Mindfulness, Mountains & Snakes in the Big Bend

A few weeks ago, it was back to the Big Bend region with Meghan Cassidy for one of the last trips for the book on mindfulness in nature. I’ve made a number of trips there during the past twenty years, and my attachment to and fascination with that region keeps growing. I felt really fortunate to introduce Meghan to the Chihuahuan Desert and the mountains out there.

We stayed in a cabin at Wild Horse Station, just a little bit north of Study Butte near the Christmas Mountains. There are extruded columns of lava and thin soil where scattered desert plants grow. It is a strange and beautiful place, and that cabin on the hillside has a broad porch that looks out toward more hills and mountains to the west. This trip included some times for sitting on that porch, watching rainstorms or sunsets, and writing. I’m very grateful for that porch and for those moments.

A ridge just behind our cabin, at moonrise. Photo by Meghan Cassidy

In the early years, my visits to this region were very focused on finding snakes and other reptiles, although my companions and I always knew this was a place to be savored and soaked in. We rarely took much time to do it, and whatever we gained in total snakes seen, we lost in really getting to know the region. Each year has brought a broader interest in the ecoregion and a willingness to slow down and pay attention to more of it. This trip was a combination of mindful attention to the mountains and desert and some very fine observations of snakes.

Sunset (photo by M.Smith)

Our arrival at the cabin was interesting. Darkness had just fallen when we walked across the porch to find the front door open and, inside the dark cabin, the television was on. We did the ‘police knock’ standing to the side of the open doorway, and when there was no response – human, javelina, or otherwise, we turned on the inside light and began to check the rooms. I glanced to the side to see Meghan holding a knife, and I knew I had a capable partner out here where there is little phone service and self-reliance is important. Everything was fine; I like to think that a coyote – not the human trafficker but Canis latrans, the trickster of Native American legends – had let himself in, watched a show, and left the place open for us.

In the morning there was coffee, the shadows of nearby mountains with rosy light growing overhead, and that wonderful porch overlooking it all. After a beautiful sunrise, we got ready and headed into Big Bend National Park.

Chihuahuan Desert within Big Bend National Park (photo by M.Smith)

We walked around on the hot, gravelly desert floor, around prickly pear, creosote bush, and other characteristic desert plants. Lechuguilla, an indicator plant of the Chihuahuan Desert, grew in patches of upright succulent leaves. Many had remnants of the tall stalk they send up in late summer with clusters of flowers. The leaves are often described as like an upside-down bunch of green bananas, partly because they often curve inward a little. However, no bananas ever dreamed of having two rows of sharp recurved hooks on leaves tapering to a hard, sharp spine that can even puncture a car tire!

Creosote bush and prickly pear (including the purplish variety) in the foreground, with a patch of lechuguilla behind them (photo by M.Smith)

We walked a small dry arroyo as a couple of big black birds flew past. We weren’t experienced enough to call them as Chihuahuan ravens, but from the overall size and chunkier neck, they seemed more likely to be ravens than crows. There were a few places in the arroyo where the sandy soil had piled up and grew a small garden of flowers. Those flowers attracted butterflies. Perhaps they would seem out of place in the desert, particularly if we made the mistake of thinking of the desert as barren. The desert is a harsh place, by our standards, and it requires adaptation to extremes of heat and limited rainfall – but it is full of life.

Queen butterfly in a desert arroyo (photo by M.Smith)

We came back to the cabin during the hottest part of the day, and the shade of the porch and the breeze at the top of our hill made the perfect place for reflecting on our morning and writing about the desert plants, butterflies, and the value of long vistas in which nature has free reign.

The clouds were building in the west, and under dark clouds were blurs of falling rain. The low rumble of thunder rolled in, and as the system marched toward us, bright lightning was visible as the power of the storm reached down to touch the earth. Announcing the storm’s arrival, the outflow winds were strong and I had to stop for a moment and think how many times this little cabin perched on the edge of the hill had withstood storms just like this. I needed that reassurance as raindrops began to slam into the porch and torrents of rain blew by outside our windows. This is how the monsoon season works in the Trans-Pecos: It’s hot and sunny, then clouds build into storms, the thunderstorms dump a lot of rain (and maybe hail) in a short time, and then they move on and it’s done.

The storm approaching (Photo by M.Smith)

When we walked out onto the porch, the cool air was laden with the smell of rain and creosote. The desert here is full of creosote bush, a shrub with very small green leaves with an aromatic resin and waxy coating that helps protect the plant from drying out. If you crush the leaves, the resin has the familiar, vaguely tar-like smell of treated railroad ties or telephone poles. After a heavy rain, the resin is released into the air and the aroma is strong, fresh and wonderful.

At the end of the storm (Photo by M.Smith)

The next day, September 17, was our day to be in the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos is the only mountain range entirely contained within one national park. Driving up into “The Basin” within the mountains, the vegetation changes, reflecting slightly cooler temperatures and a little more rainfall. As you begin the climb into the mountains, you enter a woodland of small oak trees, junipers and pinyon pine. Tall slabs and columns of reddish igneous rock stretch toward the sky.

In The Basin (Photo by M.Smith)

The previous day, driving around the Chisos Mountains Lodge, in The Basin, we had come across a sad, significant find. There was a small snake on the pavement that had been run over some time earlier that morning. There was a dark head with an interrupted white collar behind it, and the body of the snake was a pale tan. This was the first Trans-Pecos black-headed snake that I had come across, and it was a real shame that it was dead. It belongs to a group of snakes with enlarged rear teeth and a salivary toxin to help subdue its prey (but is harmless to humans), and it is the largest species within that genus, Tantilla. It’s still a small snake, often growing no longer than about a foot. It is listed by Texas as a threatened species, but neither that nor its presence in a national park had kept it from being run over.

Trans-Pecos black-headed snake, Tantilla cucullata (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Now it was time to climb the Lost Mine Trail up past the Casa Grande peak, to a point where the view opens to the south. The climb is fairly gentle, through mountain woodlands and small grassy openings dotted with beargrass, sotol, and Havard agave. This latter species, also known as “century plant,” sends up a fast-growing stalk at the end of its life with short branches bearing clusters of yellow flowers. The base of the plant is a rosette of thick, stiff, bluish leaves with sharp hooks along the leaf edges and a hard black spine at the leaf tip.

At this elevation it is cooler and there is greater rainfall. In the shade of the mountain there are ferns and beautiful flowers including mountain sage, the red starburst blooms of mountain catchfly, goldenrod, and penstemon. It is easy to stop along the way, on a bench or a boulder, and be still for a while, taking it all in.

Meghan and Michael on the Lost Mine Trail

This trail in these mountains means a great deal to me, and I’ve written before about what it is like to be here in its quiet and beauty. And when we reached the place where we could look far away to the south, I spent a while under a pinyon pine looking at what I think is one of the great places within Big Bend.

On the Lost Mine Trail, looking south (Photo by M.Smith)

That night, our thoughts shifted away from the book and toward the variety of wonderful snakes that can be found in this area. We stayed along Highway 118 north of Study Butte up through the Christmas Mountains and along the desert flats. Our first snake was a black-tailed rattlesnake that, as I walked up to it, seemed to be ‘periscoping’ up to look around. It turned out to be blind in one eye, and was trying its best to figure out what was going on as we approached on its blind side. Like many black-tailed rattlesnakes, it was slow to get frightened or aroused, and it never rattled or threatened us in any way as we used snake hooks to move it away from the road so that it would not be run over.

We were on the lookout for Mojave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus). Meghan wanted to see up close the distinction between this species and the similar-looking western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). The immediate visual differences have to do with the width of the black-and-white bands on the tail, the pattern on individual scales, the light diagonal marks on the face, and the size of the scales on top of the head. The rings on the tail of the western diamondback are of roughly equal width, while those of the Mojave emphasize white, with black rings spaced more widely. Both snakes have roughly diamond-shaped blotches down the back, but each scale on the Mojave rattlesnake tends to be mostly one color (resulting in a crisp pattern almost like a mosaic), whereas the colors may transition and almost smear on the diamondback’s scales. The two diagonal lines on the western diamondback’s face both end at the mouth. In contrast, the diagonal stripe behind the Mojave’s eye bends and continues back behind the jaw line. Finally, the scales on the top of the western diamondback’s head (between the eyes and toward the snout) are small. A Mojave rattlesnake has larger scales on top of the head.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Mojave rattlesnake, showing larger head scales (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Mojave rattlesnake, roughly the last third of the body showing the pattern of the scales and the wide white areas on the tail (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The one Mojave rattlesnake that we found had been run over, unfortunately. We positioned the head and tail for photos to illustrate these differences. This is the snake that folks in the Big Bend may be most concerned about, because populations of this species in Texas and elsewhere have venom with high neurotoxic activity. A bite might produce less swelling and bruising but more systemic effects, including respiratory problems. My experience with living Mojave rattlesnakes is that their temperament varies and, like other rattlesnakes, they would prefer to be left alone and are not especially aggressive.

That sort of peaceable behavior was true for every living snake we found that night. Every live western diamondback or black-tail greeted us with inquisitive tongue-flicks or attempts to get away, but none attempted to bite. One snake rattled, but the rest did not even become nervous enough to do that. Meghan is good at using a hook to move a venomous snake, and we both do so gently and without presenting a threatening target to the snake, and this may have contributed to their laid-back behavior. However, Meghan was looking for more examples of hooking defensive (or even irate) rattlesnakes, and she wasn’t getting to see any of that. (She did, at least a little bit, the following evening near Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, where the diamondbacks quickly rattled even if they did not strike at us.)

One of the black-tailed rattlesnakes at night (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)

It was getting late. As we drove back up the hillside to our cabin, there was one more black-tailed rattlesnake for us, a beautiful adult. We decided to ‘bucket’ her for good photos in the morning. Once again, this snake was simply curious about what we were doing, and tolerated Meghan’s hooking her and placing her in the snake bucket with little reaction.

(A couple of side-notes. First, the ‘snake bucket’ is a five-gallon bucket with a screw-on lid with air holes drilled in such a way that a venomous snake could not get close enough from the inside to get a fang through the hole. It is essentially snake-proof, so that we could sleep comfortably with a rattlesnake in the front room of the cabin. Second, part of being a safe, competent herper is constantly maintaining awareness of yourself and your surroundings when interacting with venomous snakes, even those who are being complete sweethearts. Neither Meghan nor I took these snakes’ temperaments for granted, because a moment’s slip-up with a “sweet” rattlesnake – especially in the isolation of the Big Bend at night – can be incredibly serious.)

Morning photo of the black-tailed rattlesnake (Photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The next morning, Meghan took a series of photographs of this black-tailed rattlesnake, and we released her. We were happy to have her as a neighbor during our stay!

The following night, we were able to see a couple of Trans-Pecos ratsnakes, a favorite for both of us. One had been hit, but the second was wonderfully alive and gentle as we got it off the road so that it would not be run over. These slender, harmless snakes are pale yellowish (almost like the inside of a banana, leading Meghan to playfully call it a ‘banana snake’) or straw color with black markings. Two lines down the neck separate into something like blotches connected across the back in an “H” shape. They are nocturnal wanderers with big eyes to gather as much light as possible.

Trans-Pecos ratsnake (Bogertophis subocularis) – Photo by Meghan Cassidy

The final day in the Big Bend included a drive down FM 2627 past Black Gap WMA to the La Linda international crossing into Mexico (the bridge is barricaded, though crossing the Rio Grande at that point looked like it would not be difficult). The landscape and nearby mountains were beautiful, but it was virtually all private property and so we could not walk around and explore.

A church, looking across into Mexico at La Linda (Photo by M.Smith)
Near FM 2627 (Photo by M.Smith)

Back within the park we walked part of the trail leading to Dog Canyon, in the Dead Horse Mountains, and also westward in some sparse grasslands looking toward the Rosillas Mountains. I wrote about this later, about the long shadows toward sunset and the sense of solitude and even isolation there, as the sun was setting.

Long shadows, looking toward the Dead Horse Mountains (Photo by M.Smith)
Sparse grasslands and the Rosillas Mountains (Photo by M.Smith)
Sunset on our last day (Photo by M.Smith)

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