The Houston Texans play their first game this fall, but players such as Avion Black and cheerleaders have been perfecting their moves for months.Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Houston, we have a football team. Again.
The scene was vaguely familiar: rowdies with painted faces; fans decked out in Battle Red, Deep Steel Blue, and Liberty White jerseys; a long line of supporters-some with portable radios plugged into their ears-eager to have temporary tattoos of a bull glued to their faces; a palpable buzz of excitement in the air; and outbursts of cheers and chants, egged on by a bull mascot named Toro and a bevy of cheerleaders waving pom-poms.
“Hous-ton Tex-ans! Hous-ton Tex-ans!”
Never mind that the crowd was cheering a team that’s never played a single down, or that opening kickoff was some six months away. Pro football was back in Houston, and that was reason enough for several thousand fans to show up at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, alongside players past and present, a squadron of front office personnel, and an infantry of media types, including a full ESPN crew providing live coverage.
The event was the first and last official Houston Texans Expansion Draft, a process that would ultimately determine the nucleus of players for the newest franchise in the National Football League. The actual gridiron at Reliant Stadium was miles away in south Houston, and the only hard hits were on the NFL highlight films showing on the big screens. Even the first player drafted, offensive tackle Tony Boselli of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was a foregone conclusion. But no one was complaining. After going almost six years without a home team to root for, in a city where football is practically a birthright, Houston fans were warming up for their brand-new team, the Houston Texans.
Tackled for a Loss
In 1997, Bud Adams, the only owner the Houston Oilers ever had, finally gave up negotiating with Harris County to build a stadium to replace the Astrodome and moved the franchise to Nashville. It was not a happy parting. The general sentiment voiced around Houston to Adams was, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out of town.’ Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and one of the few people on Earth entitled to wear three Super Bowl rings, couldn’t believe what had happened. “Six years ago, I’m driving through downtown Houston and I look in my rearview mirror at the skyline and think, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture. This is the fourth largest city in the United States, in a state where football is king, and there isn’t a football team?’ How can you not have a premium franchise NFL team in this city?”
Fans J.C. and Juan Chapa were wondering the same thing. The brothers were heartbroken when their team left town. “I haven’t been able to watch football in a while,” said J.C. Chapa before the expansion draft began. But the brothers apparently had gotten over the hurt, because they showed up duded out with war paint on their faces, wearing football helmets with bull horns coming out of the sides and matching jerseys-one with the number 32, representing the H-town franchise as the 32nd team in the NFL and the other with ’02, the year the Texans joined the league.
The Big Comeback
The Reliant Stadium promises to live up to its state-of-the-art reputation.
Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
The Chapas’s game gear is part of the Sunday extravaganza that will be playing at Reliant Stadium this fall. They’re season ticket holders in the end zone seating section known as the Bull Pen, where the really crazy fans are being directed to whoop it up in the tradition of Cleveland’s Dawg Pound. “The Texans are already doing more for the fans,” says J.C. Chapa. “With the Oilers, it was just show up on game day. Houston always had first-class fans. Now it’s got a first-class team. McNair is first-class, the whole organization is first-class.”
McNair is Bob McNair, the billionaire whose deep pockets, determination, and will not only brought professional football back to Houston but also elevated the standard of how the game is played and watched. As majority owner, McNair beat out Los Angeles-the preferred choice of the league’s owners for an expansion team-by raising the $700 million admission fee the NFL was charging the new club and helping lead a public/private financing voter initiative in Harris County to build the state-of-the-art Reliant Stadium.
McNair didn’t stop there. He hired top-shelf personnel, starting with the aforementioned Chancy Casserly as executive vice president and general manager. McNair then added Dom Capers, the head coach who had led the expansion Carolina Panthers to the National Football Conference championship game in their second year, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who also knows a few things about starting from scratch as the first head coach of the new Cleveland Browns. All of a sudden, Houston sounds like one of those premiere franchises Casserly was talking about.
It’s about time. Pro football came to Houston with the Oilers, a charter member of the American Football League, in 1960. The Oilers won the upstart league’s championship the first two years, beating the San Diego Chargers both times, largely on the passing and kicking of Houston’s first home-team hero, George Blanda. But a third title eluded them after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970.
While that doesn’t detract from the glorious feats of crowd favorites such as Blanda, Charlie (the Human Bowling Ball) Tolar, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Kenny (The Snake) Stabler, Dan Pastorini, and Earl Campbell, or colorful coaches such as Bum Phillips, Jerry Glanville, and Jack Pardee, it speaks volumes in explaining why few tears were shed when the Oilers left town.
Out of the Spotlight
While the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowls. the Oilers were lucky to advance out of their division in the playoffs. Dallas was America’s Team. Oilers Coach Bum Phillips, still a folk hero in Houston, allowed that Houston was Texas’s team. After losing an AFC championship game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Phillips apologized for the defeat, noting that while the Oilers had gotten their foot in the door, they’d kick it down the next season and go to the Super Bowl. It was a promise Phillips couldn’t keep.
Extreme-gear fans such as these expansion draft attendees will whoop it up in the stadium’s Bull Pen. Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
Where the Oilers played also figured into their second-class status. Throughout the team’s history, each and every home venue was a borrowed one, from the Jeppesen Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to Rice University stadium to the Astrodome, which was built for Major League Baseball’s Astros.
That’s the clearest difference between the old Houston Oilers and the new Houston Texans. When the Texans tee it up this August, it will mark the first time a Houston pro football team has played in a facility designed specifically for its needs. The 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium has already established a new standard for spectator sports facilities, just like the Astrodome did back in 1965, when it was touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The The Ninth Wonder?
The tricked-out Reliant is the first NFL stadium with both a retractable roof (the translucent fabric covers a frame that can open or close in about 10 minutes) and real grass, returning the field of play in Houston to a natural state for the first time in nearly four decades. (AstroTurf was invented just in time to replace real grass inside the ‘Dome when its 4,500-plus skylights, which let in the sun, were painted over to pacify baseball players who complained they were losing track of fly balls.) To appease longtime fans still stewing over the removal of the Astrodome’s old exploding scoreboard in 1988, Reliant Stadium has two giant scoreboards, jammed with more information than a website and enough pyrotechnics to light up half the state.
In the tradition of the luxury suite, a staple of every pro stadium, Reliant’s high-dollar seats will be closer to the field than those managed by every other NFL team. Meanwhile, Texans players have been spreading the word about the four training fields across the street from the stadium, including one all-weather, covered field. Once football season ends, Reliant will be transformed into a whole other kind of arena as the new home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the biggest rodeo in the world.
The stadium’s reputation is spreading like wildfire. The NFL has committed to staging the biggest game of all, the Super Bowl, at Reliant in 2004. And the powerhouse Big 12 college athletic conferencewhich includes the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylorwill hold its 2002 championship football game there in early December.
But those events aren’t anticipated nearly as eagerly as the upcoming season, when the Texans meet the Cowboys, who rarely played the Oilers, on opening day of the regular season and later host AFC South Conference division foes the Tennessee Titans (formerly known as the Houston Oilers). Those games, fans hope, are where the difference between old Houston football and new Houston football will be most evident, especially on the scoreboard at the end of the game. But regardless of the outcome, one thing’s for sure: Houston, we have a football team. Finally.
Pass The Bass, Por Favor
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A JUNGLY SANCTUARY ON THE SAN RAFAEL RIVER
Drive Five hours South of the border from Brownsville, Texas, and hook a left at the town of Aldama. Drive another hour east and you’ll find yourself in the fishing village of Barra del Tordo, Tamaulipas. The community is so peque–o that a thick strand of shipping rope passes for its sole speed bump. On some highway maps, Barra del Tordo doesn’t exist at all-which makes it the ideal backwater.
The village of roughly 1,000 inhabitants sits on the banks of the San Rafael River, a half-mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The saltwater river harbors prized snook, trout, largemouth bass, redfish, and even tarpon. Schools of grouper, snapper, ling, wahoo, and kingfish swarm the Gulf, and the sweetest oysters this side of the Apalachicola River thrive in the lagoons and inlets in between. The town’s main beach, Playa No. 2 (with showers, day shelters, picnic tables, and cooking pits) lies two miles southeast of town and is such a big nesting ground for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that an international research station was established there in 1977. From March through August, visitors can help locate arriving ridleys and transport their eggs into the nesting corral.
But the real show begins on n rickety clock on a creek near the San Rafael, about a mile west of town. Make arrangements in advance and a wooden launch will ferry you four miles upriver to El Paraiso, a 16room resort set on a bluff, part of a 1,000-acre ranch in a zone once known as Los Jaguares (the big cats still stalk “way hack in the thicket,” or so the locals say). Wherever you look, fish are jumping out of the placid water, landing with audible plips and plops, while ospreys swoop down to pluck up dinner.
Factor in kayaking on the river; horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking on more than 15 miles of trails around El Paraiso; and windsurfing on the Gulf (the lodge’s staff will boat you back down the river); and you may find yourself too wound up to remember the purpose of your journey. Lest you forget, you’re here to relax.
Access and Resources
CLOSEST AIRPORT: Tampico, 100 miles south
GETTING THERE: Barra del Tordo is 270 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, via Mexico 180. Bus service from Brownsville to Aldama (30 miles west of Barra) costs $26. Call ahead and someone from El Paraiso will meet you at the station.
WHERE TO STAY: A room in one of El Paraiso’s palm-log cabins, arrayed around the swimming pool, costs $95 per person per night, meals and activities included (011-52-833-213-9956, www.spagetaway.com/gulf/paraiso/paraiso.htm). The only in-town option is the spartan Hotel Playa Azul, a two-story, 14-room hotel next to the fishing docks (doubles, $35; 011-52-833-250-1272).
WHERE TO EAT: El Paraiso, for fresh sea bass garnished with cilantro, oysters in garlic broth, or whatever the chef has handy.
James Luther Dickinson
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2002
Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis)
You may know Jim Dickinson as the daddy of those North Mississippi All-Stars, producer of the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, or the guy who played piano with the Stones on Sticky Fingers and Dylan on Time Out of Mind. For others, he’s the white cat out of Memphis, who 30 years ago cut his one and only solo album Dixie Fried, one of the best rock & roll albums of all time. Well, the Dickinson growl and his hard-bitten Easy Credit No Money Down, Years to Pay philosophical rant is back, most clearly evident in “Hungry Town,” which throws more than a few hints about where the Stones at their peak learned their funk. Or take “Asshole,” a tune that manages to rhyme the orifice with both “that’s so” and “low class-o,” and even inject “little children” into the lyrical fray while skipping along to a musical duel to the death that pits a gypsy violin against a smoky xylophone. With his greasy fingerprints smudging a gospel rant/Ry Cooder retro-roots mandolin stomp (“JC’s NYC Blues”), sentimental covers of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” and Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” plus loads of references to gambling that only Texas hustlers in Vegas and Southern cads on riverboats can fully appreciate, Dickinson’s album should be required to carry the following warning: “Anything Dixie Fried may not be good for your health, but it sure sounds good anyway.” The artery-clogger lives.
Big Bend is Better Than Ever
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Laurence Parent
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here’s the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won’t find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas’ greatest treasure.
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres–1,250 square miles–of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.
Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet–and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.
Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that–whether you are a newcomer or a veteran–you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.
How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks? It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match-a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and in international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.
I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend? A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.
The tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks at Ernst Tinaja. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert–ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.
The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.
Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. 0. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it’s time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads U I) Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable byroad, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park-both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.
For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises-reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.
The Chisos Mountains, viewed from Lost Mine Trail at first light. Photograph by Laurence Parent
From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and ,grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events-sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.
If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SW with four-wheel drive? Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.
The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed–fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock–but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.
Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.
Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.
Can I get on the Rio Grande? There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow–like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua–I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.
Seldom-seen Cattail Falls, near Oak Creek Springs.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.
How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there? Two villages are across from main areas of the park–Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a roundtrip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcon’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.
West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrees priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Ca–on were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalape–os instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.
I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day? If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet-enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below-before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.
For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile roundtrip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and pi–on pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)
Chisos Mountains on the western edge of the basin.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hunched yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.
Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mountain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.
I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more? The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles byway of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return byway of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.
You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.
A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead-and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.
Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.
I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”
Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip-which can be done in about a week-though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.
I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.
The Giant yuccas at Dagger Flat.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.
I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?
It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.
You could also study topo maps and et your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
FROM TOP: A custom pair made by Rocketbuster Boots in El Paso; a bootmaker works on a top at Arditti Footwear; a vamp is fitted around a last at Arditti. Photography by Wyatt McSpadden.
25 Top Custom Bootmakers
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
James Leddy Boots
1602 N. Treadaway Boulevard
The nephew of boot king M. L. Leddy is now royalty himself, and he runs a real family business: He does the cutting, his wife and daughter do the stitching, his son-in-law does bottoms, and his former daughter-in-law creates the prettiest inlays anywhere. Specializes in: Flowery tops, old-fashioned crimped vamps, zipper tops, sharp pointed toes. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singers Buck Owens, George Jones, and Johnny Bush; U.S. representative Charles Stenholm.
Bell Custom Boots
2118 N. Treadaway Boulevard
The gregarious Alan Bell understudied with Tex Robin in Coleman (see below) before going solo. Twenty-five years later, his is one of the state’s busiest husband-and-wife operations (Pauline Bell does the top stitching). Specializes in: Versatility (his leather ranges from tough and rugged to soft and supple) and signature stitching outside and inside the vamp. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Race car driver Kyle Petty; cowboys from the 6666, the Pitchfork, and other mega-ranches.
Western Leather Craft Boot
1950 Civic Circle
Four generations of the Ross family have been making fine working and dress boots since 1914. Specializes in: Work boots, art boots, wing tips, and flower inlays. Prices start at: $575. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Singing cowboy Gene Autry.
2222 College Avenue
Lee Miller apprenticed under the late, great Charlie Dunn and took over the business when Dunn retired. Specializes in: Flashy designs, such as wild flames decorating the tops and trademark Charlie Dunn pinched rose overlays. Prices start at: $1,000. Turnaround time: Three years for new customers (they’re not taking any right now), thirteen months for old ones. Has made boots for: Country singer Lyle Lovett, rock singer Sting, actor Slim Pickens, golfer Arnold Palmer.
Tex Robin Custom Handmade Boots
115 W. Eighth
Robin’s father, also called Tex, opened his doors in 1944 and passed his talent and commitment to high quality on to his son, who has now run the one-man shop for thirty years. Specializes in: Artistic tops with eclectic stitching (e.g., prickly pear cactus spines), brilliant coloring, and trademark butterflies and eagles. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Governor Rick Perry, gambler Benny Binion.
2080 County Road 304
Since learning the trade from the late Dan Trujillio, another Comanche legend, Eddie Kimmel has built up one of the most productive small shops in Texas. Specializes in: Old-style boots that are a little stouter and have a heavier inner sole, which means they last longer. Prices start at: $550. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Actresses Sandra Bullock and Priscilla Presley; movie producer Lynda Obst.
115 S. Anthony
Their boot designs are part flash and part kitsch, so it’s no surprise that the showroom in which Nevena Christi and Marty Snortum greet their customersby appointment onlyresembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Specializes in: The wildest tops in the business, from Hot Rod Devil and Custom Car Angel logos to fiery chiles and the Virgin of the Guadalupe. Prices start at: $750 (take $40 off any order if you trade a childhood cowboy photo). Turnaround time: Twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Actors Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, and Bruce Willis; actress Sharon Stone; director Steven Spielberg; talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
421 S. Cotton
Co-owners Scott Emmerich and Jerry black (the third outlaw "we hung," says Emmerich) supply boots to high-end retailers, including Emmerich’s Falconhead in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Specializes in: Elaborate designs, exotic leathers, handstitching as wide as 25 rows, braided kangaroo-skin piping, and silver inlays built into the boot. Prices start at: $595. Turnaround Time: Four to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Actresses Brooke Shields, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Renee Zellweger; rock singer Sheryl Crow; uberagent Mike Ovitz.
The Stallion Boot and Belt Company
100 N. Cotton
Longtime boot collector Pedro Mu–oz, Jr., made a killing off of the Urban Cowboy craze. Twenty years later, he still designs boots for sale via trunk shows and couture retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior. Specializes in: Replicas of classic boots emphasizing starbursts and flame stitching, as well as buck stitching and lacing. Claims to be the only bootmaker using fossilized walrus and woolly mammoth ivory. Prices start at: $500. Turnaround time: Six to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rock singers Madonna, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan; actress Ashley Judd; actor Tom Cruise.
Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footware
910 Texas Avenue
A twelve-year veteran of the leather biz at age 31, Thomas Yves Arditti produces high-end designs for boots made of alligator and other exotic leathers. Specializes in: High-quality leather inside and outside the boot and signature sterling-silver logo built into the heel. PRICES START T: $550. Turnaround time: One to two months. Has made boots for: Actor Jack Nicholson, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
8616 Quebec Drive 817-367-7976 Formerly a bull rider, Allen designed chaps before shifting his focus to boots. Specializes in: Detailed tooling and a trademark lightning bolt. Prices start at: $650. Turnaround time: Eight to ten months. Has made boots for: The cutting-horse crowd.
Wheeler Boot Company
Dave Wheeler has been working at his father’s shop since he was twelve; forty years later he continues the family tradition by working alongside his wife and his mother. Specializes in: Colorful, elaborately designed boots-as-art Prices start at: $825. Turnaround time: Eleven months. Has made boots for: Vice President Dick Cheney, actor Robert Duvall, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin.
Maida’s Blackjack Boot Company
3948 Westheimer Boulevard
First-generation Italian bootmaker Sal Maida, Sr., served Houstonians for years; since 1977 that task has fallen to his son, Sal Junior, and bootmaker Richard Salazar. Specializes in: Upscale boots suitable for cowboy balls. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: Ten to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rockers ZZ Top, actor Ben Johnson.
R.J.’S Boot Company
3321 Ella Boulevard
A bootmaker to the power elite, Rocky Carroll is a worthy successor to his dad, who started the business in 1938. He is backed by independent contractors, including 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, maybe the state’s finest craftsman, who works semi-exclusively for him out of a garage in Mercedes. Specializes in: Conservative, upscale boots with artistic tops, such as corporate logos, and lots of gold and silver. Prices start at: $295. Turnaround time: Two weeks. Has made boots for: Both President Bushes, Governor Rick Perry, country singer Dolly Parton.
Jazz Boot Shop
803 E. Avenue G
Pablo Jass worked for twelve years alongside the late Ray Jones, also of Lampasas. He still turns out tougher-than-hell real cowboy boots made for working on the range. Specializes in: Jones’s box toe, white piping, and stiff tops, and electric topstitching done by his wife, Juanita. Prices start at: $600. Turnaround time: Six months to one year. Has made boots for: Author and boot aficionado Tyler Beard.
Cavazos Boot Factory
Vicente Cavazos, an unsung elder of the bootmaking biz, does the whole boot himself, from fit to finish, excelling in artistic stitching, inlays, and overlays. Specializes in: Imaginative top designs, including roses and a Corpus Christi cityscape, and stylish ostrich wing tips. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Four to five weeks. Has made boots for: Former president Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Camargo’s Handmade Boots
710 U.S. 83
Henry Camargo considers himself an artist and lets his imagination fly, producing an assortment of unconventional designs on exotic skins with free-form stitching. Specializes in: Tops with 55 Chevy convertibles, ’66 Corvettes, Harleys, Ford pickups, speedboats, Dallas Cowboys helmets, and Lone Star beer logos. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Three to five weeks. Has made boots for: Country singer Willie Nelson, actor Patrick Duffy.
Stephanie Ferguson Custom Boots
2112 Poe Prairie
The Ohio native-the only female bootmaker in Texas going it alone-understudied at Jack Reed’s place in Burnet, where she developed a flair for flamboyant colors and overlays. Specializes in: Tops with three-dimensional hummingbirds, coconuts, flamingos, parrots, and morning glories. Prices start at: $850. Turnaround time: Six to eight months. Has made boots for: Country singer David Allan Coe.
El Vaquero Boots
722 E. Norman
Ignaclo "Nacho” Martinez, another unsung elder, was part of the team that built boots for President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the dedication ceremony for Falcon Dam, in 1954. After spending most of his career at Raymondville’s now-defunct Rios Boots, he currently works out of his garage with his son, Joe. Specializes in: Flaming-red rose inlays, intricate braided-lace piping, and lizard scallops. Prices start at: $300. Turnaround time: Six to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Armstrongs, Klebergs, Yturrias, and other ranching elites.
Armando’s Boot Company
169 N. Seventh
Abraham Rios once had Raymondville’s biggest shop, serving area ranches like the King Ranch. Today his nephew Armando Duarte Rios puts his 45 years of experience into each and every boot. Specializes in: Fancy inlays and nimble stitching up to ten rows wide. Prices start at: $420. Turnaround time: Eight to ten weeks. Has made boots for: Former governor Mark White; former Speaker of the House Gib Lewis; actors Sean Penn and Peter Coyote; country singer Willie Nelson.
Torres Brothers Boot Company
246 S. Seventh
In 1997 Raul and Frank Torres reopened the longtime business run by their father, Leopoldo Torres, who still consults for his sons on a regular basis. Specializes in: Butterfly stitching and white-alligator boots. Prices start at: $200. Turnaround time: Six to seven weeks. Has made boots for: King Ranch cowboys, Texas Rangers, border patrolmen.
J. L. Mercer and Son Custom Boots
224 S. Chadbourne
J. L. Mercer began working in his daddy’s shop at age eleven. Seventy years later, he sells boots out of a rickety storefront and at rodeos, cutting-horse competitions, and the State Fair. Specializes in: Basic work boots, roper boots, and crepe soles, Prices start at: $450. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Lyndon B. Johnson; former governor Mark White; actors Barry Corbin and Tom Wopat; country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
Rusty Franklin Handmade Boots
15 E. Avenue D
Franklin split off from his venerated grandfather, M. L. Leddy, sixteen years ago and recruited master bootmaker Eugene Lopez from the late Charlie Garrison’s operation in Llano. Specializes in: Stiff tops, school logos, and Texas icons such as the Capitol, the Alamo, mockingbirds, oil derricks, yellow roses, and bluebonnets. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Five to six months. Has made boots for: Actor Tommy Lee Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
M. L. Leddy Boots
2200 W. Beauregard
One of the oldest and largest custombootmaking operations in the state. Specializes in: Old-fashioned high-heel range riders, nuevo-retro cockroach stompers, tool tops, and lace-ups. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singer Trisha Yearwood, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor Paul Newman.
110 Division Avenue
What Lucchese Boots once was to San Antonio, Little’s Boots-established in 1915-is today. Little’s sets the standard for fancy custom boots, which are on display at the state’s best showroom. Specializes in: Expensive, unembellished exotic leathers and intricately detailed art boots, including three-dimensional pinched roses and unique wildflower and leaf patterns. Prices start at: $750. Turnaround time: Three and a half months. Has made boots for: Country singer Reba McEntire, actor Tommy Lee Jones, author Alex Haley.
This boot is one of the most popular styles made by Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The top, also known as the shaft, is the artist’s canvas: Here is where the most detail work is done (although, ironically, if you’re a man, the top stays hidden under your pants legs unless you’re riding or at a cowboy ball). Standard tops are twelve inches high, though custom boots that replicate vintage models of fifty years ago or olderespecially old-timey cowgirl boots called peeweessometimes have tops that are shorter. Luccheses have always had thirteen-inch tops. Yahoos and Buffalo Bill wannabes go for even higher tops, despite their propensity to cause the feet to sweat more in the summer.
When it comes to skins and leathers, the skyand your walletis the limit; the rarer the species, the costlier the material. Calfskin is the basic starter, followed in no particular order by goat, lizard, anteater, shark, kangaroo, quill ostrich, stingray, buffalo, bullfrog, snake (not very durable), bullhide (very durable), elephant (the most durable), and alligator (the most expensive).
The stitching of custom boots is done by hand. Think decorative, not practical: Once upon a time, stitching held the layers of leather together, but today glue mostly does the trick. The more rows of stitching, the finer (and more expensive) the boot. Two rows are standard. Ten rows are awesome.
The vamp is the lower part of the boot, and ideally it’s cut from a single piece of leather. It comes together in a series of steps. First the medallionor bug and wrinkle, so named because it looks like, well, a bug and a wrinkleis stitched onto it. Then it’s sewn to the top, wetted, and stretched over the last. Next, it’s pulled back so the toe box can be inserted. Finally, it’s sculpted and dried.
Pulls, or ear pulls, are the loops sewn into the side of your boots at the top to help you get them on. Over-the-top pulls are standard. Mule ears, which are five to seven inches long, and flush pulls, which sit inside the boot, are fancier. Some boot buyers prefer holes in the top to slip their fingers into.
Inlays are sewn into the top or, less frequently, the vamp. This is the delicate part of the artistic process, sometimes involving microscopic strands and pieces of leather. The more detailed the inlay, the harder the joband the longer it takes. (Overlays, or foxings, are pieces of leather attached to the outside of the top or the vamp; they’re the bootmaking equivalent of hair extensions. They perform the same decorative function as inlays, but they’re susceptible to scuffing or being torn off.)
Piping covers the vertical seam where the tops are stitched together. Typically it’s a single strand, but sometimes it involves more-elaborate braiding.
Your choice of toe reveals what kind of person you are. Rock stars and fashionmongers gravitate to pointy toes, also known as pin box toes, roach stompers, and fence climbers. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re actually the kind grandpa used to wear when he rode horses (the pointy toe makes it easier to stick the boot into the stirrup). The box toealso called the five-eighth toe, since the boxed front is five-eighths of an inch acrossis the most popular version of the pointy toe. (The boot pictured has a three-fourths-inch toe.) Round toes, reflecting more conservative tastes, are preferred by modern ranch folks and professionals who want something to wear with a business suit. The number one round is a modified pointy toe. The number three, also known as a J toe, is the most common of the round-toe styles and is preferred by the button-down crowd. The number four is so round that it can pass for a shoe.
The bottom consists of the insole, the outsole, and the shank cover. The insole is nailed to the bottom of the last before the vamp is stretched. After the vamp is dry, it is stitched to the insole by hand, creating the welt. The nails are pulled from the insole, and the last is removed. Then the outsole is stitched to the welt.
The heel determines height and function. Higher heels make it easier to stay in a stirrup while on horseback, but they’re hard if not hell to walk in (getting around on a two-and-a-half-inch “undershot high narrow rounding heel” is like wobbling on Manolo Blahnik spikes). Most boot wearers prefer a lower, flatter heel, like a one-and-five-eighth-inch “walking wide heel” or a one-and-three-fourth-inch “short contest heel.”
Bootmaker Enrique "Kiki" Velasquez of Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footwear in El Paso. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden.
Alive and Kicking
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
As apparel goes, handmade cowboy boots are one of the last remaining links to our pastand they look sweet on your feet. Here’s where you can find a pair that fits your personal taste, plus everything you ever wanted to know about vamps, stitching, and more.
LIKE SO MUCH ELSE IN Texas these days, apparelthe kind that proudly proclaims our Western heritageain’t what it used to be. Jeans were co-opted 25 years ago, when Gloria Vanderbilt designer-labeled them, and all hope of taking them back is lost now that Wranglers and Levi’s, those icons of the cowboy way, are made out of the country by workers who wouldn’t know a Santa Gertrudis from a milk cow. Cowboy hats? Gimme caps supplanted Stetsons and Hi-Rollers long before Bum Phillips coached the Oilers. Spurs and chaps? Appropriated by the alternative-lifestyle crowd (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Shirts with pearl snaps? Hell, folks are more likely to wear running shorts with the Texas flag on the backside.
Cowboy boots, on the other hand, are inviolable. They’ve been with us forever and still look damn sweet on a pair of feet today. And they don’t have to be Texas feet; anyone who dons a pair (well, the right pair) can pass for a native. Boots directly connect us to our storied pastthey were the footwear favored by the Spanish conquistadores who brought the horse to North America, although there’s still some dispute as to whether the first cowboy boots arrived in Texas from Kansas via the cattle drovers or from northern Mexico by way of the vaqueros. Their shining moment came in the early eighties, when the Urban Cowboy craze transformed them into a pop culture artifact embraced around the world. But by the early nineties, sales were back down and the industry began to consolidate. More recently, venerable Texas bootmakers like Tony Lama and Lucchese have followed jeans makers in shipping some of their manufacturing operations across the border and overseas. Several lines of Justins, once the pride of my hometown of Fort Worth, are today made in Mexico.
This, I would argue, is not necessarily a bad thing. With the decline of the big boys, the small bootmakersthe ones who custom-make them by handare on the rise. Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and even the occasional Mexican wrestler, along with regular folks all across the state, regard made-to-measure boots as one of the last remaining status symbols connected to the Western myth. Mind you, they’re expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a single pair, and assuming you can find someone willing to take you on as a customer, it can be weeks or months before they’re ready to wear. But price and patience have their rewards, because custom boots are more comfortable than a pair of slippers and last for a minimum of ten years. The way I figure it, they’re a far better value than the new pair of $200 Air Jordans you have to buy every yearplus they look cooler and are versatile enough to be worn in the saddle or propped up on your desk.
The place to buy custom boots is Texas, which is home to more than one hundred of the best bootmakers on earththough you’d never know it; most custom bootmakers don’t advertise, as word of mouth brings in all the business they can handle. Aesthetically speaking, their shops are like barbecue joints: The funkier the place, the better the product. Some have a fancy showroom out front, but the actual work is done in environments charitably described as messy, dank, and musty, and the air is redolent with the sweet, mellow aroma of tanned hides. Piles of leather scraps are scattered in every nook and cranny, as are such tools of the trade as awls, hammers, and ancient sewing machines (the model 3115 Singer is particularly revered).
Yes, bootmaking is an art formliterally. Over the past twelve years, custom boots have been the subject of three coffee-table books100 Years of Western Wear, The Cowboy Boot Book, and Art of the Bootby Tyler Beard, a writer and collector of Western memorabilia living in Lampasas, and Jim Arndt, a photographer from that upper Midwestern hub of bootmania, Minneapolis (Arndt also publishes boot calendars). At the moment there are two major boot-themed exhibits in Texas: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, which features the works of Texas’ best modern bootmakers, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, including boots worn by Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.
With an eye to all this, I spent a few weeks traveling around the state this spring, visiting some of the state’s best bootmakers. I was sorry to be reminded that so many of the veterans are no longer with us: Charlie Dunn, of Austin, Ray Jones, of Lampasas, Charlie Garrison, of Llano, Dan Trujillio, of Comanche, Willie Lusk (the only African American to distinguish himself in the trade), of Lubbock, and Genaro Hector Uribe, of San Antonio, the last in a family line that stretched back 150 years to bootmakers who shod soldiers in Emperor Maximilian’s army. Yet I discovered some old masters still at it, such as 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, of Mercedes, 73-year-old Ignacio Martinez, of Raymondville, and 65-year-old James Leddy, of Abilene.
From these and other Michelangelos of leather, I learned that getting the new generation to follow in their bootsteps is no easy task. “I’ve got two sons and a daughter who didn’t go into the boot business but live in nice houses with all the finer things in life,” says seventy-year-old Dave Little, whose family’s boots, hecho en San Antonio since 1915, favorably compare with ones the Luccheses once made in the Alamo City. Thankfully, another of Little’s daughters is getting ready to take over the business. An additional problem is finding good craftsmenthe only dependable talents are Mexican nationals, the occasional Mexican American kid from the border region, and the handful of graduates (never enough) from the bootmaking school at the technical branch of Oklahoma State University, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
Custom bootmakers, I was told, are divided into two camps. Solo operators insist that you can’t turn out really great handmade boots if even two people are involved in the process. Ideally, the person who does the measuring should be the person who makes the last, cuts the patterns, and cuts the leather. “Those four steps are so critical that you’re asking for trouble if more than one person does it,” says Houston bootmaker Dave Wheeler. Shops with two or more bootmakers hoot at Wheeler’s premise, pointing out that specialists who focus on stitching, stretching vamps, or putting together boot bottoms make for a better overall boot. Besides, going it alone is akin to taking a vow of poverty, says Little, who makes the sale, does the measuring, and collaborates on the design but leaves the actual assembly to six workers in the shop out back. “The fellow who makes boots one at a time, from fit to finish, can’t make any money,” he says.
There are regional differences in Texas as well. Small bootmakers who make real cowboy boots for real cowboysdurable footwear that’s nothing fancyare easily found wherever big ranches are nearby, with two significant clusters around Abilene and San Angelo. Custom bootmakers in El Paso, the undisputed Cowboy Boot Capital of the World, tend to be larger operations and focus on sales not to individuals as much as to retailers in Texas and elsewhere, who measure their customers and then send for the boots to be made. Not surprisingly, boots tend to cost more the farther you travel from the border. The least expensive boots are made in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley towns of Mercedes and Raymondville, where many makers were trained in the Mercedes factory of revered bootmaker Zeferino Rios, whose family was in the business for nearly 150 years.
Whatever you pay for them, wherever you get them, get them. This is an industry worth supporting. “It’s not going to die,” insists Lee Miller, of Austin, one of the nation’s finest young bootmakers. (Miller is doing his part: He was taught by Charlie Dunn and eventually took over Dunn’s business, and he is now teaching a Japanese man named Atsuki Sumi, who aims to open up the second custom-made-boot shop in his home country.) “The boot boom may have ended in 1983,” says Scott Emmerich, who co-owns Tres Outlaws bootmakers in El Paso, “but the serious boot buyer has never gone away. It always has been and always will be, because Texas is Texas and Texas is boots.”
A Time to Drill?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here’s what to expect in the next few rounds.
So who threw the first punch in this fight? The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U. S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.
Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island? Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.
Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this? By playing every green group’s favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.
How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club’s concerns? BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.
So how does all of this affect Texans? First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP’s operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there’s a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP’s proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas’ Permanent School Fund. And considering the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.
What happens next? Don’t expect the feds to purchase Padre Island’s oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb’s 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there’s an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn’t typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.
Texas Water Safari: 260 miles of rowing your boat
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 27, 2003
SAN MARCOS – To finish the Texas Water Safari, you have to paddle nonstop in a canoe or kayak for 260 miles from Aquarena Center in San Marcos (where Ralph the Diving Pig once performed) down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the flagpole at Bayfront Park in Seadrift, Texas.The safari, which was run earlier this month for the 41st year, is called "The World’s Toughest Boat Race." That’s justified by the distance; the rules (you must finish in 100 hours, and team captains supplying crews can provide only water and ice); the stamina (visualize sleep deprivation); and physical demands (millions of paddle strokes).
With more than 300 people racing solo or in teams of up to six people, the safari is also the Texas equivalent of climbing Mount Everest en masse.
Those who complete the race talk in glowing terms about the murky hell, riddled with snakes, fire ants and alligators awaiting them. They speak of the "Gnarly 40" – 40 miles of tree-clogged river channel between Staples and Palmetto State Park – as if it were a ride at Schlitterbahn. They wax nostalgic recounting trips down Hallucination Alley, which is wherever you get so tired you start seeing things.
They sure aren’t in it for the money. Complete the race in 100 hours or less, and you get a patch and a plaque. Be the first across the finish line, and a crowd of maybe 60 will be cheering.
Outside the norm
The Parkers of Tyler don’t appear too outside the norm – other than Marvin Parker, 53, and his brother Charles, 50, having matching gray beards long enough to give ZZ Top a run for the razor.
Then Luke, Marvin’s 16-year-old son, breaks into a goofy grin and says it: "We’re crazy."
Luke and Marvin won the parent-child division in 2001, the first year Luke raced. Last year, they were blown out when the legendary Mynars fielded a father-son team.
"It’s mostly mental," Marvin says. "Keep your mind right, and you’ll make it."
"That’s all I heard about it when I was a kid," Luke says. "How people start hallucinating after a while. That got me worried."
Are the stories true? "Well, I saw myself one time on the banks looking at me," Luke says. "That was scary."
"I saw a solid cement wall the first year," volunteers Marvin. "I was thinking if it didn’t go away, we were going over the dam. But it went away."
A few feet from the registration table, two novices, Julie Basham of Coppell and Ann Best of Houston, sort protein powder, coffee crystals, and some strange stuff called Gu. They declare they’re up for the challenge.
"We’re both 40," says Ms. Best, a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. "I’ve always wanted to do the safari. I just needed a victim to do it with me." She found one in Ms. Basham, her kayak class teacher. In the span of a few months, Ms. Basham had divorced, lost her job and lost her father.
"He’s riding with us," says Ms. Basham, reaching into their canoe and fetching a green pill bottle from a Styrofoam holder. "This is Dad – his ashes, actually. I’m going to spread them at Seadrift. Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish."
The two women have paddled 87 miles straight, practicing for the event – long enough for Ms. Best to have seen E.T. going through Hallucination Alley. Two hundred sixty miles is another matter.
Ms. Basham calculates 78 hours to finish.
"Maybe 80," Ms. Best hedges.
"Seventy-eight hours," Ms. Basham says emphatically, splashing bottled water on Ms. Best and soaking her SpongeBob T-shirt.
Adventure in life
Since 1992, save for one year, a Mynar or three have been in the winning boat. The patriarch, Joe Mynar, 55, a stout, steely-eyed truck driver from Kopperl, owns the Texas Water Safari, having racked up 14 wins.
"There’s not much adventure in life these days," he says. "Everything’s pretty much programmed. But for a few days, it’s you, your team, your boat and the river."
This year, Joe’s son, Brian, who lives in Abbott, and Joe’s brother, Fred, who lives in San Marcos, are racing in another boat.
Joe’s crew includes John Dunn, 36, a fire ant researcher and ex-paramedic from Austin who has racked up nine wins paddling with Mr. Mynar, along with Tom Goynes, 52, of San Marcos, a seven-time safari winner, and Bucky Chatham, 60, of Seadrift, a retired shrimper with cancer.
"He had surgery in November and wants to run the safari one more time," Joe Mynar says in a low voice, out of earshot of Mr. Chatham. "We just want to make sure we get him to the finish line."
The last two times a Mynar didn’t win, John Bugge, 52, did. The plumbing contractor from Bryan holds the record for finishing the safari – 25 times. This year, he’s paddling tandem with his granddaughter, Jessica, 9, the youngest entrant in the 2003 race.
Asked to explain why she’s going, the freckle-faced brunette giggles and shrieks, "For fun!" then grabs the hand of her sister, Cecili, 3, and runs off.
"We’ve done the San Marcos River maybe four times and almost all of the Guadalupe," Mr. Bugge says. "She’s practiced running logjams, riding currents, going through stuff in the middle of the night, sleeping, eating and relieving herself. She’s already decided she wants to go solo next year." Before she goes solo, though, they’ll have to finish together this year, he says.
Mr. Bugge’s goal is 55 hours in their 21-foot hybrid boat, if all goes according to plan.
"She doesn’t believe me when I tell her how hard it’s going to be," he says. "But if she finishes, she’ll know more than most adults know."
Donna Bugge, John’s wife, admits some friends think they’re crazy for letting Jessica race. "Then again, they think we’re crazy anyhow," she says.
This year’s celebrity, Ian Adamson, 38, is a professional adventure racer from Sydney, Australia, who’s won the Eco-Challenge four times.
Paddling with his friend West Hansen, 41, a broad-shouldered barn builder from Austin, Mr. Adamson compares the safari to a single leg of an Eco-Challenge. "But this is more intense. To me, this is the best boat race I’ve ever run, starting in a clear freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast. The barbecue at the end of the race certainly is unique."
Mr. Hansen estimates 40 hours. "If we get rain, maybe 38. At least in these conditions, we shouldn’t break the boat in half again."
Nearby, Elmer Haby, 48, inspects his 10-foot Minnow kayak. The Devine resident completed the safari with a partner 18 years ago. Now he’s ready to try it alone. "I’d like to finish under 100 hours," he allows as he lights up a cigarette.
He knows his boat is not made for long distances, and his friends have been second-guessing him, saying things such as, "Are you out of your mind?"
"Probably," he says. "But I won’t know until I try."
John Mark Harras’ blue button-down Oxford shirt, rattlesnake pantyhose and straw cowboy hat stand out in the crowd. He’s a "Cowboy," one of a six-man crew known for its over-the-top behavior. Mr. Harras, 44, of Houston, bubbles enthusiasm as he recounts throwing up during races ("You just keep paddling"), getting a fishhook stuck in his ear, and seeing things in Hallucination Alley.
"I used to race with a woman," Mr. Harras says. "One year, she pointed to the riverbank and said, ‘See that giant priest up there, praying for our sins?’ I looked. It wasn’t a priest. It was a great big Quaker Oats box."
Fred and Brian Mynar and their crew, dressed in matching white hats and white shirts and paddling with military precision, were the first to Seadrift, arriving in the Sunday evening twilight, 36 hours and 15 minutes after departure.
John Mark Harras and his Cowboys were second in 40 hours, 4 minutes. Bucky Chatham came home to Seadrift with Joe Mynar’s crew in 42 hours, 35 minutes.
Jessica and John Bugge made it in 51 hours and 23 minutes. Luke and Marvin Parker clocked in at 61 hours, 43 minutes. Ann Best, Julie Basham and Julie’s father’s ashes finished in 79 hours, 29 minutes. Elmer Haby dropped out before the first checkpoint at Staples Dam, 16 miles from the start.
One racer suffered a snakebite, though he didn’t realize it until 80 miles later. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia sent several to hospitals. A thunderstorm over San Antonio Bay swamped four boats. Sane or insane, most will be back in the safari race for more next year.
Because it’s there.
Songwriter helps lead the fight against development
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 12, 2003
EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.
The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.
The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.
“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”
But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.
The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.
A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.
Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.
Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.
Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.
“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”
Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.
Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”
But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.
“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”
Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.
Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.
“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”
Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.
“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.
Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”
Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.
He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.
He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.
Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.
The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.
The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.
Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.
Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.
That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.
She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.
While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”
Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.
“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”
His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”
The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”