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.
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.
As tough as it looks, the Chihuahuan Desert is a fragile place. Few humans have stepped here, but footprints fall heavily in the desert. Since the 1800s, the region has been mined, logged, hunted, and overgrazed. Now it is being allowed to heal its wounds, helped along by governments, corporations, and individuals on both sides of the border. In 1944, Big Bend National Park was established, and a joint park with Mexico was envisioned. But it wasn't until 1994 that the Mexican government designated more than a million acres (405,000 hectares) as the Cañón de Santa Elena and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Areas. In 1999, a cement company arrived on the scene, not to pave paradise but to preserve it. Cemex, the Mexican cementmaker with operations in 50 countries, has purchased hundreds of thousands of acres along the border to set aside for preservation.
This is a different model of conservation. Mexico lacks the funds to purchase land for parks or wildlife habitat, a situation becoming increasingly common in the United States. So on the Mexico side of the corridor, much of the protected land is privately owned. Mining has been allowed to continue. Rather than removing the 5,000 ranchers and farmers living within the protected areas, as U.S. national parks historically have done, conservationists are teaching them why it's in their interest to protect the land. The goal is to give residents a sense of stewardship that national parks do not. "You have to understand, the concept of wilderness doesn't presently exist in Mexico," says Patricio Robles Gil, an environmentalist and architect of the partnership with Cemex. "In Spanish, we don't have a word for wilderness. This is all new, but it could be the model beyond a national park."
After a long day working in the desert, a group of conservationists gathers for a dinner of steaks and tortillas at the Cemex reserve's main lodge. There is talk of the future. Already, a couple of adjacent areas are being proposed to join the two protected areas on the Mexican side. They discuss reintroducing the grizzly bear, the Mexican gray wolf, and bison—all believed to have been native to the area. Anywhere else, such talk would be dismissed as a fairy tale. In the Transboundary Megacorridor, such dreams seem possible.
And why not? The desert bighorn sheep has been reestablished, as has the pronghorn antelope. Decades ago, only a few remaining black bears could be found tucked away in the isolated mountain ranges of Coahuila. A group of Mexican ranchers decided to quit hunting bears and start protecting them instead. Now you see black bears on the Texas side of the river again. Wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries.
To its true believers, the megacorridor is the whole world boiled down to its essence. It is "pure raw," says a conservationist who has fallen under its spell, one of the last places on the North American continent where wild trumps humanity, and one of the only spots where wilderness is actually expanding instead of contracting. At a time when most of the Earth's stories focus on what is being lost, that is a contradiction worth celebrating.