Scalp Mountain and Saint of the Burning Heart are both set in the same places: In Texas, in the Davis Mountains and The Big Bend.
The Davis Mountains are located in far Western Texas, and The Big Bend (much of which is now a national park) is about 120 miles further west, on the Texas–Mexican border.
If you look on a Texas map, you’ll find the heart of the Davis Mountains in Jeff Davis County.
The Davis Mountains are misnamed. They are actually tall hills, covered with grama grass, green from spring until late fall, and littered with boulders.
The tallest peak rises to 8,378 feet.
Contrast that height to The Rocky Mountains, which rise from around 8,000 feet to more than 14,000 feet.
The Big Bend has a wider spread, at more than 3,000 square miles.
But both these places are so isolated most Americans will never see them.
I’m going to relate a few facts about both the Davis Mountains and Big Bend, but first I’m going to confess: Nobody understands all the reasons they love something.
I love these places and can’t totally explain why.
But here’s this memory.
A group of kids from Midland, Texas, including myself, went to the Davis Mountains for a weekend trip.
We camped in a narrow valley and I wandered off alone.
It was summer, about 7 p.m. and the sun painted the grassy green slopes with gold.
I found a windmill with a tank sitting below it. The tank was built of fieldstone and rose around five feet.
A fieldstone trough surrounded the tank, so cattle could drink.
Sitting on the tank, dangling my feet over the side, I heard nothing but a meadowlark and the slow clank of windmill blades.
Eternity crept into my soul.
Most of the Bend is Chihuahuan desert–which is beautiful in itself–but then the Chisos Mountains suddenly fling themselves skyward: No foothills, just that abrupt, dark sweep toward heaven.
The first time I saw that, my heart skipped a beat.
Each time I see the Chisos, it skips some more.
Now I’ll give you a few facts.
South-facing slopes in the Davis Mountains are dominated by pinyon pine trees, gray oak, alligator juniper, mountain mahogany and Madrone trees.
Deep canyon streambeds are filled with rushing water.
Black bear and mountain lion are plentiful.
Climb high enough and you’ll find Ponderosa Pine, higher still, a view that stretches one hundred miles.
Look up, watch the eagles.
If you’re picturing The Big Bend and imagining something like the Mojave Desert, or Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, you’re on the wrong track.
The Rio Grande and Pecos River valleys feed the Chihuahuan desert, so it’s filled with plant life and color.
Chihuahuan shrubs include creosote bush, mesquite, agave, and ocotillo.
One plant endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert–meaning it doesn’t grow anywhere else–is called lechugilla, a kind of agave.
Rio Grande water provides life for cottonwood and other trees, birds, land animals, fish.
Streams, lakes, arroyos, and even large puddles also form during the summer monsoons.
And the Bend is so isolated it was chosen, by the International Dark-Sky Association, as a “Dark Sky Park,” only the second U.S. national park, and one of ten parks in the world, to earn the distinction.
Big Bend is thought to have one of the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states.
Painting by Texas artist David Forks. David can be reached at davidforks.com