by Matt Bergstrom
"Where the rainbows wait for the rain, and the big river is kept in a stone box, and water runs uphill and mountains float in the air, except at night when they go away to play with other mountains..." With these words a Mexican cowboy once described Big Bend Country, the twist in the Rio Grande at the bottom of West Texas.
It is indeed a strange countryside full of surprises. The Santa Elena Canyon abruptly becomes a flat plain when the river exits a notch in the 1500 foot cliff. The Chisos Mountains, surrounded by desert, conceal thick forests of pine and hardwoods. A hike to the South Rim rewards one with a breath-taking view of those deserts from a cliff on their edge. At a bend in the river, the foundation of a shack built over a hot spring becomes a rustic jacuzzi for tired tourists. In the mountains, a panther encounter may be a bit too much of a surprise for some. The most beautiful surprise of our short stay, however, was the sun setting through the Window, a mountain valley opening looking out over the desert transformed into a glory of light and clouds.
The beauty of Big Bend cannot be prepared for in the same way as that of the North Woods or the Rocky Mountains. Here no European Romantic ideals of beauty can tell you what to expect and accept, because the landscape is distinctly part of the Southwest. After hundreds or even thousands of years of Native American cultures, and three hundred years of Spanish influence, the mere hundred-fifty years of American occupation have had little effect. Having little to offer modern capitalist society, this part of Lost America is left out of mass kulture, unknown to most Americans.
So it is here, in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert reaching up from Durango, Mexico, that there exists a way of life still free from most modern commercialism. In the small towns, Mexican accordion music spills out of the dim shops to be diluted in the desert night. The inhabitants race their pickups past the mobile homes late in the night like their counterparts to the south. Aside from a slightly higher standard of living, you wouldnt be able to tell these weedy sidewalk towns from those on the other side of the border.
When you reach the river itself, the border disappears and you cannot see which side is the "other side." The canyon walls and sand bars are the same on both banks of the river, while the wind and water go wherever they please. The narrow flow cannot embody the concept of a border when one sees its size in comparison with the surroundings: it doesnt look quite like the thick sharp line on the maps. Its moderate flow allows wild horses and cows to cross as they will, while the turkey vulture above has no clue as to the division it crosses again and again in a lazy circle.
Although we turned back north with the river to start our journey home, the creosote bushes stretched off to the southern horizon, a land doubtlessly teeming with surprises. The adobe ruins and hidden mountain towns would hopefully keep their secrets for many years to come, unworried about any lines on paper.