May 13, 2015
Thunderstorms at night made the desert alive with insects in the morning. As I walked out into the desert for my morning business, many cicadas leaped off the ground and bushes around me to buzz through the air. I caught a grasshopper as thick as my thumb with short legs and a stumpy body the color of sand, but it drove the spikes on its legs painfully into my fingers and I let it go. I also saw several desert millipedes and various types of butterflies and moths. After a water run to Panther junction to refill our 4 one gallon water jugs, we headed the opposite direction of Santa Elena canyon to the east side of the park to see Boquillas Canyon.
I didn’t end up taking many pictures of the Boquillas Canyon itself, but I managed to “capture” this Chihuahuan Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) after he ran down the trail ahead of us and perched on top of his rock. He proceeded stand as tall as possible on his front legs and bob up and down in what I assume was a territorial display of bravery for the local lady lizards. He certainly impressed me with his bright green and orange accented by bold black and white stripes.
Along the Boquillas Canyon Trail, we met a man who crossed the Rio Grande each day to sell souvenirs such as road runners (corre caminos en espanol) and scorpions made of wire and beads to tourists. At the end of the canyon we saw three burros cleverly penned by a canyon wall, the river and on only one side the shortest amount of fence possible. After the Boquillas Canyon, we headed to the Rio Grande Village within the national park where you can take a shower for 5 minutes for $1.50! Water out here is just that precious. For our afternoon hike at Lost Mine Trail, we headed back into the Chisos Mountains where the temperature was considerably cooler.
The views above are from near the top of Lost Mine Trail. This hike brought us through stunning scenery where brightly colored lichen coated the rocks. The color palate of the desert shifted as the plant community changed to forests dominated by piñon pine and juniper, which made the air smell very different from the plains below. I was particularly intrigued by the piñon pine (Pinus cembroides) because I was so surprised to find a pine in the desert. It turns out that this tree is a relic species from when this region was cooler, but as the last Ice Age ended and the climate here became hotter and drier, this species became isolated in these mountains. Apparently indigenous people also highly prized this tree for its edible nuts and the sap for waterproofing, treating sore throats and removing splinters or (I imagine) cactus spines.
I enjoyed the vast vistas this hike provided, but also appreciated the tiny life forms up here. From below I noticed that the orange-tan peaks had a dusting of bright green. Along the trail I got to examine the rock and their lichen graffiti closely. The lichen paint the rocks with vibrant shade of green, orange and grey. These symbiotic organisms are very hardy pioneers, who are composed of a fungi in partnership with either a algae or a cyanobacteria. Lichen survive and grow (very slowly) in some of the most inhospitable environments on the planet because they shut down in unfavorable conditions. To me lichens are some of nature’s most exquisite art, not only because of the color they add to rocks, but also because of the array of unique biochemicals they produce, which people can use medicinally for a variety of health problems.
We spent at least thirty minutes relaxing at the top of the mountain. As a surprise, one of my friends even carried a 6 pack of beer to the top and shared with everyone. Cheers, Joey!
As we relaxed at the top, we timed how long a rock took to fall from the top, watched a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fly over, made contour line drawings and watched two whiptail lizards chase each other. I enjoyed watching them zigzag around their mountaintop home, but they were too fast for my camera. I did took a video of the view from the top, which you can watch on here. Virtually take a break to stand on a mountain top for a brief mental field trip.
On the way down I got a final picture of pitaya, a type of cactus the is so closely related to the strawberry hedgehog cactus (see yesterday’s post) that they were once considered the same species and are only distinguished by how densely the spines cover the cactus. The word pitaya can also refer to the fruit of several similar species of cacti, which apparently is delicious. These bright red flowers remind me of the stunning desert sunset over the Chisos Mountains we watched that night, while we cooked a big pot of ramen back at camp K-Bar and tried to figure out which peak we hiked that day and which peak was Emory Peak, where we planned to hike the next day.