THIS IS WHO I AM: a flyspeck of human vanity in a trillion miles of stone-dead interstellar space; a graceless lump of flesh and fear in a remote desert where nearly everything that I can see or touch is designed to hurt me.
At least that is how I feel just now. It is well past midnight on the chilly, windswept early morning of November 13, 2003. I am kneeling at the exact center of my REI hexagonal nylon tent, listening to the roar of the wind in the canyon and trying to decide whether to scream, pray, or try to go back to sleep. My tent is located near the Mexican border in southwest Texas, on the mountainous rim of a massive piece of geologic wreckage known as the Solitario, a mile-high, eight-mile-wide, nearly perfectly circular product of unimaginably violent volcanic upheaval. Its weird symmetry and upturned peaks can be distinguished clearly in satellite photos from outer space. Thirteen hours ago I was dropped at the mouth of a three-mile-long narrow stone canyon with 120 pounds of water, 21 packets of freeze-dried food, a tent, a sleeping bag, a small cooker, a pistol, a cell phone, and a flashlight and left to spend seven days alone. I am quite alone. As far as I know, there are twenty miles of jagged backcountry between me and the nearest human being.
I am here because I wanted to be. I had the idea some months ago that it would be interesting to travel from my home in the suburbs of Austin to an isolated part of the Big Bend and spend a week there, alone in the wilderness. The point was to go where there would be absolutely no chance of seeing people, even from a distance, to experience the majesty and peril of the high Chihuahuan Desert in the purity of solitude and write about it. Now, having been fully awake in the desert night for more than five hours, with all of its bumpings and barkings and slitherings and hissings and ghostly silences, I am beginning to rethink the wisdom of this idea.
That’s because at this moment I am experiencing a primal fear—maybe it is the primal fear—that has nothing to do with the specific physical threats around me, which include mountain lions, javelinas, flash floods, lightning, rattlesnakes, scorpions, centipedes, brown recluse spiders, tarantulas, and black widows. I am not afraid for my life. Such isolation forces you to name your mortal fears and I have named all of them and they do not include being killed and eaten. Not in this tent. Not tonight. What I am afraid of is the first thing I was ever aware of being afraid of and what I have told my daughter countless times she need not fear: being alone in the dark. It is a small prison of emotion from which there is no escape. It is also, in its own way, a shattering revelation. And it is why I am on my knees in my flimsy little tent trying to decide whether to scream or pray. Oddly, the flashlight is no defense, and no comfort; the darkness is infinite and universe-wide, and the tiny light’s pathetic beam is no match for it. Eventually I turn it off and lie down. For the next six hours I lie there in the dark listening to my own breath and to my accelerated heartbeat, waiting for the light to come. There is nothing else to be done.
WHEN THE LIGHT DOES COME it is gray and bleak, accompanied by a strong, cold wind that rattles through the mesquite trees and ocotillo plants. But I feel better. The nameless terrors of the night have vanished with the light, and now that I am finally out of the surreal monotony of the tent, I am much less anxious. There are important things to do: urinate, start the Coleman stove, drink some water, write an entry in my diary, and gaze in slack-jawed awe at the place I have put myself.
I have pitched my tent in an old Indian camp. Behind me is a 75-foot limestone cliff, with cascading prickly pear cactus and soot-blackened overhangs from ancient cooking fires. In front is a dry, sandy arroyo that, from the large amounts of waterborne debris piled eight feet high along its sharply cut banks, is also the scene of torrential flash floods. Around me is the vast escarpment of the Solitario: the huge, uplifted humps of the rim and cut canyons with seven-hundred-foot sheer faces. There are Indian artifacts everywhere, and one need only bend over to pick up a piece of hand-chipped chert or a stone knife. The first Indians were here some nine thousand years ago; remnants of hunter-gatherer camps have been found at archaeological sites throughout the Solitario. There is also evidence that cowboys once used this place. Several ancient decaying coils of barbed wire hang from a mesquite tree. A pile of crumbling, rusted-out cans suggests that the last people to frequent this camp were here in the tin era, maybe fifty years ago. Other than the fact that in a flash flood anyone bivouacked here would be in mortal danger, it is a perfect camp, tucked into a protected canyon at an elevation of around 3,800 feet.
In a larger sense, where I am is on the eastern edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park, some 270,000 acres of raw desert backcountry that stretches along the Rio Grande River between the border towns of Lajitas and Presidio. The park lies just to the west of its larger and better known cousin, Big Bend National Park, and was purchased in 1988 by the State of Texas from the Diamond A Cattle Company. A few improvements have been made since then, including a graded road, campgrounds, and a ranger station, but the ranch remains one of the most rugged, isolated, and forbidding parts of the Southwest. The Big Bend country itself, which occupies most of Brewster and