Two years ago, I went down to Big Bend, Texas on my bike. I found a camping space about fifty yards or so from the Rio Grand and set up my tent towards the middle of a big field. Since I was not far from the river, I was afraid there would be a lot of biting insects and decided to sleep in my tent so I could get behind some mosquito netting. Because it was so hot, I had decided against a real supper. I had with me a six pack of Shiner Bock beer and a bag of ice that I had picked up in town.
It was a Saturday night in early July. At this time of year, in West Texas there isn't a lot of cooling after the sun goes down. I sat down under a tree and as the shadows grew longer and the worst of the heat dissolved in the dusk, I took out my harmonica, opened an iced beer, cut off a chunk of cheese I had with me and generally felt that all was pretty well with the world. Even though I was feeling pretty good, there was something about this particular time and place that brought out melancholy tunes. One after another I played them, stopping occasionally for another cooling pull on a beer.
After fifteen or twenty minutes of this a vulture landed in the tree overhead. THis was somewhat unnerving. I think a vulture's attention may be a bit more disturbing to a motocyclist a thousand miles from home than he would be to, say, an RV camper. Anyway, this bird flew down and walked about in front of me. I looked at his powerful beak and figured it might be a good idea to share my cheese with this ugly bald-headed bird with the red neck feathers. It might keep his mind off carrion. He hopped around with great agility as I tossed bits of cheese first to one side of him and then the other. When he was sure that the cheese was gone, he flew back up in the tree and another vulture flew in from the distance to join him up there. I kept playing on the harmonica trying to imagine that they were an appreciative audience.
Then another vulture flew in, and another. I started to feel like the Pied Piper of Hohner. The tree was filling up with these big black birds. It was hard not to look at them as some sort of omen. Not only are these birds with their four foot wingspans not liked by man, they don't seem to like each other and as the tree branches filled up with birds flying in from all compass points, they started squabbling for the best limbs. They became noisier and more argumentative and I moved away. With that many upset birds overhead, it would have been only a matter of time before I was slimed by one of these overly exciteable creatures.
Another beer and the sun was near the horizon. It was a night of a full moon so as the sun sank below the horizon in the west, a large polished white disk rose in the East. It was so bright it cast shadows on the dry ground.
I put the harmonica in my pocket and started to get ready for bed and was taking off my boots when a coyote walked into camp.
He was about the size of a small skinny german shephard but he walked through the campsite, about thirty feet away from me, with a noticeable degree of dignity, as if to make sure that I understood that he was the real resident here. He seemed to be saying that people like me come and go but he would be here tomorrow and the next night, and so on. He did keep his eye on me all the way across the clearing as he headed for the brush along the river. As he passed by, his head turned until, when he disappeared into the bushes, he was looking back over his shoulder at me. Then he was gone. Now it really was time for bed. I lay down on top of my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.
As much as I wanted to fall asleep, it was so hot that soon I was warm and thirsty. I crawled out of the tent and in the light of the moon, opened another beer. A few minutes later, with a new determination to fall asleep, I stretched out on top of my bag in the tent. This time I was determined to fall asleep and stay that way until sunrise which, because this was midsummer, was only a few hours away.
The next sound I heard was a kind of snuffling. I can't really describe it very well, kind of like a very fat man with a runny nose. I tried ignoring it but it got louder and soon there were lots of snufflings. The noises seemed to be coming from my motorcycle. My curiousity got the better of me. I opened my eyes, unzipped the mosquito netting and looked out.
In the moonlight, I could see, by actual count eleven javalinas. They were rooting through my open saddlebags and pack. Javelinas are pigs but they are pigs with an attitude; athletic pigs armed, you might say, to the teeth. They have sharp tusks and tremendously strong neck muscles. They've been known to gut a horse and then having brought it down to atack the rider.
I was aware of their aggressiveness but I also didn't want pig nose drippings all over my goods so I picked up handfulls of dust and twigs from the ground by the tent. Kind of softly I said, "Go on. Get out of here". I punctuated my quiet remonstrances by throwing the dust and twigs in their general direction. A couple of these dustballs and my annoying voice combined with the fact that they hadn't found anything that smelled interesting was enoough for them to conclude that I wasn't worth the annoyance I was causing them. They left the field to me.
Relieved that my gear was safe and even more so that I hadn't been gutted, I went back into the tent, lay out on the sleeping bag and tried again to fall asleep.
This time, I may have actually succeeded, at least for a while, but in the fog of half-sleep I heard more sounds from outside. Again I tried to ignore them. When that failed, I tried to identify them. They were big, heavy sounds, thumping, sort of, and there was snuffling but this time it sounded more like a horse than a pig. Too curious to sleep, I unzipped the mosquito netting yet another time and looked out, again towards my motorcycle. What I saw in the moonlight was a small herd of cattle milling around the field. I didn't think of it at the time but this was rather odd because there was very little grass there. The dozen or so cows could have devoured the few clumps in a few minutes. I figured cows couldn't hurt me and they didn't seem to have any interest in my motorcycle so I zipped up the tent and lay down again.
I don't know what it was, I didn't hear anything but something spooked this little herd and from inside the frail nylon tent and suddenly I heard the sound of a stampede and it was coming my way! I looked at the roof of the tent thinking that the last thing I would see would be hooves tearing through the fragile fabric. I'll bet my eyes were the size of dinner plates. I even had time to think how odd it was that a guy who grew up in New Hampshire would end up being killed in a Texas cattle stampede. What happened next seemed like a miracle. The cattle went around both sides of the tent, never even touching it. As I began breathing again, I heard the herd hit the water at full gallop, splashing across the shallow river into Mexico. Perhaps the grass looked greener there, who knows?
Exhausted by my moments of fear and then terror, I finally did fall asleep.
The sky was beginning to lighten when I woke up next. The vultures were already gone and I started to pack the camp. I was rolling up the tent when the coyote reappeared out of the bushes by the river, returning home after a night out hunting. He didn't seem surpried to see me and crossed the field on the same track he ahd taken a few hours before, again watching me over his shoulder as he passed into the trees on the other side of the clearing.
About an hour or so later, I rode into Marathon, Texas, the first town I had come to. It was Sunday morning and the street in front of the Marathon Baptist church was starting to fill up with pickup trucks and people dressed in clean, bright colored clothes that looked out of place alongside dusty workday vehicles that had brought them in from the surrounding ranches. I parked between two pickups and went into the church. THat morning, I felt I had a lot to be thankful for and I wanted to tell someone about it. The gospel songs I sang that morning alng with the congregation of the Marathon Baptist Church seemed to help me do just that.