ABOVE: Steve, Ed, John, and I prepare to head into the backcountry, August 1973. (PHOTO: Steve Cervantes)
A few years ago, I hosted some friends from New York City in Marathon during the Christmas holidays. It was their first-ever trip to Texas. They’d flown into Austin for a couple days before we headed west. We were late leaving Austin and so arrived at the Gage Hotel after dark.
The next morning, they marveled at the big, blue, seemingly limitless skies and the fringe of mountains that surround Marathon. We went to breakfast at the since-closed (and lamented) Marathon Coffee Shop. We sat at one end of a long table, at the other end of which were a few of the cowboys from the surrounding ranches. My friends were enthralled with the cowboys’ chatter – when we’d get rain, if it was going to turn cold (it was in the mid-30s that morning), and so forth. One guy broke up the whole group with a story about a cowboy, born and raised on one of the big ranches south of town. Once, eating breakfast in Marathon, he was asked if he’d ever been to a big city. He answered, “I’m here, ain’t I?”
For the next couple days, I showed them around the area. We visited Fort Davis and attended a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory. We went to Valentine and did the obligatory selfie in front of Prada Marfa. On their last full day, we traveled into Big Bend National Park. We hiked in the Chisos Basin and then motored down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon. After visiting that magnificent space, we drove the Old Maverick Road out of the park and ended up at the general store in Terlingua, sipping beverages and watching the setting sun glint off the Chisos Mountains.
One of my friends said, “You know, when we got to Austin, it didn’t really feel like Texas.” Then she waved at the majestic country in front of her. “But THIS is Texas.”
Texas, more than any other state, has its own mythos, one embraced both by its natives and by visitors foreign and domestic. And that mythos has a very specific look, nourished by books, films and TV – and by Texans themselves: wide-open spaces, sunny skies stretching endlessly to the horizon, enormous expanses of desert broken by rugged mountain country and river chasms. An unforgiving land dotted with either cattle or oil wells, or both. Tough, laconic men and equally tough, flinty women. Bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes to contend with. The forbidding geography and human menace of Giant, The Searchers, and No Country For Old Men.
When you’re stuck in traffic on Loop 610 in Houston, visiting the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock, or fishing off Padre Island, it’s hard to identify with the wild and primitive Texas of myth. In fact, there’s only one part of Texas that still resembles that fabled country, and that’s why everyone ought to visit the Trans-Pecos.
The Pecos River originates in the mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest in north-central New Mexico and winds south until it crosses into Texas south of Carlsbad. It then wanders southeast until it empties into the Rio Grande at Amistad Reservoir by Del Rio. The section of Texas west of the river – the Trans-Pecos – is 31,468 square miles (bigger than 12 states) with a 2020 population of 910,106 (bigger than five states and the District of Columbia), most of whom live in El Paso County.
The Trans-Pecos, with its rugged vistas, expansive skyscapes, and dramatic night skies, is archetypically Texan. But it almost didn’t make it into the 28th state.
TRANS-PECOS, NEW MEXICO?
When Texas joined the Union in 1845, there was still a dispute over the southern boundary of the state. Texians said it was the Rio Grande. Mexico argued it was the Nueces River some 100 miles to the north. The Mexican-American War settled that question once and for all, establishing the Rio Grande as the southern and eastern boundary of Texas.
Next came the battle over the size of Texas itself. Texas claimed the land north and east of the Rio Grande all the way up to its headwaters in Colorado, plus additional lands all the way up into modern-day Wyoming. You’ve probably seen the map:
Meanwhile, the United States had established a provisional government in New Mexico at the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Its territory encompassed most of modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, but its eastern boundary was unclear. Once the war was successfully concluded, its leaders began to agitate for New Mexico’s admission to the Union. They proposed the Pecos River as an eastern boundary of the new state, all the way to the Rio Grande. This would add 125,000 square miles east of the Rio Grande to New Mexico and put Santa Fe and El Paso, the two biggest towns in the region, into the new state.
New Mexico’s status, and the fixing of its boundary lines with Texas, was caught up in the national debate over slavery, with the Trans-Pecos as a bargaining chip. Under the Compromise of 1850, Texas held on to El Paso and the Trans-Pecos but surrendered all the territory north of it to the national government in return for federal assumption of $10 million of Texas’s debt. Congressional dealmakers debated several configurations for the western boundary of Texas before settling on the map we know today:
My romance with the Trans-Pecos began a couple summers after I graduated from high school in San Antonio, when I went with three of my high school classmates on a camping trip to the Big Bend in a Volkswagen Beetle. I have no idea how we got four of us and all our gear in a Volkswagen Beetle, but it worked out fine at the time.
We spent a couple days on the river, camping near Santa Elena Canyon. One night, under the spell of a full moon and some intoxicants, I concocted a story about “The Scourge of the Pampas,” South American vampire bats which grew to be the size of a condor and were the bane of the gauchos. Hunting only at night, they could capture and kill a young calf, sucking it dry of its blood in one horrible sitting. I described how the vampire bats had strayed from their former territory and, unhindered by man or beast, were working their way up through Central America.
“But don’t worry,” I concluded. “They’ve only gotten as far as northern Mexico.”
One of my companions sat bolt upright in his sleeping bag. “Hell, man,” he cried out, pointing into the darkness. “Northern Mexico is right over there!”
I camped in the national park a few more time during the 1970s and 1980s. Then, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I visited the Trans-Pecos at least annually, most often with a group of Austin-based friends celebrating the New Year.
Around 2015 or so, I began spending longer periods of time in the Trans-Pecos, courtesy of a friend who made his house available whenever I wanted. His generosity made it possible to visit the region for longer spells and to explore its treasures at a more leisurely pace. This was when my infatuation with the Trans-Pecos grew into a full-blown love affair.
There is, first and foremost, so much natural beauty to take in. Although Texas is not perceived as a mountain state, there are ninety mountains whose summits are at least a mile above sea level. All of them are in the Trans-Pecos. While many of them are on private land, others can be visited, hiked, and climbed, as at Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend National Parks.
The mountains lend topographic texture to the vast stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert, crisscrossed with canyons and arroyos, that make up the Trans-Pecos. That landscape, sere and unforgiving, is nevertheless home to an incredible biodiversity, much of it unique to the region.
Humans have coexisted with this forbidding country for centuries. Prehistoric rock art can be found throughout the region, for example, at Hueco Tanks State Park. The contest between human and nature continues into modern times. Nature is the frequent victor, as witnessed by the abandoned adobe houses, collapsed windmills and ghost towns that dot the territory. The population density of the Trans-Pecos is 27 people per square mile, less than a fourth of the population density of Texas as a whole. Outside of El Paso County, the population density of the Trans-Pecos is 1.765 people per square mile.
The sense of open spaces and few people is one of the charms of the region for me. There’s always the sense that human habitation has been wrenched from the unforgiving countryside and may be consumed by it at any time. The ongoing struggle to survive, much less thrive, in such unforgiving country is part and parcel of the mythos of Texas.
For me, though, the most enduring charms of the Trans-Pecos are the simple ones. A drive to Balmorhea for a picnic and a swim. The view of the Rio Grande, shimmering in the afternoon light, from the Big Hill west of Lajitas. Watching the sunset from the Post Road south of Marathon, in silent companionship with the wind. The pleasure of watching a storm roll across the desert; lightning flashes in the distance and muted thunder rolling through half a minute later. The Milky Way, its light unimpeded by city glow and smog, wheeling silently overhead as it has for millions of years.
It is these simple pleasures that keep me enchanted and coming back.
Molly Ivins famously said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” I, too, love the state of Texas, and feel most at home – most Texan – in the marvelous Trans-Pecos.
Deece Eckstein grew up in San Antonio and first visited the Trans-Pecos in 1973. A lawyer by training, he worked in and around the Texas Legislature for 30 years, working for Governor Ann Richards, State Senator Rodney Ellis, and others before retiring in 2020. Since then, he splits his time between Austin and the Trans-Pecos. He publishes his own Substack and is a part of the Texas Outlaw Writers syndicate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org