On a foggy winter morning years ago, we came upon adobe ruins outside Big Bend National Park. As ruins go, they weren’t the Parthenon. Even back then, not much remained of the weather-worn homestead. Sand banked into the corners of low, crumbled walls; the skeletons of interior bricks suggested a narrow second room. A break in the earthen walls marked where the single door once opened, a trailing of low brick suggested a modest courtyard or perhaps, a room that was never completed. Crumbling adobe brick framing the bare, wind-swept floor were the only indications that this ruin had ever been any different than the hard-packed desert soil surrounding it.
Yet, it was different. You could just sense that. It once was a home. A refuge scratched from the desert, each brick shaped by someone’s hand. (There are no home improvement stores in the wilds of the Chihuahuan Desert.) Most likely the man–or man and woman–whoever built the modest dwelling had also crafted the brick for it out of the very dirt it rests on.
It’s isolated, remote, even by desert standards. No other structures within miles. “They” certainly would’ve had to haul in water, and haul it a very long way over very difficult terrain. There’s a trickle of a spring a few miles away, but to reach that, you temporarily surrender your life to fate and hike a narrow trail above a deep, rocky draw. They would’ve lived without heat in the winter, and with little local fuel to feed a fire. They certainly would’ve worked under the blazing Texas sun without as much as a fan in the brutal desert summer. If they had children, they would’ve warned them to beware of rattlers, cougars, coyotes and falling to their death from those treacherous cliffs. Heaven only knows how they scraped out a living, even back in the days before overgrazing destroyed the tall grasses. It was a hard, hard life for whoever lived there.
A friend who joined us there this year asked if we knew “story”. We don’t. Perhaps someone knows it, but as far as we tourists are concerned, the story is untold.
Who built it? Whoever he/she/ they were, they had the soul of an artist. The vanishing ruins rest beneath awe-inspiring cliffs; the adobe foundation overlooks the mystical Chisos Mountains. Stand inside that foundation, and you can catch a sunrise that will steal your breath. Stand there long enough, and sunset will stop your heart. Stand silently, and the desert speaks to you. Whoever the story belongs to would’ve heard it. Would’ve appreciated the stark, lonely beauty of that place. Was that beauty enough compensation for the struggle to survive in the desert?
I believe life is so interconnected, not only do we absorb the spirit of places, but places absorb the life force of those who walk that ground. Places speak without words, share their stories, share them with little encouragement to those who will listen. You may not be able to decipher the history being recounted. You can’t even get a good photo of those ruins anymore. Each wet spell in the desert dissolves yet another row of adobe. Earth to earth… even in the desert, nothing lasts forever. But their story remains, in every crumbling adobe brick, every echo off those high rock cliffs, every wisp of fog floating from the distant mountains. And so, I return, year after year, to hear it, and to whisper “Vaya con Dios, mi amigo… and thank you for your hospitality…whoever you were…”
To check the availability of this pastel painting, or to see more of my Big Bend landscape paintings from Far West Texas, visit Old Spanish Trail Studio, my website.
Midland Framing and Fine Arts, Midland, TX does the exquisite custom framing I use on my original landscape paintings.
The Rusty Rabbit, Alpine TX currently hangs this one! (Jan. 20, 2016) Contact the gallery, or contact me for more information.