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Rio Grande River, Harsh, prickly country unique and brash in that romantic Texas kind-of-a-way,

Big Bend National Park, Texas


By —— Bio and Archives--December 27, 2011

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imageAside from remote stretches of sandy beach on South Padre Island, I can say without reservation that Big Bend is probably the best slice of outdoors this sprawling flat state has to offer. Cradled against a grand turn of the Rio Grande River, and sharing 118 desolate miles with Old Mexico crawling with dope smugglers and human coyotes, and wacko nut-jobs on both sides of the border laying low or on the lam, Big Bend National Park and the surrounding, inhospitable terrain elevates the wild and wooly, and the wonderful, to superlative extremes.

Harsh, prickly country unique and brash in that romantic Texas kind-of-a-way, I continue to dredge up fond memories of our autumn visit a few years ago; the solid image of a large, reddish-brown mountain lion, or cougar, sporting a long tail, gliding gently across the road on our drive down from the castle of jagged cliffs enveloping Chisos Basin. I also recall, rather vividly, getting trapped in a shoot as we scrambled into steep-walled Santa Elena Canyon while someone on the film-set down by the river’s edge screamed in a blood-curdling tizzy, “Get the #@%* out of the way! We’re trying to make a movie!”

A long drive from anywhere, this 800,000-acre block of southwest Texas protects an impressive island of rock, the jagged Chisos Mountains that top out at 7,832’ and offer splendid views and welcome respite from summer’s scorching heat. There’s also a lodge and restaurant up there in the basin, and a gift shop and convenience store, campground, and Wi-Fi for those desperate for a fix.

Our glimpse of Felis concolor, the “cat all of one color” that we saw sneaking into the brush, was one of 150 yearly sightings in the park, most along the road. Visitors have reported seeing 2,700 of these solitary, secretive big cats since the 1950s. Though sightings are rare, they’re out there sharpening their claws and whittling their fangs, maintaining the natural order. These magnificent beasts prefer the mountains, gingerly stalk the 20 miles of trails that weave through the Chisos, and four times since 1984 have tasted twitching human flesh; the humans lived; the cats were caught and put down.

You can decrease the odds of being dragged into the brush by your throat, gurgling, if you remember to avoid hikes at dawn or dusk alone on those lonesome trails. And for goodness sakes, keep an eye on the kids; don’t let them run ahead on their own no matter how happy they are, or you might never see them again in one undigested piece.

Oh, and don’t forget venomous snakes coiled in repose on the side of the trail pretending to sleep. Look down now and then. But the greatest danger by far is the park ranger if he catches you smoking, anything, on one of those mountain trails. I can’t imagine this prohibition is meant for our health. Most likely, given the severe drought conditions engulfing Texas recently, they’re protecting the remaining pine, oak, juniper and Arizona cyprus clinging to rocky ridges and arid valleys from a careless and fiery demise.

Many of the 330,000 annual visitors to Big Bend head for the Rio Grande Village 20 miles east of Panther Junction. One of three frontcountry campgrounds awaits them, in addition to a store, gasoline, visitors center and a primitive hot springs on the north bank of the Rio Grande. Across the river in Old Mexico lies the sleepy little village of Boquillas del Carmen which has garnered some press recently. After September 11, 2001, another day that will live in infamy, the border crossing was essentially closed at great inconvenience to many on both sides because official alternative crossings are many miles distant.

To remedy this seemingly inhumane situation, the National Park Service, with the backing of U.S. Customs and the Department of Interior, is opening unmanned kiosks at a new visitors center where visitors may traverse the international border by scanning approved documents like passports. The crossing would only occur when the center is open and staffed by park employees.

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Alarmists have been shrill and quick to jump all over the idea, believing it will open our pearly gates to barbarians of a darker color who most certainly will swarm unchecked into our beloved country for some illegal dish washing and dope pedaling. But these same critics haven’t been to this tortured wasteland or seen its massive, porous border, so rugged and remote the undocumented illegals, the dangerous and the harmless, can pick and choose their crossings at random, under cover of night. These people aren’t stupid, and they’re not about to stand patiently in line at a kiosk at the visitors center in broad daylight with forged documents thinking they can slip across unnoticed. There are easier ways to get into the USA.

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Besides, the new border crossing is primarily for the benefit of 15,000 to 20,000 gringo tourists who wish to cross over with relative ease, experience a genuine rural Mexican village, and hopefully spend a few dollars on the needy and desperate of Boquillas who present no significant danger to the Homeland that I can think of. Of course I could be wrong, but I doubt that.

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One night we slept in a tiny cabin in the funky little town of Terlingua near the park’s west entrance, only to be awakened by the roar of semi-trucks and SUVs at four in the morning. Wondering what the commotion was all about, I dressed and walked down to the motel and watched a small army of early risers scurry about, and then heard the unmistakable southern pitch of Tommy Lee Jones as he hailed the crew: “Howdy. Where ya’ll from?” That got my attention.

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It turns out the crew and their equipment were from Austin and were headed to spectacular Santa Elena Canyon to film Tommy Lee Jones on horseback roping border patrol agent Barry Pepper in the Rio Grande and dragging him through the muddy water. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which Jones directed, is a very good movie, despite a few minor holes in the final cut. The film was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes where Jones also won the Best Actor award, and Guillermo Arriaga’s script won Best Screenplay.

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“Three Burials” tells the story of a rancher, played by Jones, and his Mexican migrant friend, Melquiades, who was shot dead by Barry Pepper’s character, an unrepentant border patrolman with a serious attitude problem. Jones fulfills his promise to bury Melquiades back in Old Mexico, and with the rotting corpse in tow, Jones kidnaps Pepper and heads to Mexico on horseback while the government gives chase. Good stuff.


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That afternoon we drove the scenic loop through the park along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, past the Sotol Vista Overlook, right on by the Mule Ears, and down to what’s left of historic Castolon and the Cottonwood campground. It’s a favorite corner of the park because generators are prohibited, the cottonwoods are lush and leafy and towering, and birds are plentiful so near the river. Pig-like javelinas often run along the perimeter of camp in the dark, and on one occasion, one particularly amorous wild turkey chased me around a picnic table for twenty minutes making me feel special, and wanted like never before.

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We were certain the Santa Elena Canyon area would be off limits on account of the shoot, but took the eight-mile drive from Castolon anyway, curious to see how close we could get to movie magic before they shooed us away. A small city of trucks and equipment was set up where the road ends, but rather than being chased off as pests, a friendly park ranger and pimply production assistant (PA) served as our personal guides through the tangled mass of movie-making madness. It seems as though the Hollywood gods aren’t all-powerful after all, for as much as they would have liked to have denied the public access to the most dramatic and beautiful section of the park while they worked, they were compelled to let us pass. Kudos to the NPS on this one.

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It was a friendly affair as the PA answered my dumb questions. Can I get closer to the set? “No.” Can I take pictures? “No.” Can I read the screenplay? “No.”; although he did his best to read us a few lines from that day’s shoot. Doubling down, he really put his heart in it as though he were auditioning for the part, a bunch of cussing basically; it’s the scene where Pepper (the praying sharpshooter in the bell-tower in “Saving Private Ryan”) has a fit as he’s dragged through the dirty water against his will. Our guides eventually lead us across the creek and hustled us into the brush between takes and sent us on our way. It was on the switchback ascent into the canyon, and what a splendid canyon it is, that the screaming and yelling began… “We’re trying to make a movie!”

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Heart pounding and my feelings hurt just a titch, we picked up the pace and dove over the top, hiding behind a pile of rocks at the mouth of the canyon wondering how long we’d be pinned down by that ornery old rascal. As I looked about I decided we should stay forever. River dead still, soaring cliffs on either side as silence echoed off the walls, the place had a holy ring to it, a celestial vibe, like the inside of a German cathedral after-hours. Feeling brave, I inched my head over the ridge-top, zoomed my camera’s lens in close and watched cinematic history unfold as that scruffy old Texan, Tommy Lee Jones, roped Barry Pepper like the script said he should, and dragged him kicking and screaming through the filthy Rio Grande River. Now that was a treat.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer


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