Wild, Wild West Texas

A Tex-Mex multisport adventure takes exhilarating turns in Big Bend country

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.

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