The Texas Outback
February 11, 2012
The setting: South of Marathon and Alpine, Texas
The scene: Big Bend National Park
I followed Peter Koch across the desert. It was his land. It did not belong to him. But the desert and he were old companions.The terrain was flat, sandy, devoid of any vegetation other than cactus, and the horizon was a straight line in the sky. The sun beat down like a hammer. No clouds had arrived. Rain was only a faint rumor.
We had gone three miles, give or take a few hundred yards, and Peter stopped. Only he knew when to stop. No one knew or ever understood the desert like Peter Koch. He had journeyed to the Big Bend in 1935 as a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“Shoot the national park,” he editor said, “then come on home.”
Peter Koch had never left.
The landscape had not changed, but the unbroken sands, as far as I could see or imagine, were thick with arrowheads and spear points fashioned from rocks spewed out by ancient lava flows.
He knelt down beside a fallen tree trunk lined with a row of perfect arrowheads. “Good,” Peter said. “Nobody has bothered them.” He grinned. “The last time I was here,” he continued, “I photographed them.”
“When was that?” I asked.
He frowned in thought, then said, “It must have been twenty-five years ago.”
Only Peter Koch knew where the ancient arrowheads and spear points were lying untouched. Only he could find his way back in. Those who tried it on their own might never find their way back out.
The grounds of the Plains Indians were his secret.
It was one he did not tell.
I might have well been tempted to write the directions, but I had no idea what they were.
Big Bend is a national park that sprawls for 789,000 acres across a curious desert where the mischievous Rio Grande makes its sweeping curve around the Mexican border of West Texas. The landscape has not changed much with the relentless passing of years, although a rustic but comfortable lodge and stone cottages now occupy the Chisos Basin, and campsites cluster around the general store at Hot Springs.
The basin nestles at the foot of Casa Grande, perhaps the most famous and familiar landmark in the park, appearing very much like a calmed volcano crater where ponderosa pine, juniper, and Douglas fir shoot upward instead of the fiery geysers that once spit lava into the valley of Panther pass.
You have to be deliberately going to Big Bend to get there. Marathon lies 80 miles to the north, and the lonely road to Alpine winds its way across the foothills of the Great Chihuahuan Desert for more than 120 miles. The roadway traverses a terrain of volcanic rock, sliced by dry, baked arroyos and faraway canyons. It is formidable. It is captivating.
Once when the world was covered by water, the mountains of Big Bend were the reefs, and each has been carved into rock sculptures by the tides of long ago. Walk across the summit of almost any peak, and your pathway will be littered by tiny seashells so far from the sea.
The Big Bend is a lost frontier on a landscape that’s desert but seldom barren. In spring, it bursts into bloom with 2,500 varieties of wildflowers, including five different species of orchids that find refuge in the shaded heart of hidden canyons. Giant Spanish daggers can dwarf a person. Mesquite, strawberry cactus, sotol, ocotilla, cholla, cactus, and the legendary century plant lay a carpet of rich color and prickly thorns across the flat basin floor. The firecracker bush explodes into bloom, and rare pink mistletoe decorates the trees at Christmas time.
The Rio Grande drifts down among those red, massive walls of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas Canyons. Carved by wind and water, they suddenly rise 1,500 feet above the quiet rapids of the river. Golden eagles patrol the winds overhead, and the song of the tiny canyon wren ricochets peacefully down the Rio Grande, now alone in its 107-mile journey around the Big Bend of Texas.
The national park is a tucked-away world where cool, forested mountains are perched high above a brilliant desert. It is a natural, unspoiled environment in spacious solitude where you can lose everything and find yourself. You may even leave with a touch of Big Bend Fever, forever being homesick for a place you can never call home.
When William Ferguson, a U. S. treasury agent, rode across the desert in 1895 to establish a port of entry at the little village of Boquillas, he wrote: “Nowhere have I found such a wildly weird country. The very silence is oppressive. A man grows watchful … and becomes awestruck by nature in her lofty moods. Emotions are stirred by the grandeur of the scenery and the ever-changing play of light and shadows. Never have I beheld such a display of glory as falls at sunset on the bald head of the Chisos Mountains.”
Peter Koch had understood. The glory had fallen at sunset around his shoulders as well.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Place of Skulls, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, and Other Voices, Other Towns.