I woke the morning of Dec. 28 to a big surprise. There was an inch of snow on the ground and on my tent. And it was still coming down.
The day before, I had hiked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. I had hoped to reach the South Rim, but at 7,500 feet it got dark on me, and I had to camp. I pitched my tent at the elbow of a switchback and, then, to avoid attracting any critters, stuffed my food items into a bag and tossed the bag into a tree about 50 feet from my campsite.
The inch of snow that I discovered the next morning worried me. How much more would there be? Would it make the trails and passes more dangerous? I decided to exit the Chisos Basin and head back down. I packed up my tent and retrieved my foodstuff.
The snow on the trail was completely fresh, and I appeared to be the only traveler in the silent Basin wonderland. There wasn’t a footprint or pawprint from any other living creature for the first half hour of the hike.
You forget moments like this can exist in normal waking life, especially when you’re sitting behind a desk. Taking orders, giving orders. Obeying. The silence of the trail was like the glass of the window you stare through when you’re bored with work or life in general. You see all the things you’re missing and the possibilities you’ve forgotten or dismissed. There, all around me, in the mountain air and craggy prickly Chisos brush, I felt alive and vital in a way I hadn’t noticed in years.
At the trail turnoff for Juniper Canyon, I was reveling in the moment and still amazed that I was alone in nature and part of it. Then I spotted something that broke the spell.
There in the fresh snow was an animal track, the foot pad about 3.5 inches in diameter with five small toe prints on top. The impression was fairly fresh, and the print was the first of several heading in the same direction as me.
It was a black bear, probably a 300- or 400-pound adolescent. The print was unmistakable, mystical, and mind-blowing.
The black bear is now endangered in Texas; they had all but disappeared from the Chisos Mountains until bears coming up through Mexico re-established the species there. I – we – had encroached on the black bears’ habitat for years, practically leaving them no place to live. But thanks to their Mexican kin, they were back. I was glad nature knew no borders.
When I settled into a warm motel room that night, I thought about the bear prints, and started weaving a clever, satirical piece around the idea of almost stumbling into a furry, 400-pound illegal alien that the federal government was currently welcoming into this country with open arms and spending our tax dollars to support and protect. I thought I would blame the exorbitant cost of our healthcare system on him and complain that, despite the good things one could say about the bears, they were still here illegally and utilizing our social services without paying taxes or learning to speak English. I decided to use the bear as a humorous vehicle for mocking the ignorance and hypocrisy that clouds our views on immigration.
Instead, I decided just to tell the story.
Back on the trail, I took a break and let the bear be on his way. I never saw him, but thankfully he also never saw me. I was the alien there, and he was the native. I was sure his policy on newcomers was more humane than ours, but I didn’t want to push my luck. He was much better as a bear than as an allegory. And I liked sharing the world with him.
E. R. Bills is a Fort Worth area writer whose work has appeared in many publications.