Big Bend National Park - a lovely place filled with the most amazing isolation. And that isolation includes no phone or internet in most of the park. Phone service is available at the park's most centrally located visitor center -- and they recommend you use it from one particular parking spot in the corner, where the signal is supposedly strongest.
Here is desert, mountains, and river all rolled into one. The big bend in Big Bend is created by the Rio Grande River when it heads north for a while before turning south-east again, eventually dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. The desert is very, very quiet -- if you pull off the side of the road and turn off the car's engine, you can listen to the sound of nothing. No voices, no motors, not even an insect's buzz. If someone happens to be talking nearby, their words can be clearly heard from an amazing distance. Heat and quiet calmness feel intimate and natural -- noises are intrusive and out of place.
You have to want to come to Big Bend -- it is not on the road to anywhere, and is so off the beaten path that, prior to 9/11, travel between Big Bend and the few, tiny Mexican border towns that exist along the river was informally tolerated -- a quick walk across a footbridge, or a wade through the shallows, or a trot on horseback and you were there. Crossing was encouraged as a cultural experience, and no immigration officials cared, as there was really no where else for anyone crossing the border -- from either side -- to go.
9/11 changed all that. Sort of, anyway. Tourists are told that crossing the border to visit little Mexican enclaves is illegal, and can result in All Sorts Of Bad Stuff Happening To You. The inhabitants of those little Mexican enclaves are also told that they cannot cross into the U.S. -- but a man on a horse can easily spot Immigration officials and hurry back to the safety of the river (see photo above). So they cross over to sell homemade walking sticks, and wire sculptures of scorpions, roadrunners, and cactus. They leave them on rocks with honor jars, priced at $5 or $6 dollars.
As we took a short hike to the river, we saw many of these souvenir-laden rocks, and several Mexican nationals on horseback who were checking the sites, replenishing the stock and retrieving the money. One man named Victor would also sing for tips, although "Cielito Lindo" (the "Aye, yi, yi, yi" song) seemed to be the only thing in his repertoire. The park service brochure warns that tourists should not purchase this "contraband," but should instead pay twice the price at the gift shop for "legal" products. We did see a few people buying from the Mexican nationals who crossed the river, and saw no one buying in the gift shop. Free enterprise seems to be alive and well along this small portion of the Rio Grande.