A thin, dry border between heaven and hell

  "The first impression of the country — one that does not wear off — is that of magnificent confusion," writes Walter Webb of the southwestern corner of Texas, also known as Big Bend country. Some visitors feel as though they’ve discovered hell on earth. Other people find that this region of vast open spaces, colorful mountains, dry drainages, thorny vegetation and hidden canyons grabs the mind and never lets go.

In God’s Country or Devil’s Playground, both viewpoints are explored. Editor Barney Nelson pulls together an eclectic crew of writers, ranging from early Spanish missionaries to today’s river rats, who spend their days rafting the Rio Grande and nights drinking toasts to it. There are professors, ranchers, cavers, Mexicans and all the folks in between. Even Edward Abbey gets in on the action: In "Discovery and Early Sorrows," Abbey wrecks a brand-new Ford convertible — and a relationship — on a closed Park Service road.

Little has changed in Big Bend country, according to these essays: In a narrative that rivals John Wesley Powell’s account of the exploration of the Colorado River, Robert Hill describes the first scientific exploration of the lower Rio Grande canyons in 1901. I ran the same canyons myself, nearly 100 years later; the most notable difference is the absence today of the feared bandito Alvarado, and of the 2,000 miners who once resided in a remote border town.

God’s Country is advertised as nature writing, but the categories of writing blur into each other like the borders of this land. Some pieces describe plants and animals in detail, some are tall tales, and still others are simply unexpected adventures in a landscape that is not safe to love. Writes Kenneth Ragsdale, "The big bend allows no winners; there are only survivors." This is the story of the survivors.

God’s Country or Devil’s Playground: The Best Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas. Edited by Barney Nelson
321 pages, softcover $22.95. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002.