Six-packs are rarer than millionaires

Texas: America's rocky backworld

At the extreme edge of the United States, the Rio Grande makes the big bend, meanders through canyons in Big Bend National Park past Mexico and easily leaves the world of the oil barons behind. With the River Guides, artists from New York, musicians and cooks stranded between canyons and prairie. Even Texans wonder about this untamed piece of Texas

Four half-naked people and I share a thermal spring, the beer from their cooler and the intoxicating feeling of bathing in the middle of the prairie. In a stone basin next to the Rio Grande, water that is even hotter than the air above it collects. Every now and then I climb over the rocks into the pleasantly cool river and let myself drift. The Rio Grande carries me away. The voices of my four random acquaintances are getting quieter and quieter. It washes me past bamboo islands and sandbanks. I close my eyes, let myself be carried away and suddenly find myself stranded in Mexico. Border crossing. Illegal. If the Border Patrol caught me doing it, I'd have a serious problem. It's that easy to get out of the United States and, when you swim back, to enter it again. To the left of the Rio Grande is the USA, to the right is Mexico, and in between is one of the supposedly best-guarded borders in the world.

River guides conquered the river with canoes and rubber dinghies

But where the river makes the "big bend", at Big Bend National Park, in the extreme southwest of Texas, some things are different than in the rest of the country. This area 700 kilometers southwest of Dallas is nominally part of Texas, the second largest US state, Bible Belt, Bush Country, known for the radical execution of the death penalty, Waco massacre, Bonnie and Clyde, JR Ewing and the Kennedy assassination, home of the Conservative super-Americans who gave the Republicans dream quotas who, as "God's chosen people", continue to believe in the American dream. After all, it wasn't long ago that ranchers became oil millionaires and the first moon landings were coordinated in Houston.

But somehow the area has decoupled from this development like an island. This may be due to the untamed nature, which did not spit out any oil. Or the fact that Big Bend National Park was founded in 1944. The Rio Grande protrudes far into Mexico in a large curve, so that this "bend" is on the very edge of Texas and the United States. River guides stranded in Terlingua, Alpine, Marfa and Marathon, cool, former city dwellers, river nomads, always looking for the best water. Like pioneers, they conquered the Rio Grande with canoes or rubber dinghies.

Art Mecca Marfa: The wild west is chic here

Painters and writers, musicians and bon vivants followed suit. Today it is easier to order French cheese or falafel than a steak here in the wildest west, in the deepest American province. In 1972 the New Yorker Donald Judd discovered the almost abandoned cattle breeding town of Marfa, put his minimalist sculptures in an old barracks and in the yellow pampas, bought half of Main Street and turned the nest into an art mecca known far beyond Texas. Every day those interested in architecture and art sneak through the installations by Judd, Dan Flavin, Ilya Kabakov and John Chamberlain, who develop an incredible power in this empty landscape. The wild west is so chic in Marfa that New Yorkers are opening sinfully expensive restaurants here and restaurants have recently been christened "Marfa" in New York.

Passport control. 40 kilometers north of my swimming area, a check point slows me down on the road through Big Bend National Park. Soldiers with machine guns sift through the passport and car. Swimming on the river is only laxly controlled, but the border in the hinterland is all the harder. Night vision devices and thermal imaging cameras are part of the equipment. There are also around 20 permanently installed cameras that broadcast live 24 hours a day on the Internet. It is not the Border Patrol who watch the films, the citizens watch and report anything suspicious via an emergency number. 100,000 have registered at www.blueservo.net, in Texas and around the world. So maybe someone in Australia just saw me bathing as far as Mexico. "Big Bend?" Asks the border guard in a friendly manner. "Give my regards to Mike." He lets me pass Mike Davidson officially represents the tourism association "Visit Big Bend", but unofficially does a lot of other things, for example canoeing and making music. Everyone in Big Bend knows everyone else.

I'm going north. I saw the last car an hour ago. The road leads straight through the Chihuahua Desert, every now and then a fence marks a pasture, on the horizon I see individual dark spots: the cattle. Then again I pass head-high cacti, gravel roads, a mailbox, a sign, the Rosillos Ranch must be somewhere at the end of this path. I follow rails for many miles, once a day the Union Pacific runs, an endless freight train that doesn't stop anywhere because there is no reason for it. The sky is steel blue, the light razor sharp. Until a shadow falls over everything. It takes me a while to understand that there is a mountain between the sun and the car. The first of the Chisos Mountains. The peaks rise out of nowhere from the plain, their peaks protrude more than 1000 meters into the sky, it looks like an open blossom. In the middle lies a protected high valley in which oaks and pines grow, mountain lions and bears live and javelinas that look and behave like wild boars, but are not. A sign says "Welcome to Big Bend National Park". Next to it is Mike Davidson. His Jeep, a dented something, once probably a black Toyota. Only the Obama sticker next to the license plate shines cleanly.

Santa Elena Canyon: a spectacular natural monument

Short pants, Hawaiian shirt, the formerly blond hair tousled, an eternal permanent wave where the red baseball cap ends. As we walk along the first hiking trail, it quickly becomes clear that Mike feels more comfortable in other places. The sun is beating, the path leads steeply up into the mountains. Mike gasps. The motto of a mountain lion makes it clear whose territory it is. Mike snorts and coughs. The small oak trees hardly cast any shade. Is that the summit? Great view of the plain, a thunderstorm has just discharged, and wherever the lightning hit the ground, a small piece of desert is burning. Next to it are small fire engines on which firefighters sit and watch the fire.

We drive to the next attraction: Santa Elena Canyon, here the Rio Grande has washed its way through 400-meter-high rocks, a spectacular natural monument, hardly understandable that with 350,000 visitors per year it only attracts a tenth of the crowds that Visit Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. Mike accompanies me a few meters, "I have to go," he says and disappears. Later I find him sleeping in the car, his legs dangling out of the window. We go canoeing, the Rio Grande has so little water that we can do it

can paddle up without any problems. Turtles sunbathe on the tree trunks, there is a smell of warm limestone rocks and musty green plants. Again and again we bathe in the river. Mike is happy, sits in the back of the boat and whistles to himself. Not only because two guides regularly hand us ice-cold drinks, Mike has spent a large part of his life as a river guide on the river.

Terlingua: ghost town among cacti

In the evening, when the canyon walls flicker in the light of our campfire, we are lounging in our camping chairs full of tortillas, enchiladas and apple crumble, Mike talks about his tours, river names buzz, the guides talk about Costa Rica, Brazil, White Water in Colorado, Canada and Alaska: "Like migratory birds, we've always moved around." Why doesn't he do it now? "At some point I knew that there was nothing better than the Big Bend region," says Mike, "the former ghost towns, the old, abandoned mines, the proximity to Mexico, the people who stick together, this lifestyle, where less is more, this endlessly empty land with the wide sky ... "A beaver swims slowly up the river just a few meters away from us, it is light enough to find the sleeping bag in the sand. The canyon only reveals a section of the starry sky, a narrow band, not much wider than the Milky Way. The star streak in the sky is shaped like the Rio Grande.

The next day we drive to Terlingua, Mike lives in this former mining town that mined mercury until the forties, then fell into disrepair - until the River Guides came. His friends live in Terlingua, where his band "Pinche Gringos" rehearses. Mike drives past a cemetery and passes the village square, where a few people sit lost under a large roof and dogs roam. In the middle of the rubble on a hill, he lets me get out in front of a large house, half ruin, half construction site: "Your hotel." I put my bag between the stones and watch the cloud of dust throwing up his car. So this is Terlingua: a handful of houses and tin huts, lots of stones, in between black-rusted Chevrolets from the pre-war era. The door to my hotel "Upstairs at the Mansion" is open. A red tabby cat strokes my legs, a large white bed, half-open windows in three directions, the curtains blow like ghosts almost horizontally.

On the bedside table is a note from my hostess Kaci Fullwood: "There's something to drink in the kitchen, the shower is downstairs, you don't need to look for your room key, there isn't any. The cat is called Retically, by the way. The second cat Theo is no longer alive. Kaci. " I find Kaci a few meters from the house, she is sitting on a wall between ruins. Here she has cell phone reception. She has been running this hotel for a year, "Work in Progress", she says and smiles from under her hat made of banana leaves. First she convinced the homeowner that her kitchen needs a roof after one of the rare rainfalls had come down, then she had to gently make it clear to the presenter of the pirate radio Kyote 100.1 FM that there was room for his studio in the big house, but the veranda was open Duration not suitable for living and garbage. She looked for a new place to stay for him, now she is clearing room by room, finding bed linen with monograms, the remains of a grand piano, the keys here, the lid there.

When the mines flourished, the director's "mansion" was the best house in the area. The village had a thousand inhabitants in its prime. It should be a few hundred now. Just where? Kaci invites me on a tour of Terlingua. We walk to the church, for which she has just designed the stained glass window, we visit the "Menagerie Press" of Californian Lauren Stedman, who uses four historic, hand-operated machines to print elaborate posters, stamp business cards and punch patterns in her hut. Kaci points out hidden caravans, inhabited caves, solar panels among the undergrowth. The little ghost town is slowly getting a face. There is no mayor, says Kaci. The nearest police station is an hour and a half away. The people who live here organize themselves and appreciate the high "nudity factor", says Kaci, the chance to simply walk around naked at home because the nearest neighbor is so far away. In the evening half the village sits satisfied with several six-packs of beer on the veranda next to the "Terlingua Trading Company", making room for us on the 20 meter long bench.

American dream backwards: from millionaire to dishwasher

People don't talk much, and even less want to know, the protective roof, the view of the prairie, the closeness of others are enough for them. The sun slowly goes down, making the Chisos Mountains shine on the right in the picture, first orange, then deep red, then slowly pushing themselves under the horizon on the left of the picture. At some point in the quiet of the early evening, Mark Kneeskern, illustrator and artist, says he would never want to live in Texas, Terlingua is outside of Texas. Blair Pittman, former National Geographic reporter, said he was going to write down the village stories now. At the very end, George Womack, in overalls, waves a toolbox next to him, his hands as wide as the lid. In his previous life he was a percussionist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, now a drummer for the Pinche Gringos. "Oh, Willie Nelson just left," says Pittman. "No joke." The world-famous country star, he is also a frequent guest on this porch between the ruins somewhere in nowhere in Texas. "Nothing is what it seems," says Pittman, "anything is possible." Perhaps that is the secret of Terlingua, that it is more exciting for the people here to live the American dream backwards, from millionaire to dishwasher.

At eight o'clock the village meets in the "Boathouse", a large pub with an open-air dance floor. You wear cowboy boots and a hanging dress, shorts with a jacket, self-made, eye-catching jewelry, bright red lips, dusters, Warhol cowboy chic, a little bit of Texas, a little bit of SoHo. The Pinche Gringos play, Mike Davidson is on guitar and mercilessly covers Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, even the Beatles with a fast Mexican rhythm that is wonderfully easy to dance to. The river guides are there, Kaci, Mark and Blair, I even see the border guard. Well after midnight the moon is like a lamp in the sky, the gringos are still playing, a little faster, a little more weird than at the beginning, most of the guests dance barefoot. When I slowly stroll through the night with Kaci to her mansion on the hill, the "Boathouse" remains like a colorful, inhabited island in the middle of the black nothingness.

Info Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is an indescribably beautiful hiking region. Many paths start at the lodge. They lead through a wide variety of vegetation zones: cactus deserts, oak forests, river valleys, rocks. The best way to explain how to react to bears and mountain lions is from the rangers on site.

International area code: 001

Time difference: Berlin 12 p.m. = West Texas 4 a.m.

Money: Under no circumstances should you forget your PIN for your credit card. There are ATMs in Marfa and Fort Davis. Even the banks do not change euros. In many shops and petrol stations you can only pay in cash.

Travel time: October to May. After that it gets too hot.

Entry: EU citizens travel without a visa and must register before the flight using the ESTA electronic travel authorization system https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov

Getting there: Texas is home to American Airlines. You can fly to Midland / Odessa with her or with United, Continental or Air France. From there it takes about four hours to drive to the Big Bend region.

Information desk: www.traveltex.com, the official website of Tourism Texas, also in German. www.visitbigbend.com, good information about the national park and its surroundings

Stay

Chisos Mountains Lodge: Somewhat stuffy ambience. The five small stone huts that are off the beaten track are the most beautiful. Many people bring their telescopes to look at the stars. Tel. 877-386 43 83, www.chisosmountainslodge.com; Double room from $ 110, hut for 2 people. from $ 140 (space for up to 6 people)

Companies

Hike: My favorites were the Windows Trail (shady canyon, approx. 3 hours), the Lost Mine Trail (in the mountains, lots of sun, approx. 4 hours) and the easy hike to the Cattail Falls (very varied, the path starts opposite the Sam Nail Ranch parking lot, approx. 2 hours).

Hot Springs: You can bathe in the ruins of the hot springs, then cool off in the Rio Grande - and swim to Mexico. On the road to Rio Grande Village (quite bumpy at the end)

Boat tours on the Rio Grande: Depending on how much water there is in the river, you can use rubber dinghies or canoes. Be sure to book a multi-day tour, even if it is not cheap. Otherwise you will miss the most beautiful starry night of your life. Far Flung Outdoor Center, Terlingua, Tel. 800-839 72 38, www.farflungoutdoorcenter.com; 2 days $ 350 / pers.

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