We took a rowboat ‘cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide.
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side.
— Robert Earl Keen, Gringo Honeymoon, 1994
Our bicycle journey along the southern tier of the United States will take us through some vast, empty spaces in California and Arizona. But few are likely to be as big and empty as Brewster County in the Big Bend country of Texas.
Some Texans, when they want to indicate how big something is, will say: “As big as Brewster County.” And with good reason: Brewster County is the largest of Texas’ 254 counties with 6,193 square miles — bigger than Connecticut (5,544 square miles) or the combined territory of Delaware (2,489 square miles) and Rhode Island (1,545 square miles). But heck, the King Ranch in south Texas is almost as big as Rhode Island.
The largest — and only — city in Brewster County is Alpine, its county seat, with a population of about 6,000. The rest of Brewster County’s 3,000 or so folks are scattered on ranches that stretch down to Big Bend National Park in the southern part of the county.
I’ve lived in Texas for more than two decades, but I hadn’t visited the Big Bend until February 2008. It was a big mistake not to go sooner. It’s wild, spectacular country with breathtaking vistas at every turn.
Our transcontinental bicycle route through the Big Bend area will take us from Fort Davis on Texas 118 to Alpine and then on U.S. 90 to Marathon and points east. If a traveler turned south at Marathon on U.S. 385, he’d end up at an entrance to Big Bend National Park, one of the largest, most remote and least used of U.S. national parks. Only 300,000 to 350,000 people visit the park every year, compared to 9-11 million for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Big Bend National Park embraces 801,163 acres, and its southern boundary is the Rio Grande, the border with Mexico. The park administers the U.S. side of the 118-mile-long portion of the river that borders the park. The only U.S. Border Patrol presence we saw during our visit was at a checkpoint after the park exit.
But since 2002, because of 9-11, drug smuggling and illegal immigration, the “Captain Pablos” that Robert Earl Keen wrote and sang about in his Texas classic Gringo Honeymoon have disappeared. It’s now illegal — and punishable by a fine up to $5,000 and a year in prison — to cross the river and return where there are no authorized checkpoints, even though it’s quite easy to wade or swim the 30 or 40 yards to the Mexican side.
“Captain Pablos” used to ferry gringo tourists across the river to Boquillas del Carmen for a burro ride up the hill to bars, restaurants and kitschy souvenir joints.
A delightful 1998 film, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, captures the flavor of Brewster County and the Big Bend country. The fictional town Dancer was said to be in Brewster County, but Fort
Davis in neighboring Jeff Davis County was used as Dancer’s stand-in, with many local folks appearing in the film as extras. Check out the video trailer below. The film is well worth a look, too.