Using the word “big” to describe anything in Texas is an exercise in redundancy. The Lone Star State practically trademarked big. This is the land of big oil and big country, big cattle in big herds being corralled by big men on big horses, men who spend their evenings swapping big lies (or at least tall tales) around a big campfire. But the state's Big Bend region, pressed firmly against the Rio Grande River in the southwest corner of the state, fits the definition of "big" to a Texas-size "T."
This vast territory, bordered by El Paso to the northwest, Midland and Odessa to the northeast, Mexico to the south, and Judge Roy Bean's Langtry and Del Rio to the southeast, encompasses 41,450 square miles of wide-open, rough-and-tumble earth, with counties larger than some New England states and natural vistas larger than most imaginations. One Native American legend holds that the Great Creator, having just built the world, took the leftover rocks and deposited them in this remote region. Big Bend National Park is the highlight of my 5-day counterclockwise journey from Odessa to the Rio Grande and back, though my last-minute, in-flight research leaves me anticipating much more. I first picture the Cartwright gang - Pa, Hoss and Little Joe - riding over the ridge. Now, I foresee ghosts, real and imaginary, against a backdrop of haunting, almost supernatural beauty unique to this western spur of Texas.
My flight from Boston arrives at Midland-Odessa Airport in mid-December, and the warm, arid climate is a treat. Our group gets a whirlwind tour of Odessa, which includes the Presidential Museum, the Globe Theater (a remarkable reproduction of England’s theater of Shakespearean fame), Ector County Coliseum and the 20,000-seat Permian High School football stadium. Oil might be the region’s economic engine, but football is its flesh and blood. The city still buzzes about H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s no-holds-barred account of Permian football in Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream.
“As much as we don’t like to admit it, most of it was true,” says one local who understandably requests anonymity, “including the couple who got divorced and the biggest fight was over who was going to get the football tickets.”
The drive west of Odessa on Route 20 is not a pretty one. The stark, flat, grizzled landscape is dotted by slow-moving pump jacks — ghosts of a faltering promise of unending prosperity — that look like aliens from a grainy Grade-B horror movie. Thousands of wooden electrical poles criss-cross the sparse ground, and the long stretch of asphalt parallels an unending steel rail, passing an occasional oil tank or junkyard piled with the rusting remains of a once-bustling oil industry. I spy elegant ranch houses, and am reminded that this area was first settled by ranchers, many who later became rich when oil was discovered under their land.
Past the town of Monahans, the topography takes on a more undulating appearance, pockmarked with low, scraggly mesquite trees. Near the edge of the Davis Mountains, we arrive at a true oasis, Balmorhea State Park. In a region apparently devoid of water, the park houses a 1.75-acre freshwater pool fed by San Solomon Springs. According to Ranger Tom Johnson, the pool is replenished every six hours, and features two endangered fish, the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos mosquito fish, as well as “the clearest water in the state of Texas.” Thanks to the spring, and nearby Balmorhea Lake, a 600-acre reservoir, the area is also an excellent destination for bird-watchers.
Before long, our bus begins to climb into the Barrilla and Davis mountains, past Star Mountain, the 7,550-foot Black Mountain and the foreboding Casket Mountain. I learn the Davis Mountains were formed by the same stretch of volcanic activity that created the dramatic Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, between 38 and 20 million years ago. The hilly terrain is a welcome respite, as is the larger-than-life figure of John Robert Prude, who greets us in Fort Davis. Prude, the owner and operator of the Prude Ranch, is a big man with a gravelly voice, broad smile and a firm handshake that belies his years.
“My family’s been here 102 years,” he says with a wink. “I haven’t been here quite that long.”
Over burgers at the Old Texas Inn’s soda fountain, Prude talks of his hometown without exaggeration but with a deep appreciation for history. At a mile high, Fort Davis is known as the “coolest town in Texas,” long a destination of “summer swallows” — tourists from less-hospitable environs. The town resides on the longest preserved stretch of the Overland Trail from San Antonio to El Paso. Fort Davis was built in 1854 to provide protection for settlers heading west, and the town grew around it. Not much has changed since.
“We have been a very quiet, uneventful place,” says Prude with his trademark grin. “But it’s a wonderful place.”
It’s hard to imagine who would enjoy Fort Davis more — star-gazers or history buffs. Crystal clear skies and the nearby McDonald Observatory are just two of the attractions for fans of celestial bodies. First built in 1921 on Mount Locke, the observatory houses one of the world’s largest reflecting telescopes, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. From our perch by the telescope, Prude looks out over the surrounding mountains and quips: “Who said Texas was flat?”
A guest ranch as well as a working cattle ranch, the Prude Ranch offers astronomy programs, as well as horseback riding, hiking and birding. We saddle up to explore the rough, open ranges. Prude’s good nature is infectious, and our group falls into easy conversation and laughter. The only target of Prude’s ire is javalinas, or collared peccaries, which bear a striking resemblance to wild boars, though the two aren’t related. “If you see them, you can shoot ’em with pistols or with cameras — either is fine with me,” he says.
The next morning, we stop by the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Ghosts abound here, in the restored barracks, officers’ quarters and hospital, and in the ruins of the guardhouse and commissary. The fort has a rich past, and it is well preserved. Named after Secretary of Defense Jefferson Davis, the fort was abandoned after Texas seceded during the Civil War. Eventually destroyed by the Apaches, the fort remained in ruins until 1867. Federal troops — the famed “buffalo soldiers” of the 9th and 10th cavalry — returned in 1867, and a new fort was built. The African American soldiers from these regiments are highlighted in a video presentation, hosted by basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Though Jabbar looks decidedly out of place in a cowboy hat and chaps, the story of these men is riveting.
We then motor through Marfa, where an oil-soaked James Dean ranted against his demons in the 1955 movie classic, Giant, and where the “Marfa Lights” still dazzle and mystify tourists. We don’t tally, since our destination is on the outskirts of Shafter, a ghost town that once housed a booming silver mine. Today, Shafter is all but abandoned, home to less than 50 and surrounded by crumpled vestiges of the mining industry. The cemetery, however, features a touching tribute to the families that made Shafter their home in the early 1900s.
The bleakness of Shafter offers sharp contrast to the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a high-end retreat with a private 5,300-foot airstrip, gourmet dining and luxurious, though rustic, accommodations. Cibolo Creek is undeniably a passion of John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who brought the ranch back to life. The full ranch consists of three adobe “forts” situated on 25,000 rugged acres. The forts were built by Don Milton Faver in the 1850s in the valleys of the Chinati Mountains. Faver acquired the title to the Cibolo spring and built the first of his three forts — El Fortin del Cibolo — in 1857. After buying the run-down ranch, Poindexter expected renovations to last a year. But the more he studied the site's lore, and Faver, the more he was determined to renovate the structures to precise historical standards. The work took 44 months. In the words of Cibolo Creek’s Mark Walker, Poindexter wanted to make sure that Faver, who is buried in a mausoleum overlooking the ranch, would recognize every detail if he were to suddenly rise from the dead and pay a visit.
A stay at Cibolo Creek Ranch isn’t cheap, but few sites can match it’s hospitality and sense of escape. We dine on sea bass and shrimp tacos with a spicy fruit salsa for lunch, and pork tenderloin with a tomatillo sauce at night. Feeling fat and happy, I lounge by an open-pit campfire and dreamily admire a stunning lunar eclipse.
After a breakfast of habanero cheese omelets, we bid adieu to Cibolo Creek and head south toward the border town of Presidio. The landscape is dominated by layers of mountains in Mexico — Sierra El Mulato and Sierra Del Matadero — with a high sun giving the range a corrugated look. At Fort Leaton, on the outskirts of Presidio, we meet Ranger David Alloway, a naturalist and historian with Big Bend Ranch State Park. The fort is named after Benjamin Leaton, a contemporary of Faver who came to town with the reputation as a scalp hunter. He set up his “baronial” fortress as a border trading post and home for his family, and soon became the kingpin of local commerce.
Leaton, Alloway tells us, was cut from the same entrepreneurial cloth as Faver at Cibolo Creek, expediently cutting deals with former enemies if it proved profitable. But Leaton's legacy was a violent one, and it stalked those who lived at the fort after he died in 1851. His wife remarried a local customs agent, Edward Hall, who was gunned down at the fort for failing to repay a debt. Some say the buildings are haunted to this day.
“We have no record of any attack on the structure,” says Alloway. “All of the violence came from within these walls.”
Following extensive renovations, the massive adobe fort now stands as a testament to the cross-culture that dominates the region. “The men were totally absorbed into the Mexican culture,” says Alloway. “All they brought from their Anglo culture was their name. It’s the same today.”
Walker is more direct. “People think this is the United States, but it’s not the United States,” he says. “This is Mexico.”
The long road in to the 275,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park serves as Alloway’s classroom. A desert survival expert, he points out plants that can provide nourishment and medication, or indicate water is nearby. As we meander along, a roadrunner darts in front of our truck. Though the scarred land appears desolate to the uneducated, it is teeming with life. It is also a delight to the eye, with wild, Dr. Suess-inspired shapes of the cholla and prickly pear cactus, yucca plants, sotol (or Desert Candle), Havard Agave, lechuguilla and ocotillo. The cacti bloom with spectacular flowers of yellow, orange and red.
The rock formations rival the plant life, with a dramatic spine of dikes — created when lava flows forced through fissures in the earth’s surface — pointing skyward, and the enormous Solitario crater. Alloway stops by one of the more nondescript rock formations and unveils the trappings of another culture. Rock art, astonishingly preserved, depicts animal life and hand prints on a low overhang that was used thousands of years ago by Native Americans for shelter.
Near dusk, Rankin Harvey, a photographer from New Mexico, and I hope to grab a few sunset snapshots, and Rob McKorkle of Texas Parks and Wildlife offers us a lift. We head out with Ranger Bill Royals in McKorkle’s four-wheel-drive Jeep. The tires, however, are only highway grade — a poor choice for the razor-sharp stones that line these rough-cut trails. Seven miles out from Sauceda Ranch House, we suffer a pair of flats. With only a single spare, our gang of four hike back. Harvey and I chuckle over our good luck. The stunning scenery and crisp desert air make the trek a pleasure, though I’m nervously aware that the temperatures are dropping as quickly as the sun. Back at the ranch, we refuel and rest. Sizzling beef and vegetable frajitas are the perfect antidote for a rumbling stomach.
Jim Kitchens, a game warden from Marfa, entertains us with cowboy tales and tunes around a toasty fire. It’s ironic that such a hard, inhospitable land produces such friendly people, as if the hard life has buffed out any harsh edges like jewelry dust. With weary legs and heavy eyes, I call it a day, my dorm-style bed wrapping around me like a giant feather pillow.
State Highway 170, El Camino del Rio, is a veritable cornucopia of natural sights, with each corner producing views more spectacular than the last as it winds from Presidio to Lahitas along the Rio Grande. I’m glad our bus is in the capable hands of our driver, Willie Douglas, and not me. With the constant distraction of the area’s boundless beauty, I could never keep my eyes on the road.
El Camino del Rio follows the unpredictable contours of the hills and canyons beside the Rio Grande as the river flows south toward Big Bend. It can be littered with rocks and livestock, and caution is urged. The “Big Hill,” with its 15 percent grade, sharp corners and narrow shoulders, leaves me with a knot in my stomach and unwavering appreciation for Douglas’ skill behind the wheel.
We enter Big Bend National Park by way of Terlingua, another populated ghost town that hosts an annual rite of burnt tastebuds — the World Championship Chili Cook-off — and is home to many area outfitters, such as Big Bend River Tours, Desert Sports and Far Flung Adventures. Our tour bus strains as it chugs up roughly 3,000 feet to the park’s Chisos Mountain Lodge in the Chisos Basin. Built in the shadow of the massive Casa Grande, the lodge offers a wonderful view of the Window, where the entire Chisos Basin drains into Oak Creek, and the Chihuahuan Desert beyond. The Window, like many of the park’s more impressive landmarks, is the result of the steady, patient power of erosion. The most breathtaking aspect of Big Bend National Park is the scope of natural wonders contained in its 801,163 acres; the most frustrating is knowing I’ll never be able to see everything in a single visit, as we are scheduled to spend just under two days here.
The park, first acquired by the state of Texas in the 1930s before becoming a national park in 1944, boasts three unspoiled ecosystems — desert, river, and mountains. The park encompasses the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. The Rio Grande, a nationally recognized Wild and Scenic River, splits the desert and defines the park’s southern boundary as it curves 118 miles around the “big bend.” And Big Bend is the only national park that can boast a complete mountain range — the Chisos. Once ravaged by volcanic activity, this land now is defined by a bold, jagged topography that defies description while offering countless scenic vistas. The range of elevation, from 1,800 feet above sea level at the eastern end of Boquillas Canyon to 7,825 at the summit of Emory Peak, provides remarkably diverse terrain, producing an exceptional variety of plant life and wildlife. But with fewer than 350,000 visitors each year, Big Bend offers a precious slice of solitude — peace and quiet in an incomparable natural surrounding.
Sundown catches me off guard. The serrated southern rim of the Basin explodes in a dazzling display of red and copper, and Casa Grande appears to be glowing in the fading light. Brilliant colors shortly give way to a rich, midnight blue sky that fills with more stars than I've ever seen.
Early the next morning, as the sun sneaks back over the edge of the Basin, I sense a childlike anticipation about the day’s agenda. My ears pop as we drop out of the Basin, and head for the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, named after the park’s first superintendent. Our guide, Sam Richardson, seamlessly mixes scientific explanations of the surrounding metallurgic oddities with historic tales of both fact and fiction. The contrast is simply mind-boggling, and I try to grasp the extent of geologic activity needed to create spectacles such as the Mule Ears, Burro Mesa, Cerro Castellan, the Sunken Block, and Mariscal CanyonRichardson puts my mind at ease, explaining that this area is the end product of 600 million years of sedimentation, volcanic eruption, lava flow, faulting and erosion. Layers upon layers of fossilized bones, limestone, ash and igneous rock, each indicating a different era in time, each providing clues to the tectonic forces that shaped this jarring landscape, sometimes stacked like the pages of a voluminous history text, sometimes yellowed and worn like those same ancient tomes. By comparison, man has only been here for the past 10,000 years.
“The land is the star of the show,” says Richardson with a big laugh. “The local color is secondary. But we've had our share of characters. This has been home to bandits, bootleggers and businessmen.”
Mescalero Apache and Comanche were driven out by the mid-1800s, replaced by ranchers. However, the fragile desert couldn’t sustain livestock, and mining interests soon began to explore the area. Throughout Big Bend today, vestiges remain of all of these inhabitants, from petroglyphs and pictographs to forgotten cemeteries and mining portals. The ruins of Castolon are particularly intriguing. Initially a farming community, Castolon was transformed into an Army outpost during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s.
“General Pershing was in Mexico, trying to find Pancho Villa, but he never laid eyes on him,” says Richardson. “So on this side, you had a military presence, and on the other side you had what amounted to a civil war.”
However, it was widely rumored that the ruthless Villa often hid in Big Bend, adding to the legends and ghosts that I envision roaming these badlands. Most aren’t as famous as Villa, but are poignant just the same. We explore ruins of old farming huts, abandoned either because of violence or lack of viable soil, and I wonder if the same landscape I find so captivating was a source of heartache for these families.
By the edge of the Rio Grande, past Castolon, I'm awed by the sheer 1,500-foot vertical limestone walls of Santa Elena Canyon, and can’t resist feeling jealous of the rafting party making their way down the river. The pull of the park's wilderness is strong for those who have a taste for adventure. With more than 150 miles of hiking trails snaking through the park, including the choice South Rim and Lost Mine Trail, I'm tempted to linger. The bus, however, won’t wait, and I jump aboard, bound for Marathon and Fort Stockton. Looking back over my shoulder, admiring the fading view of the Chisos, I take solace in knowing we saved the best for last, and knowing I'll return some day soon. I drift off to the hum of the large bus, my head filled with big dreams of this big Texas country.
Boston-based freelance writer Brion O'Connor has set his sights on the Chichuahuan Desert Classic mountain bike race in Terlingua, figuring it will be less taxing than participating in the chili cook-off.