Magellan was keen for the thrill of wheeling Rove-Inn through loose sand and rough washes on River Road, 51 miles paralleling the Rio Grande and Mexican border in the remote badlands of Big Bend National Park in Texas. The Paisano, the park’s newspaper, recommends you take a full day—do the math and that means driving about seven miles an hour on this primitive dirt road. It has little traffic. Alltrails, which had no reports from drivers in 2017 or 2018, says, “This road is for high clearance vehicles only and may become impassable following rain.” The park’s own website warns, “A disabled vehicle on Big Bend’s isolated roads can be a life-threatening situation.” An article in Texas Monthly talks about wild animals, flash floods and “horseback-riding ladrones from across the border who have recently been divesting unattended vehicles of camping gear and electronics.” Did I mention there’s no cell-phone service? But you know Magellan. “Informed apprehension” is how he described his pre-drive feelings. He’s a superb driver and carries a Garmin enabling us to text through satellites for help in an emergency. Me? I was there for two days of untamed wilderness, the rugged desert vistas, wildflowers…
The day we planned to do the first 20 miles of River Road started out fine. We awoke to the “Candelilla Campground Avian Chorus,” Flopsy and Mopsy already in attendance, the desert chill quickly evaporating under the hot sun.
Our first stop was a ranger station to check the conditions of River Road East up to Fresno campsite and get more detail on the Hot Springs hike we wanted to do beforehand. Mr. Unfriendly Ranger with his greasy ponytail was not helpful. “Was he ever happy before he let his hair and belly and cynicism grow?” I wrote in my diary. But I did like his response when Magellan said River Road to Fresno seemed easy enough: “The last few miles are a bit boney.”
First, the Hot Springs hike. Homesteading at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Tornillo Creek, J.O. Langford and his family built a small health resort—you can still see the ruined walls of the old bathhouse. The family left during the civil war in Mexico but returned to build a post office, trading post and motel. The pleasant trail continues up the canyon rim with views to the Chisos, Sierra del Carmen and Mariscal.
Then our real adventure, driving the unmaintained least-travelled road in Big Bend.
River Road began as a game/livestock trail before it became a wagon track and then a road connecting “floodplain farms, cattle ranches, fishing camps, and quicksilver mines near the river.” The hazel-coloured Rio Grande. Rio Bravo del Norte if you’re on the Mexican side. Rio Sand to the locals because irrigation, population explosion and drought has reduced its water levels.
We started up River Road, the colour of burned turmeric.
The scenery was starkly beautiful, an existential nothingness, despoblado, the solitude that defines West Texas, a portal to the sky, a landscape where everything is open except the border. Bone-dry, a void of unknowing, silence.
“Wild places can unwind a mind.”
Yet the Chihuahua Desert is far from empty.
Big Bend is one of America’s most diverse national parks, home to hundreds of plant and animals found nowhere else, the most biologically diverse arid region in the Western Hemisphere, especially along the Rio Grande corridor.
We drove River Road from the eastern starting point, parking Rove-Inn at Fresno, FR-1, our reserved campsite-for-one vehicle, by 2:30.
It was scorching hot, the ground like a terra-cotta pancake on a sizzling griddle.
A breeze picked up.
We sat in our folding chairs in front of Rove-Inn. “Is this a gap afternoon?” I wrote in my diary as we looked north to Talley Mountain.
“Let’s put up the awning,” I suggested.
Hopeless, the wind was too strong.
We moved our chairs and sat behind the tailgate, laughingly called ourselves “cone-lickers,” the slur given to tourists who never venture more than a hundred yards from their tour bus, ice cream in hand. On this side, our long view extended to the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico.
In pick-up truck country, one soon appeared, black, maybe a Dodge. A guy and his woman checked out the long-abandoned Mariscal Mine Historical District across the road for ten minutes or so and then spun out. We wandered over, a place to escape the wind for awhile.
Cinnabar was mined and refined here starting in 1900, but the buildings have been crumbling to rubble since 1943 when mercury prices collapsed and the refinery closed. A year later Big Bend National Park was founded. We poked around old furnaces, low-sill portals where once there were windows and doorways.
We walked across the road back to Rove-Inn.
The air was torrid.
In the distance, swirls of dust began coning upward. The wind was rapidly intensifying, pelting our clothes, our eyes, our hair with tiny domes of gritty sand. Quickly we packed away our chairs and shut ourselves up tight in Rove-Inn.
It was going to be far too windy to sleep in our rooftop tent—35 mph is its upper limit and we’d had a night like that in Death Valley never to be repeated. The buildings at Mariscal Mine were full of broken glass, rust-red layers of dust and desert detritus and at night the place would surely attract rats, rattlesnakes and javelinas (they look like pigs but are a completely different species). I wasn’t sleeping there. Mr. Unfriendly had warned us there was a chance of rain so continuing down River Road would be foolhardy. Besides, we couldn’t stay in any of the other campsites along River Road. Big Bend has very strict regulations on camping. Permits must be attained, paid for and registered in advance, and every second day airplanes track your vehicle’s whereabouts. Besides, friendly rangers had warned us when we made our reservations for the week that a few of the sites on the Mexican border were too dangerous to occupy—we might be robbed.
Suddenly, I detected a wisp of petrichori, the smell of the first raindrops on long-dry land.
In Marathon, a grizzled cowboy warned us of high winds every afternoon in Big Bend, dying in the early evening. But checking our Garmin for a satellite weather, the forecast was frightening—high winds late into the night with a high probability of rain. We were equipped to spend three days stranded in the desert, but did we really want to?
Reluctantly, at 4:30 in the afternoon we backtracked from the wilderness for what seemed like our only option. Rio Grande Village RV campground, operated by Forever Resorts, motorhomes cramped like ants.
We credit Wally, our Mexican talismanic scorpion, with bringing us good luck.
We discovered Rio Grande Village campground, operated by the park and when we explained our need for a secluded place out of the wind, the friendly camp host at gave us good news when he heard Rove-Inn didn’t need hookups. “Not many people know about the sites over by the Rio Grande Nature Trail. And it just so happens I’ve just kicked the people in #18 out for not paying their fees.” We loved the spot. Flopsy’s cousin arrived, as did roadrunners and after dinner, tequila and night-sky viewing, a pack of javelinas raced through. Plus, as we discovered the next morning, the Nature Trail was a birdwatchers’ haven.
It being Sunday, we drove to Panther Junction for the nearest Wi-Fi to launch our blog and load up Rove-Inn with her favourite high-octane fuel and me with the gallons of water I insist upon having in the desert. As we wanted to hike Mule Ears Spring, Magellan suggested we do that first and then attempt River Road from the west, going as far as we could and then driving back to our registered campsite at Buenos Aires #2.
We only got five miles in before we knew it was time to turn around. River Road West is a rockier track… I had to get out and move stones.
Even at Buenos Aires #2 River Road, my water bottle was dancing the can-can, the wind its partner on our picnic table overlooking the Chisos Mountains, “but not seriously hurricane force like yesterday afternoon,” reads my diary. Magellan set up our elaborate camp shower and barbecued us a Texas steak.
“We only did half of the 51-mile overland journey but got a full dose of adrenaline at both ends,” Magellan reflected. “It would be far less stressful with a two-vehicle convoy rather than relying on self-recovery in a treeless environment in a winch-less vehicle. Regardless, it’s a five-star route.”
Williams, Terry Tempest. The Hour of Land. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016. From which comes the quote “Wild places can unwind a mind.”