I woke the morning of Dec. 28 to a big surprise. There was an inch of snow on the ground and on my tent. And it was still coming down.
The day before, I had hiked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. I had hoped to reach the South Rim but at 7500 feet it got dark on me and I had to camp. I pitched my tent at the elbow of a switchback and, then, to avoid attracting any critters, stuffed my food items into a bag and tossed it into a tree about 50 feet from my campsite.
The inch of snow that I discovered the next morning worried me. How much more would there be? Would it make the trails and passes dangerous? I decided to exit the Chisos Basin and head back down. I packed up my tent and retrieved my foodstuff.
The snow on the trail was completely fresh, and I appeared to be the only traveler in the peaceful Basin wonderland. There wasn’t a foot or paw print from any other living creature for the first twenty minutes of the hike.
You forget moments like this can exist in normal waking life, especially sitting behind a desk. We take orders, we give orders. We obey. The silence of the trail was like the glass of the window I stare out when I’m bored with work or life in general. I saw all the things I was missing and the possibilities I’d forgotten or dismissed.
There, all around me, in the mountain air and prickly Chisos brush, I felt alive and vital in a way I hadn’t noticed in years.
At the trail turnoff for Juniper Canyon, I was reveling in the moment and still amazed that I was alone in nature and seemingly part of it. Then I spotted something that broke the spell.
There in the fresh snow was an animal track, the foot pad about 3.5 inches in diameter with five small toe prints on top. The impression was fairly fresh and the print was the first of several heading in the same direction as me.
It was a black bear, probably a 300- or 400-pound adolescent. The print was unmistakable and mystical. I wondered how far ahead he was.
The black bear is now endangered in Texas; they had all but disappeared from the Chisos Mountains until bears coming up through Mexico re-established the species there. We had encroached on the black bears’ habitats for years, practically leaving them no place to live. But because of their Mexican kin, they were back. It was good thing nature knew no borders.
When I settled into a warm motel room that night, I thought about the bear prints, and started weaving a clever, satirical piece around the idea of almost stumbling into a furry, 400-pound illegal alien that the federal government was currently welcoming into this country with open arms and spending our tax dollars to support and protect. I thought I would blame the exorbitant cost of our healthcare system on him and complain that, despite the good things one could say about the bears, they were still here illegally and utilizing our social services without paying taxes or learning to speak English. The bear would provide a humorous vehicle for mocking the ignorance and hypocrisy that clouds our views on immigration.
Instead, I just told the story.
Back on the trail, I took a break and let the bear be on his way. I never saw him, but thankfully he also never saw me. I was the alien and he was the native. I was sure his policy on newcomers was more humane than ours, but I didn’t want to push my luck. I liked sharing the world with him.