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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.