Near Texas’s Big Bend National Park, Rio Grande trip can slow currents of life
By Andrea Sachs,
Mexico wasn’t going to move, so I had only one option: bang into it. Canoeing along the Rio Grande in West Texas requires quick reflexes and international diplomacy. After crashing into Mexico’s banks and shredding a small patch of Carrizo cane, I quickly U-turned and did the same thing to the U.S. side. Viva binational boating!
The nearly 1,900-mile-long Rio Grande, known as Rio Bravo in Mexico, wiggles like a water snake from the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1,200 miles of the waterway form a natural border between Mexico and the United States, including the sharp elbow that gives Big Bend National Park its name.
With more than 800,000 acres of serrated mountains and parched desert, the park can be inhospitable to all but rattlesnakes, burros, javelinas and other hardscrabble species. Among the daintier mammals, only about 350,000 people visit Big Bend annually, mainly during the high seasons of spring and fall. (In the hot center of summer, the numbers drop to as low as 15,000 a month, a pinch of salt compared to, say, Yellowstone’s 900,000 visitors last July.)
“Everything here is governed by water and heat — the lack of one and the intensity of the other,” said John Hargis, senior shuttle driver with Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter that leads float trips down the Rio Grande.
Although most adventurers hike the park’s trails, roughly 15,000 folks a year navigate the area by river, a fine way to travel if you aren’t endowed with the legs of a bighorn sheep and the moisture-retaining properties of cactus.
Lacking both traits, I took the easy-ish route down, joining a caravan of canoes over the New Year’s holiday. I was a girl with a paddle, virtually unstoppable — until I slammed into Mexico.
Big Bend is in nowhereland, an empty area at the bottom of West Texas, with no tall buildings to crimp the expansive sky or urban lights to dull the Lite-Brite starscape. The nearest commercial airport is 245miles away in Midland. The road to Terlingua, the largest town closest to the park entrance, resembles a sun-bleached painting of unbroken desert and futile existence. For the drive, you could fully rely on muscle memory with intermittent bouts of consciousness to avoid darting deer and vermin.
Most commercial services, including the three tour operators that organize river excursions, loosely congregate in Terlingua, a quirky town of about 400 folks in Brewster County, the largest county in Texas. In addition to its variety of filling stations (for cars, stomachs and zzzzs), the former mining town features a cast of colorful characters who seemingly landed here by chuck wagon, magic bus or UFO.
Far Flung Outdoor Center has been sending guided boats down the Rio Grande since 1976, the year owner Greg Henington started “commuting” between Houston, where he worked in banking, and Terlingua, where he moonlighted on weekends. (In 1993, he became a full-time Terlinguan, though he still shuffles many business cards: fire chief, paramedic, president of the tourism board.)
“Big Bend has always caught my attention,” said Henington, a dapper man even in his outdoor gear. “For hundreds of miles, there’s nothing but solitude. There’s a romanticism about the area.”
The company runs trips lasting from a half-day to five days, including easy outings for those clumsy with paddles and tent poles. Our two-day trip started early in the morning, allowing us to squeeze the most out of the lemon-yellow winter sun. (Weather report for late December: blue skies, no clouds, temperatures in the high 70s, dropping to the 50s in the evening.) Because of the long distances between pockets of civilization, I spent the night near Terlingua, a rite of passage for visitors new to the ways of West Texas.
First lesson: In these parts, you don’t need to be Homo sapiens to hold a legislative position. Clay Henry III was a beer-guzzling goat who in the mid-1980s became mayor of Lajitas, the town (actually the 28,000-acre resort about 17 miles from Terlingua where we stayed) developed in the 1970s by a Houston oilman for his wealthy confreres. Mayor “Goat” Henry vanquished a full slate of challengers, including the incumbent (an actual person), a wooden trading post Indian and a local ranch dog named Buster.
Accompanied by a trio of Texas friends, I decided to hunt for the remains of Clay Henry. We started in the most obvious place — no, not the dusty cemetery across the street from the resort but in the Thirsty Goat Saloon. I spotted a life-size goat in the corner of the watering hole, but alas it was a fraud, a lowly sculpture.
A giant painting of a bare-topped odalisque above the bar almost threw us off course. The waitress, a recent transplant from Alaska, leaked her identity: India, the proprietress of a food joint down the road. Now in her senior years, India is still saucy, like her cooking, but her body parts have shifted some.
Working on a tip, we headed over to the Terlingua Trading Co., which abuts the Starlight Theatre, a restaurant that staged performances and screened movies for miners in its earlier years. We tracked down Clay Henry in a room adjoining the gift shop, past shelves of chili-pepper-themed souvenirs and Day of the Dead figurines.
I never knew Clay Henry, or his offspring, IV, but I imagine that Hizzoner would appreciate the personal memorial to his time in office. The hairy fella stood high on a stage, as if he were stumping. His head was tilted back slightly, a bottle of Lone Star beer protruding from his goat lips — a humble public servant to the very end.
The shuttle bumped along the rutted road, the trailer of canoes wagging like a rangy mutt’s tail behind us. For nearly two hours, we drove east through Big Bend, ticking off the miles to our put-in point.
The Rio Grande is a living entity with mercurial mood swings. At this moment, she was feeling low — on water. Extreme drought has caused the river level to fall precipitously. (After peaking at 40,000 cubic feet per second in 2008, it now flows at about 70 cf/s.) This meant smaller rapids, slower currents and more protruding rocks and canoe hang-ups.
“This might sound awful, but every time we see a hurricane on the Pacific,” said Thomas Styron, one of the guides, “we say, ‘Sweet.’ ”
To counter the shortage, Henington has introduced canoes into his fleet of rafts. His mantra: “Adapt, improvise and overcome.” (Unlike rafts, canoes basically skate on the water’s surface.)
Vessel type was not the only change in our plan; the location of our entire trip altered, too. We followed the guides’ built-in dowsing rods out of the park and into the 103,000-acre Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and Temple Canyon.
The vans stopped at the foot of La Linda, a ghost town once rich in fluorine mines. The corroding hulk of a processing plant faced off with a bridge that, pre-9/11, had allowed a fluid exchange of cultures and commerce. Since 2002, however, the government has closed the crossings in the Big Bend area, cutting off the vital trade between Boquillas, Mexico, and Rio Grande Village, Tex. (Before, you could take a ferry or a mule across the quarter-mile stretch of the Rio Grande; now you have to drive 100 miles to the border crossing at Presidio.) But officials are considering reopening the Boquillas border as soon as this year. In the meantime, U.S. Border Patrol trucks, checkpoints and motion triggers, plus the impenetrable terrain, lack of major highways and dearth of cellphone towers, discourage any illegal activity.
The law does, however, permit incidental visits to Mexican shores, such as to scout, stretch your legs or reposition your canoe. As soon as I sat down, I couldn’t wait for a muscle cramp.
At first, making contact was premeditated. Once we were snug in the canoe with our seat-belted gear (dry bags, bucket, camping chairs, sleeping pads), my friend Mary, queen of the stern, and I pointed the bow toward foreign territory. Although Mexico was only a few strokes away, it took us a while to reach it. Confusing our left and our right (paddle the former to move to the latter), we spun around in drunken circles. After we stopped spinning, we advanced in a straightish line. I held out my oar and high-fived a stalk of cane. It hit me back.
It didn’t take us too long to find our rhythm. Henington provided a quick course as he floated by like a pasha on a magic carpet. We also emulated the better paddlers, following in their wake, which was often clear of debris.
Fortunately, the 11-mile stretch of Rio Grande we traveled posed no serious dangers. The aquamarine river ran so slowly and gently, we could hold cocktail party conversations with nearby canoeists. Henington pointed out salient features in the geology and ecology. We also shouted out figurative shapes that we saw in the abstract limestone formations of the Lower Canyons. Women’s profiles were popular. (Since there were no clouds, we needed to stretch our imaginations somehow.)
For sure, the water temperature was medium-brisk (in the 60s), but if you fell in, all you had to do was stand up and shake off the droplets. (Our group suffered only one capsizing.) Because of the low water level, Mary and I frequently ran aground on islets of rock. We’d push ourselves off or await a hero in a passing ship. We also tangled with the encroaching vegetation, but no flora could take us down. We’d crouch down as though evading enemy forces and baby-paddle until we reached open water.
We stayed on the water, minus one lunch break of sandwiches and brownies, until late afternoon. At about 4:30 p.m., the canoes started to land on the shore, one by one. The guides had scouted out a campsite with two tiers, a beach area where they’d set up the kitchen and dining table, and higher ground, where we’d pitch our tents. We built our nests in a cozy hollow between the cliffs and the river, with a thick quilt of stars covering us from above.
“Play ‘Jessie’s Girl,’ ” we shouted at Brian Merrill and Chip Broyles, who were strumming their guitars around the campfire.
Flushed from wine and champagne, which we sipped from metal camping mugs, we weren’t very creative in our requests. Our friend’s name was Jesse. Yeah, that’s the way our minds were working as the magnums emptied out and the clock ticked toward midnight.
Hours before, we’d gathered like an extended family for a feast of grilled bacon-wrapped steak, mashed potatoes, green beans and salad. The conversation bounced around frenetically as we pieced together fragments of personal histories to create some semblance of a whole life.
Guide Tony Flint, a part grizzly/part Teddy bear of a man who was our head chef, served dessert by the fire. We sang with our mouths full of chocolaty goodness.
Slowly, members of the group started to peel off to tuck themselves into their sleeping bags. I stayed for a little while longer, because I had one wish as yet unfulfilled: I wanted to see a falling star.
Tony joined me at the shoreline, where the river flowed by without a whisper.
“Stand here 10 minutes,” he said, “and you’ll see one.”
I stared at the sky as directed. Within seconds, a sparkle of light shot across the heavens and disappeared into the darkness. I was now ready for bed.
The final leg of the journey was kind to us. Wide strips of river, with only a few ripples to shake the boat. The water seemed deeper and bluer and the vegetation less pushy.
We paddled a few effortless miles before pausing for lunch. As we ate by the river’s edge, I asked Mark Williams, a supervisory Border Patrol agent and co-traveler, about the park’s landscape, trying to understand its unexpected appeal. With poetic grace, he described what some locals call sky islands, the Sierra del Carmen mountains appearing as islands in the desert ocean. Hawaii adrift in the Lone Star State.
The crew packed up the meal, and we shoved off for the last two miles. The take-out point was tricky. The opening was narrow and the shore was hilly, so we had to space ourselves out. When it was our turn, Mary and I moved toward the bull’s-eye.
For a split second, I wanted to touch Mexico again, a final farewell from its north-of-the-border neighbor. But instead we coasted right into the big ol’ arms of Texas.