Wednesday, November 12, 2008
It was a Saturday morning. We awoke to near freezing temperatures with light frost here and there and the most noxious smell of skunk. We could hear in the distance some sort of animal flock feeding and foraging. As I walked through the cactus to gather a few morning images, I saw a stand of Javalina not fifty yards from our camp.
After a couple of pop-tarts and coffee (French vanilla coffee grounds floating in hot water), I set out to photograph our wild pigs. I thought there were just a few – and I found them in short order tracking upwind and listening for their rustling in the brush. I spied three or four of them straddling a prickly pear cactus and eating a good bit of it. It seems they trample the plant first and then eat from it. As I clicked my first picture they discovered I was standing there, about fifteen feet away, wearing a yellow long sleeve shirt and bright read down vest. Off they went – twelve or thirteen in all, racing through the brush and then across the road.
By 9:30am, Chris and I drove to a nearby hillside – a place that was littered with several large volcanic boulders and we hiked to the top. We could see much of the highlands from there we were, but fearing fatigue, we spent little time exploring and made our way back to camp. We’d decided that we were going to climb Emory Peak that afternoon – the second highest peak in Texas.
At exactly 1:05pm, we headed out of the Big Bend basin looking up toward the peak. The map said it was 4.3 miles and an increase in elevation of 3000 feet. It is interesting, the psychology of motivation. You can’t really start out on a hike for the pinnacle and then stop when you’re tired. You have to keep on going no matter what. It’s sort of the rule. I hiked it once before with Brian in the summer and frankly, don’t remember it being such a trek. Maybe three or four times Chris would say quietly, are we close to the top. I’d say just as quietly – no not yet. When we got to the saddle at the base of the peak – we were both pretty darn tired. We still had another 1.2 miles and 800 or 1000 feet vertical to go. All of it was uphill!
We stopped for a moment to rest on our way through the last leg. There was a loud huff from the brush and then the breaking of sticks and brush as something large moved about. As we made our may along, we ran across a beautiful black bear. Although he was weary of our presence, he didn’t mind our watching him. He made a point to stay about 40 feet away and to keep some sort of brush between us. It was just the inspiration we needed – a break with something cool in it. I could see the top – although a good click away – we finally had a target that wasn’t occluded by trees and mountain parts. The views just got better and better as we got higher – the moon rising over the desert. He had no time to kid around – the day was ending and crickets were starting to sing in the shadows. The temperature was starting to drop.
We got to the top at about 4:20pm – deciding to stay only long enough to take a few pictures. At 4:30, we started on our way back down. By the time we got back to the bottom, we both were pretty much wiped out. We calculated the trek again and found that all told, it was a ten mile run – more than either of us had trained for.
In another cool note to the story, on our way up, we ran across three guys from Waco – undoubtedly from Baylor – (all non-smoking, non-drinking virgins saving themselves for marriage – not) coming down from the peak. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my felt hat. As we continued up and they down, I hollered at them to keep an eye out for it and to hang it on a tree where I could find it. Sure enough – about a third or the way down, my hat was hanging from a tree. And when we got back to the bottom – after dark – they were just pulling away in their car and mentioned that they were glad I’d found my hat. I thanked them but was not in the mood to talk. Somehow I’ll track them down and thank them properly.
According to Indian legend when the great creator finished making the Earth, a large pile of rejected stoney material was left over. Already finished with the main job, the creator threw this material into one heap and made it Big Bend country.
It was Wednesday night when Christopher and I made the wild hair decision to drive out to Big Bend and camp for the weekend. Chris had to finish a lab for school and I had to accept the delivery of a huge package A/C unit for my apartments. By Thursday night Chris was just about finished with his work, I with mine, and so we said on the phone – um, well if you want to go??? We settled on the idea that at 6am we’d blast out of San Marcos and head out to Big Bend – the most remarkable wilderness camping place in the Universe. I went to the gym anyway to prep myself for the long trek West.
5:45am came early and at the front of the house, the sunrise is my alarm. When my cute little iPhone did its morning ding, I was just settled in with the idea of actually being asleep. I raised my head over my sleeping dog and looked across the landscape. It was a spectacular morning – a long orange and deep red band of light anticipated the sunrise – a layer of cloud across the horizon. I laid my head down for fifteen more minutes – hoping for a moment that we’d both forget. By 6am, I was out of bed hobbling around the house in my boxers– gathering my camera gear, feeding the dog, finding my last minute stuff, taking a shower and wondering if Chris was still asleep.
At 6:37, Chris showed up at the door. Kodak so wanted to go with us – jumping around with excitement in hopes of getting into the car with us. A quick packing job, past tense, and we were on our way – Kodak sulking at the door.
By 4pm, we were pulling into our campsite. We put up the tent, poured a glass of Whiskey, and listened to the silence. We had relaxed for only a moment, when in the distance – just barely rising above the sound of birds and crickets were voices. On the horizon were two guys hiking along the nearby ridge.
The sun was going down and the light magnificent, warm and fleeting. Chris was diggin in the dirt with his archeology tools and did actually find a place where it seems Indians made Ocre. I was running out of light and so I hiked up the road toward an old cemetery. I ran across the two guys on the road. We smiled, introduced ourselves and chatted. It turns out both of these guys were from San Antonio serving in the Air Force. One guy was an “intel” officer and the other a Pilot. He said quite casually that he flew for the Guard. I said, “really – do you know Tim Lawlor?”. He smiled and bowed his head for a moment. “We flew together at Aviano” he said. Oh My God – this guy was Tim’s best bud and I was down here in the middle "Nowhere, Texas". He continued to say that Tim had just called him a few days earlier on the phone. I told him that Tim had been my roommate for a while in San Marcos before he went to flight school, and of course, delivered a little dirt that would be helpful in future conversation. Yeager was his name – the flight name Pilots get from their wingmen and flight pals. Wow – an American hero here in Big Bend who knows my friend Tim – and who also is his friend.
The sun set as the two walked off in the distance – I still marveling at the exchange we’d just had and that we – here in the middle of Big Bend, Texas we were indeed connected by Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of separation. Awesome!
We’d talked all morning about getting to Ft. Stockton and having a Whataburger. Oh yah – double meat, bouble cheese with extra onions and jalepenos. Chris was going to have the Whatachicken with cheese and bacon. He said, “and it’s good for you too”. I laughed.
We drove the entire length of the city and discovered to our dismay that there was no Whataburger. Dammit – so we went to Dairy Queen.
It was rush hour there at lunch time – a vast ghetto presence, a few cowboys, and one DQ Dude. We sat at the only table open and right across in front of me was this 35ish white dude sitting with his 75ish year old mother who was balancing her checkbook. Across from him was a table with three girls – not one of them pretty by San Marcos standards – but well endowed.
I watched him for a bit and thought him to be acting a little unusual. He was watching the girls with particular interest and kept smacking him lips like he was drooling. Every once in a while his mother would say something to him and he would turn toward her, look down and had this expression on his face like he’d been whipped with a stick – “yes mummy”. Anyhow – to my surprise – after all, we are sitting in the lunch rush hour at the Diary Queen – the DQ Dude was loping his mule under his shirt tail – right across from his mother. Every time he looked over at the girls he’d put down his burger with his left hand and go to town with his right. The look on his face and expressions were – if I could describe them - moist, lascivious, giddy, exuberant, obsessed - and with words like "Oh My God" or "Yah Baby" repeated over and over in one's thoughts. It was the perfect demonstration one might see in a documentary movie about freaky, repressed perverts who live with their aging mother in a small West Texas town - as captured by the surveillance camera. The girls finished their meal before he’d gotten to finish up with his lunch special. He watched them intently every step of the way through the store and then out into the parking lot.
I mentioned to Chris, the ongoing display behind him. He said –“that’s so fucked up”. My thought – it is so fun to travel and to see the world in a different light and to return home better informed.
Last summer Greg Gorman and I stopped through Kansas City – as you will recall - while shooting the Portraits of America gig for Disney. We had a good bit of wine and excellent food and interesting company. Greg grew up with all these cats there in KC, ran around with Jimmy Hoffa's kids, and nearly everyone we met had a father or brother arrested at Appalachia. It was one eye opening good time and I learned a few things I dare not repeat.
As we continued on throughout the country, I often revisited my memories of Kansas City – being hosted by, well, the family - eating the very best, personalized Italian food and some of the best Barbecue - although we have some pretty good bbq down here in Texas.
So – I thought for a long time what I could do to send my thanks or to demonstrate my heart felt appreciation for having been included with my friend Greg and these historically significant people. I knew way back then what I thought would be appropriate and noteworthy. Having known a few Chefs in my day and folks who like to eat, all of them appreciate some new thing, a new combination, a new spice with which to concoct a meal. Mexican Oregano I thought – home grown in the Trans Pecos Mountains of West Texas – and it was something I could get my hands on.
Alas, the weather has been strange of late – last year dropping a flooding 44 inches where there is a usual 8. This year, nothing from the sky but lightning – and fire. But in the last few weeks of August, regular rains blessed the rocky landscape and the wild Oregano returned.
To make a long story short – I harvested fifteen pounds of Oregano from the cap rock over Spring Canyon – filling the back of my blazer. This is in Pandale, Texas on the Pecos River about 40 miles from our border with Mexico. So picture this – I drove the 305 miles back home with about a hundred spent .223 casings in my console and rolling around on the floorboard, a 9mm Sig next to the seat, my M4 in the back seat with a few cans of ammo – and a full trunk load of skunky Oregano. Had I been stopped in lets say, Junction, Texas – I’d probably still be there while they waited for a lab test from DPS. "I swear officer, it's Oregano". None the less, I made it home safely. I air dried all of it – spending an entire Saturday plucking leaves and grinding them finely in my Cuisinart.
This spice – here known as Mexican Oregano, as the Mexicans harvest it here for cooking – is a bit stronger and more fragrant than our more common variety. It is used here for sauces and chili. And so, I sent a large jar to Kansas City, to the Restaurant, and to the Chef - and then he called.
Carl he says - I want to thank you for the Oregano. I loved your letter too. We had some important friends in last night from Sicily and I thought all day what special dish to prepare for them. What better surprise than to use your Oregano - and they raved about it. He continued with details and that my letter - which had accompanied the jar of spice - was now posted on the wall of the restaurant.
There is a website for the ranch where this Oregano grew. I did the website and it has a lot of cool pictures on it – which you might find interesting. http://www.westtexaswhitetail.com/
I sent regards to the brothers - all of whom had been so gracious when I visited. I have sworn to my closest friends here that some day, we will all pile onto an Express Jet here in Austin and go have dinner in Kansas City. I’ll be sure to remember to take my ball cap off next time.