We are hurtling toward Big Bend beneath the West Texas night sky at 80 miles per hour when we pass the lights of a tiny PRADA boutique in the middle of nowhere, somewhere outside of Valentine (population 189). If true, it's an insanely high fashion retail icon - think Chicago, New York, L.A. - plunked down in some of the loneliest, emptiest country I've ever seen.
"Did you see that?" I ask Veronique, seeking verification that the road has not yet made me loopy. She did. "That can't be real, can it?"
We ponder this for a few moments. Veronique asks if I want to go back. I don't. We're already three miles past it.
Besides, I'm one of those men who fixate on getting to a destination like the fates of nations hang in the balance.
We're halfway between El Paso and our destination, Terlingua. All I really know about Terlingua is that Jerry Jeff Walker made an album called Viva Terlingua! So I figure it's got to be a cool place. But we're still 145 miles shy of it and the Airbnb room we booked. We don't even have a street address. All we know is that it's next to the Chili Pepper Cafe.
Later, we will find out that Prada Marfa is a famous art installation - known around the world, in fact - that got vandalized the same night it was finished.
Where is Big Bend National Park?
You've got to want to end up in Big Bend National Park. Nobody gets here by accident, and just about everything comes in from what locals call "the outside." The nearest pharmacy, for example, is 80 miles up the road in Alpine. The nearest Walmart is 108 miles away, in Stockton.
The park makes up the southern tip of Texas's all-but-uninhabited lower left-hand lobe, where the Rio Grande makes a considerable bend indeed.
It takes most folks two days to get here - one to fly to El Paso, one for the 300-mile drive to Terlingua. You get there the evening of your second travel day. It's a haul, but If you're looking for someplace that doesn't remind you of home, Terlingua fits the bill.
The isolation was a big part of the attraction; the park is 1,251 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert, big and empty by most measures, stretching from the southwestern United States deep into northern Mexico. The hiking, backcountry camping, and backpacking are excellent. The best part of it is a landscape of a scale that everywhere reminds you that - big picture - you count for nothing.
The Rio Grande River is here, but it's not a particularly grande río. It was so low that you could wade across in most places when we went. A semi-permanent feature of the Hot Spring Historic Walk, an easy mile-long loop where you can sit in the ruins of the old bathhouse and dip your feet into the water, is a lady on the Mexican side selling tacos from a folding table.
We find the tiny Chile Pepper Cafe and make it into our room, with one window and a cement floor. A wheezy window unit, air conditioner, and an electric heater would have looked at home in an antique store. It doesn't seem worth what we're paying for it, but there is more demand than the supply of rooms here.
Terlingua is a million miles from anywhere else and a boomtown, as Big Bend attracts an increasing number of visitors looking for biking or campsites. On the one hand, it's what you'd expect for a town so isolated, a magnet for artists, ne'er-do-wells, and people who simply don't want to be bothered by anybody. Cinnabar, a brick-red form of mercury sulfide, was discovered here in the late 19th century.
The town's heyday came in the 1880s when the population soared to 2,000 as miners dug mercury. In the 2020 census, the population was 110. But during the season - roughly October to April - the place swells with river trip guides, horse riding concessions, RV parks, art galleries, several gas stations, and a liquor store.
The Cottonwood General Store also sells organic produce, fresh meats, wine, and craft beer. Everything has to be brought in from somewhere else, including the people there. "Hon, nobody's from here," the woman at a rafting concession told me one afternoon. She was from Boston.
It was 30 miles from our room to the park's nearest visitor center, at Panther Junction. Something about the views from town makes us fill up on gas and buy a case of water before we start the trip. At the visitor center, I do what I always do in national parks: get National Park Service park rangers to recommend their favorite easy hiking trails. These include the trails at Boquillas Canyon, Santa Elena Canyon, and Lost Mine. Boquillas Canyon is a 1.4-mile ramble that climbs over a low hill to offer great river views.
All along the trail are honor-system displays of miniature figurines and sculptures made of wire and beads, walking sticks, and brightly colored bandanas and aprons. There is a list of prices. You stick your money through the slot of a locked can secured to a tree. Each little store is apparently from a different family in the nearby Mexican town of Boquillas, several miles away. Down on the rocks leading to the river are mortar holes worn into the bedrock by the original inhabitants. There are no signs, and you're left to decide whether they were used to pound grains or befuddle future tourists.
It's almost an hour from Panther Junction to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, but it's a scenic drive. Deserts, of course, are pretty deserted country. As deserts go, however, the Chihuahuan is considered one of the most diverse in the world. Just 9,000 years ago, it was considerably wetter than it is now. Today, there are habitats as varied as - I'm reading from a U.S. Park Service site - yucca woodlands, playas, and gypsum dunes. There are bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, and sotols. I'm sure all this stuff is here, even if I don't know one from another.
There are also many dirt roads that you are warned, quite rightly, not to attempt in a passenger car. We aren't even tempted. The landscape vibe is one of hugeness and vast indifference. The mountain ranges like Emory Peak and desert aren't hostile. They just don't particularly care. Get in trouble off the slender thread of pavement laid down by the government, and you could be in dire trouble fast. Me, I know my limits.
The trail at Santa Elena Canyon is short, just 1.6 miles roundtrip. You need shoes that can get wet to cross Terlingua Creek - or you can trust your balance to precariously placed stones that may or may not allow you to reach the other side dry. Then you pick up a trail that leads a short way into the canyon, a dramatic sight where walls 1,500 feet tall line the Rio Grande. There are concrete steps where the trail makes its one ascent. After that, a path follows the river's edge and winds around giant boulders.
This is one of the narrowest places in the seven-mile-long canyon, and it can feel almost spooky as if the walls might suddenly close over you. Even at low water like this, you can hear the slight, sandpapery sound of the river scouring the rocks with its load of sand and silt. You go at it with river-borne sandpaper for a few million years, and you get a canyon.
Back in Terlingua, we take a long nap, waking to see the light gone sideways. We go looking for dinner. This is a big deal because there aren't many options in town. We got a fair number of our meals from a food truck that sets up near a 20-foot metal sculpture of a T-Rex along 118. There's also the High Sierra Bar, which serves decent Mexican food. But the fanciest restaurant in town is the Starlight Cafe, set in a former theater. This counts as formal dining in Terlingua.
They have a stage where musicians play and Clay Hendry, a stuffed goat that was locally famous for drinking beer. You may have to wait two hours or more for a table, and they don't take reservations. Many people sign up with the hostess and then stay outside the town's unofficial gathering spot on the porch. Tourists and locals are both here, usually sipping on beer or wine. There may be people sitting around with guitars, banjos, or maybe a fiddle. One local is a guy we saw on two successive nights leaning against a railing and wearing a cutoff tee that showed his biceps to great advantage.
Terlingua is the town where you use what you've got, even if it's biceps. There's a sign that says dogs aren't allowed, but dogs can't read, and nobody really wants to be the one to kick a dog off the porch. The Starlight serves some elaborate food - tequila-marinated quail and chicken-fried antelope steaks and a "Diego" burger that includes a pound of beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese, and two eggs. But it's not haute cuisine. As in most bars that serve food, the simple things are what it does best.
On our last day, we opt for the Lost Mine Trail, a 4.8-mile jaunt that is one of the most popular day hikes in the park. Hikers start at 5,600 feet and ascend 1,200 feet along the north slope of Casa Grande. The parking lot is small, just 20 spaces, and we are lucky to find one. It's a great hike, with some of the best views in the park. From the trail, it's a short drive to Chisos Basin, where there's a visitor center, a restaurant, and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Booking a year or more in advance is your only chance of scoring a room.
Back on the road, we're surprised again by the Prada store. "I thought you wanted to stop," Vero says as we speed past. I did, I explain, but I'm on a mission. We've still got to get to El Paso.
Bill Heavey is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md. His books include, "If You Didn't Bring Jerky What Did I Just Eat? " and "It's Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It"
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