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Wild, Lonely, and Lovely

Big Bend is three beautiful places in one: desert, mountains, and river.

by Paul Gerald

Louis L'Amour, the great Western writer, would have called it "a wild and lonely land."

Imagine, first, a high desert: scrub brush, jumbled rocks, crisp dry air, and cacti. Then paint a river through it, a long, wandering stripe of green, and fill it with birds and creatures of the water. Then scatter some mountains around, with soaring cliffs, and peaks covered by pines and firs. Now move the whole place hundreds of miles from just about anywhere, leave it empty of people most of the year, and you have a wonderland called Big Bend National Park.

Just its location is appealing, if you have any interest in a quiet, secluded place. Big Bend is 325 miles southeast of El Paso, at least 100 miles from a bank, hospital, pharmacy, or supermarket, in a West Texas county with a population that would fit in the Mid-South Coliseum. It is 801,000 acres of magnificent countryside right down on the U.S.-Mexico border, out where Comanches and Apaches used to be in charge.

I drove out there one time, on the way home from New Mexico, and was utterly convinced I was lost. Nothing could possibly be so far away. I put in 70 miles after the crossroads known (but not by the U.S. Census Bureau) as Marathon, Texas. But somewhere along there I ceased caring. I was entranced by the countryside. The mountains out there all look like rock pillars pushing up out of the ground. And the distances! You see something ahead on the road, drive toward it for an hour, and it's still out there on the horizon.

I camped in one of three "developed" campgrounds in the park -- developed meaning they have water and bathrooms but, thankfully, no hookups for the RV crowd. There are also more remote, "undeveloped" campsites and the Chisos Mountain Lodge (about $70 a night for two people; call 915-477-2291), but as a freelance writer driving a tortured Merkur, I went for a sink, shower, and space on the ground.

That night, more stars than I thought possible twinkled above me. I lay in my sleeping bag and picked out formations on the unlit side of the moon. Coyotes howled. Far-off thunder rumbled. I woke up in the night to feel something nipping at my hand, and when I rolled over I scared off a little skunk, who was nice enough not to spray me. When the sun woke me up in the morning I heard what I thought was the biggest bumblebee in Texas, but looked up instead to see a hummingbird about a foot over my head.

I went on a hike up Emory Peak that was totally absurd. I started in the desert, moved up into grasslands, then through tunnels formed by big bushes. Eventually I walked past little pine trees, then under oaks and aspen and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Those are trees of the mountains, yet here I was a couple hours out of the desert and staring right up at them. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees in those two hours, too.

There are 400 species of birds and 150 miles of trails in Big Bend. The average wintertime high temperature is about 70 degrees, and as long as you avoid spring break or major holidays, you'll have no trouble dodging crowds. Don't even think about it in the summer, unless 115 degrees sounds appealing to you.

But the real reason you should head that way is the river. The Rio Grande, home to people here for 10,000 years, enlivens the desert and cuts magnificent canyons through the mountains. There are 234 miles of free-flowing water administered by the park. In places the river is less than a hundred yards wide, but the canyon walls are 2,000 feet high.

You can do it on your own, but there are guided river trips ranging from the $50, half-day variety to the $300, four- or five-day variety. You'll cruise canyons, run rapids, and dine like royalty. For more information, call Far Flung Adventures, 800-359-4138; Big Bend River Tours, 800-545-4240; or Texas River Expeditions, 800-839-7238.

As you might imagine, getting to Big Bend isn't simple. Amtrak (by way of New Orleans from Memphis) serves the town of Alpine, 108 miles to the north. Bus service is available to Alpine and Marathon, 70 miles away. The nearest airports are in Midland, Texas (230 miles to the northeast), and El Paso, both of which are served by Southwest Airlines.

Native American legend has it that after making the Earth, the Great Spirit simply dumped all the leftover rocks on the Big Bend. The Spirit scattered quite a dose of beauty and tranquility, too, and your spirit would be well served by a trip to see the Great One's handiwork.

For more info, call Big Bend National Park at 915-477-2251. The mother of all Big Bend Websites is at http://geowww.geo.tcu.edu/bigbend/bigbend.html.

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