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Big Bend Sunset   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Chisos Mountain
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

There are moments when the line between dream and reality is stretched so thin you slip from one to the other as easily as blinking an eye. In one of those moments, Kuro-e was awakened by a crackling sound like footsteps over dry leaves. It took her a moment to remember she was camping in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park. The sound was right outside her tent. She turned her head towards the sound and held her breath, listening. Dead silence. All sorts of thoughts went through her mind. The park reported over a hundred mountain lion sightings each year. Was it a lion? Or something even more threatening? Before falling asleep, she was reading a book entitled ‘Death in Big Bend’, which told of all the horror stories that happened there. She wished she had not picked up that book at the visitor center. Lying still in her sleeping bag, she could see a halfmoon through the tent canopy, framed by stunted oak branches. She gathered her nerve and unzipped the door flap to peek outside. All she could see was a quiet landscape bathed in the cool moonlight, Sirius the Dog Star still visible high overhead. It must be just a bad dream.

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Big Bend is a large yet less-visited national park in a remote corner of southwest Texas. At its center, Chisos Mountain rises above the surrounding desert, a massive volcanic rock over 7,000-ft high. 'Chisos', a Native American word, means 'ghost'. Sheer cliffs ring the south face of the mountain. Every spring, endangered peregrine falcons nest among the rugged cliffs. To protect the nesting birds, the trail to the South Rim is closed from February through May. Several days before the closure, Kuro-e got a permit to camp a couple of nights on the Rim, hoping to get a glimpse of the falcons.

Yesterday, she walked 6 miles to her campsite high up Chisos Mountain. After finishing her dinner of freeze-dried chicken pasta, she sat watching the sun slowly merging with the horizon. The vast desert faded into shapes of purple and blue under a clear sky that turned amber. As the land darkened, stars lit up one by one till stardust sprinkled the sky. The Milky Way flowed overhead like a sparkling stream. She understood why Chinese called it the ‘Silver River’. A breeze swelled up, wiping away remaining warmth of the winter sun. Kuro-e felt a chill. Normally, she would enjoy staying outside to watch the stars. Tonight, her surroundings somehow looked desolate. She retired into her tent.

Uneasy feelings had kept her half-awake most of the night. In the morning, while making coffee for breakfast, a doe wandered into camp with a fawn tagging along. They browsed fearlessly around the tent. Kuro-e almost laughed out loud at herself, the late-night visitor must have been a deer. She was embarrassed by her nervousness; she had camped in more remote places and never felt threatened. Perhaps the stories in the book had spooked her. In any case, she had learned to trust her instinct. Something seemed to tell her to be extra careful here.

At noon, she walked with a day pack to the edge of South Rim. The view shocked her. Two thousand feet below, rugged peaks of Sierra Quemada – the Burned Range – pushed against one another like giant waves rolling towards Rio Grande far to the south. Beyond the river was Mexico, and more mountains as far as eye could see. A black volcanic plug called Elephant Tusk rose above the sea of peaks, a prominent landmark in the park. Even in broad daylight, the landscape looked gloomy, foreboding, and unforgiving. People had died down there. Hikers had gotten lost and died of thirst and exposure, a few even murdered, their cases never solved. This land practically exuded ominous warnings. Of all the places she had been, this was one place she would not want to venture into alone.

Kuro-e had almost forgotten about the purpose she was there when something darted across the sky. A falcon! She thought. She quickly grabbed her binoculars and zoomed in on the bird. It was a swift. White-throat swifts nest and over-winter in the lava cracks among the cliffs on South Rim. She scanned the sky hoping to find a falcon, but only saw more swifts. It was then she sensed she was being watched. She turned around and came face-to-face with a man with a sun-burnt face not five paces away. They eyed each other without exchanging greetings. The man suddenly feigned surprise and raised a hand pointing behind Kuro-e’s back, as if seeing something frightening. Kuro-e did not move, she kept her eyes trained on the man. The man grinned and lowered his hand, then abruptly turned and walked away. Kuro-e watched him disappearing down the trail. Was this a practical joke? This was getting too strange.

Suddenly, what she heard the night before felt more sinister. She made a quick assessment of her situation and decided not to stay another night. Something did not feel right; she needed to get out of this mountain. Before heading back to camp, she fished out her  pocketknife from her pack and slipped it into her pant pocket. She took one last look at the view. Elephant Tusk seemed to have turned a shade darker. It stood there like a black omen. It said  Go!    

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Sierra Quemada   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano