HALLIE STILLWELL WAS WEARING a Western-style plaid blouse and a denim skirt when I went to see her last July, the kind of clothes she had worn for years, and that made it easy to imagine she was about to get up and walk around. She was wearing pink terry cloth slippers instead of shoes, though, and she was sitting back with her legs up on a wheeled bed, and it had been a long time since she had walked on her own. I was visiting her at the nursing home where she lived out the last ten months of her life, a brick building on a hill in Alpine. Stillwell was 99 when she died, on August 18. In the weeks before my visit she had retreated into an interior world. She rarely spoke anymore, even to family members, and she had nothing at all to say to me. I wondered what she was thinking as we sat together under a tree in a garden behind the main building, looking out at one of those burning West Texas days: the striped red hills, the spiky sotol plants, the bare sky.
She loved that land. It had always comforted her to look at it. When Hallie married and first moved to the Stillwell ranch, down near the Big Bend, she used to sit outside to regain her composure after a long day, particularly if she had failed at some task, disappointing her husband, Roy. “Soon after the evening meal,” she wrote in her autobiography, “as I was sitting on a rock, looking into the far-away beautiful mountains in Mexico and enjoying the lovely evening shadows so typical of West Texas at dusk, my emotions were calmed and I felt peace and happiness.”
When that book, I’ll Gather My Geese, was published six years ago, it confirmed Stillwell’s status as a living Texas icon. She became emblematic of the Big Bend region of West Texas, a person who epitomized that part of the country—or rather, what that part of the country had once been like. Stillwell reminded people of a lost time—the frontier era—and at this safe remove from its actual hazards, those days seemed like a particularly romantic time. In fact, Stillwell never claimed that she was a living symbol of anything, let alone West Texas in its wild and woolly days. When she arrived at the Stillwell ranch in 1918, she was a stranger, uncertain of the rules and constantly transgressing them. In her book Old Texas appears in the figure of Roy, a cowboy to the bone, the embodiment of what the Big Bend once was. Hallie was many things throughout her life: a schoolteacher, a rancher, a newspaperwoman, a beauty parlor operator, a justice of the peace. Some of her choices, such as getting into newspaper writing, were considered odd in West Texas ranching country, where discretion was prized above communication. It was her outsider status that enabled her to write about the place so well.
Hallie Crawford was born in Waco in 1897. Her father had a hard time staying put, and over the next twelve years, the family made five moves, stopping in various West Texas towns and then homesteading in the New Mexico Territory. The Crawfords moved to Alpine for the school facilities, among the best in the region. One of Hallie’s schoolteachers was J. Frank Dobie, and her daughter, Dadie Potter, believes that Dobie probably inspired Hallie to write.
Hallie went on to become a schoolteacher herself; in 1916 she began teaching in the border town of Presidio. Pancho Villa’s army had recently captured Ojinaga, and Presidio was full of refugees when Hallie arrived. Her parents, worried, had urged her not to accept the job, but she did what she wanted. “I found the days hot, the sand deep, the Mexicans strange, and the U.S. soldiers curious about an Anglo girl moving there,” she wrote in her book. “There was only one other white girl there …” Though she took refuge in the federal fort when Villa was rumored to raid, the greatest threat Hallie faced came from the U.S. troops stationed along the border; one afternoon she was chased by two drunk soldiers.
The following year Hallie taught in Marathon. It was there that she met Roy Stillwell, a rancher who had grown up in Mexico, where his father had owned land. Stillwell owned a 22,000-acre ranch 46 miles southeast of Marathon, just northeast of the land that, decades later, would become Big Bend National Park. In 1918, after a courtship that consisted of automobile rides, picnics, and midnight serenades performed by a blind Mexican guitarist Stillwell had hired, the two became engaged. Hallie was twenty, Roy was twice her age, and he was known to drink and gamble. Again Hallie’s parents opposed her decision, so she and Roy eloped.
Hallie’s move to the Stillwell ranch transformed her. She had always been an avid rider, a good shot, and a girl who lived to please her father rather than her mother, a Southern lady who thought Hallie’s tomboy ways made her a fright. Even so, she was not prepared for ranch life. First, there was the ranch house itself: “I really hadn’t expected much but I was somewhat surprised at its size, one room about twelve feet by sixteen feet.” Upon her arrival the three cowhands moved out into the barn. No woman had stayed at the ranch before, and they viewed the development with disdain. Hallie took the cool reception as a challenge, deciding to prove herself useful. She didn’t have much of a choice—her husband considered it unsafe for her to stay at home. He expected Hallie to ride with the cowhands. When she showed up the first morning in a riding skirt, Roy said she would spook the horses and insisted she wear men’s clothes. “I found out quickly that I was to live like a man, work like a man, and act like a man, and I was