Sleeping under the stars in Texas

Have you ever slept outside, with nothing between you and the stars? I can’t say I have done it often, but the last night on the Rio Grande seemed the perfect time to do so. I didn’t even set up the tent Far Flung Adventures had provided. There were big clouds on the southern horizon, thunderheads over the Sierra del Carmen, but our guides did not seem worried about rain, only hopeful it might come in a way I knew it wouldn’t.

Clouds to the south

My skin felt fresh from a swim in the river. I didn’t think I would be cold, but kept a t-shirt on just in case. When I squirmed into my mummy bag on a cushy pad, songs from the campfire had not ended, so I skipped reading and lay there, looking up at the stars, listening to the music, and dozing. I saw the Milky Way. I saw a shooting star. I saw Venus and Jupiter, or was it Venus and Saturn? I saw the few constellations I know, the Big Dipper and Orion, for example.

These days people make lists of places they want to visit before they die. They may be far away, but if they are visited in the same way, is it so different? Is a hotel bed not just like any other hotel bed once you are under the sheets? How about if the places we visit are the places we know, but seen from another light? How different would my home be if I slept in the back yard?

The boys set up their tent, but slept outside.

When I was a kid, we drove often from Michigan to Houston, where my grandparents lived. We crowded into a turquoise station wagon and drove over three days. When we got tired of the radio, my dad would sing his Texas songs. Deep in the Heart of Texas was our favorite, and “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas,” was our favorite couplet. So sleeping outside in Texas may be fulfilling an unknown childhood dream.

It can be a little scary not to have a tent, so I bedded down not too far away from the others. I hoped we wouldn’t have any horses wandering through camp the way we did on the first night. I hoped we wouldn’t hear any coyotes. I certainly hoped no humans not in our group came by, the biggest fear of all.

The fire had to be up off the ground.

I had just about resolved to make a habit of sleeping outside whenever I was lucky enough to be in Texas, when some news came my way, probably from Futurity, a great science site. It was about the rise of Chagas disease in Texas, even central Texas, including Austin and Travis County. Chagas disease is not something you want. It is a protozoan, Tripanosoma cruzi, carried by assassin bugs that bite in the night. Is its increase one more thing our new climate has brought us? Will it bite through my hammock-tent?

If I find myself back in Big Bend country, I’ll still sleep outside, and treasure the nights I can so slumber.

Our second night we camped at the rabbit ears.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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