Two winters ago (2009) my Christmas present was experiencing and photographing sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon. We headed for the Big Bend National Park at 4am on a frigid Christmas morning. Setting up two camp chairs, sipping hot coffee out of a thermos and feeling quite small near the open dark mouth of the canyon, I set up the tripod with frozen fingers. I hoped that my camera would still function in the cold; I had covered it with one of my hats.
We waited like little kids full of anticipation. And as the Earth turned ever so slowly, we were treated to a radiant show. I lost all sense of awareness of the cold. It wasn’t the popular multicolored light show that people ooh and ahh over, but a slow and magical progression of gold and amber. First as a line on the horizon, then outlining the northeastern walls of the Sierra Ponce, the uplifted fault block on the Mexican side of the river. As the sun rose, its glory was reflected in the waters of the river. And the landscape changed in shape, texture and color with each passing minute. To me, this was worth much more than a gold bullion in my hands.
Soon the cliff walls of both canyons were lit with amber light. Always fond of the play between shadows and light, I was titillated by the moving reflections as the sun rose higher. This was a wonderful Christmas present, and I could have happily spent the rest of the day here. As it was, we had promised to return to base camp to share the remainder of the holiday with friends. But I vowed to repeat this performance; I knew it would be different, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year my Christmas present was another visit to the park, but this time completely different: snow in the Chisos Basin. Christmas Eve day brought a light snow over most of Big Bend area. I stood on the plateau of El Punto Coyote with a childish grin and catching snow with my tongue. Despite growing up in New England, where I spent my first three decades in many feet of snow, this was a treat; snow in the desert. Although it amounted to only a dusting, I could see solid white covering several mountains to the east. Even the peak of Hen Egg Mountain, our comrade to the north, was draped in white snow. Although most of the Chisos Mountains was obscured in low clouds, I suspected snow accumulated at the higher elevations.
On the way to a Christmas Eve gathering at the adobe home of friends Paul and Voni, we stopped in Stude Butte to pick up a bag of tortilla chips. A chat with a clerk there confirmed that the park basin in the Chisos Mountains indeed had snow. So much that the road to the basin had been closed early the evening before, and reopened by mid-morning. And that it was a sight to see. Ed and I looked at each other and nodded; we knew where we were going Christmas morning.
On the drive to the Green Gulch Road that ascends up into the Basin, we stopped to capture some of the vistas: a light smattering of white on the foothills of the small mountain range. It wasn’t until we gained elevation that we were treated to a winter wonderland of trees and all the transition vegetation draped with white. What was most striking was the contrast of the mountain cliff faces with the clouds and snow. It was all amazing and wonderful.
Most people today celebrate -if you can call it that- Christmas with the purchase and consumption of things. In fact, most of the holidays seem to revolve around consumption. I prefer to visit special or new places that give me new experiences that I can share and cherish. To share a communal feast with good friends tops off the day making each one special. To me, that is the best Christmas present.