Big Bend, Part III - Rafting, Rafting on the River.... / by Josh Trudell

As we sat in the Chisos Mountain Lodge and watched it storm, one thought kept running through my head.

“There’s going to be enough water for rafting tomorrow! Awesome!”

The rafting trip on the Rio Grande had been one of the planned highlights of this trip – I had been dying to photograph the steep walls of Santa Elena Canyon, in particular.

Most rafting trips on the Rio Grande leave from Terlingua, about 45 minutes from the lodge.

With the lodge restaurant not open yet, we had an 0-dark-thirty start, and stopped at India’s Coffee Shop and Bakery for breakfast.

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, the scene changes, but the morning formalities remain the same. Here, we sat out on a patio framed by Christmas lights, and listened to the locals bullshit each other as they sipped coffee. An Australian drawl added a little flavor to the fluent Texan being spoken.

As the sun drew a line across the mountains in front of us and slid down, we loaded up on fantastic homemade tacos and a breakfast burrito like no other.

The peaceful easy feeling from the great breakfast and the sunrise was dinged a bit, however, when we found that Santa Elena Canyon was not available for our rafting trip. Not because the river was too high – but because the road to the take-out point had been washed away.

We would, however, float Colorado Canyon, which was not as dramatic.

I’ve got to admit – I was a little disappointed at this point. This trip had been up and down a little too much for my taste so far. But, buckling up, and renewing determination to enjoy what I could get at, we jumped in the van and headed out.

Bouncing down the bumpy roads on our way to the river, the burrito might have momentarily felt like a bad idea. But it, and we, survived, and before long we were loading onto rafts and into the river.

With all the hot air and self-importance about borders, it seems natural to think of rivers that serve as borders as huge bodies of water. The reality is much humbler – for virtually all of this trip, I could have walked across the Rio Grande and not gotten my belt wet.

The guides told us of often meeting the vaqueros who herd cattle on the Mexican side, occasionally in the sights of border guards who hadn’t counted on the people who lived on the river when the political walls grew higher.

As we rafted, we looked up at the hundreds of feet of canyon wall and couldn’t help but wonder why exactly politicians thought we needed a manmade wall. Kids occasionally hopped over to the Mexico side and then giggled back to their rafts.

While the canyon wasn’t the one I hoped for, being there for the rain showed how quickly the river can be reborn. Thick green sheaves of river cane flourished on banks that had been brown or yellow just a week ago. Our guide said it was the greenest he had seen it in three years.

As we pulled the rafts out, I looked at the river – both life force and barrier. Living here means living on the edge – if the water goes dry, you’re done. But on this day, the river offered stillness, peace and a snapshot of the rebirth simple water can bring – more valuable than any photograph I could hope to take.

Faith in the trip – renewed.

Next: The ruins of Terlingua.