The River Road Big Bend Ranch State Park

the desert

Photograph by Gary Norad


West Texas’ Big Bend is home to two parks.

The first, and albeit not exactly “known”, but still more known of the pair, is Big Bend National Park. As America’s least visited National Park, and one of those places that you have to be specifically going to in order to ever get to, it’s a bastion of exploration all by itself. The second park, though, is somehow the greater treasure.

You see, National Parks are somewhat rare. While more prevalent in the West, twenty three states don’t even have one. They are testaments to this world’s greatness within the boundaries of the United States. You simply expect them to be magnificent.

State Parks, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen. Everything from a dirty old lake next to a factory to a three foot waterfall could make the cut on many a state’s park lists. Here in West Texas, though, Big Bend Ranch State Park rides the edge of the country, clinging to the northern bank of the Rio Grande and jutting dusted hues of magenta crag and thick dull silver. It is one quarter of a million acres worth of raw; the desert as it was intended: beautiful, harsh and expansive.

With the West to our backs and in an aging, borrowed Wrangler, the river lead us along the shores of the Rio Grande; Mexico ever-present and whizzing by blurs of impassable mountainside and border illusion. Ruins sleep just out of sight, beyond a hillside or so, nearly ancient homes of those who lived here in a time when being 120 miles from anything even remotely resembling civilization would have meant you were a true man, a rugged individual poised for survival in one of the New World’s harshest climes.

the sliver of a hood of a red Jeep Wrangler, a road drives well of into the desert mountain
West Texas
an adobe and log hut, outstanding mountains loom in the background
Ruins north of River Road in Big Bend Ranch State Park

Today, however, we’re simply hung over and taking pictures with our iPhones. The realization that whoever it was that lived in this house, perhaps some person existing so remotely that history would have a hard time classifying them as Mexican, Texan or American, would have found our Internet-connected mobile communication devices and soul capturing photograph machines so amazing that they perhaps would have hailed us as gods doesn’t occur to any of us at that particular moment.

The driver, my dear friend Carlos, is a Mexican. I think he is, at least. He’s nearly as vague with his origin story as I am fuzzy of memory. I mean, he’s obviously of Mexican descent, and given our proximity to the border it would seem likely that he was born a nation south, but there are signs that point otherwise. For example, he was just roadtripping through the area when I first met him. He used to live in Oregon, and has a sort of hipster but classy flair for flare. He rolled into town one day in a good looking puffervest and walked out a couple of years later in red leather cowboy boots. In both instances, it worked.

an adobe house, old, falling apart, some holes in the wall
Inside of the Ruins

But whether he was actually birthed in the great country of Texas–to which he also had a story he laid claim–or that of it’s neighbor to the south, I am not sure. In fact, I am not certain even he is sure of the facts in this manner. Either way, he was now touring me around this land of cayenne pepper sand in a dulling but still bright enough red Jeep, wielding a machete, and claiming the land had taken him in personally to reveal the lessons of goodness apparent. Along our way we’d accepted the company of my child, all of us wearing cowboy hats made of straw save for Carlos, who’s own hat was of a white sort of paper material. He had professed to me at one point that straw hats were for gringos who shopped at Buckle but I had assured him that I purchased the fieldy hat from a local Tractor Supply Company and how my grandfather was a farmer tried and true, how I grew up on his very farm. The topic was never thenceforth discussed.

Carlos pulled the Jeep off to the righthand side of the road. The Rio Grande, that great river dividing America from Mexico, some fifty…perhaps one hundred feet below us or more. The size of it all was unscalable, it could have been a day’s hike or fifteen minutes to the bottom, when you’re in a desert climate the foliage gives very little clue as to actual scale. While a lone pine tree or a canopy forest can be discernable in more familiar, northern climates, the illusion of desert wildlife is that what appears to be easily surmountable, small shrubs might actually end up being fifteen foot high bushes covered in thorns and hiding everything from six foot long bull snakes to javelinas. Or vice versa, from the cliffside it appears now that we’re looking at the top of a forest growing over a massive rock cliff.

a canyon thick with vegetation, a teal sky above and the hint of a river reflecting it all below
The Rio Grande peaks through, miles down the canyon.

Carlos, from behind the boy and I, launches a roadside stone, the small round rock gone hangglider catching the wind. It soars down over the vast expanse of deep red rock, passes the lighter shades of grey and through the deep black of the forest canopy illusions below. A faint echo of stone finally smashing into boulder resounds through the valley below.

No other cars pass, nor have any in the hour we’d been in the park thus far.

The boy, eight years old, hoists a stone into the canyon. It barely escapes the guard rail. I consider an attempt, I am an old school stone skipper after all, but distance rock throwing? Never before had I considered such a sport.

Carlos whizzes another one into the crevice where the Brave Northern River meets the Rio Grande and…floating like a smooth skipper off the Westerly wind it soars all along every color of stone and earthly plant until finally…splash! Into the river it went.

We proceeded further down the road.

The rolling up and down and over it all was, as always for me, nauseating. I was hung over, having spent the night before pursuing fisticuffs in nearby faraway Marathon, sleeping on a mattress in the open desert air and talking to a cactus who claimed to ride a horse with not only no name, but two no names. I woke up in a fit and began to build garden beds from old king sized headboards. I’m uncertain as to whether or not the idea was even mine, but nonetheless I’d spent my morning sweating and without water, hung over from a night of heavily partaking in youthful indiscretion drastically inappropriate for my age, when Carlos had pulled up in the Jeep. He, I and my son all departed from the local outdoor hostel that night without a single one of us assuming anything particularly out of the ordinary had occurred, nor had any mortal sins needed forgiven. The wrenching in my gut and pounding in my head, of course, told me that some god, somewhere, was clearly punishing me nonetheless.

Otherwise though, the drive was beautiful.

It was between these thoughts, or rather general state of apathy towards thinking and/or waking life in general, that I saw the blade coming toward me. Carlos had brought a machete for reasons of which I am not completely aware. As was noted, he was only somewhat definitely an American citizen. And in this part of Texas, you can’t get back out of this part of Texas without not only somewhat definitely being an American, but 100%-no-bullshit-about-it definitely being a dude from the USA. I took none of this seriously at the time, of course, knowing that both myself and my son were true blooded and obvious-in-the-face Americans, and of course that Carlos was a man of means. None of which seemed to matter all that much as I leaned back and watched the blade just barely miss my fingers.

He’d been swinging at some dry grasses about mid-waist, just for fun. The blade, which could have turned one goat into two halves through the belly, was perhaps inches from my person as it careened like fate’s thin, steel, karate-chop hand pondering whether to cut me down to a size more fit for hell or not.

I freaked, not verbally, but in the form of becoming a statue of a cartoon bull steaming through his ears. The boy yelled. “Dad!”

a machete stuck into the ground, just behind it a large pool of blood red water caused by clay on the banks of the rio grande, behind that a movie set from Contrabando
A machete stuck into the ground at Contrabando in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Carlos turned immediately, assuming disaster. I was fine.

“Oh,” his proclamation, “sorry.” I resumed my status as hungover best friend and dad riding shotgun in a Jeep through nowhere West Texas. He put away his sword and we kept on having had kept on.

Time disappeared. Another life came and so I was again, with the boy, in West Texas.

This time with a Lady of long brown hair and desperate opinions. She was a woman who cared not for the hours of the day one might need to work in order to produce the money some folks might consider necessary to survival. Hers was the domain of early morning hikes with nothing but plenty of water and whatever sense of direction I might bring along for the ride. She was more interested in the revelry of romanticism than the realities of avoiding something short of hoboism.

And so we found ourselves on these twice daily footed escapades into the heat. Sometimes along rolling flats through desert hill shallows, other times up craggy maroon outcroppings where each boulder piled upon the next was a freight train bridging a couple of blue whales, one ton pickups piled mountains high.

several adobe houses dot the landscape just north of the Rio Grande river's American bank
What appears to be a ghost town is actually the abandoned set of the movie Contrabando

So the days did as well, until we’d counted them in weeks and months leading up to this last adventure. A wolf in our company by this point, whom we’d found in another desert, at the start of this other life, the three of us people and our one beast delved into this unusually thin, silver ravine.

The doggy creature was thick with hair, had a sort of puppy faced German Shepherd look to him, and colored black, gray, white and occasionally brown, He was surely a creature that some god of four legged animals had created to be the ruler of all of his kind, but in some cruel twist of fate ended up another straggler tramp needing picked up alongside the highway.

a narrow canyon, silver stone at the bottom where hikers can trek, deepening in reds and tans as the walls climb higher into the sky

At first it seemed awful, almost wicked, the difference of this place. Most canyons in the Big Bend have an earthy quality, a generally tan tone. They are wide, as though they’d been formed by time measured with units we’ve yet to conceive. But this place was gray, almost bright gray even in it’s narrow shade. That dog lead the way at first, but then began his cowering behind me.

An air apparent of curiosity over what misfortunes we were ignoring might lie ahead.

I began the song first, a hiking tune, then my Lady continued. The boy declined, the dog was cowering. A bee whirred by. Another. Then suddenly they were all around us, no stinging, but how could we be sure if they were bees or hornets or something worse. Moving quickly down the narrows to escape this fearful plight we came to a steep ledge. The burden of the bees weighed heavy on our backs and, “Quick, climb down there,” was all I could say as we reached a drop in the canyon ten, fifteen, twenty feet deep at least. I couldn’t go first, wouldn’t leave them to the front lines of this battle of the bees, but as they hesitated I grew impatient. My gaze was at the boy and he looked over the edge and back at me with uncertainty. I was still staring back up the canyon as the horned flighted insects were emerging more and more from their hole in the hallway thin crevice behind us when I looked back at the kid. He was 8. The climb was probably four times his size, some twenty five feet. I looked at the Lady and she at the dog. Decisions were had to be made.

“Lady, go.” I looked at him as she began to scale downward the cliff. “Now you,” my face clinched to pull my teeth tight enough to break and my eyebrows halfway up my head, “be careful.” Her go-first attitude gave him the confidence.

I couldn’t see the bees, but I heard them. They were beating their wing in time, creating a droning sound in a way that seemed impossible. All I could imagine was the tidal wave of black and stingers that was headed our way. I saw both of my loved ones make the bottom of the massive fifty foot drop, I looked to our canine counterpart, this half-wolven creature who’d found its way into our companionship. He suddenly looked like a sheep, a pale fear in the wake of insect rebellion.

That’s when I saw it, not a wave of stinging bees, but an actual flood of water. Flash floods were common in the Big Bend, but I was too rookie to have ever imagined they could be this quick. I slid down the cliffside, hands tucked into the canyonsides, elbows out, boots pressed deep into the stone sheer of my descent as necessary to brake, until finally I pitched forward and nearly divided my neck landing in the belly of the canyon. I stood up imagining myself crippled, dead on the floor of the stone pit and watching the water thrust my dog over the edge before it took the rest of my family ahead of me with it.

Then he jumped, sliding thick wolfish fur not meant for these hot tropics down the smoothed-by-water sides of this silvery tomb we were destined-to-be-buried-in, hugging the wall until he struck ground. His semi-lupine jaws nabbed the leather of my boot and as he spun me around I realized the will to go on, lurched forward and limped onto the edge of the cliff where the Lady and boy had been around-the-corner surveying all the while.

The surge of water gushed passed but just below all of our feet. Dog, man and woman were safe. It went just as quickly, the boy swore he saw a black swarm in its depths but otherwise no debris, nothing but water washed into the Rio Grande.

On the way back out there were a few puddles, easily surmountable. The fifty foot cliff had been washed down, apparently, to a mere five feet or so. The Lady swore the dog was limping but I barely noticed as we emerged from the canyon completely unscathed. The boy wondered, I could see in his eyes, if we’d be doing something like this again tomorrow.

Sure, we would get lost in the belly of the noontime sun another time or two. We would find ourselves staring down a pack of donkeys in hopes of directions back to the road just as seriously as we would wander aimlessly through an old Western movie set’s worth of crumbling churches, abandoned adobe gunfight main streets and into a pool of blood red clay water outskirts until finding ourselves on the foreign side of life. We’d laugh and point back across the stone’s throw that was the river at the boy and wonder on who-it-was-exactly’s authority we wouldn’t be allowed passage back to the United States, our own homeland but now, just one riverbank away, we’d committed the crime of crossing national borders.

We’d revisit the Rio Grande a multitude of times; me, the Lady, and the boy, even Carlos met up with us on a few of our later escapades. We crossed that border enough times to make it hilarious. At first it was out of defiance, but then a frisbee or football would go astray, or in canoes we’d just realize that pushing off the bank was a necessity of convenience. If I could skip a stone across a river, if I could float it in a canoe, if I could wave to a Mexican family only just a north or south row of a boat’s decision away, how could I ever not reconsider the borders of countries as anything less than laughable.

Months later we’d come back and, using an old movie projector and a car battery, play a video of the Mexican and American Olympic Table Tennis Teams from across the Mexican border onto the US cliffside. Carlos would claim it was something short of nothing but revolutionary, I just thought it was poignant in a way that would only ever matter to us four. The boy I think only cared about the fun involved in playing in the giant mud puddle that was the Rio Grande.