Big Bend National Park is one of the few places left in America where a person can literally get away from it all. Nestled in the great bend of the Rio Grande that forms one of the most distinctive features of the silhouette of Texas, the park is several hundred miles from any large city. Within its 1,250 square miles of mountains, canyons, desert, and river, Big Bend National Park offers visitors respite from the stresses of urban living—a place for taking stock and charting new courses. That's one reason why many people return to the park year after year.
This book is the first and only comprehensive photographic and word portrait of Big Bend National Park. Laurence Parent presents a magnificent photo gallery of park scenes. He portrays the mountain ranges—Chisos, Dead Horse, Rosillos, and Sierra del Carmen—from first light to moonrise and in all seasons and weather. He includes dramatic images of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons, as well as landmark features such as Mule Ears Peaks, Elephant Tusk, and the Chisos Basin Window. Parent also portrays the ephemeral beauty of Big Bend wildflowers, including giant bluebonnets and blooming prickly pear cactus, as well as the traces of human habitation at ghost towns scattered around the park.
Joe Nick Patoski complements Parent's images with a masterfully crafted word portrait of Big Bend National Park. Patoski describes the powerful geologic and volcanic forces that created the awe-inspiring landscape of the Big Bend. He reviews the park's natural history and also its human history, from the prehistoric hunter-gathers who ranged over the region to Cabeza de Vaca, who was probably the first European to see Big Bend, to the creation of the national park in the 1930s and 1940s. Patoski also summarizes recent conservation efforts that have led to the protection of 2.1 million acres on both sides of the Rio Grande.
Although no single book could ever hope to contain the vastness of Big Bend National Park between two covers, this one beautifully captures its essence.
- Big Bend National Park
The land has many names:
El Despoblado. The Empty Space on the Map.
The Chisos. El Rio. La Frontera.
Sky Island in a Desert Sea.
The Last Frontier.
For more than fifty years, the heart of it has been officially known as Big Bend National Park.
I first saw Big Bend as a young boy.
My father had taken my sister and me on a trip through Texas in his brand-new Studebaker Silver Hawk. We'd come directly from the Alamo, whose stature and location in downtown San Antonio was a big disappointment to a seven-year-old smitten with Fess Parker and all things Davy Crockett. Big Bend made up for that letdown. At first glance, I immediately realized I had found the Texas of my dreams. These were real mountains, magnificent and grand, rising abruptly from the dusty plain. There was no mistaking that this was a desert, not the greened-up prairies and woodlands I'd known in North Texas, where we lived. The scenery was thorny and prickly—and dangerous. The distances were long. The sun was hot. This was not the kind of place to be lost in. The higher and wetter Chisos was a whole other world. Real mountain country. In Texas.
Big Bend National Park has been an integral part of my life ever since—it's my salvation, my respite, my escape from the real world, my quiet space far from the static of humanity, where my mind can wander and my soul be replenished.
I have never witnessed a sunrise as illuminating as the ones lighting up the mighty Chisos, thrust skyward aeons ago by volcanic forces. The luminous light that paints the ruddy bands of the limestone face of the Del Carmen Mountains above Boquillas at the end of the day makes the term "Technicolor" too understated. From the top of South Rim, I can see all the way to tomorrow. More than once when I've been camping in Big Bend, I've gone to sleep wearing my glasses—in case I wake up in the middle of the night I want to be able to gaze into the infinity of the brightest star-showered skies on the continent.
I have floated in awe through Big Bend's majestic river canyons, climbed its mountains, and trekked its deserts. I've ridden on horseback through the tall grasses and oak woodlands, driven its pavement, and spun around its back roads. I've wandered its trails and spent a week backpacking across more than seventy miles just so I could say I'd walked across the big bend of Big Bend.
I have tried and failed to count the exact number of layers that constitute the surreal, not-of-this-earth walls of the Big Tinaja—each limestone slice a lingering bathtub ring marking centuries of changing water levels.
I've witnessed crude petroglyphs, delicate pictographs, petrified forests and yucca forests, palisades turned into raging waterfalls in violent thunderstorms outside the entrance of Santa Elena Canyon, too close lightning bolts on the Mesa de Anguila.
Not everybody gets Big Bend—which is fine for those of us who do. The great American folksinger Woody Guthrie wandered here. The great Southwestern writer Ed Abbey extolled its virtues.
Being a Big Bend true believer amounts to having an innate willingness to drive five hundred miles at the drop of a hat to see a sunset where sunsets really mean something and then cracking a smile when you realize that for all that distance and all those extraterrestrial sensations imparted, you're still in Texas.
The more I go, the more I realize I've just scratched the surface. Big Bend National Park is too huge and too complex to ever fully understand. Which are two good reasons to love the place all the more.
Laurence Parent is a freelance photographer and writer in Austin, Texas, specializing in landscape, nature, and travel subjects. His work has appeared in Texas Highways, Texas Monthly, Texas Parks and Wildlife, National Geographic Traveler, Sierra, Natural History, Outside, Backpacker, Men's Journal, Travel and Leisure, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Additionally, he has been the photographer and/or author of thirty books, including Official Guide to Texas State Parks.
Joe Nick Patoski is an Austin-based writer who has authored the book Selena: Como la Flor and coauthored Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire, as well as writing the text for his previous collaborations with Laurence Parent, Texas Coast and Texas Mountains. His work has appeared in the Texas Observer, National Geographic, Texas Monthly, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Rolling Stone, Outside, Field and Stream, Men's Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, No Depression, American Heritage, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Travel Holiday, American Way, and Southwest Spirit, among other publications. In addition to his writing career, he works in radio, lectures, and has driven a taxi and managed rock-and-roll bands.
"Laurence Parent's work is superb. He is without a doubt one of the signature photographers of Texas. He has shot many of the iconic images of Big Bend National Park—images that have appeared in the New York Times, Texas Highways, Texas Monthly, and Texas Parks & Wildlife, as well as in books about the park and West Texas."
—Jack Lowry, Editor, Texas Highways
"Joe Nick Patoski's writing in Big Bend National Park is compelling and knowledgeable, done with great confidence and passion for the subject."
—Jan Reid, author of The Bullet Meant for Me and editor of Rio Grande