Del Rio, TX

It happens slowly, the rolling landscape anesthetizing the senses and, then, the desert vanishes. The Chihuahuan desert around Big Bend is colored in shades of mustard, yam, and chocolate. While the sun is overhead these hues are mild pastels but, as it declines towards the horizon, they grow saturated, crushed-black shadows giving the distant mountains weight. It is the Hollywood-perfect backdrop your imagination builds when you dream of the Old West. But it has vanished and now you have something else, a landscape that features in nobody's imagination.

Imagine the Pacific Northwest. Do you see soggy forests of Doug Fir, salmon in clear water, and snowy Cascades in the background? Perhaps the Great Plains evokes cornfields and Wizard of Oz cottages. New England might conjure an Adirondack scene from Last of the Mohicans while the South overflows with both brutal and romantic visual associations. But the fringes of Southern Texas or Northern Coahuila? They are blank spaces in the mind.

The land is a combination of beautiful and ugly, just as it is a combination of desert and plains, or desert and swamp, or swamp and plains. It seems like a bipolar land, in which both poles are different variations on the theme of hostile: dusty and arid / muddy and humid. The Southwestern deserts are harsh terrain, but they offer topography and visibility. This region does not. Its hills roll in every direction, choked in dense, thorny foliage approaching a tall person's height. Prickly pear, yucca, acacia and mesquite would shred your skin to tatters if you went bushwhacking. You would have to rely on the sun, or a compass, or the course of a stream bed to escape the monotonous maze. On horseback or foot, it would be a terrain of nightmares. You could never farm there, would be an idiot to try homesteading. Low, hazy gray-blue skies dragging across an undulating, sweaty, gray-green mess of mosquito-infested thornscrub. Occasionally, a road cuts into the biomess, bone-white tracks gleaming into the infinitely distant confluence of gray-green and gray-blue.

You could hire the best advertising firms in the world and they would fail to put a romantic spin on this land. The city of Del Rio, along with its siblings along the Rio Grande, seem to be narrowly holding a beachhead against an onslaught of bristling vegetation. Without modern technology—bulldozers, wells, window screens—this environment would crush the life out of us. That may, ultimately, be what makes it beautiful.