2000s Archive

A Land As Big As All Outdoors

Originally Published November 2001
Big Bend is as foreboding as it is beautiful—and that's just the way people in Texas like it.

This may be the only place left where all the lies about Texas are true.

Big Bend, a boot heel of the Rio Grande in the extreme southwestern part of the state, is the last remaining scrap of aboriginal Texas. Here, the sky really is bigger, the horizon endless. The mesas and mounds and obelisks of limestone rising from hardscrabble desert floor are so vivid that they appear computer-generated, and at places along the 118-mile, curvy stretch of the Rio Grande to which this magnificent landscape clings, the river seems to run uphill.

But if the Big Bend region is otherworldly and achingly beautiful, it is also unremittingly inhospitable. Apaches, Mexicans, Spanish explorers, ranchers, and miners have all been forced to reckon with this paradox, generally about the time they decide to turn tail and run. As a result, the name given to the region by the Spanish—El Despoblado, "the unpeopled place"—remains apt to this day. In more than an hour of hiking through Boquillas Canyon, one of the geological masterpieces that dot Big Bend National Park, my wife and I spotted all of two burros over on the Mexican bank of the river and chatted briefly with two German tourists. But that may be exactly why some of us love Big Bend. It seduces the right kind of traveler, those that dote on adventure, and drives the rest away.

To begin with, Big Bend is impossibly huge: 1,250 square miles for the parklands alone, about the size of Rhode Island. It's hard to get there, and even harder to find a place to stay once you've arrived. Aside from the unpleasantness of the occasional dust storm, the weather in this rare collision of mountain, river, and desert ecologies ranges from uncomfortably muggy to uncomfortably arid to uncomfortably chilly—all in the same afternoon. The brightly flowered prickly pear and ocotillo are a delight to behold in early spring, but the things that bloom here can also stick you. Wild animals—mule deer and javelinas—abound, but snake bites and maulings by mountain lions are not unheard of. How tough is the Bend? So tough that contestants in the Old Goat Cook Off compete in four categories of food preparation: beans, rice, corn bread, and, of course, old goat.

In fact, our ramble through Boquillas Canyon ended with a violent dust storm, and it wasn't until later that day, when we were safely back in the comfort of rocking chairs on the porch of the eccentric old Gage Hotel, that I was reminded of why a visit to Big Bend is always worth the trouble. Gazing at the most spectacular sunset either of us had ever seen, my wife sighed, "The sky's on fire." Despite its daunting nature, this landscape has the ability to render even the most plainspoken of us poetic.

Casting about for more serendipity the following day, we decided to take a leisurely drive through the Davis Mountains, a dramatic range of peaks north and west of the park. Along the way, we stopped to hike a couple of not-so-well-worn trails and cruised the main drags of tiny desert towns like Alpine, where we stopped for chicken-fried steak and homemade biscuits at Reata. After dinner, we set out in search of the Marfa Lights, mysterious luminescences that appear after dark on the southern horizon outside of the nearby town of Marfa. Depending on which local "historian" you choose to believe, these are either electromagnetic hot spots or the ghost of the Apache chief Alsate.

Not quite accepting either explanation, we dropped by the rest stop alleged to be the best viewing place. And there they were. "But those could just be car lights," I said, after spotting some flickering in the distance. The old guy next to us shot me a wounded look, as if to say, "Why impose reality on this place?" He had a point. Who was I to doubt the veracity of the Marfa Lights? On the other hand, who needs science fiction when reality does just fine? On another evening, about the same time on another stretch of lonely highway but nearer to the park, I had spotted a mountain lion in the peripheral glow of our headlights. It was carrying the carcass of a small deer back into the scrub.

The next afternoon, we hiked up the region's other mountain range, the Chisos, and later, when we got to the Rio Grande, hopped into what passes for a ferry in these parts—a small aluminum rowboat—to cross ten yards of muddy water to the other side of the river. We then followed a narrow dirt path to the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas, whose main claim to fame is the Dos Amigos restaurant.

Based on what locals had told us, I had pictured a miniature border town, like the quaintest two blocks of Nuevo Laredo with a more rural flair. But when we reached the top of the last hill, we realized that Paso Lajitas was no more than a scattering of ramshackle houses. The restaurant was a low-slung building surrounded by a barn, a chicken coop, and a corral with a couple of haggard horses and a large emu. It had open-air windows, concrete floors, folding metal chairs, brightly checkered tablecloths, and two of the friendliest señoras ever to deep-fry a tortilla. (Since there wasn't another living soul in sight, we felt that the restaurant should more properly have been named Dos Amigas.) And I wondered if we should be concerned about wandering onto private property in a foreign country that we had just entered, if not illegally, somewhat unconventionally.

We both had the chicken flautas smeared with mayonnaise, a surprisingly tasty variation obviously born of necessity, given that sour cream seems to be rare in these parts. The plate came with refried beans, a pico de gallo made with farm-fresh vegetables, and steaming-hot homemade tortillas that actually tasted of corn. Maybe it was the soft breeze drifting in through the window, the perfect final flourish to a perfect meal, or maybe it was the $10 tab, but as we walked back to our river taxi I felt my chest swell as full as my stomach at our great culinary discovery.

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