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. . . .

Bends in the Road and Long, Unbroken Stretches of Blacktop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Los montañas de Chisos y las nubes grandes

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

An incredible ridge and an ancient uplift in Hudspeth County

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

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

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