Ten weeks ago today, upon leaving the office, I stopped by the house long enough to pick up my camera bag and drive out on Dripping Springs Road and its vicinity to look at the west side of the Organ Mountains through several good lenses. A sense of urgency pushed me onward, because beauty in the Chihuahuan Desert changes constantly and lasts far too briefly. The night before, on February 3, a real cold front for our corner of New Mexico crept in on little cat’s paws, as the poem says, and dusted the upper reaches of the Organs with just enough snow to remind us of Mother Nature’s bulldog tenacity to care for Earth. In miniature, the peaks of the Organs could have graced a wedding banquet table or a baker’s display case with their powdery white appearance, but in truth the mighty geological uplift was nurturing its oaks, pinons, and pines with the slow absorption of traces of icy water. The flora residing in the higher reaches of this rocky spine exudes toughness, but even the hardiest of plants and trees need a cool drink of water now and again. In the darkness of the hours before, their wish was granted.
I motored over to a spot of ground stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and parked at the toe of an enormous geological pimple. Little sounds stirred. It was mostly quiet but for some dude in his car nearby. Admittedly, he was quiet, too, and perhaps wanting to be alone with his thoughts. Quien sabe? Figuring so, I walked about in search of right and honorable vantage points to snap a picture or two of the mountains. All about me stood clusters of the great indicator plant known as creosote, sometimes called greasewood, and a true denizen of the Chihuahuan frontier. I aimed the camera’s lens toward the mountains to include the desert floor and its hardy squatter dotting the landscape, and with the snow in the crevices and on the peaks surmounted by a blanket of clouds, I suspected at least a few of the views would be captured on film sufficient to show someone without discrediting the beautiful views. I’ll trust others to judge for themselves whether memorable scenes were recorded or not.
Moving on. Today is April 15, 2022, and tragedy on the level of the Ides of March has beleaguered this day throughout history. This spot on the calendar is notorious, having claimed President Lincoln in 1865, the Titanic in 1912, and the Cubs on most opening days of the major league season, but on this particular iteration of mid-April, I perused a batch of digitized negatives of the film I shot exactly two-and-a-half months ago.
My composition acumen has rusted somewhat since high school days, but I’m re-teaching myself the art of photography. Armed with a Canon A-1 that’s about as old as I am and rolls of outdated Konica film, I’m rediscovering the things I knew as a kid whose big dreams envisioned becoming the Peter Jennings of photojournalism. Well, maybe I better tone it down a bit, because that bar’s not exactly what I’m trying to achieve, but I remain a student to the art and am fortunate to live amongst a great canvas of beauty to endeavor to honor its lovely features in a humane, artistic way. Andele pues! Quien soy yo? Decide for yourself in this brief but (hopefully) worthwhile gallery of the place I refer to as my backyard. ¡Hasta la revolución!
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.”
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.
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.…
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.
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?
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.
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!!!
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.