have a best friend, also named Frances, whom I've known since we met in nursing
school back in 1970. In early 1997 she called me up from her home in Poteet,
Texas and said she was looking to have a break from work and home and suggested
a trip to the Big Bend National Park. We set aside a time in March because
she said the yuccas should be in early bloom then on the Chihuahuan Desert. I
was glad of a break from work myself and had never been to the Bend so I looked
forward to the experience.
I drove from Austin
to Poteet to spend the night
and we left in my loaded Pontiac sedan the next morning, leaving her husband and
teenage son behind to batch it for about a week. We spent the time talking and
looking at scenery and generally just winding down.
The landscape seemed
endless the closer we got to the final leg of our journey, and it was beginning
to dawn on me that I had rarely been anywhere with so few signs of human life.
Still, it was beautiful in a lonesome, primitive way, and we reached our final
destination by driving up a very steep, winding, twisted road to the top of a
mountain and checking in at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, our base camp for the week.
Mornings were glorious, with crisp, cool mountain air and gorgeous sunrises, with
a free roaming herd of tiny javelinas or peccaries snorting and grunting their
way across the landscape by way of the sidewalk in front of the rooms. They were
definitely not beautiful, with faces only a mother could love, and all of the
stories I remembered hearing about huge, vicious, marauding hogs with razor sharp,
upturned yellow tusks slashing and ripping their prey weren't exactly comforting,
so I always waited for the other Frances to get up and out before venturing across
the parking lot to the restaurant.
the appointed day for our desert exploration, we got up and made sure the cooler
was filled with ice and cold drinks, loaded up the car and drove back down the
mountain. We drove out onto the main highway and after about 8 or 9 miles, I think,
we turned off onto the unpaved road leading to the heart of the Chihuahuan
Desert and to the Dagger Flats. We oohhhed and aahhhed and ouched and
grimaced as we bounced and jostled our way over the deeply rutted, uneven, single
lane dusty road that was our trail to the promised desert delights. The word road
is used very loosely here. I remember rocks, little rocks, big chunky ones, even
some boulders, and dust, lots and lots of white powdery dust flying all around
us if we drove faster than about 3 miles an hour. We spent several hours, as I
recall, getting to the end of the trail, looking at yuccas in all sizes and shapes,
admiring their wild, spiky beauty. Frankly, I didn't know yuccas could grow as
tall as some we saw. The biggest ones looked to be several stories high, compared
to the more squatty ones I'm accustomed to seeing as part of a nicely landscaped
lawn. They were in bloom, not as full as they would be later on, but impressive
It was quiet, very quiet, out there under the blindingly
bright blue skies, just us and the faint whistling of the wind, and I thought
it was a perfect place for reflection and to gather ones' thoughts. We reflected,
we gathered, we snacked, and then it was time to head back. I turned the Pontiac
around on a couple of feet of curved path apparently graded for that purpose and
headed back toward Highway 385. Semi truck and bus drivers, don't try this at
home. I drove less than a block when the car suddenly stopped dead in it's tracks.
No warning sounds, no funny smells, no smoke or steam, no idiot lights blinking
madly on the dashboard, just...nothingness. Both of us looked under the hood for
any signs of leaks, disconnected wires or cables, something to indicate why Old
Betsy had rolled over on us. Nothing, nada, zilch.
here we were, in the middle of nowhere trying to formulate a plan and trying not
to panic. Fran-the-other decided she would try to hike to the main road, a distance
of seven long, torturous miles wearing insubstantial, non-hiking friendly shoes
over rocks and ruts, to flag down a passing car, we hoped. My excuse for not doing
the same was a pair of bad knees that would never have made it more than a few
blocks. Right about then I saw a dust cloud billowing far ahead. Oh, halleleujah!
It turned out to be a little VW camper-travel van containing 2 very nice ladies,
a few years older than us. They had been classmates in college, too, and had remained
friends over the years. Once a year they left hearth and home in different states
to take a week long trip together to somewhere new each time. Lucky for us it
was the Big Bend that year. After they established that we weren't serial killers
luring unwary travelers to their doom, they took us back to the Panther Junction
Visitor Center. It was closed for the day, but we used the pay phone to call the
lodge topside and ask the managers, a husband and wife team, for help. We had
gotten friendly with them while we had been staying in the lodge and they told
us to sit tight while they radioed for a wrecker service to deal with the marooned
car. Sure enough, a nice gentleman showed up within an hour driving the tiniest
and oldest wrecker I had ever seen. We crawled in the cab beside him, showed him
where the car had died, and he thoughtfully dropped us off at the Visitor Center
again before heading in the opposite direction to Marathon
and to Sixto's Shell Station and Garage. I will always have a soft spot in my
heart for him and for Mr. Sixto.
We called the lodge office again and
Mike said he, his wife Terry or another staff would be down as soon as the restaurant
closed for the night, which would be in another hour or hour and a half. Nature
beckoned to the other Frances and she headed for the public restrooms while I
sat on the cement bench outside, the contents of the car piled beside me. Night
fell, quickly and audibly...BOOM! It got chilly in a matter of nanoseconds and
I suddenly realized I was in darkness like I'd rarely experienced before. I couldn't
see anything clearly past about four inches from the end of my nose. I'm generally
not afraid of the dark, but the night noises seemed to get louder and more ominous.
Feeling just the least bit edgy I dug down into my ten gallon sized "purse" and
found my two, count 'em, two Swiss Army knives, one a 23 blade beauty my brother
had given me when he upgraded (to what?! A 40 blade gas powered chainsaw?!?),
the other actually a Swiss Army STYLE knife, with only about 6 blades and purchased
at K-Mart for $3.98. I dropped them in my right pants pocket and waited for Fran
to come back out and wait with me.
Suddenly a vehicle drove up and my
immediate thought was that it was our pals from topside come to pick us up earlier
that anticipated. What a relief, thought I, completely forgetting how long that
trip took, coming down a steep, sharply winding mountain road as they were going
to be doing, and in total darkness. I jumped up and called to Fran to hurry up,
"They're here!" as I hoisted my shoulder bag up and started pulling on the handle
of the ice chest. There were no outside lights burning and it wasn't until the
door opened that I saw that it was an old model pickup truck containing 3 men
in the cab, three men who seemed suddenly menacing, foreign, dangerous. Fran stepped
beside me and hissed "That's not them! Get back over here!!" I passed her a knife
and told her to open the longest blade and keep it at the ready as I did the same.
I'm embarrassed to say I kept the REAL Swiss Army knife for myself. I've still
had residual guilt about this from time to time over the past 15 years. I take
no pride in the knowledge that I also had access to a sharp toothed, lethal saw
blade on mine. She had no such blade on hers. My mind was in overdrive wondering
what evil lurked, etc. while trying to stay calm enough to formulate a plan of
attack, or defense, as the case might become. At that moment we heard another
engine and a second vehicle drove up behind the first. Doors opened, interior
lights illuminated...cohorts of the occupants of vehicle #1? A mobile Bigfoot?
Our rescuers from Chisos Lodge? Nope, a young man and woman in an SUV. Without
warning, the first pickup truck suddenly roared off into the night, and before
I could feel a sense of relief, the young couple hesitated briefly, held a short
conversation, then closed their doors and drove off, too, though at a normal rate
of speed. Maybe they were just looking for a bathroom. Maybe the other fellows
were looking for the same. No matter. We were once again alone, in the black of
night, in the farthest reaches of the state, no vehicle, at the mercy of cougars
and roving, hungry packs of wolves and unnamed nocturnal creatures waiting to...Sorry,
it all came rushing back to me for a moment.
Somewhere in all of this
turmoil, while we were still under threat from the murderous bandits, if that's
what they really were, Fran had mentioned that the blades on our knives were probably
pretty germy, resting unused as they did among the accumulated detritus at the
bottom of my purse, and she wondered if we had time to wash them off. That's when
the whole situation seemed to get even more crazy, but I got that mental slap
across the cheek I needed to calm down and become rational and in control again.
What the hell difference did it make if the blades were clean, my mind screamed!
These were wicked, lethal weapons, for Pete's sake! They were going to be lifesaving
instruments! Eventually Terry, the wife half of the manager duo, showed up to
rescue us. We recounted the story of the entire days' events to her as we headed
back to safety and arrived laughing uproariously, if a little shakily. Both of
us, the Francae, as someone dubbed us decades ago, are known jokers and kidders,
so we no doubt embellished some points. Some, I said.
next morning we walked over to the restaurant and office for breakfast where we
were introduced to a park ranger who laughed and said he knew all about the "ladies
of the previous evening". It seems the two way park radio system had spread the
word across at least 120 miles, he informed us, and we had been the topic of chatter
"all over" the park. In the dining room a nice, friendly, polite college age young
woman came to take our orders and she seemed to be having trouble controlling
a facial tic. She was joined by another server, a young man. He was an outgoing,
talkative fellow and informed us, making no attempt to control his mirth, that
our reputations as mobile ladies of ill repute were now widely known. The Bobbsey
twins broke down then and guffawed all the way to the kitchen to put in our orders.
We met all of the staff that morning, ALL of them. It seems they just dropped
by the table to say howdy and gape at the middle aged "professionals". The souvenir
shop clerk chatted us up, grinning and introducing us to anyone who came through
the door, although they all seemed to know about us, anyway. It was soul satisfying
to feel the warmth and spirit of camaraderie and to know we had given so much
pleasure to so many.
While we had been staying at the lodge, we learned
that the husband of the management couple was an amateur writer, so when I got
back home to Austin, I was inspired
to write a little poem which I called "The Ballad of Dagger Flats" and mailed
it off to him. It detailed the events of that day in a relentless, thumping, loping,
iambic beat, the only meter in which I seem to be able to write. It accompanies