It's possible that I've been in the sun too long because the dead octopus on the desert floor just moved.
We're riding a dusty loop of singletrack inside Lajitas Resort, an upscale golf community deep in West Texas close to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande and Mexico. It's the kind of tucked-away resort that has its own air strip and shooting range, but also thousands of acres of vast, desert landscape where the local bike club has scratched out 30 miles of meandering loops. The trails are skinny, white veins in the khaki landscape, rolling over hills toward a horizon lined by buttes, cliffs and tall, purple ridges framing Big Bend National Park. This is a rugged and strange corner of Texas, 500 miles from the nearest city, and nothing like the rest of the state. It's classic, desert landscape—the setting for Wild West movies and Looney Toons episodes—but an odd place to ride your bike.
There are no trees, just tall bushes with long, spindly branches topped with orange flowers. Imagine an octopus with its head stuck in the sand. Now imagine thousands of them in this valley, some standing tall and still flowering, others lying dead and gray in the sand, skinny with disease. If you ride long enough in the sun, and don't drink enough water, you might even see one of these dead octopuses wiggle from the corner of your eye.
"They're called ocotillo," says Andrew Whiteford, a talented rider and professional skier sporting a blonde beard that gives him the air of a Viking. Whiteford lives in Jackson, Wyoming, along with photographer Jay Goodrich. Both of them were easily coaxed south for a few days of desert riding. We're curious what's risen from such an inhospitable environment.
Back home, Whiteford makes ends meet working as a naturalist guide for a swanky resort in Jackson Hole. He certainly knows his plants and animals, and will occasionally point to strange-looking bushes, telling us their proper names. "And tarantulas live in those holes," he says, pointing to the dozens of small holes that line the dirt hill I'm leaning against. Great.
We're taking a quick break while Goodrich scouts a corner ahead. It's still early morning but already hot.
"Don't go off the trail," Goodrich says, returning from scouting. "Everything is pokey."
Whiteford builds a small jump at the edge of a hill, arranging thick, flat rocks on top of each other for a kicker that will land him on the next downhill. One of the rocks he uses has a dark fossil on its belly, the perfect imprint of a seashell. At some point, eons ago, this desert was the bottom of a great ocean. Which explains all the dead octopuses.
We climb over a series of flat steps to the high point of the day, and stumble onto an old bread truck abandoned in the middle of the desert. The truck is as out of place as our mountain bikes in this landscape. There's a hobo grill in the back of the truck, and barbwire hung up like a clothes line. Did someone drive the vehicle through the sand until it ran out of gas? And then live in it?
After the ride, we pass border patrol trucks on the two-lane highway that connects the resort to the tiny town of Terlingua, and see an old, leathery man standing by the road selling plants. He's wearing a giant sombrero and a black, mesh sleeveless shirt. The plants are lush and green. I don't understand how any of them, or the old man for that matter, survive in this barren landscape.
The Edge of America
"Tarantulas are the least of your worries," Mike Long tells me. "It's the rattlesnakes you need to worry about."
Long owns Desert Sports, Terlingua's bike shop, and he's trying to convince me that the desert isn't as dangerous as it seems. Or at least, I'm focusing on the wrong dangers. He's a small, wiry guy with a ponytail and a long, gray ZZ Top-style beard and no shoes. I get the sense that he's always barefoot. Like there's still sea water in the valley floor and he's gonna take a dip after work.
Terlingua, Texas, is a sloping hillside full of stone ruins and dusty, off-white dirt roads. There are hundreds of ruins—small houses built out of limestone a century ago. Some of them are still in good shape, while others are crumbling into piles. A few have been repurposed, their foundations budding with trailers and small, adobe houses. There isn't much else to this town. A bar and general store, a coffee shop, a bike shop, a house that's been converted into a pirate ship, complete with a mast and plank … that's about it.
Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 50 to 300 people call Terlingua home. Most are seasonal workers who come down for winter and stay until Spring Break's over—Terlingua's high season—when thousands of tourists converge on the otherwise sleepy, ghost town.
It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find an extensive trail system, but Big Bend has singletrack for days, not just within Lajitas Resort, but winding through the expansive Big Bend Ranch State Park. There's also a week's worth of dirt roads traversing the more famous Big Bend National Park. None of it is particularly technical, but the trails glean an added level of difficulty from the surrounding landscape.
Rule number one of the desert: The desert is always trying to kill you.
When I entered the bike shop, I rattled off a list of questions for Long about tarantulas, snakes, pokey things—general unpleasantries—and he absorbed them patiently. With Buddhist-like wisdom, he offered me a single answer in return: "You look like you could use a beverage."
And then we were drinking cans of Lone Star, the official beer of Texas, while dusty dogs came and went from the shop and Long told us about removing 40 rattlesnakes from his property. He came here to guide on the Rio Grande, but quickly got hip to the endless riding potential on both sides of the river. Until 9/11, there was a consistent cultural exchange between Terlingua and the border towns in Mexico. A million acres of protected land on this side of the border to explore, and three million on the other side to explore. Now there's talk of a border wall.
But, things like 'walls' don't sit well with people in Terlingua, which has an 'end of the road' feel to it. If you find your way here, it's because you're either looking for, or running from, something. Terlingua collects people avoiding aspects of America that don't mesh with them. The suburbs, cubicles, WalMart … this stuff pushes certain people farther and farther to the peripheries, and Terlingua is where they've ended up. The edge of the United States. As far West Texas as you can go without losing yourself in the mountains of Mexico.
"You can pretty much do what you want as long as you don't hurt anyone," Long says. "I built my house myself. No permits. I just built it."
We set up our tents in a makeshift manner between two crumbling ruins within the ghost town. Across the street, a cemetery of shallow, mounded graves is lined by flat stones to keep dirt from blowing away. We're done riding for the day and we've re-stocked at the bike shop, so all there's left to do in Terlingua is hang out at the Starlight Theater.
Rule number two of the desert: Ride in the morning, drink in the afternoon.
The Starlight feels like the bar in Tarantino's "From Dusk till Dawn." But rather than strippers turning into vampires, it's brimming with tourists, brought in by the busload. They've come seeking America's far-flung extremity, hoping to catch the Starlight's front-porch sunset in the process. In a town as small as Terlingua, locals can't avoid tourists, so families of polo shirts and canes commingle with desert rats in torn jeans and dusty hair.
The mixing occurs in front. Local generations converge—old timers in cutoffs and younger transplants in Chacos. They share six packs and talk work, tourists, the last sandstorm, anything that comes to mind. Occasionally a jam session surfaces with guitars and a washboard. But mostly, locals just sit and drink beer. The tourists do their best to blend in, but there's a sheen to people who don't live here.
The Lone Stars go down easy as we watch the sun drop behind towering mountains. It's a hell of a show, turning the peaks of Big Bend National Park purple before going dark. But it's nothing compared to the stars that come out later at night. We're 500 miles from the nearest street light, so the sheer volume of stars is staggering. There's as much light in the night sky as there is darkness. The more time I spend in Terlingua, the more I understand how people end up here.
The crystals are everywhere—an acre of them scattered along the desert floor, shining bright against the tan dirt. A line of singletrack cuts through the middle.
"I think we found the end of the rainbow, princess unicorn," Goodrich says.
We park our bikes and explore, because it's just too wild of a scene to ignore. I pick up a crystal to take home to my kids, then worry about bad mojo, so put it back down.
We're a few miles into an all-day exploration of Big Bend Ranch State Park and the last thing we need is bad luck. Big Bend Ranch is a 311,000-acre collection of cactus and canyons on the American side of the Rio Grande. The national park next door is home to some epic dirt road rides, but the state park has all-day singletrack and doubletrack through Wild West terrain, with 200 miles of trail and road to explore, including a 60-mile IMBA Epic. The park is full of pretty, squat, purple cactuses and black volcanic rock surrounded by tall cliffs and phallic buttes.
After the crystal field, there's a long stretch of dirt road that takes us deeper into the park. Black flies lead the way, just in front of our tires as we pedal fast trying to create a breeze. If you stop, the heat is oppressive.
We stumble onto an old mine site offering a textbook rattlesnake and scorpion habitat—so naturally we poke around. The tools are exactly as they were when the mine shut down. Terlingua and the surrounding desert have a knack for swallowing things. Oil equipment, minivans, kitchen sinks, bread trucks … objects strewn in front of small houses, left to rust in forgotten valleys. Spend enough time and it all becomes charming, like art installations. A comment on American excess.
Some of the larger pieces look like a sunken ship—smoke stacks from a steam engine poking from sand, left when the great sea dried up. New items have been added to the mine site too. There's an upturned Mexican model car—a Bucayne—with bullet holes in the door. Whiteford scopes the outside of the mine for potential first descents, looking over steep, scree-covered slopes snaking between metal. A mistake looks like an invitation for tetanus.
The sun brings lethargy, even while pedaling forward. You can focus on the heat, which has a physical weight to it, or you can slow down, accept it and mellow out. There's beauty here, the light breeze, birds and tiny flowers blooming out of the desert's crust. How does a flower, bright-red and juicy, grow out of sand and rock? What looks barren is teeming with vigor—jackrabbits, rattlesnakes and bighorn sheep. Plants sprout from the cracks of stone walls. It's not what I'm used to, but it's undoubtedly life. There are even wild burros out here, descendants of domesticated mules used to haul candle wax decades ago. I want more than anything to see one.
The cliffs become dramatic as we move deeper within the state park. It's Wild West scenery and I get an urge to shoot guns. Is that weird—wanting to pedal around the desert, firing a six shooter into the rusted door of an abandoned car?
We take a break on the edge of a sandy wash, hiding under the shade of a mesquite tree, and hear the undeniable neigh of a wild burro. It sounds like a horse having an asthma attack. I'm exhilarated at the prospect. Saddling up in pursuit, we pedal quickly down the sandy wash toward the siren sound of this majestic desert jackass. Riding through the loose, deep sand is like biking through porridge. I break off and sprint to high ground. I want to see this burro. I want to ride it. Tame it and take it home with me. But the burro is better suited to this landscape, and it vanishes before we even catch a glimpse.
Occasional technical sections of trail give me pause. Consequences are dire out here. We're 15 miles from the nearest road—at high noon—surrounded by rattlesnakes and elusive wild donkeys. Land not to be taken lightly. We ride a stretch hugging the edge of a long, narrow gorge, prickly pear cactus lines the trail's sides. Respectful beauty.
Rule three of the desert: All life is precious.
The octopus-like ocotillo that dominated yesterday's landscape are gone. Instead, big and spiny yuccas litter the desert floor. We churn up loose, rocky trail through a heart of a white canyon, the walls rising 50 feet on either side of us, pocked by tarantula holes. It's quiet enough that I think I can hear the spiders scurrying within their dark lair, hiding from the sun. A dry riverbed runs through the canyon, full of white, bulbous moon rocks and we pick fun lines downhill, spilling into a stone cathedral carved out of layered limestone. Inside each crack, a lush, green hanging plant blossoms with tiny but vibrant yellow flowers.
The trail crosses dozens of dry washes that sap momentum tyrannically. Talking ceases as we silently question life choices—riding 30 overheated miles in the barren backcountry of the American desert. When our morale is lowest, we roll into an oasis: tall, green mesquite trees throw shade over a creek. Goodrich pulls salami out of his backpack. Food. Suddenly everything is beautiful again.
The urge to carry a revolver resurfaces. I want to pedal in circles shooting in the air.
Whiteford informs me the trees we're sitting under aren't mesquite, they're cottonwood. He's easily one of the most civilized riders I've ever met. He's well-read and voluntarily goes to wildlife lectures. Perhaps not the type to pedal with a pistol hoisted above his head. I guess we're different.
We follow the creek downstream as it broadens to a river, then waterfalls gently into a plunge pool. We strip to our chamois and jump into cold, clear water. The desert put this swimming hole exactly where we needed it.
Everything after the oasis is a haze of dusty roads and heat. We're in good spirits, but eager to get back to the truck and Terlingua. We finish the day drinking beer on the porch of the Starlight, listening to crusties bitch about tourists who roll up in spotless trucks. For a moment, I picture myself moving to Terlingua, getting absorbed by the locals on the porch. I want to build my own house and remove rattlesnakes from my property. I want to ride for days through the desert, discovering new crystal fields and hidden oases.
The tourists come and go in their trucks, pining for a piece of outpost magic that thrives here. Just a taste. They sit for a while, then move on. They can't stay. Too many things pull them back, off the porch. Back to their clean trucks. Back to the highway. Back home.
I want to sit on this porch until I understand the desert like these old timers, until it's part of me. Until my being is forming the edge of America. I want to stop wearing shoes and grow a beard like Mike Long. I want to wear sombreros and mesh. But I know I'm not cut out for life on the fringe of America. I know I'm one of the shiny tourists, just passing through before heading back home.