Along the Rio Grande, a Hot Spring and a Warm Welcome
The Rio Grande Valley below El Paso and above Del Rio is one of the unique areas of the United States.
The border between the United States and Mexico is in the news every day, in ongoing debates about immigration and spending on security initiatives.
But what is it like to visit destinations along the border? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in five pairings of places: Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros, Mexico; El Paso and Ciudad Juárez; Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales across the border in Mexico; San Diego and Tijuana; Big Bend National Park and Boquillas, Mexico.
“You’ve arrived,” announced our obliviously cheerful GPS navigator, as my buddy and I stared, white-knuckled and slightly teary-eyed, at a padlocked gate barely illuminated by the headlights of our rented S.U.V. We’d already traversed 9.2 hair-raising miles of a twisty, sandy unpaved road that an early-December freeze had turned into icy slush, our tires shifting side to side, our high beams no match for the pitch-black darkness.
And now we were wondering what it was going to be like to spend the night in the car, in a vast, sparsely populated patch of far West Texas. But, after a few deep breaths and a modicum of quarreling, we carefully reversed course and slipped and slid 9.2 miles back to the main road, taking comfort in the jackrabbits playfully crossing our path in a single bound and Don Williams serenading us with “I Believe in You” on the satellite radio (“I don’t believe … that right is right and left is wrong, and north and south can’t get along”). Back on blessed pavement, and this time following the explicit instructions I had confidently ignored, we made our way to Terlingua Ranch, a community nestled in the snow-dusted Christmas Mountains, to a gorgeous rental house (where, incidentally, the heat would malfunction and we’d sleep fully clothed in a 41-degree bedroom, blue with cold and tickled pink to be alive).
It’s hard to convey how humbling it is to visit this little pocket of the United States-Mexico border, a place the National Park Service calls “one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States.” Boosters market Texas as a “whole other country,” but the land within and without Big Bend National Park really is. One of the least-visited of the federal park system, Big Bend is four hours by car from each of the nearest international airports, in El Paso and Midland. You have to really want to get here (or live here, which makes you a different breed altogether). And those who do, those inclined to make the long trek to the park and its attendant ghost towns (Lajitas, Study Butte, Terlingua), are seekers of a sort, not entirely unlike the homesteaders and fortune hunters drawn to these badlands long ago.
But nowadays the treasures are silence and darkness and undeveloped natural beauty and all those other things that seem to be in short supply of late. If you’re longing for a respite from this era’s relentless beeping and buzzing and yelling and “Dear God, what now?” news alerts, what better place than one with limited cell service and unreliable electricity, where you step outside in the morning and hear nothing but the grumbling of your stomach and the muffled flap of a bird’s wings high above?
Big Bend’s dramatic confluence of river, desert, and mountains makes it easy to wax poetic with words like “majestic” and “epic,” and even those fall short. There’s enough in these 800,000 acres for a lifetime of exploring, the tangible result of a landscape that has borne witness to shallow sea and coastal plain and volcanic upheaval. Eons of geological time are visible in everything from the walls of a towering canyon to the dull, dusty stone at your feet that hides the lacy remains of some ancient sea creature. From the grassy banks of the Rio Grande to the cactus-studded expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert to the oak-and-juniper-carpeted Chisos Mountains, Big Bend is a dream for photographers, a paradise for birders (more than 400 species), the promised land for amateur (and professional) geologists. Huge swaths of land are accessible for day hikes and backpacking (200 miles of trails), camping and river trips. More specifically, there’s the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, where you can gaze upon a life-size replica of the skull of a Bravoceratops (“wild horn-face”), pieces of which were unearthed in the park in 2011.
At the Boquillas Hot Spring, situated smack-dab against the Rio Grande, you can sink into a 105-degree pool contained by the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse and dangle an arm over the rock boundary into the swift-moving, considerably colder water as it passes you by on its 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. (Some advice: Decide when you’re going to visit ahead of time, so that you can don the proper attire in advance. There are no changing rooms, and the vault toilets are like something out of “Trainspotting.” I’d like to take this moment to apologize to whichever park ranger found the bra I left behind in my haste to get out of there.)
At any location in or near the park, you can simply look to the ever-changing sky, particularly in the evening, when fiery sunsets of pink and orange and dusty blue give way to an unfathomable darkness spattered with a breathtaking bounty of stars, including a clearly visible Milky Way (Big Bend is a stargazing mecca, officially designated by the International Dark-Sky Association); like me, you may have the stupefying realization that this is what the night sky actually looks like. If you do nothing else but motor around in your car, you’ll have a blast. On our various drives, my friend and I spotted a little family of javelina lumbering across the blacktop, a coyote leaping effortlessly over a fence, numerous roadrunners dashing headlong across the pavement, and a golden eagle resting in some creosote along the side of the road, as if patiently waiting to cross. Finally, where else can you, at least for now, cross the border into Mexico in a rowboat?
The Rio Grande (or the Río Bravo del Norte, from a southerly perspective) is all that separates Texas and Mexico within the boundaries of the park, winding its way for 118 miles between forbidding canyon walls; making the abrupt southeast to northeast shift that gives Big Bend its name; and changing in color (chocolate milk in one light, celadon in another) and flow (sometimes grande, often pequeño).
There’s hardly a more delightful way to pass over a border; on our first of two trips, we had barely rounded the bend of the descending trail from the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry before a young man in a “Houston Strong” T-shirt was rowing his way across the river to get us in a waterlogged metal boat, the “seats” covered in what looked like bathmats. It’s $10 round-trip for this makeshift ferry, which hauls its tiny load of camera-wielding tourists back and forth all day during official crossing hours. Once on shore it’s up the hill by foot, burro, or bed of pickup truck to a trailer, where your passport is stamped and you’re granted formal entry into Boquillas del Carmen, the colorful, sparsely settled remains of a former mining town.
Borders are always porous, particularly the riverine kind, and so it goes for this one. “Maps that split country into zones of topography, climate, vegetation, and such things have much more neatly sweeping lines of demarcation than nature has usually been willing to go along with,” wrote John Graves, Texas’s beloved chronicler of land and lore, and that goes for people too. For decades the Boquillas border crossing was decidedly informal, illegal but never monitored, a conduit for supplies, a lifeline for loved ones residing on opposite sides, a day’s amusement for tourists. But it always was an international boundary and as such subject to the day’s prevailing sociopolitical anxieties. The crossing was shut down in 2002, in response to Sept. 11, and reopened 11 years later, this time with automated passport control. And now looms another threat.
In Boquillas proper, the specter of the wall seems to be just that, haunting the dish towels and koozies for sale on every corner, their hand-embroidered wildflowers, roosters, and javelinas accompanied, in slightly crooked letters, by a simple phrase: “No wall.” A succinct “Trump no bueno” was all we got from a congenial gentleman who walked us into town, that and the declaration in small black letters on his white baseball cap: “The border makes America great” (that message brought to you by El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman running against Senator Ted Cruz in November). The people here exhibit a sort of seen-it-all-before serenity, which seems appropriate, as this battle royal is going down a few miles from rock formations whose strata reveal the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, i.e., a visible record of the extinction event 66 million years ago.
Existential musings aside, a visit to this village of a few hundred people feels much as it has for years. We perused the blankets and molcajetes at the shop at José Falcon’s, then took a seat on the colorful patio of the adjoining restaurant for cheese enchiladas, clay copitas of sotol and sweeping views of the Sierra del Carmen range (and, incidentally, a fellow skinning rabbits and goats next door). The joy in a trip to Boquillas, other than its old-world charm, is the hospitality of the people, allowing a visitor brief proximity to the kind of community you’d expect to find in a remote, only recently electrified town 150 miles away from the nearest city. At Boquillas Restaurant, the proprietor offered to give us the souvenirs we happily picked out before realizing we had run out of cash (had too many of the excellent margaritas). We promised we’d return the next day, which we did, to find our items waiting for us in a neat pile on the counter.
“Here’s a song about building bridges instead of walls,” said singer-songwriter Trevor Reichman, the featured talent the night we visited the Starlight Theatre, Terlingua’s main watering hole and music venue. As in Boquillas, you can walk the length of this onetime mining camp in a couple of minutes. And you’ll meet eccentric locals who possess the same equanimity that comes from living in isolated and unpredictable terrain. You’ll even detect the same age-old tension between insider and outsider, though the boundaries are a little less fraught. This seemed to me best encapsulated by a sign on the door of a nearby shop that trades in rocks and cactuses and sundry dusty things: “Keep investors, hipsters, and trust-fund babies out of Terlingua. Just look at what happened to Marfa.”
Of course, right next to that is another sign, this one directing customers to just slide a check or cash under the door if there’s no one minding the store. Out here one ranch flies the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag; next door is “Just Resist.” But it seems, to this outsider, at least, that once again community trumps ideological differences among people who look out for one another and demonstrate a surprising forbearance of city folk unaccustomed to the extremes of weather and limits of technology, city folk who awake night after night to the howling of coyotes and, in the morning, find their prints in the frosty dust outside the door.
Over an excellent made-from-scratch breakfast at the Bad Rabbit at the Terlingua Ranch Lodge (“Do you want your grits thick or runny? Eggs soft or hard?”), our server warned us away from an “unimproved” road to a nearby city, because of course we hadn’t learned our lesson from the start of our trip. “You’ll have an adventure whether you plan it or not,” she said, after we regaled her with our back-road brush with death (from embarrassment, likely).
She’s right. Heed warnings regarding rapidly changing weather and full tanks of fuel. Follow directions, literal and otherwise, regarding flashlights and high-clearance vehicles, snakes and scorpions. Avoid the entire area altogether during the more temperate weeks of Spring Break and Thanksgiving (or, as our white-hatted friend in Boquillas put it, “the fiesta of the turkey”). Do all that and you’ll have a wonderful experience, against a backdrop of almost inconceivable magnificence, along a stretch of border where, for now, you can climb to the top of a bluff pockmarked with perfectly round mortar holes left by ancient civilizations, look down on the gently moving river, and wave to people on the other side, a stone’s throw away and a world apart.
A version of this article appears in print on February 11, 2018, on Page TR8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Hot Spring and a Warm Welcome