Writer Edward Abbey seriously damaged his fiancee's new Ford convertible and destroyed their relationship when he ignored a ranger's advice not to venture down a closed road in Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. I admired Abbey's writing ability and his respect for nature, but I didn't want to repeat his trail mistakes. We'd come to the park prepared to do some serious off-road exploring in our new Ford F-350 4x4.

There are several "improved" dirt roads in the park. Old Maverick Road is a 14-mile gravel road to Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande River flows between limestone cliffs 1500 feet high. Grapevine Hills Road, an eight-mile gravel road, leads to Grapevine Spring and the Grapevine Hills trailhead to Balanced Rock.

Now, eager for some real adventures, we bought a road guide at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. A park ranger answered our questions about road conditions and gave us advice. Then we drove south to the Glenn Spring Road, which is designated as an "unimproved" dirt road for high clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicles only.

I shifted into four-wheel low and listened to our diesel engine rumble slowly along the narrow, rock strewn, dirt road through washes and creosote bushes. The dusty, desert air was rich with a strange flint-like smell. We were finally alone in the Chihuahuan Desert; we felt free and it was good.

The road got rougher near the Juniper Canyon Road turnoff, and I had to drive slower over the bedrock and large rocks jutting up in the road. After about nine miles, the scant remains of Glenn Springs came into view. Nearby, a candelilla wax factory was constructed here in 1914, where they extracted the wax by boiling the candelilla plants, which are plentiful in this area.

We made our way back toward the main road and turned west onto the Pine Canton Road, rising upward toward the Chisos Mountains. This was definitely a high-clearance road with numerous washouts and large rocks that would tear the bottom out of a small sedan. As we climbed higher into the canyon, the clean, pine-scented air became cooler and the vegetation more plentiful.