The vast Chihuahuan Desert has long been known as El Despoblado, the land of no people. The name remains accurate today: The wildlife population still exceeds the human one. But in this part of the desert, on both sides of the border between Texas and Mexico, another name is taking hold: El Carmen—Big Bend Transboundary Megacorridor, a label only a conservationist could love. It is two and a half million acres (one million hectares) of one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world—the largest block of protected land in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The idea of preserving this place started with a dream. In the 1930s advocates in both Texas and Mexico wanted to create an international peace park. That idea never took off, but what is emerging in its place is far larger and more ambitious. On most maps, the megacorridor is blank space, the only mark a squiggly line for the river that doubles as an international boundary. It is dominated by six separate chunks of protected land that hang off the Rio Grande like clothes whipping around a clothesline. On the Mexico side, it includes the Cañón de Santa Elena in the state of Chihuahua and the Maderas del Carmen in the state of Coahuila. On the Texas side, two state protected areas flank Big Bend, a U.S. national park named for the sharp curve where the Rio Grande's southeasterly flow takes an abrupt turn to the north, like a car swerving to avoid an armadillo. The sixth piece is a ribbon of land on the U.S. side of the river itself.
From the air, the region is distinguished by huge cracks, crags, wrinkles, and crevices, apparently devoid of life. On the ground, it is no more welcoming. The temperature can reach over a hundred degrees (38°C) on a summer day and sink below freezing on a winter night. The wind can blow 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour for days on end. We are talking rough country. Civilization is far away, no matter what direction you came from. The remoteness is intimidating. Bad things happen. That can mean a rattlesnake bite, a scorpion sting, a stealth hit by an assassin bug. You might get stabbed by a spiny tip when you stumble into a low lechuguilla cactus, or scraped by the branches of a catclaw, or impaled by a horse crippler cactus. As locals say, if something doesn't bite, stick, or jab, it's probably a rock.
Beneath their armor, some plants possess valuable food or medicine. Take the sotol, a succulent with swordlike leaves and serrated edges, which proliferates on the high Chihuahuan Desert. Its bulbs, when baked underground for 48 hours as the ancients did, taste like steamed artichoke. The same bulbs, properly fermented into moonshine, pack a wallop similar to tequila.
There is always the chance you'll die of thirst. The You Can Die possibilities are endless, which keeps some visitors—350,000 a year to Big Bend National Park—from coming back. Those who do return are left to ponder the remarkable grit of the hardy few who have managed to survive in this spare, unforgiving environment. Not to mention the roadrunners and kangaroo rats, so adapted to the arid climate they don't even need to drink.
Contradictions come naturally here. The landscape is 90 percent desert yet erupts into cliffs 1,500 feet (460 meters) high and mountains above 8,900 feet (2,700 meters). These skyscrapers are home to penthouse residents such as bigtooth maples, quaking aspens, and Douglas firs. They soak up water snagged from the clouds—up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain a year—while their neighbors on the desert floor must make do with less than 10 inches (25 centimeters). When it does rain, mostly during the summer "monsoons" from July through September, spindly ocotillos sprout leaves and spew flaming red shoots from the tips of their woody spines. Stalks of yucca burst with huge bouquets of tough, creamy white blossoms as big as ladling spoons. The candelabras that emerge from the heart of agaves sag heavily with radiant yellow blooms. This whole lot of nothing is full of life.