The Rio Grande in Big Bend State Park, Presidio County, TX. (Courtesy of Houston photographer Jim Carr)
By Dan Bodine
PRESIDIO, TX–Hee, hee. One of my ol’ coffee buddies here, Luis S. Armendariz, former state parks and wildlife superintendent of the huge Big Bend State Park east of town, told me a story once about how one of the strangest visitors he had to the park over the years made up with her family after spending some time in the park’s remote loneliness. Just her and God. Alone but together. Scary?
We were at coffee and I’d brought up what it’d taken to get me off on the right foot in writing a college M.A. thesis once on the New Right: I’d actually gone to the seclusion of an empty, leased “deer park” for several days–just to form it up in my mind. And that was the story that reminded him of how the Big Bend park had brought peace to this one visitor’s face once, too.
Peace is one of those fuzzy state-of-mind words admittedly that beckons you often when you’re caught up in some personal quandary or disturbing moral issue, when demons of the night won’t let you sleep hardly–‘til you take a poke at something. It’s an attractive but slippery word preachers and drunks alike can discourse on at length at various times.
Armendariz has seen some good stories of it being whipped about on the clothesline of life during his years at the park though, from combatants on both sides. The rascal! He retired in November, 2006, after working with Texas Parks and Wildlife at the park for 35 years. Such fun. Didn’t get a gold watch for stepping down, though, only some golden memories.
Big Bend State Park is downriver and east of town a ways and has probably been caught up in more disputes than Republicans have lobbyists. Some wealthy good-ol’-boy property owner, for instance, conned the Legislature into buying this ranch once for the state’s parks program; low tourism since has been like an albatross around the state’s neck.
You did WHAT? taxpayers have repeatedly asked. But hey, this is Texas. Boondoggles can come in giant packages. It’s permitted.
Doesn’t have but 270,000 acres, more or less, more than enough for all of my wife’s and daughter’s shoes combined (and no doubt most of your relatives’ too!). Along with some of the most pristine, rugged and spectacularly breathtaking back-country you‟ll ever see, too.
There‟s always some fight going on over it though, it seems. It‟s so damn big, and comparatively empty (no bang for the bucks). The state’s always in a quandary, it seems, as exactly what to do with it.
In the mid-90’s, for instance, caving in to Sierra Club rantings to protect valuable prehistoric artifacts around ancient watering holes there, the state board voted to get rid of a historic herd of Longhorn cattle on it. A few meat-headed environmentalist were squawking they were damaging rock-embedded treasure troves (pictographs) around the parks’ more than 100 watering holes.
Well, hell, longhorns
were practically the only thing out there for tourists (the paying kind; not lovers de au naturale photographers) to use as props to take a pictures of!
Hells bells! We‟re talking paychecks! Just from their spending around town while visiting, folks.
This little Chamber of Commerce here, needing the tourist revenue, did a snort fit! Heap of riled-up publicity they churned up! From Dallas to Washington and back down to Austin. And down came that ruling! And the longhorns stayed!
“Croon on forever, ol’ Blue-eyes!”
“Go ahead, ma‟am, snuggle up close against that thang,” supposedly the employees were telling the city slickers on the tour buses who went there to see them. “It ain’t a gonna hurt ‘ya! And smile right pretty like for this photo!”
“Damn bunch of cows!” was how my ol‟ good friend Jim Carrico of Lajitas, a former superintendent at the contigious Big Bend National Park, loved to refer to that brouhaha over the Longhorns.
But we saved them, we did. Didn‟t do much good though. For the state‟s coffers, that is. Park‟s still empty mostly. And the “low-level thinking at high-level places” goes on, I guess. About its future.
A fews years back, in another ruckus that’s still simmering some even now, folks throughout the Big Bend got all out of sorts again. Big time! This time supposedly some “Yosemite Park mafia” (area newspaper quotes, not mine) disguised as intellectuals came up with an idea for helping the state’s coffers. You can always find creative thinkers like this, ‘ya know. It’s who we are.
But their idea was that if‟n you were to kill off the worrisome, feral burro population, you could introduce Big Horn sheep to this old mountainous desert; and everyone could smile all the way to the bank by opening up an annual hunting season. Charge big-time for it.
Hee, hee. The burros, however, were just some pesky fly in the face of it, however. The one little remaining problem of “how” to eradicate them was solved by the “intellectuals,” of course.
“Shoot the damn things! Point blank, if‟n you have to!”
When what turned out to be a hundred or so burro carcasses (some with their babies) started turning up over a stretch of several months in some of the park’s back stretches, Armendariz winced and asked for a state investigation.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” he told one investigator, as far as who was behind such a dastardly deed (and what punishment, if any, should fall on any found culprit).
Well, it may have been elements in the “Yosemite Park mafia” all right, but it never came out. Instead a backlash of emotional publicity denouncing the killings as inhumane and flagrant violations of the state‟s animal cruelty laws all led, naturally, to some “public hearings” on the matter.
That move by Parks & Wildlife in Austin stalled threatened indictments by the district attorney and, too, gave a few local folks a chance to speak their mind a bit more. There was even one volunteer outfit from California who came in and carried off some of the animals for adoption. And the effort is still continuing in bits and pieces today, I believe.
But people started feeling better about the situation. The state had committed itself to making sure other means were explored as to solving the worrisome burro population at Big Bend Ranch State Park, and once having said that, the ruffled feathers smoothed back down and the issued died away.
Most importantly, at least to us local denizens, was that it stopped the killings of innocent burros. At least as for any public mentioning is concerned, anyway. We all could sleep better at night in the wake of it.
But Armendariz, yeah, he experienced a few things during his tenure out there at the Big Bend Park in Presidio County. The most gratifying to him didn‟t concern any longhorns or burros, however. Instead, it concerned this “bothered-looking” young woman camper once. She was in dire need of an uplifting moment, she was. A bit of soul renewal.
“Her face told it all!” Armendariz said.
Nice-looking young woman, college age, he figured; but, too, overly concerned about something. I mean, real heavily burdened.
“She asked to be alone. Wanted to be just as far away from people as she could get,” he said.
So, Armendariz hands her a camp plot for the highest point in the park. With instructions the permit must be returned to his office before she left town.
Or even the Texas Ranger would join in coming to look for her. Maybe social minimalism (more on the disease here) runs rampant in big city waters, but here in the scrubby, dry desert of the Chihuahuan Desert mountains, you tend to look out for each other. A rule of thumb.
He was worried about her safety, of course. (A former certified state peace officer, no doubt some it was just professional instincts; that kind of brooding into other’s worries sure doesn‟t run in the Armendariz family genes here, locals will tell you for sure.) He simply didn‟t want a body on his hands, maybe.
So every day the park ranger went by and checked her site. Remained out of sight, he did, but made sure he spotted her. Once she was seen at the highest elevation in the park, perched up there on a huge rock like the comic strip Snoopy before one of his famed WWI aerial dives. She was connecting, you could tell.
And it paid off. Sure enough! After the week-long camping spell, when she dropped off the permit back to his office, her face had taken a 180. This time there was a glow to it.
“What happened? You look alive and happy!” Armendariz asked her.
And then she spilled the story. Yeah, she was a college student all right. Pawned off to the University of Houston. Same old story of the rampaging Sunbelt Movement. Her parents wealthy. Very wealthy. But they didn’t love her, she said.
Instead, they threw money at her (to placate her, keep her out of their lives) while they lived the busy, entertaining and high-profile lifestyle of the wealthy in Houston. She didn’t want the new cars, expensive jewelry, etc., they gave her. She wanted first of all love from her mom and dad. But at times she questioned whether or they knew she even existed. They seemed to care less.
“Oh, I bet that‟s not really true of them,” Armendariz countered in that highbrow, Catholic educated, mellowed drawl of his. “They love you.”
And then like the gamer he is, he kicked the conversation up a notch to challenge her. Told her to go back home, walk up to her mom and dad, and do a number on ‘em! I mean, surprise the big chupacabra out of them; give them a big ol’ bear-hug embrace. And tell ‘em, shout it if necessary, “I love you!!!”
The challenge caught her off guard momentarily. At first she said “Nahhh…” But she was still in one of those awesome desert empowerment moments, remember. God‟s awesomeness, seen up close to your nostril, can make your cup runneth over. You feel empowerment take root, yes.
Finally, she said, “Ok, I’ll do it.”
Three weeks went by. No news. Armendariz was feeling a little antsy. Finally one day he opens up the mail box. There’s a “nice-looking” letter from her. In it she describes what happened when she “did it.”
Her parents…Uncontrollably crying, was how she described it. For what seemed like almost an hour. And then of course they talked. And she wrote about all the fun they’ve been having since.
And finally, “Thanks,” she wrote.
Armendariz, of all his “state” trophies, still gets lumps in his throat when he considers this one. To him, yes, it was his biggest accomplishment–just helping someone out of a rut.
Indeed, it may have been just a routine, lend-a-helping-hand deal, many would consider. Just a few personal words in an exchange.
But it fixed a face on humanity’s compassion. And down went a barrier to giving and exchanging riches more golden than all the money in the world imaginable.
“To me, that was the one biggest moment of my career,” he said.
As well as it should be. The old desert mountains surrounding the Rio Grande aren’t going to move on you anytime soon; that’s for sure. They’ve been there for eons. But they’ll sure move you.
Folks lean on them for uplifting here as religious staple. The dry, hot, rocky Chihuahuan Desert! For thousands of years, some say, the heart of it begins in these old mountains along the rivers.
And out of this, one story, it is.
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