Chapter 11, The Stillwell Ranch
A Chihuahuan Desert Adventure
Marathon, Texas has the beautiful historic Gage Hotel, but room rates and restaurant entree prices out of our budget. Otherwise the town was pretty empty. We found an RV park with showers, but had to pitch our tent on glass shards and goat-heads.
We had our first and second goat-head (a large nasty thorn that looks like a goat’s head) flats. The second was not in Zippy’s tire, but in my Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad. It was a long hard night sleeping on rocks. Toward morning, Claire and I managed to fit our two peanut-butts on one pad, and then we overslept.
The grocery had no edible vegetables or fruits. We are back to dining on junk. Anything that will burn and produce energy goes in. We were spoiled all down the coast of Texas and in the Rio Grande valley as far as Del Rio, with wonderful stores, fabulous produce sections. We miss our raw veggies.
We’ve been looking forward to this part of the trip for a long time. This is way out of the way and few people make the effort to drive here. We understand why. It is big big country, and the few and far-between towns are very short on essential services.
But, the landscape is spectacular in it’s hugeness and the diversity of plant and animal life makes up for the long miles and uncertainty. We are in the mountains now. They are everywhere on the horizon as we ride, and every hill crested gives rise to a new panorama, more wonderful than the last; long rimrock ridges, flat-topped buttes and camelbacks roll off the backside of forever folded under popcorn clouds; between gently rolling desert, carpeted with greasewood and punctuated by soaptree yucca.
A few miles out of Marathon, the next day, we stopped at a border checkpoint to use their bathrooms. A small cute blond officer with a big gun on her hip, smoked her Marlboro aggressively and talked about her job. We asked her about a story we had heard in Dryden about a high-speed chase leading to the arrest of a smuggler.
She confirmed that the truck had come through their checkpoint and had 1,000 pounds of marijuana on board. It is harvest time in Mexico now and they are busy. “I hope we get some through here today,” she said, scratching her trigger finger on her green uniform slacks.
After a short, mostly downhill day, we stopped at the Stillwell Ranch for the night. Tomorrow will be a hard climb into Big Bend National Park.
It’s about 7:30 p.m. and we are sitting at a picnic table in shorts. Warm. This is a wonderful place, home of Hallie Stillwell, matriarch to all of West Texas. She’s 98, and when she has a birthday, half the region shows up. We met her this afternoon, and from the look on her face, she’s still pondering why two people would ride a bicycle from Washington state, just to see her.
Her daughter, and granddaughter, a sister and a son and son-in-law, run the ranch, store, and RV park and take care of Hallie.
Three entrepreneurial Mexicans have been sitting by the Stillwell store’s gas pumps for a couple of hours. They are in a truck piled about as high as it is long with used tires they plan to sell across the river, 22 miles away. When they put on the brakes to stop at the pumps, the load lurched the truck back and forth several times. I thought for a moment it might topple.
Hallie’s daughter, Dadie said they will wait here until late in the night so they can avoid the Federales, (Mexican border police) who will stop them and hold them on a technicality, until they pay a bribe. We remember such things being the norm when we visited Kenya, but in Mexico? I’m still trying to figure out how they make money selling old tires.
December 6, and we’re still at the Stillwell Ranch. Looks like we’ll have to wait awhile longer to see Big Bend National Park. Less than a mile out from here this morning, Zippy’s freewheel died big-time. (It is the part that allows you to coast without the pedals going around and then catches to send power to the rear wheel.) I tried the fix that worked along the Natchez Trace and it didn’t work this time. Luckily, Linda, Hallie’s granddaughter, Hallie, and Dadie are going to Del Rio tonight and on to San Antonio tomorrow. We got the wheel and tire off in record time and wrapped up to send to a bike shop there to see if they can fix it.
Zippy looks so sad, locked to a tree upside down, with no rear wheel, all his power gone. Now we wait until tomorrow afternoon when I will call the shop to get the verdict. At the earliest we might be able to leave by next Tuesday or Wednesday, a loss of a week. We are in the most isolated part of the trip so far and it is a bike part that I don’t have the specialized tool to remove myself. I suppose it had to happen somewhere, sometime. At 8,300 miles total, I suppose we were due for a breakdown, but this was supposed to be an indestructible brand of hub. Obviously not. Maybe it is just full of mud from all the road grime and rain we’ve had, plus the dust recently. It had to happen when we’re 400 miles from a bike shop.
At least this is a nice place to stay. The showers are clean and hot and the people are nice. I have a place to plug in the computer, and we’ve been invited to dinner already tonight. It is in a spectacular desert setting with exotic plants everywhere. Last night something started me sneezing (my sneezes are legendary) and it set a nearby group of coyotes to singing. Brothers in night music. Or maybe it was the full moon.
One of the ranch dogs chased a javelina past our tent twice, “grunt, grunt, snort snort — grrrrrr ruff rufff.” WT. , Dadie’s husband, one of Hallie’s son-in-laws, said the dogs had long learned not to catch the javelinas, but they still like to chase them. We had a couple of short showers during the night and it released the strong smell of creosote bush (locally greasewood) into the night air. I don’t know if it was the showers or the full moon, but the coyotes again sang, a complex mix of yelps and howls, whistles and yodels. They make the night multi-dimensional, adding depth and texture to my imaginings.
The second rain-shower put me into a deep sleep, thanks partly to Claire’s excellent job of patching my Therm-a-rest with a bike tube patch and, of course, duct tape. Nice to have a relatively soft bed again.
This morning Sandra (she and husband Earl volunteer here at the RV park) took us on an impromptu tour of the desert and showed us: greasewood, rainbow cactus, ocotillo, candelilla (they once manufactured wax from them), Lechuguilla (Devil’s tongue, a truly dangerous plant) Torrey yucca and soaptree yucca, agave, cholla, sotol, and several varieties of prickly pear and horse crippler. The adaptations to the severe dryness of this desert are amazing. Everything has stickers for protection, making walking a difficult proposition.
The strong scent of the creosote/greasewood plant is thought to be part of the mechanism it uses to keep other plants from growing under it, thus saving water for itself. Scientists are working to isolate this growth inhibitor as a cure for cancer. An example of why we need to save these ecosystems for the future. Nature holds many secrets still and we need to keep them available for future study.
Life can be harsh here. Aunt Glen, part of the extended family, was here alone in 1984, when a tornado and hail storm hit. Quite a bit of damage was done with the wind, but the most was done by hail that ranged from baseball size up to larger than a softball. Hail was three to four feet deep and it took WT all night and well into the next day to get to her in his big four-wheel drive. She was unhurt, having huddled in the corner of an adobe building, but says she has never been the same since; lost her memory and nerve. Now she sits and looks out the front window mostly, but likes to talk despite bad hearing.
Another ranch story. Ranch cat Tigger, a long haired orange cat, was hit by a truck. The driver stopped and picked up the lifeless body and lay him on the floorboards, thinking to return him later for burial. Tigger began to stir and the driver, perhaps alarmed at the damage a injured cat could do, put him under a bush six miles from the store and left him there to die.
Six weeks later Tigger showed up here, fit and very vocal about his adventures. He lost most of his lower teeth in the accident. How did he manage to catch food with a mouth like that? How did he get enough water where there is no water? No one knows enough cat language to get the answers. One thing I know, he likes to have his belly rubbed.
WT is a tall quiet man with a wry sense of humor. He’s Dadie’s husband, Hallie’s son-in-law and does the outdoor work around the store and RV park. He’s 69, and despite some health problems, gets the work done.
He seemed slow to warm to us, but all of a sudden yesterday he asked us if we wanted a tour of a trailer he’s fixing up and his plate collection. This classic big Texan collects pretty little plates with horses and cows and birds on them. We felt honored to get to see them.
Then told us the story of how he got the trailer, that only awaits electricity for them to move in. There was a failed jojoba bean operation in the desert here that cost investors dearly, including one of the failed savings-and-loans made so famous by the scandal of a few years back. WT got in touch with the Resolution Trust (an agency created to liquidate bad investments by the S&Ls) to try and buy the trailer, which was hardly used. After many phone calls and letters he finally got somebody to say that they had no record of such an asset. Thank you very much he said, and told them he was claiming it as salvage and if they ever came up with any paperwork on it he might be willing to negotiate a fair price. Now there’s a man who knows how to deal with the government. For a couple of thousand dollars in moving expenses and some labor cleaning up after the rats, and wetbacks who used it on the way north, he has a very nice home. Creativity pays in the desert.
Sandra took us for a ride in Big Red, the old ranch truck. She showed us where thousands of college students camp in primitive sites over spring break, the South Brewster County Beach Club, a stock tank, swimming with goldfish that used to have lawn chairs and umbrellas around and inner tubes floating in it, created for the family’s entertainment by a great-great grandson. And we visited The Honeymoon, a shack by the ranch dump and equipment graveyard. Seems a honeymooning couple wanted more privacy than the RV park afforded. They went to the shack, cleaned it out and set up housekeeping for a month. Some Mexican nationals working on something nearby wanted to go to the dump for a part, but were told not to go because there were people on honeymoon there. Not understanding the English term, the next time they referred to the dump it was, and still is, “The Honeymoon.”
We had a great time, Sandra rattling Big Red through the dry washes and over rocks, cigarette hanging precariously from lips running a rapid commentary on everything from rattlesnakes to ringtail cats. This woman has a good time at everything she does. The desert is deceptive; full of life in unexpected places.
About those thousands of students. A story in Texas Monthly several years ago attracted students from colleges from all over Texas and all over the country. These students are not so much here to party, although they do that, but to commune with wilderness. After a week of thousands of them spread out over maybe 1,000 acres of ranch (total ranch 22,000 acres, small for this area, it was once over 200,000 acres), Sandra and Earl went out to assess the damage. They figured they’d never be able to clean it up. They found one potato chip bag and one pop can. Pretty amazing to me, remembering my spring break days at Daytona Beach, where they filled a dump-truck with beer cans every hundred yards.
We’ve been invited to share meals with WT and Sandra and Earl. They’ve taken us in as family, not something I would expect everywhere, but it didn’t really surprise me in Texas.
We had spaghetti and a wonderful coconut cake Sandra baked. The cake recipe was one WT had seen during the time when his daughter was in the hospital in August of last year. She had heart problems, at the young age of 48, and attempted bypass and valve surgery led to complications that ended in her death.
We had not heard this before and were saddened by it. We also felt honored to be included in his sadness by this quiet man. I don’t know how big Texans take to hugging, but I figure at least Claire will manage one before we leave.
We stood on the porch and watched the bright moon corona the east ridge, until it rose, washing us in warm light under cold stars. We said our good-nights and walked to the showers. Two javelinas eyed us from the corner of the store, a few yards away. They don’t see well and depend heavily on smell for identification of danger. They decided we were okay smelling for humans and went back to feeding. They are sort of like pigs, but are not in the pig family at all, but the peccary family. They are compact and skinny side to side. They look viscous, but are only dangerous if cornered, or surprised; we always pause before walking into dark shadows. “Hi javelina, just us folks, don’t worry about us.”
This morning it is cloudy and cool (38 degrees) and won’t go up much all day. I’m still wearing shorts and making everybody who looks at me feel cold. Yesterday was sunny and 75 or so. Desert extremes.
A state game officer just stopped in at the store. He had a large cougar stretched across the back of his truck. Shot him for stalking sheep. People around here think there are too many cougars. Could be. But, such a beautiful creation to see that way, tongue out, flaccid, the smell of warm blood sharp in the cool air.