Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on March 17, 2013
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
A friend of mine recently told a story of her family camping out at Arroyo City, right on the water. She said some family friends joined them for the afternoon, but they didn’t want to stay the night. “My friend just didn’t understand why we would want to sleep in a tent, and stay the whole night. I kept reassuring her that it would be worth it. Something special always happens when you just stay! Sure enough, that night as we sat peacefully around the campfire, we heard splashing in the bay. When we looked closer, we realized dolphins were jumping under the moonlight. It was so special and magical. My friend agreed she was glad she had stayed the night!”
It always takes us a day or two to feel the difference. As the phone batteries die, and we are out of reach of Wi-Fi or phone service, the electronics are powered down and stowed away in the car, and in their place our tents are pitched, we settle into another life–the camping life. My kids start acting more like kids. Even my teen plays with sticks and climbs ravines, exploring the desert around our campsite. Children are quick to do what would take hours of nagging at home. They offer to gather firewood and enjoy washing the camping dishes in a basin at the river. As the sun sets behind the rocky cliffs, the most amazing night sky appears, billions of stars fill the blackness until there is more light than dark. We talk for hours around the campfire, about the stars, the hike we completed that day, the critters we hear howling, how quickly the dried ocotillo branches burn, and how scary it must be for the immigrants crossing this part of the border with no water—walking across hundreds of miles of desert mountains.
I feel so fortunate to have these days in this most beautiful part of the world–Big Bend National Park. Located in West Texas, it is a gem of a place, rarely crowded, yet a grand and awesome expanse of desert, full of life and history. Thousand foot sheer canyon walls are cut by the meandering turquoise Rio Grande. Mountains and rock formations change color many times a day, sunrise to sunset, from yellow to brown to orange to crimson red. The creosote bushes release a unique and pleasant smell of desert rain when clouds darken and produce rain that dries instantly when it hits the sand and rock. The park covers 1,200 square miles and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. I understand it is a privilege to have a job that allows this time off, to have a job at all, to have money to pay for the gas to drive the 14 hours northwest from the Rio Grande Valley and to buy the camping gear and food needed for a week. I realize that many people don’t have this privilege; but I also know many do and if they experienced the peace and joy of camping on this land would opt for this location over Disneyworld and cruise ships any day.
Now that we have come year after year to walk the trails, swim in the refreshing river and soak in the hot springs of Big Bend National Park, our kids wouldn’t miss it for anything. They revel in the routine of returning to one of their favorite places and beg to stay at the same campsite every year, and visit the same canyons. They learn so much on these escapes. I sometimes feel that a year of school lessons is packed into just a few days. They learn geology, geography, history, plant science, math, communication and survival skills as we hike through a world that was beneath the sea a million years ago, find fossilized shells and petrified logs, view pictographs on the cliff walls drawn by a civilization living along the river over a thousand years ago, learn to use the plants in the desert and identify insects, jack rabbits, javelinas, mountain lions, and scorpions from a distance, of course.
My daughter runs to the campsite excited she has found a black rock covered in perfectly fossilized shells. My sons are off gathering ocotillo branches and dried cow patties for the fire and my husband is talking across the trickle of a border that is the Rio Grande with an elderly farmer who stands with his horse in Mexico. We will cook some beans and tortillas on the camp stove later and it will be the most delicious meal we’ve ever eaten. And then we will sit gazing at the most amazing sky, contemplating the fact that we are seeing light from millions of years ago just arriving in our galaxy for us to enjoy. We practice the lost art of talking and listening, undistracted and know that these are the healthiest, purest moments we will have with our kids.
You don’t have to go all of the way to Big Bend for this kind of experience. Nor do you have to spend a week, or be experienced outdoor people. Our local nature parks, the World Birding Center parks and State parks like Resaca de La Palma in Brownsville have great outdoor education and introduction to camping programs. A good way to get started is on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state–parks/ The important thing is just to get outside and stay long enough for something to happen, because Tu Salud Si Cuenta!