Big Bend National Park, Texas
Butch Hancock probably isn't the first singer-songwriter to wind up, 35 years after that first promising album, sleeping under a tarp down by the river.
When I crawled out of my tent that chilly morning, he lay a few yards away, flopped near the water's edge, barefaced under the sky. Soon the two of us were lined up with the others for coffee from the camp stove.
We had covered 13 miles of the Rio Grande in our rafts the previous day, then camped at the mouth of a canyon, 400-foot limestone walls suddenly jutting into the sky. After dinner, we circled the campfire -- eight customers, three river guides and Hancock, strumming and singing about "bare footprints on the desert sand" and "blue moonlight on the Rio Grande."
This is a man who has made more than a dozen albums, whose tunes have been sung by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, who has played the Texas governor's mansion and David Letterman's show, who generally sleeps at home with his wife and kids.
But Hancock, 62, is also a river rat. On and off for 20 years, he has been joining raft trips run by local outfitter Far Flung Expeditions, which runs two or three musical Big Bend trips every year with homegrown artists.
For me, the Texas scenery was a big selling point, but it was the Texas soundtrack that closed the deal. For my money, there isn't another state outside Louisiana that can match Texas as an incubator of a sovereign musical culture, one that's especially rich when it comes to lyrics. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Townes Van Zandt, Steven Fromholz, Kinky Friedman, Lyle Lovett, Hancock -- and this list could be much longer. They're mostly not names you hear on the radio, but they are voices worth hearing.
Now, as the sun threw a morning blush onto the rock-strewn slopes, the guides rustled up breakfast. The rest of the campers came shambling from their tents. Hancock, laconic and perpetually bemused, shared the small talk and also some not-so-small talk involving architect Buckminster Fuller, mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and the teachings of Buddhism.
When we reached the top of a hike to high ground, he dramatically extended an arm to frame the desert panorama below.
"This," Hancock said, adopting a tone of mock authority, "is actually a perfect example of what can happen."
Who could argue?
It has craggy mountains, cactus-studded slopes, miles of meandering Rio Grande and a couple of born-again ghost towns at its edge, but Big Bend ranks among the National Park Service's least-visited parks, and that won't change any time soon.
The summers are infernally hot. Except for a handful of days per year, rafters can expect nothing more challenging than a Class III rapid. And if you're from outside Texas, getting here means flying to Midland or El Paso, then driving about five hours while deer, rabbits, coyotes, skunks, armadillos and javelinas scamper and shuffle in and out of your high beams.
On my highway drive in from petroleum-scented Midland, I dodged each of those species at least once, along with another less recognizable furry blur. Chupacabra, maybe. By the time the hills began to undulate and I reached the cheek-by-jowl towns of Terlingua and Study Butte, I had already seen more raw Texas than most outsiders care to.
But there is a payoff.
As the Rio Grande makes it way south and east through the Chisos Mountains -- marking the Texas-Mexico border as it goes -- the river frequently dwindles to 30 feet wide and as little as a foot deep, but the canyon walls leap up toward heaven. Most days, a child can cross the river in the right spot. But that same river can take a rafter to spots that are remote, rugged and gorgeous enough to satisfy even a well-seasoned desert traveler.
On the day we put in, the water was running 300 cubic feet per second, a flow so scant that the outfitter almost put us into canoes, which are better than rafts in shallow water. But we stuck with rafts and put in at Lajitas, about 10 miles outside Terlingua.
First, we drifted past boulders and tamarisks, a sipping horse here, a sunning turtle there. Then the earth began to ripple and rise on either side of us.
TEXAS | BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK