SI Vault
Richard Phelan
June 07, 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.
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June 07, 1982

The Outline Of The U.s. Was Finished After A Risky Run On The Rio Grande

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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.

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