“The desert will scour your soul,” wrote the cantankerous environmentalist Edward Abbey. But not everybody who comes out to Big Bend, an area Abbey knew well (his classic Desert Solitaire can be purchased at Panther Junction), is looking to get roughed up. Fortunately, there is the Hot Springs Historic District, where channeling the spirit of the wild is as easy as stripping down to your swimsuit.
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Few sights rival the view upstream into the 1,500-foot gorge known as Santa Elena. Its limestone cliffs and rocky depths deterred explorers until 1899, when geologist Robert T. Hill, working on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, headed to Big Bend to take on the “longest and least known” stretch of the Rio Grande. He and a team of five made their way through the canyon by dragging boats over rock slides; it took three days to cover seven miles.
Given the hours it usually takes to drive to Big Bend in the first place, it may seem counterintuitive to encourage more time behind the wheel. But the thirty-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, named after the park’s first superintendent, offers such a spectacular sense of the terrain that you may forget you’re even in the car. Maxwell, who helped design the route, knew this.
It was just after we hit our first major-league dip in the road that I sensed something was amiss. My wife and I were in the bed of a pickup somewhere in the Chihuahuan Desert, cruising on an unpaved route south from Boquillas, headed for a night in Sierra del Carmen. The ride seemed pleasant enough to me. We had good company in the truck bed—Big Bend photographer James Evans and his longtime steady, Marci Roberts; Big Bend Gazette publisher John Waters; trip organizer Ernesto Hernandez Morales; and a former park ranger named Marcos Paredes—and our perches were cushioned by bedrolls and overnight bags. But when we hit that dip, we caught a little air. I turned to Julie, my sweet ballerina bride, with a big smile on my face; nothing had flown from the truck. She looked back with narrowed eyes. It occurred to me that we might be taking two entirely different vacations.
Mine was a reporting trip. It was April 19, 2013, and the border crossing at Boquillas had reopened the previous week after eleven long, shuttered years. Unelectrified and remote, the tiny Mexican village had, at one time, been home to some three hundred residents, who survived almost entirely on business brought by day-trip visitors from Big Bend National Park. But then 9/11 happened, and the informal crossing at Boquillas—the two-minute boat ride across the Rio Grande had always been illegal but never an issue—was closed. Boquillas’s tourism industry shrank down to handicrafts left by villagers on the riverbank for paddlers to buy on the honor system and performances by Victor Valdez, the Cantor of the Canyon, who sang corridos across the water for tips. The town’s population withered to seventy. Now the crossing was open, as an official point of entry no less, with a passport-reading kiosk on the U.S. side that piped a video feed to agents in El Paso and a FEMA-style trailer on the Mexican side staffed by real customs officials. My assignment was to see how Boquillas was responding.
Julie, on the other hand, had in mind that we were celebrating our second wedding anniversary. I should point out that I had not forgotten the blessed occasion. It had fallen four days earlier and been my first thought when the story was assigned. Not one to place work before marriage, I’d invited her along. I should also point out that we are accustomed to vastly different styles of travel. Julie is, in fact, a former professional dancer who owns a boutique garden design firm in Austin; before she married a journalist, hers was a life of first-class flights and five-star resorts, and her CV lists, under the heading “philanthropy,” multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaigns she marshaled for arts organizations. My résumé lists “hitchhiking” under “activities.” But we navigate that gap. When we travel, if I pick the hotel, she packs bedsheets. It’s a thread-count thing.
We enter the park at Persimmon Gap just before noon, and the desert landscape, still damp from a lashing rainstorm the night before, is lit with a preternatural glow, the creosote bush and prickly pear vivid green. Roadrunners flash across the road so quickly and well-camouflaged they are like shooting stars—I can’t point them out to six-year-old Ford or three-year-old Emerson because the birds are gone by the time they look. It’s spring break, the most crowded time of year in Big Bend, but my wife, Stacy, and I have decided to come anyway, braving the eight-hour drive from Dallas in the family Volvo (plus an overnight stay in Marfa) to experience this untamed corner of Texas for the first time in our lives.
We stop at a sign marked “Fossil Bone Exhibit,” and our son and daughter sprint up a path and mount a platform of red rock, spreading their arms and spinning in circles, taking in the immensity of the space around us, the vast martian landscape lit afire, the Chisos Mountains a bronze Stonehenge assembled by titans. I already regret all the time I’ve spent not being here. I want to break into song. I don’t. Back in the car, our cellphone reception slips away as we head deeper into the park. Stacy and I hold hands as civilization dies on the screen. “Is this where the animals are?” asks Emerson. Yes. “But why can’t we see them?” Because we have to be patient. We have to wait.
We’ve been lucky enough to get a room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, on the southeastern slope of Casa Grande, a 7,325-foot garnet butte that’s visible for miles. The Chisos Basin occupies the center of the park literally and figuratively, a kind of metaphysical anchor, a deep bowl ringed by mountains and mesas, lined with crumbling striata of sandstone. After checking in, we go to the visitors center across the parking lot, where Ford and Emerson get their national park “passport” books stamped and receive journals to record their experiences. A life-size statue of a mountain lion dominates the exhibits on flora and fauna, and the kids marvel at the paw prints and pictures. We take a stroll down the Window Trail just outside the lodge as raptor birds circle above the peaks, coasting on invisible thermals. The air is so clear that the smallest hint of movement draws your eye: a distant jackrabbit stealing across a path, a lizard scaling a rock face, a boy standing on a boulder across the valley, waving his ball cap.
When I consider the childhood memories that inform my present being, I think of moments outdoors: in the woods, in the park, in the creek. Nature offers a rare oasis of privacy for children, a respite from close adult supervision. At home, the kids play in the postage stamp of grass in our backyard, but the rest of their time outside consists mostly of soccer practice or trips to the playground. Ford cracks open geodes from a boxed kit in the garage, Emerson creates magical forest hideouts in the stunted shrubbery, and Stacy makes “fossils” out of chicken bones and plaster for the kids to find in the sandbox. Nature, as we know it, is predictable. I think about this when dusk falls and we settle into the soft mattresses in our cinder-block room. Lying next to me, my son whispers in my ear: “I want to see something that’s not in the zoo. An animal just out there in the wild.”
It is the farthest corner of Texas, if not physically then at least in spiritual and psychic terms. Here, where the mighty Rio Grande pirouettes upward, shifting its trajectory from the south toward the east, cutting through ancient mountains on its six-hundred-plus-mile run to the Gulf of Mexico, is the big bend that defines this majestic, stark land, a country whose lofty peaks and dramatic canyons and dazzling striations beg exploring and belong to no one. Though people have passed through these reaches for more than 10,000 years, from Clovis-era tribes and nomadic bands of Chisos Indians to the Comanche and eventually Anglo ranchers, the area defies all human claims on it. It’s of no surprise that sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, confronted with the region’s vastness, labeled it el despoblado. The uninhabited.
The joy of riding through Hermann Park on a miniature train never grows old, even if you have. You pay your $3.25,climb aboard, and—whether it’s your first time or your fifty-first—feel a kick of childlike enthusiasm as the wheels start. The 445-acre park is the queen of Houston’s green spaces.
Big Bend National Park first appeared as a cover story in April 1980, in which Stephen Harrigan celebrated, among other things, the wonders of Santa Elena Canyon, Emory Peak, and the South Rim. This month’s cover story on Big Bend National Park, written by a team of authors, also celebrates, among other things, the wonders of Santa Elena Canyon, Emory Peak, and the South Rim. I suppose we can be forgiven for covering the same ground, so to speak.