June 06, 1982

In October 1899 a modest, almost shabby little expedition—six men, three row-boats and a kitten—set out to explore and survey the 350-mile passage of the Rio Grande through the canyons of the Big Bend and beyond. One wall of each canyon is Texas; the other, Mexico. It was primitive, lawless country. The men had a hard trip and came out detesting each other. But they did make it, which no earlier exploring party had done, and accomplished something slightly unusual that history has overlooked.

By mapping the meanders of the Rio Grande, they finished drawing the outline of the United States. The river had been the international boundary since 1845, but the official surveying party had failed to get through the canyons in 1852—had pronounced them impassable—and so at the dawn of the 20th century, the exact shape of the U.S. was still unknown. About 200 miles of the border with Mexico were hypothetical, a dotted line on the map.

The man who filled in this lengthy blank was a geologist named Robert T. Hill. He was the leader of the 1899 expedition and its only scientist. The others were his 19-year-old nephew, Prentice Hill, a cook named Serafino, a boatman named Shorty and two frontiersmen, James MacMahon and Henry Ware. The U.S. Geological Survey, which employed Hill, had ordered the exploration and was paying the extremely modest bill. The government back then spent cautiously, fearful of the taxpayer and the voter.

The highest-paid man on Hill's crew was MacMahon, who earned $3 a day. His special value was that he had already made the trip and was the only man known to have done so. (The bodies of some who failed had washed out of the canyons onto gravel bars, with bullet holes in their skulls.) MacMahon had done it alone and unofficially, cautiously moving into the unknown to trap beaver, whose pelts he sold for a living.

Nothing went seriously wrong for the expedition, and still it was a miserable trip. Serafino was both a bad cook and a dirty one. Shorty liked bacon grease and added revolting amounts of it to the food in the pots. The river was shallow and rocky. The sun was hot. For 35 days the men waded and portaged and sweated and cursed, "audibly and long," as Hill put it.

The first big canyon, Santa Elena, is 1,500 feet deep at its deepest and only slightly broader than the 25-foot-wide river itself. (The edge of a standard one-foot ruler stood on end gives a fair idea of its proportions.) Daylight barely reaches the bottom of this crevice. The river slurps and swirls through it quietly, except at a famous spot where much of the cliff has fallen in on the Mexican side. It blocks 400 yards of the river with rubble, the larger pieces as big as houses.

Each of the expedition's three wooden rowboats was only 13 feet long but weighed an astonishing 300 pounds. A carpenter in Del Rio had made them sturdy, to take a beating from the rocks. Hauling these heavyweights over the rockfall took Hill and his men three days. Their presence frightened a covey of blue quail, which tried to fly a spiral course out of the canyon. But quail fly only a little better than chickens. "They rose two or three hundred feet with a desperate whirring of their wings, and then fell back almost exhausted into the rocky debris," wrote Hill.

The men slept on the same debris, in which they found no level spot whatever. Hill tried enlarging his sleeping area with his geologist's hammer but still had to lie curled up. They named the place Camp Misery.

After Santa Elena the canyons come in many shapes and sizes and in depths up to 1,700 feet. Grassy banks and limestone ledges make good campsites. There are bits of open country between canyons. Of one of these, Hill wrote, "We ran across three or four Mexicans leisurely driving a herd of stolen cattle across the river into Mexico. This is the chief occupation of the few people who choose this wild region for a habitation."

Thieves and murderers had hideouts along the river. One of the worst of them was a man named Alvarado. His big mustache, black on one side, white on the other, identified him wherever he went. He found it convenient to be recognized; it terrified his victims and made his work easier. But on the day the expedition passed Alvarado's ranch he was merely standing on the riverbank "with an infant in his arms," wrote Hill, "serenely watching us float down the stream." He gave them no trouble, perhaps because they were known to be a government expedition. Or, possibly, Alvarado had no need for any 300-pound rowboats.

They ran scared all the way. One man stood guard, "with cocked rifle," at every portage while the other five did the work. At the village of Presidio, Texas, where they began the float, someone advised them always to camp under a rock overhang, out of sight from the opposite rim. Otherwise they risked being picked off by rifles while they ate or slept.

But harsh outdoor adventures often make the best memories. It seems to have been so in this case for Hill, who wrote a long account of the Rio Grande expedition for The Century Magazine of January 1901. He was one of those sterling 19th-century men, with clear eyes and clear purposes, who surveyed the West for the government and described it for the public, setting it up for exploitation. Rapt with the new science of geology, they walked about creation like Adam, naming things. As a pioneer geologist, Hill gave great chunks of Texas the names they have now: the Edwards Plateau, the Trans-Pecos, the Blackland Prairies, the Balcones Fault Zone.

He was passionate about geology and in love with Texas. He had gone there poor and ignorant from Tennessee in 1873, at the age of 15. By the time he made the Canyon trip in 1899, he was a graduate of Cornell, a self-made man, a renowned geologist and a junior (and somewhat maverick) member of the nation's scientific Establishment.

In surveying the river, Hill was in part emulating his friend and hero John W. Powell, who had explored the Grand Canyon 30 years earlier. Also, he was making publicity for himself—he was good at that—learning more about Texas and having a grand adventure.

Much of the same adventure, or the best parts of it, can be had today. The desperadoes are gone, and hardly anyone now navigates the whole 350 miles from Presidio to Langtry. There are access roads in Big Bend National Park. People drive to the riverbank, set a 17-foot, 70-pound aluminum canoe in the water, float just one canyon and go home happy. Or, if they float two, they skip the long, hot, boring stretches in between.

Below the park, though, in what are called the Lower Canyons, you're committed to about a week on the river before you come to a dirt track over which your canoes can be hauled back to the world that produced them. Outside the canyons lie deserts, the harsh southwestern kind in which even today the unprepared can die of thirst.

Almost everybody climbs to the rim at some point and looks out across country where the temperature reaches 120° on a sunny September day and there is no water whatever. Hill did this and mused, "Should we lose our boats and escape the canyons, what chance for life should we have in crossing these merciless, waterless wastes of thorn?"

Most of the people who cross the desert these days are wetbacks—young Mexicans without papers seeking work in the U.S. I once came upon six of them resting in the shade. They had hiked 30 miles down a dry tributary canyon and were waiting for night and moonlight to cross the river and start for the highway on the Texas side. They were dressed in sports shirts, creased pants, thin-soled shoes. Their baggage was light—old Clorox jugs containing water, clean shirts and underwear, shreds of goat meat rolled in flour tortillas.

The Mexicans get across, people say, because there are some sources of water in the side canyons that cut through the desert. These are natural cisterns called, in Spanish, tinajas. Water seeps down from the surface after late-summer rains and collects underground in limestone hollows. If you know exactly which little cave to crawl into in the canyon wall, you find a tinaja and survive. A few local Mexicans know, and serve as guides. They have been handing the knowledge down since Spanish times.

Perhaps knowing what lay beyond the canyon walls, some of Hill's crew resented the time he took for surveying and mapping, although these were the reasons for the trip. They wanted to get on downriver and out of the canyons. But Hill stuck to his transit, made notes and took photographs. While his Kodak film worked well, his glass plates "unfortunately failed to receive the impression of this artistic scene." He ran out of film before the end of the trip.

Most people do, for there is much to photograph. The canyon walls aren't plain but eroded into fantastic architecture. Nature roughed out the Gothic, the Romanesque and even the International style in the Lower Canyons quite a while before man evolved and invented them.

Hill noted the many hot springs that flow into the river—so many, he said, that they increased the volume of the river enough to make boating a little easier. And he discovered the natural hot tub that has been the goal and pleasure of every canoeist since. A "copious hot spring made a large, clear pool of water...tempting to tired and dirty men, and here we made our first and only stop for recreation." This pool, hollowed out of a bank on the Mexican side, is only two or three feet deep. It has a fine gravel bottom, contains water of perfect clarity and just the right temperature, and can handle up to 16 bodies per soaking.

The expedition came upon several deer in a bunch, and to Hill's disgust his crewmen shot them all. After a glut of venison they left most of the meat to the mountain lions and went back to the lard, bacon and beans of Serafino's cuisine, which is curious, because there are now, and were then, big catfish in the river and squirrels in the trees. They could have eaten well. But perhaps "10 hours of hard rowing each day...the additional labor of dragging the boats over dangerous rapids...together with the ever-present apprehension of danger" left them too weary even to consider shooting and catching their dinner.

"Caverns of gigantic proportions...indented the cliff at many places." I myself, on a canyon trip, am struck less by the size than by the number of caves. There are thousands of them, many unexplored. They are mysterious and moving, opening as they do in the sheer walls—100, 300, 600 feet overhead-places where no man has set foot since the race began. Even now, a certain feeling of isolation takes hold of people in the bottom of a canyon in the middle of a desert. It's especially strong for those who have climbed to the rim and seen what the desert is like. The utter blackness of night reinforces it, with all of the sky shut out but a long crack overhead containing a few stars. A final turn of the screw comes when a mountain lion screams somewhere on the rim.

On the other hand, the canyons are brightened on moonlit nights with a chalky theatrical brilliance. The light reflects off the limestone walls, growing in intensity and then fading, as if controlled by a rheostat, over the two hours or so it takes the moon to cross from one rim to the other. "I could never sleep," wrote Hill, "until the glorious light had ferreted out the shadows from every crevice and driven darkness from the cañon."

Mascots are supposed to bring good luck. If getting out of the canyons alive was good luck. Hill's black kitten did very well by the expedition. It traveled in his boat and slept under his blanket at night. It seemed to be enjoying the trip; at least it was the only member who was ever in a playful mood. But one morning, distracted by his problems. Hill left the kitten behind. He surmised that it made "one small mouthful" for a jaguar.

After four or five days many modern outdoorsmen are eager to leave the wilderness they so eagerly entered and seek a telephone, a steak and cold beer. Hill and his men couldn't do that. The expedition ground on and on. After a month the men began to feel imprisoned by the canyon walls, and condemned, moreover, to hard labor.

Their fear of outlaws gave way to fear of each other. Hill slept with his Winchester, "ready to shoot one of my big desperadoes who had become mutinously insulting." A photograph shows that the two "big" men of the crew were MacMahon and Ware. Hill gives no appraisal of his nephew, Prentice. The boy is mentioned exactly once in the Century article, and then just as a member of the expedition.

The only possible terminus was Lang-try. Anything before that was just desert. Once, toward the end, they did two days' paddling in one in order to shorten the trip and escape each other's company. MacMahon's price for cooperation in this effort was $10. Hill paid. The others apparently felt that getting out was reward enough. At Langtry they found civilization, represented chiefly by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the courtroom-barroom of Judge Roy Bean. His sign read:


Today a few young people go the whole 350 miles, as Hill did. With lightweight equipment and the water level sufficiently high, they make it in much less time. But for them, running the canyons is not so much a wilderness experience as a test, an athletic event.

You can also travel a stretch of the river in something close to case, pausing at the best swimming holes, stopping for the night at 3 p.m. if you come to an irresistible campsite. The Rio Grande, whose current moves at two or three miles per hour, will do more of the work for you if you hurry less. There may be an occasional piece of litter in the form of a Spam can or a wrecked canoe, but you can sometimes float for hours and see no sign that anyone has ever been there before you.

With the price of gasoline what it is. public use of the lower canyon region of Big Bend National Park has fallen off It is removed from anywhere—about 600 miles from Houston, 400 from San Antonio. And it is one of the biggest, and least visited, of all our 48 national parks. The number of visitors has declined by one-half since 1976, although the length of the visits has increased. So while the campsites are still well used, there's less traffic on the river than there used to be. Geologically, the canyons keep aging, of course-the river cuts deeper, the rocks erode. But ecologically, so to speak, the canyons are shifting ever so slightly back in time, back toward what they were in 1899 when Hill's intrepid and ill-assorted party ventured forth.