I’m happiest when I spend my nights around campfires. Hidden in the spotted hills of the desert. In complete control, and complete surrender.
Crossing Maravillas Creek south of Marathon, and approaching Double Mills, the ranches exceed imagination. Temperature rises fifteen degrees as we descend in elevation. A welcome change to this January weather.
With arm resting on the open truck window, I drive soaking in the wind and sun. Gallo del Cielo by Tom Russell plays in the background. An appropriate introduction to a land once terrorized by the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.
Comparable in age to the Appalachians, within the Ouachita Fold Belt, Los Caballos (the horses) forms a series of folded white rock bands along both sides of the highway – uplifted between 275 to 290 million years ago. A vision of horsemen riding in columns across the high desert. Tall in the foreground of the Del Norte-Santiago range, a much newer formation of only 40 to 60 million years. The combination of which marks a fusion of “young” and “old” mountains, unmatched in the rest of North America.
Opened in 1948 when Texas Parks acquired land from the Combs Cattle Company, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area encompasses 103,000 acres of natural Chihuahuan Desert. Home to one of few re-established herds of Desert Bighorn Sheep, and the largest WMA in Texas.
Once occupying multiple mountain ranges in the Trans-Peco area, Bighorn Sheep were estimated to number in the 2,500’s prior to 1880. By the mid-1940’s they were sparce, and by the early 60’s had been extirpated – rooted out and destroyed almost completely. Protective measures kicked in as early as 1903, and in 1945 significant restoration efforts began in Texas.
Approaching headquarters, a natural cleft in the basalt ridge northeast of the Sierra del Carmens of Mexico, called Black Gap, frames the base of this wildlife management area.
Fourteen miles in, we camp near an old, abandoned adobe ranch home at the confluence of Maravillas Creek and the Rio Grande. The smell of a driftwood campfire mixes with the gurgle of rushing water and the full moon watches it all. Wild burros stand across the river, high on a ledge. The hoot of an owl nearby. A herd of feral cows arrive to water, eyes glowing in the light, oblivious to the border presented by this river.
Here, temperatures can swing 40 degrees, and as the sun set that night the cold moved in. Campfire stoked, we enjoy coffee and bacon the next morning and the warmth it brings. However, the equestrian trail beckons so we ride trying to stay in the sunlight.
A short detour through the Maravillas creek bed and we climb to a view. Carefully weaving through candelilla, lechuguilla, and prickly pear. There is no straight path through this desert. Rocks at every step, often impassible. I’m glad my horse has four shoes now.
And like a cat up the tree, the path down isn’t always so clear. What looks flat is riddled with barrancas, deep gulley’s hidden from view. Some too steep to circumvent. To the south there is no exit and eventually we turn, retracing our steps north.
Summer can make this an impossible place to stay. At one of the lowest elevations in the desert, temperatures in Black Gap can exceed 110 Fahrenheit. This is rattlesnake country. It’s remote. It’s untraveled and forgotten. In the summer, a flat tire can be the difference between life or death. Preparation is a must.
Back on the road, we ride attempting to access the river. With no clear route, we move off trail. A constant push thru mesquite and river cane, only for the chance of a gentle slope to water. But the Rio is protected by the arms of this earth and our efforts prove fruitless.
Once there was a crossing, however. At the southern-most tip of Black Gap, the La Linda bridge was the only border crossing along almost 400 miles of highway. Built by Dow Chemical in 1964 and closed in 1997, after a one-lane bridge gunfight between smugglers and a Mexican customs officer. This path to a foreign land now blocked by hard barrier.
Hot and thirsty, a nearby camp serves as rest stop. Concrete for a bed roll, it’s naptime. Fly buzzing, metal shed moaning with each breeze. Dog panting. My horse licks his lips, dry tongue I’m sure.
Honest and brutal, this land can be deceiving. Welcoming, yet unwilling to let go – unwilling to let you leave. Always easier to ride up and in, than out. It reminds me to think. To mark my path and remember where I came from.
Sometimes difficult, but always rewarding. This desert echoes our vulnerability. Our place. Our value. And I am grateful for that every day.
There are 16 wildlife management areas in Texas open to horseback riding, Black Gap is one of them.