Sunrise at Chisos Basin was everything I could have hoped for. Since you are down in the crown of the basin, the sun rises in grades of light, first like someone turning up the reostat slowly, then like a movie projector showing morning on the inside of the western walls of the basin, then like a laser show over the the tops of the eastern walls. Since the sun heats everything to the east of the basin rapidly before the basin has a chance to catch up, moisture from the evening dew tries to escape and can’t — some sort of temperature inversion, or dew point thing, or something. The result is that within an hour or so of sunrise, a blanket of fog grabs the basin and the result is otherworldly. This is how to start a day on the edge.
I leave the park as planned through Terlingua and head for Presidio. I will follow this road until it runs out at Ruidosa and hopefully find a way north from there. At a gas station in Terlingua there is a perfect Shelby Cobra parked next to me fueling up. This is an odd thing — a pristine you-shouldn’t-drive-that priceless car in this rough country. Turns out Carroll Shelby owned a ranch down here and this time every year the Shelby enthusiasts take over a nearby resort to celebrate the cowboy car guy who whipped the Italians by going to eleven. Basically Shelby said what if we take a really light car body and put the biggest American V-8 in it that we can? Turn it up to eleven, for you Spinal Tap fans. It worked and the result was a growling, thrashing, haul your ass down the road car called the Cobra. It looks like a muscle with wheels.
As I ride along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park I think about the Shelby Cobra, and what kind of man comes from a place like this and how it affects him. The edge is barely in control here. The river runs through a slot between Mexico and America like it could change it’s mind at any minute. Placid and reed lined at one moment it is a roiling, milky, silted package of erosive power around the next bend. Harnessing this edge is like catching lightning – you’re better off watching the show from a safe distance. I suspect that’s what Shelby was doing with the Cobra — getting as close to the edge of control as was possible with the engineering, and then finding someone willing to mash the throttle and hang on. Everything here on edge is doing just that, hanging on. Which is what I do as the brown tarmac road paints a clean line along the ragged edge of our country.
Most of Big Bend Ranch State Park is to my north, so I don’t have a really good idea of what the place is like, but the section along the river is glorious. It’s much closer than Big Bend NP, things happen right in front of you rather than spread across broad vistas. I like it. As I ride the edge to Ruidosa, havelinas dart across in front me, black Vultures sit awkwardly on fence posts 10 feet from the road drying their feathers in the sun, and the ever-present road runners stand erect along the shoulder chasing this or that here and there. It’s a great ride.
Things sort of get weird at Presidio, which is maybe 50 miles from Terlingua on the Western side of Big Bend State Park, and 38 miles or so east of Ruidosa. As a town, Presidio is like alot of towns down here on the edge. What’s old is reminiscent of the adobe style and hints at a welcoming — it’s also almost always empty, burned out or forgotten in some way. Around it, the new is clad in metal or cement and hidden behind walls and fences. Honestly there are parts of Presidio that resemble more a prison than a town. It has an effect on you and as I leave town to the west, for the first time ever on the edge I get a sense of danger. There is nothing wrong, nothing threatening, it just feels dangerous. The landscape goes from lush and riverine to a Mad Max dreamscape of dry, threatening scrap and, I don’t know, it just feels dangerous. As if on cue I start to see Border Patrol vehicles every couple of miles. I guess as the bluffs on the Mexican side fall away at Presidio and the land flattens out, it becomes easier to get across and so we go from an uncontrollable, wild and beautiful edge to this. The road is like riding the whoopty-do part of roller coaster as every quarter to half mile has a dip where water runs to the river when it rains. It’s gets old fast and I’m very happy to get to Ruidosa. Such as it is.
Four or five run down buildings and a sign pointing north to Marfa and another sign saying “road ends” is all there is. The road north to Marfa is gravel. The Pinto Canyon road is freshly graded at the turn off and seems smooth and well travelled. This is an illusion. A half mile on the road grader responsible for this trick is parked to the side and the road narrows, ruts and becomes essentially a two track. On the plus side, the scenery is spectacular. At a 10 mph pace, I pick my way up and through the canyon, crossing streams, hanging onto mountainsides, and realizing that I haven’t the slightest idea where I am. The only sign I pass is a home-made one at the cattle guard of the Pinto Canyon Ranch saying the land is private and for the next 10 miles to please stay on the county road. So at least I know I’m on the County road. A beautiful little creek wanders down the canyon and provides 6 different wet water crossings that vary from a poured concrete bottom, to loose gravel, to soft deep sand. The truck handles all this like its bored to tears and I just revel in being right in the country. Sure enough in what turns out to be 10 miles, another cattle guard and a sign facing the other way indicate that I’ve passed through the Pinto Canyon Ranch. I never saw a ranch building or a person or a cow, but at least I know I’m still on the county road. After another 12-15 miles of climbing the canyon I feel like the space is getting a little bigger and I’m topping out. And boy am I. One more turn and one more rise and everything changes — endless rolling tall grass meadows as far as I can see with horses and cattle belly deep in the riches. I literally start hearing the them song from Bonanza in my head. 38 miles from Marfa the gravel turns to perfectly smooth blacktop with no shoulder and tall grass growing right up over the edge of it. I feel like I’m running through the grass rather than over it. I flush quail, chukkar, and hundreds of small song birds from nearly under the wheels as I drive. A fat doe looks more irritated than scared as she takes two steps from the road edge and sails over the cow fence like she’s stepping off a curb. Windows down and a little more speed than I’ve achieved all day, I want to holler out at the majesty of it all. This, I think, this is why I do this crazy thing of driving off to nowhere. I don’t think about anything else for the rest of the drive. I just roll along and look and listen and live. Out here on the edge.