Few artists have captured the depth of the Southwest imagery as the late Tom Lea of El Paso. One of his favorite scenes was the city’s Franklin Mountains, seen here, which is on display at the El Paso Museum of Arts. (from Tom Lea Institute.)
By Dan Bodine
You embarking on anything? There’re some things different here, you’ll notice. Years ago early American settlers en route from say what is now San Antonio westward to El Paso sure noticed it.
A sharp change in scenery, for one, had set in once they’d reached the Pecos River. The terrain’d become hard–rocky, hilly-to-mountainous, and desert. This would later mark a geographical area known as the Trans Pecos or Upper Rio Grande.
It‟s where “hardscrabble” was coined, it’s often said now. Over the years, generally, life here tended to marginalize individual self-seeking. Profiting off others fell to seeking others support in a game of Life. Social minimalism, denigrating another based on wealth or political status, becomes minimalized in these parts.
The Trans Pecos is huge, about 11 percent of the whole state of Texas. It refers generally to a swath beginning around the Pecos River on the east and traversing all the way over to El Paso and Southern New Mexico.
El Paso, or El Paso del Norte to the Indians thousands of years ago, was part of the north-south migration route back from their grounds in Mexico to the regions around Santa Fe, N.M. The Southwest’s east-west corridor ran generally from San Antonio thru El Paso to the West coast.
Comanche migratory routes, left. Reprinted image as adapted from Weber, 1982. The Trans-Pecos Frontier before 1855, right, showing the upper and lower trail roads westward to El Paso. (Both images from Trails of the Trans-Pecos page, Texas Beyond History)
Thus for typographers the Big Bend and Trans Pecos all merged as part of the Upper Rio Grande’s desert mountains. Hundreds of thousands of acres. Rough land mostly. A river coming down between them. Cooperative gain meant binding together. Not just for commerce but also for protection.
Radical capitalism and its offshoot, social minimalism, are virulent economic stress diseases that effect the way you see others. Together it flared up again in the United States during the Sunbelt.
Economic opportunities unleashed innate greed in people–often disguised as a hedonistic pursuit of wealth and power pushed off as the divine “Will of God.” Naturally it had a tougher time making damaging inroads into the frontier society here though.
And that’s the feature thousands over the years have come to know and love. The Trans-Pecos attracts and inspires writers, photographers, artists, geologists and hodge-podge drifters and tourists alike from around the globe. All to a scenic life that’s both daunting and laid-back.
Historically, Spanish explorers and Indians together gave names to much of the region. The Rio Grande connects with the northward flowing Rio Concho–draining the eastern slopes of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidentals–at what is now Presidio-Ojinaga. The collection of villages that grew up and down from it were known as La Junta de Los Rios–where the rivers meet.
The Rio Grande, especially above Presidio, has been reduced to not much more than a small stream at certain times of the year, largely because of dams upstream and growing drought conditions; and sadly is called by environmentalists The Forgotten River now.
But the two communities form what the local chambers of commerce calls the oldest, continuously cultivated farming region in all of North America though because of this once vital farm history.
You can begin further mapping the inner Upper Rio Grande region—the Trans-Pecos’ Big Bend–by going up to mile-high Marfa, 60 miles north thru the Chinati Mountains (and thru John Poindexter’s famed, unique Cibolo Creek Ranch enterprises) where eventually the first leg of U.S. 67 connects with that old, original San Antonio to El Paso road–now U. S. 90. Marfa is the county seat of Presidio County.
From Marfa go west to Van Horn and then Sierra Blanca, both “just short stretches” (considered here) away on I-10; or go eastward past Alpine to Marathon and then Sanderson (all along Highway 90); and you’ll see what some call the west-east bookends of this inner Upper Rio Grande region, the Big Bend.
Lying in between–25 miles east of Marfa on 90; the county seat of Brewster County, the state’s largest county–is Alpine. It’s the site not only of the southern area’s only hospital but also of Sul Ross State University, the only university in the area.
Or go north from Marfa to the mountain community of Fort Davis, the original county seat of Presidio County (hee, hee; before the hijacking), which is now the seat of Jeff Davis County; then to Balmorhea, Pecos, and turn eastward on the upper interstate to Monahans- Odessa-Midland, and you’ve seen what’s loosely called the northern of the Big Bend.
The metroplex of Monahans-Odessa-Midland calls itself the gateway point, of course, for drivers coming from Dallas-Fort Worth.
From here go back down U.S. 67 to cross into historic Fort Stockton on a lower interstate now connecting San Antonio to El Paso; then back on down to Alpine-Marfa again; and you’ve rounded out this northern district.
In the deep southern part, if you go downriver from Presidio to explore the spectacularly scenic and famed River Road, you’ll pass first the small farming community of Redford (site of the historic El Polvo Chihuahua Trail crossing) where you will have entered the state park.
The River Road drive to Lajitas was called by Texas Monthly once one of the most breathtaking, scenic drives in all of North America. The sprawling, 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park you’ll drive thru eventually blends into the even larger Big Bend National Park to the east in adjacent Brewster County.
Both parks holds treasures waiting to be discovered. And more than a little bit of history.
Folklore claims there’s a historical marker in the mountains here somewhere that denotes, officially, where our civilized cityslicker cousins of the Eastern Appalachians (what was left of ’em) met the rowdy yaahoos of the Western Rockies. The point is where the two great mountain chains bump into each other.
The drive takes you thru not only Lajitas but also to the communities of Terlingua (sites of the famous chili cook-offs) and Study Butte en route to the national park.
Lajitas, once just a trading post on the Comanche trail, may soon be emerging as the nation’s newest Hollywood East, local denizens say.
Not just the shooting site of several noted movies, it has been upgraded by one millionaire owner after another from a trading post village with a goat as a mayor to an attractive, oasis-style, upscale community of town-homes, a golf course and even a small airport.
And they’ve held onto the goat, too. Proof, once again, there‟re more than sufficient anti-minimalists mavericks among the wealthy, too, to keep America from losing forever its rooted economic moorings.
Lajitas, publicized nationally as “The Ultimate Hideout,” has embodied to its millionaire owners no doubt what most people, one can safely say, are seeing throughout this Upper Rio Grande Desert Southwest now–a challenge to lay a wearied past and rediscover inner peace thru new projects.
Watch this region as it grows to meet America’s new challenges.
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