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South Rim By Sixty

"There's a difference between solitude and loneliness."
- Maggie Smith


"South Rim by 60!" For years, that was my rallying cry, the single-most important item on my bucket list. I wanted to hike up out of the Basin at Big Bend National Park, high into the Chisos Mountains, and follow the trail around to the South Rim.

There, far from all but a few hikers in secluded campsites, I would peer beyond the park, across the expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, past the notch where the Rio Grande flows gently from the darkness of Santa Elena Canyon, deep into Mexico where purple mountain ranges flow to the horizon.

In my mind I had it built up to almost Walden Pond proportions, a destination far from cellphone towers, detached from the modern world, unreachable except with great effort and on foot... and therefore a place I must reach before my legs gave out.

Seven thousand feet above the river below, there would be no electrical hum, no motorized roar, no digital beeps and - with luck - only a few hushed voices.

I came close a dozen years ago. My brother-in-law Allen and I spent a week in the desert, camping in the Chisos Basin, offroading on the river road, exploring the Mariscal Mine, observing the planets at McDonald Observatory and enjoying Fort Davis, a restored frontier fort where Buffalo Soldiers once patrolled the frontier.

But three days had been set aside to hike to the South Rim.

Setting out from the Basin campground, we trudged up the Pinnacles Trail, a distance of three and half miles but an ascent of 2,000 feet. We had reserved a campsite at the top of the trail, halfway to our destination. That evening, we bundled against a stiff breeze, erected a lightweight tent and ate a cold meal from our backpacks. Then, perched on the edge of the cliff and serenaded by quarreling mountain bluejays, we watched the setting sun send its last rays through "the Window" into the Basin below before disappearing in a red glow below the western mountains.

The next day, we detoured from our objective to climb Mount Emory, the highest point in the park. We reasoned we could do it and still make the South Rim. After storing our packs in the bear-proof bin at the trailhead, we set out - just 1.2 miles to the top. But it's a steep ascent up a rocky trail, clambering over boulders and tree trunks, scrambling over loose rocks near the top and scaling a precarious outcrop to reach the summit. It's easier when you're 30.

It took a good part of the morning to get up, and we were in no hurry to come down. From the peak, we had a panoramic view in all directions, and all we wanted was a soft rock to recline against, a nap in the sun and a moment to enjoy this "top of the world" feeling.

Finally, we descended, slipping and sliding down the trail, grabbing what we could to keep our footing. By the time we had retrieved our packs from the bear safe, the day was disappearing. Exhausted and running low on daylight, we decided against trying for the South Rim and instead headed downhill to the Basin campground.

"South Rim by 60" would have to wait.

I still had two years to make good on the promise I had made to myself, when in 2006 my wife Marti and I returned to Big Bend accompanied by my sister Maryl.

Marti elected to stay in the Basin and waved from the cabin balcony as Maryl and I made for our goal on the far side of the mountain. This time, we took the Laguna Meadows Trail and backpacked all the way around the western edge of the Chisos before making camp. I had finally achieved the South Rim.

We arrived in the evening, set up camp deep in the brush, then hiked back to the mountain's edge for what we hoped would be a great sunset. Sitting in the grass near the trail, backs against a gnarled stump, we watched the sun drop low over the desert, saw the path of the Rio Grande fade into shadow and the mountains of Mexico turn purple as the light deserted them.

As the sun left our faces and everything below went dark, we retreated to our campground. But we had stayed too long, and darkness came long before we found our tent. We picked our way along a faint trail by flashlight, talking to make sure we didn't startle any black bears or mountain lions sharing the top of our mountain.

In our camp 7,000 feet above the desert floor, we waited impatiently for a backpack stove to heat water for our Meals Ready to Eat, put on layers as the temperature dropped and marveled at how close The Milky Way seemed.

It was a glorious evening.

The next morning was cold and blustery, too cold to sleep. Up before dawn, we walked to the edge of the mountain, where we found a sheltered spot and waited for daybreak over the Dead Horse Mountains.

As the sun warmed our faces, we thawed out and began to talk. It had been a long time since the two of us - brother and sister - had shared so much time together. I was happy, and we enjoyed the moment. In no hurry to leave, we sat as long as we dared, warmed by the sun, listening to the wind whip the trees overhead. It was a perfect outing... at least until we returned to camp and found our tent in a tree.

Both my attempts at "South Rim by 60" were rare adventures. The first allowed me to get to know by brother-in-law. Together, we scaled a mountain, explored the planets and ventured into some of the farthest reaches of the park. We had a great time.

The second, shared with my sister, was an adventure neither of us will forget. On that trip, Marti also succeeded in checking something off her bucket list. The next day, while hiking the Pine Canyon Trail, we shared the trail with a black bear.

Life is an adventure; live it.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This Focal Point column was published on April 20, 2016.

Photos: At top, Elephant Tusk, one of the more distinctive peaks inside Big Bend Naional Park, dominates the range below the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. In the distance, the thin line of the Rio Grande separates Texas from the mountains of Mexico. The bottom photo, shot through "The Window" from the rim of the Chisos Basin, shows cloud shadows on the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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