The Last Frontier

What Texas once was, Marfa still is.

Not one member of the Big Bend Dance Club of Marfa doubted this would be a fine July Friday night. One of their favorite bands, Al Dean and his four All Stars, had driven in 470 miles from Freer. Friends from Fort Davis, Alpine, Pecos, Valentine, Van Horn, and Presidio would be here, couples that the vast expanse of country seemed to swallow up between ritual events like weddings, funerals, high school football games, or the Bloy’s Camp Meeting.

Although it was midsummer, outside the air was a cool 57 degrees. At an elevation of 4800 feet, Marfa is virtually as high as Denver, and during this July its evening temperature would average a degree or so lower than in Anchorage, Alaska. Marfa’s neighbors 25 miles to the east had been so enamored of the climate between the Davis Mountains and the Rio Grande that they named their town Alpine. The people of this most isolated part of Texas are proud of their weather, just as they are, in a quiet, secure sort of way, proud of the way of life they have sustained more or less unchanged since the high days of the cattle kingdom. But what made this particular night special was the light rain that began falling as the pickups and sedans circled and parked around the Beta Sigma Phi Community Center, like buzzards coming to roost at dusk. Rain was a tonic that changed facial expressions, erased wrinkles, lightened voice tones. Rain had the same effect on the Big Bend Dance Clubbers as getting money in the mail, and in this semiarid region of Texas, where a wet year would see barely fifteen inches of rainfall, it amounted to the same thing.

Inside, Al and the boys with the glamorous Maxine on drums blended ballads, waltzes, jitterbugs, put-your-little-foots, cotton-eyed Joes, and schottisches, 25 songs a set thrown out with the regularity of a Wurlitzer jukebox full of dimes. Everybody danced. No one refused an offer. Within the first hour, coats were abandoned, and hairdos unraveled as the temperature on the dance floor climbed with the pace of the dancers’ enthusiasm. The dancing styles varied from ice-skating champions to dippers and heel lifters, energetic old boys unconsciously imitating oil-field pumps, and dancing fanatics whose years of practice had transformed them into mechanical windup dolls.

While the men wore variations of their daily work clothes, the women on the dance floor stood out. In this ranching county, women play not subordinate but supporting roles. As teachers, shop clerks, waitresses, government clerks, wives, and mothers, they blend into the fabric of daily life without a hint of contrast. But, every other month at the Big Bend Dance Club, they had sanction to spread their wings and show their plumage. They wore formal evening gowns, pajama pants suits, slacks, slit evening gowns, long granny dresses, cowgirl pants so tight you could read the date on a quarter in the hip pocket; they sported bouffants, fluff-outs, ponytails, pageboys, a chignon or two, and they wore an astounding number of shoe styles. Each outfit was a statement that, since it would have to suffice until the next dance two months away, carried few subtleties.

The land around Marfa also cradles no subtlety. It is hard country, so four-square in the Texas myth that it was the location for that most mythic of Texas movies, Giant. The lack of rain, the wind and sun, the sharp drainage and hungry animals keep the fat and drapery from this near bare-bones territory. A touch of soft gentleness appears only in time of rain when the thick skin of grama grass springs to life on the Marfa Highland Plain. Here, among the 3892 square miles of Presidio County’s mountains and barrancas, washes, cliffs, valleys, tors, and screes, man is an insignificant figure. There is one of his species per square mile, just as there was in 1850.

If space and aridity define this country, so does silence. There is not the rich polyphony of forest noises—frogs, birds, cicadas—nor the marsh sounds of the coastal plains—Southern bullfrog belches or spring peeper chirps. It is as if the land was so full of silence that there was no room for sound. Presidio County would remain virtually as quiet in 1977 as in 1885 except for the whirring of the windmill, the swishhhh-bang of a ranch-house screen door, the hum of Border Patrol aircraft, the comings and goings of a few thousand people, and the most important sound heard on the frontier, the low three-toned wail of the railroad whistle announcing a link with the outside world.

When the newly arrived founder of the county’s most historic ranch, Lucas Brite, climbed atop Capote Peak on Columbus Day, 1885, he wrote in his journal that he saw no sign of man. No windmills, no roads, no watering places or domestic livestock. By Christmas the next year there were 60,000 cattle in the county and the new ranchers had leased all available water. The way of life they transplanted here became associated the world over with Texas. Although larger forces are gathering that may soon end it forever, it is a way of life that continues in Presidio County to this day.

What Brite and other pioneers discovered was really two countries. On the north are the rolling plains and the grasslands of the Marfa Highland, a plateau 75 miles long and 35 miles wide that benefits from moderate rainfall. To the south is the hot, merciless Chihuahuan Desert—stool, ocotillo, maguey, creosote, and mesquite—country as angular as the Spanish dagger plant. Here only the meager Rio Grande provides a thin ribbon oasis. Separating grassland from the desert floor is a continuous east-west range topped with 6000-foot peaks—the Sierra Viejas, Chinatis, Bofecillos, Chisos. Brite stood on the edge of the highland grasses on the Rimrock, an eight-million-year-old, 6000-foot igneous uplift, and gazed hundreds of feet below to the desert, marveling at this definitive break in nature.

The Rimrock divides cultures as

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