There are many places in this world that are good for the soul. Many are obvious – temples, grottoes, canonical landforms – and others are simple, always present, and nearby. Bosque del Apache, in the south-central Rio Grande Valley, is one of those places for me. On a good day, the sky is so big that you feel pinned to the earth by it. It’s silent, it’s clear, mostly empty, and doing nothing more than standing in one place and breathing provides an amazing recuperative balm. At least for me.

I have a long history with the place over the 30+ years I’ve lived here. As an active birder, I’d make the drive down several times per year to pump up my annual list of species. At the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, many species from northern Mexico appear on a regular basis, alongside one of the greatest diversities of locally endemic species and annual migrants. Add water, and farmed fields, the refuge serves as an important stopover and wintering site for thousands of waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes. Snow Geese and their diminutive cousins, the Ross’ Goose, are there in the mid-5-figures throughout the winter, providing amazing spectacles at dawn and dusk when they go off in search of a daily meal and return from having found it.

In later years, we often made a point of stopping by on our long drive to Mexico, in the early part of December. That was when the breathtaking amount of wildlife was at its peak. A thousand Sandhills, standing peacefully in a field suddenly put to flight by a solitary Coyote loping in among them, trying to find the wounded or the weak.

I’ve not been there in several years, for a variety of reasons, and so when a friend asked if I was interested in a photography outing, the answer “yes, what better place to scratch my post-pandemic itch?” 90 minutes down the road and we were there.

It’s a huge place, 57,331 acres of water, scrub, and Cottonwood bosque, all served by nicely maintained dirt roads. And it’s rarely busy, except during the annual Festival of the Cranes. Even when there are people, the place is huge enough to still feel like you’re the only person within miles. On this day, we saw perhaps 5 other cars, all doing the same thing. Slowly passing down the roads, stopping to have a look at the ponds, and simply enjoying the peace. The sky was clear, the temperature a mild mid-50s, and in spite of the forecast, there was no wind.

Being February, for the most part, the migrants had begun their long trip back north. I knew this in part because of the huge flocks of Cranes that had begun to fly over my house – 100 miles to the north – over the past few weeks. But still, far from empty, there were plenty of a variety of duck species, many hawks, a lone Bald Eagle, and a few thousand white Geese. The latter of which provided a nice show in the final pond as we were departing. We spent our time stopping and looking and taking a lot of photographs, which tell the story far more vividly than I ever could in words. Suffice it to say, this was a wonderful re-introduction to travel after these long three years of drought. Close, easy, a favorite place all rolled into one.