The Space Between
I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. ~ Everett Ruess
It was years ago, on a lengthy drive to the West Coast, that I first fell in love with the desert.
I’d been traveling all day through the Rockies to rendezvous with a friend in the mountains of Oregon. Somewhere west of Salt Lake City, as the sun dozed its way to the horizon, I witnessed one of those impossible sunsets that only the desert can conjure. Stopping to stretch my legs, the dry, easy air, laden with the smell of baked earth and creosote, dominated. I lost track of time as the cloudless sky transitioned from azure blue to liquid gold, to blood orange and tyrian purple.
It was perfect.
It was in that place that I first experienced the sense of quiet patience that pervades the landscape and is unlike anywhere else I’ve been before or since. Neither pushing nor pulling, it simply endures. Cloaked in shimmering heat and deafening silence.
Big Bend Ranch State Park, on the border of Texas and Mexico, offers some of the best, most rugged desert mountain biking to be had in the country and the chance to ride areas of it that I had not previously explored needed no convincing. It’s 300,000+ acres offer mountains, valleys, natural springs, abrupt cliffs and rocky, technical single track. Of particular interest this time around was El Solitario. From the air it resembles an impact crater encircled by mountains but is in fact the eroded remains of an ancient laccolith.
Big Bend also boasts some of the darkest remaining night skies in the United States. The nearest major city is a five hour drive away. On a clear night the lack of light pollution combined with the dry desert air provides some of the best star viewing you are likely to see in your lifetime.
As with most grand undertakings, ours was born of a flippant remark and an unspoken challenge. Why shouldn’t we set off into unhospitable lands with whatever we could fit on our bicycles? And so our route was conceived as a five day loop, including an ambitious out-and-back through El Solitario. At length we landed at a campground just outside the eclectic town of Lajitas, due to start pedaling into the empty, wind blown Chihuahuan Desert at first light.
I’m lucky enough to have ridden The Other Side of Nowhere before, but I’m always impressed with just how rough and difficult - and exquisite - the riding is. Technical single track perched on meter-wide ledges above rocky ravines suddenly dropping into kilometers of tire sucking gravel washes through dry river beds that end in boulder strewn climbs to majestic mountain vistas. And of course there are those infinite desert sunsets.
It didn’t take us long to realize that El Solitario simply wouldn’t be achievable on this particular outing. Our progress was too slow and our five days too short. I learned long ago that one of the worst and, sadly, most common mistakes a person can make on an adventure is to cling rigidly to a predetermined plan. As with my previous excursion to Big Bend Ranch, the Solitario Loop had to be scrapped in the interest of pragmatism.
Unlike that other attempt, fortune allowed a night spent backcountry camping at Chorro Vista. Perched against a north/south ridge line, we were allowed unlimited views of the western and southern skies well past the US border and into Mexico. The sunsets are not to be missed in this location and we were even witness to a rare and brief desert rain storm.
Brief adventures like this always have the air of ending just as they are developing momentum. I am prone to being both grateful and wistful on the return. As is always the case, however, I was comforted - if only for a few days - by the extreme silence and fragile beauty that permeates the desert. It is always there waiting there for me. Persistent and unchanging.
It is more than half the reason I keep returning.