Beyond El Paso to the southeast, the country begins to open up the closer one approaches the exits leading to San Elizario, Clint, and Fabens. Despite the omnipresent big rigs on the interstate highway driving quicker than gossip and hell bent for leather to get where they’re going, I tend to begin to slow down at that invisible, soul-replenishing demarcation line across the Chihuahuan sands where the creosote holds sway and suzerainty. With the Pass City in my rearview mirrors and a windshield filled corner to corner and edge to edge with possibility and regret, I look to the south to the Sierra de Guadalupe further on along the bolson and across the river, rising like the ancient furrow it is in the desert’s brow. Once, in early November 2016 en route to Alpine, I slowed down maybe a little too much to pull off the highway at Fort Hancock to walk about the cemetery there in search of a murderer’s grave. On that tenth day of the month, the light filtered through the clouds to cast an eerie pall and heavy shadows covered the Sierra de Guadalupe, covered wide swaths of desert floor.
For an hour or so, I walked among the burials in search of a name, but the desperado in question evaded me; he died with his boots on in a helluva gun fight more than a century earlier when he and his next of kin tried desperately to stave off law officers and an armed posse; they had killed a trainman up in New Mexico, and escaping to Texas they planned to cross into Chihuahua at Fort Hancock, but their best laid plans were thwarted. As for me, I was in search of an exclamation point to jot down in a story I was researching, but that silent, sacred field would not yield up its secrets. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place, maybe he wasn’t buried there, or, worse yet, maybe the good people of Fort Hancock had been disinclined to deprive the coyotes or buzzards. Quien sabe?
As I pulled away from Fort Hancock with no more answers to lingering questions than when I arrived, the sight of the Sierra de Guadalupe wrested my attention to such a thorough degree that attention and focus on the road breezed out the window. So I had to pull off on the side of the road to snap a few pictures to capture a fleeting moment, for a column of sunlight had anchored its flared-out base on the sloped uplift stretched out before me. Light, physics, and optics being what they are, and often beyond my firm comprehension, those forces behaved in the manners particular to them all and in defiance of any human interference, and in short order their shape and vision had morphed into a wider welcoming mystery.
Standing nearby that asphalt highway among the tall-reaching vegetation of a dwarf forest, I regarded the low mountains to the west with keen introspection. Why was that natural phenomenon mimicking an artificial spotlight? Had I been one of Coronado’s children with words written on J. Frank Dobie’s typewriter in Austin bouncing about in the attic of my mind, I just might have been thoroughly convinced that the Almighty was pointing a divine finger to reveal the exact spot where the Spanish padres buried the fabled wealth of the Seven Cities of Cíbola four centuries earlier, but alas moments become memories in the blink of an eye, and so it was. I headed on down the road; mis compadres were expecting me at the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa, and time is short.
Over the next three days, I saw good friends I had not seen in a while, I heard words I had not heard before, I became aware of new stories; I expanded my horizons, as the wise ones say. Ostensibly, my pilgrimage marked the annual rendezvous at Sul Ross State University to attend the Center for Big Bend Studies conference and enjoy a short span of time among friends and colleagues who I don’t see often enough as they live in Chihuahua, Colorado, West Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere in New Mexico. They speak; I listen and learn. A simple equation, yet one of stout mathematical precision wrapped in historicism and humanism. But when the rodeo was over and everyone was drawn homeward bound to points beyond, and I was likewise obliged to load my gear and thoughts in the silver JEB whose odometer shows the innumerable highway scars, I was yet once again confronted with the unenviable and dreaded moment of departure from the Big Bend.
Driving away from Alpine is a tough thing, not because of my destination, but due to the gnawing realization of leaving for a while another home, my home in the Trans-Pecos. On the outbound road, the constant landscape assuages my dispirited mood, and my eyes are arrested with the appearance of interesting cloud formations over the faraway mountains and the deep shadows they cast, and I am unable to resist the frequent temptation to stop and frame the scene in a lens. Snap, snap, snap speaks the camera shutter. And back in the car and along the road, I recall not a few twelve-ounce victims and bungled conversations over the past few days and wonder if I’ve learned anything.