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An Oasis in the Desert

11 Mar

I and a visitor recently enjoyed a hike to one of my favorite places in this area of Big Bend: Cattail Falls. A relatively hidden gem in the Big Bend National Park, Cattail falls is a waterfall and stream, which supplies water to the park’s infrastructure. The canyon is also a delicate microenvironment and susceptible to damage from human impact. For these reasons, the hike and the destination is not on any of the park maps. On the other hand, it’s not a secret, either.

A rough road accesses a parking lot for the trail head that branches off to many trails. One trail goes to Oak Spring, which then extends into a long and arduous hike up the side of the western Chisos range and eventually reaches the pour-off affectionately known as the Window.  The other trail heads up towards the southeast to the canyon containing the pour-off and stream of Cattail Falls.

Oak Springs

The area first noted has natural and historical significance. At the Oak Springs and Creek one can see the old and large live oak that is bent and parallels the ground. This immediate area was also once the home site of Homer Wilson and his family. Their ranch, Blue Creek Ranch, was one of the largest in the Big Bend region from 1929-1944. The house (a Sears and Roebuck structure that was ordered by mail, shipped by rail to Marathon, then brought in by ox and mule carts to here) was here at Oak Springs. The Park protocol at that time was to bulldoze anything that was considered ‘human footprint’ to return the landscape to its ‘wild’ state. Which was naive on their part, and they now regret in hindsight.

The house was a bit further up the bank to the right of that tree. If one digs around enough in the thorny scrub brush, you can see remnants of the old rock retaining wall that was in front of the house, and remains of Mrs. Wilson’s terraced vegetable and flower gardens. Gone are the prolific fruit and nut trees, and even the old spring is now diverted into big green tanks and piped away from the creek that flowed and provided an oasis for wildlife and humans alike.

The ranch’s large rock structure that served as the ranch working headquarters and seasonal home remains in Blue Creek. A trail to this structure, now a historic land mark, can be accessed from Maxwell Scenic Drive in the Park. For those interested in early ranch life in Big Bend, and in many of the historical ranches in the National Park (Wilson’s ranch, Sam Nail ranch, etc), I recommend reading the book Beneath the Window: Early Ranch Life in the Big Bend Country  by Patricia Wilson Clothier, Homer Wilson’s daughter.

Cattail Canyon and Falls.

Cattail Canyon Creek

Many canyons lay hidden within the sky island that is the Chisos Mountains. Streaking the slopes in and out of the Basin, these canyons vary from narrow winding slots to wide gulleys with towering cliffs. Because most of the steep canyons are inaccessible, except for experienced canyoneers, some of these canyons may have had barely a dozen human footprints in all their history. Others are visited more frequently because of developed and primitive trails traversing them, such as those on the Window Trail in the Basin.

One canyon scraped into the western slope of the Chisos group is Cattail Canyon. Only those people with experience in canyon climbing and with rock climbing gear can traverse most of the canyon, for it winds along and down with slots and loose screed. As with most canyons, water is an integral part of its formation and continued geological change. The entire length is dotted with pour-offs, water falls and tinajas.

Some sources, including an older topo map, claim that water runs year-round down this canyon. But, of course, that claim can’t be static or accepted without consideration of the local climatic conditions. After all, historical records testify that 50 years ago the Rio del Norte and Terlingua Creek had running water (and plenty of fish) year round. But, despite our own mortal timelines, the climate is changing and the aridity of the Chihuahuan Desert increases and expands its boundaries northward.

Referring to a topo map, you will find Cattail Canyon between Ward Mnt and the ridge west of Oak Canyon, almost N-S along the western slope of the Chisos Mnts. The canyon runs about 5-6K feet in elevation and ends with a pour-off at the northern-most bend west at ~4,200 feet.

This pour-off, the only portion of Cattail Canyon that is easily accessible, is Cattail Falls (despite that many waterfalls are part and parcel of this canyon). However, you won’t find the trail on any maps and in any guides, except on an old topo map. Because the waterfalls and tinajas are fragile ecosystems, the park attempts to reduce human traffic and consequent environmental damage often associated with heavy use. Their methods for reducing human visitation to sensitive areas are by physically prohibiting access or by removing references to these area from guides and maps. However, some signage remains with limited directions for the trail, and the trail is maintained in primitive condition.

The trail from the split off the Oak Canyon/Spring trail climbs a few hundred feet with an easy one-mile walk. Entering the pour-off area is like emerging through a door into a magical wonderland. The trail ends at tossed giant bounders which require scrambling over, carpets of moss and ferns, and small pools of water that trickles over miniature falls. The most magnificent feature is a vertical concave wall of multicolored and striped rock. During our visit, water was trickling down from a V-notch 45′ up and dripping over a black stone surface where small groups of ferns and other plants found foothold to root and bathe in moisture.

Cattail Falls and the pour-off.

A large pool of water lies at the base of this cliff, its edges damp and rich with thick carpets of black organic matter where grasses and ferns grow. This desert oasis is a unique and fragile ecosystem. Here grow abundant trees, ferns, cattails and flowers. Along with this moist environment are a variety of birds and butterflies.

Not only is the organic life attractive, but also the varying shapes, colors and sizes of rocks. From yellow, pink and rosy, to angular and polished smooth, stones small enough to pick up to boulders you could stretch out and nap on.

I was especially delighted to find small areas blanketed with an old companion from the north country (New England and Pacific Northwest): maindenhair ferns. A genus –Adiantum– with at least 200 species, only four or five are indigenous to the North American continent, one of which is found only in the western states. These plants prefer a humus-rich and moist soil, but can be found growing in crevices and small pockets on the surface of rock walls and, especially, near and in waterfalls. They are most plentiful along stream banks.

Although they are typically evergreen, meaning that they do not lose their leaves in winter and can even be found under several feet of snow, they thrive best in areas sheltered from harsh winds and hot sun. Despite that one would not expect to find ferns growing in a desert environment, remember that that the falls and canyons are part of a sky island; a gignatic land formation jutting up out of the desert floor over a thousand feet, where a variety of ecosystems overlap. Sky islands are oases unto themselves, even creating their own weather because of the geographic interruptions in the lower atmosphere.

This is the magic of these sky islands, and the uniqueness of their associated biology: the juxtapositions of plant and animal life that live here. Thus, I was delighted to find an old friend in a tiny pocket of wonderland. And enjoying the magic world so different than half a mile away.

Someday I will spend an entire day. Watching life unfold and change in this little pocket of a sky island oasis.

(click on images to see larger files)

Maidenhair Fern.

Cedar Lobelia

Agave hidden in branches and vines.

Reflections in pool at the base of the cliff.

View of the desert below and NW of the Chisos Mountains.




Occupied New Mexico

10 Dec

Big Bend, southwest Texas

 “The West may be the place where it is still possible to get lost – and die of it.” – Lynn Stegner, West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West.

“Space; the final frontier.” Television viewers of the 1960’s and ’70’s may recall this clip in the introduction to every episode of the Star Trek series. It was, after all, a sci-fi Western, complete with all the romanticism, mythologies, good and bad guys, and shoot ’em ups of the older classic novels, movies and TV shows staged in the American West. People like their mythologies and stories, even if they are glaringly far from the truth.

But, one may ask, “What is the ‘truth’?” Truth is what you believe. And history is not exempt. Especially that of the American West.

Events, facts and dates may be data points in a varied and rich narrative that goes through several renditions, traveling through one filter to the next. We have several ‘gatekeepers’ of American Western history: those of the general media -novels, movies, TV shows and, more importantly, school textbooks. Then we have academia; scholars that interpret and ‘document’ history through facts, dates and people in contexts which they perceive through Euro-American filters. Except for historians of the post-modern New American West, literature and history scholars typically develop their narratives of early history on ‘facts’ that are relatively unknown and without thorough investigation, including consideration of nontraditional narratives. History, as most know it, is what it was, not how it was. Especially of the so-called ‘frontier’.

Myths of the ‘frontier’, especially that of  Frederick Jackson Turner’s most influential theory of 1893, laid the framework for the American ‘frontier’ as we know it today. Turner’s theory presents the origins of a ‘unique and rugged American identity [that] had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness’ (1), while ignoring the fact that most of that great ‘frontier’ land was already occupied. Even Teddy Roosevelt’s theory was more spot on by including into the overall process and context a great contest of land ownership and ethnicity. It was much later when scholars began including in our country’s history the sociological context and clashes of ideas between the early Americans and non-Europeans. Whereas Jacksonian history provides the framework for the unique and ‘rugged’ American, Roosevelt’s sectionalism also has continued basis in our modern self-identity: many Americans are loyal to their own region before they are to their nation. Two prime examples of this are Texas and New Mexico.

If one were to construct a Venn diagram (2) of Texas, the most schizophrenic area of occupied land would make one’s head swim (3). Overlapping  and aggregations of relationships might foster residual myths of the American frontier juxtaposed over the fastest growing urbania in the country. Six national flags have flown over Texas soil claiming it as their territory. Settlers from all points north, south and east of the state lines have tilled and cursed the same land, while the federal government and the rest of the nation rescued the state many times. And still, Texan’s proudly subscribe to separatism.

The historical process of New Mexico, on the other hand, has a more simplistic aggregation in relationship: expansion and colonization onto land occupied by various native sedentary or nomadic American tribes. As Meinig explains in an essay (4), the cultural geographical region of SW Texas, New Mexico and Arizona share a strong commonality in historic development. Add the similarities of the topographies of New Mexico and SW Texas, and we have a sub-region with ethnic, biological, ecological, climatic and even architectural identities. Some locations may not have seen human footprints in decades, if not centuries. The land still dictates who and what lives and stays. Perhaps the ‘frontier’ where old ideas, stories and challenges, even if within the political boundaries of the United States, still exist, with or without the myths. And perhaps we like it that way.

You may wonder about the title ‘Occupied New Mexico,’ if I am posting about Big Bend, Texas. Simple: The more I experience New Mexico, the more I realize how similar many parts of Big Bend are to New Mexico. Big Bend is more like New Mexico than the rest of Texas: in terrain, people,  communities, biodiversity, and even structures. If you know the past rich history of southwest Texas and New Mexico, even the present is parallel.

A well known expert in adobe construction, an adobero, that lives in New Mexico, once referred to SW Texas, as ‘Occupied New Mexico.’ He’s right, and he doesn’t realize what he started, for I refer to Big Bend as the same: Occupied New Mexico. Partly because most other people don’t have a clue what I am talking about. Partly because I tend to buck convention with place names, and use a name that reflects past history as well as current perspectives. I don’t owe blind allegiance to any place on a map; places own me and I give them names that mean something to me.

“How it was, how it is, here in the West – just that. It is the difference between drinking the glass of water and knowing the thirst. And it may be that knowing the thirst, imperfect or misguided as it can be, carries more truth finally than what’s in the glass.” – Lynn Stegner.

1. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago.
3. I highly recommend reading D. W. Meinig’s, Imperial Texas: An Interpretive Essay in Cultural Geography. Becoming familiar with the historical framework of Texas will help explain the culture and people of that state.
4. Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographical Change 1600-1970, D.W. Meinig.

La Coyota; or Coyotes Everywhere

10 Dec

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” -poet Muriel Rukeyser

Few remnants of homes can be found on this mesa, part of La Coyota.

“Coyotes move within a landscape of attentiveness. I have seen their eyes in the creosote bushes and among mesquite trees. They have watched me. And all the times that I saw no eyes, that I kept walking and never knew, there were still coyotes. When I have seen them trot away, when I have stepped from the floorboard of my truck, leaned on the door, and watched them as they watched me over their shoulders, I have been aware for that moment of how much more there is. Of how I have only seen only an instant of a broad and rich life.” – from ‘The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild’ by Craig Childs

History, stories, coyotes……. they share a common thread. The wily canine that appears in many movies, cartoons, songs and books is one of the most adaptive and intelligent species on the North American continent. Their key to adaptation is careful observation, mimicry, and experimentation. It is no wonder that the coyote is the most popular animal persona used in storytelling and mythology.

Humans are creatures of stories. Stories teach, convey value, and define us. They are tools that help us understand the world around us, who we are, and what we do. History is storytelling to describe events and actions, interlaced with our interpretations of the past so that it relates with the present and future. History, and storytelling, tell us about ourselves – who we are and how we got here. And where we might be going.

So it was no wonder that a mostly forgotten place called ‘La Coyota’ tickled my curiosity.

For decades the general policy of the National Park Service was to eradicate evidence of human habitation on land acquired by the agency. They forced native Americans off their homelands or prohibited them from hunting on their traditional hunting grounds. Park staff bulldozed buildings that were homes to settlers that subsisted on the land before they became ‘parks’. The root of this was (and still is) a misunderstanding of the relationship between humans and nature that reflects cultural confusion about wilderness.

Wilderness is defined as land that “has not been significantly modified by human activity”. Some people take that to extremes to mean no human presence or human footprint. Ever. Which was the basis the American Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Yet, since at least the mid-1900’s, very few acres (if any) on the North American continent have not been set upon by human feet. And no acre left has not been affected by human activities.

Since incorporating the 801,000 acres of the rugged northern Chihuahuan desert in the 1940’s, the federal agency in charge of the national park system followed general policy in trying to obliterate the evidence of habitation by hundreds of people that called the area their home. Most visitors erroneously think that the land of the national park is a true ‘wilderness’, except for the few roadside displays that provide abbreviated stories about tiny homesteads that once occupied the same ground. These are like little specks of atoms that one is told exist, but people don’t see them so the reality of this ‘truth’ is fleeting and easily forgotten. Just like historical accounts of lives and events long before them.

Sometime between mid-1885 and mid-1885, Severiano and Rita Chavarría moved from Fort Stockton with their four children to a mesa on the banks of the Alamo Creek and the great Rio Grande, and area now within the Big Bend National Park. At the base of the mesa, the Chavarrías built a modest home. Here they raised sixteen children. It is said that the name La Coyota was bestowed by the sighting of female coyote on the homesite.

Ruperto, the Chavarria’s first-born, built a home on top of the mesa after his first house was washed away by a flood. He recruited a number of immigrants to settle there in 1908 and Ruperto became a leader of the settlement. Jose Garcia built his home on top of the mesa near Ruperto, but other members of the community built their homes on the north and eastern slopes of the mesa. Because of close proximity to the creek and the river, they raised corn, beans, wheat, squash, tomatoes and melon by sub-irrigation practices.

As ranching and mining operations cropped up around the southern portion of the Big Bend, some of the men worked as cowboys or in the nearby mines. Around 1903, Cipriano Hernandez built and opened the first store on Blue Creek about a mile or so north of Alamo Creek and named the immediate area Santa Helena. Hernandez farmed the floodplain growing cereal grains and corn, as well as fresh vegetable which he sold to mining camps, and La Coyota residents bought and traded goods and food.

Restored adobe store at former Castelon.

Restored adobe outbuildings near store.

Hernandez built an adobe home further north in 1903, just below where the future military camp would be built. (that adobe home is now called the Alvino adobe). In 1914, he sold the lower farm and store to Clyde Butrill, and ultimately it became the holdings of the La Harmonia Company, the brainchild of Wayne Cartledge and mining tycoon, Howard Perry. The store was renamed the La Hamonia store, opening in 1919. And that area became known as Castelon. Now it is known as ‘Old Castelon’, after the La Harmonia moved into the building that was built as barracks for the US Cavalry.

On my second day of my Retirement Ride, Ed and I set a goal to find and explore the past of La Coyota. After parking the bikes, we ascended a mesa that we had found location tips as the area of the former community. On top was little evidence of what was once either stone or adobe homes. One part of the mesa had obviously been completely and mechanically leveled. On an adjoining part of the mesa we found a barely visible stone foundation and shards of porcelain plates and glass bottles. This was clearly once a homesite. (see photo above)

Turning our attention to the eastern and northern slopes of the mesa, we found well hidden by tall mesquite remnants of small stone homes. The climb down the slope of loose rock was an invitation to succumb to gravity with unfortunate results. But the careful descent was rewarding. Some of the rock walls of home below were still intact, most of them crumbling with large cactus hanging down from the wall tops like a hanging garden.

One small home was built literally carved out of a tiny up-crop of red and brown angled rock. The back of the home was the bare intact rock. The remnants of a front door lead out to a small circular area built of the same stone as a retaining wall and long-gone steps leading down to what was once a cleared floodplain area.

Around the base of the mesa is the remains of a large homesite built of both rock and adobe. Given the size of the remains, I wonder if this was the original Chavarría home.

Remains of a rock and adobe home.

Examining the rock walls of the home. Most of the mud mortar has weathered away.

We continued exploring, trying to imagine daily life here. Knowing that Rita Chavarría lived here in La Coyota for 53 years before moving back to Fort Stockton in 1938, one has to imagine what life was like here raising 16 children. We can only wonder. And compare it to the lives we live now. They contrast our imaginings with what we see in front of us, for these ruins are very well hidden. Only one who knows what they are looking for would find these ruins and the stories they whisper.

I could almost hear the laughter, the laments, clinking of hoes, brays of donkeys, clangs of stone and slapping of adobe construction. And the wails of the coyotes in the distance.

“Histories never conclude; they just pause their prose. Their stories are, if they are truthful, untidy affairs, resistant to windings-up and sortings-out. They beat raggedly on into the future…. ” -Simon Schama

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