Borderlands

Modern-day vaquero hanging out on a sandbar on the Rio Grande.

January 25 – February 1, 2020.

Here is a tale…

Illegal activity was being conducted in the middle of the Rio Grande south of Langtry, TX in 1896. A sand bar had been converted into a small arena and Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher were sparring for Heavy Weight Champion of the World.

Prizefighting was a criminal offense in most of the US at that time and had just been outlawed in Texas when promoter Dan Stuart found himself with a contracted bout and nowhere to stage it. But then Judge Roy Bean, saloon owner, and self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos” came to his aid.

On the day of the fight attendees boarded trains in El Paso, Del Rio, and Eagle Pass that brought them to the dusty little town of Langtry where Bean served up drinks and practiced his law.

You can visit Judge Roy Bean’s bar and home in Langtry, TX. The original buildings sit behind a Texas state visitor center and a small museum about Bean.

The spectators, after enjoying libations in the Judge’s bar, were led down to the river and across a newly erected footbridge to the infamous sandbar. There they found a temporary boxing ring of pine boards covered with resin-treated canvas surrounded by a 16-foot high canvas fence to prevent non-ticket holders from seeing the fight. But the barrier couldn’t block the view of the many spectators up above on the bluff, including Texas Rangers who felt the contest was out of their jurisdiction to stop. And unlike a previous attempt to stage the fight in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Mexican authorities didn’t even show up.

The fight was over in 95 seconds with Fitzsimmons throwing the winning blow.

Disappointed, the attendees plodded back to Langtry ready to catch the train home. Except, Bean, always working on a way to make a few bucks, had bribed the conductor to delay the return trip by a few hours. With nothing else to do thirsty spectators wandered back into The Judge’s saloon, adding to Bean’s daily profit.

Inside the Jersey Lilly Saloon. The saloon was named by Bean for the British actress Lilly Langtry who the Judge was infatuated with. Coincidentally the town was named prior to Bean’s arrival after George Langtry, an engineer and foreman who worked building the Southern Pacific Railroad.

But long before there was a Mexico, a United States, or uncontested sandbars, stories were already being made on the Rio Grande by Indigenous People who wandered the river’s banks. They left some of those tales on cave walls, paintings of people, animals, and mysterious objects. We can only guess at what they were trying to communicate.

It may be hard to imagine people flocking to the border these days but in 1909, J.O. Langford and others did just that. While visiting Alpine, Texas Langford heard about the healing powers of hot mineral springs along the Rio Grande. Looking for relief from symptoms after contracting malaria as a child, he immediately purchased the land surrounding the springs and set out on a ten-day journey from Alpine to the Rio Grande with his wife and daughter. Here, in addition to the springs, he found petroglyphs left by long ago by Native Americans and “squatters,” Cleofas Natividad, of Mexican descent, along with his wife and ten children who had been farming the land for generations. Instead of evicting Natividad and his family he developed a cooperative relationship with them.

After 21 days of drinking and soaking in the 105-degree water, Langford’s gamble paid off. He felt strong and healthy. Eventually, the site would become the first major tourist attraction in the area when Langford developed the land into a health resort.

Another tale of friendship along the Rio Grande came about much more recently when Mexico and the United States completed the construction of the Amistad Dam in 1969. Spanning across the great river, the reservoir created by the dam provides water and flood control for both sides of the border. At the time it must have seemed like such a fitting name to call the dam and reservoir, “Amistad,” “Friendship” in English.

These are just some of the stories we absorbed on our trip to the borderlands along the Rio Grande in Texas.

Amistad National Recreation Area

We mostly came to Amistad to kill time before meeting up with a friend in Big Bend National Park. The visitor center was closed while we were there so I don’t have a lot of history about the place to relate and we didn’t have time to visit the dam (which, of course, would just have made this post longer.)

We didn’t think about kayaking until we saw how pretty the reservoir was. Here is a nice resource about paddling at the reservoir. Pirogue Bleue at the boat launch.

Sheep grazing along the reservoir.

Amistad Is a Big reservoir with lots of places to put your boat in. We decided to check out Box Canyon. We weren’t disappointed.

It was a nice calm day.

And there were goats all along the bluffs!

I couldn’t figure out why this goat was giving us the evil eye until I saw her baby sitting below her on the cliff. Once I realized this we decided to leave her in peace.

Let me know when you get sick of me posting pictures of Herons.

You can see Mexico on the other side of the reservoir from where we were paddling so we decided to visit. Here Greg touches a little piece of Mexico. Our first border crossing of the year.

The Southern Pacific Railroad line crosses the Amistad Reservoir. This rail line was one of the things that brought Roy Bean to Langtry. When the dam was built 14.3 miles of tracks, 19 miles of highways, and two bridges had to be relocated.

Sunset at our campsite at the recreation area.

Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site

There are cave paintings along the Rio Grande in Amistad Recreation Area and I wanted to visit them. The problem was that they were boat in only and I didn’t think Pirogue Bleue (or more accurately, we) could make it. So we decided to opt for a tour at Seminole State Park instead.

Now, why do you imagine a Texas park would be named after a Native American tribe living in Florida? More about that in a later post.

This sculpture by Bill Worrell, “The Maker of Peace,” greets visitors as they begin their tour to Fate Bell Shelter where the cave paintings are located. The figure holds a spear and atlatl in its right hand.

View of the canyon below the pictograph cave.

Here in the mouth of the pictograph cave our guide points out a “cutting board” rock. The upper surface of the rock is glazed with a layer of lanolin from years of use as a cutting board by native Americans.

The pictographs here are inspired by visions of shamans under the influence of peyote. Pictographs are separated by lines separating the world of people from the underworld. Generally, the people look happy. The underworld figures, however, are ominous. This one looks like a giant shrimp.

It’s odd to see a square figure when there is really nothing square in the surrounding environment. The guides ask what people think of it. Popular answers are TV set, deer blind, and railroad caboose heading off down the tracks. (The latter is a bit disturbing as the “tracks” seem to run over the legs of another figure.)

Anthropomorphic figures with animal heads.

Seashell fossil embedded in the cave wall.

Fossil remains of another sea dweller. Native Americans in the Southwest traded with coastal tribes for seashells. I wonder what they thought of fossilized shells at higher elevations.

Big Bend National Park

We have been to Big Bend before. Check out our previous blog post here. But this time we were meeting a friend. We thought we’d do some backcountry camping – it was super cheap when we were there last time ($12 for 14 days) – but after the first of the year, the price was raised to $10 a day! This was a bit steep for something we generally do for free. Luckily, our friend Tina had reserved campsites and let us share with her.

Panorama at Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend is huge! And since we were only there three days last time there was plenty of stuff we didn’t do on our last trip. We tried to make up for it this time by checking out everything we missed before like a hike down Chimneys Trail to see these petroglyphs.

Blind Prickly Pear.

A little love in the desert. Purple Prickly Pear.

One place we did revisit was the Castolon area in the park. Unfortunately, there was a fire there last year and the barracks which housed the visitors center and La Harmonia store were burned.

Roadrunner. A really, really FAT campground roadrunner.

Agave.

We took a hike to the “Window.” Last time we only viewed the “Window” from an overlook. The hike got tricky when we got close. There were pools that needed to be crossed and narrow stairways carved into the rock.

The Window. We’re actually at the top of a small waterfall here, but it’s unsafe to get close enough to the edge for a picture.

Another new site for us was the ruins of the Langford hot springs. This building was once a store.

A view of the remains of the main bathhouse from where Langford’s house used to sit up on a bluff. The water is still a toasty 150 degrees.

View of the Rio Grande.

Growing out of the rock on the ridge, the signature plant of the Chihuahuan Desert, Lechuguilla.

Coyote roaming the campground.

This one was a  repeat – rowing across the Rio Grande to Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico. Of course, we didn’t do it with our friend Tina last time, so this time was even better.

Also different from last time we visited Boquillas was that we were able to avoid being saddled with a guide meaning we were free to roam and go where ever we wanted on our own time. We had beers a couple of different places before we saw this one so we gave it a miss. It did look inviting, though.

We never saw this museum about the protected area, Maderas del Carmen, that surrounds the town on our previous visit.

View from a sand dune back at Boquillas.

On our way back to the rowboat we took a little side trip and found this hot spring. The water was also 105 degrees on the Mexican side of the river.

College kids riding burros back to the river.

8 thoughts on “Borderlands

  1. Alan Christensen said:

    I need to go back through that area sometime.

    • Duwan said:

      I wish we had more time to spend there. Hope we can return some day too.

      • I overnighted at the “park” in Langtry. I tried to add my donation to the box, but it was stuffed full. I guess the income wasn’t high on anyone’s agenda.

        • Duwan said:

          Doesn’t sound like it but nice to know that people still saw enough value to keep stuffing money in the box.

  2. Lisa said:

    Beautiful. I love your photos. Your post makes me want to go and sad I didn’t while I was “nearby”. Thanks for sharing.

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks Lisa! I always think when I pass something up, oh there will be another time – and even if there isn’t there are so many other amazing things out there to discover.

  3. Hi Duwan!

    You had me smile throughout this post, remembering our time in Big Bend, how you always find the most interesting and fascinating places and stories, and how you already touched Mexican “land” (or rock) this year.

    So nice you met up with a friend as well. How long did you manage to spend in Big Bend this time? I think if we ever commit to another winter in the US (while in a camper) we should check out southern Texas next. Such a beautiful area – especially the desert and the reservoir.

    • Duwan said:

      So glad I made you smile! We were in Big Bend for about 5 days. It was a lot of fun hanging with a friend! Especially being able to show her some of the things we did previously. I love being a tour guide.

      I’d love to go back to southern Texas – there was so much we missed – but you can’t do it all.

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