight show. Adrian surprised me with a trip last weekend, the weekend of the new moon, when the sky would be the darkest it ever is.

 

Since we were leaving Saturday and returning Monday morning--and it was 100 degrees outside and a straight seven-hour shot down I-10--we decided to leave the bike behind and maximize our park time instead. (A cop-out? Maybe, but one that we don't regret.) 

 

We crossed into the park proper around 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, and still had a 40-minute drive to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, the only accommodations for miles. The closest town was Marathon, an hour behind us, and we had the two-lane highway to ourselves. Already, our phones had lost signal. An orange snake gathered itself onto the shoulder just before we flew past.

 

As we drove further, massive rocks began punctuating the flat dry desert, rising from the ground like medieval castles and fortresses. Out my window, the earth rose into dunes and pyramids, a different place altogether. Some rocks looked like giant fingers and feet. Some mounds of land were gently curved, like a woman lying on her side in bed, her hips silhouetted against a window. Some looked like tumors, bony growths upon the desert floor; others like the scaled spines of sleeping dragons. Around us the Chisos Mountains rose, powerful and indifferent. And scattered between them, the desert vegetation--the ocotillos, which looked like bouquets of spider legs, and lechuguillas, tall, straight reeds that bloom only once in their lifetime, after 10 or 15 years of building up the nutrients to do so, and then die; and of course the cactus and mesquite, vegetational reminders that we were still in Texas, despite the strangeness of this remote, harsh, beautiful land. 

 

After checking in and eating a quick dinner, we decided to go for a drive. We were both exhausted from the seven-hour road trip, but Adrian wanted to explore where we might set up for photographs that night. For months, he'd been wanting to capture the Milky Way arcing across the sky, left to right, a perfect bridge over road or mountain. He'd need to be facing southeast, and we drove slowly, stopping every so often to use an app that would show the location of the Milky Way. He framed potential shots, noting that the Milky Way would start to become visible around 11:30 and reach a vertical position around 3 a.m. He wanted to do a time lapse that would show it rising first horizontally, then tilting slowly, slowly, imperceptible to the naked eye, until it stood straight up over the horizon. 

 

 

We got back to the lodge by sunset and went to the room for Adrian's camera gear before joining the dozen or so others gathered on the cliffside, watching the sun lower behind the Window, a triangular gap between two peaks. Couples sat close together, sipping from water bottles and thermoses. Photographers moved around agitatedly, trying to find the best spot for their tripods. Those who spoke did so in hushed tones, respectful of the space we were all sharing, the moments of watching the sky go pastel, striated with pale apricot, before deepening into magenta and blood orange and finally a deep, still-bright, blue. As the evening darkened, it was as if we all released a collective breath. Then the show was over, the trance broken, and one by one, people quietly gathered their things and walked away.

 

 

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography 

 Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

 

Back in the room, we changed into warmer clothes and grabbed our headlamps. We were both tired, too much so, we felt, to tackle more time in the truck, so we decided to set up for the night a short distance from where we'd watched the sunset.

 

We were probably only a quarter mile, at most, from the lodge, but in the absolute darkness and absolute quiet, we felt entirely isolated. When we turned off our headlamps and looked at the sky, it was as if the whole universe had spread itself before us, more stars than I'd ever seen, a collection of sequins strewn across sheets of velvet. The only sounds were the wind through the trees, the rasping everywhere-call of cicadas, and our clumsy footsteps as we shifted where we stood. Adrian set up the time lapse, and every twenty seconds, his camera clicked softly.

 

It occurred to me how very seldom I feel alone. Even now, alone as I write this, I am not alone. There's Lola crouched at the end of the couch, baiting Cleo, who is hunched low on the rug, stalking her. There are my girlfriends and sister texting me. There is the Internet--the world--at my fingertips if I want it. But out there, despite being so close to others, we were alone. It was easy to imagine, to feel, we were the only ones for miles, or the last in the world. Moments like that link me to the past in a way that never fails to fill me with awe. After all, that is our history--hundreds, thousands, of years of humanity, alone in the wilderness. We were them for so much longer than we have been us, so connected, so loud, so ravenous, so lonely. In those moments, I felt small and vulnerable and so, so limited in knowledge and courage and grace, but these were not bad things to feel. Instead, they culminated in reverence, an acknowledgment of how much greater the world is than what I can conceive. The recognition gave me a sense of comfort and peace but also sadness, that there can be such pain, that we can cause one another such pain, instead of revering each other the way, I am sure, we should. Each one of us our own constellation, magnificent and mysterious.

 

 Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

 

But then, of course, was the fear. My brother AJ was telling me recently about an episode of a podcast called "Invisibility" on NPR. It was about a 40-something woman known on the show only as SM who is incapable of feeling fear, and for that reason, her very identity needed to be protected. I wondered how great a role low-grade fear plays in our day-to-day survival. I asked AJ when he'd last felt fear, and he talked about a recent near-accident on the highway (and, before that, the time he choked on expired fajita meat and was convinced he was going to die). I had to ask myself the same question: When had I last felt fear? What kind of fear? How often do I feel fear? How often does fear prevent me from doing something? How often does fear actually protect me?

 

Outside in that blackness, I kept thinking about everything I could not see. I thought about the orange snake we'd seen crossing the highway, a less-than-welcome first wildlife spotting. I thought about the signs posted everywhere--You are in lion country--and the facts I'd memorized about mountain lions: There are about two dozen in the park, with around 150 sightings each year (one every two days or so). They prowl day or night. No matter where you are in the park, you're in the territory of at least one lion. They weigh 80 to 140 pounds. Can leap 15 feet vertically and 45 feet horizontally. If you see one and perceive a threat, don't run. Make yourself taller, yell, throw sticks and rocks (but don't crouch). This could deter a lion.

 

Could.

 

The specter of hidden mountain lions made me stiff with fear, wide-eyed and alert to every sound. My tension was so palpable, even in the darkness, that Adrian asked me at one point, "Are you freaking out?" 

 

"A little," I said.

 

Later, when he needed to run back inside for a minute, he asked if I would be okay to stay with the camera equipment. I wanted to say no way in hell, that I was going with him, that there wasn't another soul out here and his cameras would be fine, but I gulped and said I would. He left me with a knife and a parting joke: "Enjoy the serenity!"

 

I looked at my watch: 11:19. If he wasn't back in 15 minutes, I was heading inside. I turned in small circles, straining my eyes in every direction, clutching the knife (which, really, I would have dropped at the first hint of danger). I didn't want to ruin his photos by turning on my headlamp, so I was in utter darkness, almost nauseated with fear. It was odd for me, and frustrating. I thought about hiking alone in Yosemite and getting lost, no phone, no food, for 15 miles--in the snow. There were bears there, or so the signs said. But I was never afraid, at least not like this. Was it only because that was daytime and this was night? Was it because I knew more this time about what was potentially around me than I did on my half-cocked Yosemite expedition? I thought about the movie AJ recently made and how he commented that what you can't see is always scarier than what you can--imagination is powerful that way. I'm sure, now, that it was a combination of all of these factors, plus the sense of smallness I couldn't help but feel beneath those millions of stars, the wink of worlds beyond our own.

 

Just as I looked at my watch--11:27--and thought, Fuck it, I'm going in, I saw the red dot of Adrian's headlamp bopping toward me.

 

"Still there?" he called.

 

"Yep," I said. "Don't worry, your camera gear is fine, too."

 

"Phew," he said. "At least if you were eaten, I'd know to bring my stuff inside."

 

I laughed. "Thanks."

 

We stayed out for only 10 more minutes before calling it a night. Adrian was disappointed in himself, but he felt sick and I assured him that tomorrow was another day. I climbed into bed with extraordinary relief. 

 

I can't help but think again of SM, of the clinical fearlessness that keeps her perpetually in danger. What would it be like to live without fear? If I hadn't been afraid that night, for example, I might have encouraged Adrian to stay out longer. I might have gone back inside and brewed a cup of coffee and returned, lying on the path and staring up at that kaleidoscope of stars. Without fear, I imagine I would try just about any experience that seemed enjoyable. I'd trust without hesitation. But I'd also always be on the verge of a mistake that could cost me everything.

 

Fear has a bad reputation these days, and often for good reason. When we fear things that can't physically hurt us (failure, embarrassment, rejection) and we let that fear keep us from doing what we'd otherwise do, it's enslaving. When we fear others for perceived differences and allow that fear to turn into hate, it's tragedy. But fear also protects us, keeps us alert and quick and smart. It's a balance, I suppose, of allowing fear to do the job it's always done--keeping us alive--without letting it cross over into controlling us. This will be good for me to keep in mind, because we have a much bigger trip--this time on the bike--coming up . . . 

 

 Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

 

 

 

 Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

 

 To see more of Adrian's photos and buy prints, visit his website at https://adriancollins.smugmug.com. 

 

 

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