The Chihuahuan desert stretches across a wide swath of land from parts of New Mexico and West Texas in the north, nearly all the way to Zacatecas and Nueva Leon, Mexico in the south. Dune fields, rugged mountains and abundant species of cacti make up these desert lands that are so fascinating and alien to someone from the east coast like me.
Following an over 4,000 mile loop across much of the country, a couple friends and I embarked on a road trip to the Chihuahuan desert region. After a night in New Orleans, Louisiana and another in the border town of Del Rio, Texas we found ourselves deep within the U.S. portion of the desert at the central destination of our trip.
Huge and often overlooked due to its isolation, Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas offers scenes that could come straight off the pages of National Geographic’s magazine. The Chisos mountains tower over the surrounding desert while the Rio Grande snakes through massive canyons forming the southern boundary of both the country and the park for 118 miles.
Three nights of our ten day road trip were set aside for the park and after getting our camping plans approved by a park ranger, we ventured out for our first night under the dark skies of Big Bend. After nightfall, without any sign of man’s impact, aside from our own tent, we sat outside in the extreme darkness hundreds of miles from anywhere. As we laid down to sleep only the deep hoots of a Great Horned owl interrupted the silence.
The isolated nature of the park isn’t only related to the distance to the next town. Like the first night of camping, the following nights largely maintained the absence of humanity. After the day hikers depart and the Sun begins its descent, an unfamiliar reality sets in.
Bereft of all the standard luxuries one becomes accustomed too, finding yourself miles down a trail which began at a dirt road that’s miles from any paved road really challenges your level of comfort.
Every crack of a twig, or crinkle of the tent in the wind might just be one of the mountain lions roaming the park. The power of every storm barreling across the desert sky is that much more tangible as the distant bolts of lightning grow closer and louder and you realize your tent is no safe refuge.
The isolation emphasizes the power of the natural world and reduces you to the skin and bones you really are. It’s all real. It isn’t on a glossy National Geographic page, it’s all around you.
Some people go into the wilderness to get away from the world for peaceful respite from their day to day. While that’s a big part of my experience as well, I think there is much more to it than that. The pain of lugging a pack up a mountain, the anxiety of facing an impending storm, and the constant concern of encountering a wild bear or mountain lion become challenges you can’t shrug off.