A Day of Exploration One Hundred and Thirty-One Years Ago

Casa del Ainsworth, if you will, rises on a small bit of ground about midway in elevation between the Organ Mountains to the east and Las Cruces to the west. From the downward slope of the range’s west side, the geological strata are slightly higher above sea level than the nearby capital city of Doña Ana County. Ironically and with a touch of human hubris, this bench is referred to as the East Mesa, due to its location relative to the man-made settlement. More properly, though, this natural feature ought to have a more poetic name. In bland binary terms, the East Mesa is so-named to distinguish it from the West Mesa, which rises beyond the right bank of the Rio Grande. Thus, an east-west cross-section of Las Cruces reveals the Organ Mountains, a mesa at the foot of its western slopes, the town itself, the river, and then an uplift to complement the opposite bench. Bland or not, though, those are the names of the mesas we’re stuck with. Missed was the opportunity to call them Tierra Seco or Conejo Wash or Sagebrush Plains or some such whimsical and intriguing name. “So it goes,” sayeth Linda Ellerbee.

Despite the uninspiring appellation of “East Mesa,” its natural beauty awed a three-man party in the spring of 1891. From faraway Boston, Massachusetts, Charles H. Ames had learned of the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico, and as a climber, he set out to see this range for himself. He brought along a fellow enthusiast named B. K. Benson, a denizen of New Orleans, Louisiana. Ames was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a group organized in his hometown whose members reveled in the thrill and danger afforded by mountaineering in the late-Nineteenth Century. The club published a journal containing accounts of their exploits of discovery, often writing about the difficulties and hardships of climbing into unknown reaches of one mountain range or another. Undoubtedly, one reason Ames traveled to the Territory of New Mexico in May of 1891 was to write about an excursion of his own design to regale his kindred climbers in New England.

For Ames and Benson, the journey to the Chihuahuan Desert from their distant locales surely was an arduous trip. Not only were the miles long, but upon arriving in El Paso they bore the brunt of a common hazard of travel in the West. “Ordinarily the connection is easy by rail,” Ames later wrote of the route between El Paso and Las Cruces, “but extraordinary floods had prevailed, and both railway and carriage-road had been washed out so seriously that I was obliged to make a wide detour and to approach Las Cruces from the north.” He and Benson, therefore, “went on northwest by rail by the Southern Pacific to Deming, some fifty or seventy-five miles; then northeast nearly as many more, to Rincon, where we again crossed the Rio Grande to its eastern bank, only to find that on the north as well as on the south approach to Las Cruces by rail was cut off by the turbulent river. There was no way for us but to secure the best conveyance we could and make the forty-mile trip across the desert,—there known as the Jornado del Morte [sic], or the Journey of Death, in grim commemoration of disastrous expeditions across its waterless and treeless expanse in early times.” At long last, though, upon slowly approaching Las Cruces one long mile after another, the two wayfarers constantly observed the jagged uplift “which presented a very striking and peculiar appearance of vertical ribs of stone of great size and regularity, and at once provoking the comparison to organ-pipes; and later on we were interested to know that they bore this very name in both the Spanish and English tongues.”

A view of the Organ Mountains from west of the Rio Grande a few decades ago. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The mountaineers arrived in Las Cruces on about May 15, 1891, and their inquiries of the local populace about the routes to ascend into the Organs proved fruitless. No one they spoke with had ever attempted such a foolhardy act due to their conviction that it was impossible to climb to those lofty summits. [Editor’s note: The leopard in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” assuredly would have disagreed!] Their thwarted efforts to gain any first-hand knowledge of the mountains was somewhat lessened upon making the acquaintance of Elmer Ottis Wooton, a professor of botany on faculty at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Only sixteen months earlier, in January 1890, Wooton had received an appointment as the Territory’s first resident botanist when much of the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Organ Mountains remained to be discovered. During his two decades at the college, Professor Wooton identified and cataloged numerous previously unknown species of bushes, trees, flowers, and weeds native to the region, but I ought to keep on with the story at hand.

Settled only forty-two years earlier, Las Cruces embodied many of the attributes of a town on the frontier. Its appearance likely startled Ames and Benson somewhat, being more accustomed to the architecture, streetscapes, and society of Boston and New Orleans. The town’s dusty lanes stretched out along the one- and two-story buildings fronting Main Street and indeed throughout the town. On the north end of the town’s main thoroughfare rose St. Genevieve’s Church, while the Loretto Academy anchored the street’s south end. In between these two edifices, as the two wayfarers strolled along this Western promenade, their eyes were not treated to the visual delights of the architectural blending of Spanish and French tastes of the buildings on the banks of the Mississippi River nor to the fashionable and elegant buildings fronting Boylston Street and Clarendon Street in Boston. Rather, their eyes feasted on rough-hewn but comfortable jacales, adobes with thick walls and flat roofs, and a scattering of wood-frame or adobe residences displaying the peacock feathers of the Italianate, Queen Anne, and Territorial styles. In his written account of his time in the West, Ames neglected to mention where he and Benson hosteled, but chances are pretty good they found accommodations at the Rio Grande Hotel, standing majestically on the west side of Main Street. For three days, they assembled their outfit, made inquiries about the Organs to the local populace, met botanist Wooton, and braced themselves to ascend into the mountains.

St. Genevieve’s Church, the corazon of the Catholic community in Las Cruces, as it appeared in 1891. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Main Street, 1891. Las Cruces, NM, Looking North from Convent.” With the photographer’s back to the Loretto Academy, one sees Martin Lohman’s residence on the east side of the road, while the Rio Grande Hotel stands on the opposite side further away. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The Rio Grande Hotel, when she was majestic and grand. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Our start from Las Cruces was made on the morning of May 19,” Ames later wrote. “For days the Organ range had confronted us on the east, like a file of tall sentinels, and challenged us. To-day we accepted the challenge.” At 7:30 that morning, they rode out, Professor Wooton on horseback, and Ames and Benson in a buggy drawn by two horses. “Straight eastward by a wagon-trail we proceeded across the mesa. A gentle rise for twelve miles brought us to the base of the Organs. There they stood, straight and tall, their sharp needle-like points and spires piercing the blue, looking to be not more than one third of their true distance away. … Our road was fairly good, and we bowled merrily along, shouting to the jack-rabbits and cotton-tails which every minute scurried away on either side. … Every now and then the beautiful mountain quail, in pairs, would run swiftly out of the path, the peculiar head-plume of the male giving it a striking beauty.” [Second editor’s note: By “mountain quail,” Ames is referring to Gambel quail, an indigenous species known for its lovely and distinctive song. Right about this time of the year, we see them shortly after dawn and as dusk settles when a male and female, especially if they are new parents, are out and about with their young ones in search of sustenance. The male often perches on a high point, whether a creosote bush, a desert willow, or a roof top, to keep an eye out on things. Meanwhile, the female and her little ones scurry about in the brush in search of something to eat. Through it all, the male and the female talk to each other in a series of songs, just to let the other know that all is right and well. That’s rather humane, from a quail’s perspective, I suppose. People can learn a lot from quail, I know.]

Throughout the forenoon, as the small party crossed the mesa, Ames noted the diversity of bird and plant species, but he was struck by the lack of animal life and the land’s silence. “But the vegetable world presented much that was interesting,” he penned, “and many a specimen found its way into Professor Wooton’s botanical case. Often the graceful rider would, in true ‘plains’ fashion, stoop, and without dismounting pluck from the earth some low flower or grass.” While the botanist intermittently gathered specimens, they drew ever nearer to the mountains. Exactly where the explorers approached the Organs is unclear, but based on Ames’ description, one can reasonably conclude the site resembles Bar and Soledad Canyons. “We passed up the dry bed of an arroyo, or gully, to the foot of a great, vertical uplifted sheet of rock, precisely similar to those formations which are so well known to visitors to the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Here were a ranchman’s hut and an artificial reservoir of water.” As an aside, in recent years, road improvements have been made at the trail head leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons; from a much earlier day, there stands a water tank for livestock and a windmill, but those features may not have been there in 1891. However, at that exact point an arroyo meanders from the mountains’ western slope, and uphill into Bar Canyon closer to the Organs that wash cuts in front of the ruins of a homestead. This stacked-stone cabin offers silent testimony to the isolation some settlers endured in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century as they mined for precious metals in the Organ Mountains or raised cattle in the upcountry meadows. These ruins I have examined during hikes in Bar Canyon, and they show competent skill in building; if indeed this was the cabin the gentlemen passed by in May of 1891, then they saw a welcoming shelter flanked by the skyward uplift of granite.

The trailhead leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Perhaps the mountaineers passed this point and trekked for the point of uplift on the extreme right edge.

As the three men prepared to climb, they “tethered the horses to some brush, near the piles of glittering ore, and improvising alpenstocks from the stiff and dried blossom-stems of the century plant,” as Ames dramatically related, “we attacked the mountain.” Unexpectedly, dark clouds began appearing from the west, and Ames surmised that rain would begin falling soon and probably while they were in the mountains. The climbers remained undaunted. “Up we toiled over a spur of one of the high peaks, picking our way around and over the spiny enemies before referred to,” he wrote, “now and then stopping to take a look at the widening landscape on the west, and to speculate as to the chance of rain. But the serrated peaks above were still in the blue, and mocking us; and on we went.” With the clouds gathering and the climbers cautiously seeking a path upward, Benson became separated from Ames and Professor Wooton and remained so for several hours; his absence was doubly unnerving because he carried with him their only canteen of water. Nor did the duo remain together, either. With Ames in the lead and uncertain of Benson’s whereabouts, Professor Wooton “tarried now and then to secure some coveted flower or plant new to him,” and his slowness of pace compelled Ames to press on but remaining within ear-shot. “Down into a kind of gully, then up, up, we went, through the thickest of thickets, and every step requiring the greatest care on account of cactus and yucca spines. No amount of care availed to prevent many a savage home-thrust. Huge bowlders obstructed the way. In and out and over and among them we crawled and scrambled, oftentimes for some distance crawling flat on the earth or over the tops of the scrub. Most Appalachians know well what good, thick, stubborn ‘spruce scrub’ is, as it covers the northern shoulders and spars of some of our New Hampshire and Maine mountains.” In addition to the rugged natural beauty Ames was enjoying, he was, however, fretful of an encounter with centipedes, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, or any other poisonous inhabitant of the rocky crags, but on he and Wooton climbed.

A Momentary Interlude: while writing this short piece, on several occasions I’ve regarded the west face of the Organ Mountains from our backyard or while out on a walk through our neighborhood to consider exactly where the mountaineers ascended. Undoubtedly, the appearance of the Organs one hundred and thirty-one years ago hardly differs from the view of the present day; after all, in geological time, what is a paltry century to a mountain range? But I look, and I ponder. I wonder how similar or how different are my own excursions into the Organ Mountains from the first known ascent into their mysterious creases and heights. Quien sabe?

While in the Organ Mountains, Ames, Benson, and Wooton easily gazed toward the western horizon from on high among the hardy flora and the old rocks.

Now, back to May of 1891. On they climbed. With Benson’s whereabouts still unknown, Ames and Wooton continued upward. “The situation was not without peril,” Ames acknowledged, but “[s]till, I knew I was very, very near to the summit, and I kept on; at last I knew I was at the very top of the ridge”[my emphasis]. With a nod to the Muse upon attaining that height, Ames triumphantly declared, “The wind whirled the fog up from the other side, and hurled it in my face, and shrieked at me for coming there, and yelled to me that I should not see one glimpse of the vast prospect beyond. I shouted my cheerful defiance, and then hastily crept down on my own side of the mountain, glad that I could be pretty sure of the right slope, and knowing the terrible peril of the least blundering in this respect.” Rain was falling steadily as Ames and Wooton scaled down the western slope, and en route they finally regained Benson. Their good fortune endured a punch when they discovered that they had lost their way and an enormous crag blocked their path. The mountaineers, short on water late in the day with a storm menacing their every move, feared they would have to tough it out and stay the night in the wilderness. They conferred and decided to find the way to their horses and buggy. Downward they went. The rain storm began moving away and “with the peaks above us now all clear and standing mockingly out against the blue,” the wayfarers soaked in “a wonderful view of western New Mexico and Arizona and northern Mexico beneath and beyond us.” Fatigued, thirsty, and hungry, “[w]e clambered down, getting many a stab from the yucca spears, which we had now hardly strength enough to avoid, and finally, rejoining Mr. Benson, we reached our horses and rode down to the carriage by the little ranch in the valley, and were soon bowling rapidly home across the mesa to Las Cruces.” Later, Ames informed his Appalachian readers that the townspeople in Las Cruces insisted that a climb into the mountains would require at least two days, so he must have enjoyed considerable satisfaction accomplishing the feat of ascending into the Organ Mountains in only one day.

Six months after his excursion into the Organ Mountains, Ames wrote Professor Wooton from Boston to ask for his assistance with a number of questions about the mountains. While Ames’ letter was not published, Wooton’s response of November 28, 1891, was, and one can surmise that Ames sought affirmation to support his assertion that the Organs were largely inaccessible to bolster his claim of an unrivaled extraordinary feat. After all, upon the party’s return to Las Cruces late in the day of May 19, Ames described the occasion vividly. “The next day,—ah, that next day! Well, we did not enter for any foot-races, nor attempt to win the prize in climbing a greased pole; but though our joints were stiff and our muscles sore, I for one, as I looked at the great organ-pipes piercing the eastern sky and tried to copy their profile on paper, was glad that I had stood on their highest ridge and proved that they could be ascended, and in one day, from Las Cruces.” Ames and his two companions certainly achieved a remarkable accomplishment in the spring of 1891, and they accomplished something no Anglo-Saxon was known to have done before them; perhaps in the unwritten chronicles of the earlier inhabitants of this stretch of the Rio Grande Valley, a comparable feat had long already been achieved. Quien sabe? But in his written account months after the climb, Ames tipped his hand about what he and his compadres actually accomplished. “With my present knowledge,” he noted about the climb, “it could be done with certainty and comparative ease; but I firmly believe that the ascent is hardly possible save in the place where I accomplished it, and I think the very summits are quite unattainable, for they are sharp and steep shafts of stone, which afford no foothold whatever. The peak to our left as we climbed reminded me constantly of the Aiguille du Midi, in the Alps, as one sees it from the hotel at Montanvert or the Mer de Glace.”

From my perspective, a close reading of Ames’ account and a bit of first-hand knowledge of the Organ Mountains, something his readers and fellow Appalachian members would not have had, is sufficient to simultaneously appreciate his ascent into the mountains while also recognizing the extent of his accomplishment. Mind you, I am fascinated and intrigued by Ames’ story of his time in Arid America, and I’m delighted that he had the gumption to journey to the Territory of New Mexico despite the distances and hardships to attempt a difficult task. Nonetheless, with a wink and a nod to The Who in 1971, Ames doesn’t fool me; I see what he was trying to do. With a subtle wordplay twist, Ames pulled a fast one on his New England readers with his use of “ridge” and “summit” in a manner to bluff the distinction between them. [Third editor’s note: This type of distinction is woven into the narratives Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Dangerous Summer (1960). In this case, the distinction between implied and real danger to the matadors in the corridas in España, an overarching notion that figures centrally in many of Hemingway’s works.] No doubt about it but that Ames reached one of the high ridges, but he admitted that the “very summits are quite unattainable.” More than likely, the peak to his left during the ascent (that is, to the north) was either Razorback, Wildcat, the peak named in honor of the plant species Vaccinium erythrocarpus (keep your sophomoric snickers to yourself), Lost Peak, or The Wedge. So, yes, he demonstrated that in one day an excursion from Las Cruces and into the mountains to a high ridgetop and back to town was possible, but perhaps he recognized that a successful ascent to the highest point of the Organ Mountains could not be done in one day. “Poo-tee-weet,” chirps the songbird to accompany Billy Pilgrim’s “So it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade (1969).

But don’t misconstrue my appreciation of the arduous day the three climbers endured on that spring day so many years ago. Rather, I reiterate that in the grand design these three intrepid adventurers added to the incessant accumulation of knowledge about Earth in an age defined by exploration and the National Geographic Society. Lest we forget what occurred on May 19, 1891, in the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico: three men stood on a high point on a stony uplift and later wrote about it, and Professor Wooton collected and later named and cataloged several previously unknown species of Chihuahuan Desert flora. Both actions are hugely significant; their additions to the overall knowledge of this corner of the world deserve recognition and thanks, and I, for one, am pleased to have discovered Ames’ narrative. But moreover, my sense of delight of reading his story amplifies greatly because I happened to become aware of his words on Thursday, May 19, 2022, exactly one hundred and thirty-one years to the day after the events foretold. Not too shabby, eh?

A solitary sentinel in Bar Canyon on March 18, 2019.

Note Bene: Over the past two weeks as I’ve worked a bit now and again on this piece, my references to Hemingway are occasionally reflexive, but I would be remiss if I neglected to note that on this day one hundred and four years ago, young Ernest arrived in Paris with a group of Red Cross volunteers en route to northern Italy where he had a rendezvous with Destiny.

Nature’s Wonders on a Friday Afternoon

New Mexico: Blue sky, white grey mountains, wispy clouds, greenish desert floor.

Ten weeks ago today, upon leaving the office, I stopped by the house long enough to pick up my camera bag and drive out on Dripping Springs Road and its vicinity to look at the west side of the Organ Mountains through several good lenses. A sense of urgency pushed me onward, because beauty in the Chihuahuan Desert changes constantly and lasts far too briefly. The night before, on February 3, a real cold front for our corner of New Mexico crept in on little cat’s paws, as the poem says, and dusted the upper reaches of the Organs with just enough snow to remind us of Mother Nature’s bulldog tenacity to care for Earth. In miniature, the peaks of the Organs could have graced a wedding banquet table or a baker’s display case with their powdery white appearance, but in truth the mighty geological uplift was nurturing its oaks, pinons, and pines with the slow absorption of traces of icy water. The flora residing in the higher reaches of this rocky spine exudes toughness, but even the hardiest of plants and trees need a cool drink of water now and again. In the darkness of the hours before, their wish was granted.

I motored over to a spot of ground stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and parked at the toe of an enormous geological pimple. Little sounds stirred. It was mostly quiet but for some dude in his car nearby. Admittedly, he was quiet, too, and perhaps wanting to be alone with his thoughts. Quien sabe? Figuring so, I walked about in search of right and honorable vantage points to snap a picture or two of the mountains. All about me stood clusters of the great indicator plant known as creosote, sometimes called greasewood, and a true denizen of the Chihuahuan frontier. I aimed the camera’s lens toward the mountains to include the desert floor and its hardy squatter dotting the landscape, and with the snow in the crevices and on the peaks surmounted by a blanket of clouds, I suspected at least a few of the views would be captured on film sufficient to show someone without discrediting the beautiful views. I’ll trust others to judge for themselves whether memorable scenes were recorded or not.

Moving on. Today is April 15, 2022, and tragedy on the level of the Ides of March has beleaguered this day throughout history. This spot on the calendar is notorious, having claimed President Lincoln in 1865, the Titanic in 1912, and the Cubs on most opening days of the major league season, but on this particular iteration of mid-April, I perused a batch of digitized negatives of the film I shot exactly two-and-a-half months ago.

My composition acumen has rusted somewhat since high school days, but I’m re-teaching myself the art of photography. Armed with a Canon A-1 that’s about as old as I am and rolls of outdated Konica film, I’m rediscovering the things I knew as a kid whose big dreams envisioned becoming the Peter Jennings of photojournalism. Well, maybe I better tone it down a bit, because that bar’s not exactly what I’m trying to achieve, but I remain a student to the art and am fortunate to live amongst a great canvas of beauty to endeavor to honor its lovely features in a humane, artistic way. Andele pues! Quien soy yo? Decide for yourself in this brief but (hopefully) worthwhile gallery of the place I refer to as my backyard. ¡Hasta la revolución!

With respect to the Monkey Wrench Gang, I present the Organ Mountains.

Pondering, Thinking, and Wandering About in a Land of Little Rain

Well, alright. I’ll tip my hand just a small bit. The question is “Why?” The answer is “Because.” For some years now, I’ve sensed the human, all too human, need to record my impressions of the land poetically known as Arid America. Whether my views of the landscape compel me to pick up my camera or my pen, the song remains the same. Echoes of the same siren murmurs that beguiled and enchanted those nautical Argonauts of antiquity also reverberate throughout the sierras reaching skyward from the desert floor. I have heard them, and their impact on me is undeniable. And I’m rather certain I’m not the only one who detects these faint whisperings. Evidence abounds from Time Immemorial to the Present. Petroglyphs on lonely, isolated rock outcroppings across the desert foothills attest to the old understandings of Sky and Earth as perceived by the earliest inhabitants.

Much later, three Iberians and a Moor wandered through this vast tierra incognito of European cartography, and one of the wayfarers, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, related his observations of the land and its people to viceregal officials in Mexico City upon his arrival in the metropolis in 1536. Between the Sixteenth Century and the Twentieth Century, not a few chroniclers articulated their respective impressions of the valleys, mountains, and rivers and its native birds, beasts, and flowers. Ansel Adams’ evocative photographs of the downstream mouth of Santa Elena Canyon in the late 1940s captured one of the varied moods of this prominent geological feature, while Michael Frary’s watercolor paintings of the canyon in the early 1980s presented a comparable tranquil view of this incomparable place in the Big Bend. In between these two artists’ excursions into Arid America, Edward Abbey and his soon-to-be-ex-fiancée made a few regrettable memories in Big Bend National Park in 1952 to such an extent that twenty-five years would pass before he could write “Disorder and Early Sorrow” about that excursion.

In the span of five years wedged between 1968 and 1973, poet-musicians wrote lyrics to accompany chords to the compositions that inadvertently find expression in the natural beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert in this tasty offering of a Blue Plate Special:

Sun warm on my face, I hear you / Down below movin’ slow / And it’s morning

The Byrds, “Draft Morning,” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)

So like a summer Thursday / I cry for rain / To come and turn / The ground to green again

Townes Van Zandt, “Like a Summer Thursday” from Our Mother The Mountain (1969)

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning / A cloudburst doesn’t last all day … / All things must pass / All things must pass away

George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass,” the title track from his 1970 album

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz / And the sky with no clouds / The heat was hot and the ground was dry / But the air was full of sound

America, “A Horse With No Name” from their 1971 debut album

A year ago today, a fleeting thought crossed my mind like unexpected words of good advice, and I uttered a sentence during a moment of introspection, and I rounded up a marker and a sheet of paper to write that sentence as if it were a poem too precious to neglect and lose to the darkness of forgetfulness. For a full year, this sheet of paper has remained on my desk, and therein is the reason I feel obliged to honor Dark Horse:

When sunshine is not enough / To make me feel bright / It’s got me suffering in the darkness / That’s so easy come by on the roadside / Of one long lifetime

George Harrison, “Deep Blue” from Living in the Material World (1973)

¡Abre los ojos! There’s Life Underground!

In the fifty-two-card deck of the Mythology of the American West, the Ten of Diamonds represents “The Great American Desert.” Or, at least I’m ascribing that name to that card; we can debate later. At any rate, that lofty appellation has been attributed to Major Stephen Harriman Long since 1821 upon the publication of his account of an expedition of scientific exploration far west of the Mississippi River during the previous two years. Major Long and his fellow explorer Dr. Edwin James, a botanist, prepared a map of the country the expedition had crossed, and a large swath was unflatteringly labeled “The Great American Desert.”

Note the “Great American Desert” lettering east and north of Santa Fe on Mexico’s far northern frontier.

Subsequently, in American mythology, Major Long unhesitantly continues to receive misplaced credit for the myth naming of this extensive tract of Arid America. Rather, in a cogent, compelling argument of refutation, Dr. William H. Goetzmann in his Exploration & Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West, an acclaimed study and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1967, properly and rightfully ascribes the mischaracterization of Arid America’s earliest name in the English tongue to Lieutenant Zebulon Pike during his arduous, yet dubious, peregrination deep into the North American interior in 1805-1807. From Pike’s report subsequent to his return to the United States from Mexico, Goetzmann quotes: “I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean’s rolling wave; and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed.”

Lieutenant Pike’s description may have been more impactful and convincing as a deterrent to unquenchable American thirst for continental expansion had a wider audience read and pondered the significance of his description, but, alas, the Course of Empire plowed onward toward Manifest Destiny. Nor did Major Long’s succinct but stark “Great American Desert” dissuade the next generation of Americans from embarking upon an expansionist, bloody conflict to wrest away and claim Mexico’s northern frontier during Mr. Polk’s war. With a nod to cosmic irony, at least American letters were enrichened in the war’s aftermath with the publications of Samuel E. Chamberlain’s My Confession, written between 1855 and 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts, and issued in book form in 1956, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or, The Evening Redness in the West, written in El Paso, Texas, and thunderously debuting in 1985.

[Sidebar Note: Both books figure centrally in the Literature of Arid America and are worthy of further, extensive, forthcoming elaboration.]

Significantly, Lieutenant Pike and Major Long crossed through portions of the scientifically precise Great American Desert; namely, the four major land features that collectively extend over thousands of square miles of Northern Mexico and the Western United States. Individually known as the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, all four feature distinctive and indicative plant species, fauna, geology, and hydrology. Ironically and to the overall region’s existential detriment, “The Great American Desert” eyewitnessed by the members of the Pike and Long expeditions contained more pockets of the Great American Garden than presently exists due to harm we continue to inflict on Mother Earth and her protective atmosphere. In their journeys into the continent’s interior, the native grasses covering the Great Plains were both tall and thick. Rainfall nourished the land, rivers flowed deeply. Some of the verdant stretches of land they saw appear to our Twenty-first Century eyes to be as brown and barren and devoid of life not unlike one side of the Ebro Valley in Spain as viewed by the “American and the girl” as they waited for the train at the station in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

A convenient trail for vehicles to cross Mother Earth’s back somewhere in Arid America.

[Second Sidebar Note: In my numerous figurative walk-abouts in Arid America, I ensure to toss a copy or two of various works by Ernesto Hemingway into a Duluth Pack so that I have something good to read while on the road. To be continued.… “Rave On!”]

[Third Sidebar Note: Music for the road demands considerable attention, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets figure right in the middle of that story.]

But back to the point at hand. “The Great American Desert” of American mythology and the Great American Desert of geographical studies are both one and the same while simultaneously unrelated cousins. In a literal sense, this vast, slightly discontinuous span of North America is one enormous desert quartered into distinctive corners. But in a poetic sense, the particular differences among the four deserts finds expression in the title of D. H. Lawrence’s book of poems from 1923, Birds, Beasts, & Flowers! Somewhere in between the literal and the figurative lies the living descriptive—a practical threshold that demands keen attention from one’s senses in the pursuit of knowing the land’s whisperings across los cuatro desiertos. The land traversed by Lieutenant Pike and Major Long revealed some of its secrets to their attuned eyes and ears, but the recording of their impressions of the vast terrain found a comparatively miniscule audience than a much later recording composed by Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek with the release of “A Horse With No Name” on America’s debut album in 1971. Vastly different in tone and tenor from official reports to Congress in the Nineteenth Century, the purely American sentiments expressed in the musicianship of these three creative artists perpetuates the ceaseless sense of awe the West inspires from its many corners, including and especially the Chihuahuan Desert, as the deep bloodbeat of the pulse of unseen forces quietly utters immutable wisdom to wayfarers.

“Every one built around a dream”: The Architecture of Mabel Welch

Architectural elegance to enliven Wheeler Avenue in El Paso, Texas, courtesy of Mabel Welch.

Architectural richness abounds in Arid America, and in honor of its built environment, the architect Mabel Clair Vanderburg Welch (1890-1981) deserves consideration for her prodigious body of creative work whose legacy enriches the borderlands and beyond. From the late 1920s through the early 1950s, Mabel Welch designed and built numerous residences in El Paso and throughout the greater region, including Ciudad Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico; Deming and Las Cruces in New Mexico; and Marfa, Fabens, and Dallas in the Lone Star State. Twelve and a half years ago, on the occasion of her introduction into the Hall of Honor of the El Paso County Historical Society, her son and grandson journeyed from their homes on the Pacific coast in Washington and California to attend the event, and during their visit to El Paso, these two gentlemen sat with several of us for an interview at the Burges House in Sunset Heights to discuss the architectural legacy and heritage she provided to El Paso and throughout the big country. During that enlightened conversation, a picture emerged of Mabel Welch as a person, not just a name behind the residences she designed.

Bascom-Poe House (1940), 711 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

Pyle House (1942), 815 Mississippi Avenue, El Paso, Texas

Some few months prior to sitting around that elegant wooden table to interview her son and grandson, I had arrived in El Paso from Fort Worth to begin a new chapter in my career whereby I could rely upon my background in History, English, and Historic Preservation. Fate and good fortune offered me the opportunity to live and work in the Chihuahuan Desert, and for the first time since 1983 I found myself in the shadow of the Franklin Mountains. Soon, I was emersed in a professional and personal journey to learn as much as I could about the architectural heritage of El Paso, a place where many years earlier its landscape was shaped by successive generations of hardy denizens.

Thompson House (1938), 1227 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

Once, small thatched wikiups lined the banks of the Rio Grande, which later gave way to adobe houses and later still to buildings constructed of brick, reinforced concrete, and steel. Clearly, much had changed to the built environment at the Pass of the North since the Iberians arrived in the Sixteenth Century, perhaps as much as three centuries after native wanderers discovered this stretch of the great river and began to settle along its life-giving banks. In short time upon my arrival on the border, as the warmth of the sun illuminated my mind with a growing understanding about the landscape’s architectural heritage, I was amazed about the extent that the firm of Trost & Trost Architects shaped downtown El Paso. The firm’s role in modernizing the border city was clearly prevalent and indisputable.

Lowenfield House (1939), 1505 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

While Henry Charles Trost (1860-1933) remains a bright luminary as an architect in Arid America whose far-reaching shadow hangs heavy in the brilliant air, one should not conclude that his legacy has created an umbra which obscures all other architects whose imprint characterizes El Paso. Such a view is an oversimplification and hardly acceptable. Rather, pioneer architects in El Paso such as George Edward King (1850-1912) and Edward Kneezell (1854-1926) imported architectural languages to the border shortly after Chinese and Irish laborers hammered the final spikes of the Southern Pacific’s iron rails from Doña Ana County, Territory of New Mexico, into El Paso. Later, in the 1920s and well into the mid-century, architects such as Otto Thorman (1887-1966) and Percy McGhee (1889-1971) designed many buildings throughout El Paso and in the region, works that greatly contributed to the aesthetics of the natural landscape. Though newly arrived in El Paso in 2007 and recognizing the enormity to learn all I could about the Pass City’s architectural heritage, I was unexpectedly delighted for the introduction to works by Mabel Welch.

Leigh House (1930), 2619 Altura Boulevard, El Paso, Texas

Watkins House (1929), 3001 Silver Avenue, El Paso, Texas

In my brief time in El Paso prior to the interview with her son and grandson, I had gained a little bit of familiarity with residences she had designed in the Manhattan Heights neighborhood, which in 1981 was designated a historic district, and along Rim Road overlooking downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. I had wandered about these two areas of town to soak in their character and spirit in the aspiration of gleaning some sense of place previously unknown to me. These John Brinckerhoff Jackson-inspired peregrinations provided moments of thoughtful repose, fleeting moments to gaze and think about all these corners of the larger cultural landscape spread over the sandy land. Looking at one residential work of hers after another I relished the minor details in her approach to the design language of architecture. On a personal note, I also began to understand a little of the lessons my mentor, Dr. Michael Anthony Jones, spoke about in his lectures in the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University. I was seeing her houses, not just looking at them – a significant distinction. Although I had graduated, I sensed my education had just begun as I walked about neighborhoods in El Paso in search of her aesthetic beauty. And like a Troggs song, it was all around – and it was something extraordinary.

Turner House (1929), 3009 Silver Avenue, El Paso, Texas
Harvey House (1930), 3100 Gold Avenue, El Paso, Texas

But back to the aforementioned conversation at the Burges House as November began in 2008. For an hour or two, those of us around the table spoke and laughed, pondered and lamented about the life and work of a creative and thoughtful woman and how she had done so much to transform the aesthetic character of many El Paso streets, let alone her numerous other works elsewhere in Arid America. I listened, I asked questions, I wrote notes, and yet in the end I felt incomplete because, just like Robert Earl Keen Jr., there was so much more I wanted to know. All that I had learned on that day and in the days before resembled Hemingway’s iceberg, and I sensed that Ambrose Bierce truly held court and prevailed with his observation that “there’s nothing new under the sun, but there’s a lot we haven’t discovered yet.” Suffice it to say, when we concluded our interview, I truly felt conflicted. Despite what I had heard, I was left with more questions than answers, and in the intervening days I’ve squinted with the researcher’s eyes to piece in the mystery, and, frankly, the search continues. Mabel Welch and her place in Arid America deserves much more attention than I’ve short-shrifted here, so the story shall continue down the line hasta mañana.

“Every one built around a dream,” as the Architect Welch stated in late October of 1934.

November’s Upon Us, and I Really Should Be in Alpine

Texas Highway 20 stretches across only two counties, linking Anthony on the New Mexico state line and McNary in Hudspeth County at the confluence with Interstate 10. A relatively short highway primarily known for its route through El Paso and its environs, nonetheless it runs alongside an important, but somewhat forgotten, former military site in West Texas. Undoubtedly, mention of the name Fort Hancock and plenty of people recall that Ellis Boyd Redding, better known as “Red” because he’s Irish, bought a bus ticket to that destination after his years in Shawshank Prison, but long before appearing as a brief reference in a movie script, the U.S. Army stationed troops along the Rio Grande at an out-of-the-way site in then-sprawling El Paso County.

In 1881, the War Department established Camp Rice about two miles west of the Southern Pacific Railroad and just east of the river; a town soon emerged east of the camp, and five years later, the post was renamed Fort Hancock to honor General Winfield Scott Hancock. Present-day Fort Hancock, Texas, silently resists the siren’s lure of Modernity, with the highlight of any given day being the rapid passing by of trains and vehicles bound for elsewhere than this sleepy town on West Texas. And but for two crumbling roadside monuments near the intersection of State Highways 20 and 148, no visible evidence remains to mark the site where U. S. troops served on the borderland frontier from 1881 to 1895.

Often I select Texas Highway 20 rather than nearby Interstate 10 when driving this stretch of Arid America in order to enjoy a necessary respite from the heavy traffic on the main road. Moreover, the slower pace on the state highway permits better, more meaningful views of the landscape unobstructed by semi-trucks and speed demons. Besides, I would rather see the geological formations along the Rio Grande than countless trucks with their advertising and logos garishly on display.

Earlier this month, I should have been driving this length of asphalt en route to Alpine; or, more affectionately, the ’Pine, as one of my colleagues and pals who grew up there is bad to say. For about a dozen consecutive years, several of us scholarly types have converged on the campus of Sul Ross State University in early November to attend the Center for Big Bend Studies conference. Our compadres drive to Alpine from Lubbock, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls and other locations in West Texas, and over the course of three days we catch up on events of the recent year, talk a bit about history, attempt to solve the pressing issues and problems of the day, and generally just recharge in the recuperative Chihuahuan Desert. Incalculable value is derived from inhaling the scent of creosote, observing the cirrus cloud formations, and listening to the faint sound of air in motion through the scrub forest and between the hills – several of the land’s characteristic trademarks. But this year, a highly contagious virus denied us the opportunity to make landfall in Brewster County, which is a powerful source of lamentation and disappointment.

As for the conference itself, we present papers on sundry topics running the gamut from the Mexican Revolution, to sports history, to cattle raising, to architecture, to military history, and other such facets of life with a great big L in the Trans-Pecos, often determined by what each of us has been studying and writing about in recent months. Like a denizen possessing dual citizenship, we arrange a session on behalf of the West Texas Historical Association at the behest of the conference organizers, so at one moment someone from our merry band may be presenting on a topic relating to the South Plains of Texas, while at the next moment one of us may be discussing events that happened west of the Pecos River. Ostensibly, as educators, we like to think we’re helping to stamp out a bit of ignorance, and maybe we are, but the conference presentations represent only a part of our reasons for gathering in the Big Bend. As Jimmy Buffett wrote, “I took off for a weekend last month / Just to try to recall the whole year / So many faces, so many places / Wondering where they all disappeared / I didn’t ponder the question too long I was hungry and went out for a bite / Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum, and we wound up drinking all night.”

As with the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1978, you had to be there. . . .

Captain Buffett’s sentiment marks a useful barometer to describe our individual and collective motives. While his words are set to music, a comparable passage suits me well in a like manner. In Chapter Nine of The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton are traveling on a train from Paris to the Spanish frontier, and their conversation with some Americans echoes the undertones urging each of us onward in our annual pilgrimage:

            “You both going to Biarritz?”

            “No. We’re going fishing in Spain.”

            “Well, I never cared for it, myself. There’s plenty that do out where I come from, though. We got some of the best fishing in the State of Montana. I’ve been out with the boys, but I never cared for it any.”

            “Mighty little fishing you did on them trips,” his wife said.

            He winked at us.

            “You know how the ladies are. If there’s a jug goes along, or a case of beer, they think it’s hell and damnation.”

“That’s the way men are,” his wife said to us. She smoothed her comfortable lap. “I voted against prohibition to please him, and because I like a little beer in the house, and then he talks that way. It’s a wonder they ever find any one to marry them.”

So somewhere triangulated on a great quadrant connecting Pamplona, Missoula, and the ’Pine, powerful forces mingle and intertwine in manners beyond common comprehension Whether it’s the White Buffalo Bar in the Gage Hotel in Marathon, La Kiva in Terlingua, or the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa, or, more properly, as our aforementioned esteemed pal insists, “Marfa City, dammit!” not a few watering holes feature interesting bartenders ready to share good stories and serve Lone Star, Coors Original, and the tasty selections offered by the Big Bend Brewing Company.

Those barroom conversations do indeed encompass literature, science, history, and a healthy dose of inside jokes, commentary, and jabs that Owen Wister would’ve made good use of. We tend to carve out some time to hold down the fort at the Railroad Blues or Harry’s Tinaja, neither too far distant from the Sul Ross State campus, to share tall tales, discuss history and such, and give each other unmitigated grief as good friends are wont to do. Within three days, after finding plenty of good trouble, reality sets in, and we all silently recognize that we must make tracks for points elsewhere. For me, the time always seems too short in Alpine, and though I feel a sense of elation while I am there, a bit of sadness overcomes me when I begin the drive on the outbound road. Leaving the Big Bend is hard; not being able to see it at this time under these tragic circumstances is even harder.

Random people in a random bar in the Big Bend of Texas. . . .

While the current pandemic takes its human toll and wreaks havoc in a manner unworthy of El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985), by the great Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez, the regrettable fact remains that no aspect of daily life has fully shielded itself from the disease, and with this year’s conference at Sul Ross State cancelled, a circle of friends are unable to partake in our annual ritual of witty banter, borderline intellectual conversation, and outright verbal hazing – as good friends certainly ought to do. A bit of time will pass before we will find ourselves in Alpine again, but that day will arrive, and we’ll continue the conversation then, my friends. Hasta luego and around the bend.…

The historical, cultural, and geological reality of Alpine, Texas. . . .

And a roadside homage to “Giant” and Jett Rink. . . .

But the reality of Far Out Alpine summed up by a Texan from Cass County. . . .

There’s Something Out There, But Can I Find It?

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.

An obscure burial ground just yards south of Interstate 10 in Far West Texas.
Italian cypress tress in the Chihuahuan Desert and a jagged skyline behind

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?

Unmarked graves and small crosses

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.

X doesn’t always mark the spot. . . .

Down the road a piece near McNary, the light and the clouds above short timber

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.

The Great Battle Flag at the Wild Horse Saloon!

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.

In the Big Silence looking north toward the Davis Mountains on Highway 90

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.

And turning directly around to the south toward the border and Big Clouds.

When Etta Place and Card Player #2 Came to El Paso in August 2019

For a year now, I’ve had a story to tell that in light of dire circumstances required that I hold off awhile until the moment was more appropriate. In the grand perspective, this story has more to do with humanism than it does with any of my own travels through and observations of Arid America. To frame it properly, as its totality paradoxically embraces sheer delight and abject horror separated by only a few miles and a few hours, I needed to anchor this story in a safe harbor, and to that end I often turn to something I know a little bit about—novels written by Ernest Hemingway. In Chapter Three of The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes and a woman named Georgette have a few drinks on the terrace of the Napolitain Café in Paris. He’s mildly surprised that she wants to order a pernod. “That’s not good for little girls,” he tells her. “Little girl yourself,” she replies. “Dites garçon, un pernod.” Not to be outdone, Jake orders one, too. Then for the benefit of his American reading audience, Hemingway explains, “Pernod is greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky. It tastes like licorice and it has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.” That café scene in the novel precisely frames how I felt on August 2-3, 2019.

The better part of this story traces back to the dedication of a movie script that simply says, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”

For a few summers now, the El Paso Community Foundation has sponsored the Plaza Classic Film Festival, a celebration of cinema and a chance to watch again on the big screen movies released when the Plaza Theatre in downtown enjoyed the first decades of her glorious life. A year or two ago, Christina and I went to the Plaza to watch “Star Wars,” which was the first time I had seen the movie at the theater since the summer of 1977. So each summer, the Community Foundation selects about forty films or so to round out a two-week film festival, and in August of last year the selections included Beau Geste (1939), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Pulp Fiction (1994), Steel Magnolias (1989), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Carrie (1976), and so many other incredible films. One movie from 1969, however, grabbed my attention like no other, and I asked my wife out on a date to drive from Las Cruces to El Paso to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on a Friday night. I had read the schedule of movies in The El Paso Scene, a cool little newspaper dedicated to arts, music, and happenings in El Paso and the Mesilla Valley, but I must not have read it closely enough. Oh, I read the pertinent details that tickets cost ten bucks apiece and the theater would open in time for the movie to begin at 7:00 PM, but I apparently failed to read closely and critically, which reminded me of the observation that “he who laughs last, thinks slowest.” I suspect the wise one who jotted down that dictum had me in mind. . . . Later, I realized that I had missed one important piece of information.

So, as Steve Miller wrote, we headed down to Ol’ El Paso a little bit early to find a parking space and buy tickets at the box office. A small gathering milled about the theater entrance, and there was a buzz in the air, an expectation of something special about to happen. Minutes passed, more people arrived, and the electricity amplified. Then, from inside ushers opened several of the doors into the incredible Plaza Theatre lobby. A wide, red carpet ran the length of the floor from the doors to the far recesses of the interior, which was unusual as that floor treatment signifies something special, and we instinctively created two aisles on either side of that plush carpet. Just on the opposite side of the archway where Christina and I were standing was a display table containing items relative to the movie festival, and I was delighted to see Cindy Williams, one of my favorite people, holding court at that table. She and her husband, Gary Williams, occupy soft spots in our hearts. Gary’s with the Community Foundation, and one of the principal good guys along with Bernie Sargent who gave me a chance to work in historic preservation in El Paso, and Cindy’s a librarian, so when we chat it up, the range of subject matter is beyond interesting. But so you know, although they have identical names, neither starred in “Laverne and Shirley” nor coached the men’s basketball team at the University of Maryland, just to be clear. So, Cindy asks me, “Aren’t you excited!?!” “Absolutely! I have not seen Butch and Sundance in years.” She looked at me as if I was overlooking something pertinent, and she must of clearly intuited that I was indeed missing something.

Just as printed in the slick, tri-fold film festival program, The El Paso Scene noted “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. Plaza Theatre Kendle Kidd Performance Hall, $10 (PG).” Made sense to me; after all, each appears in the cast, along with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Cloris Leachman, Timothy Scott, and George Furth, and other wonderful actors and actresses. As an aside, Cloris Leachman, who played Agnes, portrayed Ruth Popper two years later in The Last Picture Show, another one of all-time favorite motion pictures. George Furth played the memorable but beleaguered Woodcock, and Timothy Scott appeared as News Carver, a member of Butch’s gang. He appears in the train robbery scene when Sundance asked, “Use enough dynamite there, Butch?” Some years later, twenty to be exact, he played the role of Pea Eye Parker in Larry Jeff McMurtry’s incredible tale, Lonesome Dove. But at this moment, I sensed some gears in my head begin to rotate, and with a great epiphany, I finally figured out what was about to happen. “He who laughs last, thinks slowest.” And within moments, after talking a bit more with Cindy and Gary, the air of expectation charged the room, and then they entered the lobby. I had returned to my place in line, and right in front us walked Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. I tried to snap a picture or two to little success, but I made eye contact with both of them, extended my right hand, and Mr. Sam Elliott shook my hand and looked me right in the eye. And then they continued on down the line, shaking hands with fans before disappearing into the auditorium. We followed suit, and sought out two seats toward the front along stage left.

Too much backlight, but on the red carpet arrive Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott
Mr. Sam Elliott upon shaking my hand
Cordial and gracious, Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott say howdy

About fourteen rows back from the orchestral pit, from whence the sounds of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” were playing (how else can it be?), we found a largely empty row as most folks were seeking seats toward the middle aisle for a straight on view of the screen. As we settled in, an usher asked us politely whether we were expecting any others to join us to sit in the adjacent empty seats. When we answered, he asked if we would be willing to move a couple of rows forward so a group of eight could sit together. You bet. And then the lights dimmed, and the director of the film festival emerged on stage to welcome everyone and make a few remarks before introducing the evening’s honored guests.

Pretty cool, huh?
Chairs on-stage and guests soon to arrive to tell true Texas tales
A large crowd inside the resplendent Plaza Theatre in downtown El Paso

For about a half-hour, we were regaled with tales of movie-making, insights about Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and their own recollections of filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Undoubtedly, we in the audience were much richer for their words, and I was singularly impressed how they interacted with each other. Granted, they are a long-standing married couple, but they are also two accomplished performers who understand how to banter back and forth to carry forward a story without interrupting or talking over one another. Among the first topics the MC broached was about how each of them became part of the movie’s cast. Katharine sketched out how her agent spoke to her about the script and a role to play Etta Place, a young school teacher in search of something more exciting than conducting class in a one-room schoolhouse. She graciously noted that prior to being cast in the role that she had enjoyed a bit of success and subsequently found her name listed prominently alongside Paul’s and Robert’s. As for Sam, he related that he was not as well-known at that time, but a minor role was his for the taking if he was interested. And then lauding his wife for her talent, he said in that wonderful voice of his, “Yep, I didn’t even see my name in the credits. I just appear as Card Player #2.” (Lots of laughter.) About a key feature of the script, the MC asked Katharine about how Sundance and Etta were involved with each other, but Etta was also sweet on Butch. She paused a moment, looked over at Sam, and replied, “Well, I thought I had both of them.” (Much more laughter.) Somewhere along this point, the MC looked out across the audience and said to his on-stage guests, “It looks like in honor of the film a lot of folks are wearing cowboy hats tonight.” To which Sam replied without missing a beat, “Hey, it’s El Paso, man!” And that’s when he talked a bit about growing up in El Paso, something I did not know beforehand. In their stories, we were treated with recollections of their working with Paul, who was already a big star, and Robert, who was making himself known in Hollywood as well, and in perhaps an unexpected statement, Katharine said she was really looking forward to seeing the movie tonight because she had not seen it since it was first released. As the interview wound down, Katharine was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award similar to the one Sam received a year earlier in the same hall, and to great applause and their gracious and humble acceptance, the honored guests exited stage left. And a moment later, that same usher escorted them and about six guests to the row we had just vacated, so I can honestly say that Christina and I and Katharine and Sam all enjoyed viewing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in close proximity. That ain’t too shabby.

For the next near two hours, the big screen was illuminated with one of the most well-crafted, brilliant films in the pantheon of American cinema. Under the capable direction of George Roy Hill to translate onto the screen the incredible screenplay William Goldman wrote, Butch and Sundance remains in my opinion an unquestionable masterpiece. The fact that the film contains the three elements that make a movie great, according to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, “horses, cowboys, and horses,” only heightens its brilliance. Yet while we watched and remained swept up in the film’s grandeur, none of us could have conceived of the dark events that were in motion well beyond the Plaza Theatre but still too painfully close to home. And there at the movie’s end, with Butch and Sundance cornered in that village in Bolivia, outnumbered and running low on ammunition, and Butch planning their next trip to the English-speaking country of Australia, the final showdown scene plays out in color giving way to a sepia-tone as the cry “Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!” sounds to a lowering curtain. And as the credits rolled, the momentary silence in the hall hung palpably in the air before a thunderous applause echoed throughout the space. As Christina and I stood and looked about as the attendees began filing out, we waved in appreciation to our distinguished guests, and they nodded in return. Outside the Plaza through a side exit, we chanced upon some friends of ours and talked about the movie and such. We were delighted to see Melissa and Bernie Sargent and Margaret and Ken Smith; Margaret’s grandfather and great-uncle were two of the principals of Trost & Trost Architects. After exchanging pleasantries, we headed back toward the front of the theatre, where the marquee lettering displayed the evening’s final film and folks were entering the lobby, and happened to see once again Katharine, Sam, and their friends walking down the block to the Mills Building (designed by Trost & Trost) for a dinner party. And with that, Christina and I walked a few blocks east on San Antonio Street where we were parked near the Aztec Calendar and The Tap and drove home to Las Cruces.

Comparable to the plot structure of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” as well as the café scene in Chapter Three of The Sun Also Rises and Charlie Robinson’s incredible song “Loving County,” the events afterwards became surreal. In the hours between the end of the movie and mid-morning next day, Saturday, August 3, a young man had driven from the Dallas area to El Paso with a truck full of guns and murderous thoughts on his mind. We first learned of the unfolding tragedy on Saturday when Christina began receiving a lot of text messages asking, “Are you alright?” “Are you in El Paso!?!” “Is everything okay?” Real messages in real time.

Until the reality of events prior to that moment shattered our illusions, we never suspected that a mass shooting would occur in El Paso, Texas. To the victims, Requiescat in pace.

A Rare Treat along the Banks of the Rio Grande in Central New Mexico

El Río del Norte fascinated Iberians who traversed its banks in their journeys north from México’s mining frontier into Nuevo Méjico in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries. Upon arriving at the river from the south en route to cover the remaining four hundred odd miles to Santa Fe, they crossed the river in the vicinity of El Paso del Norte, present-day Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, for the first of several such crossings before reaching their destination. The historical record informs us that the river ran much deeper then in contrast to its condition after dams were built to tame its roaring nature. Spaniards followed segments of ancient trails along the mighty river’s banks, while literally following in the footsteps of the native people who had inhabited the region for several centuries and relied upon its waters as a source of life and a trade highway.

A view upstream from the left bank of the Rio Grande in late Spring 2017 in Socorro County
From the same vantage point on the muddy banks looking downstream

Officialdom in faraway España and in the vice regal metropolis of México decreed that the Crown would maintain the route from Mexico City to Santa Fe as a camino real, one of the royal roads in Spain’s North American empire. El Río Bravo del Norte, as the river was also referred to, and if you’ll permit me a bit of personification, possessed a stubborn and capricious temperament. She showed no indications of civility and cooperation to those who sought suitable crossing points to continue their carretas and herd animals on the trail. Rather, she was more inclined to make the journey as difficult as possible with her floods and swift currents. Her fury soared on several occasions in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries when she harnessed inordinately enormous rainfall to flood in such a legendary manner as to change great lengths of her riverbed. Formidable is an insufficient adjective to describe the river’s character.

Standing at the fence of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge with my damn fingertip partially obscuring the camera’s lens, another fine view upstream

Enter the Twentieth Century. In the Southwest and West, too many of region’s rivers were emasculated due to an extensive Federally-sponsored program of dam construction. While it’s a whole other story to discuss the benefits of dams to generate electricity to power our houses and buildings and smart phones, we also must be mindful of the long-term environmental impact such construction has had on the region. I refer you to Saint Edward Abbey. Cochiti Dam in Sandoval County, New Mexico, and Elephant Butte Dam downstream in Sierra County help regulate the Rio Grande’s flow, as the hydrologists tell us. One consequential aspect of that control becomes painfully evident when the melting snowpack in Colorado does not recharge the river sufficiently, and with the demands on the river for water to irrigate crops and for domestic use in New Mexico, the once mighty Río del Norte displays an unrecognizable portrait of her earlier formidability.

River, Vegetation, Earth, Mountains, and Sky: key elements of Arid America
On the left, tamarisk, or salt ceder, grows in the riparian zone; a non-native, evasive, and very thirsty species, its proliferation along Southwestern rivers continues to cause extensive adverse environmental impacts on the region’s streams and rivers.

The problem compounds exponentially downstream from El Paso, as Mexico and the United States have signed treaties regulating each nation’s allotment of Rio Grande water. Indeed, the problem has become so pronounced with hardly any flow through the stretch along Estado de Chihuahua and Hudspeth and Culberson Counties that the unenviable nickname “the Forgotten River” has been applied to it. Only well downstream, at the confluence with Río Conchos at La Junta de los Ríos, does the Rio Grande regain its strength to flow through the three major canyons of the Big Bend, one of the most distinctive sites anywhere in Arid America. But many river miles separate Boquillas Canyon from Boca Chica at the downstream mouth of the Rio Grande into the Gulf of Mexico. About a decade or so ago, an issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine featured an aerial photograph on its back cover to emphasize the threats to the Rio Grande’s very existence. From an altitude of perhaps two thousand feet above Boca Chica, a photographer captured the distinctive image of the river’s end—and it wasn’t emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Several hundred yards of bone dry sand separated the river and the salt water, and the Rio Grande did not have the strength to push on to the finish line. We have mightily mistreated this river.

A view from the left bank toward the Socorro Mountains to the west
Cattle hoof prints in the mud and a cloudy sky over the Socorro Mountains at a rare break in the riparian zone at the river’s edge

And while I have seen the river in a pitiful state more times than I care to recall, I have also been quite fortunate to stand along its banks or paddle my Old Town canoe in its currents when it flows as it should. So with an eye toward optimism that juxtaposes with the river’s condition and belies the photographs already shown in this tale, I’ll provide a bit of context to explain the significance of these images. On a very warm June 8, 2017, I traveled with two colleagues well off the beaten path in Socorro County, New Mexico, just east of the town bearing that name. We were conducting some fieldwork in search of segments of the camino real along the river’s left bank, that is, on the east side opposite the modern county seat. For me, one the true delights of the day’s excursion was to see for myself for the first time the river in Socorro County while standing on its left shore. While it may not be the Left Bank of Hemingway’s Paris, nonetheless being in its presence impacted me greatly. Of particular importance on that day, the river ran deep, and its current was strong. As I had not previously seen the Rio Grande from this vantage point, I snapped a lot of pictures so the moment wouldn’t be lost. Later in the afternoon upon returning to Los Lunas an hour to the north of Socorro, I replayed the tape in my head and recalled the sights I had seen during the day and counted myself lucky to have been privy to such a gift as the one I had just received. I ardently hope to see many more such treasures.

Gazing across the Rio Grande toward a dark Strawberry Peak with the Magdalena Mountains rising further to the west

Bends in the Road and Long, Unbroken Stretches of Blacktop

Throughout much of the Trans-Pecos of Texas across the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Presidio, Brewster, Reeves, Pecos, and Terrell, indeed the entirety of the Big Country bounded by the Pecos River, the New Mexico state line, and the Rio Grande, the preponderance of the land’s natural features appeal to plein air artists, geologists, and outdoor photographers. An old tale (and ain’t all the good ones “old tales”?) that has been retold countless times in the Big Bend relates that after the Great Creator made the world, the enormous amount of leftover material was swept up in an even bigger cosmic dustbin and tossed out. From the cosmos, all that debris made landfall and created the mountains of northern Chihuahua, the Big Bend, and eastern Coahuila. Dust particles from that debris scattered throughout the wider region, and there you have it, the razor-thin line between folklore and geology to provide an insight to explain how those mountains and the landscape came to be.

About those wheels: Thunderheads above, interstate highway below in Hudspeth County, Texas.

Not a few years after that dust had settled, spanning a number of millennia, human beings first appeared in greater region, following the rivers in pursuit of game and creating new trails across the land. Much later, the earth their feet trod was crossed by other feet, and then the wooden wheels of wagons, which later were covered with asphalt by hardworking crews to build the paucity of roads in the Trans-Pecos. Just for the hell of it, we ought to rightfully and firmly credit Mr. Amon G. Carter, Sr. of Fort Worth for promoting that part of West Texas as well. But for the moment, the handful of Farm-to-Market roads, State highways, and a bit of interstate roadways deserve a little consideration, while I kindly ask Mr. Carter to cool his heels a bit; I’ll get back to him soon.

Con mi esposa at the wheel, we’re heading toward El Paso after a gringo anniversary in the Big Bend in early September 2018.

Ye Ol’ Big Hill just west of Sierra Blanca, Texas, with good clouds for company.

From the thirty-thousand-foot view from above, or through a close study of topographical maps of the region’s many quadrants, a pattern begins to emerge regarding the paths of paved and unpaved roads in the Big Bend. They tend to stretch along for miles like a strand of dry spaghetti, and then elsewhere they dip and curve and rise to wend their way around the geological uplifts and arroyos that sculpt the land. That debris from antiquity bedeviled the Texas Highway Department when its surveyors attempted to devise a system of roads through this creosote haven. And yet, one can drive to and near any number of corners of the Trans-Pecos to see its peculiar beauty.

At the Marfa Lights Viewing Area along Highway 90 looking north at the rain storm.

In case you missed it the first time, that rain’s still falling up north. . . .

Fortunately, though, barbed wire fences, heat, aridity, and all measures of thorns, spines, fangs, and claws encourage most wayfarers to stick close to the blacktop; hence, the thin spider web of automobile pavement across the region preserves the natural habitat and keeps us two-legged animals at bay. I suppose for too many passers-through there’s no harm in zipping over this land as fast as possible to reach their destinations far beyond. But as far as I can tell, without a doubt you gain more when you slow down and actually look at the land as you drive. Whether the asphalt under your wheels is Texas 118, US 67, Interstate 10, or FM 1111, such roads interact with the landscape. At dawn and dusk, the color of light dividing Earth and Sky reflects off the faces of mountains and mesas. At the meridian, the light, especially in summer, washes out the rich color palette to create its own resplendence. And the road goes on.

South of Alpine on Texas 118: “Hey pretty baby, are you ready for me? / It’s your good rockin’ daddy from Tennessee”

Los montañas de Chisos y las nubes grandes

Unencumbered by tall trees and taller buildings, the fortunate driver is afforded views of an ever-changing, often dramatic sky. If the road is worthy of John Steinbeck, the sky likewise beckons Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams. The entire gamut of cloud formations reveal themselves throughout the seasons, and one is fortunate to be under those skies at those exact fleeting moments to witness the Ultimate Grand Lady’s creativity. In the monsoon season of May, June, and July, mighty thunderheads build up high in the atmosphere, yet during the other nine months threadbare, stretched-out wisps resembling skinny cows in search of water on a dry plain fill that desert sky. No two moments are quite the same, and as Townes Van Zandt observed, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

An incredible ridge and an ancient uplift in Hudspeth County

You have to be there with eyes willing to absorb and translate the gifts from the trade winds and heat thermals to appreciate a landscape and sky unlike urban Texas. Think Dallas and Houston, man. But the Big Empty offers something unfound east of Interstate 35 – an ancient testament to the master craftsmen that does not exist in the geology on the other side of the Lone Star State. Sky-reaching buildings may be oh so terribly few between the Pecos and the Rio Grande, but skyscrapers rise in the Trans-Pecos despite the envy of those who think this land is undeserving of such. Out here, Precambrian strata carry more weight than the International Style of architecture; or, more precisely, Cathedral Mountain south of Alpine exhibits more interesting architectural features than the Seagram Building in New York City or the Sears Tower in Chicago – even if Cameron, Sloane, and Farris are looking over that city high atop from the observation deck. Geology: the original architecture. With apologies to the great writer Norman Maclean, “I am haunted by desert vistas.”

In remembrance and honor of Dr. Michael Anthony Jones and Mrs. Sylvia Jones

On the road north to Alpine on 118, this time in early November 2018 after the Center for Big Bend Studies Conference