James A. Michener
The Unlikely Paradise of Presidio
I am convinced that whoever surveyed West Texas in the early days marked off some of the longest miles in the world, just to get the job done in a hurry. Today those lonely miles link scattered townships and settlements in a harsh terrain that became the breeding ground of the Texas cowboy and more recently the wildcat oilman. Nowhere do those endless miles unfold more dramatically than in the fabled Big Bend country south of Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon.
The area first enchanted me in the thirties when I motored down a tortuous dirt road that meandered some sixty miles or so from Marfa to the Rio Grande. Today that same road is graded and paved but still impressive, and as before it ends at my favorite place in all Texas, the old Spanish settlement of Presidio. Since that first visit more than fifty years ago I have returned many times, most recently when doing intensive research for my novel Texas.
I remember Presidio for several reasons, not least when I listen to the nation’s weather reports: “For the third day in a row the highest temperature in the nation was recorded at Presidio, Texas.” When I hear such a report, I see again the dusty main street burning in the sun.
Presidio is the unadorned meeting place of two great nations, not much used as a crossing place by tourists, not blessed by any significant shared commercial enterprise, not favored as a highway linking our two countries, though there is a rail link on the Ojinaga side of the river to take the intrepid traveler on a breathtaking train ride all the way to the Gulf of California. Presidio is but one more in the string of meager communities along the Rio Grande. Ruidosa, Candelaria, Lajitas, Terlingua, all of them Spanish-named except for lonely Redford, all of them in a mind-set that faces south to Mexico and Chihuahua, not north to Lubbock or Midland or Dallas.
Yet of all those river places Presidio is significant because it is a U.S. border crossing, a fact that was forever engraved on my mind the day a Texas law enforcement officer drove me across the river for a face-to-face meeting with the local Mexican crime boss in Ojinaga. Guided by a series of unwritten understandings, these two men kept crime within acceptable tolerances on both sides of their border area. It was strange to watch an acknowledged Mexican outlaw and a pragmatic American lawman discussing how to handle half a dozen local crimes ranging from horse stealing to murder. It was the modern equivalent of the law west of the Pecos meted out by Judge Roy Bean, and I was assured it still worked. “I get more help from that crook than I can ever count on from a grand-jury investigation,” the American lawman vouched. “I get more crimes resolved through an understanding with him than I ever could with a posse of armed men at my side.” The meeting was one of the highlights of many research trips along the river bend.
And so Presidio bakes on, a small frontier town of no pretension except when viewed from the poverty-scarred streets of its sister town Ojinaga. From that desolate place, in these years of enormous hardship on the Mexican side, Presidio must look like the gateway to paradise. James A. Michener, the author of Texas, is now completing a novel about the Caribbean.
Most of my favorite places in Texas have been shut down or paved in the past few years, but there is still one spot where I can slip off to on an afternoon and slide into dream time. It is a wooden swing on top of Buttercup Mountain about a mile from the town square in Wimberley. The swing hangs from an oak tree. The view is across Money Hole Flat and the Blanco River to the high purple ridge known as the Devil’s Backbone. Sitting there, listening to my dogs chasing the scent of ghosts in the woods, I am reminded of the quote from Ford Madox Ford that Billie Lee Brammer used to open his novel The Gay Place: “Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness?” Substitute oaks and junipers for olive leaves, and this is an apt description of how I feel in my swing on Buttercup.
The swing was a gift from Pete and Jody Gent. They