“Is there any spot on earth that men have not proved accessible by the simplest means—feet and legs and heart?”
That particularly poignant question was raised by the late Edward Abbey, the cantankerous sage of the Southwestern desert, in his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire. During his time as a park ranger, Abbey had witnessed old folks and children and even “pale-faced office clerks” searching for “a taste of the difficult, the original, the real.” He understood that few things offered a sense of accomplishment like shredding a little shoe leather. “The one thing they all have in common,” he wrote, “is the refusal to live always like sardines in a can.”
I set out from that can, from my home in Houston, for the better part of six months last year, seeking a visceral connection to the land. By the end, I had logged nearly two hundred miles of trail and visited just about every corner of Texas. I walked across desert badlands, climbed tall peaks, and trekked into the dark woods behind the Pine Curtain. However, even as I traveled deeper into the state’s remnant wilderness, one of the biggest trials I faced was finding a way to get further off the grid. The popularity of public lands is booming, and the distance we must tread to escape the crowds and the trappings of modern life verges on colossal.
Still, when it comes time to unplug, to outrun the pinging of the smartphone, few activities top a nice, long walk. As I spent more time and covered more miles in the great outdoors, I began to imagine that if civilization were to end tomorrow, my legs could carry me along ancient trailways and old roads to safety. Each step on a given path promises its own reward; we should all experience the state’s vaunted scenery, diverse wildlife, and bizarre array of vegetation while we still can.
I did find many moments of solitude, from the Franklin Mountains, where I had the nation’s largest urban wilderness to myself, to the shoreline of the Lower Laguna Madre, where my strides were serenaded by birdsong and shadowed by hidden predators. A word of caution, though: while some of the trips I charted can be tackled by just about anyone, others are downright treacherous. Every successful hike demands a little commitment and planning. Each time I set out, I carried a map and plenty of food and water. By the time I faced the riskiest of these excursions, after many months, my boots fit like old friends, my shoulders were accustomed to the weight of my gear, my tent felt like a second home, and my wayfaring strategies seemed bombproof. With this in mind, you’ll find, on the pages below, a selection of ten of the most intense—and rewarding—treks I completed.
I suggest, as your miles accrue, you do as I did and embrace the gospel of Cactus Ed. Allow the sights, sounds, and smells of nature to awaken slumbering nooks of the cerebral cortex. Whether you’re skirting a high ridge, outrunning a thunderstorm, or being spooked by a wild creature, there’s no escaping the sense that we live in a state where it’s always possible to find a spot truly off the grid.