Whose Place Is This Anyway?

Written on February 8, 2010, posted here homesick for a return to Big Bend–

Our campsite is set up so that we face away from our neighbors, Phil and Margaret, facing so that we “sit on our front porch” (that is to say, beneath the extended end-flaps of our 12’x12′ screened-tent-living-room) looking almost due south into an area of the ubiquitous creosote bush and scrubby mesquite. About a quarter mile distant we can see the upper half of a grove of cottonwood trees along the edge of the Rio Grande, from which Cottonwood Campground gets its name. Although we can see the cottonwood tree tops, the view directly in front of us is a gravel circular driveway for about 15 yards and then latte-brown desert clay-sandy soil for another 15 yards and then the mesquite and creosote bush screens off all else.

We look into a dense thicket out of which at about this time in the late afternoon, a pair of coyotes make a regular stroll. I am assuming that it is a pair and not just two randomly associated canines. Although coyotes do howl in gatherings at night that sound like packs, it appears that they do not travel in groups and that unlike wolves, there is not a breeding hierarchy that restricts copulation rights to the alpha male and female in the pack. I say this because when these two appear, they are not accompanied by a pack and the lead coyote of the two is a more slender, but not skinny male, and he is followed by either a much better-fed hunting companion or it is his mate and she is pregnant.

It is from the mesquite thickets that the rattlesnakes will slide stealthily, early enough in the evening for us to see them, on their way to prey upon the kangaroo rats whose nightly feedings clutter our campsite with the empty pods of mesquite beans. The beautiful coral-tinted western coach-whip snake can be seen hunting among the shrub also, gliding with head raised a few inches above the ground to give it the advantage of sighting a meal some distance in front of its hungry advance. You needn’t watch where you step when you step out of the trailer after supper just yet though; the sun has had too few days to raise the ground temperature and rouse our cold-blooded neighbors from their torpor.

When you see a javelina … well, actually, you seldom see just one as they roam about in family groups … and you are not familiar with the collared peccary, you will suppose that you’ve seen a bunch of pigs, probably wild hogs. There is a similarity. The collared peccary, or javelina, is the size of a medium-bodied pig, has the face and snout of a long-nosed razor-back, and is covered with bristly hair, a line of which down its back can be raised in a bluster of bristle to threaten or when the animal is startled. You might smell a javelina before you see one as they have a distinct odor and some even call them the “musk hog.” While the javelina is related to the same order as the pig, you should note that this peccary is also cousin to the hippopotamus. I’ve never spoken with one, but probably javelinas don’t take to being mistaken for hogs. Javelinas are not dangerous if left alone, but will attack in a group if threatened or one is wounded. Since coyotes are predators, javelinas will readily attack, and can easily kill, domestic dogs, with the long canine teeth, from which these peccaries get their Spanish name for javelin or spear. We allow their frequent forays through our campsite to proceed unmolested.

From the paw prints in the mud within hundreds of yards of our “neighborhood,” even novice trackers can identify mountain lions, known locally as panthers, and bobcats. They are very private neighbors though, hunting javelinas and other small mammals at night, so we would count a sighting of one of these “large cats” as a really significant occasion. It is likely that more than one panther or bobcat has crouched in hiding watching us from behind the desert scrub as we nonchalantly amble along, hiking poles in hand with no sense of our being observed. Another volunteer, a friend of ours, checked his “critter camera” early one morning to discover, from the time and date stamp on the image he had captured, that the panther had been walking in the same direction that he was traveling to check his camera and but a few minutes ahead of him on the trail.

Skip and Judy along with Bob and Ruthene join Phil and Margaret to complete our cozy cul-de-sac at the end of a gravel service road off one of the Park’s main paved roads. Although the Cottonwood Campground, with sites for two dozen camping units, is but a thousand yards or so across that same paved road from us, today there were only three or four sites occupied there when Jane and I walked there after supper to get several containers of osmosis-filtered water for our drinking and cooking use in the next couple of days. Three quarter’s mile to our east, Park housing is provided for three more Park personnel. Today that means that there are at most nineteen or so people in this remote several thousand acre section of the Park. We are definitely in the minority so far as mammalian inhabitants are counted. Our numbers are dwarfed if you add reptiles and arachnids to the list of creatures out looking for something to eat or drink as the sun sets over the 1800 foot-high escarpment on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

No one noticed, at least no one that we were aware of, as Jane and I carried along a plastic bag into which we placed the trash we found as we walked in the 40 degree briskness along the three-quarter mile hike to the Visitor Center on Friday morning. Mostly we found the usual litter: a soda can, a couple of pieces of soggy tissue and other paper, one plastic circular push-up apparently from an ice-cream confection purchased at the concessionaire’s store beside our Visitor Center. With our backpacks, we might have appeared to be off on a day’s adventure but our focus was upon taking responsibility for our kind in this ecological community.

Not one of those pieces of paper was tossed there by a passing panther or a javelina on a jaunt. No rattler tossed that can from its pick-up window. There isn’t a self-respecting coach-whip that’s ever tasted ice cream. The mess is made somewhat regularly by those who “were not born here but who got here as quick as they could,” who seem not to know how to behave in a place to which they have no entitlement. You would think that guests would have manners enough to know not to toss stuff in their host’s gardens and yards or did they suppose that the pass they purchased as they entered the Park entitled them to deface this place in the same way the place they’ve come from is defaced. I just supposed that people came here for the uncluttered solemnity and solitude, for the beauty of a place whose indigenous citizens get down on all fours or even crawl to clean up after themselves. From the empty cellophane peanut pack I just put in the litter bag, I guess I was wrong.

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