Loving the Middle of Nowhere

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Published in the San Antonio Current

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In the abstract, I know that the universe contains millions upon millions of stars. Carl Sagan told me that a long time ago, and I've seen them whiz by when the Starship Enterprise slams into warp drive. But I'm not sure I ever entirely believed it until I went to Big Bend last November.

There, in the vast desert that boasts one of the lowest levels of light pollution on the continent (that is, there's practically no man-made light around), sitting outside after dark is a spectator sport. Strike that -- there's nothing sport-like about it; as a few companions and I dragged our cheap motel-room chairs out into the parking area of the Terlingua Ranch Lodge and doused all the porch lights, the slow emergence of faint suns to our slowly adjusting eyes was a spiritual event. Chitchat dropped away instantly, and we soaked up the experience of seeing more stars than any of us ever had before (and probably ever would again).

There are a fair number of revelations like that hidden out in the crook of the Rio Grande. Like the forest of ocotillo I found myself in a day or two later: On a guided horse tour, we climbed up a small incline and came upon a flat expanse of the wild things. Individually, the tall green plants (composed of many spined branches rising from one root) look like a cactus that exploded; together they look like a Martian landscape. There are strange plants that occur occasionally in civilization but flourish here in such numbers that, like the stars, you notice them in a new way. Go with the right guide, and you'll learn not only the colorful names (my favorite is the well known "century plant," whose moniker is more poetic than accurate) but the various ways a resourceful person might use them to get stonefaced or heal a wound.

And while there sometimes seem to be only about twenty people who live out there, each one is "the right guide" for something. Like Big Bend Birding Expeditions' Jim Hines, who takes birders from around the world to glimpse rare species. Toting around a telescope on a tripod, he'll stop suddenly, pull off his glasses and peer through the lens, and invite you over for a look at a bit of plumage tucked under a branch or hopping between the rocks.

Or Ed, the colorful character with Texas Jeep and River Expeditions who piloted us through the national park in open-sided vehicles and gave us a primer on the way those mountains were formed. By the end of the day, we could all tell which exotic shapes were formed by lava flows and which weren't. But some of us were more interested in the possibly embellished stories about Ed's own life -- of being bodyguard to Saudi royalty, of winning and losing small fortunes in games of chance and business ventures -- that he swore were all true.

Ed's braggadocio was definitely atypical. While the people who make their way out to this place (a multi-hour drive from any reasonably-sized city, this region isn't someplace you just wind up in) all have interesting stories to tell, most will wait for you to pry their histories out of them. In between their talk of average rainfall and the area's mining history, you may find yourself begging, "so now really: are you hiding out from the law, or did you come out here to nurse a broken heart?" (There's more of the latter than the former, judging from my informal survey.)

A chaps-wearing redhead named Linda was one of the few folks I met who actually grew up in Big Bend. Her family has been there for generations, in fact, and she now runs the Big Bend Stables, where she has horses to suit by-the-hour riders of any experience level. She was the one who showed me the ocotillo landscape, as well as the abandoned mercury mines and the little fake ruins that were built a few years back when a movie company picked the spot to shoot a western. She gave the impression of the genuine article: There was no affectation about her ranch-girl mannerisms, although I pegged her hired hands -- young Marlboro men who had more than one lady in my group swooning -- as transplanted frat boys in a minute.

The name Terlingua is so iconic now that any trip out here will surely include a look around its "ghost town." There's a big curio shop, of course, and a neat old theater that has been turned into a restaurant. But I was curious about the little dwellings sprinkled within a few hundred yards of the main area: small trailers that had been added onto haphazardly, the result of summer-long getaways that turned into decades in the wilderness.

It's a different story out at Lajitas, a village that some yahoo with too much money bought and has turned into a golf resort. You read that right: He has built a "championship" 18-hole golf course in a desert. You don't have to be a tree-hugger to see that the amount of water wasted out there is a serious threat to a delicate ecosystem, and you needn't be a psychologist to guess that the fancy new resort represents everything that everyone else in the area moved out there to get away from.

I was more interested in wetting my whistle at La Kiva, a bar dug into the ground to resemble a secret cave. Barstools are polished tree trunks, and a room off to the side boasts a tabletop that's the most enormous piece of solid wood I've seen that wasn't growing leaves. There's a fossil exposed in the rough dirt wall there, but don't work too hard trying to verify its authenticity.

La Kiva aside, it's a mistake to go out to Big Bend for the food and lodging. There are exceptions -- I ate the tastiest steak I can remember at Marathon's Gage Hotel, an upscale place substantially more in keeping with its surroundings than Lajitas --╩but most of the accommodations near Terlingua, Study Butte, or the national park fall somewhere in between a Holiday Inn and the Bates Motel.

It wasn't the best night of sleep I got on the trip, but the one I'm happiest about was on a slab of stone:

Although the river wasn't especially high during my trip, we set out on an overnight canoeing trip through the Santa Elena Canyon with three of the most likable guides imaginable: John LeRoy and Taz Besmehn, two indefatigable wise-asses with an endless arsenal of navigational tricks, and Candace Covington, a sweet-natured girl who could make a guy think moving to nowhere's elbow was a good idea.

The first day was slow going, with water that barely moved, but it was a good chance to learn the delicate art of canoe propulsion: one partner steers, the other pushes forward, coordination is essential. We camped just before the flat land gave way to the mouth of the canyon, and I was astonished to see our guides whipping out the camp stoves and wine bottles. They fixed the kind of dinner -- grilled steak and salmon -- you don't normally associate with camping, and according to them it was one of their less elaborate productions.

After sunset -- which we watched indirectly, by gazing at the changing color of light on the bare cliff beside us -- and dinner, we dug in to get some rest. Ever the wannabe maverick, I lugged my sleeping bag and air cushion away from camp, to a huge rock very close to the water. I stretched out and stared at those stars until I fell asleep.

A couple of hours later, I felt a presence nearby. My eyes cracked open and I tilted my head slightly, and it took a moment to register the fact that a wild horse was nibbling grass a foot away from my perch. I jolted, but he was more startled than I was; he was gone before I got a good look at him. Later, I listened to a small herd over on the Mexican side of the river, whose caretakers arrived in the morning with pickups blaring Norteľo.

The canyon part of the canoe trip was spectacular. The minor excitement of fast-moving currents and rocks to dodge was fun, as was the mid-day break for a hike through crevasses, but there was no beating the experience of drifting wordlessly, staring up at limestone walls whose strata reveal centuries of erosion. Here we were able to stop paddling and daydream, and at least a couple of us wondered if we could earn enough money as unskilled river-guide assistants to pay what must be very reasonable rent.

As untouched as much of the area is, my glimpse of Lajitas put fear in my soul. This could be Aspen or Santa Fe in a few years, a patch of Heaven that has been annexed by Hollywood. I resolved to come back sooner rather than later, while the innumerable stars vying for my attention were still named Andromeda and Ursa instead of Arnold and Uma.

[from the San Antonio Current, January 2004]


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