Big Bend Field Notes
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The author jumps over a watery passage in the Chihuahuan Desert. Two and a half million acres (one million hectares) of this desert straddle the Texas-Mexico border in a block of protected land known as El CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor. The area is one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world, so Patoski had to watch his step. As the locals say, if something doesn’t bite, stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack W. Dykinga
While researching this story, I joined five other people and walked across the bend in the Big Bend, a six-day, 80-mile (130 kilometers) hike. That may have been the most physically difficult trek I’ve ever attempted. It was certainly the first time I’d ever done extended overnight backpacking. My lower back ached for weeks afterward.
Eight months later, I’d forgotten the pain and–for the first time ever–soloed in a canoe through 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. The lower back acted up for a while after that, too, but in a good way. Both experiences underscored the efforts one endures in search of the kind of solitude many seek but few ever realize, regardless of lower back pain.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes; it’ll change.” That old homily about Texas weather popped into my head after I dodged the bullet that photographer Jack Dykinga and Mexican environmentalist Patricio Robles Gil took.
After spending a couple days in Big Bend National Park, plotting and planning our adventures and camping out near Old Ore Road, I headed back to civilization while Jack and Patricio prepared to paddle Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons, two of the three major canyons on the Rio Grande within the boundaries of the national park.
When I left them on a Saturday morning, the skies were clear, and the temperatures had already climbed to around 70 degrees (20°C). It looked like it was going to be a warm and sunny early spring day. But I hadn’t driven more than an hour when the winds started whipping up out of the north and dust kicked up on the horizon. By the time I reached Fort Stockton, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) north of the park, the temperature had dropped to the upper 40s.
I talked to Jack a week later to ask about his trip through the canyons. “It was the trip from hell,” he said wearily. Once the winds began to blow, they didn’t quit for a week, with some gusts exceeding 65 miles (105 kilometers) an hour. More than once, their canoe was blown away from their campsite. Jack’s sniffles turned into a full-blown case of the flu, and he passed it on to Patricio. I waited until he was finally done with his complaints. “Welcome to the Big Bend,” I replied.
The Cemex preserve in the Sierra Del Carmen, is 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Boquillas Crossing on the Rio Grande, as the crow flies. Driving there on rough dirt roads used to take a little more than two hours, once you paid a boatman two dollars to row you across to Mexico in his dinged-up Mexican johnboat. It was a funky way to travel, made more adventurous knowing there was no customs or immigration on the Mexican or the U.S. side (although U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints and Mexican military stops manned by bored uniformed teenagers toting automatic weapons loomed farther in the interior). This was too middle-of-nowhere to justify permanent posts. Then September 11, 2001, happened, and everything about the Borderlands changed–including traditional means of crossing the river.
A drive between those same two points now takes at least ten hours. Heightened border security put an end to the freelance ferry tradition. In the past, almost all ferry passengers were tourists from Big Bend National Park bound for Boquillas del Carmen, a primitive village of 300 about a mile from the river, whose residents largely supported themselves selling food, drink, quartz, overnight accommodations, walking sticks, quilts, and trinkets to the visitors. Now the village is slowly depopulating; half of the people have already left.
In the high country of the sierra, I found another Boquillas resident, David, one of the boatmen who used to row visitors across the Rio. These days, he tends to a tricked-out log cabin lodge the Cemex corporation has built overlooking a dammed-up stretch of a clear-running creek. He’s glad to have a job, he said. On weekends, he can go home to Boquillas. It could be worse, David added. Other locals who still call Boquillas home work in Musquiz, another 50 miles (80 kilometers) distant, and many there return home but once a month.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life | Why I wrote this
Willie Nelson’s 75th birthday
with Joe Nick Patoski
WILLIE NELSON: AN EPIC LIFE
In stores April 21st, 2008
The realization Texans are different from everybody else hit me about
an hour after I’d first set foot on Texas soil. I was only two years old
but I distinctly remember my father picking up my mother, my sister and
me at the Greater Fort Worth International Airport and driving us to our
new home in Fort Worth, stopping along the way at the Big Apple Barbecue
on Highway 183. The waitresses talked funny and the smoked beef brisket
covered in barbecue sauce we were served tasted like nothing I’d experienced,
vaguely familiar and strange and exotic all once. Even as the hot spices
set fire to my lips and the inside of my mouth, I immediately wanted more.
I’ve been trying to figure out Texas and Texans ever since. Fifty two
years later, I realized the answer had been right in front of me for most
of my life. There were vague memories of the smiling friendly face flickering
on Channel 11 singing songs live from Panther Hall on the Cowtown Jamboree
and on Ernest Tubb’s show in a voice that could have only come from Texas.
I grew familiar with the songs by listening KCUL, the Country & Western
radio station, although versions of “Hello Walls” and “Crazy” by other
people were Top 40 hits in Fort Worth. The first interview came in 1973
for Zoo World magazine. After thirty five years of writing about him and
many others, I can now safely say no single public person living in the
20th or 21st century defines Texas or Texans better than Willie Hugh Nelson.
Texans by nature are independent, free-thinkers, open, outgoing and friendly.
Iconoclasts, they respect tradition but are not beholden to it. Whether
it’s God or sin, they tend to embrace excess. The good ones have a whole
lot of heart. They are creatures of geography, exuding a sense of place.
They reflect their climate and sometimes are a little crazy from the heat.
They are wanderers and explorers, keen to improvise, curious enough to
discover They are loud and boisterous when they need to be. They seem
to go out of their way to make friends with strangers. They are great
storytellers and some of the most distinctive music makers on earth. You
know Texas music when you hear it, just like you know Willie’s music.
A certain red headed stranger was once said to say, “Don’t let the truth
get in the way of a good story.” I tried my best to ignore that sage advice
once I took on this project. On the back side, all I can say is that getting
all the facts straight while piecing together the history of a culture
considered too low, too sordid, and too wild to be worth documenting in
print was no sure thing. Many characters were too busy living life to
the fullest, sometimes under the influence of alcohol, nicotine, Dexedrine,
Black Mollies, marijuana, boredom, and being caught up in the adage, “If
you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there” to remember the trivial
details of time and place. Then there were those who were inclined to
con for the pure sport of it.
Fortunately, my subject was accommodating and open – exactly the person
I’ve always thought him to be. He’s the story. I’m just the teller.
Copyright © 2008 Joe Nick Patoski