That great big park down in the yawning western expanse of our state is a gift for which every Texan should drop in to say thank you at least once in a lifetime.
Call it what you will, outback or down under, that large chunk of the state out back of San Antonio and down under Interstate 10 is big—not just a monosyllabic big, but rather the hiccupping, triple i, b-i-i-i-g. Usually dry. Sometimes blistering. Always awesome. It isn’t easy getting the inside skinny on a region regarded by nomadic Indians as the Great Spirit’s refuse heap, an endless landscape of splintered rock and swirling dust left over from the Creative Effort. In the summer, to travel in the Texas outback is to test your mettle, but the rest of the year, when the rains come and the cacti bloom, the region can be surprisingly lush, even mellow. And in my opinion, road-tripping to Big Bend, specifically to the national park, is a trip every Texan has an obligation to make.
Always it is a road tour best enjoyed by the patient, the subtle, the opportunistic. I can never drive into Big Bend without thinking of the friend who decided that it was high time he saw the Grand Canyon. On a lark he jumped into his car and drove straight through, until at dawn one morning.g he tentatively approached the brink. After one brief look he shut his eyes, got back in his car, and drove off as fast as he could. “I just had to go somewhere and think about what I’d seen,” he said later. I feel the same way at every turn in Big Bend National Park. At first I am annoyed by my own insignificance in a landscape so vast, but always I am called back to contentment by the same thought.
Driving along the bone-jarring backroads of the park, I feel as if I have earned the delights at trail’s end. In a couple of hours you can drive to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon and, at the end of a short climb, stand in a timeless gap between sheer cliffs that crimp the sky into a ribbon as narrow as the river lapping below you.
It would seem ridiculous to try to see Big Bend in a day. Yet, so irresistible are the park’s sirens, that heading west to business in El Paso I have more than once found myself pulled from the interstate, powerless to resist them. Something about the spring waves of ocotillo among the lechuguilla, the salmon blossoms blooming and fading in a progression from the bottom to the top of a giant wand act like a slow-burning fuse to signal me in. The daggers of the yucca surrounding barrels of creamy flowers, curtains of rain drawn across a distant horizon—the drama beckons when I am anywhere near. It’s good then that these great open spaces warp the space time continuum, compressing hours of driving time to make it seem reasonable to head to the park wherever else I am actually supposed to be, even if I can only steal away for a mere 24-hour visit.
If I only have a day I may begin at the Visitors Center just to see what guided nature walks are on the schedule or investigate what birds I might expect to appear. But most of all I want to make my way quickly over to Santa Elena. One of the great bonuses of spending a night in the park is that the morning sun illuminates the mouth of the canyon for only a few hours. But anytime, it’s worth a look-see that includes stopping at roadside exhibits, before driving up into the basin to take a short self-guided hike.
Toward the end of the day I will drive to Hot Springs, a onetime health resort partially swallowed by the river. On days the Rio Grande is running low you can soak in the 108-degree water as it bubbles into the ruins of a turn-of-the-century bathhouse.
Not to be missed is the sunset at Rio Grande Village, a campground oasis beneath the ruffled skirts of the Sierra del Carmen. As the sun dips, the Mexican mountains blush a vivid pink, bruise violet, and then glow a brassy gold. I like to watch the show from the banks of a mud-gargling river. Beavers float by, silent as the dusk, until—startled by some movement—they’ll slap the water in a beaver-tail high five and disappear with the sun.
The park is a decompression chamber, the nearest interstate light-years away, the embrace of mountains somehow both familiar and strange creates a land free of cares. Always I know too soon I will have to make the climb up and out back to I-10, a long drive illuminated by stars and headlights. But any time I can put real life on hold one more day, I do.