Find splendid isolation (and spectacular scenery) along the Rio Grande
- Last Updated: 7:30 AM, February 12, 2012
- Posted: 4:32 PM, February 10, 2012
On paper, the Santa Elena Canyon sounds pretty damned impressive. Red rock cliffs rise up to 1,500 feet, straight into cloudless, blue sky; the clear, cool Rio Grande rushes along the canyon floor. One side is Texas and Big Bend National Park, the other Mexico. On both sides, nothingness. In some directions, for hours.
If this all sounds pretty great, that is because it kind of is. The real thing, though, is way better than you’re imagining. Describing it, well – it's hard to know where to start. Standing on the banks of the narrow river as it flows out on to the plain, the only sounds are the occasional crunch of sneakers on dry riverbed, and maybe the odd sheep bell clanging from the otherwise silent herd that’s grazing over at the neighbors’. All sound seems to amplify as it drifts back into the canyon.
A trail leads up into the maw, then down and back; your fellow hikers appear like ants as they top out on the initial incline. The further you go, the quieter the trail, until you are nearly a mile and a half from where you started, deep inside the ever-narrower crevasse, to the point where it is just you on the river's sodden, sandy banks, in extreme silence and almost terrifying solitude.
The canyon is, quite simply, one of the most impressive places that most Americans will never see. And it is precisely for that reason that I have come here.
When crowded trains, choked sidewalks and a shortage of light are the problem, the endless, sun-splashed nothingness of West Texas, I find – and quite specifically, the end-of-the-line Rio Grande – is the cure.
Granted, this isn't the most obvious beauty spot; in the places where most humans observe it, the Rio Grande is often little more than a muddy ditch, the consequence of not only climate shifts, but also years of interference.
The river has been managed, dammed, diverted and polluted every which way you can imagine. Sometimes, it just gives out completely, dry as a bone until the next feeder flows in for replenishment duty. As if all this weren't enough, now the river finds itself an unwitting political pawn, synonymous with the issue of illegal immigration and drug war drama. Along with all of that comes concertina wire, walls, cages and watchtowers, supplemented by dust spewing Border Patrol vehicles, speeding up and down the levees.
But no matter what man visits upon it, the Rio Grande still manages to impress. Maybe it's the river's intense importance to North American history, or maybe it is the extreme beauty, found in the generally fairly remote and always varied terrain one encounters along its 1,600 miles, beginning in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, wandering through sleepy and historic New Mexico, down to bustling El Paso and into Big Bend, before emptying into the exotic, tropical Rio Grande Valley and out to the vastness of the blue-green Gulf.