2.21.2009,7:29 PM
Dear Ed Abbey: Tale of Two Parks
A Tale of Two Parks

Dear Ed Abbey,

I want to introduce you to a park I think you will approve of. It is near the national park where many times you hiked, rafted, camped and navigated its rough roads. You drove through the new park several times on your way to Big Bend National Park from Presidio and Lajitis. Although your attention was always drawn to the Chisos volcanic cliffs and peaks in the distance, “like a castled fortification of Wagnerian gods,” you missed equally if lesser-known wonders on both sides of the highway you traveled.

Although I’ve been writing to you off and on over the last two years, allow me to diverge from that and tell you about an area in Big Bend that you would have enjoyed.

During your first visit to Big Bend National Park in 1952, you may recall your memorable drive along the primitive road, now called River Road, from Castolon to Rio Grande Village. It took two days in your fiancé’s new car, much to her objection, to literally crawl over the fifty miles of boulders, deep ravines, ruts, chuckholes, thorns, and sandy washes. After springing both doors, bending the tie-rod, and burning the clutch, the car barely rumbled into the village with one flat and shredded tire.

Despite wrecking the car and your engagement, the wildness of the park drew you back again and again. Many years later you drove the back country Old Ore Road with friend Jack in an old pickup truck, camping and exploring a beautiful canyon with a winding “gothically crenellated rim” and overhanging walls. The series of tanks filled with water, or tinajas, is now called Ernst Tinaja.

During that same trip with Jack, you both drove Glen Springs, Black Gap and River roads. Despite the posted warnings at the Black Gap cut-off of infrequently patrolled rough terrain, the two of you interpreted the challenge as a ‘must do’. And you did, after removing boulders, beveling cutbanks with a shovel, straddling gullies and you leading the way on foot to guide Jack with hand signals on Black Gap.

Very succinctly, and too close to home for me, your words have stayed with me all these years: “There are things in Texas worse than a mere fifty miles of rock and sand. I’d rather be broke down and lost in the wilds of Big Bend, any day, then wake up some morning in a penthouse suite high above the megalomania of Dallas or Houston.

Camping for the night on the side of River Road, you pondered the deep gash of Santa Elena canyon and lights of Castolon in the dusk. A supper of tortillas, cheese and refried beans topped with a salute of hot cocoa spiked with Wild Turkey ceremoniously honored the scenery around you and the success of your daunting maneuvers along the back roads.

After another hike, this time the south rim of the Chisos basin, you were sorry to leave. As we all are. You wrote, “We console ourselves, as we always do, with the thought that we’ll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do, the gritty splendor and the complicated grandeur of the Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us. Isn’t that what we always think as we hurry on, rushing toward the inane infinity of our unnamable desires?” Yes, that is what we always think and say to ourselves.

I have been on those same roads and hiking trails, Ed. They’ve smitten me, too. Some of us are satisfied with one visit. Others, like you and I, are never satisfied unless we can spend eternity there. But I know, and you knew, we can’t.

That may have been possible many decades ago in our history, and many people did live in these places. But expanding American imperialism and a growing capitalistic world changed all that as the 20th century marched forward with technological, medical, social, ideological, and political innovations. Wilderness doesn’t exist anymore. No land remains untouched by humans.

Our national park system strives to preserve or conserve pockets of remaining ‘wilderness’ and representations of our American heritage. You have written in many forms –prose, reviews, fiction, letters, and poetry- expressing disgust and anger at turning those motives into industrial tourism -building ‘amusement parks’ and ‘Disneylands’. Development in the form of modern lodges, consumption stores, large campgrounds that have become little suburban villages, and wide ribbons of pavement are diametrically opposed to the concept of preserving wild places. They also enable isolation of visitors from that which they come to visit.

In your book Desert Solitaire you wrote, “…the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while." Sadly I see this time and time again during my visits to all parks. But can this be changed?

Walking and hiking the parks offers visitors more intimate and personal contact with the environment: land forms, vegetation, weather, life and death. This enables more awareness, self-sufficiency and satisfaction from their experiences. Despite justification for your proposal presented in Desert Solitaire (and other writings) to ban all vehicles from parks, forcing people to walk as their only option inside the parks is idealistic and impractical.
As much as my deepest sentiments run parallel with yours, the reality is that this will not happen. However, these issues and the park systems do need to find a compromise. Otherwise our parks will be nothing more than NY Central Park clones.

I engage you on this topic in depth in my long letter to you and will avoid doing so in great detail here. In this short letter, I want to tell you about a state park in the Big Bend region that strives for such a compromise.

Just north of Hwy 170, which you drove to get to the national park, and in between the small towns of Presidio and Lajitis, sits the relatively new Texas Big Bend Ranch State Park. It is the largest -300,000 acres- and most wild remote park in the state.

Formerly, the park was two ranches: the Fresno and Big Bend Ranches. It includes high and low desert, two mountain ranges with extinct volcanoes, towering rocks and waterfalls, canyons and springs, ancient campsites, shelters and rock art, and 23 miles of frontage on the Rio Grande. You would especially like the slot canyon, Closed Canyon, with its sheer vertical walls of igneous rock. The jewel of the park is an ancient volcanic laccolith (with a caldera) 9 miles in diameter and rimmed by many twisted, curving rocky ridges.

Although goats, sheep and cattle once grazed the area, only a small herd of the historic Spanish Longhorn cattle remain as domestic stock. Otherwise the area is home to a variety of Chihuahuan Desert wildlife: bats, snakes, lizards, tarantulas, birds, and mammals, such as coyote, cougar, black bear, coati, mule deer, javalina, and vegetation of cacti and other desert species. This is their home more than it is our place.

Except for two visitors’ centers on the highway, there are no stores in the main park. Unlike the national park that unfortunately bulldozed almost all the ruins and remains of ranch houses, adobes and jacals where people once lived, they remain in the state park. Face it, Ed; people lived here in this harsh, arid, unforgiving desert and mountains, subsisting the best they could on what the desert would allow. This land is their legacy, too. This area is rich in cultural diversity, probably more so than your beloved Utah desert.

The complex of buildings that formed the heart of the former ranch provides two types of accommodations: the ranch house and bunkhouse. Built in 1908 and renovated in the ‘40’s, the house with three bedrooms offers most of the amenities from outside the park. The bunkhouse is just that: two quarters with bunks and a central kitchen with dining room. Far from the more modern and luxurious lodge complex in the national park’s Chisos Basin, the state park’s offers rustic and quiet charm in a less developed environment.

You would be pleased to know, Ed, that there is no pavement in the park except for the highway that runs along the river frontage. A 36-mile gravel road leads through hilly terrain into the heart of the park. It ends at the original ranch complex and ranger station. A network of trails provides access and begs exploration by foot, mountain bike and horse, and camping in the backcountry can be almost anywhere. A limited network of primitive roads enable (barely) navigation by four-wheeled drive vehicles and soon, dirt-bikes.

Now, Ed, I know how you feel about motorized vehicles in parks, and your proposal to ban them from parks. But do you remember when you drove those backcountry roads in Big Bend National Park? Do you recall the thrill of the challenge and adventure? You drove those roads despite Ranger warnings and signs. You even moved the signs that said “Road Closed” and “No Road” and went through anyway. Can you remember those nights you camped by the sides of those roads, reveling in the solitude and remoteness? Ed, do you really think that you are the only one entitled to that?

I ride a street-legal dirt-bike, Ed, on those same roads. Like you, I stop and marvel at the silence, the beauty, the raw emptiness and wish that I could stay the tide of development, encroachment, and exploitation there and in places left that still hold against our so-called 'civilized' intrusion in the name of 'progress'. Sometimes the magnificence of it all fills and chokes me marvel and awe, with a humble connection that most people in urban messes have no inkling of. Pavement and concrete can’t impart that. And sometimes, like you, I’m angry and want to keep it all to myself as if I can protect it. But I can’t. Neither could you.

Together, people like us might be able to bring awareness to those that live in the ever-expanding urban madness, show them what wilderness once was, what it means to us, and what we can do to preserve what we have left. We need you, Ed Abbey. Even in your grave, you are still with us.

I think this is happening. This new state park is a compromise between preservation of wilderness and access for people to enjoy a wilderness experience. To learn about what it means to be remote, be self-responsible and sufficient, to appreciate the dark blanket of the night spattered with twinkling stars and cherish the sound of the coyote and the hiss of the wind. They have the opportunity to learn what time, and timelessness, really is. And they also have the chance to learn about themselves.

The state park doesn’t have the mystifying giant mountains that float in the sky, or awe-inspiring badlands, or the grand madam Santa Elena canyon. But it does have it’s own unique gems. And it is more remote and primitive than the national park. It truly is a preservation of legacies of the land and those that lived and died for it. And everyone can share it.

Ed, I think that the following words you wrote in Desert Solitaire ring true for everyone as we lose more and more of our precious natural heritage around the world.
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself."

Yes, Ed. We need wilderness to remind us of what it is to be human.

With complete sincerity,


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