The idea of West Texas conjures up images of vast open expanses, bandits, and cowboys on horseback – the quintessential stereotype often applied to the entire state. Yet despite having lived my entire life in Texas, the west was as foreign to me as it is to anyone who says “yee-haw!” when they find out where I’m from.
With the pandemic providing motivation to explore a little closer to home, I finally made a quick trip out to that region of Texas that’s so far away from itself that it’s in a different time zone. I flew to El Paso to meet my mom and sister who were driving back from California, and although they had crossed into Texas, they were barely halfway home. The international twin city of El Paso-Juárez is an old Spanish mission more culturally connected to Mexico than to east Texas. But we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have time to explore the city beyond the homemade tortillas in the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
Instead we set off on I-10, crossing a wide stretch of desert and a salt flat before arriving at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains. Having come from sea level, I was a bit daunted by the trail that lay before us, winding steeply upward from the desert floor. Slowly but surely, we rose above the high clifftops of El Capitan, and arrived finally at the summit of Guadalupe Peak.
At an altitude of 8,751 feet, the peak dwarfs the landfills that pass as mountains in Houston. But the mountains themselves were once below sea level, and apparently in a very lively locale. The fossilized remains of a massive coral reef that stretched across the ancient Delaware Sea are now strewn over the mountain peaks at the top of Texas.
A monument stands to commemorate the highest point in the state. The spire was jointly erected by three unlikely organizations: American Airlines, the US Postal Service, and the Boy Scouts of America. Their connection is the Butterfield Overland Mail, an old stagecoach route that carried passengers and mail across the continent, and for which the Guadalupe Peak and the adjacent El Capitan were important landmarks at the fringe of the far west.
We continued south until we came to Texas’s only other national park, which sits in the “big bend” of the Rio Grande that forms part of the distinctive Texas outline. The “Rio Grande” is a bit of an overstatement – due to drought and growing water demand, it’s not much more than a stream as it rounds the Big Bend, and in other stretches the river is known to occasionally dry up. The name “Big Bend,” however, is no exaggeration – the park comprises an entire mountain range surrounded a desert, which in turn is ringed by more mountains. And the whole park is hemmed in by the Rio Grande passing in and out of multiple canyons.
If there’s any place in Texas that lives up to all the stereotypes, it’s surely the Big Bend. Even before the area was colonized, it was a wild frontier land, and changed hands several times as various Native American tribes sought to expand their lands. When pioneering Spanish and later Americans started moving in, more conflicts arose. The fertile narrow river valley provided sustenance, and the desert provided many resources, but the remote and rugged landscape also provided refuge for outlaws. Bandits came up from Mexico to raid the settlers’ ranches, while groups of Comanche and Apache raided from the north seeking horses and other valuable goods.
The lawlessness continued well after the last territorial treaties between the US and Mexico were signed. That left Big Bend to really be the ‘wild west’ until the porous border was finally tamed in the early 1900s following some high profile Mexican raids. Of course, the US-Mexico border remains problematic today, but at least in this stretch, it’s not bandits or migrants who cross the river, but rather enterprising Mexican vaqueros satisfying hikers’ demand for fresh tamales!
Despite the arid climate, the Chihuahua Desert is not lifeless. Streaks of red and orange caught our attention, hovering above the ground like the ghost of a wildfire. There had actually been wildfires in the park recently, but these were ocotillos, thin spiky stalks that grow over six feet high but stand dormant for all but a brief period after spring rains. Then, for a few short weeks, the stalk bursts with small leaves, and the top blooms into a fiery tuft of bright flowers.
During our April visit, the ocotillos weren’t the only springtime bloomers – the prickly pears, agaves, and many other spiky things showed off an array of colors that reminded us that the desert has more to offer than sand. Indeed, for dinner we ate prickly pear tacos, just one of the countless uses of desert plants that local Native Americans and Mexicans have discovered over the years.
The prehistoric landscapes, dark skies, and lack of nearby hotels make Big Bend a great place to camp, but being short on both time and car space, we did not bring camping gear and opted instead for the pre-fab, hot-showers version. Our walk-in Airbnb tent offered convenience and comfort, and also a view of the Milky Way. Seeing so many stars at night is a reminder of how far-out and different this part of Texas is from the bright lights and sprawling suburbs farther east. But just in case, the ten-hour drive home certainly reinforced the point!