Contemplating the Right and Honorable Bishop Cap on a Hellish Day

Later in the afternoon, after the cool down back home, the moment of reflection required several consecutive spins of “Wrapped” by Bruce Robison. An incredible album released in 1998 that features Bruce and his brother Charlie, as well as a cast of incredible musicians and songwriters such as Kelly Willis, Lloyd Maines, Rich Brotherton, Mark Patterson, Jim Lauderdale, and Martin Muse, “Wrapped” proclaims oh so succinctly the timeless Texas Hill Country sound. With the Robison boys hailing from Bandera, Texas, their musical roots spread deeply in that creative soil. Music played loudly on the heels of an excursion into the many intriguing corners of the Chihuahuan Desert decompresses my thoughts and helps me make some sense of what I have just seen.

Towering above the creosote and the desert floor, Bishop Cap stands vigilant on the south end of the Organ Mountains, peering south toward the Franklin Mountains.

Today I made a memory. Nada mas, pues, para mi, es muy importante. After calling the work week a done deal, our eleven-year-old son accompanied me on a short drive south of Las Cruces to have a look around at an interesting stretch of the Organ Mountains. Short of the Texas line by about three or four miles, the southern end of the Organs disappears under the earth to create the Anthony Gap, that sort of proverbial feature in many Westerns where the good guys head off the bad guys just as lampooned in “Blazing Saddles,” and although the gap is relatively wide, some short distance to the south the uplift begins anew in a mighty fashion that bears the name of the Franklin Mountains.

The Franklins, like their nearby, northern neighbors run along a north-south axis, and curiously Nineteenth Century U.S. military cartographers portrayed the Organs and the Franklins as one continuous range rather than two. But it ain’t so. Tectonics and ancient geology have had their say, despite what Man thinks. Yet those great elemental forces seldom daunt poetic souls. Case in point: if you stand in the middle of Anthony Gap facing to the east—the source of wisdom—and extend your arms in the manner of the lower attitude Leonardo di Vinci articulated in his classic study of proportion, your fingertips would point directly toward two fancifully named geological features. Down the view-line of your right arm rises North Anthony’s Nose, a prominent point demarcating the northern edge of the Franklin Mountains, and when your good eyes gaze along your left arm in the opposite direction your peepers perceive a conical uplift known as Bishop Cap. To your back, that is, to the west, about five miles, courses ye olde Interstate 25 with its many wayfarers zipping by at breakneck speed thoroughly oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding them and ignoring Ferris Bueller’s advice. But there they are, North Anthony’s Nose and Bishop Cap keeping an eye on one another as they’ve done for something like 30 million years … and I doubt either one’s gonna blink anytime soon, as it must be a matter of pride between those two. C’est la guerre, que no?

With a rocky road wending to the east and Bishop Cap on the extreme right. . .

But on this Friday afternoon on the twenty-sixth day of June of the present year, I enjoyed the good honor to spend some quality time with my son out on a little patch of the desert. The temperature was to my liking, pulsing back and forth between 105º F and 106º F, a sparse range that will keep you honest, and skies mostly cloudless and elegantly blue, but my little guy thought otherwise. The desert’s charm didn’t sit with him too strongly despite the enormity of the view before our collective eight eyes. Maybe it was those dang flies that found us and brought great annoyance, or perhaps it was the heat, or it could have been the solitary standing among the ancients that tends to unsettle a soul unaccustomed to such vistas, but at any rate our visit stretched across a brief span of time, yet before we retraced our steps over the narrow, rock-strewn road to the smooth hard-surface leading back to town, we looked around to take it all in. TC noticed two spent 12-gauge shell casings just off the road in the creosote. Neither must have been soaking up the sun there for too terribly long, as both the red plastic and the brass caps showed little signs of weathering. Here and there were some tell-tale signs of off road beer-drinking excursions, but nothing major. So we looked at the dwarf forest of creosote and the lonely hills and talked about the geology of long time and snapped a few pictures to freeze a moment that he and I will talk about some years later and then we hit the road. Well, that’s an inaccurate description. We traveled down the road at a rate that never exceeded seven miles an hour. We were only about a mile from the graded, county road, but for that initial stretch I was cautious not to bottom out the JEB I was driving, because Corollas tend to have low clearance, and there were plenty of rocks that would have loved to rip out its undercarriage. But without damaging the property or pride of Toyota manufacturers, Mr. TC and I successfully made it back to Las Cruces in good shape, a bit worn down by the sun’s heat but overall alright.

Summer in the Chihuahuan Desert seldom isn’t hotter’n a two dollar pistol, a climate unsuited and uncomfortable for many, which is one of the reasons I have embraced it so well. Out on the range, though, we endured a momentary blue northern; I’ll be damned but if an arctic blast didn’t creep in for a snap and plummet the temperature to a chilly 103º F. To add to our difficulties, as we were driving in and later when we were heading out, with the windows down of course, a bunch of cousins to the common house fly swarmed us. I don’t know if the salt on our forearms from the perspiration drew them or whether they represented some sort of welcoming vanguard to the southern end of the Organ Mountains can only be conjectured, but there we were, looking at the Earth’s shape-shifting from a time before human reckoning. From where we stood by the side of the road, to our right on a southerly angle, rose the peak that upon observation does resemble a liturgical mitre, while to the north a geological blemish wrought by faulting and folding some many, many years ago exposes a three hundred foot tall outcropping known as Peña Blanca. As a sidebar, suffice it to say that the east side of that squat formation features a few caves, and in them archaeologists have found corncobs and bones that dated to the Mogollon culture epoch, which indicates that humans have lived in this territory for many thousands of years.

An incredibly significant outcropping. . . .

I drove out to this spot while the sun was almost directly overhead, at the beginning of summer in the Chihuahuan Desert, on a day that most reasonable people would seek the comfort and shelter of an air-conditioned, darkened room, and I’m beyond proud that TC wanted to accompany me. Despite the temperature and the bugs, those few minutes standing among the creosote while gazing at the majestic uplifts in the scorching, brilliant sunlight are minutes I will long cherish and appreciate. This land may be tough, no doubt about it, but to stand within it and to appreciate it for what it is, well, those moments do more good for my soul than spending any amount of time drinking at the poison well that is social media. I write about this desolate, inviting land to replenish what the daily grid and all its meanness seeks to take from me. In the same spirit as the great Chris Wall, who’d “rather be a fence post in Texas / than be the King of Tennessee,” I’m very comfortable in anonymity, writing what I need to write, and seeking peace that can only be found outdoors and not on-line. Captain Buffett titled one of his songs “Why the Things We Do,” which appears on the 1989 Off to the See the Lizard album, a record highly esteemed by Darren Elliott of Amarillo, Texas, and rightfully so, and he wrote, “In the driftwood house you learn how to dream / Truth is stranger than fishin’ it seems.” Jimmy’s on to something there, man. He’s on to something good.

Upon spending some time yesterday evening and throughout a good part of this day trying to write and think in between songs by Bruce Robison, Butch Hancock, the Tragically Hip, Toni Price, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and others, I’m reminded of the question put to me about the music I select for inspiration during long drives through Arid America. After all, I reference songs, musicians, and albums often, but on his point I’ll have to return to the Son of a Son of a Sailor, who, in 1978 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta chimed in on a request shouted from the audience: “I know that one! We’ll get to it. We’ve got about nine million albums and as many songs, but we’ll get to it!” So I’ll address my own musical question in due time, but for the moment I dedicate these words and their spirit therein to a fellow who was nowhere near Georgia on that night the Coral Reefers were on stage. So, to the great Dr. Leland Turner, better known as Lelando de Vaca, who, by his own account, is the preeminent authority on cattle in the Trans-Pecos and Australia, your compadres ranging from Lubbock to San Angelo to Las Cruces wish you all the best on your birthday! Cat dadddddddddy!!!

Looking back to the east while crawling along to the west. . .

No, Really, Snow Falls in the Chihuahuan Desert

In the last two months of 2019 and in the first two months of 2020, snow fell on parts of the Chihuahuan Desert between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Alpine, Texas. I was fortunate to see a bit of it during drives through this stretch of the terrain, and as I’m bad to do, I take heed of Butch Hancock’s advice and carry a camera with me to record a moment in time lest it be forgotten. Quite right, it’s easy enough – they call ‘em smart phones, but I aspire to digitize 35mm negatives and prints to add a bit to the visual story as captured on film over time. At the moment, this proffered Whitman’s Sampler of views along the road are dated from November 7, 2019, while en route to Alpine to attend the Center for Big Bend Studies conference, and from March 4, 2020, during a drive to Ysleta del Sur near El Paso. So, to honor a request from Fort Smith, Arkansas, the first nine photographs were snapped during the November drive to Alpine, while the remaining fourteen pictures depict an early March snow in the borderlands. Enjoy these goodies; more’s on the way.

Heavy clouds over the Organ Mountains and Bishop’s Cap on the south (toward the right edge of the photograph)
Looking north into the Organ Mountains from east of Vado, New Mexico
An unreal sky over the Franklin Mountains north of Vado, New Mexico
As if the clouds are emerging from the Franklins
A windshield view of the Quitman Mountains in Hudspeth County
A mile above sea-level, snow falls in the Quitmans
With the toe of the Quitmans on the right and Interstate 10 winding through the mountains, clouds blanket Sierra Blanca
Gray road below, gray sky above, just south of Van Horn on Highway 90
A view to the west toward the Eagle Mountains a few short miles below Van Horn

To provide a bit of perspective, the massive uplift that forms the Franklin Mountains features eighteen peaks and ridges at least a mile above sea level, but only two of them, North Franklin Mountain and Anthony’s Nose, rank in the top fifty of the tallest peaks in Texas – another instance to quote Linda Ellerbee: “So it goes.”

Snow from the night before remains visible from Trans-Mountain Road, driving east on March 4, 2020
A mile high in El Paso on damp asphalt, regarding the clouds clinging to the Franklins
Fighting off the sun’s intensity on the upper slopes
Long time has created a visually arresting saddle in the Franklins
Far to the east, the Hueco Mountains in Hudspeth County reveal just a touch of snow in the higher elevations
On the road back, looking west toward the Franklins
Outside the El Paso Museum of Archaeology: a good view
And with no snow in sight, the poppies begin to reappear, soon to cover the east slope of the Franklins with a yellow-gold blanket
Another ephemeral view into the highlands before the melt
Along the walking path outside the Museum of Archaeology are signs that warn visitors to remain on the trail; once this land was an artillery range for Fort Bliss, and every now and again a shell long buried in the ground is disturbed and explodes, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Driving uphill into the Franklins and taking in the view
Standing on the side of the road, the radiant heat emanating off the rock face on the right juxtaposed nicely with the snow-covered hills above
Looking back toward the south with a pleasant view of the snow-covered Franklin Mountains
North of Vado, New Mexico, looking east to the Organ Mountains, with their high points white with snow and Bishop’s Cap, partially shadowed, dry and warm

Flying Fred Wendt and One Glorious Season for the Texas College of Mines

Recently, a good friend of mine in Lubbock, Tai Kreidler, emailed me a story published in the Kerrville newspaper, and his message simply read, “Looks like we just lost a great running back.” Beneath his brief but thought-provoking statement appeared words of remembrance of a man who had lived in the Texas Hill Country for some years after retiring from the oil industry out in Odessa. While I immediately recognized his name and knew a little bit about him, my reading of a few lines about his life revealed much more than I expected. After ninety-five years of perpetual motion, to paraphrase the great Jimmy Buffett, Mr. Fred Wendt’s journey through this mortal coil ended on May 18, almost a month back from this moment as I try to make some sense of my thoughts about a man I never met. Fred Wendt, you see, has long been on my radar to learn more about the great things he did in the fall and winter of 1948 on football fields in El Paso, Texas, and elsewhere.

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the 1948 college football season, while coaches were evaluating the talent of their respective squads and sportswriters prognosticated on the season’s ultimate, possible outcomes, scribes in the Southwest regarded Arizona, Hardin-Simmons, and Texas Tech as the leading contenders for Border Conference honors; as for the Southwest Conference, Southern Methodist, Texas, and Texas Christian were widely considered the favorites to claim the league crown, while similar aspirations were pinned on North Texas State and Trinity University in San Antonio for the Lone Star Conference laurels. On a more extensive level, Paul B. Williamson, the nationally syndicated sports information writer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, named Georgia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, Army, Columbia, California, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Missouri, in that order of one to ten, for national gridiron honors. Within the Southwest itself, Jack Durham of the Abilene Reporter-News, stated that Texas Mines, West Texas State, and the University of New Mexico “are all three serious dark horse threats to upset the pall in the Border loop,” with Abe Chanin, writing for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, noted the fans’ sense of hopeful optimism that the Arizona Wildcats would greatly raise their standing in the Border Conference.

A Southwest Conference Legend with the Southern Methodist Mustangs

Despite all the viewpoints and thoughts, however, one player garnered nearly more attention for himself and his team than anyone else nationwide. Doak Walker was entering his junior year at Southern Methodist, and the Mustangs were coming off a 9-0-2 record in 1947, in which they barely won the Southwest Conference title over the Longhorns. Before their season-opener in 1948 at the University of Pittsburgh, The Saturday Evening Post in its September 15 issue named Walker “Back of the Year” and a surefire All-America player. Another powerful runner was right behind Walker on the roster, sophomore Kyle Rote, and the team’s overall offensive prowess provided ample reason for high hopes on Dallas Hill. As September and early October unfolded, the Mustangs defeated both the Pitt Panthers and Texas Tech rather handily before dropping a close game in Columbia against the Missouri Tigers. Walker and Rote churned up plenty of yards to be sure, but out west in El Paso, the Ore Diggers were demonstrating on the gridiron that the Texas College of Mines also featured two talented backs in Fred Wendt and Pug Gabrel. Undoubtedly, the Miners’ one-two running combination was making Coach Jack Curtice’s life much easier on the sidelines, as the orange-and-white in West Texas notched five consecutive victories to open the season, including two conference wins.

To the delight of Miner fans, Flying Fred Wendt, as the press quickly dubbed him, shot out of the gate in the season opener at Fly Field in Odessa, when the Miners and the McMurry Indians played on a neutral field. After the game, Coach Wilford Moore of the Abilene school had probably seen enough of Wendt to hold him over for a long, long time because Flying Fred, like the famed, and yet fabled, pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, he announced his presence with authority, rushing for three touchdowns, two of which were for 56 yards and 58 yards, respectively. Following the Miners’ next game, a 35-7 win over Houston, Wendt ranked among the best rushers in the nation with 367 yards. He tailed off a little bit against the stout defense of West Texas State with an 81-yard rushing performance, but he regained his form against Brigham Young University and the University of New Mexico. Against the former, Wendt rushed for 180 yards and four touchdowns, but against the Lobos he flew for 204 yards and a scoring run. A showdown loomed between Coach Warren Woodson’s Hardin-Simmons squad and the Miners on Kidd Field in El Paso for an early decisive game in the Border Conference. Nearly 14,000 fans witnessed the Ore Diggers’ homecoming game against the Cowboys, whose team was led by quarterback John Ford and halfback Wilton “Hooks” Davis. Both offenses hummed, and the defenses played reasonably well, but neither team scored a decisive punch, resulting in a true sister-kisser, 27-27, that helped neither team in the conference standings. In comparison, on that same penultimate day in October, the SMU Mustangs ran roughshod over the Longhorns in Austin, earning a 21-6 victory with Doak Walker as the standout player of the game. One sportswriter noted, “It took him less than two minutes to convince 68,750 roaring fans that he is one of the great—perhaps the greatest—players of all time in the Southwest.”

Even as Walker was leading the publicity parade across the nation, Wendt’s name was seldom unmentioned for the accomplishments in his own right. Indeed, through six games, Wendt had rushed the ball exactly one hundred times for 929 yards; his closest competitor, Jackie Jensen of the University of California, trailed him by 243 yards, despite having played in seven games. Wendt’s teammate, Pug Gabrel, was holding his own as well, standing at seventeenth place nationally at the end of October with 472 rushing yards, and their combined 1,401 yards set the standard for the country. But on the opening Saturday of November, the Miners faced another tough opponent when they traveled to Lubbock to play the Red Raiders. Several days before the game, Joe Kelly, sports editor of the Lubbock Evening Journal, wrote glowingly of Wendt and reminded his readers of the talented fullback’s Lubbock roots. In 1937, Wendt attended Lubbock Junior High School, and as a member of the football team, he made a name for himself playing alongside such teammates as Roland “Tuffy” Nabors, Max Walthall, and J. A. Blackwell. He never played for the Lubbock High Westerners, however, as his family moved to El Paso, where he honed his talents in the classroom and on the gridiron. Upon graduation, Wendt opted to remain close to home, enrolling in the Texas College of Mines, and in the fall of 1942 he played for the Miners under Coach Walter Milner. As with so many young men, his collegiate career was paused for three years while he served in the Pacific Theatre during the war. Upon returning stateside, Wendt declined an offer to attend the United States Military Academy; rather, he returned to El Paso and resumed his studies at the College of Mines. In the seasons of 1946 and 1947, Wendt’s primary role on the team was kicking; he could punt and kick extra points with skill, but he also showed a glimmer of talent running the ball, so when his senior season arrived, Coach Curtice decided to insert him into the starting lineup as a fullback – and did he make the most of the opportunity! With interest in the game building on the South Plains, Coach Dell Morgan game-planned with two objectives: Stop Wendt, and stop Gabrel. Despite the seeming simplicity of the goal, the execution would be the litmus test, and the Tech defense rose to the occasion. Wendt indeed had a rough afternoon at Jones Stadium; his twenty-one rushes netted a paltry forty-four yards, as Tech won 46-6 en route to winning the Border Conference title.

Wendt seemed to take his lackluster performance against Tech in stride, though. The following week in Tucson, the Miners defeated the Wildcats 25-14, with Flying Fred contributing to his team’s success. And then arrived the glorious, or bitterly infamous, Thanksgiving Day game in El Paso against archrival New Mexico A&M. In an admittedly drastic understatement, the Aggies under Coach Vaughn Corley were set to conclude a highly anti-heroic season marked with too many defeats, a punchless, lackluster offense, and an inefficient, Maginot Line defense. In a decidedly one-sided affair, the Miners eked out a narrow 92-7 victory over the hapless Aggies. Several individual and team scoring records were set with the win, including most individual rushing yards in a single game (Wendt, 326), most individual points scored (Wendt, 42), most yards rushing and passing by a team (717), most team rushing yards (645), and most points scored by a team (92) – all single-game records set by the Texas College of Mines against New Mexico A&M to lead the nation in those categories for the 1948 season. Three hundred twenty-six rushing yards in one game! Wendt’s twenty-five rushing attempts yielded just a bit over thirteen yards per carry, and combined with his six touchdowns and booting through six extra points, ol’ Flying Fred enjoyed one of the most productive offensive games in the history of college football.

Going into the Aggie game, the Miners still had an early December date with the University of Hawai’i to conclude their regular season. But on November 20, many teams across the country played their season finales, including the only undefeated and untied team in Texas, the Lobos of Sul Ross State College in Alpine. For a little college in the Trans-Pecos, the Lobos made some big noise in 1948, winning ten games and claiming the championship of the New Mexico Conference. Led by Ted Scown, a 160-pound halfback, the Lobos’ fleet-footed rusher scored twenty-four touchdowns to lead the nation in scoring with 144 points through November 20. His lead lasted all of five days before Wendt ran wild against the Aggies. Wendt’s college career ended first on a high note against Hawai’i and then on a lower note in a loss to West Virginia in the Sun Bowl game on New Year’s Day. Shortly after the Miners’ 21-12 loss in the bowl game, Wendt signed a contract to play professional football with the Chicago Cardinals, making him ineligible to participate in the track and field events that he had excelled in for the Miners. And with the ink on the contract, Fred Wendt’s amateur athletic career drew to a close.

Mark Twain’s observation about “lies, damn lies, and statistics” is perfectly applicable in the case of Wendt’s on-field accomplishments in 1948. His individual statistics indisputably cast him as one of the game’s outstanding performers that year; his 1,570 rushing yards for the season set a standard that remained unbroken until 1968, when O. J. Simpson rushed for 1,709 yards for the University of Southern California Trojans. While Wendt led the nation in rushing in 1948 and was joined in the top ten rushers by Wilton “Hooks” Davis who finished the season fifth, SMU’s great back did not appear on that list. Doak Walker probably didn’t worry about it too much, though, because the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City named him the recipient of the Heisman Trophy. When the all-conference teams were named for the Border Conference and the Southwest Conference, Walker was the only representative from the Mustangs on the mythical first team, despite SMU’s outstanding season. Even more curious was the outcome of the votes for fullback Fred Wendt. Not only did conference coaches fail to vote him to the first team, he was named to the second team as a halfback – a position he didn’t even play! It stands to reason that his accomplishment as the nation’s and the Border Conference’s leading rusher ought to be recognized as a first-team selection … but the reasoning therein to exclude him may be the crux of the lies and damn lies part of the equation.

In the days since Dr. Kreidler sent me the humane write-up about Fred Wendt, I’ve taken a closer look at the 1948 college football season. Doak Walker fulfilled the expectations placed upon him, etched his name forever in the annals of Southwest Conference football, and later had a trophy named in his honor awarded to the country’s best running back. Dallas was an epicenter of the national spotlight that year, and rightfully so, as Walker’s exploits merited all the attention he brought to Southern Methodist. Doak Walker is and always will be considered one of college football’s most prolific players, and he earned every bit of that acclaim. But Fred Wendt and Ted Scown also earned a bit of the spotlight that year, and for me, the fact that two of the most productive backs in the country in 1948 hailed from two schools in Arid America serves as a reminder that memorable seasons aren’t limited to Los Angeles, South Bend, or Fayetteville – they happen in El Paso and Alpine, too.

So, thank you Mr. Wendt for teaching me something despite our never having met in person. You are a part of the story, the story of college football in Texas and of the Border Conference. And like my maternal grandfather James Ira Jones, thank you for returning home after the war to carry on with living in the name of those who fell on battlefields far from America. May Doris, your wife for more than seventy years, find peace in your memory of a life well lived.

One last point needs to be articulated before drawing this story to a close. There’s one rider that can’t go unmentioned, and that’s a curious connection that pertains to the Dallas Cowboys. That connection links two players in the 1948 season, one in Tempe, Arizona, and the other in Austin, Texas. Wilford “Whizzer” White finished the season ranked seventh nationally in punt returns with an average of 22.1 yards per return, a feat that kept his Sun Devils in a number of games. Over in Austin, the Longhorn in question played a decent season, and although he would soon enjoy a bit of success with the New York Giants in the National Football League, his legacy in professional football was cemented as a head coach. Wilford, who also played professionally, would later see his son Danny follow in his footsteps and play quarterback at Arizona State University in the latter 1970s. And when Danny White entered the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, his head coach was none other than Gentleman Tom Landry, as my paternal grandmother called him, that very Longhorn in question. And about fourteen years ago, I worked with a fellow in Plano, Texas, who grew up in El Paso who was related to, I can’t remember how, I think it was his dad, who stole away Tom Landry’s girlfriend while they were students there at the University of Texas … but that’s a story for another time, y’all.

Flying Fred Wendt, Texas Miner Football Legend

Like Alice’s Restaurant, Texas FM 1111 is Something Else, Y’all.

A few miles east of Cornudas, Texas, in Hudspeth County on Highway 62 / 180, the Guadalupe Mountains are visible many miles farther in one’s line of sight. Like the wreckage of a great, ocean-going vessel, they rise from the salt plains to ascend to great heights in a dramatic uplift of a mutely grandiose manner that overshadows nearby ranges. Once the remaining traces of the far, far, far eastern edge of El Paso along the highway appear small in the rearview mirror, the windshield reveals unspoiled country. Geologists identify the rolling terrain on either side of the asphalt ribbon as the Hueco Bolson, named for the nearby sacred mountains bearing the first half of that name. Among the dips and rises across the landscape as far as the good eyes can see, the Earth’s crust is folded and compressed and thrusted upward in a frozen testament to the excruciatingly long, violent upheaval geologic time demanded to mold the land according to its wishes. Spanish dagger, creosote, and yucca color the terrain with shades of green and yellow and a bit of white. On either side of the road, the ubiquitous Trans-Pecos three-strand bobwar fence runs parallel to remind passersby to literally stay in their lane and not test the fence. Long-stem grasses blanket the rolling terrain, and in between, the asphalt-covered road wends across this delightfully remote corner of Texas.

Looking north toward New Mexico from U.S. 62 / 180 west of Cornudas, Texas.

But for two green signs with white letters some short space apart saying otherwise, hardly a soul would be aware of the existence of Cornudas, Texas; the distance between the east side and west of town being measured in eye blinks, after all. “Town” is a highly generous appellation to describe Cornudas, as it is more a spirit of place that derives its name from the eponymous geologic protrusion well to the north, but within one’s viewshed, near the New Mexico line. The Cornudas Mountains also lent their name to a nearby station on the Butterfield Overland Mail route near the base of Los Cornudas, as the mountains are identified on Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s 1859 Map of Texas. When eastbound travelers in recent times zoom by en route for the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Cornudas Mountains often appear as just another stony pimple on the earth’s surface way off in the distance. But on this particular day—May 24, 2020, to be exact—the two of us had embarked on an extensive Sunday drive, encompassing a big loop from Las Cruces down to El Paso, over to Cornudas and then south to Sierra Blanca, followed by a westward drive to the Pass of the North, before returning home to Doña Ana County. We drove well more than two hundred miles all told just to see an ancient corner of Arid America—and we enjoyed every minute of it.

South of Cornudas on a lonesome highway
In Cormac McCarthy’s words, “like the backs of ancient seabeasts”
About fifty miles to the east, the Guadalupes majestically rise
Los Sierra Diablo, Hudspeth County, Texas

And then with the café in Cornudas long in our rearview mirror, we arrived at the T-intersection of the United States highway and the Texas farm to market road, the route designated as Texas FM 1111. For some forty miles, this road runs along a north-south axis with hardly a curve in it until it zigs and zags on the north side of Sierra Blanca. Within those short forty miles or so, we drove at a leisurely pace and stopped a couple of times to have a still-life look at the landscape. May in the Chihuahuan Desert shares its dry heat indiscriminately among birds, beasts, and flowers, and the temperature differential between the cool comfort inside the Pathfinder and the ceaseless bone-warming heat pressing down on the land offer stark contrasts. “So it goes,” sayeth Linda Ellerbee. We drove a bit. Upon stopping for a few minutes to have a look around and snap a photo or two, I regarded the land’s geology with keen interest. Recently, I’ve cast an attentive eye toward this region’s rugged beauty and have begun to attempt to place myself in the sturdy boots of those intrepid geologist-explorers whose surveys of this land reach back into the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century. Far be it for me to assume that the three credit hours I amassed in geology at Texas Tech are sufficient to achieve a deep understanding, but rather when I read the words of those who looked at this land through the geological prism of their profession, I appreciate more my views of the land. That is to say, the landforms I am looking at have meaning beyond what may be gleaned through a casual sweep of the eyes across the desert floor. We drove on. Up ahead, we could see a faint but discernable black line stretching perpendicular in our lane, and as we approached, it moved snappily toward the road’s edge. That Western Diamondback undoubtedly was none too pleased that our tires disrupted his sunbath on that warm asphalt, but in hindsight I hope Mr. Snake eventually recognized that ducking for cover was a helluva lot preferable than finding himself beneath a set of Michelins.…

“Wreck ’em” in Hudspeth County
Sierra Blanca Peak, left of center, among its compadres
A West Texas Hemingwayesque “Hills Like White Elephants”
Bobwar fence, creostoe, and hills beyond

A few more miles down the road, my focus was drawn to a cluster of uplifts to the southwest, and what was particularly intriguing was the vantage point from which we were looking at them. Granted, we’d seen them plenty of times before, but on those occasions we were looking at their features through the windows while driving along Interstate 10, and besides, we were looking at their southern faces; on FM 1111, we could see their north sides. Along this stretch of road, the land dips and falls like crests of slowing rolling waves making landfall on South Padre Island, and at one point I asked Christina to slow down a bit so we could pull over where the view was good. And then like a scene out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, not only did that farm to market road bend sharply to the left, but from the brush off the right shoulder emerged a long-legged antelope who must have reckoned that this spot at this very moment offered the ideal conditions to cross to the other side. Had the road been arrow straight, had Christina not needed to brake to slow accordingly, and had that antelope made tracks more slowly, a calamity might have occurred. But it was not to be. That indifferent antelope jumped the bobwar fence line on the left side of the road and wandered into the tall grass among the mesquites. A little further on, we stopped so I could snap some shots of Sierra Blanca Peak and its neighbors, Little Blanca Mountain, Triple Hill, Round Top, and Little Round Top. While we had seen them many times before, we were looking at them from this view for the first time, and they were worth beholding.

We drove on for the remaining ten miles or so to Sierra Blanca, the capital city of Hudspeth County, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. Somewhere north of five hundred people call Sierra Blanca home, and it is the county’s most populated spot. All things are relative, I suppose. Sierra Blanca’s current population far exceeds the number of my graduating high school class in 1989, but then again, if they consisted of the entirety of a Friday night crowd at Hawk Stadium, our guys on the football field would have been mightily disappointed by such a small turnout. But there we were on this Sunday afternoon, far removed from Northeast Texas and in the minds of many, a million miles from nowhere. But there was one thing I needed to do while in town, and that was to have a look at a building. On this particular occasion, that specific building was the county courthouse. When we pulled up before it, I could tell it was distinctive in its own right, and that notion was reinforced upon closer inspection. The front elevation, on a musical scale, is a simple A:B:C:B:A rhythm (not quite “Abacab” by Genesis, but bear with me) (and therein lies a whole different story) (to be told later if I remember to do so) that suggests an awareness of classical design and proportion as embraced in Greece and Rome. In its graceful simplicity, the Hudspeth County Courthouse intrigues me; I am of a mind to consider it one of the truly distinctive public buildings anywhere in Texas. And there we were, standing before it, looking at it, talking about it, trying to make some sense of it all in the big picture of architecture. Alas, we pulled away, and a few moments later we found ourselves on the interstate highway driving fast and making tracks to El Paso. The rest of the trip was consumed by conversation and observation.

Hudspeth County Courthouse, Sierra Blanca, Texas
An interesting symbolism uniting Texas and Chihuahua
Despite what may be said in Dallas, history has happened west of the Pecos River
In honor of Fort Quitman and the men who served there
From left to right: C:B:A on the front facade

Later that night back home when it was quiet, the unstable and unpredictable musical Rolodex in my head dredged up “Alice’s Restaurant” for reasons I can’t explain. Maybe Arlo’s refrain surfaced from the recesses of my mind, maybe I was thinking of something my dad once told me, maybe I was just making nonsensical connections, quien sabe? Even if I can’t explain that angle, my mind’s eye was filled with sharp, indelible images of a beautiful land seen only hours before. That Christina and I saw it together only made the memory more meaningful. Not a bad way to spend a day, eh?

Architecture in the Land of Dry Heat (Take One)

Many notable buildings are worthy of preservation in Arid America. Public buildings that attend to our civic responsibilities occupy squares and intersections of the vast region’s towns and cities, often rising majestically as temples of justice and education. Sometimes a county courthouse, sometimes a post office, sometimes a high school, but almost always an edifice worthy of the people who saw to its introduction into their midst. Residences likewise define the blocks created by the imposition of the grid on the Earth’s surface so that we can as tidily as possible build our settlements. On the raw frontier of late Nineteenth Century Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the ceaseless construction of railroads connected Arid America to the Pacific Coast, the Eastern United States, and, in the grander scheme, to markets in foreign countries, accessible in part over those iron rails to seaside harbors where goods could be shipped abroad. Some of the more impressive buildings in this region owe their existence to faraway capital that manifested into an architectural expression of prosperity and success.

Across a wide swath of land extending between Doña Ana County, New Mexico, to Terrell County, Texas, stand ample examples of the Mother Art. Fret not if you are of a mind that the region I am defining is far too constricted and limited. Rather, I am responding to the practicalities of the photographs that accompany this little missive – as I often say, “If you’re gonna talk about architecture, you gotta show ‘em pretty pictures.” Assembled herewith these sparse words is a little gallery of buildings a wayfarer can easily find in a meaningful sojourn through the region if’n you’re willing to exit the interstate highway and take another road, as the great Jimmy Buffett would say. I’ve driven not a few off-the-beaten-path roads just to have a look at a building that strikes me as imbuing some great historical or architectural significance, an odd obsession which has given me something akin to Captain Buffett’s sentiment “these moments we’re left with / may you always remember / these moments are shared by few.” For me, I find inexplicable value in carefully regarding the monumental works of public art that dot the landscape and in mute testimony convey a sense of time and place.

So today’s lineup consists of a wide-ranging gamut of buildings that tell a diversity of stories. Whether filed under “architecture without architects” or whether representing works embodying great technical skill and design creativity, the built environment of Arid America expresses the rich history of this land. Spanish traces are evident in the mission church at Ysleta del Sur with its silver dome, and in the magnificent, yet humble, church in Doña Ana, New Mexico, alongside the camino real that connected Mexico City to Santa Fe. Within the bounds of Big Bend National Park, a solitary adobe standing between an acequia and the Rio Grande juxtaposes with the white-plastered “palatial” residence overlooking the village of Boquillas on the river’s banks. The small details of a building ought to be really looked at to appreciate the great works as well as the more mundane ones; to wit, the brickwork on the second floor of the old El Paso Times building and the emblem painted on the old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in Alpine, Texas. Slow down when you’re in Sanderson, Texas, to have a close look at the Terrell County Courthouse, the old Kerr’s Department Store, the bas-relief artwork above the front entrance to Sanderson High School, and the brick commercial buildings near the Southern Pacific railroad. In Sierra Blanca, Texas, the Hudspeth County Courthouse is unique among the 254 such temples of justice in Texas as it is the only one constructed of adobe bricks. In the window of another courthouse, the federal building in downtown El Paso, reflects the front elevation of the church across the street. In an artistic sense, the postcard of Henry C. Trost’s El Capitan Hotel in Van Horn reminds us that the town is the gateway to Big Bend National Park to the south and to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the north. Well to the northwest of Van Horn in El Paso stands Trost’s Gateway Hotel that, along with the El Capitan, was part of a hotel chain in southern New Mexico and West Texas that provided travelers comfort courtesy of the architect’s thoughtful design. And then you have four residences of great aesthetic value, each designed by very talented architects. Mabel Welch’s creativity and understanding of cultural history is evident in her design language for the residences on Rim Road and Gold Avenue in El Paso, while Trost exhibits comparable skill in his design for the Holt residence in Las Cruces. But in my humble assessment, the grandest, most fully articulated concept of any home in Arid America is the Prairie Style residence Henry C. Trost designed for himself. Many miles separate Oak Park, Illinois, and El Paso, Texas, but in this one small, but highly significant, instance, these two places intertwine. Lastly, as you flip through the pretty pictures, you will see a white-plastered long adobe. Its viga ends and canales are plainly visible on the front elevation, while it is inescapable to note the failing plaster on one of the building’s short ends. Appearances are deceiving; that building is the stuff of legends, for it is the old El Paso County jail in San Elizario when that little Texas town was the seat of a county that was bounded by the Rio Grande, the New Mexico line, and the Pecos River. And just for the hell of it, I would be remiss if I neglected to note that ol’ Billy Bonney broke into that jail one dark night to spring a compadre of his before making tracks north to New Mexico.

On the occasion of Historic Preservation Month across the United States, I offer this bit of local history. Since May 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has encouraged Americans to value, appreciate, and care for their buildings and their past. In my own small way, herein is a contribution to that Grand Design.

Glenn Springs and Boquillas, Texas, on the Night of May 5, 1916

Walter H. Horne of El Paso, Texas, photographed the aftermath of the raid on Glenn Springs, including this scene of the burnt adobe cookhouse.

Long after dark on this night one hundred and four years ago, a large group of riders split into two groups as they approached the Rio Grande west of the village of Boquillas. One group crossed the river and rode toward Glenn Springs, where about seven U.S. Cavalry troops were stationed and several civilians lived, while the second group veered off toward Boquillas. As the bandits surrounded Glenn Springs, they positioned themselves to attack the outpost. Soon, a firefight between the American troops and the Mexican riders erupted and lasted until dawn. Casualties were suffered on each side, whether wounded or killed. The defenders bore the brunt of the attack, losing three men and a seven-year-old boy named Tommy Compton, who was cut down by one of the bandits. The attackers concentrated their fire on an adobe cookhouse where the soldiers had barricaded themselves, and ultimately they set the building on fire to force out the troops. The Mexican riders routed the Americans and then set out after dawn for Boquillas to rejoin their confederates.

Boquillas was selected for the night’s raid because of the general store Jesse Deemer operated there. Deemer, a long-time resident of the Big Bend, had established a good reputation among the area’s residents for his compassion and humanity—traits that prevented his being shot to death by bandits the morning after his store was sacked. When the raiders approached his tienda, they forced Deemer and his assistant Monroe Payne, a half Seminole African-American, to empty the store of its contents and load them up in Deemer’s truck and in saddlebags. Upon the arrival of the Glenn Springs raiders, the bandits departed back across the Rio Grande with their two prisoners.

In Mexico, the fifth day of May—Cinco de Mayo—is a day of great national celebration to honor the victory over the French in 1862 during the Battle of Puebla, and during the early evening when the gunfire and shouting was heard in Boquillas from across the river, the Americans assumed their neighbors were enjoying the holiday. Alas, it was not entirely so. Only two months after the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, and the nearby military cavalry post Camp Furlong, the American military response to the raids on Glenn Springs and Boquillas was swift. Troops under Major George T. Langhorne, commander of the Big Bend Military District, were authorized to enter Coahuila in pursuit of the bandits to punish them for their attack on American soil, for killing Americans, for kidnapping two citizens, and for stealing property. With American troops on campaign simultaneously in two Mexican states, the calls for a full-scale military intervention into war-torn Mexico amplified, including the loud public utterances by Texas Governor James E. Ferguson. The Houston Post editorialized, “The latest raids into American territory ought to contain an important lesson for Washington. It ought to convince the administration that it yet fails to understand the nature of the Mexican problem.” Nonetheless, the so-called Second Punitive Expedition lasted less than a week before Langhorne returned to Texas with Deemer and Payne and much of the stolen goods. While less known than General John J. Pershing’s campaign in Chihuahua in 1916-1917, the events at Glenn Springs and Boquillas are significant moments worthy of remembrance in the history of the impact of the Mexican Revolution in the Big Bend of Texas.

Squirrel Arkansas Big Country

Three bucks and four words. Things change, no doubt, but in the opening days of September 2018, these three sawbucks adorned the edge of a shelf behind the bar at Harry’s Tinaja in Alpine. Harry, a native of Hamburg, Germany, operates one of the finest establishments in the Trans-Pecos, and while the first word in his tavern’s name presents no linguistic difficulty, the second word probably is unfamiliar to most readers. Pronounced TEE-NAH-ha, the word refers to an essential feature of the Chihuahuan Desert. In the relatively soft layers of limestone that form strata of the region’s geology, weathering carves out shallow basins over the course of long time, and as such a tinaja collects precious rainwater. Every specie of flora and fauna in the desert is equipped with fangs, talons, spines, quills, thorns, claws, needles, and all imaginable anatomical features to survive, but moreover to capture water. El agua es vida, and nowhere is this basic fact a more stark reality than in the desert. So when rain falls in Arid America and pools in small oases, very short time passes before the whole spectrum of desert denizens can slake their thirst at a tinaja’s rejuvenating edge. Likewise for the region’s bipeds. While out and about on the trails and the river in the big region, many wayfarers carry a canteen or two filled with ample water, but while in town a canteen such as Harry’s provides readily available comparable sustenance. Typically, though, that staff of life includes barley and hops and is served in glass bottles. “So it goes,” as the great fellow Texan Linda Ellerbee is fond of saying.

But back to the three bills in question. Stapled to the shelf, I contemplated them for a few nanoseconds before snapping a picture or two of their placid likeness. On that occasion, mi esposa y yo were in the Big Bend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and I asked her what she thought about those dollars bearing the words Squirrel Arkansas Big Country. My questions for her abounded. Do you think one person graffitied each dollar? Or do you think three dudes jotted those notes? Maybe Squirrel is one of their nicknames? Maybe one is a native of the Land of Opportunity? And maybe the third one is a big fan of the band from Scotland that scored a huge hit in 1983? Quien sabe on all counts. And yet their arrangement on the shelf’s edge suggested refrigerator poetry and an unknown terrain of deeper meaning. “Who are those guys?” Sundance and Butch repeatedly asked each other during pauses in that ceaseless pursuit. As for Christina and me, there we sat at a nearby table in Harry’s Tinaja talking about an array of topics wholly unrelated to those consuming the couple in a similar setting in “Hills Like White Elephants.” At that moment, the mid-afternoon crowd was sparse, and the bar exuded an air of peaceful tranquility. Perhaps more importantly, I suppose, the atmosphere inside Harry’s aligned more closely to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” than with the ironically named Harry Hope’s Saloon in New York City in that famous play. [An aside: drink for drink, Hemingway’s 1926 novel, unlike the two short stories alluded to above, and O’Neill’s play from 1939 knock out any contender in American literature for the number of intoxicatingly sodden references that stir up levels of unrecognizable envy known only to great boxers such as Gene Tunney or Joe Louis; or Bob Fitzsimmons, who fought Peter Maher on a sandbar in the Rio Grande in late February 1896 down the embankment from the Jersey Lily in Langtry.]

But let’s not neglect the all-important three portraits of President Washington. The color palette for the lettering features red and black, perhaps the greatest color combination in American intercollegiate athletics, and in mute testament those three dollars hung there looking at us while we sat at that table talking and looking their way now and again. She and I talked about the wonderment of our first decade together, about our little boy and our little girl, about our hopes and aspirations for the future, and about all those things a couple ought to talk about. And we relished the great good fortune to enjoy that conversation in Alpine, Texas. And even though we were not celebrating a “Gringo Honeymoon” as the lyrics go, our anniversary was quite good, needless to say. But there is one thing that I ought to clarify. For those who don’t know Harry, you need to know that he truly is a good man; no evidence exists that he rents pigs. Hell, I can testify to that point, and somewhere in the great cosmos Captain Augustus McCrae is smiling, y’all. But there is one thing Harry’s a bit shy about, and that’s dusting. I’m pretty sure the next time we saunter into his gin palace not only will the dust caking the steins and bottles above the dollar bills still be there, but it’ll be thicker as well. So it goes, que no?

Back to the Desert Garden

The road I often drive into the Big Country begins in Van Horn, Texas, when I can finally exit the American autobahn that is Interstate 10 and ease on down Highway 90. That moment of snapping the turn indicator to head off to the right means the path has led me from El Paso or further north in Las Cruces or Los Lunas to the immediate gateway to the Big Bend. Immediate is le mot juste, or la palabra correcta, considering that hardly a French-speaker can be found on the border, so while Exit 138 bends away from the beaten path and connects to the outbound road to the more-of-a-myth-than-a-place site of Lobo, Texas, and the stands of pecan trees nearby, the real gateway, to be sure, begins just to the east of Americas Avenue on the edge of El Paso. There the country opens up. Creosote dots the sandy terrain. The geologic uplifts distant from either side of the interstate collide with the Big Sky’s merging with the horizon. El Paso is in the rear view mirror, and the Hudspeth County line is yet to be crossed, and to the untrained, unappreciative eyes, the landscape is barren, brown, dusty, empty, meaningless, uninteresting, burned, scorched, foreboding, vast, frightening, terrible, menacing, hateful, sanguine, crushing, singeing, bitter, rotten, and every other adjective Dante evoked to warn those who approached the point of no return where the message was clear: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

But not so for my eyes. South and west of downtown El Paso, the land between the highway and international border slopes downward toward the Rio Grande and the Cretaceous-age Sierra de Juárez, the range in Estado de Chihuahua opposite the Franklin Mountains in Texas. While the Pass of the North is considerably more built up and populated than depicted in Ben Wittick’s photographs in the 1880s of the two towns on either side of the river, the sense of place remains. Modernity has crept across the landscape, but as the highway extends beyond the exits to San Elizario, Clint, Fabens, and Tornillo, the tacky buildings visible from the road give way to the rolling terrain and native plant species that define the Hueco Bolson. Once I pass Tornillo, Fort Hancock, with its water tank on the side of the road proudly painted to commemorate its six-man football championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, marks the invisible line in the sand where, like the architect Angelo Masieri upon seeing for the first time with his own eyes the Kaufman residence along Bear Creek in Pennsylvania and breathlessly exclaiming “Finally!” I, too, breathe easier knowing I’ve crossed a good line. Just as Robert Plant’s admiration for the sublime beauty of the Sahara Desert found expression in “Kashmir,” my eyes look intently at the minute and monumental folds in the land’s surface, the shadows on the mountains, the clouds promising rain. From Fort Hancock, the highway rises and falls, bends this way and that as dictated by the arroyos and hills that bedeviled the road construction crews years ago, and well down the road the Quitman Mountains rise up out of the bolson like a granite leviathan, and with the highway’s trajectory aiming right into its heart, the moment portends a dreadful fate not unlike that of the bug to the windshield. But not so! The road bends to the north between the Quitmans and Sierra Blanca, the massive uplift dominating the view out the driver’s side window, and after pulling through the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, the distance is short to Sierra Blanca, the capital city of Hudspeth County, the home of more than five hundred people residing at the crossroads of Interstate 10 and Texas Farm to Market 1111 and among ancient geological uplifts and ranges.

As an aside, driving north on FM 1111 out of Sierra Blanca offers an unspoiled view of the Texan Chihuahuan Desert en route to Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the New Mexico state line. More properly, that two-lane blacktop with hardly a bend in it rises to the ideal vehicular stretch when the need to satisfy a big lonesome overcomes you; though a little south of the road in Robert Earl Keen Jr.’s lyrics, it nonetheless shrouds you with a lonely feeling. And if the drive north out of Sierra Blanca is bad to leave you with little more than your memories and views of the big country, the drive south from the county seat on FM 1111 through the Quitmans to the Rio Grande affords the quintessential views that the earliest chroniclers to brave a crossing through the region recorded in their letters and reports. But for the moment, the road leads from Sierra Blanca to Van Horn, just across the Culberson County line, and on to Highway 90. South of Van Horn, the Eagle Mountains separate the earth and sky with a rough profile well past Lobo, and later, on the north side of the highway, the Davis Mountains perch so heavily in the view ignoring their craggy peaks is unadvisable. The old Southern Pacific tracks lay alongside the highway, and now and again the passenger trains or those carrying freight rush by bound for El Paso or San Antonio. Here and there a few gates open beneath a metal arch bearing a ranch’s name, and as the road goes on through this long-stem grassland cattle country, an unexpected presence sometimes appears in the sky. Something roundish and greyish-white hovering a few thousand feet in the air seems very out of place near the boundary separating Culberson and Jeff Davis counties, but it’s nothing more than government property in the form of a blimp. Now you pass its gate with the official sounding sign and its attendant warning to keep out and it is hunkered down like a quail, and the next time you drive by it is aloft like a buzzard but tethered to the ground. This man-made bird keeps an eye on the border, but soon the road arrives in Valentine, one of the loveliest town names in Texas. You know you’re there, or, more appropriately, almost there, when you drive up on, very unexpectedly, a small building standing by its little lonesome on the south side of the road like something out of a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, but there it is, the Prada Marfa—possibly a shoe store by appearance, but as far as I can tell, it is more in the spirit of the playful, gigantic public works of art born from the distinct creativity of Claes Oldenburg.

From Valentine, with its wonderful views of the Sierra Vieja to the southwest, Highway 90 stretches across the Presidio County line and in a while the outskirts of Marfa are reached. One flashing red light at the town’s main intersection suggests a pace of life in rural America that’s becoming increasingly rare. Through town and on down the road, after crossing the Brewster County line, rises the college town of Alpine, Texas. Here, as throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, the native fauna grows in an organized, but seemingly chaotic, pattern, a wild desert garden. For me, this dwarf forest, to quote a phrase from Cormac McCarthy, is among the most appealing and humbling places on Earth. The road leads me to a corner of it I greatly enjoy, and after hours behind the wheel, the time arrives to explore the great garden.

Notes on Arid America

In Tucson, Arizona, visitors at the botanical gardens may walk extensive paths that wend throughout the grounds among a multitude of flora species native to arid regions in various continents. Little signs placed near one plant after another inform the reader of a specie’s name and its habitat, while larger panels feature maps and photographs to accompany more detailed information about the world’s deserts. The Chihuahuan Desert is the subject of one such panel.

One of North America’s largest deserts, the Chihuahuan stretches from north-central Mexico to central New Mexico and from southeastern Arizona to western Texas. As the panel text points out, the Chihuahuan is a cold desert, with elevations ranging between about 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Summer rains provide the overall region with most of its annual precipitation, with winter snowfall adding a bit of ground moisture for good measure. “The best place to see this desert,” the panel informs the visitor, “is in Big Bend National Park in Texas.”

In early 2007, I first became a denizen of the Chihuahuan Desert, which continues unbroken to the present day, when I moved from Fort Worth to El Paso on the edge of Texas. My residency is hardly noteworthy, though, in the grand scheme of things. Here, the land is shaped by slow time, by geological time. A dozen or so years doesn’t even amount to a half-second in comparison to the on-going mountain building in our desert. Time moves slowly in this colorful, fragrant, warm land. La gente de esta tierra son cuentistas. Indeed, the entire span of human presence throughout this land has been marked by a need to preserve stories, and the storytellers who have inhabited esta tierra over the centuries, whether through pictographs, petroglyphs, corridos, diaries, novels, paintings, architecture, songs, motion pictures, or photographs, have recorded the land’s profound and distinctive features.

Notes on Arid America aligns with this long-standing tradition of storytelling and strives to provide a front porch to visit now and again to share stories about the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend of western Texas, the Rio Grande valley, and the mountains and basins throughout the entire extensive region stretching across three states in the American Southwest and six states in northern Mexico. Over the final ten days in April of 2020, I began ruminating on a number of topics to occupy my mind in the midst of a global public health crisis. If stories about history, photography, literature, architecture and historic preservation, canoeing, trails, and athletics—aspects readily in abundance in Arid America and beyond—then writing a few words about my five decades of observations and sojourns to strike up a conversation might just be worthwhile to narrow the differences we unnecessarily tend to gravitate toward while celebrating a big land.

Right on,

Troy M. Ainsworth, Las Cruces, New Mexico