It’s pos­si­ble that I’ve been in the sun too long be­cause The dead oc­to­pus on the desert floor just moved.

WE’RE RID­ING A DUSTY LOOP OF sin­gle­track in­side La­ji­tas Re­sort, an up­scale golf com­mu­nity deep in West Texas close to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande and Mex­ico. It’s the kind of tucked-away re­sort that has its own air strip and shoot­ing range, but also thou­sands of acres of vast, desert land­scape where the lo­cal bike club has scratched out 30 miles of me­an­der­ing loops. The trails are skinny, white veins in the khaki land­scape, rolling over hills to­ward a hori­zon lined by buttes, cliffs and tall, purple ridges fram­ing Big Bend Na­tional Park. This is a rugged and strange corner of Texas, 500 miles from the near­est city, and noth­ing like the rest of the state. It’s clas­sic, desert land­scape—the set­ting for Wild West movies and Looney Toons episodes—but an odd place to ride your bike.

There are no trees, just tall bushes with long, spindly branches topped with or­ange flow­ers. Imag­ine an oc­to­pus with its head stuck in the sand. Now imag­ine thou­sands of them in this val­ley, some stand­ing tall and still flow­er­ing, oth­ers ly­ing dead and gray in the sand, skinny with dis­ease. If you ride long enough in the sun, and don’t drink enough wa­ter, you might even see one of th­ese dead oc­to­puses wig­gle from the corner of your eye.

“They’re called ocotillo,” says An­drew White­ford, a tal­ented rider and pro­fes­sional skier sport­ing a blonde beard that gives him the air of a Vik­ing. White­ford lives in Jack­son, Wy­oming, along with pho­tog­ra­pher Jay Goodrich. Both of them were eas­ily coaxed south for a few days of desert rid­ing. We’re cu­ri­ous what’s risen from such an in­hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ment.

Back home, White­ford makes ends meet work­ing as a naturalist guide for a swanky re­sort in Jack­son Hole. He cer­tainly knows his plants and an­i­mals, and will oc­ca­sion­ally point to strange-look­ing bushes, telling us their proper names. “And taran­tu­las live in those holes,” he says, point­ing to the dozens of small holes that line the dirt hill I’m lean­ing against. Great.

We’re tak­ing a quick break while Goodrich scouts a corner ahead. It’s still early morn­ing but al­ready hot.

“Don’t go off the trail,” Goodrich says, re­turn­ing from scout­ing. “Ev­ery­thing is pokey.”

White­ford builds a small jump at the edge of a hill, ar­rang­ing thick, flat rocks on top of each other for a kicker that will land him on the next down­hill. One of the rocks he uses has a dark fossil on its belly, the perfect im­print of a seashell. At some point, eons ago, this desert was the bot­tom of a great ocean. Which ex­plains all the dead oc­to­puses.

We climb over a se­ries of flat steps to the high point of the day, and stum­ble onto an old bread truck aban­doned in the mid­dle of the desert. The truck is as out of place as our moun­tain bikes in this land­scape. There’s a hobo grill in the back of the truck, and barb­wire hung up like a clothes line. Did some­one drive the ve­hi­cle through the sand un­til it ran out of gas? And then live in it?

Af­ter the ride, we pass bor­der pa­trol trucks on the two-lane highway that con­nects the re­sort to the tiny town of Ter­lin­gua, and see an old, leath­ery man stand­ing by the road sell­ing plants. He’s wear­ing a gi­ant som­brero and a black, mesh sleeve­less shirt. The plants are lush and green. I don’t un­der­stand how any of them, or the old man for that mat­ter, suri­v­ive in this bar­ren land­scape.

The Edge of Amer­ica

“Taran­tu­las are the least of your wor­ries,” Mike Long tells me. “It’s the rat­tlesnakes you need to worry about.”

Long owns Desert Sports, Ter­lin­gua’s bike shop, and he’s try­ing to con­vince me that the desert isn’t as danger­ous as it seems. Or at least, I’m fo­cus­ing on the wrong dan­gers. He’s a small, wiry guy with a pony­tail and a long, gray ZZ Top-style beard and no shoes. I get the sense that he’s al­ways bare­foot. Like there’s still sea wa­ter in the val­ley floor and he’s gonna take a dip af­ter work.

Ter­lin­gua, Texas, is a slop­ing hill­side full of stone ru­ins and dusty, off-white dirt roads. There are hun­dreds of ru­ins—small houses built out of lime­stone a cen­tury ago. Some of them are still in good shape, while oth­ers are crum­bling into piles. A few have been re­pur­posed, their foun­da­tions bud­ding with trail­ers and small, adobe houses. There isn’t much else to this town. A bar and gen­eral store, a cof­fee shop, a bike shop, a house that’s been con­verted into a pi­rate ship, com­plete with a mast and plank … that’s about it.

De­pend­ing on who you ask, any­where from 50 to 300 peo­ple call Ter­lin­gua home. Most are sea­sonal work­ers who come down for win­ter and stay un­til Spring Break’s over—Ter­lin­gua’s high sea­son—when thou­sands of tourists con­verge on the oth­er­wise sleepy, ghost town.

It’s not the kind of place you’d ex­pect to find an ex­ten­sive trail sys­tem, but Big Bend has sin­gle­track for days, not just within La­ji­tas Re­sort, but wind­ing through the ex­pan­sive Big Bend Ranch State Park. There’s also a week’s worth of dirt roads travers­ing the more fa­mous Big Bend Na­tional Park. None of it is par­tic­u­larly tech­ni­cal, but the trails glean an added level of dif­fi­culty from the sur­round­ing land­scape.

Rule num­ber one of the desert:

The desert is al­ways try­ing to kill you.

When I en­tered the bike shop, I rat­tled

De­pend­ing on who you ask, any­where from 50 to 300 peo­ple call Ter­lin­gua home

off a list of ques­tions for Long about taran­tu­las, snakes, pokey things—gen­eral un­pleas­antries—and he ab­sorbed them pa­tiently. With Bud­dhist-like wis­dom, he of­fered me a sin­gle an­swer in re­turn: “You look like you could use a bev­er­age.”

And then we were drink­ing cans of Lone Star, the of­fi­cial beer of Texas, while dusty dogs came and went from the shop and Long told us about re­mov­ing 40 rat­tlesnakes from his prop­erty. He came here to guide on the Rio Grande, but quickly got hip to the end­less rid­ing po­ten­tial on both sides of the river. Un­til 9/11, there was a con­sis­tent cul­tural ex­change be­tween Ter­lin­gua and the bor­der towns in Mex­ico. A mil­lion acres of pro­tected land on this side of the bor­der to ex­plore, and three mil­lion on the other side to ex­plore. Now there’s talk of a bor­der wall.

But, things like ‘walls’ don’t sit well with peo­ple in Ter­lin­gua, which has an ‘end of the road’ feel to it. If you find your way here, it’s be­cause you’re ei­ther look­ing for, or run­ning from, some­thing. Ter­lin­gua col­lects peo­ple avoid­ing as­pects of Amer­ica that don’t mesh with them. The sub­urbs, cu­bi­cles, Wal­Mart … this stuff pushes cer­tain peo­ple far­ther and far­ther to the pe­riph­eries, and Ter­lin­gua is where they’ve ended up. The edge of the United States. As far West Texas as you can go with­out los­ing your­self in the moun­tains of Mex­ico.

“You can pretty much do what you want as long as you don’t hurt any­one,” Long says. “I built my house my­self. No per­mits. I just built it.”

The Starlight

We set up our tents in a makeshift man­ner be­tween two crum­bling ru­ins within the ghost town. Across the street, a ceme­tery of shal­low, mounded graves is lined by flat stones to keep dirt from blow­ing away. We’re done rid­ing for the day and we’ve re-stocked at the bike shop, so all there’s left to do in Ter­lin­gua is hang out at the Starlight Theater.

Rule num­ber two of the desert: Ride in the morn­ing, drink in the af­ter­noon.

The Starlight feels like the bar in Tarantino’s “From Dusk till Dawn.” But rather than strip­pers turn­ing into vam­pires, it’s brim­ming with tourists, brought in by the bus­load. They’ve come seek­ing Amer­ica’s far-flung ex­trem­ity, hop­ing to catch the Starlight’s front-porch sun­set in the process. In a town as small as Ter­lin­gua, lo­cals can’t avoid tourists, so fam­i­lies of polo shirts and canes com­min­gle with desert rats in torn jeans and dusty hair.

The mix­ing oc­curs in front. Lo­cal gen­er­a­tions con­verge—old timers in cut­offs and younger trans­plants in Cha­cos. They share six packs and talk work, tourists, the last sand­storm, any­thing that comes to mind. Oc­ca­sion­ally a jam ses­sion sur­faces with gui­tars and a wash­board. But mostly, lo­cals just sit and drink beer. The tourists do their best to blend in, but there’s a sheen to peo­ple who don’t live here.

The Lone Stars go down easy as we watch the sun drop be­hind tow­er­ing moun­tains. It’s a hell of a show, turn­ing the peaks of Big Bend Na­tional Park purple be­fore go­ing dark. But it’s noth­ing com­pared to the stars that come out later at night. We’re 500 miles from the near­est street light, so the sheer vol­ume of stars is stag­ger­ing. There’s as much light in the night sky as there is dark­ness. The more time I spend in Ter­lin­gua, the more I un­der­stand how peo­ple end up here.

True Oa­sis

The crys­tals are ev­ery­where—an acre of them scat­tered along the desert floor, shin­ing bright against the tan dirt. A line of sin­gle­track cuts through the mid­dle.

“I think we found the end of the rain­bow, princess uni­corn,” Goodrich says.

Ter­lin­gua col­lects peo­ple avoid­ing as­pects of Amer­ica

We park our bikes and ex­plore, be­cause it’s just too wild of a scene to ig­nore. I pick up a crystal to take home to my kids, then worry about bad mojo, so put it back down.

We’re a few miles into an all-day ex­plo­ration of Big Bend Ranch State Park and the last thing we need is bad luck. Big Bend Ranch is a 311,000-acre col­lec­tion of cac­tus and canyons on the Amer­i­can side of the Rio Grande. The na­tional park next door is home to some epic dirt road rides, but the state park has all-day sin­gle­track and doubletrack through Wild West ter­rain, with 200 miles of trail and road to ex­plore, in­clud­ing a 60-mile IMBA Epic. The park is full of pretty, squat, purple cac­tuses and black vol­canic rock sur­rounded by tall cliffs and phal­lic buttes.

Af­ter the crystal field, there’s a long stretch of dirt road that takes us deeper into the park. Black flies

lead the way, just in front of our tires as we pedal fast try­ing to create a breeze. If you stop, the heat is op­pres­sive.

We stum­ble onto an old mine site of­fer­ing a text­book rat­tlesnake and scor­pion habi­tat—so nat­u­rally we poke around. The tools are ex­actly as they were when the mine shut down. Ter­lin­gua and the sur­round­ing desert have a knack for swal­low­ing things. Oil equip­ment, mini­vans, kitchen sinks, bread trucks … ob­jects strewn in front of small houses, left to rust in for­got­ten val­leys. Spend enough time and it all be­comes charm­ing, like art in­stal­la­tions. A com­ment on Amer­i­can ex­cess.

Some of the larger pieces look like a sunken ship—smoke stacks from a steam engine pok­ing from sand, left when the great sea dried up. New items have been added to the mine site too. There’s an up­turned Mex­i­can model car—a Bu­cayne—with bul­let holes in the door. White­ford scopes the out­side of the mine for po­ten­tial first de­scents, look­ing over steep, scree-cov­ered slopes snaking be­tween metal. A mis­take looks like an in­vi­ta­tion for te­tanus.

The sun brings lethargy, even while ped­al­ing for­ward. You can fo­cus on the heat, which has a phys­i­cal weight to it, or you can slow down, ac­cept it and mel­low out. There’s beauty here, the light breeze, birds and tiny flow­ers bloom­ing out of the desert’s crust. How does a flower, bright-red and juicy, grow out of sand and rock? What looks bar­ren is teem­ing with vigor—jackrab­bits, rat­tlesnakes and bighorn sheep. Plants sprout from the cracks of stone walls. It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s un­doubt­edly life. There are even wild bur­ros out here, de­scen­dants of do­mes­ti­cated mules used to haul can­dle wax decades ago. I want more than any­thing to see one.

The cliffs be­come dra­matic as we move deeper within the state park. It’s Wild West scenery and I get an urge to shoot guns. Is that weird—want­ing to pedal around the desert, fir­ing a six shooter into the rusted door of an aban­doned car?

We take a break on the edge of a sandy wash, hid­ing un­der the shade of a mesquite tree, and hear the un­de­ni­able neigh of a wild burro. It sounds like a horse hav­ing an asthma at­tack. I’m ex­hil­a­rated at the prospect. Sad­dling up in pur­suit, we pedal quickly down the sandy wash to­ward the siren sound of this ma­jes­tic desert jack­ass. Rid­ing through the loose, deep sand is like bik­ing through por­ridge. I break off and sprint to high ground. I want to see this burro. I want to ride it. Tame it and take it home with me. But the burro is bet­ter suited to this land­scape, and it van­ishes be­fore we even catch a glimpse.

Oc­ca­sional tech­ni­cal sec­tions of trail give me pause. Con­se­quences are dire out here. We’re 15 miles from the near­est road—at high noon—sur­rounded by rat­tlesnakes and elu­sive wild don­keys. Land not to be taken lightly. We ride a stretch hug­ging the edge of a long, nar­row gorge, prickly pear cac­tus lines the trail’s sides. Re­spect­ful beauty.

Rule three of the desert: All life is pre­cious.

The oc­to­pus-like ocotillo that dom­i­nated yes­ter­day’s land­scape are gone. In­stead, big and spiny yuc­cas lit­ter the desert floor. We churn up loose, rocky trail through a heart of a white canyon, the walls ris­ing 50 feet on ei­ther side of us, pocked by taran­tula holes. It’s quiet enough that I think I can hear the spi­ders scur­ry­ing within their dark lair, hid­ing from the sun. A dry riverbed runs through the canyon, full of white, bul­bous moon rocks and we pick fun lines down­hill, spilling into a stone cathe­dral

carved out of lay­ered lime­stone. In­side each crack, a lush, green hang­ing plant blos­soms with tiny but vi­brant yel­low flow­ers.

The trail crosses dozens of dry washes that sap mo­men­tum tyran­ni­cally. Talk­ing ceases as we silently ques­tion life choices—rid­ing 30 over­heated miles in the bar­ren back­coun­try of the Amer­i­can desert. When our morale is low­est, we roll into an oa­sis: tall, green mesquite trees throw shade over a creek. Goodrich pulls salami out of his back­pack. Food. Sud­denly ev­ery­thing is beau­ti­ful again.

The urge to carry a re­volver resur­faces. I want to pedal in cir­cles shoot­ing in the air.

White­ford in­forms me the trees we’re sit­ting un­der aren’t mesquite, they’re cot­ton­wood. He’s eas­ily one of the most civ­i­lized rid­ers I’ve ever met. He’s well­read and vol­un­tar­ily goes to wildlife lec­tures. Per­haps not the type to pedal with a pis­tol hoisted above his head. I guess we’re dif­fer­ent.

We fol­low the creek down­stream as it broad­ens to a river, then wa­ter­falls gen­tly into a plunge pool. We strip to our chamois and jump into cold, clear wa­ter. The desert put this swim­ming hole ex­actly where we needed it.

Ev­ery­thing af­ter the oa­sis is a haze of dusty roads and heat. We’re in good spir­its, but ea­ger to get back to the truck and Ter­lin­gua. We fin­ish the day drink­ing beer on the porch of the Starlight, lis­ten­ing to crusties bitch about tourists who roll up in spot­less trucks. For a mo­ment, I pic­ture my­self mov­ing to Ter­lin­gua, get­ting ab­sorbed by the lo­cals on the porch. I want to build my own house and re­move rat­tlesnakes from my prop­erty. I want to ride for days through the desert, dis­cov­er­ing new crystal fields and hid­den oases.

The tourists come and go in their trucks, pin­ing for a piece of out­post magic that thrives here. Just a taste. They sit for a while, then move on. They can’t stay. Too many things pull them back, off the porch. Back to their clean trucks. Back to the highway. Back home.

I want to sit on this porch un­til I un­der­stand the desert like th­ese old timers, un­til it’s part of me. Un­til my be­ing is form­ing the edge of Amer­ica. I want to stop wear­ing shoes and grow a beard like Mike Long. I want to wear som­breros and mesh. But I know I’m not cut out for life on the fringe of Amer­ica. I know I’m one of the shiny tourists, just pass­ing through be­fore head­ing back home.

Talk­ing ceases as we silently ques­tion life choices

Sun up to get down: White­ford catches the brief re­prieve of early hours.

An­drew White­ford ex­er­cises best prac­tices for avoid­ing desert thorns: Air over them.

Long road to re­demp­tion: Mike Long came to Ter­lin­gua to guide on the Rio Grande. He now owns Desert Sports, built his house with his own hands and em­bod­ies the spirit of the outer fringe of Amer­ica.

Right: A land of ex­tremes: Long es­capes the heat of the day while mus­ing over the ex­panse of pro­tected land. Below: Won­der-bruh truck.

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