(July 26, 1996)
From 3,000 feet, the Pecos River looks just exactly like it has been described -- a rattlesnake wiggling across the barren West Texas landscape.
With friend Jim Guleke at the controls of his twin-engine plane, we had just crossed the Pecos at roughly 140 miles an hour.
"To tell you the truth," Guleke said later, "I was kind of disappointed in the Pecos."
No doubt, it isn't the river it used to be. Much of its flow siphoned in New Mexico before it even gets to Texas, the Pecos is a salty, polluted, salt cedar-choked stream hardly befitting the designation of river.
But what a river it once was. Swollen from thawing mountain snows, it rushed across much of New Mexico and West Texas to rendezvous with the Rio Grande. Merely crossing the Pecos back then was an accomplishment.
To know just how hard it was to get across that river in the days of horses, mules and wagons, read Midland author Patrick Dearen's fine new book, "Crossing Rio Pecos." Published by Texas Christian University Press, the 196-page paperback sells for $15.95.
The Pecos was a major obstacle on the way west. Indeed, the principal southern route to California cut across West Texas to the Pecos and then beyond. Even before men and women of European descent struggled to cross this river, the Comanches annually splashed across the river on their annual forays into Mexico to steal horses, mules, women and children.
The Comanches did this at a place called Horsehead Crossing, which we were circling above in Guleke's airplane (fittingly, a Comanche.) The crossing was so-named, Dearen explains in his book, for the skulls of horses and other animals which once littered its banks. Since getting to this place necessitated a long, hot walk, animals often stampeded to the river as soon as they could smell it and drank too much of the salty water too fast. The result was death for them and one of Texas' more colorful place names.
Dearen devotes a chapter to Horsehead and each of the five other major crossings of the Pecos, with a seventh chapter on the assorted minor crossings. Though the focus is on these crossings, "Crossing Rio Pecos" is the history of the Texas portion of the river.
So why should anyone care about the Pecos River, other than its significance as an obstacle to early westward transportation? Though narrow and winding in reality, the Pecos is a much larger river in that place which exists only in our imagination, the mythical West. It was the home of Pecos Bill, the folk character and the setting for many a piece of Western fiction. Plenty of real history happened along its banks, too, from Spanish exploration to cattle drives.
"Crossing Rio Pecos" is a thoroughly researched, well-written collection of history and folklore, a good book to have in your saddlebag next time you cross the river. Just don't get it wet when you do.
(July 19, 1996)
To the Spanish, who controlled this place and everything around it for nearly three centuries, it was the "costa brava" -- the wilderness coast.
The name would still do today, but now we call it Padre Island. More precisely, the Padre Island National Seashore.
Even today, when whatever remains on the Texas coast of the Spanish empire lies buried under the sand of this long barrier island, or in the mud of the Laguna Madre or in a museum in Corpus Christi, the "costa brava" still is a wilderness.
As I drove south on the sand toward the sign forbidding anything but four wheel drive vehicles beyond it, a coyote walked the beach ahead with impunity. Even as I drew near, he concentrated on his beachcombing, looking for a dead fish or careless seagull.
A place where a coyote is indifferent to a human intruder is far enough back into the costa brava for me.
Along with my umbrella tent, chuck box, and saltwater tackle I had carried a book with me to this wilderness, Robert S. Weddle's "Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea, 1763-1803." Published by Texas A&M Press, the 352-page book sells for $49.50.
The National Park Service eschews the more romantic "costa brava" on its map of the 65-mile long park and simply refers to where I had come as a primitive camping area. This is one thing the federal government has absolutely right -- it is primitive.
Nothing here is different than it was when Spain controlled this sand except for the trash which washes ashore from all over the Gulf -- mostly plastic, but an assortment of flotsam ranging from a rubber glove to a faded orange hardhat someone must have lost off an offshore oil rig or from a tanker.
The wind that carried treasure-laden Spanish galleons across the Gulf from Mexico to Cuba and then to Spain -- and the wind which sometimes dashed these ships against this beach -- fought to keep me from getting my tent up. Only by assembling it in the narrow windbreak of my vehicle did I succeed in raising a shelter from mosquitoes, sand crabs and any curious coyotes who might wander by in the night.
Finally, as the sun faded into the flower-covered sanddunes behind me, I could turn to Weddle's excellent book, the final work of a trilogy on Spain and the Gulf that he began in 1978. Some six years of research led to publication in 1985 of "Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685," followed in 1991 by "The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea, 1682-1762."
Weddle's latest book would be just as interesting, just as readable, in air conditioned comfort as here on the sand with the seagulls hovering. But in this setting, the words are even more evocative.
What would it be like to be alone on this beach in Spanish time, I wondered.
The category of "shipwrecks" caught my eye in the index. Soon I was reading about something that happened in the late spring of 1776, somewhat farther up the coast but in the same basic setting.
Capt. Luis Cazorla, as he later reported in his diary, had been informed by friendly Indians that a ship had been blown ashore and its crew massacred by the unfriendly Karankawas.
Setting forth to investigate, the captain and some of his men, along with some of the mission Indians from La Bahia, crossed the shallow water to the barrier island and the Gulf. Before long they sighted an English commercial frigate, lying on its side on the beach, broken open by the tremendous forces of the sea.
Lying amid what was left of the plundered cargo and the debris of disaster -- tangles of rope, shattered masts and broken spars -- was the body of an English sailor.
In sign language, the captain told one of his guides to pass word to the Karankawas. This must stop. It never did, of course, at least not until the Indians were vanquished by men of European descent and the diseases they bought with them.
Shipwrecks and Karankawas, however, are only a part of the epic story Weddle, a newspaperman turned independent historian, has told in his trilogy. The Gulf of Mexico, from the early 1500s to the early 1800s, truly was the Spanish sea. No land around it was not under control of the Spanish crown. How Spain came by this vast territory and then lost it is a story with as much drama as a good novel.
In the preface to this final part of his trilogy, Weddle quotes an 18th century visitor to New Spain: "It may be said with reason that there is no complete and accurate history of these vast dominions."
Weddle was too modest in writing that his work on Spain's role in and around the Gulf of Mexico amounted to no more than a candle in a darkened room. The story of Spain's settlement of the New World and the land that would become Texas is one that is almost as vast as the land itself, and indeed may never be told completely. But to paraphrase the 18th century Spaniard quoted by Weddle, it may be said with reason that Weddle's three-volume study will be an enduring work, an impressive and well-written piece of scholarship.
(July 5, 1996)
Most folks like to eat, but willing cooks are somewhat less common.
J. Frank Dobie used to tell about a trail driving crew without a permanent cook. The cowboys had to rotate the chore.
Getting tired of this system, the hands decided on a solution: The first cowboy to complain about the cooking would have the honor of being the new, permanent cook.
One day one of the drovers took a bite of bread and yelled: "This bread is burned on the bottom, burned on the top, raw in the middle, and salty as hell -- but I sure like it that way."
That's a sampling of one of the many tasty anecdotes in B. Byron Price's "National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook." Published by Hearst Books, the 302-page volume sells for $20.
But like a well-stocked chuckwagon, there is more to this book than a recollection of range country recipes. Part One, which takes up 123 pages, is a study of cowboy cooking, from the history of that rolling kitchen called a chuck wagon to chapters on the various mainstays of the cowboy diet.
Sprinkled throughout, like pepper on flour gravy, are fun vignettes, like a letter from a ranch manager to one of his employees regarding the hiring of a cowboy named Scandalous John. This top hand, well respected on the range, had to leave the outfit he worked for because he "bowed to cupid" and got married. Wrote his new boss, who had no such rule against cowboys getting hitched, "he is treating her [his new wife] to a grand honeymoon in the shape of making her cook for a cow camp . . . I think he will prove to be one of our most valued men. He is true blue in every way. We don't know much about the girl yet, but you can form your own views after you eat one of her biscuits."
Ah, biscuits. Price devotes a chapter to cowboy bread. Some outfits got by on corn bread, tortillas or even hard-tack, but the staple of most cow camps was the sourdough biscuit. Of course, many a cowboy got by just fine on regular old biscuits made with baking soda instead of the homemade riser called sourdough. Reading this chapter before breakfast will make your stomach growl.
The second half of the book is a roundup of cattle country recipes, from chili con queso to biscuits. Not all the recipes are from the trail driving era, however. Can you imagine what some old stove up cow puncher would have thought -- or done -- if presented with a bowl of "Cowboy beefy cheese dip"?
"National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook" is a pretty tame name for such an interesting and fun book, but like any good dish, what's in it is more important than what it's called.
No matter how good the recipe, or how fresh the ingredients are, as a cookbook prepared by the ladies of the Albert Sidney Johnston Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy said nearly a century ago: "Cooking is a fine art, to which you must bring common sense and judgment."
To raise funds for a monument to Confederate heroes on the Capitol grounds, Mrs. E.G. Myers and her Daughters of the Confederacy chapter compiled "The Capitol Cook Book" in 1899. Texas' Capitol was only 10 years old at the time. While the granite Capitol has endured, the cook book eventually became a sought after collectible.
Austin's State House Press has reprinted this early-day cook book, with the addition of a collection of vintage photographs of he Capitol and a new foreword by Edith Fletcher Williams. The 162-page book sells for $24.95.
The Capitol has recently undergone an extensive renovation, but the recipes in this book still work, though some of them are as dated as the ornate wood carving above the doors in the Capitol.
Consider this recipe for pecan cookies: One cup butter, two cups sugar, one-half cup sweet milk [read whole milk], four eggs, well beaten, one heaping cup of pecans, chopped. As the book says, "Mix pecans with sugar and eggs, enough flour to mix and roll thin. Baking powder and extract."
Today's diet police won't consider that a healthy recipe, but I bet the passage of a century hasn't affected the way these cookies would taste.