Big Bend, as in national park Big Bend, in far West Texas, bordering Mexico, and separated by the mighty, muddy Rio Grande River. Think Fandango (a young Kevin Costner) and No Country For Old Men (Tommy Lee Jones)…
I was reminded, via Facebook post this week (thanks John!), that today, August 27th, was the day the St. Mark’s School of Texas Class of 1975, from Dallas – about 92-93 of us – boarded buses, along with our Outward Bound instructors and select faculty from the school, and set off at 7:00 a.m. 45 years ago for the remote and rugged Big Bend country south of Alpine and Marfa for an adventure. We would be there for 10 days – 5 in the Chisos Mountains, 5 on the Rio Grande River.
This was the official start of our freshman year, 1971. The first Outward Bound trip (mandatory for us) had come into being that year as an alternative and replacement for the annual rite of passage known as Freshman Day at the school – a one-day melee which involved a lot of shaving cream, silly string, dunkings in the library courtyard fountain and general harassment from the seniors toward the incoming freshman class. The trip to Big Bend was supposed to end that tradition, which it did (I think), and was to be our rite of passage.
I was 14 at the time. I had just come back to Dallas from my first summer of working up at the Evergreen Conference in Evergreen, Colorado only the week before. Mostly I was helping out with routine maintenance and kitchen duties, although the first job I was assigned was to clean out the incinerator which probably hadn’t been touched in a couple of decades. It had to be the dirtiest, nastiest job my supervisors could think of to give me as an initiation and I’m sure they were laughing their asses off that entire week I was cleaning it out. On the brighter side, I was always off work by 2:30 and could hike or hang out down at Bear Creek the rest of the afternoon; there’d been a summer romance with a girl from the Midwest, and The Who’s album Who’s Next had just been released and was on the Denver FM stations constantly. “The Song Is Over” (featuring Nicky Hopkins’ excellent piano work) from that album quickly became my favorite song and still is to this day.
And then came the trip to Big Bend…
First of all, it’s absolutely beautiful country – if you’ve been there, you know and if you haven’t, you should definitely go. I remember we got there late in the afternoon and were glad to get off the buses after 12 hours. We quickly divided into groups – several of them would go to the river first, several would stay in the mountains. I was in one of the groups that would get the mountains first. We all ate hamburgers for dinner, then got our gear and said adios to the groups that were headed for the river… and later we camped out under a cloudless sky filled with a million stars. Will never forget that… I just stared up at the sky for the longest time, ’til I fell asleep.
And the first five days of the trip in the mountains were the best, at least for me. We hiked the trails, hiked up to Lost Mine Peak with 35-40 lb. packs on our backs; I remember I was reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at the time and had it tucked away in my pack. The days were predictably hot (but it was a dry heat), the nights cool because it was the desert. One classmate broke his ankle and had to be carted out – I remember that; the highlights: a 200-foot free rappel down a sheer vertical rock wall where you could lower yourself as fast or as slow as you wanted, an overnight mini-solo in the wilderness, and of course, those cool desert nights. We may have all sweated like pigs during the day, but the mountains were “no sweat” and essentially familiar terrain.
The same could not be said of the days on the river, the muddy Rio Grande. In fact, as I thought about this trip in the weeks leading up to it, the time on the river was the part I had been dreading. For good reason as it turned out. Most of the time in the boat on the river was boring – if it got too hot, which it inevitably did, you just rolled off the side into the river and floated along. There were raft wars, wasp wars, swatting at the damn wasps with the frying pans in our packs, but then I also remember one day hearing the guys in the boat up in front of us starting to sing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” so we all started to sing along in ours. That was cool.
I remember being in the boat – and we were always switching into other boats – that helped two guys cross the river from the Mexican side to the U.S. side. I remember seeing dead livestock in the quicksand near the river, a dead horse… a body floating downstream, lifeless. A human body. Those who were in that particular boat that day will remember… ’cause we were all a little freaked out, even the Outward Bound guy. Most of the time on the river was fairly peaceful and then you’d have the occasional rapids and everyone would work as one to get through them. For whatever reason I happened to see a lot of death on the river. At 14 years of age, it leaves an impression… Can’t unsee it.
And then there was the last day… It was supposed to be an easy day – only one last set of rapids before the takeout point. I wish I had all the pictures I took on this trip – I was telling a classmate I had shot 12 rolls of film on the trip, actually was bragging about it as I was a bit more of a camera buff back then, in the photography club at school and all. But they were lost that last day, never got to see ’em – my camera, waterlogged and ruined even before the raft turned over. The following passage comes from a journal entry I wrote much later, 25 years after the fact, looking back on what happened, and now 20 years ago… For those who remember, this will fill in some gaps.
What I remember about that last half-mile or so before the takeout point… I see the three of us – Mark, Mike, and me – in the boat, coming through the rapids and it was late in the afternoon; it was actually quite beautiful because there was that “cinematic honeydew light” that you get just ahead of sundown. The golden hour. We were actually coming through those rapids quite late in the day and I remember watching the boat up in front of us – I was at the back of our boat, playing captain. But the boat up in front of us hit a hole in the middle of the river; I watched their boat dip into it and then watched as it veered off way to the right toward the rock wall on the south side of the river. I remember thinking we had to avoid that hole and so we started paddling harder and I was trying to steer the boat as best I could away from it. Well of course, that proved futile and we ended up dipping down into it as well. And sure enough, we started drifting way to the right just like the boat in front of us did. Even so, I didn’t think we were in immediate trouble – then just as quickly realized we were. That would have been when the boat was getting too close to the rock wall and then as the boat got stuck against the wall by the current moments later.
The first thing that happened when the boat got stuck was that Mark, who was sitting up at the very front, got swept away by the current. The river just swept into the boat with such force he was gone in an instant, and I can still remember that look of surprise he had because he turned around in the water looking back at us and then he was downstream, gone. I remember that being kind of an ‘oh shit’ moment and yeah, I knew we were in trouble. So it was just me and Mike in the boat at that point and he’s still trying to paddle and I’m trying to push us off the rock wall with my paddle. I was noticing also that the water was pushing against the boat with such force that the boat was starting to inch its way up the rock wall itself and eventually it was going to turn over on us. Mike turned around and yelled, “What are we gonna do, Thomas?” It was very clear we couldn’t stay where we were and wait for the boats behind us. The river wasn’t going to let us do that ‘cause it was going to flip the boat over on top of us. It seemed like the only thing we could do is try to jump and swim away from the boat and the rock wall as far as we could, get out into the current and go with it. That would be the instinctual thing, right? I yelled back at Mike to swim hard toward the center [of the river]. That was the plan, so he pushed off and went into the river and now I’m all alone and the boat is even more at an angle.
I don’t remember being scared here, probably because there wasn’t time to be scared and possibly because I didn’t fully understand just how dangerous a situation we were in. Sometimes it’s good not to know. A few moments later, I took a deep breath and moved my foot to the left side of the boat, getting ready to push off… then tried to push off but my foot slipped and next thing I know I’m in the water, underwater, and the boat has landed on top of me. OK… now I’m scared. There were some duffel bags in the boat, a few strongboxes and some other equipment but there wasn’t a whole lot which was good because that stuff wasn’t tied down and now this stuff is landing on top of me and I was pushing my way back up to the surface through it. There were only three of us in the boat when this happened. Usually there were 4-6 of us in a boat and one instructor from Outward Bound or one of the teachers who came on this trip but for that last set of rapids we did not have any of the ‘grown-ups’ on board.
When I was still underneath the boat and trying to push it away, I did surface briefly then went back under. I surfaced a few seconds later and saw the sky, caught my breath, and went back under again. There was no control over anything – I was just simply at the mercy of the current. I remember thinking, “Well, this is it, I’m gonna drown…” and the next thing I knew, I could see the sky again and I’ve got a small canister of Kodak film in my mouth. Really. This time I was able to keep my head above water and I was just carried along with the current.
Eventually that current brought me into the same small inlet where it had deposited Mike. We both ended up in a small eddy in a cove on the Mexico side of the river, then scrambled up out of the water onto a small grassy area and watched while the last couple of boats passed by us. I started blowing a whistle, trying to alert any of the boats passing by; Mike pulled out his pocket Bible and was praying (he eventually became a preacher). That we both “landed” in this semi-hidden cove I’ve always thought of as highly providential (the second meaning of the word). It took an hour-and-a-half to two hours to send a motorboat in and get us out of there.
All three of us eventually got to camp that night, ate dinner as we were all starving by then, re-told what had happened out there on the river. Everything I had brought on the trip was lost; the clothes I came out of the water wearing were the ones I wore on the bus the next day heading back home. At least they were dry by then. By the time the buses got to Sweetwater on I-20 on September 6th, and the local Dairy Queen – 200 cheeseburgers ordered, oops sorry, 198 cheeseburgers and 2 hamburgers owing to a classmate’s allergies (hey Robert!) – things started to feel more “normal” again. Actually, those were the best-tasting DQ burgers I ever remember having had, before or since.
For the next year(s?) St. Mark’s decided to hold the freshman Outward Bound trip elsewhere… which turned out to be the Pecos Wilderness area in New Mexico near Santa Fe. As far as I know (I transferred to Irving Cistercian the following year, but not because of the trip), the Class of 1975 was the only class who ever made the trip and completed the course in Big Bend – we were trailblazers! And for those who made this trip and were there, I salute you! It is an indelible part of our experience, individual and collective. On this 45th anniversary.
Nights on Venus News:
The new single “Speed of Life” will be released mid-October. Yes, the David Bowie song “Speed of Life”. Licensing/permission has been obtained. It will be a 2-song single also featuring a new original “Confirm Humanity (I’m Not A Robot)”, both instrumentals, and the two songs will be on the album “We Are All Haunted By Something”, scheduled for release in June, 2017. Stay tuned for updates. A mini-interview I did recently with Bandwidth Daily should be up online soon.
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