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.

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.