Where Rainbows Wait for Rain
Men of literature can not confine on the printed page the essential quality of the land, or convey the sense of unreality and reliance that overwhelms the spectator and leaves him with a recurrent nostalgia for a land in which he can not live.
Walter Prescott Webb
It is a desolate and isolated place—uninviting and forbidding. And yet, it is beautiful. What Mary Lasswell called, “Colorful immensity and primeval magnificence.” But its beauty is like that of a dart frog—deadly. Nothing soft and safe inhabits this land; everything catches and scratches, bites and stings, sticks and pricks. One early explorer wrote, “Each of these plants is armed with thorns. You are wounded, caught, held, or anchored by this spiteful vegetation at every step away from the beaten trails first made, long centuries ago, by Mescalero Apaches and the Lipans.” It is a land filled with dragon’s teeth—a hard country inhabited by hardy creatures. It is, as many have called it, the Devil’s Playground: arid, remote, and hot.
Some have also called it God’s country because no other place in Texas is so untouched by the hand of man. And so it is. Of the Big Bend, Texas writer Walter Prescott Webb wrote, “Man has marked it, but he has not marred it.” To experience it is to experience Texas as it used to be: wild and free—and dangerous. The first impression any visitor has is one of “magnificent confusion,” as Webb called it. Created from the leftovers from the beginning of the world—scraps of rivers and deserts, mountains and cuestas, canyons and arroyos, dried lake beds and playas, volcanic tuff and hot springs—all dropped as if from the hand of God like pixy sticks, hither and tither.
It is not a waterless land, but it is a land with less water than any other part of Texas. Whereas Central and East Texas boast of four major rivers—the Red, Sabine, Brazos, and Colorado—and many smaller tributaries and creeks, the Trans-Pecos of West Texas can only claim two watercourses of note, with little to no other waterways: the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. Between these two rivers lies a vast region of desiccated earth that at first appearances is a lifeless wasteland. But not so. Stalks of agave stand sentry with their yellowish tuffs facing skyward. Desert roses from prickly pear and barrel cactus dot the land in abundance, as does the cream colored petals of Torrey yuccas, and the red cups of the ocotillo. The land is a haven for roadrunner and coyote, mountain lion and black bear, jackrabbits and kangaroo rats, scorpions and tarantulas, whitetails and rams.
The beauty and dangers of Big Bend can be seen and experienced at Chisos Basin and a hike through the Window, or a drive into the primordial volcanic castoffs of Tuff Canyon, or a trek to Mule Ears, one of the most unusual rock formations in the world, or a walk along the rock strewn border at Santa Elena, where the muddy Terlingua Creek feeds into the silty Rio Grande, and where canyon walls tower 1,500 feet into the heavens. Oranges and yellows, reds and purples, browns and blacks dominate its otherworldly beauty—and its dangers. Deadly hot summer days and freezing cold winter nights—nights so dark the sky blazes with pinpricks of light so innumerable you could catch stars by the bucket loads, if you could dip your bucket into heaven.
“Men of literature can not confine on the printed page the essential quality of the land,” Webb wrote, “or convey the sense of unreality and romance that overcomes the spectator and leaves him with a recurrent nostalgia for a land in which he can not live.” I have tried to confine the essential quality with pen and ink—and feel the want of my failure. So, instead of turning to literary men, perhaps it’s best to turn to men who spent their lives engulfed among the beauty and danger of Big Bend—men like this unnamed vaquero:
You go south from Fort Davis,
Where rainbows wait for rain,
Where the river is kept in a stone box
And the water runs uphill,
And the mountains tower into the sky
Except when they disappear to visit other mountains at night.
There is nothing down there for the cows to eat
So they have learned to live without eating.
There is room for a thousand cows
But not for ten thousand.
And how afar is this?
One hundred miles. Possibly two.
Who knows? Indeed. Who knows how to describe a land where rainbows wait for rain? Its beauty and dangers can only be experienced.