"Y2k?" Mike Kasper blurts out, his voice reverberating between the sheer 1,500-foot white walls of Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cathedral so awesome that we've ceased paddling this gentle stretch of the Rio Grande. The momentary lull seems to have tripped a switch in my canoe guide's brain. A Houston native who wandered into the desert and built a solar-powered recording studio in the side of a mountain, Kasper, 47, splits his time between leading rafting trips down the river and living the rock-music life as an outback jammer known locally as Doctor Fun. And right now, the doctor is in. It's not that he's a hard-core believer in impending societal breakdown; it's just that, much like the water-hoarding yucca, blind prickly pear, and lechuguilla that line the canyon rim, he's a supremely well-adapted Big Bend specimen. "I've got 1,600 pounds of grains socked away," Doctor Fun announces. "Rice, oats, beans. I've got a well, a windmill, a garden, and I'm completely solar. Not to mention fully armed. Dude, the people who live out here are desert rats. We're built for survival!"
You pretty much have to be to inhabit this parched, far-flung chunk of west Texas border country. Here the Rio Grande abruptly halts its southeasterly flow through the Chihuahua Desert and curves north for 100 miles, a hydraulic detour that lends the region its blissfully simple name, Big Bend. The roughly 3,000 square miles of undulating brown hardpan and towering volcanic peaks cornered by the river's mighty elbow constitute one of the most isolated expanses of real estate in the Lower 48. The nearest interstate lies 150 miles to the north. The closest major commercial airport, El Paso International, sits five hours to the northwest. One lonely deputy sheriff patrols most of this Connecticut-size region. And until three years ago, when a local high school was built, students from the area's only actual towns, Terlingua, Lajitas, and Study Butte, held the record for the longest school-bus commute in the continental United States—170 miles, round-trip, to Alpine.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a resident survivalist to appreciate the stunning scenery and lack of crowds in Big Bend. We're not just talking sand, cacti, and roadrunners. Punctuating the vast, brightly painted, arid lowlands are a handful of 7,000-foot humps that slope up sharply, supporting oak, piñon, and juniper forests so dense that the former residents, the Apache, were able to successfully dodge Comanche raiders and Anglo settlers for much of the 19th century. Then there's the leafy ribbon of the Rio Grande itself, twisting through sandy badlands and disappearing now and again into a chain of immense limestone canyons. Similar topography stretches south into Mexico, and almost all of it, on both sides of the border, is protected by a cluster of mammoth parks and reserves: in the United States, the 801,163-acre swath of Big Bend National Park and the 287,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park; in Mexico, the 684,467 acres of Santa Elena Canyon Reserve and 513,580-acre Maderas del Carmen Reserve.
For a stint in any of these protected areas, take a lesson from the locals: Travel light, but bring plenty of water. And slather on the sunscreen and wear a broad-brimmed hat, because temperatures in the desert and along the river can reach into the nineties in the "cool" months (March and April, October and November) and above 100 from May to September. Aside from a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a tent, everything else—bikes, canoes, horses, local wisdom—can be rented. But for those hardy souls willing to trek in alone, a proviso: Bringing plenty of water means stocking your vehicle with gallon jugs. Also, while there are many designated camping areas in both the national and state parks, desert hiking trails are marked by rock cairns, which can be difficult to read. Hikers should be cautious; the last thing you want to do is get lost and wander off into the great sandy beyond.
"Man, this is probably the coldest place in Big Bend," Doctor Fun confides to me once we've beached the canoes and boulder-hopped into Fern Canyon, a narrow side gorge where water gurgles up from the bedrock and rain collects in deep crevices called tinajas. I dip my toe into the chilly pool, thinking that when you know how to find hidden iceboxes like this, being a dusty, oat-chomping desert rat suddenly doesn't seem so rough. Then I rip off my shirt and plunge in.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
When the Great Spirit finished creating the Earth, he dumped his leftover rocks in Big Bend, or so goes local legend. Scientists, however, attribute the area's geologic disarray to a series of violent earthquakes and eruptions 35 million years ago that shattered layers of limestone and spewed volcanic ash and lava over 10,000 square miles. Subsequent millennia of erosion sculpted the rock into a mountain range. Then the Ice Age came and went, turning the forested slopes and rocky spires into an alpine island in a desert sea, home to stranded animal and plant species found nowhere else, like the three-foot-tall Chisos oak.
For extensive exploration of the Chisos Mountains, pitch your tent in the aptly named Chisos Basin, a 5,400-foot high bowl rimmed by red-rock pinnacles, including the park's highest, 7,825-foot Emory Peak. There's a store for provisions, a campsite with running water, and the Basin trailhead, a departure point for the South Rim, Big Bend's most impressive view. Take the Laguna Meadow Trail's 6.5-mile curl around the southwestern slopes of Emory Peak, where you'll spy Mexican blue jays flitting about the aspens and roving bands of javelinas rooting beneath the scrub oaks, till you reach the South Rim at 7,375 feet. Plant yourself on a jagged outcropping and behold 270 degrees of Chihuahua Desert, rumpled and shimmering, 2,500 feet below. From here, you can see the Rio Grande carving its famous arc through three prominent river canyons—the Santa Elena to the west, the Mariscal to the south, and the Boquillas to the east.
To get an up-close look at the river, which forms the park's southern boundary, connect with one of a handful of area outfitters that run single- and multiday rafting trips. In rainy years, like this one, the Rio Grande churns with Class IIIIV whitewater, but guides here still like to fret about a recent, rapid-taming six-year drought. The more industrious outfitters have devised creative ways to deal with desert dry spells. Some offer "backward" paddling trips, wherein they reach Santa Elena and Fern Canyons by paddling canoes upstream in low water. It's also not unusual to catch a late-night stargazing party drifting by, or a floating concert put on occasionally by rafting companies, featuring such homegrown Texas crooners as Jerry Jeff Walker or Jimmy Dale Gilmore. "At first I thought, 'Shit, who'd want to hear me sing during their rafting trip?' " says Steve Fromholtz, an Austin musician who penned four of the songs on Lyle Lovett's most recent studio album. "But people get into it. And hell, I got so interested in boating I got my river pilot's license."
At supper time, you'll want to try a whole other style of boating. Head south on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from Chisos Basin to the river, park your car near the Santa Elena crossing, and pay the guy in the rowboat $2 to shuttle you to the Mexican bank. Here you'll find Frontera Restaurante in the hamlet of Santa Elena. The cinder-block walls aren't much to look at, but you're here for something that transcends architecture—enchiladas and ice-cold Carta Blancas.