West Texas has been much on my mind recently, in part because Heather and I drove down to San Marcos a couple of weeks ago for a panel discussion marking the opening of an exhibition entitled Big Bend: Land of the Texas Imagination at Texas State University. And then last week came the news of the devastating Rock House fire that ravaged Fort Davis, which I followed on the Marfa Public Radio website.
Shocking and shameful admission: Heather and I have never been to Big Bend National Park. Oh, we’ve been to (and through) west Texas—far west Texas, I mean; the part of the state west of the Pecos River, pinched between Mexico to the south and New Mexico to the north, but maybe excluding El Paso, which is after all sort of a city—many times, and I even became a sort of long-distance expert on the region during my tenure at the Texas State Historical Association—more on that below—but that embarrassing gap in our knowledge remains.
The Trans-Pecos, for all its stunning beauty, can seem a place of natural indifference, if not outright hostility, to humankind. In Pecos, Terrell, Reeves, Brewster, Jeff Davis, Culberson, Presidio, Hudspeth, and El Paso counties, the towns are few and far between, and always seem just a little, what shall we say, conditional. The dried-up remains of Orla, on Highway 285 between Pecos and Carlsbad, New Mexico, make the point hauntingly and emphatically, as does the Rock House fire: people can live out here, but not easily, and not for very long.
Yet even here, unexpected signs of civilization can spring up out of nowhere. My earliest experience of the Trans-Pecos came thirty years ago as Heather and I were driving from San Francisco back to San Antonio, the last leg of our epic road trip the summer after we graduated from college. We were driving through the vast emptiness of Terrell County on Highway 90. I was behind the wheel, with my foot to the floor of Heather’s little Toyota Tercel, as we swept around a long downhill curve, when a state trooper’s car suddenly appeared on the shoulder, radar gun pointed straight at us.
“Oh, shucks!” I exclaimed, or words to that effect, as I slammed on the brakes in an attempt to bring us back under, or at least close to, the speed limit—honestly, who obeys the speed limit out there?—but it was too late. He flagged us down and instructed us to follow him on into Sanderson, where he took us to the justice of the peace’s house.
We entered through the kitchen door, and the J.P., who turned out to be a very friendly woman, seated us at her kitchen table and served us lemonade, charged me some nominal fine (the trooper had rather sportingly knocked about ten miles an hour off the ticket), and sent us on our way with a cheery warning about all the other speed traps between Sanderson and San Antonio. All in all, it was about as pleasant an experience as paying a speeding ticket could possibly be—and we made it the rest of the 275 miles to San Antonio without receiving another ticket.
My next memorable experience of the Trans-Pecos came years later, on a family trip to Colorado, when we stopped for the night in Fort Stockton at the end of a long, exhausting day of driving. We checked into the first motel we saw (one of those generic places with a big central atrium), smuggled Phoebe the dog into the room (I believe I carried her under my jacket), and, too tired and dazed to uphold our usual standards, Heather and I told the kids they could watch TV and have fried chicken for dinner. (For years thereafter, whenever the subject of a family vacation came up, the kids would say, “Let’s go back to Fort Stockton!”) Again, an unexpected outpost of civilization—high culture! haute cuisine!—in the midst of America Deserta.
This trip took place at just about the time when, while working for the Texas State Historical Association, I was given the assignment of writing many of the entries on the Trans-Pecos for the New Handbook of Texas. I still remember some of the remarkable things I learned in the course of my research:
- No matter where or how long you drive in the Trans-Pecos, you will inevitably come to a highway sign that says “El Paso: 330 miles.”
- The population of Jeff Davis County increased an astonishing 300 percent between 1950 and 1970—from two to six.
- The legendary swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park, in Reeves County, is home to a rare species of freshwater man-eating shark.
- The Marfa lights are actually an elaborate practical joke left behind by the crew of the classic Texas epic Giant after they finished filming on location in 1955.
- Marathon, in Brewster County, was the site of a battle between the Comanches and the Athenians in 490 BCE. The upset victory by the visiting Athenians (the Comanches had been favored by two touchdowns) marked the beginning of the rise of classical Greek civilization.
Three years ago, Heather and our daughters and I spent Easter weekend in the Trans-Pecos. The weather was unseasonably cold (Lizzie, on spring break from her Massachusetts college, was outraged; she had imagined a week of tropical languor after the rigors of a New England winter, and instead spent most of the trip shivering in 35-degree temperatures), but we had a wonderful time. Among the highlights were a “star party” at the McDonald Observatory outside Fort Davis and a drive down Ranch Road 2810 into the Chinati Mountains southwest of Marfa. Imagining what it would be like to be stuck out there with multiple flat tires and no cell phone reception, we chickened out and turned back before we made it all the way to the river, but it lived up to our friend Bob Ayres’s recommendation as possibly the most beautiful drive in Texas.
I offer all of the above to explain why I considered myself something of an expert on the Trans-Pecos when we went to the panel discussion at Texas State last week. Moderated by Jake Silverstein, the editor of Texas Monthly and a former reporter for Marfa’s Big Bend Sentinel, the panel included local writer Joe Nick Patoski and his collaborator on the handsome University of Texas Press book Big Bend National Park, the photographer Laurence Parent, author in his own right of Death in Big Bend: Real Stories of Death and Rescue in Big Bend National Park; Barbara “Barney” Nelson, an English professor at Sul Ross State and the editor of God’s Country or Devil’s Playground: The Best Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas; and Marcos Paredes, a legendary ranger who recently retired after twenty years at Big Bend National Park. How could these people possibly know more about the region than I?
All kidding aside, the discussion was lively and informative and marked by the panelists’ obvious mutual respect and love of west Texas. Each of the panelists presented a strong case for the significance and beauty of the Big Bend and the Trans-Pecos. Patoski argued that any meaningful discussion of the area has to include the portions of Mexico just across the Rio Grande as well; the river, he noted, is less a barrier dividing Texas from Mexico than a force that draws the two sides together. (Isn’t that a lovely way to think about the border?) Parent movingly recalled his mother and father impressing upon him at an early age the importance of our national parks. Nelson and Paredes spoke eloquently of the need to protect Big Bend from the sort of crass tourist-industry commercialization that has grown up around—and marred—so many other national parks.
Together, all four painted an irresistible picture of this, the remotest and most mysterious part of the state, and merely strengthened our resolve: someday soon—maybe this fall?—we’re going to make it to Big Bend. And then we’ll celebrate with a big bucket of fried chicken.