Oxherding in the Chisos Mountains

by Patricia Vigderman

Although well into her sixties, Karen made it up and down Lost Mine Trail in two hours. Training for a trip to Tibet, the point here was about strength and endurance. The following year her account of the Tibetan trek was indeed a story of impressive physical and touristic challenge: vertical mileage, unsavory waste disposal, prayer flags in the thin air. Crowds of pilgrims from faraway continents improving their karmic situations. Lost Mine was small potatoes, far in the past.

On the other hand, small potatoes are very tasty, don’t require a lot of preparation, and you can eat them at your leisure. When we climbed that trail ourselves, for instance, we met an old man less than halfway up who was just sitting on a bench and looking into the spectacular distance of Juniper Canyon. His group of fellow elders had trooped onward but he saw no point to that. He was old, and he thought that the time he had left would be better spent staring into the morning light on the mysterious deep and spreading canyon, the mist-veiled vista of the present moment, than in stumbling on, staring at the stones on the path (as he put it), toward a higher spot above the same moment. Only by then the moment would be past.

Karen said that the two hours included taking time to read the self-guiding interpretive pamphlet, with its news about different kinds of oak trees (Gray, Emory, Chisos), the Mexican drooping juniper, the skunkbush sumac, which is related to poison ivy but not poisonous itself. The multiple uses of the lechuguilla plant for birds, for deer, for prehistoric Indians, and for Mexicans today. “This plant,” it says, “is very important where stores are far away.” They are very far away here, and of course were in Tibet as well, where, as Karen has now written, the Sherpas carry and prepare the food.

We are carrying our own lunch, however, and we are not going to Tibet, and so continue upward at our own pace, eyes on the stony trail, but remembering to look at Juniper Canyon and also in the other direction toward Panther Pass, where you can see the vegetation change abruptly from pinyon and juniper to ocotillo and lechuguilla because the climate on the north side is different from on the south side of the pass. We, too, are following the interpretive guide, you see. Karen’s trip took her across a river with a frozen waterfall, and up to a pass more than 18,000 feet high. At the end of the trail we will be only 1,000 feet higher than when we started, and this is not even the highest you can get above sea level in these Chisos Mountains of west Texas; still, it is high enough to see the sky and get perfectly lost in space, as it turns out. Karen saw rams’ heads hanging on an altar, elephant tusks, and a yak caravan; but I am thinking of the Ox.

In twelfth-century China, or at least in the Oxherding Pictures by the poet Kakuan, the Ox was a symbol of Buddha mind, and in the first one, the Ox is missing or at any rate seems to be. Losing your Buddha mind seems to be a lot like losing your regular mind, which you could say was exactly my state at the beginning of this hike. Everything is anxious and tense. Is this the right hike? Will that busload of elders ruin everything? Can we park here? Will we be attacked by a mountain lion? Is the self-guiding pamphlet too silly? Will I be too hot or too cold? Am I now too hot or too cold? Greed for worldly gain and dread of loss spring up like searing flames, ideas of right and wrong dart out like arrows, as Kakuan’s images would have it.

As we are adjusting our boots, the elders disappear ahead of us in their wide-brimmed hats and fanny packs. We stop to read about how to behave in the presence of a mountain lion and to learn about the different kinds of oaks. Then we are alone on the trail, winding upward past the canyon called Green Gulch, and into the mountains proper. It’s still early, still chilly. We learn that the ash tree is in the olive family, that in a couple of months it will have sweet-smelling flowers. Even without the flowers, though, this is a pretty good hike; possibly I am catching a glimpse of the Ox, or at least seeing the tracks, greed and dread subsiding.

Now, even though a man in a bright yellow jacket occasionally mars the view ahead, we mostly only notice the vegetable rustlings. Kakuan says even the deepest gorges of the topmost mountain can’t hide the Ox’s nose, which reaches right to heaven, and sure enough, when we get to Juniper Canyon there it is: an immense rock called Casa Grande. The deepest gorges of the canyon are shades of green and full of vapor, form and emptiness at the same time. Plus a couple of stray butterflies drifting up on the warm air from Mexico, from the Rio Grande miles and miles away. Mexico and Texas become meaningless X-shaped words and I think this is a first glimpse of the Ox, this quiet green distance, these eons of space. That splendid head, those stately horns, what artist could portray them? asks Kakuan, even though the man in the bright yellow jacket is trying to take a photograph.

We have our camera with us, too, and later, when we stop to pull out of our knapsack an apple, walnuts, sunblock, we snap each other under a scrubby unidentified tree at the edge of another view. Further on still, we meet the group of elders on their way down. Soon we, too, will be elders, so we take note of the future, its good cheer despite signs of personal aesthetic collapse and pink knit garments. They move past us in a flood of peppy remarks about what lies ahead on the trail. Then a young woman with a swinging water bottle stops to corroborate this good news. She had passed us earlier on her way up, moving fast, like Karen, in her well-trained body. Maybe she, too, wants to walk on the roof of the world, to rise in the dark, sit among prayer flags and white scarves, to be forgiven her sins, and reborn. Oxherding, oxherding, we are not in a hurry; we are not young, or old, or ambitious.

Once this whole park was a vast inland sea, but that was in geological time, which in our case we have not got. Millions of years of compacted silt and sand and seashells, and also molten rock and lava erupting to the surface. Rocks of terrifying size. Now, royal sage, evergreen sumac, Texas madrone, mountain mahogany (actually a member of the rose family—more evidence of the emptiness of names), and crusts of lichen. The lichen are busy making soil from this tremendous rock. The geological patience all around us is remarkable.

Then we are at the top. Directly across the canyon is Lost Mine Peak, and when the sun hits it just right and you are standing in just the right place, you can supposedly see where was the entrance to the riches of the mine, now lost forever, as the name reports. Fortunately, gain and loss no longer affect us. We are alone up here; below, on both sides, the terrifying, indifferent canyons, the air. We eat our lunch, provisions from a supermarket deli somewhere in the geological past, before we saw this. There is no one here to offer us yak butter tea, no one chanting or playing drums. In the sky the clouds drift and change. They are perfectly imperfect, permanently impermanent. They move and scatter and regroup and sift through the blue. The sun catches one edge. My head does not turn in the direction of temptations. This Ox requires not a blade of grass. It vanishes like the cloud I was watching a moment ago, broken into another shape. Self forgotten. The sun catches the edges of me, burning my neck and arms. Ox forgotten. I am wrapped in the twelfth century; I am free in geological time.

Published on January 15, 2021

Originally published in Harvard Review 41.