Exploring the far west of Texas, America's last frontier

On the border with Mexico, the Big Bend National Park in Texas is the place to experience that famous pioneer spirit — amid its empty desert and jagged mountains, beneath its dark skies and on the streets of its ghost towns.

Big Bend National Park comprises 800,000-acres of sparse and dusty grasslands in the far southwestern corner of the state.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 16 Nov 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 31 Jan 2022, 15:52 GMT

The far west of Texas is America's last frontier. As I stand on the edge of the Rio Grande — a thin line of rushing muddy water that divides Mexico from the US — I hold both countries in a single view. To the north, there are oil rigs and shopping malls; to the south, horseback vaqueros (cowboys) and a crumbling, waterless town. But here there's nothing. These are the borderlands, an in-between place where wranglers and artists, misfits and ranchers, shelter in the vastness of the desert. Life here, on the periphery, is wilderness and silence, the boundless spirit of independence that built this country and the eyes of another looking in.

The heart of it is Big Bend National Park, 800,000-acres of sparse and dusty grasslands in the far southwestern corner of the state. In the centre are the Chisos Mountains, the only range in the US contained completely within the borders of a national park. From a distance they appear like a giant's fist, knuckles of jagged rock punching up from beneath the earth. I can see them rise, peak and fall at once, like a wave — an island surrounded by desert on all sides. And indeed they are. Reaching nearly 8,000ft high, the Chisos — a name that means 'enchantment' — command their own ecosystem, a cooler, lusher habitat prowled by black bears and mountain lions. A streak of green and red, the mountains pull heat into swirling clouds of thunder that spark the sky with shards of light and flashes of luminescent rainbow.

I've come here because almost no one does. In a year, Big Bend receives less than a third of the visitor numbers Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon attract in a single summer month. Those iconic landscapes are beautiful, but crowded; Big Bend is a private show. My plan is to spend five days exploring the region inside and around the national park, one of the last swathes of true American wilderness untouched by mass-scale industry and tourism. What was life like here, on the edge, less than two centuries ago, when Apache and Comanche roamed free and herds of bison filled the plains as far as the eye could see? I want to recreate something of that pioneer spirit for myself, in the emptiness of the desert, in the borderlands and ghost towns, in the dark skies and unfathomable silence of these fading reaches of America's last frontier.

I begin in the mountains. The Lost Mine Trail, in the heart of the Chisos range, is so named because — as the story goes — a group of Spanish explorers, centuries ago, enslaved the local Indians in order to work a gold mine near the summit of the trail. But the natives rebelled, killing their masters and sealing the entrance to prevent further exploitation. Legend has it that on Easter Sunday, the first rays of sun lit up a section of the mountain and illuminated the entrance to the mine, which is believed to be still stocked full of gold.

True or not, it's one of the best hikes in the park and I have it all to myself, following a hairpin bend to a high mesa where Indian paintbrush flowers bloom and agave cacti laze in the sun. The author Etta Koch, who wrote a memoir of her time here in the mid-1940s, described her reaction to the landscape as a 'moment when your heart stands still and your whole body seems to swell'. And I know what she means. From the top, it's like looking across an ocean — layers of hazy purple hills, and ghosted white clouds, fading into a vast expanse of empty space as far as I can see. It's as if I'm marooned in the mountains — a smudge of green watercolour sinking into the desert sands below. But no treasure for me today. "The problem with the legend," a ranger later tells me, "is Easter Sunday changes every year and there ain't no damn gold up here anyhow."

Love thy neighbour

Big Bend is a clash of three distinct ecosystems. There are the mountains. And then there's the river: 118 miles of the Rio Grande mark the far southern boundary of the park. In the middle is the official border, a literal line drawn in the sand of its muddy depths like the tracks of a wet snake. I take a rafting trip through the canyons of the upper section, push off from Texas and picnic in Mexico on the other side. 

And then there's the desert: the largest in North America. Spanning 175,000sq miles, from New Mexico and Arizona into northern Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert accounts for 80% of the park. Here, away from the cool of the mountains and the chill of the river, ground temperatures can reach 82C and only 10 inches of rain fall a year. But there's life, still: coyotes and roadrunners, chasing each other as they do in the cartoon; rattlesnakes shaking the bushes; tarantulas as big as my hand. I find natural hot springs, cacti with red fruits that taste like strawberries, and sudden blooms of bright-pink wildflowers springing from summer rains. Then, as the sun sets — causing the tips of the Chisos to glow bright orange like the embers of an enormous fire stick — I stay out in the dark and wait for the stars to come. Extreme remoteness has granted Big Bend some of the darkest skies in the world. On a clear night, it's possible to see more than 2,000 of the Milky Way's shining lights. It's like looking into the spinning heart of the galaxy itself.

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the park is Boquillas, a tiny Mexican settlement just under a mile outside Big Bend's southern border. For centuries it'd been a major crossing between the two countries, but the events of September 11 changed all that. America closed its borders, and with no crops to grow there was little chance of survival; the village drifted into rubble and ghosts, many of which remain.

The border has now reopened — although Mexicans entering the US still need a visa, which for many is extremely difficult. As soon as I cross, it's like entering another world. In place of pavements and air conditioning is thick, sticky mud and sweltering heat. To get to the village, I have to wade barefoot through a swamp to the edge of the river, wait for a dinghy to row me to the other side and then hop on a donkey. My guide, Raul, shows me the town's bright-yellow church and a small elementary school with carefully placed white stones standing in for a fence. We watch a group of boys playing football on the streets and an old man singing ballads on a broken guitar. I eat spicy enchiladas with black beans and wince down the strongest margarita I've ever had. Then he takes me to the village's new solar energy field. As of last year, Boquillas has electricity for the first time, but still no running water. And life is still hard. The people here, Raul explains, used to be able to get petrol and groceries inside the national park, just 10 miles away.

Now — because of the visa issue — they have to travel hundreds of miles through the mountains. Where medical attention was just on the other side of the river, now it's more than three hours away. Friends, families and business partners have been separated.

"At least now we can have ice and drink cold water," Raul says.

I leave the park the next day and drive 30 miles west to the small, dusty town of Study Butte. People have been looking for their fortunes in the hills here since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, and for a time, in the early 1900s, this was the centre of mining operations in the region. I saddle up and ride through dried-out creek beds and forests of strange ocotillo plants — like Dr Seuss drawings — to the remains of an old mercury mine, rusting beside jackrabbits and pale clinging weeds. Nearby, we find the smashed shells of abandoned settlements — broken and sun-beaten, like old songs lost on the wind — bullet holes from the Mexican Revolution, which ravaged this border from 1910-17, and pictographs of headdresses and animals, stained black in the rocks by the Apache centuries ago.

And then, suddenly, I nearly die. Up to this point my horse, Duncan, has been a picture of docile obedience. But when a cute little mare appears in the distance, he finds his courage and bolts. Hanging on to a runaway horse, I suddenly realise, is like doubling down during a game of Russian roulette — things are only going to get worse. But when I try to pull my foot out of the stirrup, it's stuck. Now, there's never a good place to be dragged on your back by an out-of-control horse, but surely there's nowhere worse than cactus country. So I squeeze my legs, grab his mane, scream John Wayne one-liners and somehow hang on. When my guide, wrangler Kelly Straw, finally catches up, she looks me dead in the eye and smiles: "Now you can stand Texas tall in the saddle," she says. 

Tumbleweed towns

The mines may now be gone, but something more interesting has been left in their wake: Terlingua. This tiny ghost town of abandoned buildings, on the edge of Study Butte, where the miners and their families lived until the 1940s, has been part-occupied by off-the-grid painters, musicians and hippy die-hards since the '70s. It's like a cross between the Burning Man festival and Mad Max, a kind of post-apocalyptic artist commune stockpiling peace and love instead of guns and ammo. I find a miniature ranch called Passing Wind that's home to a live-in pirate ship; an old theatre, The Starlight, where bands still play despite the walls looking like they're about to fall down; and a mansion, with most of its roof fallen through, that's been turned into an improbable boutique hotel with beautiful artisan furniture and fluffy double beds. But mostly, what you do here is sit on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Company, watch the sunset and drink beer. I swap stories and bottles with glazed-eye locals as a thunderstorm rages over the Chisos Mountains and the entire town howls like wolves at the storm.

A few miles up the road, the former tumbleweed village of Marfa has similarly transformed its image, albeit in a more highbrow way. When the American artist Donald Judd moved here in the late '70s he turned a former World War II military camp on the outskirts of town into one of the country's leading contemporary art galleries, the Chinati Foundation. It's like finding a beret in a stack of Stetsons. Six-foot by four-foot polished-aluminium cubes are lined up in rows where once POW barracks stood, German writing still on the wall. Former chemical weapons storage facilities stand side by side with fluorescent art installations. Everywhere is at once ethereal and hard, industrial and yet filled with light. It reminds me of that old cartoon of a gun firing flowers instead of bullets.

But that's not the strangest thing about Marfa. Just outside of town there's an area where one of the country's weirdest unexplained phenomena has often been observed: the Marfa Lights — bright orbs, twinkling, glowing and sometimes darting across the night's sky. Native Americans thought they were falling stars; early explorers noted them in their journals. They might be a Fata Morgana, a kind of mirage caused by light reflecting off a distant object, or some kind of swamp gas. Or, as some here fervently hope, they could be intelligent beings, come down to communicate with this small rural town. But the truth is no one knows. I spend an hour in the dark with a group of strangers, waiting for a sign from above. Then, just as I'm about to leave, we hear something: a low moan, like wind in the valley. This could be it. Then the sound continues — mooooooo! "Well, you never know," a voice next to me says, "maybe that cow's getting eaten by aliens."

But even if West Texas is short on extraterrestrials, at least it's big on history. The Fort Davis National Historic Site, 20 miles north of Marfa, is one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars frontier post in the country. In the mid-19th century, it was one of a string of outposts along the old San Antonio-El Paso Road, built to guard gold-rushers making their way to California after the boom of 1849. At the time, it would've been an island in a sea of dangers, a lonely collection of barracks and guns surrounded on all sides by Apache and Comanche warriors, bitterly defending their ancestral territory.

"They knew the land like we know our Facebook profile," Kelly had said on our ride. The most famous was Geronimo, an Apache shaman and war leader who, with only a handful of braves, managed to evade capture by thousands of US soldiers for over 20 years. It's said his warriors could ambush a regiment in the middle of an open plain and then scatter in all directions, disappearing into the desert like morning mist.

To walk through the former barracks, touch the bricks and mortar and artillery, to hear the bugle calls (played over loud speakers) and sense how close in time these stories really are is a powerful sensation. I can picture the cold winters, the rations of dried beef, nervous eyes looking out to hills, the stables burning as native raiders raced by on the Comanche War Trail, driving stolen cattle into Mexico. I can feel the tension among the troops: one of the first all-black regiments, the famed Buffalo soldiers, were stationed here and suffered terrible racial discrimination and abuse from the officers and population they were trying to defend. These are important stories. But they mask the greater loss: the Apache, the Comanche, Geronimo — a way of life that had stood for thousands of years.

And that's what's special about the frontier today. You can still feel it. "When you think of the Wild West, you think of here," Jessica Lutz, a local photographer, told me. "This land is part of our pioneer past. And it's still untouched. That's why people come here — because they can breathe."

Museums may show you the artifacts of history, but they can't give you the emotional connection. For that you need to be here. You need the land, and you need it the way it was. But that comes with a fight. Plans are in place to build the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which would pump 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day through this region. If it goes ahead, it will irrevocably change the character and feeling of these wild lands. "Shouldn't we keep just one place how it was?" Jessica says. Just one place, to howl at the storm, to live off the grid, to breathe in the sweet poetry of emptiness. That's why the far west of Texas is special: because the pioneer spirit is still here, because there's hope, because among all the progress and detritus of modern life, there's still one last frontier.


Getting there & around
British Airways flies nonstop daily from Heathrow to Austin, while Southwest Airlines and United Airlines run connecting flights to Midland Airport, a three-hour drive north of the park. Alternatively, its a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin. Hiring a car is essential in this part of Texas. Hertz has offices in Midland and Austin–Bergstrom airports.

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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