In the heart of Texas’s Chihuahuan Desert, Terlingua is a wilderness paradise for cosmic cowboys and outdoor adventurers alike—but you’d be forgiven for having never heard of it.

My arms throb and my shoulders burn as I push the blade of my paddle into the depths of the Rio Grande, begging my canoe to lurch forward. Try as I might, I know I can’t keep pace with Austin Alvardo, my guide. I’m struggling and he knows it. “You’re not already tired, are you?” he laughs. “We’re not even halfway done!”

Austin glides out in front of me, his voice echoing off the walls of the Santa Elena Canyon, whose 1500-foot limestone rock faces yawn skywards either side of us. As he rattles off fact after fact about Big Bend National Park—the 800,000-acre arid expanse along the US-Mexico border known for its towering red mountains, vistas, and extreme conditions—I can’t help but gawk at the immensity of the scene. It’s hard to imagine an easier place to get lost—for better or for worse.

Craning my neck to catch the sliver of sky visible beyond the canyon walls, I bump into Austin’s boat, which has stalled in the middle of the river. He’s staring at a jagged peak downstream that’s catching the sun’s reflection.