Illustration: Pete Lloyd
Illustration: Pete Lloyd

It was midday on Día de los Muertos as I hurtled down a rain-swollen Rio Grande, my illusions of control over my canoe evaporating like dew in the Chihuahuan Desert. A threat waited immediately ahead: a partially submerged tree periscoping above the churning surface. Unless I maneuvered around it, I would likely end up capsized and adrift in a flow surging around monolithic rocks strewn across the utterly remote Mariscal Canyon.

Before this I’d only ever canoed across placid lakes. I’d gone on a guided whitewater day trip in an inflatable raft as a kid, in New Mexico, but I was home before dinner. And yet, with little to no river-running experience, I had just committed to a week on the only stretch of river in Texas that is federally designated as a wild river—“free of impoundments, inaccessible except by trail, shoreline essentially primitive”—a designation applied to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of all rivers in the United States. I had no business out here.

Scarcely into my second hour on the river, the water’s murmur grew to a roar. I paddled with furious and haphazard intensity, striking the tree. The impact spun me 90 degrees, pinning me against the obstruction, the side of my canoe taking the brunt of the river. I leaned over, attempting to paddle away. The boat leaned, too, and the river spilled over its rim. Water flooded around my feet. I cursed and leaned back against the tree, wrenching the top of the canoe out of the water. If I didn’t get pointed downriver right away, I’d be swamped.

In a frenzy, I rocked back and forth in the seat, thinking I might somehow scoot myself free. I tried pushing off of a nearby boulder with my paddle, but the snag refused to release me. I rocked and shoved some more; I was free. To this day I don’t know whether I saved myself or had simply been dislodged like a bit of food rinsed from the river’s teeth. The day of the dead would not claim me, at least for now.

When I began planning this bucket-list trip, I saw it as an epic way to mark an increasingly uncertain life transition. In early 2018, I published my first book, The Man Who Caught the Storm, the true story of Tim Samaras, the brilliant inventor and storm chaser who ventured into no-man’s land in order to record the world’s first ground-level measurements from the core of a violent tornado.

To understand my subject, his passions, and how he met his untimely demise, I spent the late spring of 2014 storm-chasing with his friends. After thousands of miles and weeks on the road, we witnessed twin EF4-strength tornadoes, each roughly five football fields wide and clawing through the Nebraska farm country. I got it then: the insatiable draw of unearthly power. It took hold of me as it had Samaras.

I spent much of the next few years researching, writing, and rewriting, until the world I was trying to recreate felt more real to me than the one I lived in. That’s probably why in August 2017—with my book  mostly finished—a friend of Samaras’ and I drove, just for the heck of it, into Hurricane Harvey’s Category 4 eyewall, where we battled winds in excess of 100 miles per hour. I had needed to feel that power again.

Eventually, the Word document on my laptop took physical form, which was way scarier than any hurricane. The book’s reviews were positive, but sales were disheartening. I was glad I’d written it, but I was still in debt, uncertain about what comes after.

I’ve always viewed geographical isolation and a few nights’ sleep on hard ground as the cleansing antidotes to professional disillusionment, but this time felt different. I was beginning a new chapter, and I wanted to kick it off with the challenge of a lifetime.

I couldn’t go it alone, though. Along for the November ride was my college buddy Josh. A movie and TV grip, he’s the sort of guy you want on an adventure like this: easygoing and able to tie a few dozen different knots. Currently in our mid-30s, we wanted this for the same reason and needed it for different ones. 

All or nothing was our thinking when we chose Mariscal Canyon, Big Bend National Park’s least-visited canyon, accessible only via a lengthy high-clearance trail, then by canoe. From there, Josh and I would paddle 62 miles up the entirety of the park’s eastern flank and beyond, negotiating Class III rapids and navigating by map and landmark through the most remote corner of Texas. We would subsist only on the water and food in our canoes.

Our outfitter, Far Flung Outdoor Center, was there to manage the logistics. Josh had his own vessel, but they supplied me with a canoe and everything else we’d need. This included a ride back to civilization in six days, when we were scheduled to arrive at La Linda, a broad gravel bar near the old Heath Canyon Ranch. After two and a half bumpy hours, Far Flung had gotten us to the river. But as for getting to La Linda, Josh and I needed to go on alone.

For the next week our home would become the border line that occupies a mythic place in Texas lore, an eternal frontier with dual identities: the Rio Grande to us, and Río Bravo del Norte to our neighbors in the south. On international waters belonging at once to both and neither, we would roam.

This was my opportunity to hold onto the quickening I’d felt in Samaras’ world while also taking a hiatus from thinking about life and its complications. With no cell signal, there’d be no way to keep up with any of it. There’d be little time to worry about what lay ahead. I’d be too busy staying alive.

We found safety on a sandbar after my brush with the drink. A lunch of trail mix and Slim Jims replenished us before we shoved off again. Mariscal Canyon, I discovered, is Big Bend’s marvel of color: blanched gray at one moment, but when the light changed, the 1,400-foot cliff walls warmed to a deep rose. Josh and I yelped and howled, listening as our voices carried on interminably and mingled with the canyon wren’s plummeting song.

A light rain fell, wrinkling the surface of the river. Sometimes the wind came shrieking out of a slot canyon, tearing the hat from my head and bringing with it this low, concussive, booming sound that I couldn’t figure out. By mid-afternoon the towering cliff walls melted into the
creosote-studded expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sun emerged, and the water that had sluiced through the canyon flowed languidly now, the turbid color of cafe con leche.

With a clear view I saw the familiar outlines of trouble ahead: A severe storm loomed on the horizon. I heard thunder in the canyon and then watched with growing alarm as lightning daggered the Sierra San Vicente. When I turned in my canoe and scanned the sky, I saw storm cells building ahead and behind, draping curtains of rain across the watershed. We needed to get off the river and to high ground, pronto.

I yelled to Josh, and we paddled hard. Thunder split the air, close enough that I crouched in my canoe. The storm drew nearer. Ahead, the river forked around a large island thicketed with mesquite and palo verde. I paddled toward a gravelly spit at its edge and hauled my canoe out of the water. I was shocked to encounter here in the desert the kind of ferocious storm I’d once chased on the Great Plains. I hoped it would miss us.

All or nothing was our thinking when we chose Mariscal Canyon, Big Bend National Park’s least-visited canyon, accessible only via a lengthy high-clearance trail, then by canoe.

Cue the drizzle. As we shrugged on rain gear, the sky opened and the surface of the river boiled. Hail, no larger than peas at first, started coming down. Within seconds, dime-sized versions smacked my scalp. When the first nickel-sized ones stung my shoulders and made loud popping sounds against the rocks, I dove to the ground and nestled close to the hull of my canoe. I drew my legs to my chest and covered my head with my arms. Had I unstrapped my gear from the canoe earlier, I could have flipped it and sheltered beneath. Instead, I cowered in the fetal position inside a thin poncho through which falling ice punched ragged holes, pounding my knuckles and flanks with dull, flesthy thuds.

How ironic that on a trip during which I would symbolically turn the page from a book about violent weather, there was a chance that if the hail grew larger we would be beaten to death.

I lay there a while longer listening to hail drum against my canoe. When it ceased, I rose, drenched, mud-smeared, and smarting, but exhilarated. I lifted my shirt and eyed a constellation of bruises. I looked around. Small, melting orbs frosted the gravel bar. The river had crept up the banks. Tree limbs swept past like stricken swimmers in the debris-choked flow. Josh and I dragged our canoes farther out of the water, huffing, wide-eyed.

In slanting rain, we made camp in standing water beneath a copse of honey mesquite. Once I’d pitched my tent, I crawled inside, shed my sopping clothes and slipped into my sleeping bag. I pulled a bottle from my dry bag, took a few fortifying swallows, and stared up at the water beading on my tent’s rain cover, reckoning with the hard fact that this is exactly what I’d asked for.

The rain eased up after 15 minutes. I pulled on a dry sweatshirt to go with my wet pants and wet shoes. Josh and I picked our way over a rocky plain toward the bank, the river still rising. We pulled our canoes onto higher ground and collapsed into damp canvas chairs as night fell. In our pool of lantern light by the water’s edge, surrounded by absolute darkness for miles around, we passed a bottle back and forth and cast the weak glow of our headlamps over the flooding Rio Grande. I felt like I’d been sleepwalking for a year and had just woken up.

In the days following, Josh and I fell into the rhythms of river life. There was an unthinking comfort in the quotidian business of backcountry survival. We’d wake before dawn and fire up the propane stove. Then we’d load the canoes and take to the water, the river requiring our constant attention.

Our eyes feasted as the mountains rose from and bled into the desert floor, the passage of miles a kaleidoscope of colors and contours. Near San Vicente, we met a Mexican man who’d led his paint horse and three hounds to the water. In Spanish, he bemoaned last night’s cold front. We passed Boquillas del Carmen, a village whose adobe dwellings clung to the rocks like the mud nests of cliff swallows. I nearly collided with the boatman who rowed gringos and Mexicans across the river. “Hola, amigo!” we shouted happily as we steered to avoid one another.

The river became more legible to me. I learned to find the channels through the rapids. The strokes of my paddle were less strained, digging deeper, propelling my canoe more efficiently. I was completely present, like Samaras on the chase, focused only on the way ahead and the task at hand. But I came to realize I wasn’t here to catch anything. I was here to lose myself, to feel insignificant, a single blood cell carried through a vein.

With the river running higher than it had at any point this fall, we covered far more ground than we planned. By late afternoon, we’d paddled 30 river miles since we’d embarked the day before, placing us near the mouth of Boquillas Canyon, a 20-mile rift through 1,200-foot limestone walls. The blond cliffs of the Dead Horse Mountains on the north side and the Sierra del Carmen to the south were flecked with the shade of benign clouds. At a switchback in the river a mile or so in, we pulled off on a sandbar. At dark, we built a fire.

We covered only 4 miles the next day before pitching our tents in Mexico, this time at the mouth of a slot canyon called Chupadero. As the afternoon sun beat down, we sought the broken shade of a walnut tree and took swigs from that bottle in my dry bag. A donkey and an Appaloosa ambled past, eyeing us as Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Gonzo Compadres” leaked tinnily from the speaker on Josh’s phone. Warmed by the sun and drink, enveloped by stone walls of pink and tangerine, rust and sand, I turned to Josh. “It’s like we had to make it through that first day before we’d be allowed to get here.”

“Yeah, man,” he said, grinning through a dense beard streaked with white. “We had to earn this.”

That night, I woke hours before dawn, the temperature in the low 40s, and I looked up through my tent’s mesh at the black outline of canyon walls. The Milky Way arched across the sky like a thin smear of clouds. I was swept up in this place and its enormity. The light of long-dead stars and the deep gash through these mountains worn grain by grain over millennia placed my troubles in their proper context. I tilted an ear toward Chupadero Canyon, listening to that horse and donkey move around in the brush. The future would have to wait.

We paddled 15 miles on day four, scaring up flocks of Mexican ducks and the occasional great blue heron, whose wings would ripple the surface as it swept low over the water. By lunchtime we left the cloistering walls of Boquillas Canyon and spilled onto a broad floodplain, the desert unfurling for miles. For the first time, we slept on a narrow strip of sand on the Texas shore, miles upstream from the edge of Big Bend National Park.

We had every intention of spending our fifth and final night on a small island a few miles upstream from La Linda, our final destination, but we underestimated our progress. When the steel span of Gerstacker Bridge swung into view, I knew that broad gravel bar was just around the bend. I was crushed; I wasn’t ready to leave this place, where my biggest decisions revolved around choosing the most inviting sandbars. Besides, our pickup was scheduled for tomorrow.

I lay there a while longer listening to hail drum against my canoe. When it ceased, I rose, drenched, mud-smeared, and smarting, but exhilarated.

We pulled our canoes out of the river alongside a Far Flung raft. Another group was busily loading its gear into the outfitter’s van with the help of Butch Jolly, Heath Canyon Ranch’s 70-something caretaker. We asked to tag along but there wasn’t room. After some discussion, Josh and I decided I’d stay behind and he would catch a ride back to Terlingua and return for me in his Jeep.

As I watched the van churn away through deep sand toward the road, Butch called over to me. He stood next to an ATV hitched to a small trailer, his skin a deep West Texas tan and his florid nose like knobby driftwood. “Why don’t you come on back to the house, get showered up?” he offered.

I wasn’t sure what I’d do for four hours beneath the desert sun, so we loaded the canoes and gear onto his trailer and went bumping up the hill—Butch and his wife, Phyllis Lucas, on the ATV, and me in the trailer with an elderly Australian shepherd. We crossed a short stretch of paved road dead-ending at the closed border crossing, then rumbled up a gravel drive to an adobe house.

Butch cautioned me to watch for rattlesnakes. He handed me a towel and showed me to an outbuilding with concrete floors and a shower. I shucked my clothes and stepped into hot water for the first time in five days. When I was finished, I joined Butch and Phyllis in the main house. Butch passed me a sweating Budweiser, and I settled down on the couch. “I don’t get scared out here,” he confessed, “but I sure do miss talking to people.”

Butch had been the ranch’s caretaker for seven months now. The job consisted mostly of collecting checks for river access and guarding the ranch. Apart from the nightly chattering of coyotes, it could get awfully quiet 70 miles from the nearest town of Marathon. His predecessor lived here alone and had died of liver disease, having grown too fond of Canadian Mist. This lonely country didn’t bother Butch, though. In the ’40s, his father was paid to ride horseback along the river to prevent Mexican livestock from coming over during the hoof-and-mouth scare. These canyons were still home.

John Wayne’s The Searchers was on TV. We fell quiet. Phyllis slapped absently at a mosquito that had slipped past the screen door. After a while I borrowed Butch’s satellite phone and spoke with my wife, Renee, for the first time since I’d left Terlingua.

It was dark by the time we spotted Josh’s headlights down by the river. Butch and Phyllis were sitting down to dinner, so I climbed onto his four-wheeler and throttled out of the gravel drive. A huge grin spread across my face as I barreled toward the river.

I’d gone into this trip thinking I was leaving my book, my disappointments—that entire world of storms—behind me and moving onto whatever comes next. Yet, it was Tim Samaras’ world that had shown me things I never in a lifetime thought I’d see. It had revealed to me a risk-taking, adventure-seeking part of myself I hadn’t known existed. Without it, I doubt I would have ever had the initiative—much less the guts—to plan out and take on such a beautiful and episodically harrowing adventure.

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that nature bears either malice or messages for us, but that hailstorm sure seemed on the nose. That didn’t mean I was leaving this place and returning to civilization with it all figured out. The point was the experience itself: get way out there on a limb, get into and out of a tight spot, go home with a killer story to tell. After five days in the wilds of the Rio Grande, I felt sure there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. For now, at least, I’d take the future the way we lived along those 62 miles: one sandbar at a time.

Where do you want to go today?

Where do you want to go today?

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From the April 2019 issue
Cover photo: Cerro Castellan at Big Bend National Park by Wayne Suggs


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November 2019 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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