Traditionally, the job of recording Texas’ natural heritage has not had many takers. Many Texans exercised their ingenuity finding ways to use the land; few have done as much to preserve it. As a result, some of the state’s most scenic regions are unknown to life-long Texans, and much of what is best is in danger of destruction.
Quietly, with a minimum of fanfare, steps have been taken in the past two years to research and document a number of the most important sites and to shed light on how and whether they should be preserved. The work is sponsored by the Natural Areas Survey Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Project director Don Kennard has assembled a team of scientists whose initial investigations, in 1973, covered Capote Falls, Victorio Canyon, Matagorda Island, and the Davis Mountains. The project’s Matagorda Island report was used to close the island’s Air Force bombing range and pave the way for its conversion to a park. The current scientific team is studying a subtropical woodland near Falcon Dam, a wilderness bayou north of Liberty, and two sites near Terlingua in the Big Bend.
Last year the Natural Areas Survey Project visited the headwaters of the Devils River, a cypress swamp along the Sabine River, a 310-foot-deep sinkhole near Rocksprings, and the Canadian River northwest of Amarillo.
It is the water that one remembers longest: the river and the sky against the bleached limestone, blue against white, a desert resonance of the Aegean. The springs pour out of the ancient rock, lingering in pools circled by moss, maidenhair, and watercress, emptying into the river. A superabundance of water: dizzying, vivid, pure; ageless water knifing clear deep channels defiant of geometry, crossing and diverging and crossing again; water spun in flumes as exuberant and vital as the festive dances on a Minoan urn; a processional without music.
The spring-fed Devils River is the last unpolluted major stream in West Texas. Remote and wild, lined in places with steep unbroken cliffs two hundred feet high, it rolls down the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau above Del Rio. Twenty miles below Baker’s Crossing, a hillside of springs adds 22,000 gallons a minute to its flow; a mile farther on, the waters of Dolan Springs converge, and the transparent river cascades over Dolan Falls toward the immense openness of Lake Amistad.
Only once in recorded history—during the drought of the early 1950s—has the river ever gone dry above these springs. Its crises are of a very different order. The barren countryside invites flash flooding, often so abrupt that sudden rises of ten feet are not uncommon. Rises of thirty and even fifty feet have been recorded—battering the tranquil patches of sycamore and pecan along the riverbank, and tumbling huge boulders down the channel. The Devils is a Hill Country river in a Trans-Pecos setting, serene in its accustomed moods but merciless when the floods come.
This combination has produced some bizarre effects upon the wildlife of a region which is already unique. Dolan Falls is a transitional area for not two but three biotic provinces—the Balconian, Chihuahuan, and Tamaulipan—and the river itself is a key route for the northward dispersal of Mexican birds and mammals. The recurring floods have periodically removed entire species in a matter of hours: blue catfish and alligator gar were both common above the falls until the great flood of 1932; beaver are regularly washed away, eventually to return from the direction of the lake. But the intervals between floods have an impact, too. The very isolation of the many shallow springs has encouraged development of a special aquatic fauna, protected from predators during the long periods of low water. As a result the Devils River system possesses one of the most varied and unusual fish populations in North America.
The area is likewise rich in reptiles. Among the rarest is the Devils River black-headed snake, of which only a dozen specimens are known. Amphibians are few, but the doglike cries of the secretive barking frog are well known to ranchers in the region.
Nearly a century of sheep ranching has eliminated most of the large predators that formerly prowled the Devils River; coyotes have not been seen since the mid-1960s. Mountain lions wandered up the river canyons from Mexico before Lake Amistad was filled; they come no more.
The transitional character of Dolan Falls’ wildlife is matched by its vegetation; botanists, too, see it as the point where three zones converge. Intermingled with the oaks and cedars of the Edwards Plateau are the distinctive sotol and lecheguilla of the Trans-Pecos, as well as the harshly monotonous mesquite and chaparral of the South Texas Plains. The sharpest differences, however, appear as one moves away from the reed-choked riverbanks and the springs; the immense outpouring of cool water is powerless, tantalizingly powerless, to rescue the ridges, slopes, and flats from semi-desert grassland. Hillside cactus and catclaw soak up the sun, and lote bush and spiny hackberry sink their roots into the meager, dry soil. The water goes as gravity directs; there is no charity in the oasis.
Centuries ago the Devils River canyons were green with pine, and the pollen of semidesert plants like yucca was absent from the fragrant air. The past seven thousand years have seen a steady drying trend, its impact on the region’s vegetation accelerated by the arrival of ranchers with their livestock. Less than a hundred years after the first white settlement at Del Rio, Val Verde County had become the leading sheep-raising county in the United States; the effect was beneficial for mesquite and cactus—but not much else. The vegetation of the Devils River bears little resemblance to that seen by the aboriginal Indians who lived there for 8600 years, hunting the same animals with the same weapons, leading a marginal existence in a progressively more inhospitable climate, and finally, between A.D. 1600 and A.D. 1800, disappearing altogether.
They left behind a dense concentration of burned rock middens in every canyon near Dolan Springs, mute reminders of the powerful attraction the waters of the river held for primitive man. Nineteen rockshelters have been identified in the immediate vicinity of the springs, more than a third of which are decorated with multicolored pictographs. Although none attains the aloof, otherworldly perfection of the nearby Fate Bell pictographs, the best of them exhibit the same recurring anthropomorphic figures that characterize Pecos River art. The archaeological evidence suggests that cultural influences from both west (Trans-Pecos) and east (Central Texas) may have met in the vicinity of Devils River, making the region as much a crossroad of human prehistory as it is of botany and zoology.
Spanish exploration came late to this rugged country. Cabeza de Vaca, the first European visitor, forded the river in 1535 on his long, desperate trek from Galveston to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, but he was preoccupied with escaping from the aboriginal inhabitants rather than with documenting their customs. Among those who passed northward in the seventeenth century, some, like Fernando del Bosque and Father Larios, sought to evangelize the Indians, while others, like Fenande de Azcue, sought to enslave them. Settlements, however, were not attempted until 1808, when a mission was established briefly near present-day Del Rio.
Not far from that site, John Charles Beales broke ground for his ill-fated colony in 1834. Crop failures and Indian raids hammered away at Beales’ dream; finally, as Santa Anna invaded Texas in the midst of revolution, the colonists fled toward Matamoros seeking refuge or escape. Instead they found Comanches. For all but two women and their small children, the Beales Colony ended in violent death; behind them, only a church, a gristmill, and a few simple huts remained.
It is easy, today, to remember only the successes, and to measure the white man’s coming with the dry cartographic precision of a frontier line moving inexorably westward. But those who moved the line themselves knew well the failures, knew the lesson in the rotting mill, knew the cutting edge was not nerveless steel but soft and vulnerable flesh; their flesh.
Indian raids continued to plague the Devils River area as late as 1855. Not until 1868 was a permanent community established at Del Rio, although federal troops had briefly occupied Fort Hudson on the upper reaches of the river after the Civil War. As the frontier moved beyond the Pecos, it left a turbulent lawlessness that wracked the fragile settlements in its wake; outlaws like King Fisher—a murderer seventeen times over before the age of twenty—ranged unchallenged across the brush country. But with an irresistible persistence, civilization nudged its way into the waiting land: by 1878 irrigation canals greened the valley near Del Rio; by 1883 the Qualia family awaited the first vintage from their newly planted Italian grapevines; and by 1884 King Fisher himself was a deputy sheriff in Uvalde.
The transformation became irrevocable in 1883, when a silver spike completed the transcontinental Southern Pacific Railroad at a point near the Pecos. That same year marked the arrival at Devils River of the two men whose descendants have been most closely associated with it ever since: David Baker, who built his home where the San Antonio-El Paso road forded the Devils River, a stone’s throw from the ruins of Camp Hudson; and H. K. Fawcett, who painted his name on the wall of the rockshelter that served as his first home near Dolan Springs.
Fawcett’s name is not the only one discernible in that shelter, but it is the only one still remembered. The other men, faint of heart, soon grew disillusioned with these uncongenial hills and sold their land to him. By this good fortune he became the chief landowner of the area, a figure of reverence well into the twentieth century; in time his heirs became the first family of the Devils River, dividing his tens of thousands of acres into half a dozen ranches and winning public office in Val Verde County. Their annual community barbecue—a spirited celebration since H. K. Fawcett’s days—echoes along the Devils River with down-to-earth, expansive sociability.
David Baker’s son, Walter, lives today in the old house at the crossing; his eyes have failed but his recollections of the lawless country where he was born 87 years ago remain acute. No living man has known the Devils River country as long as he. The legend of Roy Bean is for him no legend; the white-bearded image out of folklore, clasping a tattered Texas Statutes in one hand and a Jersey Lilly beer in the other, is a man he knew in adolescence. Was the old judge honest? “Not too honest.” Did he bring a rough but even-handed justice to the dozens of aspiring young King Fishers who booted around Langtry in those raw days? “The outlaws came to him for many things.” Our folklore yearns for a white hat to accompany those white whiskers; Walter Baker may be the last among us to know our folklore expects too much.
Safely above the highest floods, the rambling Baker home is often ignored by the occasional motorist who speeds across the modern concrete bridge on Highway 163. At this lonely spot four generations of Bakers still reside, holding the river as their own, custodians of a special duty that David Baker implicitly accepted when he chose to live at such a place: a duty toward strangers. The motorist today can dine on steak in Del Rio an hour after racing over Baker’s Crossing; when Walter Baker was a child, a man on horseback required twelve hours to make that trip, and a wagon took a day and a half. To travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso road, the Baker home was more of an oasis than the river itself could ever be; to build it there was to submit oneself to a code that said no knock on the floor could ever be ignored.
The Bakers speak matter-of-factly about the recent past when they were “required” to feed and shelter anyone who passed through. Who requires it, one asks. “Hospitality,” is the answer. Hospitality? “Yes, hospitality: we are beside the road.” The choice of words is haunting, a personification of abstract duty that leaves no room for voluntary choice. Hospitality requires that no one be turned away becomes a simple imperative as direct and unavoidable as the tax collector requires that we pay our taxes.
Mary Baker, Walter’s daughter-in-law, now supervises the house. Hers is the first generation not to shelter strangers as a matter of course; the reason, she observes with methodical logic, is merely that “it is not required anymore. There are motels in Comstock now.” But, she adds a moment later, “Of course we still feed anyone who is hungry.”
On the banks of the Devils River the Bakers carry on a custom that most of us never knew existed, a tradition older than Odysseus. It is something more than neighborliness, neither mercenary, nor sentimental, a living anachronism. At its center, it quietly acknowledges the elementary duties that devolve on any of us when men are thrown back on their own resources in a place where both the land and other men cannot be trusted. For most of its history, the Devils River has been that sort of place.
Seven hundred miles from the angular desert fastnesses of Trans-Pecos Texas, surrounded by gnarled woodlands as green as the Amazon, the Sabine River winds to the Gulf in weary oxbows. At its sharpest bend it virtually encircles a narrow, two- thousand-foot spit of Louisiana land, forming an obstacle that local fishermen call “Blue Elbow.”
The Blue Elbow Swamp, a scant two miles square, extends south and east from this peculiar bend. A short distance downstream its woodlands give way to natural open marsh; and, unlikely as such a thing may seem to the casual visitor who hears the cry of barred owls or watches kingfishers dive into the Elbow’s murky depths, the municipal boundaries of the city of Orange are never more than four thousand yards away. Seldom in Texas do the primeval and the modern exist so close together.
Like so many of the state’s most picturesque natural areas, the Blue Elbow Swamp has affected history chiefly by forcing history to go elsewhere: unfit for habitation and penetrable even today only by air-boats, it is less a stage for human activity than an obstacle to it.
To the south, toward Sabine Lake, the aboriginal Atakapan Indians eked out their subsistence with a diet of fish and brackish water clams enriched, when opportunities arose, by human flesh. Regarded by early European explorers as even more foul and obnoxious than their cultural kin, the detested Karankawa, the Atakapans eventually fell victim to disease and to eighteenth-century Franco-Spanish intrigues. They are known today largely through shell middens left behind from encampments on high grounds along the Sabine.
To the north of Blue Elbow, at a more comfortable remove from the mosquito- and fly-infested coast, the settled agricultural civilization of the Caddo once stretched as far as Oklahoma. Archaeologists consider them the heirs of that mysterious mound-building Mississippian culture characterized by precise social orders, complex ceremonial rituals, and advanced agriculture which flourished from A.D. 500 almost to historical times, a strange and as-yet unexplained echo of the great Meso-American civilizations. But the Mississippian heritage of those who lived nearest Blue Elbow may have been more social than material; the surviving pottery sherds exhibit a design and decoration more like those of tribes known to have inhabited the area of present-day Galveston Bay.
White settlers found the region no more attractive than the Indians had. Orange (originally called Green’s Bluff) was established in 1830 as a Sabine River port, its back turned resolutely against the nearby swamp. The Civil War, which might have blazed momentarily up the Sabine if President Lincoln had had his way, was kept away by Dick Dowling’s recklessly heroic defense of Sabine Pass; and Blue Elbow was left with no glamorous historical moment to call its own.
However unexceptional the region’s history may be, contemporary botanists and zoologists praise it as a place where an exceptional variety of plant and animal communities converge in intriguing ways. Similar cypress-tupelo swamps exist in much of East Texas—or did until recently, when reservoirs inundated most of them—but few ever contained as much diversity of marine life as Blue Elbow, with its strategic transition from fresh to salt water. Upon an ecological base of shad, herring, and anchovies, the river’s predatory fish flourish to the satisfaction of both commercial fishermen and sportsmen. Side by side with familiar catfish, bass, sunfish, and buffalo, others of a more elusive nature teem: the silt-loving, virtually transparent scaly sand darter; two tiny catfish called the tadpole madtom and the freckled madtom, neither larger than a minnow; the cypress darter, which haunts submerged root complexes. The variety of amphibians found in this corner of Texas is greater than in any other region of the state, a statistic that is unlikely to be doubted by the visitor who listens on a summer night to the ragged orchestrations of green tree frogs, pig frogs, bronze frogs, and bull frogs.
The brackish water supports sea turtles as well as several formidable freshwater species—the alligator snapping turtle (which uses its tongue as a lure for small fish and is itself locally admired as food), the razorbacked musk turtle, and stinkpot turtles. Every North American species of poisonous snake can also be found, as well as such nonpoisonous species as the burrowing western mud snake and the snakelike reptile known as a glass lizard.
The bird population is likewise abundant, especially in the winter months when migratory waterfowl arrive; although geese and ducks are the most common visitors, whistling swans have occasionally been seen. Four types of herons are among the most conspicuous resident birds in Blue Elbow Swamp, but the pied-billed grebe (with its ability to change its specific gravity and sink up to its neck) is surely the most unusual. A total of 243 different birds have been observed or reported within the swamp.
Mammals are rare, of course; but the population of beaver and river otters—after their narrow escape from extinction at the hands of fur traders in the nineteenth century—is once again increasing. The greater menace today comes less from man than from a much closer mammalian kin: the alien nutria, which appears to be driving out the native muskrat and may eventually affect the entire ecology of the region.
The nutria’s counterpart in the plant kingdom may be the Chinese tallow, an attractive non-native tree now rapidly proliferating in the drier domes of the swamp. Underneath cypress and tupelo hung with Spanish moss, often strung with huge three-dimensional webs of giant spiders, Chinese tallow brightens the forest’s understory—but at an uncertain price. Lacking natural enemies and competition, it may well crowd out the native species and disturb the ecosystem, as its explosive new growth in small clearings suggests.
Recent clearings are the work of nature, not of man; the absence of active timber cutting in the Blue Elbow Swamp seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future. Such forbearance, however, is dictated more by simple economics—the timber is of poor quality and hard to get—than by any desire for preservation. The damage has already been done: logging systematically stripped the swamp of its finest trees from almost the first day white men came to Texas. As early as 1836, a power sawmill was under construction along the Sabine six miles from Orange, though its builders left to join Sam Houston’s tattered army. The tempo of activity resumed and quickened in the twentieth century.
Harvesting first the choice pines, then the hardwoods and cypress, loggers cleared the riverbanks, natural levees, and low hills, floating the logs downstream to Orange where a thriving mill center arose. Virgin trees in the interior lasted until the end of World War II, when canals were dredged to carry them out as well. Today no significant virgin forest remains anywhere within the swamp; only the gaunt skeleton of an occasional majestic cypress, girdled by the loggers and then left standing when rot or some other defect was observed at cutting time, stands as a mute reminder of what Blue Elbow used to be.
Today the swamp and the Sabine exist together in uneasy harmony, in many ways as dissimilar to each other as both are dissimilar to the urban Texas they adjoin. On the river the hum of activity is never far from earshot, though fishing boats and Johnson motors long ago replaced the antebellum steamboats that once bustled around the sinuous bends, carrying tens of thousands of bales of cotton to coastal ports. The river has been appropriated: people live along it, draw food from it, entertain themselves with it. But tie up to a cypress root and walk a hundred yards inland along a piney ridge, and the human signs are gone. Deeper still, except for an occasional fisherman along the lush canals, the swamp seems as elemental as it must have been when the first logger set his saw against his chosen tree. Patiently, indifferently, with a relentless tangled tropical welling forth of life, it pursues its own regeneration.
In a hundred years, perhaps, Blue Elbow Swamp will once again be a climax forest; meanwhile it mends. In the spring, wisteria, honeysuckle, and flowering dogwood bloom; persimmons and muscadines ripen through steamy summer days; the red maples, gums, and sumacs ignite with fiery foliage in the long, late autumns. Among them, unhurried, the giant spiders tirelessly spin their enormous webs.
Picture yourself suspended from a single thin rope, fifteen feet from the nearest land beside you—if you could reach it, which you can’t; and 140 feet from the nearest land below you—which you can reach, easily. By falling. If the rope breaks.
Which ropes have been known to do.
You are disposed, in that situation, to ponder how you got there. If you visited the Devil’s Sinkhole with the Natural Areas Survey Project in July 1974, you got into that situation by strapping yourself into a mountain climber’s harness, donning a motorcycle helmet, clipping your harness to the rope, and stepping as nonchalantly as possible off the edge of the Hole.
One of life’s most uncommon experiences is to walk over the edge of a 140-foot cliff without, as they say, result. This is the same formidable cliff that you first approached a few moments before on your knees, or perhaps creeping along on your stomach: a large, almost circular pit in the shin oak grasslands of northeastern Edwards County, tucked away in a self-effacing patch of countryside that effectively conceals its presence until you wander up to the perimeter and notice that it just… drops. Very far. As far as a fourteen-story building. Farther than it seems prudent to pursue.
But eventually your turn comes, and you stride toward the Hole until your feet tread air. You do not plummet because the rope passes through a boom welded to the frame of a pickup truck parked at the edge of the Hole, and thence to the rear of a second pickup truck, where it is, you are told, securely fastened. At the very moment your feet begin to dangle, that second pickup is backing toward the Hole from its position a hundred yards away, lowering you effortlessly down.
As you descend below the surface of the earth, your mind recapitulates forgotten images out of literature: Jonathan Edwards’ spider suspended over the void; Jonah engorged by a colossal gullet. Leaving behind the outside world’s insistent glare, you find yourself spiraling silently down a stone-lined cylinder of cool air, aware of no sound except the pulley’s diminishing squeak. With each rotation of the twisting rope an unexpected sight comes into view: the hives of honeybees, the nests of canyon wrens, a pair of great horned owls. A colony of some 500 cave swallows has built nests with the mud that forms below the fern-lined, seeping walls. Along a narrow ledge, a solitary mountain mulberry struggles toward the light.
Eons ago, the Sinkhole was an enclosed, water-filled chamber, roofed by a few feet of resistant limestone. But gradually, as the neighboring streams cut deeper, the falling water table drained the Sinkhole. Its unbuoyed ceiling collapsed with a roar, leaving a 170-foot-high conical mountain of rubble covering the floor of the 310-foot-deep cave.
Released from your harness, you can wander down this steep-sided mountain into a twilight region of deepening shadows where resilient life forms have adapted precisely to the changing zones of light. A few minutes of sunshine near the top is enough for meadow spikemoss, but farther down, the dim gloom precludes all vegetation. This is the realm of bats: millions of Mexican free-tails doze in the darkest corners, emerging at sunset in an awesome rush that sometimes lasts forty minutes. Fifty-four kinds of arthropods—mostly spiders—scurry, creep, and chew their way across the guano-covered rocks. Occasionally rattlesnakes, raccoons, and other surface dwellers tumble by accident into the Sinkhole; the few that survive the impact soon die, leaving eerie skeletons draped across the rocks.
Halfway down the slope, you receive a spectacular reward for the rigors of the descent. Above, like an immense inverted funnel, the walls slant upward to the Sinkhole’s mouth. Brown rocks give way to green ferns, riveting your attention on the central dome of brilliant blue sky. This tiny circle, a window opening onto nothing but air and color and a transient cloud, is the only visible reminder of the world above—the world from which, moments ago, you peered disbelieving into this Plutonic pit. Now that world itself seems vaporous, unreal. It is a triumph of perspective.
Continuing your descent along the slippery rocks, you soon enter a region of perpetual darkness where overhanging ledges shut out the sky. At the foot of the rubble, several small pools contain the Sinkhole’s only true cave-adapted species. One, a tiny blind crustacean called Stygonectes hadenoecus, is found nowhere else on—or under—earth.
The Sinkhole’s pools are actually part of a slow-flowing underground stream that emerges as springs along both Hackberry Creek and the Nueces River. The confluence of these two waterways, seven miles to the southeast, takes place in a classic Hill Country setting.
Much of the surrounding area, however, has been subjected to extensive clearcutting and overgrazing. But in the moist side canyons, undisturbed ferns, cedar sedge, and deciduous oaks can be found; nearby, a few Mexican pinyon fight grimly against their multiple enemies: needleborers, porcupines, and an ever-drier climate. Along the floodplains of the East Prong of the Nueces, pecans and little walnut trees have prospered since the days when Spanish travelers first named this “River of Nuts.” In still, muddy pools, a carnivorous plant called the conespur bladderwort feasts on microorganisms. The few juniper thickets along Hackberry Creek provide nesting sites for the finicky golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered bird that nests only in Texas.
Proximity to the Rio Grande opened the Upper Nueces to Spanish influence far more thoroughly than many other parts of Texas. As early as 1590, rumors of silver brought explorers here; they were followed by surveyors and missionaries. In 1762, the mission of San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz was founded thirteen miles south of the confluence of Hackberry Creek and the East Prong of the Nueces. Under attack by the Comanches it was abandoned in 1771, and the site went fallow until American infantrymen returned in 1857 to reoccupy it under the name of Camp Wood.
Once the Indians were subjugated after the close of the war, bold cattlemen brought the “free grass” ranching era to the open range of South Texas. Soon the hooves of longhorn cattle bound for market rumbled through the winding, narrow canyons of the Upper Nueces, past the site of the modern-day Eagle Ranch which a new century’s entrepreneurs—Ling-Temco-Vought—would build as a retreat for their executives.
These tricky canyons attracted more than their share of desperadoes and cattle thieves: John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, and Bill Longley in the 1870s; the Black Jack Ketchum Gang, the Pegleg Gang, and Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang in the 1880s and 1890s. Long past the time when law and order prevailed elsewhere in Texas, the Upper Nueces persisted as an outlaw sanctuary.
Not surprisingly, there is no record that Butch Cassidy and his partners ever paused to gape at the Devil’s Sinkhole; their enthusiasms took a different turn. But the local bandits could not have been entirely absent from the mind of a man named H. S. Barber, who managed to descend the Sinkhole and carve his name at the bottom in 1889, temporarily leaving his rope or ladder—and thus his only means of returning—at the mercy of whoever happened by.
If you follow him today, you share his absolute dependence on the good will of anyone on the rim; there is no way to escape unaided. But paradoxically, as you look up to that tiny window, the ties that join you to your fellow men on the surface seem altogether insubstantial. You are merely a particle in the earth’s crust, swallowed. You could be anywhere. Not until you reattach yourself to the harness and spiral upward out of the clammy air into the plateau’s scalding light do you restore your conventional perspective.
The disorienting shock soon fades. You walk away, not wishing to look back down. The pickup driver turns; you wave: “Thanks! Great entertainment.”
Only a geologist could love it. An archaeologist, sifting through its stones to find a weapon that might have ricocheted against a mammoth’s skull, can feel excitement for the place; but love? A historian can revere the legions of men who brought their folkways to it and then moved on, leaving it for others; but—panoramic, technicolored—it remains a stage and not an object of affection. A zoologist, a botanist, can search in vain for the extraordinary find, the unexpected living thing that brings a quickening of the pulse. But the geologist, standing in windy solitude, sees something different: a contorted badlands of canyons, buttes, and mesas. Perhaps—depending on his mood and the play of light against the cliffs of multicolored shale—he might even say he loves it.
A snicker would be inappropriate: the geologist is accustomed to fixing his ardor on places that other scientists find devoid of interest, sites whose very barrenness best exposes the uplifts and erosion that made them what they are. The Breaks of the Canadian River—a landscape of almost biblical desolation—suit his purpose admirably. From the level plain of the Llano Estacado northwest of Amarillo they appear first as slight canyons, then as whole eroded valleys lined with vivid colored rock, expanding in scale and majesty as they approach the sandy riverbed. Along the dry arroyos one often finds cut banks composed of 500 or more strata, each perfectly identifiable and distinct even if no more than one-sixteenth of an inch thick, a veritable library of sedimentary history. Higher up, these sandstones give way to several hundred feet of Triassic shales whose wine-hued purples, maroons, and reds are interspersed with white and yellow. Still higher, other sandstones and resistant shales cap the buttes and mesas, leaving grass-topped sentinels to guard the empty valleys.
Few places anywhere belong so completely to the wind. It whines continuously through the canyons at an average velocity of sixteen miles an hour, scattering microscopic red dust over everything and torturing shrubs into parodies of bonsai. The wind is a moody sovereign, intensifying not only the torrid summer temperatures that reach as high as 109°, but also the bitter winters as cold as -18°. It dries the valley floors, leaving salt pans in place of water, and sculpts every ridge and crevice of the rocky walls. There is war here between wind and stone, and the wind is winning.
The sparse vegetation consists primarily of mesquite, bristlegrass, skunkbush, grama, and galleta. Near the bone-dry Canadian River, salt cedars cluster in a dense canopy; on the southern breaks a stand of juniper survives; and along the side canyons, occasional cottonwoods offer protective shade against the beating sun.
It is not a hospitable place for man or beast. Reptiles like the collared lizard, the checkered whiptail, and the diamondback rattlesnake nevertheless find it congenial, as do coyotes; and birds like Bullock’s oriole regard the cottonwoods as splendid nesting sites. Indeed, the trees may well be the most important zoological aspect of the Breaks, offering valuable shelter that is lacking elsewhere in the Llano Estacado. Otherwise the wildlife is unremarkable, differing little from the Chihuahuan species common to West Texas.
The history of the Canadian River country is as layered as the rocks themselves. Like some constantly recomposing tide, one human society after another has flowed across the plains, leaving behind rich artifacts and richer legends.
The earliest traces suggest that primitive men armed only with atlatls pursued bison, camels, and mammoths here as long ago as 18,000 B.C. Later, and more ingeniously, they drove their quarry into box canyons for the kill, or stampeded the beasts over a convenient precipice.
The region’s most impressive prehistoric remains, however, date from the era of the mesa-dwelling Indian farmers who occupied the Breaks from about A.D. 1100 until their civilization was destroyed by drought about 1500. Their architecture and pottery are among the most impressive to be found in Texas. In the Canadian River valley they cultivated pumpkin, maize, beans, and squash with crude stone hoes and other tools, living in communal apartment buildings atop the nearly inaccessible mesas. The finest surviving example of their culture, Landergin Mesa, stands a few miles south of the river. It is almost entirely covered by the remains of a rectangular stone structure comprising numerous rooms; to one side, manos and grinding slabs can still be found. Situated 180 feet above the valley floor and protected by sheer sandstone walls, it offered proximity to farming land, security from marauding enemies, and unobstructed views of distant hunting grounds.
As the climate of the Canadian Breaks grew drier in the sixteenth century, a new tribe of buffalo hunters—the nomadic Jumanos—infiltrated these abandoned farms. They survived by trading dried meat and hides with their more settled cousins to the west, and it was they whom the Spanish conquistadors first encountered in their futile quest for gold.
Coronado’s expedition passed well south of the Breaks, entering Palo Duro Canyon before turning north toward Oklahoma. Not until 1601, when Juan de Onate followed the north side of the Canadian River searching for the fabled city of Quivira, did European influence arrive. The land was fresher then: “rich in fruits, particularly of infinite varities of plums, the fruit more numerous than the leaves,” Onate reported to the King of Spain. His men nibbled wild grapes and drank from the many springs that bubbled forth along the Breaks; around them, countless buffalo savored the limitless grass.
To this tranquil country the Apaches soon came, thundering on horseback from the northern plains. By 1650 they had convincingly overthrown the Jumanos and made themselves masters of a territory Spanish in name only. But their domination too was only temporary. From ancestral homes along the Yellowstone River in the northern Rockies, the Comanches poured southward like an equestrian plague, annihilating opposition. By 1725 the land was theirs, though massacres continued as long as straggling Apaches could be found.
A Comanche peace descended upon the Canadian Breaks, not to be broken until 1849 when well-armed convoys of gold-seekers burst through toward California, leaving in their wake disease and slaughtered buffalo. The sullen Indians first traded with, then fought, the interlopers. For a while, amid the distractions of the Civil War, they were successful. It was then, amazingly enough, that Mexican sheep ranchers moved undisturbed into the Breaks, building stone masonry “plazas” and practicing a sly coexistence. The remains of one such plaza can be seen today in a grassy area between Landergin Mesa and the dry riverbed, a weathered heap that once housed an isolated family who found—temporarily—the secret of cooperation with the fierce Comanches.
Federal troops finally overcame the Indians, leaving Americans free to descend upon the unspoiled plains where grass, they said, grew tall as wheat. Events moved with kaleidoscopic quickness after Mackenzie destroyed the Comanches’ horses at Tule Canyon in 1874. Buffalo hunters like the Moor Brothers came and went, leaving by 1879 an eerie silence and a million shaggy corpses. Cattlemen like Goodnight, Pierce, and Loving followed; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid walked the streets of Tascosa, the jerry-built supply town that sprouted a few miles east of Landergin Mesa. The land, bruised by too many cattle, began to change; grass gave way to gullies; and mesquite seeds, undigested by the grazing herds, sprouted into thickets of thirsty trees that sapped the topsoil dry. In 1886-87, successive drought and polar winter dealt the cattlemen a deadly blow. The Canadian Breaks would never be the same.
By 1887 barbed wire, windmills, and the railroad’s arrival outside Tascosa combined to put an end to open range. The great trails, like the Jones and Plummer Trail that crossed the Canadian at Tascosa, were doomed. Even the town itself was passed by, crumbling into ruins while upstart Amarillo prospered.
Later, oilmen came, and ranching accommodated itself to the unromantic reality of feedlots. Less than a hundred years after Mackenzie opened this land to settlement, the raucous pioneer world has been replaced by orderly conservatism. Less than 125 years after white men feared to set foot here, 200,000 Americans occupy the upper Panhandle.
Few, however, venture into the Canadian Breaks, which has distilled into itself the spacious solitude that once spread hundreds of miles beyond its jagged canyons. The many springs are gone, victims of the distant irrigation that has sucked the groundwater away. The land is strangled with mesquite, a persistent legacy of overgrazing. The last wave of human civilization to cross the Breaks has scraped them clean; now there is nothing left but the wind and the sculptured rocks.
At night, from the air, the High Plains sparkle with lights, but the Canadian Breaks lie apart: lonely, brooding, dark.
On the windswept coast of North Africa, near the shabby Libyan town of Tobruk, a stolid windowless building dominates a barren hill. The wreaths inside its bronze doors are gray and withered; only their ribbons are bright. At the four corners of its inner courtyard, the thick walls of somber brown stone are interrupted by iron grillwork, through which one can see… nothing but empty desert.
This building is the mausoleum of six thousand German soldiers who fought with Rommel and never crossed the Mediterranean again; their bodies are piled within the walls that bear their names. Weeks pass without a visitor. One looks at the tomb and wonders that men should have come so far from home to die, and to such desolation.
On the other side of the world, the Canadian Breaks has that same charnel loneliness: the same dry grit in the air, the same incessant wind speaking in the same low moan. One looks across the Breaks from Landergin Mesa and for a moment the whole human pageant is arrested: a paleo-Indian, arm upraised in vain to block the mammoth’s tusk; the mesa-dwelling farmer, shaking the last grains from the scorched maize that nourished his ancestors; the aging Comanche, retelling by firelight the legends that were born in Yellowstone; the bearded Kansas émigré, staring at the frozen carcasses of his cattle and knowing that the ice has killed his dreams as well. Like Tobruk, those who came here called better places home, but their monument is as insubstantial as the red dust that drifts without repose. The pageant has passed across and left behind nothing—except its stones.
The geologist smiles. He knows.