1975 – 2023
Seth’s Memorial Page
1975 – 2023
1975 – 2023
Seth’s Memorial Page
The trail to Boquillas Canyon is well marked. It begins at the base of Sierra del Carmen, the Carmen Mountains. A monument to nature’s forces, they show themselves as a series of cliffs rising several thousand feet above the surrounding plain and stretch from America into Mexico for nearly as far as the eye can see. A permanent immovable wall across the desert. Here at the border, along the Rio Grande River, are rarely as simple as they appear.
The trail rises up a steep finger of rock and rubble that has been falling from the cliffs of Sierra del Carmen for thousands of years. As it falls the occasional thunderstorm drops rain that washes down the steep slopes creating arroyos or gullies as it runs toward the Rio Grande River carrying rocks and silt and sand. The river accepts the silt laden water and puts it to its own use carving the land. Over tens of thousands of years, as the rock of the Sierra del Carmen uplift rose, the river cut through it like a liquid knife creating a canyon with near vertical walls a thousand feet high. The canyon came to be called Boquillas del Carmen, the Mouth of Carmen.
Once over it one walks a path through the tall green river cane that provide welcome relief from the desert sun the remaining half mile to the canyon entrance. It is at the mouth of the canyon where I met Jesús. A Mexican, he plies his trade of singing songs for tips and selling trinkets to tourists who have come to see the entrance to the canyon. He has received some recognition. There are a few videos on YouTube. Mostly by tourists like me. They call him the Singing Jesus of Boquillas Canyon.
As I walk the along through the cane I wonder if Jesús will be here. He is 70 or so. His eyesight is poor and last year his knee was giving him trouble. It’s a 4 mile walk from the town of Boquillas to here. Perhaps he has become too infirm to walk out to the canyon or even live in the remote Mexican town of Boquillas. Soon it will be Christmas, the beginning of peak tourist season in this area.
As walk I see something through the cane. Not Jesús but another man standing by a horse. He is not looking in my direction. He’s wearing a baseball cap back to, dark glasses and is sporting a beard. If he were standing next to a motorcycle he would be called a biker.
“Hola.” I call out.
He turns, “Hola amigo. You buy something? I have tamales?”
“You make them?”
“Mi mujer. Wife. Bueno tamales.”
“Six tamales ten dollars. Are chicken. Chicken tamales.”
“I’ll get them on my way back.” as I draw a U in the air with my finger.
“Sí. Estoy aqui. I be here.”
“Is Jesús here?”
“Jesús? No. He no come.” He puts his hand on his knee. “Malo. Bad.”
“Is he in Boquillas?
“Boquillas or Muzquiz.” he shrugs. “Who knows.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m Alan. Pleased to meet you Marcilino. I’ll walk down to the canyon. Tamales on the way back.”
“Sí Alan. Bueno.”
It all adds up. Jesús was having a hard time getting here last year. It will be a loss with out Jesús singing ‘ay yi ya yi’ echoing from the canyon.
Where the cane ends is where Jesús always was. I walk out of the cane. No trinkets on the banking. No one standing on the other side. Silent except for the ripple of the water flowing into the canyon. It all adds up except for the canoe. The red canoe on the opposite bank, half hidden behind a log,. Jesús had a red canoe in which he crossed the river to sing and sell his trinkets. Did he abandon it? Unlikely I think for it would have some value. If he had abandoned it someone would have taken it. Perhaps things are not so simple as Marcilino has made them appear.
I walk back. Marcilino is laying out his trinkets on a weathered piece of wood. Again he does not hear me approach.
“Hola.” I say.
He looks up. “Hola amigo. You like.” he says waving at the goods on the plank.
My guess is Marcilino knows more about Jesús than he has let on. I will play along.
“One bag. Ten dollars. Dies si?”
“Si.” he says as reaches in the pouch tied to the saddle and hands me a bag of warm tamales.
“Gracias.” I say as hand him a 10 dollar bill.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Comida, food. You bring. Comida por mi mañana?”
“I’ll see what I can find. Adios amigo.”
The next morning is sharp and cool. Below freezing during the night. Perhaps Marcilino will not come. I hike over the stone and rock and down to the sand and cane of the river valley. In the miniature bluffs created in the sand by wind or water one can see an occasional disturbance. A miniature landslide here and there has occurred over night. The land is moving. At its own pace but moving nonetheless.
I spy Marcilino through the cane. He is mounted on his horse.
“Hola amigo. Como estas?”
“Bien. Your tamales es bueno.”
“Quieras mas? Buy more?”
“No, no we go to Terlingua today.”
He looks disappointed.
“I bring you something.” I unzip my small waist pouch, pull out a bag of trail mix.
“Gracias amigo. And for you,” he leans over from the saddle, “Jesús is here.”
“Si” He points further down the trail. “Today he come.”
“Gracias amigo. Gracias.”
I walk down the trail. As the cane thins and then disappears, I see Jesús standing on the opposite bank
“Hola Jesús” I call.
“Hola amigo. Quien estas?”
“Alan. I come. Un momento.” He calls back.
Jesús picks up his little bag of trinkets, climbs I his red canoe and paddles across the river. He has difficulty getting out and on to shore. It’s clear his knee has gotten worse over the year.
“Buenos dias my friend.” he says limping up the banking carrying a small plastic jar and a stone. He places a handful of pebbles in the jar.
“I put on trail.” and he turns heading back the way I came, sets the jar and stone down next to the trail and returns.
“Como estas?” I ask.
He shrugs and points to his knee. “No bien.”
He says he has a hard time getting out here because of his knee. He has been to the doctor in Muzquiz but his treatment does not help. He can’t afford to go to a doctor in Monclova or Monterrey. Today his nephews helped him get here.
He needs to come he explains. “Need comida, food. Need dinero to buy food.”
I buy more of his trinkets than I need.
I assure him I will bring him some food tomorrow when I cross to the town of Boquillas and I will bring some friends to buy his wares.
“Manaña I wait en mi casa.”
“Where is your casa?”” I ask.
“Felipe at river. Felipe show you.” He said referring to his nephew we met 2 years ago.
I assure him I’ll see him in Boquillas tomorrow morning. I wish him well and begin walking to the trail. I fear this is the last year he’ll be able to make the 4 mile journey out here every day. He has one room at his brother’s house but where will he get the money for food. Maybe I can meet him in Boquillas next year. Maybe.
I walk past the small plastic jar and stone he has placed on the trail.
“Donations for the singing Mexican Jesus”. It is nearing Christmas. This the busy season for Big Bend. Perhaps he will do well.
“For you amigo.” I hear him call out.
“And your amigos. Feliz año nuevo.”
And then he began to sing.
We get up early but wait for dawn to prepare breakfast. Often its cooked outside. We arrived at the park in Blanco County a couple days ago. Blanco county is in an area of Texas known as the hill country. An area of semi-arid undulating ranch land 50 to 100 miles west of Austin. It’s been quiet here but today is Saturday morning. The campground has filled up for the weekend.
Last night a young couple had come in next to us. They set up their tent and camp like they’d done it before. I don’t know how late they stayed up but there no activity at their camp. I try to keep things quiet so as not to disturb others who like to sleep in. After all its Saturday morning. Some people sleep in. I’m packing up the camp stove. Never a silent job.
Lorraine comes out of the trailer. “What’s that noise?”
“What noise?” I listen. Sounds a bit like a dog baying in the distance. But rhythmic. And it’s getting louder.
“I think there’s some activity in that tent.” she smiles.
The young couple are making love. Oblivious and uncaring that anyone around can hear them. The words of an old pop song I hadn’t thought of in years come to mind.
“Making love in the green grass behind the stadium
With you my brown eyed girl.”
There was a time when … whether for love or lust or a potion that mixed the two … that could have been me.
The last moan dies into silence. We go about cleaning up and packing up for we are heading out today for Luckenbach.
A few minutes later I hear a staccato tick from across the way. Next time I look around the truck the hood is up on the car of another young couple tent camping across from us. The guy gets back in the driver seat. Staccato tick again. No question what this sound is. The starter’s not getting enough juice to turn the engine over.
“You want a jump?” I say walking across the road.
“I don’t know. Do you have a voltage meter? It might be the battery.”
“I do. Just a minute. I’ll get it.”
Returning with the meter he says, “It doesn’t make sense. Shelly used it this morning to drive over to the bathroom. It worked fine just 30 minutes ago.”
He puts the meter on the battery. 12.1 volts. It drops to 12 volts while we’re looking at it.
“That’s kind a low.” he says. “It should be more than 12 volts. You have jumper cables?”
“I do. Let me pull the truck over closer.”
We hook up the cables. He gets in and it starts right up.
While unhooking the cables he thanks me for the help. “I’m not shutting it off until we get home. Then I think it’s time for a new battery.”
I go back to hooking up our trailer and they wave as they pull out of the camp site and head home. It could have been worse for them. The nearest town is 14 miles away.
We finish hooking up. I glance over at the lover’s tent. There’s no one to be seen. I imagine them asleep in each other’s arms. We pull out of the camp site and head for town.
“I think I’ll get a cup of coffee when we get to town.”
“At the donut shop?”
These small Texas towns don’t attract much in the way of franchise stores. Home Town Donuts is a small cinder block building in the middle of a dirt lot at the corner of the county road and state highway. The dirt lot is helpful because any size vehicle can pull in and then get out on the intersecting road without blocking the drive through window.
I pull in from the county road. There are 3 cars sitting side by side just off the road. Doors open. A couple guys leaning against the truck of one car chatting and laughing. A girl at the open door of another car talking to someone inside.
I pull open the front door of Home Town Donuts. The hinges squeak in futile protest against the lack of maintenance. The room is big enough for a couple tables, the donut display case and a small kitchen with a drive through window.
“Good morning sir.” says the women behind the display.
I walk past 4 teenage boys at one of the tables. Two have their heads down on the table apparently asleep. One is staring at his cell phone. The other is just staring.
“Can I have a coffee?” I say setting my travel mug on the counter.
“How full you want it? … Say you were in here yesterday weren’t you?”
“Just like yesterday then?”
“Yes ma’am. That was perfect.”
I settle up and turn around. None of the boys have said a thing. They seem not to notice me.
“You have a blessed day.” the woman behind the counter calls out as I reach for the doorknob.
The hinges squeak once more and again their call is unheeded.
Out in the dirt lot the guys and gals appear to be getting ready to leave. I’m struck by the contrast with the boys inside. And the donut shop that gives them a place to sleep off last night’s indiscretions. I wonder what path brought each to this dirt lot with a donut shop in a little Texas town on a Saturday morning. A pickup truck rolls up to the drive through window kicking up a little dust.
I put it in gear and head out of the dirt lot on to the state highway toward Luckenbach.
Fort McDermott is not easy to find. It’s in the middle of a subdivision. In the middle of the block so every backyard faces it. One small sign at a wide spot in the road identifies a path to it. We had gone around the block twice before we saw the sign. We’d stopped and walked up to the fort. It’s a Civil War fort on a small hill in the town of Spanish Fort, Alabama. Its importance in 1865 was that it was part of the defense of Mobile, Alabama, the last major city still in Confederate hands. Although no doubt formidable, it is not impressive as the fortifications are earthen walls and trenches as was common during the time. We were about to leave when a car stops, and the driver rolls down window.
“You folks want to hear about what happened here? said the man in white Toyota.
“Sure.” I replied.
“You pull up a little and I’ll pull in behind y’all.”
“Good morning. My name is Joe DuPree.” said the elderly gentleman with a cane getting out of the car. “I cleared all this so you and, well, everyone can get up there and see it. It was here that 185 Confederate soldiers held off 16,000 Union troops. You want to take a walk up there?”
“Yes. That would be really interesting.” I said. Why not a guided tour I thought.
“I got this thing going about 35 years ago. I’ve been working with the Sons of the Confederacy to clear it all out and make it respectful. I made all those signs and got them put up and helped raise the money to get the statue erected. There’s no government money here. It’s all private.”
“Now this is how it was. It’s March 1865. You remember Farragut? He’d taken Mobile Bay in August 1864 but he couldn’t get to the city because the only deep channel from the bay to the city back then went right by this fort. He sent some warships up here but we sunk them. So the Union invaders figured they’d take the fort by land.”
As we walk up the slope he points out the various defenses. “This here is a ha-ha wall.” He says pointing to the large earthen berm below the summit. “From the bottom it looks like a continuous slope to the top but when the attacker gets to the top of this, ha ha, there’s a ditch behind it and they’re facing the enemy and even steeper slope to the top.”
“Now where was I? Oh yeah, this one part of a series of breastworks and redoubts that stretched for 8 miles built to defend Mobile. We had about 5,000 troops against 16,000 invaders but here at this fort there were just 200 of us. They were motivated because they were defending their country’s freedom against an invader. That sign over there tells you all about it. It’s not like they teach in school.”
I walk over to the small story board and skim through it.
“With the election of Lincoln, South Carolina secedes because the old Untied States is imposing unfair import taxes South Carolina’s citizens. The cunning Southerners get word that a naval fleet is sailing to take over Charleston Harbor and impose the taxes. To prevent the fleet from entering the harbor the state’s militia fired on Fort Sumter. Following this brave action other states seceded and a new nation, the Confederate States of America, is formed. The old United States cannot abide this so Lincoln raises an army an invades the free states of the Confederacy.”
“Well I can’t say I’ve ever seen it put like that before.” I say.
“It’s all fact. I’ve done the research. They don’t want you to know the way it really was.”
“Now where was I? Oh yeah, let’s head up here.” He said pointing to the very top of the hill.
When we get to the top he points out the various bunkers that are now depressions in the ground.
“The invaders shelled this for 13 days. This was the last big battle of the War for Confederate Freedom. On the night of April 8th the soldiers up here slipped out through the invader’s lines and escaped to Mobile. It was a brave stand and we want to honor the men who made it.”
“You folks going to be around in March?” he asks.
“We’ll be coming back through here about then.” I reply.
“We have a big shindig then. Reenactors do the battle. Some in Confederate uniforms and some in invader uniforms. And a memorial service for the Confederate soldiers. And maybe some kind of barbecue or something. I don’t know exactly what they’re planning but keep an eye on the newspaper. They might have something on it. Then again they might not. They don’t like to print anything coming from me.”
“Why not?” I ask. “It’s history.”
“All our newspapers down here’s been bought up by big corporations up north. They won’t print anything that goes against … well … against what they think ought to be said. I call it the way I see it. The way the facts actually are. They don’t like it. It’s all about the racial thing really. Y’all have a safe trip now and come back in March, you hear.”
I wave goodbye to Joe DuPree and stop for a minute to think. Driving the state of Alabama from north to south on the rural western side, I have to say, this fort has the first Confederate flag I’ve seen.
We drive away past the neat lawns of middleclass homes to a major intersection with a large mall on one corner. The cars go by as we wait for the light to change. Honda and Toyota, Ford and Chevy, shiny in the late morning sun. Some turning into the mall. Some heading off to work. It could be any intersection in America. The only flags waving are American. Perhaps times are changing.
Perhaps Joe DuPree’s fanciful excuse for the Confederacy is making its last stand.
On April 9, 1865, the day after the Confederate soldiers slipped out of Fort McDermott, the last Confederate forces defending Mobile surrendered and Union troops entered the city unopposed. Unknown by either side was that earlier in the day, 800 miles away, General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The defense of slavery by the Confederate States of America had made its last stand.
In 1718 the political map of North America looked very different than one might think. France claimed about 30% comprised of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers drainage area. Spain claimed another 30% stretching from the Gulf coast of what is now Texas to Vancouver Island in Canada. Britain laid claim to about 30% but, with the exception of a few colonies strung along the east coast, most of its claim was the area surrounding Hudson Bay in Canada.
Much of the land was unexplored and boundaries were just guesses but each empire knew where its interests lay. Spain knew France was expanding westward from its settlements along the Mississippi River. Spain was well established at Santa Fe in Nuevo Mexico and at San Diego and San Francisco in Alta California but it had no established towns in the eastern portion of its claim. It needed to secure its claim to the colonial province in the east called Tejas. It needed Spanish speaking settlements in Tejas that were loyal to Spain. It had an ally in the Catholic Church which sought to spread its influence as well. Together they would fund an expedition to the province.
In 1718 a group of Franciscan friars and monks, explorers and soldiers left Mexico City to bring Christianity and Spanish culture to the indigenous peoples of Tejas. In this way they serve both the will of God and that of the King. After nearly a year’s journey they arrived at a river surrounded by fertile soil and inhabited by bands of nomadic hunter gather Indians. It is here they establish Mission San Antonio de Valero. Other Franciscans followed and over the next 20 years four more missions were established along the San Antonio River. The Indians are interested. They are nomadic hunter gatherers dependent on the weather and the migration of animals for survival. The friars offer them a new way to survive and a new god. Not all, but enough Indians join the missions.
The friars teach them farming along with Christianity. They show them how to store grain, develop irrigation, fashion metal into tools and herd animals. In exchange the Indians build the church and the other buildings of the mission. Each mission is first and foremost a religious center but it is also a center of commercial activity and a defensive fortification.
Surrounding the church is a plaza in which are workshops, communal ovens and open-air looms. Around the plaza are the houses for the Indigenous and Spanish members of the mission. Built with adjoining walls, row house style, their back wall forms the outer defensive wall against marauding Apache bands. Outside the wall are irrigated farm fields that support the mission community. Missions San Juan, Concepción, San José and Espada took shape along the river over the following decades all following the same plan. Here is the interior of Mission San José as it appeared at its completion in 1782.
It worked. The Indians adopted Spanish ways and the Spanish learned from the Indians how to live away from the mission in the vast landscape of Tejas.
In the process of herding animals on the open range both Spanish and Indian learned to become the first vaqueros (cowboys). They interbred and by 1800 many people traced their heritage to both Spanish and Indian.
The province of Tejas was clearly Spanish now secured by permanent Spanish speaking settlements. But times were changing. Spain had acquired Louisiana from France. The French threat was reduced. The Indians had been converted. The town of San Antonio now surrounded its namesake mission. The missions were no longer needed.
A few trappers and traders were arriving from the newly independent America. They were curious about the Spanish province west of the Mississippi. They misunderstood the Spanish name and labelled it on their maps as Texas.
Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first to be closed. It was secularized 1793 and by 1800 completely abandoned. The other missions would follow in the subsequent decades. The fields continued to be farmed and mass was held in some of the churches and but they were no longer missions, just parish churches.
There were changes further afield as well. In 1802 in Mexico City there was talk of revolution. Independence from Spain like the America. To protect against revolt in the north, Spain sent a company of soldiers to Tejas from the city of Alamo del Parras in Coahuila. They occupied the abandoned Mission San Antonio. The locals called them the Alamo Company. The revolution did not materialize and the Alamo Company left a couple years later taking everything with them but the name. Thereafter the abandoned Mission San Antonio de Valero would be called the Alamo.
Thirty two years later, following the defeat of Texian and Tejano independence fighters there by the Mexican Army, the abandoned mission’s name would be known throughout America.
The Alamo is preserved by the State of Texas. Missions San Juan, Concepción, San José and Espada are preserved by the National Park Service. Mission San José and Mission Concepción continue to be active Catholic parishes.
Texian, an Anglo-American resident of Texas prior to it joining the United States.
Tejano, a Spanish speaking resident of Texas prior to it joining the United States.
Texan, any resident of Texas after it joined the United States. Tejano is still used to refer to Spanish culture in Texas especially music.
“No natural objects, stones, minerals, plants. No meat, fruit or vegetables.” The ranger says. In the corner silently stands a customs and immigration officer in his black uniform, side arm and black covid mask. He could be mistaken for a manikin. He is waiting for the Mexicans to unload the pickup truck outside. They are struggling to release a binding strap securing the cart they will use to bring their pick up truck load of stuffed black plastic bags to the river.
“Enjoy your day.” says the Ranger.
We head out the door for the quarter mile walk to the river. It is a pleasant morning. The sun has taken the chill from the morning air. The little border crossing is the most active site in the park other than the main visitor center. As we walk down to the river edge the row boat is departing the Mexican side with two passengers, a large cooler, several other items and a dog.
As the boat approaches we hear the voices of Mexicans coming down the trail with a cart full of stuffed black plastic bags. Apparently their efforts to free the cart were successful and the black plastic bags met with customs approval.
The two passengers, their stuff and the dog are out of the boat and the oarsman is motioning us to step in. It’s a 30 second trip across the 50 foot wide river boundary. As soon as we are out, he heads back to begin ferrying the black plastic bags over.
A man on the bank steps forward.
“Dos? Ten dollar” he says.
“Both ways?” I respond.
I exchange $10 for 2 blue tickets which I stuff in my pocket. No one will look at them again until they fall on the ground 2 days later while I’m searching for keys.
As we begin to walk up the bank another man steps forward.
“Buenas dias.” I respond.
“Truck or donkey?”
Lorraine had already cued me that the donkey was a no go.
“Come” and he leads us up the bank to where three trucks are parked.
“José. Vayas, sí?” he calls out.
José stands up from where he’s been seated in the shade. He’s older man with tired eyes.
“Sí.” he responds and ambles toward the truck.
The truck is a black Ford pickup. One can tell it is black because someone has brushed against it and cleared the dust from a spot on the side.
As José gets in the drivers side the first man opens the passenger doors, one of which swings forward and the other to the back, signaling us to come. As soon as he does he realizes that there is not enough room to squeeze between the open door and the adjacent truck without brushing against it and removing some its dust. He tells José to back up as he closes the doors. He looks at us and motions us back although I don’t think we are in the line with the truck. We take a step back. He trots toward us between the two trucks saying “Back, back.” Four paces back he is satisfied. Apparently José needs plenty of room. With the truck moved he opens the doors again and motions us in with a smile.
“Hola” I say to José .
“Hola. Como estas?”
“Bien” I reply.
José reaches to put the truck in gear but not with his right hand. With his left he reaches over the steering wheel and pushes it down into gear. He makes the turn to pull away using his left arm only steadying the steering wheel with his thigh as he adjusts his hand position on the wheel. José cannot use his right arm. No wonder we needed to stand well away as he backed up.
The windshield is cracked, the dash is covered with a dusty grey carpet and the muffler is no longer attached but the small cross hanging from the rosary beads on the mirror gives me confidence as it swings to and fro. In addition to any divine intervention it may bring it indicates this is José’s truck. He knows it and it knows him.
As we slowly drive up the dry wash, the truck rocking back and forth on the uneven ground I try to strike up a conversation.
“Boquillas is a nice town.”
José responds with something in Spanish.
Perhaps another tact.
“You live here?”
Another Spanish response that I can’t understand. Try again in Spanish.
José only speaks Spanish. Let’s see. I can count to twenty, use the to be verb in the present tense and bring to mind maybe twenty to thirty nouns in Spanish. It’s enough to get by in the market. It’s not enough for a conversation. The remainder of the trip passes in silence.
The truck rumbles up the last hill out of the dry wash and into the village. Passing a few houses with brightly colored wares displayed on the street he turns the corner and stops in front of José Falcone’s restaurant. He immediately turns to me.
“Un momento.” He’s holding his index finger in the air. His eyes, no longer tired, are focused and serious. “Un momento.” He drops the index finger and reaches for the door handle but does not take his eyes off me. “Un momento.” he says one more time as he slides out of the seat and onto the dusty street. I nod. As he walks around the truck I think that perhaps the passenger door handle does not work from the inside or perhaps he just wants to show his superior service by opening the door for us. I suspect the former is more likely. He opens the passenger doors and smiles.
“How much? Cuanto dinero?”
“Cinco?” I reply thinking five dollars was too low or perhaps he would just leave us here to walk back to the crossing.
“Cinco por uno. Dos es diez.”
“You’ll be here? Estas aquí?”
“Sí” he points to a chair in the shade of the restaurant patio.
“A deal. Bueno, gracias.” I hand him a ten dollar bill.
He walks into the shade of the patio greeting the waiter.
We turn to walk up the street to see the wares displayed in front of the houses. I turn back.
“José. One hour. Un hora.” Now it is me holding my index finger in the air. “Un hora.” He nods from the shade of the patio. We stroll out into the street. A dog sniffs my boot and trots off. We are the only touristas in site.
For the vendors this is their livelihood. They are all women. The men guide the horses and donkeys, drive the trucks and help with loading the goods coming across on the little row boat. The women make the wire and beaded trinkets and do the embroidery. As we pass each house a woman will come out. “Hola, You like?” she’ll say pointing to one of her offerings like an embroidery. If you respond with disinterest she’ll pick up another item like a beaded wire Christmas tree. “Christmas tree. You like tree? For your granddaughter? Is beautiful.”
Lorraine is put off by the aggressive selling but I point out it just the way they do things here. Just tell them what you want or tell them no. And all the better if you can get them to reduce the price. She soon gets the hang of it. Both Lorraine and the women of Boquillas did well that morning.
When we return José is sitting in the shade of the patio, sipping a Coke and chatting with friends. I point to the back of patio, he nods and we walk past the man with a guitar who is singing for the guests at the 2 occupied tables. The restaurant patio overlooks the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo as the river is named in Mexico. It is a bright sunny day and the blue water is a reflection of the blue sky. By the time we finish lunch we are the only guests on the patio but the man with the guitar plays on. I drop two dollars in the can he has placed on a table and head into the office to pay the tab. When I return Lorraine is surrounded by three young girls offering their wares. Apparently a transaction is taking place. It will be the last for José is on his feet and walking toward the truck.
He opens the truck doors for us and carefully closes them once we are seated. With José back in the driver’s seat the engine rumbles to life. He backs up a few feet and then manages to execute a U turn in the middle of the main street with one arm. We are on our way back to the river but not fast. A woman steps out into the street. He stops. She has something to tell him. I can’t make out what the conversation is about, but she says a lot and José says a little. Then we are back underway bouncing slowly along the dry wash toward the river.
In the distance I can see more people coming from the river. Five tourists on donkeys are spread across the road ahead. An American family. I can see but not hear the guide, who walks along side, giving commands to the donkeys, his small crop urging the reluctant one to the side. Boquillas is a town of a few hundred people. Everyone knows everyone and surely every vehicle is known. José changes neither course nor speed. The middle of the road is his and the donkeys with their American tourists best be single file and to the side when he passes.
As we pass the I can see the family clearly. The young boy in front, Dad in the rear with Mom and the two girls between. They are clearly middle class Americans. No doubt from a suburb somewhere. Perhaps on their first big trip. The boy holds the reins and looks confidently ahead. The girls, who appear younger, hang on to the saddle horn as the donkeys amble along. It is apparent they have never done anything like this before.
Sixty two years ago the I stood alongside a dusty road in the hot desert sun. The car was stuck in the soft sand where the gravel road crossed a desert a wash. Mom tried to keep us in the shade of a scrawny desert bush while Dad dug with an Army surplus folding shovel. A pickup truck crested the top of the wash and rattled its way to a stop just ahead of the car. Two men in the cab, three women in the back. The women were dressed in long black dresses and colorful blouses. The men in jeans and western shirts. They were Indians. Navajo Indians. Words were spoken but not in English. The women got out of the back of the truck trying not to giggle at the white people so out of their element. One man helped my Mom into the back of the truck then picked up my brother and I and placed us next to her while the other man was busy attaching a chain to the car. Ready to go the truck clunked into gear and began to slowly pull the car, my Dad clearly visible at the steering wheel, out of the sand and up the other side of the wash. The Navajo women had already walked up the slope. I don’t recall the details of what happened once we reached the top of the wash. I just recall standing up in the backseat to peer out the windshield watching the truck with the Navajos disappear in a cloud of dust that grew ever more distant even though we were back underway.
Will one of these kids have such an experience here I wonder. Will they discover the mystery of a different culture or the magic of the desert and its inhabitants? Will they remember decades hence?
The truck rattles to a stop by the river.
“Un momento.” José says. “Un momento.”
Organ Pipe National Monument is like Big Bend National Park in one respect. You really have to want to go there. It’s on the Mexican border and only two roads access it. One is paved and goes to a small border crossing. The other is gravel and connected the ranches that used to operate in the area with the border to the south and the town of Ajo, near our campsite, to the north. We chose to return to camp on the gravel road.
Ajo, Arizona (pronounced Ah – ho) is a mining town. The Tohono O’odham mined for pigments to make paint and pottery it long before Europeans arrived. In 1700’s the Spanish arrived looking for gold but found only silver so they mined it for silver. In the 1800’s the Americans arrived looking for silver but only found copper so they mined it for copper. Ajo was 50 miles from the nearest railroad in Gila Bend. The transportation was just too difficult and several copper mines failed. Ajo languished until John Greenway Campbell arrived in 1917 with a Yale education, financial backing and a new way to extract the copper from the ore. Campbell built a railroad to Ajo to bring equipment in and haul out processed ore. The New Cornelia Mine was on its way to become the largest mine open pit mine in the U. S. and Ajo would prosper.
But prosperity came at price. The mine owned everything and controlled everything. At its peak in the 1950’s and early 1960’s the mine would employ 3,000 men. One of them was Bob Hightower.
To see the mine you drive part way up the mountain Ajo sits at the foot of. You can only drive part ay up because most of the mountain is no longer there. It is spread across the desert in a huge tailings pile. The top is flat with a fence to keep you away from a mile wide funnel shaped hole. Off in the distance a little building sets by the fence. It’s the only building in the otherwise lifeless landscape.
We park next to the building and an older woman comes out to greet us. She gives us a few facts about the mine.
“You’ll probably want to come in and meet my husband.” She offers.
We walk through the door and she points to the gentleman seated at the desk.
“This is my husband, Bob Hightower.” Bob begins to talk. It only takes a couple minutes to figure out that I need to record this. Bob is discussing the Mexican employees when the I get the camera rolling.
Next year we hope to return to Ajo to find out how the town has fared.
Quartzsite, AZ is a small town of about 3,500 people on Interstate 10 near the Arizona California border. It’s what I call a truck stop town having three truck stops, three fast food joints and seven gas stations along its 2 mile long Main Street. That’s in keeping with the town’s history. It’s been a desert way stop on the way to California since the days of the stagecoach.
If you’re not in a hurry to fuel up and grab a burger you might notice the camels. Not live camels but camel statues and camels on signs. Even the sign announcing that you’re entering Quartzsite has 3 camels on it. It’s at that sign the story begins.
This is a brief video showing our camp site in the desert. To put it in context it is about 4 miles outside of the town of Quartzsite, a town of about 3,500 people. The nearest towns are Blythe, CA and Parker, AZ about 25 miles away. The nearest city is Yuma, AZ at about 75 miles. In between are mountains and desert. Much of that land is owned by an arm of the federal government called the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. The BLM manages the land for the benefit of the people of the U. S. That means we can use it for minerals and mining, cattle grazing and recreation which includes camping. It also means the BLM does not provide any services except occasional road grading. Turn off the paved road onto a dirt road and then turn off the dirt road onto a track through the desert and pick your place. So this what we’ve done to get to our camp site.
Big Bend National Park is a place you have to want to go to. It is not on the way to anywhere. When we leave Marathon the next building we will see is the park headquarters is 70 miles away. The campground is 25 miles beyond that. Here we are pulling into Marathon, TX.
The scale of the land is as big as the distances. The park is located at the big bend in the Rio Grande River. Here the Chisos Mountains in the U. S. and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico force the Rio Grande to change direction from flowing southeast to flowing northeast. It is here the west is preserved as it was, vast and empty.
The park is the size of Rhode Island. It has four paved roads, two gas stations and a lodge. Bring everything you need for it is 120 miles to a grocery store, 150 to a Walmart. There is no TV. Cell service can be had by driving 10 miles on an unimproved dirt road to a rise to catch a distant signal. At night the signals from AM radio stations hundreds of miles away strengthen and recede as they bounce off the ionosphere on to the empty land below. But no one is listening. The few that want the night life have left before sundown to Marathon 95 miles to the north or Terlingua to 70 miles the west for each has a bar and maybe music if someone has decided to play that night. Those that remain wait for the dying rays of the sun to disappear and then as the last reflected light in the western sky dims the stars begin to appear on a vast dome of black stretching from horizon to horizon. At first one by one, then by the hundreds and finally thousands of stars begin their silent, stately march across the dome punctuated by an occasionally by the brief streak of a shooting star trying to reach earth. These are the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. The night sky as it was before Edison blurred the distinction between day and night
We have been here before and hope to come back again. The solitude and silence is refreshing. Where we stay along the Rio Grande, America and Mexico meet in a casual way much as the border was 100 years ago. The border with Mexico is over 1500 miles long. U. S. Border Patrol divides it into seven sections. The Rio Grande section that includes Big Bend is the longest of the seven. It is also the one with the least border incidents. This in part because of its remoteness. It is not easy to get to the border from either side and once you arrive, there is nowhere to go on the other side. Crossings, though illegal, are casual. The purpose is to sell something or buy something. Sell some crafts and buy some candy bars.
The next day I head out to Boquillas Canyon where I met Jesús last year. I did not expect much. The pandemic has closed the border to crossing here. Without the tourists there were probably few people in the town of Boquillas. I wanted to see the canyon anyway. I had never walked all the way to the end of the sand bar.
Note that this video was published on Facebook so this for those who did not see it there
Ashby, Texas is a little hard to find. It’s not on the map. It used to be but not anymore. My research had revealed that the town of Ashby used to be the opposite side of the Tres Palacios River from the town of Palacios. When we found ourselves camping near Palacios I decided to do a little more Google research and got the gps coordinates of Ashby Road. Here is what we found at the end of that road.
From Clarksdale south along 61 to Indianola where in 1948 a 23 year old black man named Riley King with a back ground similar to Muddy Waters’ is leaving sharecropping and the juke joints behind to seek his fortune in Memphis. Shortly after he arrives in the city he gets a job writing advertising jingles and occasionally performing on WDIA, Memphis’ all Black radio station. It is here he takes on the name B. B. King. Soon King is playing the clubs on Beale Street. It was here that King developed is trade mark sound backing up is guitar and singing with horns, saxophone and piano. He began recording in 1949.
1949 was the year RCA and other recording studios dropped the term race records for recordings marketed to Blacks. The new term for race targeted recordings would be Rhythm and Blues. B.B. King had his first Rhythm and Blues hit in 1952 with his 1950 recording of “3 O’Clock Blues”.
In 1953 Elvis, senior in high school is frequenting Beale Street enamored of the flashy clothes of the bluesmen. It is on Beale Street that Elvis Presley and B. B. King meet. King has already recorded 2 albums at Sun Records in Memphis. He suggests Presley might find work there. In August of 1953 Presley goes to Sun and pays for a few minutes of studio time perhaps hoping to be “discovered”. He records two songs on a single acetate disc which he gives to his mother. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun, writes in his notebook “Elvis Presley, Good ballad singer. Hold”. Elvis is not “discovered” and gets a job driving a local delivery truck.
Sam Phillips continues to run his recording studio often telling people “If I could find a white man who had the negro sound, the negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” In June of 1954 Phillips invites Presley back into the studio. “Sing everything you know.” He says to Presley. After the session he asks Presley to come back in a week. He’ll be singing his songs with 2 local musicians backing him up.
Presley returns on July 5th and works with guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bass player Bill Black. The session was not fruitful. As they decide to call it quits Presley picks up his guitar and starts into the blues number “That’s Alright (Momma)”. Recalls Moore, “All of a sudden Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill picked up his bass and started acting the fool too, so started playing along with them.”
Sam Phillips sticks his head out of the recording booth and says, “I don’t know what you boys are doing but back up, find a place to start, and do it again.” He turns on the acetate recording machine. Two days later he’s delivering acetate copies of the recording to Memphis dj’s. Within days the questions are coming into the Sun Records studio. Who is this guy? Is he Black? Can I get him for an interview?
Elvis Presley’s career was launched. He was on his way to become the King of Rock and Roll but he didn’t forget his roots. In 1956 he returned to Memphis to see his friends and support WDIA the all Black radio station.
B. B. King would later say, “When Elvis appeared at the WDIA fundraiser for Negro children he was already a big, big star. Remember this was the Fifties so for a young white boy to show up at an all Black function took guts. I believe he was showing his roots and seemed proud of those roots.”
“All our [Elvis and mine] influences had something in common. We were born poor in Mississippi, went through poor childhoods and we learned and earned our way through music. You see I talked to Elvis about music early on and I know one of the big things in his heart was this: Music is owned by the whole universe. It isn’t exclusive to the black man or the white man or any other color. It is shared in and by our souls.”
For B. B. King the journey to stardom would take longer. In 1956 the South was segregated by law and the rest of the nation segregated by custom. By then King touring the so called chitlin’ circuit, a collection of Black clubs in the South that stretched from Atlanta to San Antonio. King had developed an interpretation of the Blues that featured himself backed up by a big band sound consisting of horns, sax and keyboard. He managed to acquire a bus to move the whole band from club to club. While Presley was staying hotels King had trouble finding a hotel that would allow Blacks. Often the band members rented rooms in Black family’s homes as no hotel would allow them.
Even the restrooms were segregated. King recalled how he would drive the bus up to a gas station and say to the attendant. “Put 100 gallons in.” As soon as the attendant lifted the gas pump nozzle he’d say, “Can I use your restroom?” If the answer was ‘Its out of order.’ He’d reply, “Never mind the gas. I’ll head down the road to one that is in order.”
But the miles wore on King. He was often on the road 300 days a year. He was popular among middle age Black audiences. He was making a living but he couldn’t expand his audience. Soul music had captured younger Blacks attention and Whites made up a tiny fraction of his audience.
Then in 1966 a promoter called from San Francisco. He wanted B. B. King to play the Fillmore. B. B. had played the Fillmore years before when it was a major dance hall in the Black section of the city but urban renewal and gentrification had changed the neighborhood. B. B.’s manager agreed.
In February 1967 B. B. was backstage at the Fillmore waiting for the first band to finish. He took a peak between the curtains at the audience. He quickly found his manager. “I think we’re in the wrong place.” he exclaimed, “The audience, they’re White.” Yes they were in the right place he assured him.
“Then I started to get nervous. I’d never played before a White audience except when they had White night down on Beale Street. I decided to just do my best. When I walked onto the stage the audience was on their feet cheering and clapping for a full minute. There were tears running down my cheeks when I began to play. Well I guess we did alright because we got four standing ovations that night.”
He was on his way to become King of the Blues. There are no recordings of that concert. Here is a recording of a live concert in 1973 at Sing Sing Prison.
The Filmore concert changed B. B. King’s career. Before the bus could make it back to the chitlin’ circuit calls were coming in from venues in Chicago, New York and London asking if they could schedule the King of the Blues. He would go on to perform around the world with some of the biggest names in music. Before he was done he had performed for royalty, the Pope and the President, won multiple Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
He became known as the Ambassador of the Blues for his willingness to help other musicians and his gentle kindly demeanor.
He continued to perform until a year before his death in 2015 at the age of 89. He was buried at the B. B. King Blues Museum in his hometown of Indianola, MS.
“The Blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what is is – the source.” B. B. King
Well that’s it. From Indianola we’re on to Vicksburg and Natchez. There the land is broken up by a series of bluffs and ravines and is no longer part of the Mississippi Delta region. A region that has had a powerful impact on American culture yet few take he time to explore it. Not only Blues singers but many important events in the early days of the Civil Rights movement occurred in the Delta. One could spend weeks exploring the region. We unfortunately only had four days.
Driving into Clarksdale, MS is a bit like driving into the Great Depression era. The gas stations and fast food joints quickly give way to empty brick buildings with faded signs and logos. We stop in an empty lot to get our bearings. An older pickup truck pulling trailer pulls in and back up to a door at the side of the adjacent building. The door opens, greetings are exchanged and the men begin hauling out appliances and throwing them on the trailer, each appliance crashing onto the others. We are discussing how to get to the Blues Museum.
“It’s down this road few more blocks. Then turn toward the railroad tracks.” Lorraine says looking at the miniature map on the cell phone.
The pickup truck with its trailer mounded with white metal cubes pulls out on to the street and disappears around the corner. We follow, heading into town.
Well we have found it but there is no place to park and it doesn’t look like it’s open. Lorraine doesn’t like the feel of the place. I look around. There’s no one around except for three Black men working in the park across the street.
“I’ll go ask them.”
I walk across the street. They look up. One is holding a running weed trimmer.
“Excuse me.” I say to the biggest man who is apparently the de facto leader of the group, ”Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”
The man holds his hand up to his ear.
Louder I say, “Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”
The man looks at me, shakes his head and turns to the one with weed trimmer.
“Will you shut that damn thing off?” he bellows in a voice that could be heard over most any machine.
“I’m sorry sir. Could you repeat what you were sayin’?”
“Thank you, Yes. Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”
“Well, to tell you the truth I cannot. We’re not from around here. Ya see, we’re the prisoners. Go ask that man over there. He’s free.”
“You mean you’re not doing this voluntarily?” I say pointing at the weed whackers.
“No sir, we are not!”
I go ask the free man who directs us down an alley which leads to the back of a bank and then to the parking lot. As I return to the truck I notice the 3 black men are all wearing the same striped pants.
Alan Lomax arrived here in August 1941. It is here that he learns from Son House that Robert Johnson is dead. Son suggests he look up an up and coming player named Muddy. “Go out to Stovall Plantation and just ask for Muddy. They’ll know who ya mean.”
McKinley Morganfield was born in Rolling Fork in 1913 or 1915. No one is quite sure. His mother died shortly after he was born and he was raised by his grandmother as a sharecropper at Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. His grandmother insisted he attend church and it was here he learned music in the Black gospel tradition. It was also his grandmother who gave him the nickname Muddy for his propensity to return home from playing along the creek covered in mud.
He began playing harmonica in his early teens and at the age of 17 sold the family’s horse. He gave half the money to his grandmother and with the other half purchased a guitar from Sears & Roebuck for $2.50. Soon he was playing the juke joints on Stovall Plantation and learning from the touring blues musicians who stopped by the Plantation. This was his life when Alan Lomax came asking for Muddy.
When Morganfield heard a white man was asking for Muddy he almost ran away thinking that they’d discovered he’d been selling whiskey on the side but he decided to stay and face the man. When he found out that Lomax wanted to record him he took him to his cabin and played by trunk of Lomax’ car into a recording machine. On hearing the recording played back he realized he could actually play music. “I can do it. I can do it.” He shouted gleefully. Lomax returned in 1942 and recorded a second session. That second session gave Muddy ideas. The following year he headed up Highway 61 to Chicago with the aim of becoming a professional musician. Along the way he adopted the name Muddy Waters and in Chicago he discovered something new, the electric guitar.
Working in a factory during the day and playing the clubs at night Muddy Waters saved enough money to buy an electric guitar two years later. It was in the Chicago clubs he developed a style and sound that would change music. By the early 1950’s he was the charismatic star of an electric band that displayed a mystical, sexual persona with songs such as “I Want to Make Love to You”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Rollin’ Stone” and “I Got My Mojo Workin’”. The success of Muddy Water’s style was not overlooked by a skinny young white boy from Tupelo, now living in Memphis and looking to hit the tour circuit and make his mark.
In 1958 Muddy Waters toured Britain. In the audience were young musicians just starting out. Among them Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Mick Jagger. Jagger would name his group after Muddy’s song “Rollin’ Stone”.
Here is Muddy Water’s 1955 recording of his song Mannish Boy.
Once we are inside the Blues Museum we are led to the one room cabin Muddy Waters grew up in. Nothing but boards nailed to a frame with newspaper glued to the walls to cover the cracks. It was impoverished sharecroppers living in quarters like this that developed a new and distinctly American form of music. Probably because no one had told then the right way to play music.
We leave Clarksdale on Highway 61 heading south, passing the crossroad where Robert Johnson is reputed to have made his bargain with the Devil. We are going on to Indianola to find the story behind the Kings.
We’re on our way to Cleveland, Mississippi a town on Highway 61 about 150 miles south of Memphis. For 8 miles outside of Cleveland is Dockery Farm and that farm is sometimes referred to a the birthplace of the Blues. The year is 1929 and Dockery like other farms is raising cotton on the share crop system. Mr. Dockery owns the land and the Black families that live there and labor in the fields to raise the cotton get to “share” the crop with him. But he does one thing different from the other farms. On Saturday night the tenant sharecroppers can use the barn for their own entertainment. Not only that they can invite the sharecroppers from other farms. Dockery Farm become a place where Black musicians can gather, perform, and exchange ideas.
One day a young man named Robert Johnson showed up. He could play harmonica but barely knew how to play guitar. He got a few lessons on guitar from Son House but left after a few weeks. A year later he returned and could outplay any man at Dockery. With techniques they’d never seen before. How did he do it in such a short time. The gossip was he had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads for the ability to play and sing. Robert Johnson never denied it and he hit the road with a reputation and talent. Making money on street corners and juke joints his reputation grew through the Delta and beyond. At the age of 27, while performing in Texas he was invited into a studio where he recorded 29 of his songs. Those recordings are the reason we know of him for in 1938 at the age of 27 he was dead, poisoned by his girlfriend’s jealous husband.
Those recordings drew the interest of someone else far from the Delta. Alan Lomax had begun traveling the country recording local music with a recording studio he had built in the trunk of his car. After hearing the recordings Lomax, in 1941, made plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. But for that part of the story we’ll have to head north on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was the at crossroads outside of Clarksdale where legend says Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil.