Night of the Blue Norther

A thawing-out spring break on the Rio Grande is anything but

CHIHUAHUAN > IN BRIEF Blooming yuccas, giant prickly-pear cacti, stark limestone peaks—the 175,000-square-mile Chihuahuan is North America's largest and highest desert, lying mostly between 2,000 and 6,500 feet.     Photo: Myra Klockenbrink

We were cooking curried mac and cheese on a cobble beach on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. It was the third day of a six-day, mid-March river trip and eight of us from the mountains of Colorado had come to Big Bend to thaw out and to clear our brains of a winter's worth of snowdrifts and mud. Except it hadn't been exactly hot. The river was low and rocky, hard on the two canoes and four kayaks. Since Santa Elena Canyon was too low to run, we put in just below it, with plans to head 73 bumpy miles downstream to Rio Grande Village. We wore sweaters and dragged our boats over slick shoals. But it was beautiful. The prickly pears were blooming yellow. Vermilion flycatchers flitted like brilliant wind-torn flowers along the bank.

Now we huddled around the small fire. I looked across the river at Texas. The Chisos Mountains, some 15 miles to the northwest, abrupt and rugged and black, absorbed the last light like a pile of coal. Then I noticed movement. A clump of spindly ocotillos waved urgently. Cottonwoods, just upstream, began to thrash. Then it hit. The fire exploded. The pot tipped and the lid sailed into Chihuahua. In the 50-mile-an-hour gusts, we were blinded by sand. It was a blue norther, out of nowhere. I fell asleep in the roar, and when I woke up in the night the wind had died and the temperature had plummeted.
In the morning there was ice in our water bottles and sand in our ears. We had to use Ziploc bags for gloves. It didn't matter: That afternoon as I paddled slowly into a huge flock of ducks I heard the air rip. A dark missile sheared down over our heads, and a mallard burst sideways in a flurry of feathers and landed on the gravel bar; a peregrine falcon double-pumped his wings and proudly gripped his prey. The desert had worked its magic. In that moment I forgot an entire Colorado winter. —Peter Heller

Details: Desert Sports in nearby Terlingua [888-989-6900; www.desertsportstx.com] rents canoes, kayaks, and rafts; provides shuttle service; and runs two- to seven-day guided raft trips on the Class II-IV Rio Grande.

More Chihuahuan Adventures

Camping in White Sands National Monument
The backcountry campsite in White Sands is barely a mile from the tourist road, but you might as well be on a planet circling another star. Gypsum dunes rise all around, glowing with almost phosphorescent power in the starlight. If you're lucky a kit fox might poke its nose over a dune to check you out. And, staring at the brilliant night sky above, you'll wonder: Hey, is that a meteor or a UFO headed toward Roswell? Season: Spring and fall. Distance: 2 miles round-trip. Do-It-Yourself: Permits are $3, available at the park visitor center only on the day of use. The backcountry campground has no facilities, and no fires are permitted (they would fuse the sand). Information: 505-479-6124; www.nps.gov/whsa.

Hiking the Guadalupe Mountains
One of the Southwest's "Sky Islands," the Guadalupe Mountains soar 3,500 feet above the Chihuahuan desert scrub to Guadalupe Peak at 8,749 feet (the highest point in Texas). From the Pine Springs Campground you can launch a 25-mile backpacking trip through the pine- and fir-clad high country, with views across two states and two countries. Season: Spring, summer, and fall. Distance: 25 miles round-trip. Do-It-Yourself: Pine Springs Campground ($8 per night) is 103 miles east of El Paso, Texas, on U.S. 180. Take the Tejas Trail to 8,631-foot Bush Mountain, and loop back down on the Bush Mountain Trail. Pick up a free backcountry permit at the visitor center. Information: 915-828-3251; www.nps.gov/gumo.

Mountain Biking the Big Hatchet Mountains
Agoraphobics need not apply. The section of the Continental Divide Trail that runs the length of the Little and Big Hatchet Mountains is smack in wide-open, Louis L'Amour country in New Mexico's boot heel. For a cross-country challenge, start at the town of Old Hachita and head southeast for 30 miles along the flanks of the 8,000-foot ranges, and watch for desert bighorn sheep on the slopes. Season: Spring and fall. Distance: 30 miles one way. Do-It-Yourself: From Las Cruces take I-10 west 90 miles, and then go south on New Mexico 146 to Hachita. About 25 miles south on New Mexico 81, park at Old Hachita and head south on the road marked by a cairn. Information: New Mexico BLM, 505-525-4300. —Jonathan Hanson

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