Artists and the national parks have long held a symbiotic relationship. The earliest images of iconic western features like Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, were transported to the east coast via photographers and painters, while poets and songwriters captured the imagination of the urbanite clusters in the big cities back east. People heard the call of the west and took to the rails to see these monoliths that could surely only be the stuff of dreams.
I was honored to be chosen by the National Parks Arts Foundation as a centennial artist-in-residence for Big Bend National Park. Big Bend lies in the far-west sun-scorched corner of Texas where the Rio Grande makes a dramatic upswing through canyons and desert. The park itself is characterized by three distinct environments: the desert, the river, and the mountains (the Chisos mountains rise almost 8,000 feet above sea level and are the only mountain range contained solely in the confines of a national park). This wide variety of terrain allowed me to explore the limits of my adventurous spirit as well as my creative boundaries.
Throughout the month I hiked, paddled, and wrote my way through the experience of living in the wild. I’m thrilled to share some of the images I captured while living the dream of writing songs for such a majestic national park. There is nothing that holds the human heart like the natural world. The healing spirit that lies there cannot be found anywhere else, and I encourage readers to engage this earth for themselves.
Everything in the desert is trying to kill you. In the foreground is an Ocotillo stem, which looks dead but blooms lime green right after any sort of precipitation. Thorns, spikes, dagger agave blades, venomous insects and reptiles, bears, they’re all here and you have to avoid them.
The Santa Elena Canyon is one of three major canyons the Rio Grand tumbles through on its way around the Big Bend. This canyon is particularly majestic as the sun rises and throws an orange huge to the monolithic walls.
One of my favorite early afternoon hikes to the bottom of a 40-50 foot pour off, or where an arroyo dumps its fluvial deluge following a flash flood. The rock behind me is magnificently smooth to the touch.
Pine Canyon: My absolute favorite early morning hike. The mist rises off the desert and forms low hanging clouds in the foothills of the Chisos. The canyon is to the east of the mountains so you can catch an amazing sunrise that changes the color of both the desert floor and the mountains to the west.
A typical day for me meant getting up before the sun and hitting the trail. I would often cook my breakfast at the trailhead following a couple miles of warm up.
The Rio runs past ruins of a hot springs resort. It’s quite nice to take a soak and obviously a popular place.
The best way to see the river is by boat.
Ernst Tinaja is another magical little hike to large pools of rainwater that sustain many forms of life in the desert. The colors here were amazing and best viewed during the last light of the day. Then you can watch the stars blast from the night sky on the hike back to your car.
I’ve always wanted to play one of the little amphitheaters where the rangers give their programs. This is a shot from the first night of my programs, at Rio Grand Village Amphitheater. It was FREEZING.
My final program at the park. I focused on songs that communicate my experience with the natural world, and I spoke about the need to conserve our wild lands. We need to protect these places from those who would steal them from us and develop them into something entirely unnatural. Big Bend, and lands across the country just like it, provide a much needed form of respite and restraint for our nation.
Keep up with Russell here.