Volunteering at Big Bend Ranch State Park by Gary Nored

 

Not.

By all rights I should have nothing but unpleasant memories of that trip. I started out by getting lost. I took such a bad fall that I serious doubts for a while that I was ever going to be able to get out from under my pack. I left without any warm gear and spent most of a day cold and wet. I ultimately ran out of water and came perilously close to dying out there. If I hadn't been good with a map and compass, and enjoyed great fortune in finding water at Rancheria Spring, I would have. But it was my second night, after the storm cleared that changed my life and brought me to where I am today.

I stopped on the upper end of the lower Guale Mesa, quite close to the rim of Tapado Canyon. I set up my camp and then walked to the edge of the canyon to watch the sunset. One would think that I’d be somewhat dispirited by now, but I wasn’t. The sunset was one of those those that you never forget. The view down the canyon of the mountains in Mexico is stunning any time, but with the storm clouds it was simply magnificent. That night, sitting on the rim of the canyon it happened. I realized that walking through this area once, or even several times would not be enough. I was going to have to come out here and spend some serious time … real time … like years.

Well, I did.

Of course, many things have to happen between deciding something like this and actually doing it. Suffice it to say that I did all that. Less than a year after I retired I was in West Texas determined to help make a many people’s lives better rather than making a few people’s lives more wealthy. I started by taking a little detour—to Alpine. I’d intended to stay only as long as it took for me to get on at the ranch, but when I started volunteering at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute I settled in Alpine.

I did many things for CDRI, but the most personally rewarding was writing Nature Notes. When the man who had been doing it before left for another job, I took over and authored the show until his replacement could be found. It was almost a full-time job for me. Not being a trained biologist I had to do a lot of research, both to find topics and to ensure the accuracy of the things I said. But I like research and soon I was meeting people who’d heard one of my programs or read something I’d done somewhere and that was very gratifying.

I was still thinking about the Big Bend Ranch. I’d written and gotten no reply and was beginning to think that maybe I didn’t have the skills they wanted. I was wondering if there was anything I might do to make myself more useful to the park when I learned about the Texas Master Naturalist program. This program trains people as “master naturalists” to help them be better volunteers. Perfect! I signed up with the Tierra Grande chapter.

The Tierra Grande Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists serves some of the largest counties in Texas—Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio. It partners with the Texas Agrilife Extension Service, The Nature Conservancy, Sul Ross State University, CDRI, Big Bend National Park and Texas Parks and Wildlife. Needless to say, the opportunities for meeting natural resource people in such a group are excellent, and meet them I did. Though I hadn’t thought of it when I joined, in retrospect I’ve come to realize that the chance to meet all these people was just as valuable as the formal training I received.

In my mind, the formal training became one of those “life experiences,” a memory I will hold to my final days. The training was informative, exciting, and intense. Very intense. Our instructors were people whose books I owned or whom I had heard about as creatures of naturalist legend. The class time was wonderful, the field work amazing. My classmates were all extremely interested in the course material. They were motivated, intelligent, and wonderfully friendly.

The field work was also physically demanding. On our hike up Mt. Livermore I learned how friendly, supportive, and understanding West Texans can be. About two thirds of the way up I thought I’d gone about as far as I could. The slopes are steep, the rocks loose, and there’s no air up there! On this Texas version of the Bataan Death March I fully expected to be thrown over the side at any moment and my body left for the vultures. I ate my lunch thinking that it was pathetic for a man’s last meal to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was thus contemplating my mortality when one of my classmates, whom I knew from CDRI, came over and started giving me a pep-talk. I was having none of it. But he persisted.  He reminded me that I’d never be any younger.  He reminded me that I might never have another chance to see this remarkable place. He said he’d help me, and then, without so much as a by your leave, he snatched up my backpack and pulled me to my feet. I gave up—resistance was futile.

For the rest of the climb he carried my pack. He kept me from falling on rocky slopes, and physically dragged me up those I couldn’t manage. And he got me to the top—alive. I’ll never forget the view, or his wonderful kindness.

I became thoroughly settled in Alpine, but one day I realized that I hadn’t been to Big Bend in over a month, and I wasn’t doing anything for the park. The illecebrous qualities of settled living had taken advantage of my natural tendencies towards sloth and indolence and my root system was already starting to grow.  That would never do!
I renewed my assault on the park. When nothing came of email and calls, I decided to be more assertive. I drove down to the park and, shortly before 5:00, planted myself at the front door of the visitors center informing the staff that nobody was leaving the building until I talked to the head ranger. It worked … after a fashion. He gave me some forms to fill out and told me that I could come back after they were processed.

They were never processed. After two or three months of waiting, I went down to the Barton Warnock center and discussed the matter with the rangers there. There I learned that the park had a new superintendent who had only arrived the day before. They suggested I talk to him. I immediately drove over and met the new superintendent, Barrett Durst, who recognized my name as one of those his foot-deep in-box. We had a nice visit, and within a week the forms had been processed and a date set for my arrival.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been through the mountains at the Big Bend Ranch State Park, but it would be no exaggeration to say that the drive is always “interesting”  It took me over six hours to pull my trailer from Presidio to Sauceda headquarters, and at that, I took it way too fast. I’d overlooked the securing of one or two things, and a couple of the additions I’d made to hold things in place failed. After I’d gotten the beast parked and leveled, I opened the door to a scene straight out of Lucile Ball’s The Long, Long Trailer. The restraints for the microwave and toaster oven failed, so they were on the floor. The fastenings for the refrigerator failed, the door fell off, and broken food containers spread beans, pickles, BBQ sauce, etc., from front to back. I’d forgotten to latch the “little stuff” drawer, so pill bottles, pins, screws, tweezers, toothpicks, and all manner of other small objects had enjoyed a veritable orgy wallowing in the food on the floor. The 12 Volt power supply for the refrigerator had broken, as had the igniter for the propane, so that had to be fixed immediately. There were a bazillion other things that needed attention, and as one who is mechanically challenged, I was hard put to set everything aright.
But everything did get fixed and soon I was tending the grounds, fixing signs on the nature trail, rooting out invading species from the visitor center gardens, and generally doing everything I could to make the park a better place for my being there. And I was learning … a lot.

One of the first things I learned is that there is a world of difference between visiting a place on vacations and actually living there. The life skills needed to get along out here are totally different from those needed to get along in the city.  For example, if you have a flat in the city you just pick up your cell-phone, dial Acme fix-it company, and they come out and fix it. If you get stranded somehow, you just call one of your many friends and they come get you. It’s different here …

When something breaks out here you have to deal with it. There is no Acme fix-it company. You can’t call a friend and be picked up in 30 minutes or so. It takes hours to get anywhere from here. For better or worse, out here you’re pretty much on your own. But not really. Here, if you don’t know how to do something, somebody will teach you, and help you learn. If you get stuck somewhere, nobody will pass you by. The friendly help and encouragement I’d gotten on Mt. Livermore was not the provenance of a single person—it is just the way people are out here. There’s a friendly, cooperative make-do kind of spirit out here that is life-affirming and altogether more positive than anything I ever felt in the high-tech world.

Right away I learned that the term “park host” means different things in different places. Here at the ranch it does not mean hanging out at the entrance and helping people move their “mobile homes” around in the parking lot. In the summer it means tending grounds, laying floors, repairing fences, and clearing trails. In the winter it means making beds, cleaning facilities, washing dishes, doing laundry and taking care of visitors.
I also learned that old Airstream trailers are not very well insulated. With the air conditioner running full tilt I was just able to cool mine down to around 95 degrees. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time there in the afternoon.

Heat is another integral part of desert life in West Texas. It’s everywhere, it’s all of the time, and there’s no getting away from it. It saps your strength, sucks every drop of moisture out of you, and if you’re working in the sun, it can even be lethal. You have to learn how to deal with it – to pace your work – to take breaks – to drink lots of water – to dress properly – to recognize the signs of heat stress and to act accordingly. None of this stuff can be learned by reading – you can only learn by experience.

Our low humidity can make you feel cooler than you are, and that can be dangerous. During my first summer I succumbed to heat exhaustion during a trail-building exercise. After a few hours of chopping brush and hauling rock I suddenly started feeling weak and very tired. Within moments I couldn’t stand up, so I found a rock and sat down. Soon, that wasn’t enough, so I rolled off the rock and spread out on the ground. I didn’t feel any better, but at least I couldn’t fall. Fortunately, the crew chief happened by, realized immediately what was going on and got me into some shade with a bottle of water. If he hadn’t come by I would have died there.

Since then I’ve had all the usual troubles—runaway horses, nasty falls, lost in the wilderness—but I’ve never stopped having a good time. I’ve learned enough about the area that I can now give tours, showing people the sights and explaining the unique environment that exists here.

When someone in Austin happened to like one of my photographs, word spread to state offices and now I take a lot of pictures for the park. My long-term project is photo-documenting every campsite in the park. We’re creating a book for the front desk so that visitors can look at pictures when they’re picking out a campsite. I’m also doing “rent-a-ranger” tours. I take people out to interesting places and talk about the park’s plant life, wildlife, geology, and history. Last year I happened to notice that there were many photographers coming to the Photo Safari who really only wanted a chance to visit areas that are difficult to reach. That gave me the idea of offering “Photo Tours” where we take photographers out to some of the most scenic areas in the park and camp overnight. The program is already a big success—the rest of the season is sold out.

Life is now settled into something of a routine, but I love every minute of it. I continue to read about and study the area. I accompany botanists and geologists on their trips greedily soaking up anything I can learn from them. I’ve learned to take pleasure from a house-cleaning job well done, and to love feeding hungry hikers and hearing of their adventures. I’ve “rescued” a few people from serious situations, carried tired children down icy slopes, led hikes, doctored injured horses, learned to change oil, fix tires, and do things with bailing wire I would formerly have thought impossible. For entertainment I chase longhorns out of the front gardens. They’re not afraid of me, but I like making all those noises one used to hear cowboys make in old westerns. I guess you might say that I’m putting down a new root system.

Best of all, over 20 years since I first saw it, I’m taking people to view Tapado Canyon from the very spot where I first fell in love with this park. The excited exclamations groups make when they first behold this sight are worth more to me than all the gold in Peru.

Along the way I’ve learned many things, but the one thing I’d most like to share with readers is the love of volunteering. Volunteering is anything but working for free—it’s a path to untold spiritual riches and priceless memories. This has been the most rewarding experience of my life, and I believe that it can be yours too. Yes, Texas parks need you; but once you start volunteering, you’ll find that you need Texas parks too.

Gary Nored is a member of Tierra Grande Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists working at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

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