When I told people my plan to camp alone for a week in the desert backcountry of Big Bend National Park, along the Mexico border in Texas, some handled it better than others. Most often it was people who consider swimming in the ocean adventurous that couldn't quite grasp the purpose. I'd watch them toil with the thought of being completely alone, in a strange land with no safety net, their mouth drooped open and eyes bugged out like I'd just confessed to snatching a nun's purse.
When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, mountaineer George Mallory famously retorted, "because it's there." While camping in Big Bend is nowhere near what climbing Everest is, the principle remains the same.
Adventure is discovering
To understand the reason behind a trip like this is to understand adventure. Not the high-energy, pumping-with-adrenaline kind of adventure, but the discovering for the sake of discovery variety. The kind of adventure that cultivates something good inside of you like getting lost in a foreign city on purpose. Testing yourself, getting out of the ordinary and your comfort zone and opening yourself up to new experiences. That's adventure.
When planning a trip, I forfeit the structure and comfort of detailed itineraries opting instead for discovery and surprise. Buying a guide book, dog-earing each page and making checklists based on every recommended "must-do" is not my idea of travelling.
That's someone else's journey.
Instead, my itineraries are unfinished journal entries. The trip itself fleshes out the details and completes the story.
"Day 1: Sunrise. Lunch somewhere memorable. Explore desert. Sunset. Stars."
With its untamed wilderness and diverse geology, Big Bend is a land of contrast. It's a massive crossroads of several times and places that will only ever exist in your mind until you see it for yourself. Inside the Park there's evidence of ancient nomadic tribes from thousands of years ago. There's the abandoned farming and mining village of Terlingua Abajo, remnants of old silver mines from the 1800s near Boquillas Canyon and abandoned buildings from as early as the 1940s and 50s along the Rio Grande.
So many civilizations have struggled to exist in this giant area that it's a testament to the Park's refusal to be tamed and also to its appeal as a place to visit, discover and live.
The many contrasts of Big Bend
Endless, expansive vistas of searing desert rubble and cactus capped by the bluest of blue skies and white cotton puff clouds. At its heart, the dramatically imposing and lush Chisos mountains, soaring 7,825ft (2,385m), with temperatures sometimes 20 degrees fahrenheit cooler compared to the surrounding desert. After the Grand Canyon, Big Bend is home to the biggest canyons in the US which are carved out by the legendary Rio Grande that forms the international border separating the United States from Mexico.
Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than between day and night. From 11am to 7pm, mid-summer ground temperatures can reach up to 180 degrees fahrenheit. It's in these hours that the desert is an untouched, scorching, silent landscape as far as your eye can see - a timeless, three-dimensional postcard in every direction. It's also the time when the least amount of thought happens and you're free to roam and live in the moment, only thinking about where to plant your next step.
The transition of day to night
The silence during the day is truly deafening. I had to talk out loud and coach myself while hiking just to make sure my hearing hadn't abandoned me and that my voice box still worked.
When the sun goes down, your sense of hearing is heightened with the world around you rapidly turning black before your eyes and sounds slowly gaining volume like that moment just before the house lights go out at a concert and the audience is buzzing with anticipation.
Then, the curtain drops and the desert comes alive with an endless crescendo of sounds under one of the blackest skies in the world. Watching the Milky Way arch overhead, from north to south like a ribbon of diamonds on black velvet, just doesn't happen in Toronto.
Night time is when most of the thinking happens. Sound is amplified on the flat desert floor and can range from chirping crickets to shuffling in bushes and howling in the distance. The wild, west Texas wind whips across the plains and causes the tent to flap and snap like a flag off the stern of a racing yacht at 20 knots.
Your mind plays tricks and scrambles to find thoughts to occupy you with to avoid thinking of what could be outside the tent. With campfires being prohibited due to possibility of wildfire, it's a psychological blow that keeps your mind on a razor sharp edge. No warding off animals with flames, no comforting distraction to stare at.
It's just you, the light of the moon and billions of stars.
It's full of stars
The sky slowly fades from black to navy to gold while the sun begins to wake up and start a new day. There is something special about the sun rising over the desert horizon, a cathartic dose of light that instantly puts you at ease and fills you with that happy feeling of appreciating you're alive to be exactly where you are at that exact moment. If each of us had more of these moments we would all be better off.
Despite the hiking, climbing, offroad driving and sleeping on the desert floor, by the end of the week I felt more refreshed and rested than I've ever felt after leaving a fancy resort in a tropical destination. Plus, the experiences I had and photos I took will stay with me a lot longer than any swim-up bar or all you can eat buffet ever could.
In a world of fences, no trespassing signs and rules for our own safety, the freedom and encouragement to explore embodied by Big Bend National Park and the state of Texas is more than refreshing. It gives you confidence that the entire country hasn't gone mad and that there are still places where you can roam, discover and be free.
More about Big Bend National Park
The Chihuahua Desert can be a mercilessly harsh environment with serious disaster potential for the unprepared. Extreme heat, drought conditions and risk of wildfire are the most dangerous elements and are a constant presence. For more information about the risks, read this guide from the National Parks Service: How not to die in the desert
Posing less immediate threat but still highly dangerous are scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, coyotes, mountain lions and black bears. Mountain lions and black bears are only really found in the Chisos. The rest can be found in the desert but aren't common enough to cause any worry. If you see any of the above, keep your distance and they should do the same.
The number of visitors who underestimate the climate and terrain or overestimate their own abilities and need to be rescued from the Park each year is significantly higher than the number of people who have negative encounters with wildlife.
The single most important thing to concentrate on is having enough water. With abundant water, the chance of danger is significantly reduced.
In contrast to its rugged and wild side, Big Bend National Park has a surprisingly civilized side as well, located in the Chisos Basin. Families, honeymooners and those looking for an easy getaway drive 2,000ft up Panther Junction road into the heart of the Chisos Mountains and park right out front of their rented mountain lodges for as little as $120/night. Standard camping and RV sites are also available.
Just a stone's throw from the lodges, connected to the giftshop, is the restaurant where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise through the mountains from a comfortable chair, but it's just not the same as in the backcountry.
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Travis Snelling is the cofounder of TripAtlas.com and is based in Toronto, Canada. When not stuck in the office wearing shoes he's out on adventures with his camera looking for new drinks, dishes and experiences.
Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: photography, history, culture, cuisine, adventure