Back to the Desert Garden

The road I often drive into the Big Country begins in Van Horn, Texas, when I can finally exit the American autobahn that is Interstate 10 and ease on down Highway 90. That moment of snapping the turn indicator to head off to the right means the path has led me from El Paso or further north in Las Cruces or Los Lunas to the immediate gateway to the Big Bend. Immediate is le mot juste, or la palabra correcta, considering that hardly a French-speaker can be found on the border, so while Exit 138 bends away from the beaten path and connects to the outbound road to the more-of-a-myth-than-a-place site of Lobo, Texas, and the stands of pecan trees nearby, the real gateway, to be sure, begins just to the east of Americas Avenue on the edge of El Paso. There the country opens up. Creosote dots the sandy terrain. The geologic uplifts distant from either side of the interstate collide with the Big Sky’s merging with the horizon. El Paso is in the rear view mirror, and the Hudspeth County line is yet to be crossed, and to the untrained, unappreciative eyes, the landscape is barren, brown, dusty, empty, meaningless, uninteresting, burned, scorched, foreboding, vast, frightening, terrible, menacing, hateful, sanguine, crushing, singeing, bitter, rotten, and every other adjective Dante evoked to warn those who approached the point of no return where the message was clear: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

But not so for my eyes. South and west of downtown El Paso, the land between the highway and international border slopes downward toward the Rio Grande and the Cretaceous-age Sierra de Juárez, the range in Estado de Chihuahua opposite the Franklin Mountains in Texas. While the Pass of the North is considerably more built up and populated than depicted in Ben Wittick’s photographs in the 1880s of the two towns on either side of the river, the sense of place remains. Modernity has crept across the landscape, but as the highway extends beyond the exits to San Elizario, Clint, Fabens, and Tornillo, the tacky buildings visible from the road give way to the rolling terrain and native plant species that define the Hueco Bolson. Once I pass Tornillo, Fort Hancock, with its water tank on the side of the road proudly painted to commemorate its six-man football championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, marks the invisible line in the sand where, like the architect Angelo Masieri upon seeing for the first time with his own eyes the Kaufman residence along Bear Creek in Pennsylvania and breathlessly exclaiming “Finally!” I, too, breathe easier knowing I’ve crossed a good line. Just as Robert Plant’s admiration for the sublime beauty of the Sahara Desert found expression in “Kashmir,” my eyes look intently at the minute and monumental folds in the land’s surface, the shadows on the mountains, the clouds promising rain. From Fort Hancock, the highway rises and falls, bends this way and that as dictated by the arroyos and hills that bedeviled the road construction crews years ago, and well down the road the Quitman Mountains rise up out of the bolson like a granite leviathan, and with the highway’s trajectory aiming right into its heart, the moment portends a dreadful fate not unlike that of the bug to the windshield. But not so! The road bends to the north between the Quitmans and Sierra Blanca, the massive uplift dominating the view out the driver’s side window, and after pulling through the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, the distance is short to Sierra Blanca, the capital city of Hudspeth County, the home of more than five hundred people residing at the crossroads of Interstate 10 and Texas Farm to Market 1111 and among ancient geological uplifts and ranges.

As an aside, driving north on FM 1111 out of Sierra Blanca offers an unspoiled view of the Texan Chihuahuan Desert en route to Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the New Mexico state line. More properly, that two-lane blacktop with hardly a bend in it rises to the ideal vehicular stretch when the need to satisfy a big lonesome overcomes you; though a little south of the road in Robert Earl Keen Jr.’s lyrics, it nonetheless shrouds you with a lonely feeling. And if the drive north out of Sierra Blanca is bad to leave you with little more than your memories and views of the big country, the drive south from the county seat on FM 1111 through the Quitmans to the Rio Grande affords the quintessential views that the earliest chroniclers to brave a crossing through the region recorded in their letters and reports. But for the moment, the road leads from Sierra Blanca to Van Horn, just across the Culberson County line, and on to Highway 90. South of Van Horn, the Eagle Mountains separate the earth and sky with a rough profile well past Lobo, and later, on the north side of the highway, the Davis Mountains perch so heavily in the view ignoring their craggy peaks is unadvisable. The old Southern Pacific tracks lay alongside the highway, and now and again the passenger trains or those carrying freight rush by bound for El Paso or San Antonio. Here and there a few gates open beneath a metal arch bearing a ranch’s name, and as the road goes on through this long-stem grassland cattle country, an unexpected presence sometimes appears in the sky. Something roundish and greyish-white hovering a few thousand feet in the air seems very out of place near the boundary separating Culberson and Jeff Davis counties, but it’s nothing more than government property in the form of a blimp. Now you pass its gate with the official sounding sign and its attendant warning to keep out and it is hunkered down like a quail, and the next time you drive by it is aloft like a buzzard but tethered to the ground. This man-made bird keeps an eye on the border, but soon the road arrives in Valentine, one of the loveliest town names in Texas. You know you’re there, or, more appropriately, almost there, when you drive up on, very unexpectedly, a small building standing by its little lonesome on the south side of the road like something out of a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, but there it is, the Prada Marfa—possibly a shoe store by appearance, but as far as I can tell, it is more in the spirit of the playful, gigantic public works of art born from the distinct creativity of Claes Oldenburg.

From Valentine, with its wonderful views of the Sierra Vieja to the southwest, Highway 90 stretches across the Presidio County line and in a while the outskirts of Marfa are reached. One flashing red light at the town’s main intersection suggests a pace of life in rural America that’s becoming increasingly rare. Through town and on down the road, after crossing the Brewster County line, rises the college town of Alpine, Texas. Here, as throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, the native fauna grows in an organized, but seemingly chaotic, pattern, a wild desert garden. For me, this dwarf forest, to quote a phrase from Cormac McCarthy, is among the most appealing and humbling places on Earth. The road leads me to a corner of it I greatly enjoy, and after hours behind the wheel, the time arrives to explore the great garden.

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