A Place to Escape the World

For 12 days we disappeared. Poof. No news, no people, no air traffic, no light pollution, no distraction. Big Bend, Texas is big, empty, mysterious, evocative country. The Lower Canyons, downstream of the National Park boundary, are all of that on steroids. Four of us gathered in Terlingua the night before, arriving from long drives, and reshuffled for launch. Our shuttle driver dropped us off below the bridge a La Linda and drove away. We entered the quiet.

Three paddling friends from Montana and Arizona – Doug, Jeff, Lee – joined me on this leg of my year-long string of river trips. We had first planned on paddling the border of the park and gliding through the three major canyons and the open lands between (known locally as the Great Unknown), but the water was too low. Lower down, springs bolster the current and the river is almost always runnable. We shifted plans accordingly, and gave ourselves an ocean of time to do it in (Marypat and I paddled the same section in 5 days a few years back).

The result was a relaxed pace. Some days we went nowhere, but instead, explored canyons, climbed ridges, walked trails, chilled in camp. Other days we eased down six or seven or eight miles, found an enticing spot, and stopped. We played quite a lot of cribbage. We got some rain, some wind, some cool temps, some heat. We ran rapids, lined rough spots, portaged once, passed dead cattle, live cattle, audads (exotic game animals gone wild), bighorn sheep, javalina, turtles, birdlife.

The relaxed pace reinforced the sense of living there rather than passing through driven by a schedule. Just taking what came our way, responding to it, waiting things out or relishing them. There were signs of immigrant crossings – a handline stretched across the river, inner tubes with ropes tied to them, piles of clothing, old camps. That people had made their way to that remote crossing, through inhospitable desert, with the intention of crossing the border and facing yet more miles of inhospitable, unknown, treacherous landscape on the US side, gave the lie to the claim that they are frivolously storming the border to take advantage of Americans. What desperation must fuel such attempts – ill prepared, carrying children, through a landscape harsh beyond words.

Even more than places like the Grand Canyon, where another dimension certainly takes over, but where other people pass by, where bureaucracy nags with its whims, where the hype of the place jockeys against its undeniable awe, the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande truly are a portal into another reality. There, the human-dominated world fades completely and what takes over is the ripple of current, the rise of full moon over a limestone canyon, the call of a red-tailed hawk or canyon wren, the austere, heart-swelling view of oceanic desert from a high point and the timeless, patient turn of planet, carrying our sorry, insignificant asses along for the ride.

Good company, easy pace, no downside. I just wish I’d won more at cribbage!

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