The day after Thanksgiving in 1957, Bob and Ann piled the kids in the station wagon and drove from Sanderson, Texas, to Big Bend National Park. Sanderson to Jacksboro was too far a drive for the family to make for the holiday, so they stayed down on the border and made a true holiday of it by visiting the park.
Santa Elena Canyon, 1957 (notice the height of the people standing by the river, on the right)
For the last leg of my West Texas Interlude trip with Pat and Randy, we ended up at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the national park — Bob and Ann had made a day trip of it, going all the way to Santa Elena Canyon on the west side of the park and back to Sanderson in one day, but we opted to stop for a couple of nights in the mountains. Shortly after we arrived, we went out for a 1.5 mile loop hike near the lodge and visitor’s center, taking in views of the Window below us. As we set out on the loop, we paused at the map posted at the trailhead, and I recalled a vivid memory of standing in that place with Jen and Janel a year and a half ago, after we’d finished our 5 mile hike to the Window and back. I remembered looking at the dotted lines on the map for the South Rim and Emory Peak and hoping that I would get to come back and see more of the park.
And in that moment of remembrance, I decided that I needed to make it happen. I needed to climb up to the top of Emory Peak. So the next morning, I took my laptop out of my backpack, put in a few snacks and a couple of water bottles instead, and I set off. I tried not to focus too much on the signs posted several times in the first mile of my trip, warning that this is bear and mountain lion country.
I’ll be very honest — I hope I never, ever see a bear or mountain lion. My fear of them is very rational (they’re predators!), so it’s not at all a phobia. Pretty much every step of the way to the top and back I was certain that something was about to lunge for me from the forest. I heard growling a few times (maybe). I also heard something swishing along in the brush beside me once or twice, in step with me, stalking me, stopping when I stopped. It turned out to be my ponytail swishing against the top of my backpack, but for a few moments I was sure my time was up.
Texas Mandrone and agave, on the Pinnacles Trail leading to Emory Peak Trail
For more than an hour, I hiked without seeing another soul coming or going. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a mistake in coming up there on my own — Pat and Randy and I all felt that it would be crowded enough on the last weekend of spring break that I wouldn’t actually be hiking alone all day. Nine miles is a long way by yourself, just you and the predators. During that first hour I sang to myself and the trees and the Mexican bluejays that hopped along the trail in front of me. After that, I leapfrogged with a couple of families and passed a few other people on the way to and from the top, solitary no more. My thoughts changed from certainty that I was being stalked, to wondering will my size in comparison with the others make me easy prey, or will it make me look less appetizing (I don’t exactly have a lot of meat on my bones)?
Four-and-a-half miles later, I reached the top of Emory Peak. Technically, I didn’t go all the way to the highest point. The last 20 or 25 feet are a scramble up some rocks where you get a 360 degree view — but I and a few others in the groups I’d arrived with were satisfied to watch the brave few climb up there while we enjoyed our slightly-less-than 360 degree view. I am unashamed that I only made it to 7800 feet and not 7825.
view from Emory Peak
I sat down on a rock to snack and rest and chat with the others before heading back down, when I realized I got a cell signal for the first time since we’d arrived in the park. I had received text and voice messages, and with my phone to my ear I heard the guy next to me say, “You’re getting a signal up here? Is that why you made the hike?”
“Yeah, I came up here to check my voicemail.”
view of the Chihuahuan Desert from Emory Peak
I made it back down to the lodge without seeing any bears or mountain lions, nor any prickly pear in bloom (almost, but not quite). Sitting at the restaurant patio with cold drinks later in the afternoon, Randy told me about this article about a mountain lion attacking a 6-year-old kid in February, causing them to close all the Chisos Mountain trails while they tracked the lion — which they didn’t find. Turns out the kid was attacked between the lodge and the restaurant. I later dug around on the NPS website and found a listing of mountain lion sightings in Big Bend for the month of February — one of the seven sightings for the month was at “Chisos Mountains Lodge, room 206, top of stairs.” I was sitting on my bed in room 215 when I read this. I guess I’m just as safe on Emory Peak as I am on the way to breakfast.
(For anyone who ended up at this blog because you’re looking to hike Emory Peak, I did the 9 mile round-trip hike with a 2500 foot elevation gain in 5.5 hours — and I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve already been on a lot of the other trails in the park. It’s amazing to stand at the top and look down at the places where you’ve already hiked.)