To the Spanish and Mexico, the area of the Chihuahuan desert on the Rio Grande was uninhabited, “despoblado”. To the Texans and U.S. Army, with the help of the “Buffalo Soldiers”, it was a land that needed to be cleared of its native inhabitants so that it could finally become populated by “real people”. It’s interesting to note that today, the Big Bend area of West Texas remains despoblado, except from tourists, researchers, and state park personnel, all of whom are focused on the wonder of a land and its former inhabitants, those despoblados who began inhabiting this area 8,000 years ago.
Basket Makers to Ghosts
Nancy Edwards (1968), a young high school student in Marfa, Texas described the first inhabitants of the Big Bend as “the Basketmakers . . .men [sic] of Asia and possibly came across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago”. Today, these basketmakers are now known as “Paleo-Indians” and were here between 8,000 to 6,500 BCE. Personally, I like Nancy’s description of “basketmakers”. Paleo-Indians sounds a bit like folk who might hunt and gather for uncooked food at Whole Foods more than a people living a subsistence lifestyle before the “dawn of time”. I like the idea that they made baskets. Seems like they might have been Salt of the Earth. This despite the likelihood that they contributed to the demise of the large megafauna of the post-glacial period according to Timothy Flannery in his excellent book, The Eternal Frontier.
Eventually, these people evolved into more distinct groups whom the Spanish called “Jumano” who built adobe huts and grew a range of plants such as corn and squash or collected plants like mesquite beans and hunted small animals. They represented “America’s” first immigrants from which all the major nations and peoples that built civilizations, or just baskets, on this continent before Europeans came. The Big Bend was a wilderness upon which history was written in spearpoints, bone tools, pots, and, yes, baskets not to mention pictographs (see previous post on Del Rio) long before history was ever recorded by, well, our current predecessors (you might guess at what descriptors I used for Europeans before I decided it’s time to stop pressing the point).
I took the roundabout route through Big Bend that took me first to Panther Junction at the northeastern edge of the Chisos Mountain range and then to Terlingua back to Alpine, Texas. The Chisos range is wholly enclosed within in the Big Bend park and is loosely a southern part of the Rocky Mountains. It represents the core of what was a much larger volcanic “mound” that has eroded into its present shape. It is a majestic range of mountains named after the Chisos people, one of the Jumanos who inhabited the “Despoblado” region. Chisos refers to this people but is also believed to be their name for “ghosts” or short for “hechizos”, the Spanish name for “enchanted”. In either case, the ghosts of the “uninhabited” land seem to remain.
A Trail of Fears
Later, the Jumano were, mostly forcefully, incorporated into other people who encroached upon them like the Apache and the Comanche. The Big Bend is best known historically as a major branch of the “Comanche Trail” who by the early 1800s had largely displaced the Apache. The Comanche rode into northern Mexico on raids for horses and people. Phyllis Duncan called it the “Trail of Fears”. The Comanche ruled the southern plains largely because of their unparalled skill in using horses to hunt and garner horses and people from other tribes, like the Jumano and from the Spanish or, later, Texans. The Persimmon Gap was their route to and from Mexico. Driving through the Persimmon Gap had a certain poignancy today.
Driving A Lonely Path Into the Wilderness
I undertook this journey to uncover a history of the past and to examine my own. Driving through this, for me, newer history took me someplace I didn’t expect to see. I am acutely aware of my precariousness as I’ve driven, first through the familiar path to Brownsville and my “fortress”of fortitude, South Padre and now into places I had never been. I know that driving through the midlands of Iowa, Missouri (well just a piece of it) , Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas is a great danger in a time of unparalled plague, among people alternatively doing their best or at times greatly irresponsible in putting themselves and others at risk.
I drove today through history in the midst of history in the making. As I write, I note how Los Angeles County in the State of California has begun to ration the use of oxygen to only people with a chance likely to survive as coronavirus cases swell and overwhelm hospitals and their staffs. I am aware with few exceptions, every state of the Union remains at alarming levels. I travel knowing that at any moment, someone with asymptomatic infection may cross my path. In addition to seeing wondrous mountain ranges, “seeing ghosts” of peoples oft forgotten by “history”, I spend my days deciding do I dare go inside a gas station to use their bathroom, deciding whether to go inside a restaurant and eat something more healthy than a breakfast burrito from McDonald’s (I so far decide the latter, just too much risk)? And, what of the people serving me through that drive-thru window? Are they working sick? Not to mention entering a hotel (eventually I’ll try to find an AirBnB for a longer stay with its own set of risks) or a public restroom (so far, I’ve found these safer, or at least I think so in my mind 🙂 ).
I am quite aware of these and then remember that my life at “home” in Minnesota was just as frightful, despite for different reasons.
The world remains in grave danger and I really don’t believe it matters where we are. It’s best, at least for me, to recognize the “Four Agreements” (Drawn and adapted from Ruiz) reconciled for my travels through Pandemia:
Be impeccable with my word; tell myself the truth, be honest, and know what it is you are doing
Take nothing personally; people act as they will, doing the best they can to be intelligent. They are not trying to hurt you and you must expect from them only what they appear able to do. This one has been especially challenging for me, hence, why I am on these travels.
Make no assumptions; A friend you trust can make mistakes, it’s best to own your own safety and not cede it to others. Among others, do not assume they think or act like you despite their seeming agreement with you.
Do the best you can; be as safe as you know how to be within the choices you have made. It may not be enough, but it will be what you must do.
And, just like every human effort, the above is fraught with unforeseen dishonesty, personal perceptions you cannot avoid, unassuming assumptions, and only as good as you are able.
Today, in a time of history making–the State of Georgia hangs so many things in this country in the balance despite the flawed belief that a new government will be all that good. Today as history records some of our gravest mistakes in judgement compounded over years that threaten our entire planet, the ghosts of people largely ignored by history, who made baskets, sought their solitude beneath groves of palm trees, those who fought and tried their best to stave off annihilation, all of them speak to me. In the winds and sunlight gleaming on snow inside a forest made of rocks. They tell me that, despite the risk, and your possible demise (sorry about that, brother), it is good you came to say hello, honor our presence. It’s all we ever asked. We were lonely and, well, it was good you visited.
I think that I’ve been lonely all this time. Just like them. It was good I came to visit that part of me. Despite the danger, it was best I came face to face. I’m not sure what I do with that. Not yet. But I am here. And I will do my best. To come home.