Traveling along the U.S.-Mexico border we encountered several Border Patrol stations. As we were waved through we decided must look law-abiding and Anglo (or perhaps it is the military sticker on the windshield). At breakfast this morning in the Kountry Kitchen we eavesdropped on two older Texas men discussing NAFTA and how this treaty allows just about anything except firearms to be carried across the border. With the general indifference to laws and legislation (at least until the past election) of most Americans it was striking to hear these two Sanderson locals describe NAFTA as they know it. Later, in Big Bend National Park, we were again struck by the emphasis on the park's location at the Mexico border, with discussions of which birds, plants and animals are native to both countries.

This National Park is a long, long way from everywhere. Even from tiny Sanderson we drove for a couple of hours before reaching the park headquarters, but on the way we had one grand surprise: a dark grey javelina ambled across the road in front of us. Since this was the first wild javelina we'd seen, we stopped by the side of the road. The javelina had stopped to root around in the brush. It turned towards us and wiggled its snout; then with complete indifference, having decided our scent was not threatening, it returned to its feeding.

When we reached Park headquarters, one ranger was carefully cautioning two young men about to backpack. This is bear and panther, or mountain lion, country. New bear-proof trash cans are in place; the animals are evidently taken quite seriously here. The most unusual animal-related exhibits were the jawbone of a Tyrannasaurus Rex, the horn of a triceratops and the skeleton of a pterosaur. This last, hung from the ceiling, must have been sixteen feet long.

Big Bend is over 100,000 acres of Chihuahua Desert land, acquired by the government in the 1940s. Humans have occupied only the smallest corners, mostly ranching, sometimes trying to farm near the river. It's on the border with Mexico; at one point we could have walked down a path to the Rio Grande and boarded a ferry boat to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Since, according to the sign, the village of 250 souls was founded with two disastrous attempts at cotton farming (when there was still plenty of water for irrigation) but was now reduced to subsisting on tourism, we elected not to go.

People come to Big Bend to hike, photograph and appreciate the varied scenery, flora and fauna of desert, mountains, and floodplains. It claims to be the only National Park containing an entire mountain range, the Chisos. We drove up to the site of the campground and motel -- there was snow at the pass -- and admired the jagged peaks and spectacular views.

Biologists differentiate four North American deserts: Great Basin, Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan. As casual travelers, we see virtually all of the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico as one big desert, with similar landforms and vegetation. So this drive through Big Bend reminded us of our last home in the Indian Wells Valley.

After months in eastern Canada and more months in Europe it was a pleasant surprise to be in familiar surroundings. We love the feeling of vast spaces and stark scenery, but we've come to realize that there is more to hold our attention in settlements and cities.

The Park Service has preserved some of the buildings which remained when they acquired the land. One spot is the grave of a young ranch wife, who died from uremic poisoning after the birth of her fourth child. This family lived near a cottonwood grove and spring around 1910.

We also stopped at two former ranches, one for cattle, the other for goats and sheep. Water was supplied by the famous West Texas windmills, one of which is still working, but the adobe walls of the ranch homes have mostly collapsed.

This is a land where horsemen raided settlers: first the Comanches, later Pancho Villa. At the border crossing of Castelon is an old U.S. camp, built during the Mexican Revolution of 1919-20. All along this border, cavalry posts were established by General John "Black Jack" Pershing. The more we hear about him the more impressive we find his achievements. Today the buildings are used as a ranger station and store for campers.

At the end of the drive from the mountains through the desert to the Rio Grande we came to Santa Elena Canyon. This is a monumental sight, with 1500-foot cliffs rising on either side of the river. We took the Park's most popular trail up into the canyon where we could look up at the towering walls, then down again at the brown, calm river. The path climbs up about a hundred feet to pass a rocky knob and then descends to the river floor, filled with cane and cottonwoods.

At the entrance to the canyon we found a raven who was happy to accept our sandwich crusts. As a thank you, he performed a little trick, stretching his head back between his legs. He was a very successful mendicant.

We had phoned ahead for motel reservations, but the lodge in the Park had no vacancies. We booked a place in Lajitas. On the way we passed the ghost town of Terlingua, in which a few artists have established a small colony.

Lajitas is a land-sales effort, with an RV park, condos, many motel units and a long modern Wild-West style facade to cover its stores. Our motel room was in the Cavalry Post, a motel built in 1979 on the site of a fort established by General Pershing. Since we failed to bring firewood, the fireplace in our room served primarily as a source of cold air, which we fought by keeping the heater on all night.