In the Crook of the Rio Grande

Big Bend is what we've been looking for since we left.

Zach Bowman Odyssey
Zach Bowman/

Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.

The sign says, “Danger. Keep Off.” But over its shoulder there’s a jackrabbit path winding up the ridge, snaking through the shattered blue stone littering Mariscal Mine. Abandoned mercury shafts stare through iron bars like empty eye sockets carved into the yellow ground more than 100 years ago. They have their own gravity: the pull of all rare and dangerous things.

I eye the sign and keep climbing. Go until I top Mariscal Mountain in time to watch the ragged Chisos grab at the setting sun. The light adores Big Bend, lashing on the land all day and clinging to the ribbon stones at dusk, soaking them the color of blood and fire, defying the darkness. Stubborn as everything else down here.

I can see for miles. The hills at my feet are soft and swirled by some violence beyond forgetting, the mountain ranges at my back jagged and beautiful. A month ago, Beth asked what I had in my mind when I packed us up to go roaming. I had no answer at the time beyond, "not this."

Zach Bowman/

Not packed campgrounds. Not darting from one grimy spot to the next. Not paying $40 a night to sleep in a glorified parking lot.

What I wanted was Big Bend. You don’t wind up down here by accident: no one just swings by on their way to wherever, because it’s on the way to nowhere. It’s a vast and stunning nothingness in the crook of the Rio Grande, and if you stick to the paved roads you’ll miss the heart of the park.

We did not stick to the paved roads. We picked a handful of backcountry sites and spent the scorching daylight hours wandering between them, the truck trundling down narrow desert roads of rock and sand at 10 mph. Cactus and shrubs raked the sides, pinstriping the paint. We watched the spires and buttes and mountains slide by in the distance, the foreground filled with the alien sight of a hundred twisted ocotillo branches with thorny, dead-looking limbs and tops blooming in bright red clusters.

We marveled at the size of the place. How you could go a day or longer without seeing a soul.

The sun gets lower, and I fill my lungs at the sight. Breathe deep and be still for what feels like the first time in months. Dry and rich desert smells are everywhere; sand and stone and a galaxy of things too fierce or clever to lie down and die. I listen to the quiet chorus of the nothing around me.

Zach Bowman/

We’re two and a half hours from pavement, the truck a white dot on the dark valley floor to my east. I can hardly stand the imagery: The sum of me—my grand hopes, my consuming loves, my ragged terrors, my wife and child—made pixel-small by a short hike to a low mountaintop.

Is that the miracle of the desert? The reminder that if we are small our troubles are smaller? That our time here is merely a blink in the face of the forces that shaped this place? It's easy enough to say, but harder to believe with your daughter in your arms.

Zach Bowman/

Days later at dinner I’ll say that doing this with a kid is both the hardest and easiest part of the thing. Her normal is what we claim among the days of driving, or sitting a spell in the big and empty desert. Sleeping in on a cool mountain morning or waking up before dawn to wash below the secret stars of the Milky Way shining clear as they do nowhere else in this country. The dust of a billion stars glowing bright enough to see by; the warm glow in my chest when I tell my daughter that she’s made of the same perfect parts.

Zach Bowman/

She is malleable, to a point. A one year old, after all—a screaming, teething, one-year-old girl. My wife responds: That’s the duality of parenthood.

And so it is.

Zach Bowman/