It happens slowly—the rolling desert landscape anesthetizes your senses and then, imperceptibly, it vanishes. The Chihuahuan desert around Big Bend is the colors of mustard, roasted yam, and chocolate. While the sun is overhead these hues are mild pastels but, as it declines towards the horizon, they grow saturated, crushed-black shadows giving weight to distant mountains. It is the Hollywood-perfect backdrop your imagination sketches for your dreams of the Old West. But now it is gone, leaving you with a landscape that holds no place in the American imagination.
Imagine the Pacific Northwest and you may picture dripping forests of Doug Fir, salmon in clear water, and snowy Cascades in the background. Maybe you'll think of the mill in Twin Peaks. The Great Plains evokes a savage gash between golden fields and a buzzingly intense blue sky... or a black, bruised sky fragmented by tornadoes. New England might conjure an Adirondack scene from Last of the Mohicans while the South overflows with both brutal and romantic visual associations. But the Rio Grande country of far Southern Texas? Americans don't even know where Coahuila is, let alone how to pronounce it. The landscape is a vacancy in the mind.
The land could be convincingly described as beautiful or ugly or both, a chimera of desert, plains, and swamp. It is a bipolar land where both poles are different versions of hostile: dusty and arid versus muddy and humid. The Southwestern deserts are welcoming in comparison, offering topography and visibility and comparatively thin vegetation. The lower Rio Grande does not. Its hills roll in every direction, choked in dense, thorny foliage approaching a tall person's height. If you went bushwhacking, the prickly pear, yucca, acacia and mesquite would leave your skin in tatters. To escape the monotonous maze, you would have to rely on the sun, or a compass, or the course of a stream bed for escape. On horseback or foot, it would be a terrain of nightmares. Low, hazy-slate skies drag across an undulating, sweaty, dull-green tangle of mosquito-infested thornscrub. Occasionally, a road cuts into the biomess, bone-white tracks gleaming into the distant horizon of gray-green and gray-blue. Aside from a few desolate outposts between El Paso and Matamoros, the Spanish left this area alone.
You could hire the best advertising firms in the world and they would fail to put a romantic spin on this land. The city of Del Rio, along with its siblings along the Rio Grande, seem to be narrowly holding a beachhead against an onslaught of bristling vegetation. Without modern technology—bulldozers, wells, window screens—the lower Rio Grande would swallow us. That is what makes it beautiful.