I wrote “Balanced Rock, Big Bend National Park” after my first trip to Big Bend in March of 2011. In November of 2013, I was visiting the park for the second time when I received word that my poem had won first place in the Poetry Society of Texas‘ Derry Tutt Memorial Award. Both the honor and the coincidence brought me great joy. The poem was published in PST’s A Book of the Year 2014, and now I’d like to share it with you here.
Balanced Rock, Big Bend National Park
Light lays down
on the outcropping of stone
vertical peaks rise smaller, smaller
desert dragons sleeping beneath the surface.
Twilight creeps up from behind
drops the temperature
like it was an accident
nudges thoughts to posted warnings
moves mind from buried beasts
to live ones.
Hiking down is never the same—
shadows alter landscapes
scoot boulders, shift footpaths.
Shoe slips on loose gravel
Two buzzards perch on cliff edge
Dusk in my eyes
a rock clutched tight in my fist
wonder if the mountain lions
My dad loves to take road trips. For him the phrase is literal. He simply likes to traverse the roads of Texas. There are destinations, but the path to get there is the real fun, full of photo opportunities and yellow and black diamond signs* and miles and miles of Texas scenery. There’s a lot of Texas, and my dad has seen most of it. Last year he completed his goal of visiting all 256 counties. Now, he’s trying to hit as many border towns as he can, outlining the state that he’s already pretty well filled in. But honestly, even if he’d traveled every highway and farm-to-market there is, seen all the cities and every ghost town in between, I still don’t think anything could keep him off the roads. He likes the drive, he likes the company, and he likes taking pictures of it all.
This weekend, my husband and I accompanied my dad on one of his “quick trips.” The destination was Presidio, Texas, a border town of about 4,000 people, but there were plenty of stops and tangents to take along the way, both there and back.
On Thursday, my dad drove down to Austin with my mom from their home in Richardson. On Friday morning, Mom stayed at our house to pet sit for us while my dad, my hubby, and I hit the road at 7:00 A.M.
1,200 miles is a lot of road to cover, and we covered them fast in my husband’s Jetta (a.k.a. “the Jitney”). It would be impossible, or at least quite time-consuming, for me to share every sign and windmill and roadrunner that we encountered (there were many), but here are a few highlights from the trip:
A café called The Mercantile Garden on Main Street in Sonora—They have a sandwich called The Hobbit that hit the spot.
The Balmorhea State Park Pool—It wasn’t the right weather for trying out this spring-fed swimming hole, but it is definitely on my to do list now!
Buying some Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans in Fort Davis—Mark got black pepper, I got sausage and cinnamon, Dad got booger and vomit. Poor Dad.
The sunrise in Presidio—Beauty in every direction that Saturday morning.
Driving out to Ruidosa, TX to see what was there—The answer? Nothing really, except the Chinati Hot Springs, an unexpected oasis very much off the beaten path. I may have to take a writing retreat there someday.
Taking my first trip (via rowboat and burro) into Mexico—The hubby and I spent a couple of hours in Boquillas, just across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. Dad, who doesn’t have a passport, waited for us on the Texas side. He and my brother took that rowboat journey in the mid-nineties when things at the border were less complicated.
The Story of the Little Green Rock
Traveling with my dad is fun. Having said that, it can also be a little painful. One common injury suffered on long road trips with him is a strained cornea due to all the eye-rolling you end up doing throughout the trip. The term “captive audience” is never more true than when you’re in a car, in the middle-of-nowhere-Texas, with no radio, no cell phone service, and no traffic in sight. Dad knows this. Dad uses these opportunities to tell stories.
Some of the stories are great—he tells old family tales and army anecdotes and talks about how the landscape has changed since he was a kid. Some of the stories are obvious jokes or outlandish lies, and those can be okay too. But some of the stories begin in one category before subtly sliding over into the other, and before you know it, you’ve been got. Trapped in the car on a lonely stretch of country road with not even a cow to commiserate with, you sigh and roll your eyes and push the accelerator a little closer to the floor.
This weekend, my dad told the story of the little green rock.
When my dad was a little kid, his family drove out to the Panhandle to visit his grandparents, Pap and Grandma. It was winter, and it had been a hard one in West Texas. The temperature was in the upper twenties and had been for days. The ground was frozen solid and icicles hung from the roof of the farmhouse.
Dad’s father and grandfather walked out into the pasture to check on the cattle, and my dad went with them. He was dressed in his warmest clothes, but it didn’t matter. That cold wind blew straight across those flat plains and right through him. He was shivering and wanted to go back to the house, but he wanted to stay with the men more, so he did.
While they were out walking that frozen ground, my dad looked down and saw a little green rock. It was shaped kind of a like an egg, but smaller, and very smooth. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. Finally, the men turned to head back to the warmth of the house. My dad was more than ready to follow them.
When they got inside, they shrugged off their coats and their extra layers. My dad emptied his pockets, putting his little green rock on the table. They stoked the fire and got it going good, and everyone sat around thawing out and warming up.
After a few minutes, when the feeling had come back to my dad’s hands and feet and he was starting to feel alive again, he heard PHHFFFTT! He looked at the table and saw that his little green rock was gone.
It turns out, it wasn’t a rock at all. It was a frozen fart.
(I warned you. Be grateful you got the short version.)
We left at 7:00 A.M. on Friday, spent the night in Presidio, and arrived back in Austin at 1:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. In the 42 hours that we were gone, we put 1,237 miles on the Jitney. Dad slept for a few hours and then he and Mom hit the road again, heading back up to Richardson before the bad weather arrived.
The whole thing was a whirlwind. Honestly, I probably won’t even remember it all until I see Dad’s pictures. (I didn’t take very many, but he did.) Some people probably can’t understand the point of a trip like that—so much driving (all done by my husband), so many hours in the car and so little time spent in any one location. But we covered a lot of ground and had some good conversations and kicked up a lot of dust behind the Jitney. We drank some coffee and collected some more yellow and black signs and learned a lesson about picking up little green rocks in winter.