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Rafting the Border

Mellow water, mind-bending sights and the music of Butch Hancock add up to first-rate outdoor therapy.

By Dan Oko

Swimming in the Rio Grande downstream from El Paso is something most Americans try to avoid. But after two days of drifting the deep, majestic canyons of Santa Elena, a primal feeling takes hold of our party. On a river that's been dammed and depleted by generations of would-be civilizers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the 30-mile stretch we're floating is a place where modern rules do not seem wholly applicable.

We had started in remote West Texas below Big Bend Ranch State Park and would end up in Big Bend National Park. Time slows on the river, the wind whispers and the heart responds by seeking a semblance of what it means to be wild and free. That, in so many words, is how I ended up diving into the cool Rio Grande this past October.

The trip had been organized by Far Flung Adventures. Based out of Terlingua, a former mining town, the outfitter offers excursions ranging from seasonal whitewater runs to gourmet floats. Along for the ride on our journey was a bona fide Texas music legend, songwriter Butch Hancock.

River music and float trips go together like peanut butter and chocolate, which is to say perfectly. I cannot recall taking a raft trip without somebody bringing a guitar along. Far Flung has been putting on its top-notch music floats for two decades, boasting marquee names such as outlaw-country pioneer Steven Fromholz and Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Hancock first floated the Rio Grande in 1988. Soon he started bringing his musician buddies down the river, which led to a stint as a professional guide.

"It's not exactly escapism," Hancock says. "But it's really something else, you know, to be away from cars and phones. There's just something about it that's really in your face."

If his name means nothing to you, Hancock was a founding member of the seminal folk-rock outfit the Flatlanders with his fellow Lone Star songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. The trio, each of whom has enjoyed a successful solo career, came of age together in Lubbock, but the band found no fame in Nashville. In turn, even as the band drifted apart, the Flatlanders stayed friends. Then to the delight of fans everywhere, they reunited in the '90s. At about the same time, Hancock turned his back on city life and moved to Terlingua, a ghost town better known today for its chili cook-offs than its history as one of the country's leading mercury producers.

Because of its close proximity to the state and national parks of the Big Bend, Terlingua also happens to be a West Texas epicenter for outdoor recreation. With the parks combining for more than a million acres of public land – Big Bend Ranch is Texas' largest state park – it's little wonder that hikers, bikers and birdwatchers are drawn to this faraway swath of the Chihuahuan Desert.

But the recreation opportunities aren't limited to the land. Flowing from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, the Rio Grande, or El Rio Bravo del Norte, as the Mexicans call it, is the third-longest river in the United States. In Texas, the river marks a 1,250-mile stretch of the boundary between the United States and Mexico. For boaters of all stripes, it used to be that autumn on the river was a guaranteed good time, but irrigation needs on both sides of the border and disagreements about international water rights, the spread of invasive saltcedar (tamarisk) and persistent drought conditions have threatened to dry up water recreation.

Nonetheless, the float through Santa Elena Canyon, with its tall cliffs, hidden side canyons and technical-if-not-fast sections, remains one of the most popular, best-known paddles in the Southwest. A wet summer and rainy fall in 2007, meanwhile, left plenty of water for canoes and kayakers, as well as for rubber rafts – which have become locally endangered in recent years because they need a true flowing current. River outfitters, including Far Flung, have added to their offerings with activities such as four-wheel jeep tours, mountain biking and interpretive desert hikes. Helping our cause was a release from the Rio Conchos in Mexico that had raised the water level to 3 1/2 feet, according to an upstream gauge. At 10 feet, the guides explain, you can get into some challenging whitewater. Hence, we found ourselves with a perfect excuse to be lazy and take rafts not canoes - two for the eight clients, and two for our gear, including a full camp kitchen, tents and sleeping bags, and potable water for cooking and drinking.

From the get-go, it was apparent we were in good hands. Wallis was touted as the smartest man in all of Terlingua (pop. 267), and he had spent time doing fieldwork on the Mexican side of the river in the Sierra Madre nature preserve. With a bushy beard and gregarious manner, Harris was a prototypical river guide right down to his nickname, Captain Cool Whip; he and Turvan, a friendly woman from North Texas who studies yoga, divide their time seasonally between Terlingua and a resort in Idaho.

Having made the acquaintance of my fellow waterborne music fans, I found myself on Day One in Turvan's boat, where to my initial surprise and eventual pleasure, she kept at the oars – no actual work here, please move along. In turn, we were left with idle hands and could just marvel at the scenery and soak up an impromptu geological lesson. Santa Elena Canyon is a limestone formation carved out by millions of years of running water, leaving behind cliffs some 1,500 feet high. Between the put-in at Lajitas and the mouth of the canyon 12 miles downstream, ancient volcanic ash and tectonic thrusts have combined to form mountains and mesas. We count a fraction of the 450 birds that frequent Big Bend, including Mexican mallards and black phoebes.

The flood-scarred walls reached up to the bluest skies and after sundown offered a glimpse of the starriest nights this side of anywhere, and the canyon acoustics brought out Hancock's energy. He played songs recorded for his last album War and Peace, the title track to his 1997 release You Coulda Walked Around the World, and classics such as "If You were a Bluebird," which was recorded by the great Emmylou Harris. With a dozen eager faces flickering in the firelight, enjoying one of the most intimate concerts any of us had likely seen, Hancock offered up a swell version of the Townes Van Zandt hit "Pancho and Lefty."

On our last day, we took a quick side hike up Fern Canyon, a hidden notch on the Mexican side of the river that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings, with massive, mossy boulders giving way to spring-fed pools. At low water, the side canyon can be reached by canoe or a sturdy wade up the river from the foot of Santa Elena near the Castolon campground in the national park. Scrambling along the rocks, we endured showers of crystal-clear water as we did some amateur canyoneering. It's hard to say what was more breathtaking – the trickle of the icy waters soaking my back as I climbed or the psychedelic features of the canyon, which twisted like a corkscrew of limestone.

Having been baptized in the river and serenaded by both Butch Hancock and the canyon wren, I could not escape the feeling that our group had arrived at some sort of cosmic confluence. We were still way out in drought-ridden West Texas, yet we had arrived at what seemed the perfect time to ride a wild stretch of river, a waterway that manages to persist despite all manner of challenge, from upstream irrigation to desert evaporation. As the Rio Grande issued forth from the eastern end of Santa Elena, it felt as though the sand and sun had scoured away our urban defenses. It had been a long time since I'd felt so completely relaxed and at peace.

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