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