The Air Out There

Posted in: Featured | By: | April 01, 2009


“I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in the kindness of human beings. I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and angels.” – Pearl S. Buck

I fell in love with Texas sitting on a motorcycle. On a summer run from Michigan, my buddy and I rode the coastline along the gulf and then turned west toward the Hill Country, the Chihuahuan Desert, and Big Bend National Park. There is no feeling comparable to rolling the power up on a motorcycle and pointing toward the setting sun. No one has ever really bothered to hurry across Texas because it is too large to be trifled with but we wanted to get to the brighter sun and the colors of the desert.

We camped in a canyon on the Pecos River beneath a highway bridge and the next morning rode with the sun at our backs out to the Big Bend. Neither artists nor wordsmiths can communicate the glory of the geography where the Rio Grande describes a grand and lovely turn through the high mesas. The road that rises up to the park entrance crosses an ancient sea bed and the geologic time that the horizon was beneath water does not seem distant as the miles unroll. In the spring and sometimes even in the winter the giant lupens, which are Big Bend Bluebonnets, often stand as high as three feet along the shoulder of the road, doing their best to diminish the yellow flower on the cholla cactus and the reddened evening light laying against the Glass and Christmas Mountain ranges.

The indigenous peoples of the Trans-Pecos have a legend that explains the beauty of the Big Bend. They claim that when god completed work on making the world that he had a leftover supply of precious and beautiful materials and these he stored at Big Bend. This I believe. As our bikes climbed through the ocotillo and sage up to the alpine forests453742670_ufcxz-m of the Chisos Mountains, the air went from light and dry to almost cool and heavy. The desert floor expanded out behind the rear view mirror on the motorcycle and the world went small as we moved closer to the sky above Chisos Basin. That night, we wheeled through the stars that seemed within arm’s reach. In the morning, out of our tents, we hiked to the South Rim and stood on what felt like the edge of the planet while looking out on eons of rock and the grand river that so gracefully carved it into a vista of incomprehensible beauty.

For all of the many years since that first visit, I have been returning to Big Bend as if I had no choice. As a television journalist, my colleagues often ridiculed my ability to find news stories in the Trans-Pecos region and I once had to be summoned from a 2000 foot canyon to fly east in search of a hurricane’s landfall. But I knew I’d go back. I always have and always will be going back to Big Bend.

s1274814688_365528_5169853On one of those trips, my colleague, Kirk Swann, and I managed to convince our editors to look at the air quality issues in Big Bend. A park display shows visitors how the air has begun to degrade in one of North America’s most remote locations. On the rare clear day, it is still possible to see from Panther Junction to McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, which is about 150 miles distant. However, many other mornings the air in this precious place is worse than Los Angeles during an inversion. Monitors placed around the park continue to mark the degradations caused by human endeavors to eat, heat, and power the world.

Kirk and I visited the Carbon One and Two power plants in Mexico to examine one of the sources of the pollution. Experts measuring particulate matter in Big Bend say a significant amount of particulate matter is coming off the power plants’ stacks and drifting into the park. Plant officials concede that the Carbon plants are responsible for about 250,000 tons of sulphuric dioxide being emitted annually into the air. Unfortunately, the power facilities are located to the southeast of Big Bend and the prevailing winds most of the year are from that direction and the pollution is carried toward the lovely desert. The Mexican government officials explained that they would like to prevent such things as air pollution but that America is a more advanced economy and south of the border their primary concern is with heat and light and air quality will be reckoned with at another time. Mexico does not have $500 million in discretionary funds to spend on the scrubbers needed to clean up emissions at the Carbon plants.

But Mexico is not the only cause of this problem. The national park finds itself located at a place where there is a confluence of wind currents carrying pollution from the Gulf Coast oil refineries and the West Coast industrial ands1274814688_365529_474063 power plants. Winds out of the north bring emissions from industry in Dallas and beyond. In the collision of these air currents, particulates are often left to linger in the air out there. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is neither optimistic nor ambitious about cleaning up Big Bend’s air. The state recently told the EPA not to expect clear air in the park until the year 2155, which is outside the actuarial table of my lifetime. The EPA has asked states in critical national park regions to meet air quality standards by the year 2064 (see previous comment about actuarial tables) and Texas, our Texas, is the only one to not comply with the plan. Pollution controls on power plants in the state were loosened by the former governor who became president and even though it would take only about $300 million to retrofit the facilities, nobody in state government is insisting the energy industry do the right thing.

I often wonder how people can tolerate the government in this state or why they don’t just leave in anger. But then I think about being a young man and the front wheel of my motorcycle lifting slightly upward toward the approaching desert and the thousand colors coming at the end of the day and I want to live forever.

And I want to spend my forever in Texas.

1 Comment for this entry:

  • Gary Croshaw

    “The Air Out There” reminds me of another motorcycle trip my then-wife and I took with the author and his wife. It was 1977…2 motorcycles, 4 people from Laredo to San Antonio up scenic Interstate 35. It was night. We ran into a very thick fog bank. We could see well enough to see the white road stripe next to our wheels. That lead us off the interstate where we sat for a while discussing our blind options. We searched in the thick air for the entrance ramp and scootered on. Thanks for the memories, Jim.

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