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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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:


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