Fifteen Miles in Big Bend

Esther Yumi Ko

© Copyright 2023 by Esther Yumi Ko

Photo by Faith D on Unsplash
Photo by Faith D on Unsplash

"Do you think I can do a fifteen-mile hike through desert mountains?" I ask a friend who spends his summers as a hiking guide in Wyoming.

"Short answer is yes," he replies, "but..."

"What's your pace?" he asks.


"What's the longest hike you've done?"


"Do you have people to go with?"


"I believe you're totally capable, but I can't say I recommend taking on a hike that long in a place you don't know by yourself."

The best way to get me to do anything is to express skepticism that I can.

West Texas looks like one endless road flanked by pods of sagebrush and prickly pear scattered across overwhelming beige. The asphalt shimmers into the horizon where the craggy mountains stand like ancient sentinels. It's easy to imagine the world stops at these mountains.

As I drive into Big Bend National Park I sense something holy about the place. The grandeur of the Chisos Mountains suggests they belong to the skies, not to the lowly dust of the land. They encircle the basin like arms wrapped around a child.

I blast off from the trailhead to Emory Peak, the highest point in all of Big Bend, smugly passing people panting on the uphill climb. By mile three, I am gasping for air and cursing my ill-fitting backpack with every tortured step under the Texas sun. I realize I should've brought a hat. I realize a lot of things.

My inexperience is a saving grace of a kind. Every time I see a new incline I tell myself: If I'm this tired I must be close to the top. When I discover yet another set of stairs: This has got to be it. I'll finish these, then I can have some dried mango. That's how I get through-- hill by hill, step by step, my head full of mangoes. I’ve always been adept at getting through life’s difficulties with plausible deniability and sugar.

The last twenty-five feet to Emory Peak require a rock scramble that, as one review puts it, "is pretty sketch." I'm not sure what a scramble is, but here's that inexperience again: Eh, I'm probably more fit than the average American. I'll be fine.

The trail fades into gravel and loose rocks. Is this the scramble?

I round a bend to find the side of the mountain covered in spikes. The serrated edges of the succulents yield to defiant blooms in red and yellow, fire stolen from the sun itself.

"Have you seen these cactus flowers?" I shout with unbridled excitement at an older couple coming up behind me.

"They're very pretty," the woman says kindly.

"They're incredible!"

They pass as I examine the flowers.

"We'll probably be leap-frogging each other soon," she laughs.

I reach a set of knee-high steps composed of rocks jutting from the side of the mountain. Ah, this must be the scramble.

I reach a jagged rock face that requires me to use my hands to hoist myself from foothold to foothold. Surely, this has to be the scramble.

I reach a small platform where a group of women snap photos.

"Is this... it?" I ask one of them.

"It's super close." She gestures upward at the nearly vertical rock face with no identifiable way up.

"But there's no trail," I say with a breathlessness that has nothing to do with the past two hours of physical exertion.

She smiles. "The view is so worth it."

Up ahead I spot the older couple's hiking poles tucked to the side. If they can do it... I take a deep breath and use both hands to hoist myself onto the nearest ledge. I place one foot and scramble up to make the next. Aha! The scramble!

This is no more difficult than that one intro rock climbing class I took in New York a year ago. I try to block the follow-up thought: But without the harness. The first thing we learned in that class was how to fall. I never did get the hang of it. My hands shot out beneath me every time until the instructor sighed, "Let's just move on for now."

As I inch my way through a gap between boulders and peek down into what looks like an endless drop, I find a cold solace in the fact that from 8,000 feet up, it wouldn't really matter how I fall.

The view at the top is a dizzying panorama of the mountain range rolling into Mexico. Despite lying below me, the mountains don't seem any smaller. I imagine this is what it's like to stand on the shoulders of a giant. I grip the surface as if the giant will shrug at any moment and send me tumbling– a mote of flesh quickly snuffed by forty-million-year old rock.

The woman who passed me earlier greets me, "You made it! I was starting to wonder about you!"

"I made it!" I nearly weep.

I ask the person closest to me if he'd take my photo and, as I hand him my phone, my attention shifts from the view to notice he has a nice smile.

We get to chatting as everyone else makes their way back down. We both lived in New York City before the pandemic and decided to drive around the country while working remotely. We overlapped in Austin during the Great Snowpocalypse of 2021 and were both headed to Utah and Yellowstone.

"What made you decide to do this?" he asks.

"I was sick of paying way too much to sit around my tiny apartment." I answer the best I can.

When I tell him I still have another ten miles left on the hike he replies, "Don't feel like you have to stay up here if I'm keeping you."

"I’m trying to decide if I should press on to South Rim or go back the way I came." I answer, but I realize the sun has already started to melt toward the horizon.

Either way, I should head back down, which I do reluctantly.

"Maybe I'll see you in Yellowstone," I say.

As I make my descent, I wish I had asked for some way to keep in touch. We were already leading parallel lives. It might have been worth seeing if they could intersect again. Besides, the 90s romantic comedy writes itself: Two New York City neighbors, fed up with city life, hit the road and find each other on top of the world. What a waste of a good meet-cute.

I pause to take photos. The meet-cute comes bounding down.

"Wow, you already caught up to me!" I move to let him pass, but he hesitates.

"Do you mind if I walk with you for a bit?" He asks. "I love talking to people on the trail."

So we walk and chat.

"What made you decide to do this?" he asks again, as if there must be an answer behind my answer.

His motivation is that he recently broke up with his girlfriend and felt there was nothing tying him to New York anymore. "I know, it's a cliché," he says.

"I ended an engagement like a year and a half ago," I blurt.

It's such an obvious story that I hadn't considered how valid it is. I had been thinking of my narrative as Woman Copes with Pandemic by Going on a Ten-Month Solo Road Trip.

But equally apt:

Woman Leaves Behind Everything She Knows After Breaking Up with Fiancé.

Single Woman, Feeling Frustrated with Her Stagnant Career, Has Early Mid-Life Crisis.

Woman Goes on Life-Affirming Journey After Battling Cancer.

Is it less of a cliché if it's all of the clichés?

We arrive at the point where the trail splits.

"Have you made your decision?" he asks.

I do some quick math. At my current rate I would finish the South Rim trail by... 2am? Or I could go back the way I came with good company. That would be faster, safer, and easier.

"I'm gonna keep going," I said.

Easy was never the point.

After an hour of trying to outpace the sun, I realize I haven't seen any other hikers since Emory Peak. I notice how loud the quiet is: The rustling wind. The calls of birds and other critters. My own crunching footsteps. I wonder if a mountain lion could smell the snacks in my backpack.

I recall the notices posted around the park:

• If you see a mountain lion on the trail, do not run away.

• Do not give it food.

• Make loud noises and wave your arms.

• If you are with others, link arms to look bigger.

• It's better if you're with others.

• Why would you do this alone?

• Don't do it alone.

• Seriously, are you an idiot?

• Only an idiot would hike an empty trail while knowing almost nothing about hiking.

• If the mountain lion attacks, fight back.

The flash of a tan body catches my eye. My attention snaps. There's something alive behind the trees.

I am jolted by a premonition of my mangled corpse heaped along the side of the trail like a gruesome scarecrow. I anticipate the shrill pain of the mountain lion’s teeth on my neck.

“But… is it safe?” Well-intentioned friends and family asked when I announced my solo journey.

I shrugged them off. I could be hit by a car walking to the grocery store. My apartment building could collapse. At any moment, the cells of my body could mutiny.

Now I would be exposed for what I really was– naive, stupid, reckless.

Is this really what people think about in their last moments– Other people’s opinions?

"Get outta here!" My voice comes out in a surprisingly thunderous growl.

I slide my selfie stick from the side pocket of my backpack and wield it with both fists like a lightsaber. I am ready to fight this mountain lion or, apparently, take a photo with it.

It steps forward on long, graceful legs and gazes at me with big brown eyes. Not a mountain lion. A deer. My anxiety releases in a squeal of laughter.

"Shoo!" I call out, expecting it to scurry behind the trees.

My skin crawls as I sense a hardness in her eyes. She doesn't budge. I haven't seen any instructions for what to do if I encounter a hostile deer.

A smaller deer moves behind it, and I realize two things: A fully-grown doe could easily maim a 5'3" human if it decides to. The most dangerous creature in this park is not a mountain lion but a mother.

"It's okay," I murmur as I inch my way in the opposite direction of her fawn. "I won't hurt either of you, I promise. Just let me pass. We're chill, right? Totally chill." She stares me down as I disappear down the trail.

I reach South Rim as the west-facing sides of the mountains blaze in green and gold. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful heaven. When the sun dips beneath the highest peaks, I know I need to move along. I race through the next few miles as the sky turns pink then lilac then I'm moving through a thick blue.

I have two miles left by the time it's dark enough that I need to pull out my headlamp. My legs are so tired I stumble over my feet. I slow to a leaden march, mindlessly following my narrow beam of light until I remember that Big Bend is designated as an International Dark Sky Park. I turn off my lamp. It's so dark I barely make out the silhouettes of the mountains, but the star-tossed sky pulses with light.

I have thought that the best part of being in love is having someone who will hold my hand as I gaze up at the swirling galaxy. The reminder of someone else's body keeps me tethered safely in mine. Alone, I catapult into the constellations, forgetting for a moment that I ever touched the ground as a corporeal being.


Esther Yumi Ko was born in New Jersey and forged in New York City. She is a former arts administrator who left NYC to travel around the world full-time and pursue the love that got away– writing. 

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