Grass belly-high on a horse, the Spaniards declared upon seeing Big Bend for the first time. And it was. Great plains with the Rio Grande running strong and true. But somewhere along the way we choked the river and mowed the grass – and already drying – the earth here never recovered. Not fully.
The Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend once held many ranchers in her arms, spread out along the border of Texas and Mexico. Goats. Sheep. Cattle. Although some remain – today you can still find cowboys moving cattle by horseback – many have gone. Slowly converted to wildlife management or replaced by conglomerations of sub-divided land. Terlingua Ranch is one of them.
Hatched in the 1960’s by racing car legend Carroll Shelby and an attorney from Dallas Dave Witts, and sitting just outside of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua Ranch today spans 200,000 accumulated acres across the desert landscape. Sliding up next to the Christmas Mountains, a small range with peaks up to 5700 feet skirting the park along the north side.
But living here is not easy and the remoteness and harsh terrain are just a start. Many come with dreams and intentions only to leave. Nothing but scattered belongings remaining. The desert teaches tenacity, resourcefulness, and delayed gratification – and everything able to survive – breeds these traits.
There is a beauty unmatched in the Texas Big Bend area and under a full moon with clear skies I was lucky enough to be there. A place of mystery where hard meets soft, edges blur into velvet, and sunsets rain shades of purple as far as the eye can see – which in the desert is far.
Bordering Mexico, Brewster County is the largest county in Texas at 6,192 sq miles and is the poster child for wide open spaces. Over three times the size of Delaware and more than 500 sq miles bigger than Connecticut – larger than the Big Island of Hawaii by about 2,000 sq miles.
Riding these gravel roads I sway in tune with each beat of his hoof. The crunch of red dirt and gravel under foot. We follow Terlingua Ranch Road to an old adobe church and tombstones where I stop to pay respect.
The feel of brick against my palm and the silence of a graveyard humbling. My church has always been the touch of nature and a horse under saddle. Connecting me with the voice within. The wild and untamed side that bends with this land. Chiseled boulders hug a jagged hillside as we trace Church Road to Huffman to an abandoned stable. Rock walls and rusty barbed wire.
The desert mountains are a thing of beauty – layer after layer in shades of watercolor. Velvet from a distance, unyeilding up close. The sun slowly pulls away, taking her warmth with her, progressing day into night. A fat, healthy moon. Black outlines of the surrounding peaks stand tall in stark contrast to the fading sky.
Beyond the ranch roads, an old mine trail snakes up a mountainside. Climbing its way four miles until to 5728 feet – the summit of Terlingua’s Christmas Mountains. Wrapping around the land like the crisscross ribbon of a ballet slipper or roman sandal.
Caliche doesn’t care if you have 4-wheel drive, but the roads were dry from yesterday’s rain and the footing solid as I trailered to the launching spot. A small turn around outside a locked gate. Accessible only through Terlingua Ranch Lodge by permit.
Here the land has been turned on its edge and then turned again. As we trudge upward, dog scouting the way, a sudden rattle breaks the silence. A diamondback tucked snugly in amongst the sharp cover of yucca. A snake hiding among knives. My horse and dog take wide berth.
Glancing beyond, I am surprised by how quickly I can see forever. Nothing to block the view – it took but a minute it seems. Each subsequent glimpse only sends me higher. Carefully now, watching my horse’s feet as he traces the edge of this trail.
There is folklore in these mountains. The tale of a family stranded, camping at Christmas and trapped by a blizzard. Indian legend says Big Bend is where the Great Spirit dumped all the leftover rocks after creating the earth, and they reach toward the sky in every angle imaginable as if wanting to return to their maker.
The sky and earth close together in a razorous plane.
Cresting Christmas Mountains, I ride toward the colors which call me. The rust of rock, the deep purple of a sunset, turquoise sky above and an amber sunrise casting it’s warmth across the world.
This is a land of mystery, un-ending exploration and history. At each bend, each divergence, the road calls me forward. A never appeased desire to see what’s next. What secret lies ahead, even the earth is uncertain.
This is the country they call life.