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Published: February 2007

Big Bend

Big Bend Scenic

Desolate Majesty

Straddling Texas and Mexico, the Big Bend region is high in biodiversity and low in footprints. It's a place so untamed that if something doesn't bite, stick, or sting, it's probably a rock.

By Joe Nick Patoski
Photograph by Jack Dykinga

You know you have arrived in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert when it feels as if you have fallen off the edge of the Earth and into the rabbit hole. Nothing is as it appears. Moths are the size of hummingbirds. Are those twin pillars of black igneous rock (a landmark known as Mule Ear Peaks) ten miles (16 kilometers) away or fifty (80 kilometers)? Visibility reaches more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) on a clear day, and since there are few roads or buildings to use as milestones, distance is difficult to judge. A jackrabbit runs so fast across the hardpan that its hind legs stretch ahead of its front ones, like in a cartoon. A black bear rambles through high desert canyons, picking its way through the yucca and prickly pear, oblivious to the fact that it seems out of place in this landscape. But that's OK. No one is around to notice.

Legend says that after God created the rest of the world, he dumped the leftovers into this giant sandbox. The devil is supposed to be sealed up in a cave on the south bank of the Río Bravo del Norte (known on the U.S. side as the Rio Grande), except when he escapes on a swing hung between nearby mountains. This is a place where water runs uphill, where rainbows have to wait for rain. The line between myth and reality blurs. Stare long enough at the Chisos Mountains or the Sierra del Carmen, the two mountain ranges, known as sky islands, that anchor the territory, and they levitate above the plain. And you haven't had a drop of tequila.

But you are under the influence of something stronger. Try inhaling the scent of creosote bushes after it rains and not feel light-headed. It is a powerful aphrodisiac. Walk across 80 miles (130 kilometers) of low and high desert, as I have, and an appreciation develops for what others might dismiss as a moonscape. Without trees or shrubs to get in the way, the view is unobstructed: 500 million years of geologic turmoil and erosion is laid bare over miles of fine sand, gravel, rocky rubble, spongy bentonite, lava spewed from volcanic eruptions.

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