The Only Honest Lake in Texas
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Ron Munden
July 8, 2005 (Volume 97, No. 14)
It looks like a winner has emerged in the struggle for Caddo Lake.
A table full of good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls are having a hoot over lunch at Dawn’s, under the bridge where State Highway 43 crosses the western edge of Caddo Lake. One in the crowd claims he’s been seeing blue UN flags popping up all over the lake, hearing folks speaking Esperanto and Ebonics, and observing some lake people engaging in secret handshakesall sure signs the United Nations has taken over Caddo Lake.
"That’ll give the general heart palpitations," one big bubba cackles.
The "general" is retired General Vernon Lewis, the lake resident who co-sponsored a resolution along with Ed Smith, the mayor of nearby Marshall, in the 2004 Texas Republican Party platform condemning the Caddo Lake Institute and, through the institute, its president Dwight Shellman and its cofounder and chief financier Don Henley for aligning with the United Nations.
There it is, Article 10 under Environment, Property Ownership, and Natural Resources: "We oppose conservation easements on our natural resources administered by organizations unaccountable to taxpayers and voters. For example, the efforts of the Caddo Lake Institute to act as a surrogate for the UN in gaining control of water rights of Caddo Lake."
The dig was directed at the institute for its role in having Caddo Lake recognized as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (www.ramsar.org) in 1993. Caddo is one of 19 wetland sites in the United States and the only one in Texas to get the designation. The problem with the Republicans’ proclamation is that Ramsar is not a United Nations convention, nor does the "important wetland" designation have squat to do with landowners’ sovereignty rights. (At least the Caddo Lake Institute was in good company. The Texas Republican party platform also opposed affirmative action, statehood for the District of Columbia, the Kyoto Protocol, the Biodiversity Treaty, and buying land for endangered species, while supporting the "rule of capture" of groundwater and abolishment of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.)
On March 24, 2004, several months prior to the platform adoption, Lewis and Smith spoke at an emergency townhall meeting of the Tarrant County Republican Assembly in Fort Worth on "Seven Flags Over Texas (The UN Is the Seventh Flag)." The announcement for the emergency meeting asks, "Why Is the UN in Texas? Why Do They Want Texas Water? Come Here [sic] about the California-ization of Texas and About the Republicans That Are Helping the Wrong Side."
Robby Speight, a burly character sitting at the lunch table at Dawn’s who is president of the Greater Caddo Lake Association, recalls meeting a State Department official at a national lake conference a year ago. The official told him they had a name for people who get their dander up about the United Nations’ support of the Ramsar Convention and are forever paranoid about the world body’s imminent invasion: "the black helicopter crowd." The State Department official allowed that the case of the retired general and Mayor Smith successfully lobbying to get it written into the Texas Republican Party platform was a little more extreme than usual. Obviously, the State Department official doesn’t know Texas.
The lunch crowd at Dawn’s is laughing because, for all the ongoing battles between the lake people and the city of Marshall over water rights to Caddo and the fulminations from the black helicopter crowd, the war on Caddo Lake is over. Battles are still being fought and skirmishes are forever, but when all is said and done, the good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls who live and work on the lake won, and they know it.
Although a last minute state court ruling or political intervention is never out of the question, Caddo Lake as an untapped source for water hustlers is off the table. The water right to 40,000 acre feet that the Army had but never fully utilized when it oversaw an ammunitions plant by the lake, which politicians from the city of Marshall also coveted to sell to an industrial user, is being handed off to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the overseer of the national wildlife refuge being created on the site of the ammo plant, and the Fish & Wildlife Service’s interest in water marketing is less than zero.
Caddo Lake is unlike any other lake in the state. It’s the only lake with an honest history because it is the only honest lake in Texas, having formed naturally sometime during the 19th century. It’s the only Texas lake with its own body of literature, including Love Is A Wild Assault by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland, the twisted, true-to-life romance novel based on the life of Harriet Moore, aka Harriet the Brave and Beautiful and Kishi Woman of Caddo Lake; Caddo Was A Short History of Caddo Lake by Fred Dahmer, the definitive Caddo Lake book; Every Sun That Rises, stories told by Wyatt Moore, another lake sage who was a boatman, fisherman, guide, trapper, raftsman, moonshiner, and roughneck as well as a gifted storyteller; and Jacques D. Bagur’s recent A History of Navigation on Cypress Bayou and the Lakes, the extensively researched history of boat traffic that has debunked several myths about the lake.
Fine as books may be, full appreciation of Caddo Lake is a two-step program. First, one must reach back in the mind’s eye, beyond the printed word, beyond the Great Raft jam on the Red River (most often cited for forming the lake out of the Big Cypress Bayou in the early 1800s), beyond the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, also attributed as the source, and even before to the Caddo Indians and their legend of the chief who had a vision and told his people to move to higher ground in advance of a deadly wall of water that covered their village overnight. Going to Caddo is going all the way back to the beginning of time, when the towering bald cypressTexas’ own redwoodswere common all over the Earth, not just in the few selected nooks and crannies like Caddo Lake where they persist today, bearing witness to the primordial soup that spawned all life.
Next, spray yourself down for mosquitoes, chiggers, and other bugs, walk out on the dock in the back of the cabin you’ve rented, and take it all in. The foreground is defined by a coating of duckweed floating on the water in a surreal electric lime-green swirl. The background is dominated by a wall of bald cypress soaring skyward. In between, herons and cranes pick their way through the muck to stab and grab a small crappie or some other object of desire while a red-shouldered hawk and a green heron play out a quiet drama as the hawk swoops out of high branches of its tree to hassle the heron for infringing on its space by perching on a branch too close. The give-and-take is accompanied by a noisy soundtrack of bullfrogs burping out percussive bass lines to rhythmic ensembles of locusts, cicadas, and crickets buzzing, clicking, and whirring.
Part swamp and consisting of a series of lakes of varying size, shape, and depth, Caddo Lake is roughly 23 miles long and covers 40,000 acres in high water, making it the second biggest natural lake in the South and easily one of the most inspiring, which explains the Ramsar recognition.
Caddo is almost as significant for what it is not: no condos, no high rises, no chain motels or restaurants, no resorts, no gated, planned communities, no margarita bars, no chains, no pretension, none of the trappings of modern Texas Lake Culture. Cell phone service here is as spotty as it is in Big Bend. The Big Bend comparison is intentional. Caddo Lake may be in northeast Texas and relatively close to urban centers in all directions, but for those who get Caddo, it is a natural jewel just as worthy of protection.
Still, it should not be confused for pristine. A lot of bad things have happened here. Almost all the virgin timber was gone more than a century ago. Dam building upstream and downstream along Cypress Creek all but eliminated floods, which rob the riparian forest of much of the soup of rich nutrients deposited on the topsoil in high water. The lake is downwind of several electricity-generating plants powered by cheap but dirty-burning lignite coal containing mercury. Texas Tech toxicology scientist Thomas Rainwater discovered the highest concentration of mercury ever found in a snake while studying a cottonmouth rattlesnake from Caddo Lake. Consumers are warned to eat no more than 8 ounces of bass or drum from the lake per month due to high levels of contaminants. The presence in the water supply of pharmaceuticals from the chicken processing industry is becoming a concern. The highest level of acid rain west of the Mississippi River has been recorded here. And the City of Marshall still wants to utilize part of its right to draw 16,000 acre feet of water a year just upstream of Caddo to attract an industrial user.
Many of those problems aren’t going away soon. It will take time, money, and community consensus to fix them.
This story was originally going to be about Don Henley, Dwight Shellman, and the Caddo Lake Institute they founded together and how the Texas Republican Party came to hate them. Henley is the East Texas musician who spent some of the millions he’s earned with the Eagles, one of the most popular bands of all time, to save Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Henley founded the Walden Woods project, which raised $17 million to protect Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond from development, before turning his sights on his own Walden, Caddo Lake, about 25 miles from Linden, the town where he grew up. In 1993, Henley enlisted Shellman, an attorney and his neighbor in Aspen, Colorado, where he keeps a vacation home, to co-found the Caddo Lake Institute (CLI). Shellman moved part-time to Uncertain, pop. 194, the largest community on the lake and, as president and general counsel for the institute, began showing locals how to use science, education, and the courts to protect the lake and their property.
This story was also going to be about the vendetta waged by retired General Vernon Lewis, the former head of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which is responsible for maintaining the lake’s boat roads, against Shellman and the CLI. Lewis’ field of battle has largely been the op-ed page of the weekly newspaper he co-publishes, the Lone Star Eagle. When asked about his dispute with Shellman, General Lewis is blunt. "He’s going to go away someday, and when he goes away, this Caddo Lake Institute is going to go away. This is a one-man show and it is all about money and environmental power. They don’t give a shit about Caddo lake."
Shellman’s sin was to organize various lake interests and challenge the political status quo. The Caddo Lake Institute’s initial emphasis was on science, research, and school partnerships to define exactly what the lake is. Much of that accumulated data has been put to use. Shellman raised the question of the consequences for the lake if Marshall utilized its full right to 16,000 acre feet of water taken from just upstream of the lake. Caddo Lake interests protested a proposed power plant for American Electric Power that was eventually sited elsewhere. The institute applied for an in-flow water right for the lake and the Cypress Basin. Several lake residents sued power plants in East Texas for emissions causing mercury contamination. When Marshall tried to switch its water right permit from municipal to industrial use, Shellman litigated the city’s ability to do so without a contested hearing all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. (The case was heard in October 2004. At press time, a decision is still pending.)
But Shellman, who is stepping down at the Caddo Lake Institute at the end of the summer, isn’t the story. Neither is the retired general. The longer one lingers on the lake, the clearer it becomes that it’s the people in between who will determine the lake’s future.
Shellman is an Aspen lawyer. Paul Fortune grew up on Caddo Lake in a one-room shack on Pine Island Road on Big Cypress Bayou that his family moved into in 1953 following a house fire. "We had no running water; we had no indoor plumbing," he says, but he did learn a lot about fishing and hunting and paddling. "I’m not very educated," he says. "I graduated high school in a class of 12 and I wasn’t in the top 10. Caddo Lake has been my bread and butter. There’s no other place like it."
A clean-cut, spine-erect go-getter, he followed his father in getting a job at the Lone Star Ammunition Plant, which opened in 1944 and employed as many as 2,400 workers until it ceased operations in 1995. Fortune left the plant in 1980 but never really left the lake, where he builds houses and serves as vice-president of the 700-member Greater Caddo Lake Association. Lately, he’s been hanging around the administration building of the ammo plant again, this time to help transform the property from a $44-million Superfund cleanup site to the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,500-acre symbol of the lake’s future.
"The first time I met Dwight Shellman was six years ago with a group of local people," Fortune remembers as he shows me around the old administration building, where the refuge will be headquartered and the Caddo Lake Institute will lease offices. "We were told this might be a wildlife refuge if the community wanted it. Don Henley had the connections, but Dwight said Don didn’t want to waste his time and money if the local people don’t want it." Fortune and nine others were flown to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, courtesy of Henley, and were sold on the idea.
"We had heard of other usesa prison, a chicken processing plant, industrial park," he says. "All of that sounded good for the local economy, but they weren’t compatible with Caddo Lake right here." Fortune credits Shellman for being "so durn persistent" in making the refuge a reality and recognizes that Shellman’s work is almost done.
"For years, Dwight’s been retiring. He’s like my fatherhe can’t quit. But I think Dwight realizes somebody needs to take the helm, if there is somebody. He wants to find that person to do it. To my knowledge, he hasn’t found that person yet."
Shellman could do worse than Fortune. He’s one of several lake people I encountered who are passionate about the lake and projects like the refuge, where planning for public access is underway, including wildlife observation areas for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. There’s hope the refuge’s infrastructure will siphon off some of the $1.2 billion birding and wildlife observation brings into the Texas economy annually, most of it currently being spent along the coast and in the Rio Grande Valley.
Fortune gets almost gaga talking about Harrison Bayou Bottoms, 1,400 acres tucked back in the wildlife refuge that is a rare slice of old-growth hardwood river bottom. The acreage was initially leased from the Army by the Caddo Lake Institute before it was integrated into the national wildlife refuge. "I would like to see a boardwalk into a portion of where it is totally undisturbed, but where people can view this," Fortune says. "Man has altered Caddo Lake something fierce. Places like Harrison Bayou Bottom prove it’s still a salvageable lake."
The refuge purchase complements more than 8,000 acres on the north side of the lake, designated a state wildlife management area in 1992 through land buys by the Texas Nature Conservancy, and the 800-acre Caddo Lake State Park on the other side of the town of Karnack, effectively blocking major development along Caddo’s shoreline.
Tom Walker, the mild-mannered, fifth-generation local, part-time librarian, pro-life Christian, and vacation Bible school teacher who introduced me to Paul Fortune, is the e-mail version of Paul Revere on Caddo Lake, the communicator who keeps a long mailing list apprised of affairs that affect the lake. He’s also a birder, so when I find a wren chick on the front stoop of the cabin where I’m staying, I know to take it to Walker, who conducts bird-banding sessions on his family homestead. A day later, he’s sending photo updates via e-mail.
Walker lives at the family homestead near the lake, where I nibble fat blueberries out of his garden and listen to him bang out three ragtime-influenced compositions about alligators, herons, raccoons, and Caddo Lake on a dusty upright piano before going for a drive along the north shore of Caddo. We’re looking for Buddy Man Andrews, the 85-year-old African-American wise man of the lake, but Buddy Man isn’t home, so we meander over to Goat Island while Walker calls out birds by sound and sightdowny woodpecker, Acadian flycatcher, northern cardinal, summer tanager, juvenile little blue heron, blue jays, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, blue-gray gnat-catcher, pine warbler, eastern phoebe, mockingbird, mourning dove, little egret.
During the drive, his family history rolls out. William P. Watson settled the homestead in the 1850s when he arrived from North Carolina and married Walker’s great-great grandmother. Watson’s father-in-law, Ward Taylor, founded the daily Jefferson Jimplecute in 1848. Watson’s daughter, Molly, married Andrew Jackson Carter, for whom Carter’s Lake, part of Caddo Lake, is named. The county road leading to his house is named after his father, Boots Walker.
We also talk about Christians and the environment. Walker is flustered that evangelicals flail against concepts such as minimal flows and conservation easements. "Those people think man’s dominion over the world means exploiting it," he says. "Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden to take care of it. Noah had a responsibility to care for the animals."
We drive to Jefferson, pop. 2,912, 14 miles west of the lake and the most perfectly restored small town in Texas I’ve ever visited. Once the major steamboat port-of-entry where thousands of new arrivals first set foot on Texas soil, the one-time boomtown spent most of the 20th century as a ghost town thanks to the advent of railroads and highways, but it was rediscovered in time to save most of the historic structures and reinvent the eight-block downtown by the waterfront into a pedestrian-friendly tourism magnet that is packed most weekends with visitors from Dallas, Houston, and beyond.
Walker introduces Dr. Carroll Harrell, the program director of the Jeffersonian Institute, the town’s equivalent of the Caddo Lake Institute, who breathlessly informs us Richard Subia, the great-great-great grandson of the last Caddo chief, is coming to the institute the next day to speak. Harrell’s doctoral dissertation focused on the populations living in Marion County, including the Caddo, who she says maintained a strong presence around the lake even after Chief Tarshar signed a treaty with the white man in 1835 and most of the tribe moved to the Brazos River and later to a reservation in Oklahoma. "They were in a swamp, so nobody knew they were there anyway," she explains. "When [white] settlers moved in, there was a blending together." The Caddo word tejas, from which Texas was derived, means "friend." The Caddo word for African-Americans translates as "kin."
Dr. Harrell knows a few things about the region’s history. "Jay Gould is a myth," she says dismissively of the robber baron who is said to have placed a curse on Jefferson when the town would not accommodate his railroad. And while it’s true that Howard Hughes’ father developed the world’s first offshore oil rig on the lake in 1917, the lake’s permanent weir dam in Mooringsport, Louisiana, wasn’t constructed for that purpose; it had already been in place for several years. And, no, Harrell insists, the Jeffersonian Institute is not just about preservation. "Our challenge at the institute is how do we create a sustainable economy utilizing the history, the culture, and the environment with education as the driver?"
The Jeffersonian Institute’s driver is Jesse M. (Duke) DeWare, who wears many hats around townCity of Jefferson Attorney; Cypress Valley Alliance President; Jeffersonian Institute President; and director of the Marion County Industrial Foundation. After attending the Citadel and law school, he came home and broke into the cabal who ran Jefferson. DeWare purchased the last forest fire lookout tower in Marion County from the Texas Forest Service and reassembled it in downtown Jefferson as a historical artifact while adding a cell phone tower and a WiFi tower on top. He’s been involved with the Army Corps of Engineers in an environmental restoration of the waterfront that will include an amphitheater, walking trails and boardwalks, and an outdoor education component to educate students about wetlands. He’s also promoting nature tourism as a means to link together Jefferson and Caddo Lake in order to bring visitors to the region, rather than to a specific town.
"Here, we believe in economic development," he says with the certainty of one who’s figured it out. "A big key to that is preserving your environment. It goes hand in hand. There is no conflict. You preserve your environment; you will have sustainable economic development. We want to embrace it in every way we can. We want to attract people here to protect it. People we’ve grown up with don’t realize those assets; it’s no big deal. The people moving in are choosing it."
In other words, Jefferson gets it, just like Austin gets it, Terlingua and Marathon get it, and Port Aransas gets it. Towns and cities in close proximity to parks and open space can make money off their location, as has happened to places like Moab, Utah; Bishop, California; and Port Angeles, Washington.
"My biggest challenge is to reinvent the community to keep up with everywhere else," DeWare says. "We want to be the most well-preserved city in Texas, but we also want to be a 21st-century pedestrian community with global technology. There are people who can live anywhere in the world as long as they can communicate. If they can’t communicate like they want to, you’re not going to get those people."
As lush as the lake appears to be to a visitor’s eye, locals point out that, like most of Texas, it is in the throes of drought. "It’s almost down to the top of the spillway," Robby Speight says during a slow cruise around the lake. "If Marshall was pulling its full water right, you’d feel a reverse current," he says. He points out another threat to the lake’s health. "See that purple flower? That’s a hyacinth. It sucks the oxygen out of the water, and fish don’t live underneath it." The Greater Caddo Lake Association is starting their own hyacinth suppression program to augment state efforts. After Speight attended the Flows Conference in Karnack organized by the Caddo Lake Institute in May, he came away supporting a study of controlled flooding of the lake to mimic nature. "They’re not seeing any new growth of cypress," he says, "so scientists are looking at manipulating the flow.
"For a long time, I took this for granted," Speight smiles as he surveys the water around him. "Now, I don’t."
At their next state convention, Texas Republicans might consider calling for the eradication of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The most sought-after bird in North America, thought to be extinct, was last spotted around Caddo Lake in the 1930s. This spring, the first sighting of an ivory-billed in 60 years was confirmed in the Big Woods of southeastern Arkansas, a similarly wooded swampland about 200 miles from Caddo Lakeclose enough, as the bird flies, to make plausible an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting around Caddo Lake. If that happens, they’ll have to build walls around the lake to keep birders out.
Dwight Shellman finally weighed in via e-mail after I’d returned from Caddo. He confirmed he’s leaving as the institute’s chief administrator in September although he says he may take on special projects "until the institutional transaction is accomplished to my and Don’s satisfaction."
The lake people are now armed with the knowledge needed for community stewardship of the lake and its watershed, and to address issues such as mercury contamination, minimal flows, how to work with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, water districts, and academics, and how to train local people to protect their lake and wetlands.
The National Wildlife Refuge designation is clearly a point of pride. Shellman wrote, "CLI worked for years with the decontamination effort to learn its dimensions, and then used that information to create very difficult technical GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mappingto identify the 7,200 (7/8ths) uncontaminated acres that were ready for immediate refuge purposes and the 1,000 other acres to be taken into the Refugewhen cleaned of contaminants. We then facilitated the transition of that transfer with several federal and state agencies and the community and built them into a team rather than competitors.
"None of this would be possible without Don’s unswerving loyalty to this place and willingness to raise money when the chips are down. He makes locals confident that they will be able to defend; it may also help careless or potential spoilers to be more careful about listening, learning and trying to join our conservation efforts rather than fighting them. There is usually scientific common ground to meet on, with everyone who is prepared and flexible."
This puts Shellman in an uncomfortable position. "I love the place and the people I have come to know so well in 14 years of work and living there," he wrote. "I am torn as to whether I need to get out of the way and be absent so successors can make the program their own, or continue to live there. Living there requires me to learn to keep my opinions to myselfa trait I am not celebrated for. So, it’s not clear I will leaveor just put some burdens down or pass them on to new creative people and stay."
Whatever he does, the lake will still be here, and so will the lake people who have learned to love and fight for Caddo Lake as passionately as Henry David Thoreau felt about his beloved Walden Pond.
Water Foul When the City of Marshall wanted to pump millions of gallons of water out of Caddo Lake and sell them to the highest bidder, the state said, “Sure.” Residents of Karnack, Uncertain, and other tiny northeast Texas towns said, “Hell, no.”
Katrina Mississippi Coast Report
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
posted September 8, 2005
See also – KATRINA PHOTOS
Listen – NPR’s Day to Day (Sept. 12, 2005) "Weathering Katrina at the Log Cabin Bar". Reporter Joe Nick Patoski relates the story of a group of people who holed up in a Mississippi bar to ride out Hurricane Katrina, and then had to make a harrowing escape through the roof and across two makeshift gangplanks to safety at the height of the storm.
Here’s some of the raw reporting I did from the Mississippi coast.
When I got the call Wednesday, I agreed to help cover the hurricane with the stipulation I go to Mississippi. I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR the day before and a caller who had a relative in Waveland complained she’d heard zero coverage about the area, which was in Katrina’s bulls-eye.
Jackson, 160 miles inland, was still reeling from the effects Weds night. Power was out in most place, there was a boil water alert and gas stations were all closed. I’m glad the guy at the rental car agency at the airport recommended I buy a full tank of gas now. The Hilton was full with an exceptional number of guests with dogs, walking them outside in the bushes, around the hallways, and in the elevators.
US 49 from Hattiesburg to the coast was officially closed Thursday morning but I went anyhow, arriving in Hattiesburg only a few hours after the road opened. I drove around Hattiesburg and the damage was as severe as any coastal town I’d seen, even though Hattiesburg is 60 miles inland. Power was out, poles knocked down, property damage severe. Three gas stations had just opened with lines several miles long and highway patrol guarding the stations. I awaited at one station with a short line until I heard that the scheduled fuel delivery was just a rumor.I backtracked to a station where I only had to wait an hour and a half to buy the $20 maximum–eight gallons at $2.49. The pump attendant said he’d waited 5 hours in line that morning and paid $3.99 a gallon. Folks were calm but there was tension in the air. An armed security guard manned the store’s door, allowing only a few folks in at a time. I heard one lady behind the counter say they were about to run out of gas.
Although US 49 was open, there were still trees and power lines on the pavement I had to dodge. The only other vehicles headed south were power company caravans, fire trucks, police, search and rescue teams.
I drove straight to Biloxi to chase a story, the amount of debris and damage growing more intense by the mile, winding around boats in the road, more power lines, trash piles until I reached Mary L Micheal Seventh Grade School which had become a refugee center. The new residents were largely African-American with a strong Vietnamese-American contingent tied to Biloxi’s shrimp fleet and a smattering of Anglo-Americans. Everyone had already staked out a spot to sleep on the hallway floor with huge fans powered by generators blowing a hot, humid breeze down the hall.
No one complained, although no one seemed to know what to do either. Everyone was waiting, and when approached by a stranger were eager to share their personal story of surviving the hurricane and the unprecedented storm surge that came with it. Media and FEMA officials were nowhere in sight. I had to use the rest room which was already overflowing with since there was no water pressure, much less water. These were truly the dispossessed.
Yet no one complained loudly, no one lost their cool.
I spent two nights on the floor of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, which had become the emergency management center for the county, finding a spot the first night behind the dais where the Board of Supervisors normally make county decisions. No one seemed to mind. We slept where we could. The funeral home around the corner became the county’s coroner center. Out front in the street, several tractor-trailer trucks idled. Each was full of bodies.
For two days, I took Navy baths with hand wipes. I was glad to get a burger or cheese sandwich from the relief workers who’d come in from Outback Steakhouses in the Texas. I was happy to drink hot coffee, nevermind powdered creamer wasn’t on the menu.. Cell service was spotty, on for a few hours, then off indefinitely, which is why I couldn’t find my shooter, Marc Asnin, the first day. Instead of sticking around Gulfport, he drove 150 miles each night to Pensacola, Florida, where gas was plentiful and the late summer crowds were focused on the beach, not disaster.
Communications, on which we are so reliant in our profession, was next to non-existent. I tried to remember how journalism was done in the old days, before computers, cell phones, and modems.
At one point, I had to borrow a satellite phone from a reporter from the Baltimore Sun to let the bureau know I was OK. No cell service, no internet, having to calculate decisions based on using as little fuel as possible became the norm. Marc was a real pro when we finally did hook up. He’d taken cover under a truck with a fireman when the first tower of the World Trade Center imploded on 9/11. That was bad, he said. This was worse. Especially when we got to where the eye of the hurricane came ashore around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Lakeshore, just east of the Louisiana line. There, the shock had yet to wear off five days after the fact. While recovery efforts seemed to be making an impact in Gulfport and Biloxi, help was arriving painfully slow in these towns on the western Mississippi coast.
To the person, everyone I approached was glad to talk. Mississippi folks are born storytellers–that’s why there’s such a deep tradition of bluesmen and writers–and every one had quite a story to tell.
The smells are still sharp in my mind. The dead leaves around the courthouse that lent a scent of fall to the scene early in the morning, when the search and rescue teams were preparing to leave. Too often though, the smells were foul, so rotten and vomit-inducing that it transcended sewage and rot. This was far more severe. Marc’s assistant summed it up as we followed some Army engineers clearing a debris strewn street in Waveland as we tiptoed around black muck that stuck to our boots. "That’s the stench of death." He was right.
The resilience of the people gave me hope, considering most had lost everything. Call them crazy, stupid, or ignorant, but these Mississippians have such a strong sense of place, they’re not about to leave. This is their home. At least here, they’re not strangers.
Marc made sure I got back to the real world by giving me five gallons of gas from several cans he’d bought before coming to Mississippi. On the way out Saturday night, Hattiesburg seemed almost civilized, despite the obvious damage. Jackson was a veritable shining city on the hill, a modicum of progress, although what few gas stations were open had long lines and patrolmen just like down south. Every hotel room was booked. I got the next to the last room in Canton, 20 miles up the road. I made it out but what I saw and reported was still with me. The story was following me. The man checking into the hotel ahead of me had driven up from Pearlington, where I had been that day. He cussed FEMA, complaining his town wasn’t even on their disaster map, and no official had shown their face. He told his own story about using a pickaxe to break out of his attic and escape to his roof in order to survive. Like most everyone else, he lost most of his property. But he still had a plenty of heart.
Katrina may have wrecked havoc from Mobile to New Orleans, but nowhere was the destruction so thorough as the remote towns of the western Mississippi coast. While rebuilding efforts were well underway in Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans five days after the storm blew in, the residents of Hancock County including the small towns of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pearlington where the eye of the hurricane passed overhead were still in a state of shock. This once-pastoral landscape of lowlands, bays, estuaries, and Piney Woods was clearly ground zero, as if God dumped a box of wooden matches in the sand. No manmade structure escaped damage.
Cars littered the roadside. Boats were tilted in parking lots. Houses were crushed, twisted, and ripped apart. Pine trees were snapped in two and lifted whole out of the ground, their rootballs intact.
Help was coming, but in a slow trickle at best, and the frustration was mounting. At a press conference in a courtroom of the Hancock County Courthouse, which had become the area’s Emergency Operations Center, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre (yes, he’s a cousin of Brett Favre) told a press conference attended by three local reporters that he understood people breaking into stores and businesses if they needed food, water, or medical supplies. "We have had situations were people have broken into businesses for reasons of survival. I understand that, but not if they’re carrying out televisions or jewelry. Do not go in people’s houses. That will not be tolerated by neither the homeowner nor the officials." One proprietor of a convenience store in Bay Shores was literally giving his store away. As one refugee from Pearlington told me at a motel in Canton, almost two hundred miles north of the coast, "We weren’t even on FEMA’s map."
Any survivors in southern Hancock County who managed to ride out the storm and live had a harrowing personal story to tell.
More Eddie Favre at the press conference attended by three local media people: "Most of our people don’t have transportation and the ability to get there [to shelters]" Favre admitted frustration with the federal government’s reaction. "I don’t think anyone can be satisfied with the response."
But he praised the locals. "We have have had so many people who have lost everything and they still want to help. Our people are taking care of ourselves and taking care of our neighbors."
Desperation had grown to the point that Favre had to issue a health advisory. "Some people are using the bay to clean up. We recommend do not use the bay. The bay is contaminated."
More Favre: "It has totally destroyed any economy we had." Still, he projected optimism. "People may have lost a house, but they still have a home. People will rebuild. There’s going to have to be some things done that have never done before."
"We’re still missing people."We’ve had rumors martial law has been declared. That’s not the case. We still have strict law enforcement to protect people who are still here. The next rumor is we’ll have mandatory evacuation. There is no mandatory evacuation. But we do ask if people can leave, they should do so. Give us a few days, we’ll have water running."
"There are areas along the beachfront where there are no longer houses. The bayous are silted in. We’re not looking for airconditioning or things that make life easier. We’re looking for barebones essentials. None of us have gone through anything like this.
Hancock County EMA director Brian "Hootie" Adam: "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
For the first two days, "WQRZ-LP, 103.5 FM, The voice of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead and the Kiln" was the only communications link to the outside world, hunkered down in the cinderblock building housing the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. The 100 watt low power FM community station, normally solar-powered, is the brainchild of Brice L. Phillips, 39, a skinny disabled ham radio operator (KB5MPW) on social security, who built the station two years ago in anticipation of a disaster like this, and his girlfriend, Christine Stach, 34, who has MS and constantly clutches their dog, who is the station’s program director.
The station, owned and licensed to Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, serves 17,460 households and more 39,000 individuals along the western Mississippi shore, previously operated at his house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. When he saw the hurricane was headed towards Mississippi on Sunday evening, he climbed the 130 ft tower above his house to remove transmitters and moved the station’s equipment to the courthouse on Highway 90. "I knew we had to come here," Phillips said. The station was off the air for four hours.
"We were back up on the air by five [pm], the night before the storm hit. We stayed on and then we got knocked out about two in the morning when we had that tornado warning before the eye of the hurricane [hit the shore]. We have the only emergency alert system here. That was the important part, to keep it up. That’s why we built the station. We had to temporarily move down here. I brought one of the four antennas from the tower [on the roof of his house], unmounted it, put it up here. We had great SWR [Don’t know radio lingo] because we have the four changers that run on DC power. We have a laptop that controls them and all of our announcements are on it so we were able to put messages on it. The Emergency Alert System was able to run because we’re the first warning for emergency alert.
During the hurricane, Phillips said, "We were broadcasting New Age music during the hurricane, like Enya, a little bit of light folk, a little bit of light rock. So it calms people down. That was the broadcast. Then we brought the amateur equipment, all the ham rigs, too. We didn’t get that communications system set up until the following day [Tuesday] right after the storm.
"We had six repeaters here. They all went down. Harrison County has one radio repeater, we’re still on it. We came online. We were adding antenna after antenna after antenna. For the first two days it was nothing but antenna building. Then once one system got in, we had help from volunteers who came in. It was kind of rough.
"We do all the public bulletins–where food can be found, points of distribution for food, water and ice, shelters, advisories, public notices–‘Don’t drink the water, folks’, if you’re lucky enough to have it. We haven’t had any water here.
"We’re a 501 ( C ) corporation [non profit station], Hancock County Amateur Radio owns the license. WQRZ stands for Who Is Calling Me? in amateur radio lingo. That’s why we chose those call letters.
"The day after, the guy from the only Radio Shack around here wandered in. Of course I have extensive doings with the local Radio Shack store. They had 12 foot of water in that store, in Waveland. He came in. I was so happy to see this guy. I said, ‘I’m commandeering your store.’ We were short on coax-Ns, other things. He told me, ‘Yeah, you can have anything in the store."
"Right now we just finished recording that press conference, 47 minutes. We’ll run it again this evening, run it again tomorrow until another one comes out.
He doesn’t know if he and Christine still have a place to live. He shakes his head and holds back for a second, then says, "Somebody came in yesterday and said it lifted off the stilts it was on and set back down and piles went through the house. There’s 30 ft. of tower left.
"Come look at my van outside [in the parking lot of the courthouse]. We had bad luck. That’s my van." The roof is completed sheared off. The wind flipped the top off and tossed it, "This is what I drove down here with all the stuff [equipment including the antenna beams]. This is my car [a gray ’96 Ford Crown Victoria that was a gift from another ham radio operator]. The water came up and then it caught on fire. I almost killed Killer [his dog] because killer was in the car. We had to get him out. The water rising under the dash started the fire. Christine was freaking out, she went into an MS attack because of the dog. She thought it was dead."
"The water was this deep [waist-high] by the house when we tried to get out of there, about six o’clock that evening. The station was already online here, rolling. I went back to the house to get the van and all the supplies six o’ clock Sunday evening.
"I got all my clothes. Christine didn’t get all her clothes. I have food for a couple days and basically all the radio supplies because you can’t do anything if you don’t have communications." I had to run all these wires and put the antenna up.
Did you feel safe in the emergency center? "It was not cool. Water started coming in the door, three or four feet deep. That’s our safe room. It went under." The roof started coming off the building.
The National Guard and FEMA pulled out, Phillips said, declaring "this building is no longer safe." The only ones remaining were locals.
"We numbered ourselves," Christine Stach says, showing a number scrawled in black ink on her wrist. In case they drowned, recovery teams could ID who the victims were. "Everybody lined up in the room before the water came up and we numbered ourselves," Brice said.
Brice: "Water was coming in and we were in the safe room and the eye of the storm was here. We had no electric. We didn’t have any batteries inside. It wasn’t until the next day we started bringing batteries in and established communications and got our transmitter back up. I tried for a day and a half to turn the wattage up in the transmitter but there was water in the coax where the antenna is."
"He predicted this years and years ago," said Al Showers, 42 the local reporter for WLOX-TV Channel 13 in Biloxi ["I used to have a house near the beach on Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis"] "He definitely saved the day. For the first 48 hours he was Hancock County’s only link to the outside world, the only communications whatsoever. He was it. He works on my computers and scanners and told me, ‘One of these days, we’re going to have a hurricane and I’m going to be the only one with communications. It came to pass because of his ham set up. He stayed up around the clock, doing this. My station was broadcasting, ‘We haven’t heard from our reporter. Anybody, please. We were able to talk with my station through the Civil Defense in Harrison County. That’s the only way they knew their reporter was alive and well, because of Brice’s setup. As soon as Civil Defense activated, he was broadcasting and never left the air."
"He saved the day," said Kenny Daniel, a bald headed ham operator (KD5KWS), 38, who is an MP in the 115th Company of the National Guard in Brandon (sp?), MS ( who came from Jackson Sunday before Katrina hit to help at the station.
[Daniel shows one of the messages the station has received to carry to the outside world: It’s to Sister Claudia Murphy, St Catherine Village, Madison Mississippi, (601-856-9023) It reads: "Pray, know that Rod, Dot, Margaret, and George are okay. We lost Nan, God rest her soul. Pearlington was leveled. Jane and I were in deep water for hours. Rod had lots of water too, haven’t talked with him but we heard. Devastation is surreal. Love you very much. Will call as soon as I can. Pray, Pray, Pray. Love, (signed Jan Murphy, Madison Parish, La Salle St. Tallulah, LA)]
WQRX 103.5 FM 463-1035 http://baystlouis-ms.com/wqrz.htm
From Friday’s New York Times: "On Thursday afternoon, Horace Hodges, another temporary tenant, made the rounds, carrying two buckets and offering to fetch water from a murky, puce-colored swimming pool to fill people’s toilet tanks. In the parking lot, a wharf rat the size of a small dog scurried underfoot as Howard O’Gwin Jr., who was living in one room with nine other family members, two dogs and a bird, unloaded bottled water from a shopping cart."
Here’s the rest of the story:
The parking lot of the Coast Inn and Suites motel on the northwest corner of Highway 603 and Highway 90 overlooks what is normally one of the busiest intersections in Bay St. Louis. For now, though, the lot also accommodates three boats. The two 19 ft Magnum skiffs with Yamaha 90 outboard engines belong to brothers Dan and Howard O’Gwin. The parking lot is where their boats came to rest when the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina finally receded hours after the storm blew through.
Both Dan O’Gwin, 54, and the family of Howard O’Gwin, 50, are living at the motel for now. Dan spends his days sitting under a tent awning next to his skiff in a beach chair, which is where he was sitting alongside Howard Jr when a reporter approached them. Howard Jr. sleeps in his boat to protect some of the last property they have that is still in one piece. The Coast Inn was the destination for several boatloads of survivors the O’Gwins picked up when they abandoned their homes, as Dan and his nephew Howard, Jr. 17, slender, shirtless in a bathing suit, and relaxed if he was out for a day at the beach, explained.
"We came here by boat," Dan O’Gwin said. "That’s how our boats got here. Water come up in our houses, cars went underwater, this whole area was flooded up to the second floor in the middle of the hurricane."
It’s not too surprising. The O’Gwin brothers, Howard Sr and Dan grew up on the water, "we worked on tugboats on the Mississippi River as kids," Dan said.
Dan O’Gwin lived four blocks from the motel next door to his grandmother in a house he’d moved into only a month ago. Howard O’Gwin and his family were riding out the hurricane with friends in a brand new brick house at 702 Edna Street in Waveland, between Highway 90 and the beach. "During the storm, it was fine," Howard Jr. said. "We were watching trees popping and everything. All of a sudden, we noticed the wind was blowing one way, and the water was blowing the other way." The sea and the bay were coming one. "Five minutes later, it came up and started seeping through the walls. Five minutes later it was up to our necks. It was that fast."
Howard, his wife Cathy, 44, Howard, Jr. and his younger brother Ben, 15, got into ther skiff and unwittingly became an impromptu search and rescue team when they abandoned the flooding residence. "We came all the way up Margie Street, up Highway 90. We rescued about 21 people and five dogs. One of them’s still here.
"I was in this boat," Howard Jr. said, "with my dad, mom, and family. We started before him. It was about nine o clock when we started. We came down Margie Street. I had my whistle blowing. We were hollering and screaming in case anybody needed help. We seen flashlights from people needing help. We rescued people all along the way. Some houses, we seen flashlights shining on us."
"I was scared but I didn’t want my wife or my family to see that I was scared," said Howard Sr., a muscular truck driver for an oyster company who used to work offshore on oil rigs. "If they would’ve seen me being scared, they would have panicked too."
"I couldn’t pass them up," Howard Sr said of the people needing rescue. "It’s just in my heart."
More Howard, Jr. "We came here [to the motel] first, dropped all the people off here, then we went over here to my grandma’s house. He [Dan] lives right next to him. Got them, then met up with him," Howard O’Gwin, Jr. said, nodding towards his uncle.
By the time his brother Howard Sr. motored up, Dan O’Gwin said, "I knew it was time to go. I was standing in my doorway, looking behind my house to the east, and I seen a big ol’ building, twirling up in the air like this, I can hear OOOOOOOoooooooooo when I heard that, I looked up to where the sound was coming from and this house was spinning. I went ‘Uh unh’.I got on the floor behind the wall and I heard itÉ.you wouldn’t believe the noise. After it hit, I went and looked out to see where it was, there was stuff everywhere, I mean a whole building everywhere, big steel beams. If it would’ve landed on my house, it would’ve probably smushed us. I’ll never go through that again."
Howard, Jr. said, "By the time we got to him [his uncle, Dan O’Gwin] he was trying to get his boat undone."
"The water was up to my neck," Dan O’Gwin said. "I couldn’t stay there. I had to get out or die. You had to go. It was either there or die. I reached over and grabbed a bird in a cage and put it in a console. I climbed in my boat and come up the highway, but I hit three foot waves, 155 mile an hour winds, spun me around two or three times, shot me back that way," Dan O’Gwin said. "I got behind a building, caught my breath and come on back this way. All them cars you see over there were, they was all under water. I tell you what," Dan O’Gwin says, "I was coming up the highway against that wind. I had it almost half-speed. That’s how had that wind was. Spun me around. I went the other way. These guys were following me. They couldn’t find me at first. They found me behind the Take One Video. I said, ‘Let’s get down the highway or we’ll get killed. So we came down the highway, ended up right here and rode the hurricane right up there."
Dan O’Gwin said they never considered evacuating in advance of Katrina. "Waveland’s been here 150 years and there’s never been water here. We knew we’d catch the wind, but we never thought we’d have water here."
"That black guy, we saved him," Howard Jr. says. "Every time we walk past him, he says, ‘Y’all need anything?”Y’all need something?’ because when we found him, he was in a motel down the street on Highway 90," Howard, Jr. said. "He and his wife were up to their necks in water when we found them."
The black guy is Horace Hodges, 58, who lived at the Burgin [sp] Inn [on Hwy 90] and now resides at the Coast Inn. "I had water up my nose. I was hanging from the rafters and my wife couldn’t swim. I said, ‘Baby, if you’re going down, I’m going down with you. We’re gonna hold each other and go ‘Gnnngh’ [makes a drowning noise].’ This man here [Howard] if I had $180,000, he could have it right now. I’m serious."
What are the O’Gwins going to do now?
"That’s a good question. I don’t know," said Dan O’Gwin, who receives a disability pension [he weighs at least 300 lbs], shaking his head grimly. "We’ve been trying to figure that out for two days. Maybe go back to the house and try to clean something. All our vehicles are under water. We don’t have no gas, no oil to change them out and get them going again. That’s all we got, our boats, and they’re high and dry."
"There ain’t a house left from the railroad tracks down to the beach [about a third of a mile]," Dan said. "Nothing left down there. I mean nuthin’."
But the O’Gwins ain’t leaving. "This is our home. We’re going to stay here as long as we can stay here."
"I just want to rebuild," Howard, Jr. says. "All our jobs got wiped out, Howard Jr. says. "We got knocked strictly off the ladder." But in the short term, their kindness is paying off. "They gave us a hotel room for saving all the people."
Long term, the O’Gwin’s will likely stick it out. "This is some of the best fishing here in the whole world–speckled trout, reds, flounder," Dan O’Gwin says. "I like to fish," Howard, Jr. agreed. "I’m 17 and I bought that boat. I saved a lot. It’s the best investment I ever made."
But if another hurricane is headed this way again? Dan O’Gwinn, he didn’t hesitate. "I’m going to the Canadian border. It done made a believer out of us." [Big Howard is 50, his brother Dan (the fat guy) is 54. Son Howard Jr. is 17. Howard Sr. wife Cathy is 44, Son Ben is 15.]
On Roberts Street, a one-lane paved alley off Sears Street in Waveland less than a mile from the beach, bulldozers diligently pushed away debris to clear a narrow path on the pavement among a tangle of wires, metal and wood to accommodate residents trying to find belongings and others looking for family members still missing. The smell of death was palpable. One solider in full military gear, Specialist Fourth Class Tim Brewer, a US Army Specialist E-4 from L Company of the 223d Engineers from Charleston, MS scanned the landscape and shook his head. He’d never seen anything like this.
"Not really. We did a year in Iraq and I don’t think Iraq was this bad. We was all over Iraq. Our main body was in Tikrit."
This was worse than Tikrit?
"I would say so. War is different. They didn’t go in there and bomb everything. They had targets. With a hurricane, it don’t have any targets. It just picks up everything."
At the Log Cabin, a combination bar/liquor store/ and laundry on the south side of US Highway 90 at the corner of Little Bay Road in Waveland, just east of Lake Shore, seven men and two women loiter on the elevated front porch of roadhouse with the rustic log exterior. Inside, there’s what remains of a short, four stool bar, a mud-encrusted pool table and a video dart game flat on the floor next to a wire cage containing six yapping Chihuahua pups. Around the side are what remains of a laundrymat and a liquor store. There’s a half empty quart of tequila under one bench and beer bottles scattered around the porch and in the muddy lot in front. A few of the blue-collar crowd appear to have been drinking in the early afternoon, regardless, or perhaps because of the ruin surrounding them.
"That’s my Lincoln right there," says Micheal Claudel, standing in the lot in front of the porch pointing to the west boundary of the lot. "It was parked over here," he says, pointing fifty feet to the east. Claudel, is none too pleased that his 1992 model Continental was flooded out and no longer runs. He’s not real happy he has no home either. "My house is totally underwater, it’s sideways in the weeds," he says matter-of-factly.
Claudel, a boyish looking blonde haired man who is 40, who speaks with a thick Yat [ie. New Orleanian] accent, knows he should have known better. A native of Tarrytown on the West Bank of the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, he’s been through a few hurricanes. He moved to Shoreline Park near Bay St. Louis six years ago when he gained custody of his son. He tried to ride out the storm with friends including Micheal Cuevas, the owner of the Log Cabin.
"A friend of mine, Micheal Cuevas, owns a bunch of property on this corner," Claudell explained. "We stayed next door in his laundrymat. He stayed in the liquor store with 11 people. Three of us stayed in the laundrymat. I had a place to go but something told me just to stay here. I had a place to go on the other side of I-10, my sister’s house in Pass Christian about 20 minutes from here. I wouldn’t have lost that [his car]. But these are my friends and when I seen themÉ.and it got kinda late, about 9 or 10 [Sunday night] and the storm started up so I stayed here."
That decision cost him his car, but saved a few lives in the process including that of a legally blind man and a pregnant woman past her due date.
"About 7:30 Monday morning, we got two inches of water. Half hour later, we’re standing in three foot of water. It’s coming up pretty damn fast. Real fast. We’re looking at each other, wondering what in the world we’re gonna do? We got on top of the dryers. We saw everybody going out of the liquor store. They had a convoy going out of the liquor store because the water was so high, they couldn’t stay in there no more. So we followed right behind them. When we got right here [at the corner of the elevated porch of the Log Cabin], Gail reached over to the handrail and missed it, and her husband, D.H. grabbed her. It [the water] was rushing like the Colorado raids. The current was unbelievable. I stood right here [on the steps] and swung these boots that were tied around my neck and Gail and D.H. grabbed my boots, friend of mine grabbed my leg, water was all around us, and pulled us all up there. She couldn’t even stand up. He [D.H.] was holding her from there to here, she’s a little short girl, five foot or something, four foot, whatever.
"We all get into the Log Cabin. Water’s still comin’ up. Hour later, it’s higher, so we get on the pool table." Claudell and his friend Bobby McAlister pushed the pool table beneath the attic entryway. "We open up the attic, start putting everybody in the attic [the entrance is directly above the pool table]. We get up in the attic. It’s coming up, coming up, coming up. It took an hour before it rose into the attic. There’s about an inch in the attic. So we didn’t waste no time.
Together with Bobby McAlister, 44, and his brother David Smith, 38, Claudel broke a hole in the attic ceiling. "We said, ‘Now, we gotta break loose,’ Claudel says. "So we busted it loose. I took this right here," he says, holding a table leg, "I took it up in the attic with me. And after we got the vent off we started beating and prying, we got enough room so I could squeeze myself out, then we broke it loose and started transporting the people. Me and Bobby McAlister made a bridge. There was a hole in the roof so we took some boards, one by eight and one by six planks, put two of them together, crossed over the gable of the roof, walked a good 40 feet along the back of the roof [which had blown apart]. We saw the trailer [Michael Cuevas camper adjacent to the Log Cabin] was just getting water on it, so we grabbed two 6x12s and laid them across. The last bridge we made went into the bathroom window on the second floor of another building behind the cabin] Bobby McAlister would take them over the peak and bring them to me. I’d meet them at the bridge and we walked across the bridge, across his camper and across the other bridge and put them in a little bathroom window [on the second floor] the smallest window in that building. [about 24 inches wide]. We got about a foot of water, but we were safe."
Or maybe not so safe. "That was our safety zone, but the building over there was shaking so bad," Bobby McAlister says. "We were just all standing there, waiting for whatever was gonna happen."
"We just tried to stay calm because I knew a bunch of us couldn’t swim," McAlister recalls. "There were dogs. Her dad is blind. She was pregnant full-term. Only thing I can do is try to keep a level head, try to get everybody to safe harbor. It was definitely an experience. That wind sound it was making. Somewhere between supersonic and an almost scary sound, it was constant."
"Now Micheal Cuevas, the owner, is legally blind," Claudel explains. "I’m going over the roof with him" holding and guiding him on the boards. "The wind’s blowin’ a hundred, a hundred twenty five miles an hour, easy."
"We stuck together, me and him," Claudel says of the elderly Cuevas, a short, white haired gentleman. "He listened to every word I said. Got him in the window and everybody was safe."
"We got everybody over there", across the mobile home to the second floor of a back building, "all the pets, how many pets ya’ll got? Six? Six dogs. Two or three birds."
Cuevas, 66, who was raised "in the Kiln" as he calls it, six miles to the north and has lived at the Log Cabin for six years, joins the retelling. Cuevas was in the back room laying down, when his daughter came in and said, ‘Daddy, you got to get up. There’s six inches in here. We got up and come in the liquor store. We stayed a little bit and the water got that deep [belly high]. We all got out of there, got our six Chihuahuas and two birds. We put them in an ice chest and drug them with us to the porch. We stepped into the Log Cabin. When it [the water] come up to the bar, well, then we said we had to get in the attic. Then we put the birds and dogs in the attic and this man Mike and Bobby McAlister and Bobby McAlister’s brothers, knocked that hole in the roof, put these two boards from this building to the trailer, and put two other boards from the house trailer to the two story building and took us one at a time. That man there [Claudel] took me across the bridge that’s about eight inches wide.
"The wind was goin’ 125, 150 miles an hour," says Cuevas. "When you’re going across the roof, you’re like this [Cuevas wobbles like a drunk trying to walk the line.] You slide. It’s a miracle that everybody’s alive. It’s a miracle. We saved six puppies and three birds, and one of the birds got out. We lost one bird. It’s unbelieveable. See all these cars here? There was about six foot of water over these cars. See that two story house over there?" he says, pointing to the group’s final stopping place. "Water got two feet deep up there. Yes, sir, we was gittin’ scared. Lemme tell you another thing, we had a lady who was in a travel trailer over there [in a mobile park behind the Log Cabin] and she tried to climb out of a hole. She couldn’t go. And that woman’s dead. We told the law about it that same day. They waited two days before they went over there." Her head stuck out of the trailer for two days.
"We could see her out this window," Michael Claudel says. "She had a one by one vent at the top of the trailer that she broke out. She stuck her head through it but couldn’t get the rest of her body [out]. So when the water come up, it must have come up over her head. What a horrible death."
"That man [Claudel] and Bobby McAlister saved my life," Cuevas says.
Another man out in front of the Log Cabin calmly mentions he still couldn’t find his 20 year old daughter. He hadn’t lost hope. He was still looking. But he knew the prognosis wasn’t good. As for Claudel, he’s staying in the room where he and Bobby McAlister led the others to safety during the flood. "I lost my car, my home is totaled, it’s just a big mess. But we’re alive, thank God, thank God."
A few miles farther west on Highway 90m west of Bay St. Louis and Waveland and a few miles from the Louisiana line, fifteen full-grown country boys and several dogs mill around a parking lot cluttered with cars, trucks, an RV, portable generators, a tractor, chainsaws, and tools. Two men lean over a generator that’s been flooded out, yanking on the power cord to get it to start. Two others, Todd Shiyou, 35, and his brother, Steve Shiyou, 39, conspicuously wear shoulder holsters with nine millimeter pistols, just in case looters show up. They’re all part of Reggie Barrios’ buddies who saved lives during the hurricane and have been functioning as a freelance emergency management agency ever since. Barrios, 39, owns 15 acres including the lot, the house behind it and the artesian well in back of the house, from which he’s provided cold running water, a precious commodity on the western Mississippi coast since Katrina hit, to one and all.
"This is my home," Barrios said by way of introduction, "and we’ve made it a community camp. Every decision made we discuss and agree on. The current process now is, ‘Stop us now if you’ve got a better idea.’"
A burly gentleman with a tattoo of a cross and Jesus and the phrase "Only He Can Judge" on his right bicep and a tattoo reading "The Renegade" on his left bicep, Barrios rode out the storm because his sister, who lives next door, wouldn’t leave. Instead, she took in about 12 people in her house before Katrina blew in. Reggie had 15 people in his house. "This is high ground most of the time," he said. This is 18 feet above sea level. People come here to run from storms."
If someone had to ride it out with her, it was her brother. Barrios, a mechanical contractor for Southernaire Inc., is a take-charge leader by nature and in this instance, a paragon of Can Do, self-sufficiency, as he explains in his rapid fire, plain-speaking earthy way.
"Late Sunday night it started getting real bad. By Monday morning, we was in the most intense part of the storm. We was watching the trees in the yard. The ground was getting so soaked and loose it [the wind] was blowing them over without breaking ’em. We made it through the brunt of the winds and we got into the eye wall, then the swell came, the storm surge. It come across from these woods [northeast], I watched it come into my house, coming in out of bay. That storm turned counter clockwise and pushed water into the bay and swelled out the bay. Bayou Phillips is right there. It come right over through these woods, which naturally drains in the other direction. It was a reverse pattern. In 15 minutes, the water was deep in my house. Fifteen minutes later, I was out of my house. [about 10 am]
"We was trying to board the building up. We was putting up six inch fence boards. We had a chop saw, a generator, and a nail gun. The water was rising faster than we could board the front door and the side door. When I saw how high, how fast it was coming, I said, ‘Listen, let’s open the doors, cause it’s gonna get blowed out, let the water through and get out. So we got out. We got that Freightliner [truck] running, it [the water] was just about up to the bed. That was the highest thing. It was a diesel. We drove it backwards down the road, and got out of the flood [driving in reverse west]. The water was starting to consume the road at a rate of about 100 yards every ten minutes. So he’s staying ahead of it and we’re all caught up to it, and I knew my sister was in there so we gotta get ’em out."
"We went up to the junkyard [about 100 yards west of his house], there was a boat sitting there. We got it on the trailer, but it wouldn’t start. Got another battery, still couldn’t get it to start. We’re sitting there, before the third battery was in, we got swept off the trailer, so we had to get out of the junkyard. By that time it was rushing across the ditch. We looked back, we saw–I believe it’s the Thomas family, I think it was their son–he had managed to get a boat, wedged the boat ahead of the surge on the road. We got everybody in my house down the road to the Welcome Center [the Mississippi Welcome Center by the state line, in the truck]. The first time we went there, they didn’t want to let us in. The officers that was working said they would lose their jobs. Hello? We’re out here, we made it here. You’re inside. So Red told them, ‘I’ll drive the truck through the door if you don’t.’ They accommodated us with a bathroom corridor, which we were happy to have. [Mark Necaise, 38, one of Barrios’ crew, said, "The security guards said their boss told them to run out the 30-40 people who were already in the Welcome Center"]
"Turned around with the big truck, we come back. We were going to get my family out.
"By the time we got back, I said, ‘Is this your boat?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ I got in. He said, ‘It’s stuck.’ I said, ‘It won’t be for long.’ We started pushing it. The water’s coming. It’s got a big motor. We got it free. Drove it down the highway. Drove down the driveway, over the roofs of the cars, over to my sister’s house. We got on the roof and started stomping on it. We knew, if they weren’t there, they were gone.
"My nephews had popped up. I said, ‘Get em out now.’ Got everybody out, put ’em in the boat, drove back down ahead of the storm surge, wedged it up on the side of the road. Got into the truck and left it [the boat].
"Mark [Necaise, 38, one of the Barrios crew] come back and got a man who was drowning in the ditch out. I don’t know who he was. By the time he was through making the third trip, we’re running out of eye wall. He brought boat back. We left. We got a total of thirty people out of two houses and the ditches."
"We tried to get into Lake Shore to get more people out but there was so many trees down at that water level, it was impassable. You gotta understand, an eyewall is so large, and no more. You got so much time. We’d been watching it on television until around 4 in the morning, my antenna had totally disintegrated before we lost power. 4 we lost information, 4:30 we lost electricity.
"We stood out the blow. That was the thing I was grateful to see, when daylight come, so I could make assessments, see what’s going on outside. We were fortunate trees [pines, some 60 ft high] were blowing away. I was praying, ‘Please go away. Blow the other way.’ Fortunately they did. They [trees] didn’t land on the house. We were beneficial this building is solid block [cinder block] and survived Camille. It’s got two roofs on it, so we knew it had a better chance than any other structure did. But this wasn’t the hurricane to be here in.
"I told my sister at nine o’clock the night before, go to NASA [the Stennis Space Center nearby]. They’ll let you in. She didn’t do it."
But the Barrios crew didn’t stop there. After the storm, Reggie Barrios managed to get ahold of Hancock Bank in Denham Springs and have $1,000 fronted to him on his signature. The crew went to Wal-Mart, spent $600 on shoes, socks, underwear, footpowder, towels, shirts, the basic necessities, and a new well pump. "We didn’t have time to wash. We were still standing in mud," Barrios said. "We brought it back, hooked up it, God willing, it worked."
"I got running water right now." [at a time when ice and bottled water were just beginning to be brought into the county by relief workers].
"I got four of ’em [wells] on my property, one of ’em free flowing if you want to catch water."
Barrios says his motivation to keep helping after the storm passed was simple. "Because they got nowhere to go. And if they stay here without water and sanitation, you’re gonna die," he said bluntly.
"We trying to move our trash away from us. We’ve got water. We have systems in here that don’t require city power–they’re gravity feed septic systems from the old days. They work. They’re getting the water out. We can use the toilet, we can wash our hands."
He escorted a visitor into the front room, whose floor is clean and smells of bleach. "See, this room we took back today. But look at the rest of it," he said, walking into a dark hall way, thick with mud. The rooms on each side are a mangled clutter of furniture, fixtures, wires, metal, and music equipment including drums, speakers, and the Fender jazz bass he’d bought a couple days before Katrina. "I never got to play it," Barrios shrugged. The flood water had risen to the ceiling ("I’ve got standard eight foot ceilings and you see them blowed out. I haven’t found the water line yet."). The damage was complete.
"This is my home. Set aside the monetary damage. Imagine the turmoil if we wouldn’t stayed in it. I found pieces of my sister’s furniture in my house. One of the table chairs from her house was in this hall. It was a very strong version of that tsunami." The comparison was apt and accurate.
"Gangrene, tetanus is our number one jeopardy," he said, walking on board into the backyard toward a pipe spewing clean water. "We’ve got one shower in a camper we’ve been using. We’re going to clean up one of these bathrooms next. I make everybody spray bleach water on the floor before they get in, making them keep their feet dry, put powder on ’em. The last two days we’ve been blessed not to have rain. We’ve put walkways everywhere. The number one most important thing I tell ’em is Keep your feet dry ’cause that’s what’ll put you down."
"It’s a standing order, Anybody wants free-flowing water, can have it," he said while rinsing his hands in the water trickling out the pipe. "We’ve got a washing machine on the way because we have infants, we have mothers who are dependent because they have to maintain these infants.
"Again, what’s gonna happen here is long term issues. We cain’t let children get sick. We don’t have a hospital. They have a piece of a hospital left. I stuck a nail in my foot the day of the storm when I got blowed out in the surge and two days later I had to lance it with a steak knife, get the infection out of it, and pack salve in it until I can get somewhere and get something and keep from ruining my feet ’cause I know what I gotta do to keep them."
"It was a bad situation, but it’ll get worse. People thinks the worst is over but for the ones living here now, it’s just begun. The shock is all that’s over. The reality is here to stay. I’ve been here since Camille. I know what Camille did to this place. I was standing a hundred yards from here. I was less than four years old and I can tell you, it made an impression on me, but it cain’t scratch this."
"Nonetheless, like I said, this is a blessing from God to have this," he said, glancing at the well water flowing out gently. "Clean, 800 foot deep water. It is potable. They have recommended that we don’t drink it. And that’s because they say of the possibility of bacteria as a precaution because we have enough bottled water to carry us through. But we would if we have no choice, and I would consider it the safest source, save set aside the bottled water. I have been drinking it. I stopped when they told us to, but I will drink it again if we run out [of bottled water]. I pray we don’t."
He’s not stopping here.
"My next concern is we get more tractors mobilized. I got my tractor up as soon as the water receded, my generator obviously, a few electrical tools, salvaged all the hand tools, I got my old winch-driven truck running, which is a ’78. All of the modern vehicles you can forget it. The computers are gone. But the antique stuff, we got it running. The next concern is fuel. If fuel runs out, we’re down to washing and drinking from this well outside. If we can get more generators and more fuel, we can achieve more sanitary levels and more solitude, I believe."
Barrios was beginning to sound like the ideal that FEMA is supposed to be.
"Last year, I shut my business down and went to Florida when Ivan came through and Frances and Jeanie. We stopped in Pensacola where Ivan was. For whatever reason, we would up going to Vero Beach. Having survived several hurricanes, I’ve worked disaster relief, I’ve worked ice storm ’94 in the Delta.
"I do know if you don’t lose heart, you can bust through to the other side.
"I’ve been back to those places a year after it happened and I see, yeah, I can tolerate this. This is family property four generations. I kept it manicured like a park. In fact I was going to make an RV park. We were in the process of making a store out of this," he said, referring to the house "and a park out of that," nodding towards the spacious back yard.
"I’m going to immediately make a store now. People need commerce here. I have money in my pocket, nowhere to spend it, nothing to buy. If there was a store here, anywhere local, we could buy things we need. We need stores now."
"Fuel is our most pressing demand. We have probably 50 gallons of fuel in reserve in that we have several vehicles including my truck which is carrying 30 gallons and other ones we haven’t drawn it out of yet. I’ve drawn money out and we’ve got people going in different directions to get fuel. We’ve sent them north. We’ve sent them to Pascagoula, to Louisiana. Get it now. Money is not our problem. Commerce is."
He peeled off $100 in twenties and gave them to one of his buds, who says he heard the BP in Diamondhead had opened, although it turned out to be nothing but a rumor.
So what can people do?
"Number one, pray. The second thing is, if you think you have anything that can be usable in this situation–generators, fuel, money is a tool, it’s an asset–anything you’re willing to give, get ahold of somebody, get it to them. The government moves a large quantity of stuff at a slower pace. The fast moving organizations are the churches and the individuals and charities that are private. They don’t have bureaucracies to go through. They can pack the car and leave tonight. They don’t have to wait on a signature. And we need them here. Bad."
"Lemme tell you something, south of St. John’s Church, is there no building standing period. Not one. There’s a half ice house and a water tower at the bayou [Bayou Phillip] Where they were building a casino, you can forget seeing that in the next three or four years. It’s gone.
"This is Lake Shore [where Reggie is] We come under a Bay St. Louis mailing address. If you wrote me a letter, you would address it to Bay St. Louis.
My address is 7431 Highway 90, Bay St. Louis. That’s the mailbox out there with the prop marks on it. Mark ran over it with a boat, pulling a man out of the ditch."
"I’ve survived on this hill [18 feet?] two Category Fives. Will I be here for another one? No. You can believe one thing, when it comes to the point I have to make the decision to leave, if my gut and my head, if just one of them says go, I’m gonna take their word."
"I can choose to leave any day," Reggie Barrios said with steely resolve. "But once I’m gone I can’t come back to help them." It’s pretty clear the thought never entered his mind.
Reggie plays many musical instruments and often has jam sessions at his place. He likes “blues, ZZ Top (in that order), all kinds of music, except hip hop” although he allows Christian hip hop is OK.
Captain John Rigolo, leader of eighty troops from Virginia Task Force Two from the Virginia Beach, VA, pauses while his troops rested under the twisted awning of what once was a gas station in Waveland.
"We’re part of the national Urban Search and Rescue teams." He turns to his troops. "Hey, fellas, mill about smartly, they’re going to take some pictures. OK? We got down here Tuesday morning. We came here to do search and rescue, to find live victims, patients if you will, and fatalities. We’re marking fatalities for the teams coming behind us.
"This is a tough one. Our team operated at the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11. A number of our guys operated at the World Trade Center. We saw a lot of destruction at both of those, but here the destruction is widespread.
"People who may not have had a lot to start with have even less now. It’s tough."
His team had yet to do a rescue, Rigolo said. "Unfortunately, all we’ve had so far is fatalities. We have done some animal rescues the last couple of days. Most of it has been recovery. A decent amount, yes sir.
"It’s tough. You see a lot of destruction, a lot of widespread loss. People have lost everything The stories we’re hearing about people who’ve ridden out the storm, living in their attics, one guy jumped on a boat, tied a sailboat to a tree, another lady who pushed her children up into it. She hung on to the bottom of a tree when the storm surge came through. Incredible stories of survival.
"We’re just about done with our search of this operation. What we’re doing, we’re hitting every street, every house, every structure. Going through the debris fields looking for any possibility of survivors, fatalities as well, identifying those for closure on that."
"We’re about to move our operation here to another location."
"Our group has a lot of experience. We have deployed a number of times during the last year for hurricanes. We were down in the panhandle of Florida, searching structures there. We’re well trained for this one, unfortunately." Katrina, Rigolo said, is "the worst I’ve ever seen."
Rigolo recalled one particular incident. "A woman found us and asked us to go to her mother’s house. We went by her house and we would see it was damaged very severely, and her mom’s car is visible in the garage, but she [the daughter] couldn’t get into the house because of the debris field. Her mom’s in there and I hope she’s alive. So we’re going to go in and look for her. That wasn’t even in our area. Our area was a couple blocks away. We go in there and start working away and a dog starts barking. The lady said, ‘Oh, that’s Buddy. That’s her dog.’ You can hear Buddy yapping in the background, it was a small Shitzu [SP?] The lady cried a heartfelt, ‘Mom, mom! Buddy, Buddy!’ started yelling out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God’. All of sudden, in the house, we found her mom. Obviously, the turnout wasn’t good, but the positive side of it was, that we got Buddy. Buddy was actually entrapped in some debris and trees, we extracted him, turned him over to the daughter. She was very teared up. A very sad moment was a very good moment. The dog survived–she got at least a piece of her mom, something very important to her survived the storm. Turn that off now," Rigolo instructed.
He then related how his troops, a very tough bunch, were emotionally moved by the moment.
"Camille was a lady. Katrina is a bitch."
Shorty Necaise, 45, Bay St. Louis, who lost his wife in the storm surge. "Waveland is completely gone. It’s bad when you go down to the beach and you don’t know where you’re at. City hall’s gone. St. Claire’s [Catholic] Church is gone.:
"We’d never thought something like that would happen. This is worse than Camille." Brian ‘Hootie’ Adam, director, Hancock County EMA. "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
"This is the price you pay to live in Paradise." Timothy Shiyou, 37, Lake Shore. His two cousins flanking him said Tim was still in a state of shock.
"FEMA didn’t even have Pearlington on its map." Resident of Pearlington checking into a motel in Canton, MS on Saturday night.
- KATRINA PHOTOS
- Post a comment to the matching blog "Mississippi Coast Report"
- "Back from Mississippi" blog
- WQRZ Waveland on MSNBC MSNBC.com will focus its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina recovery on two cities on the hard-hit Mississippi coast.
- Listen – NPR’s Day to Day (Sept. 12, 2005) "Weathering Katrina at the Log Cabin Bar".
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.”
Hotwalker – Tom Russell
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Outsider art commands bully pulpit "I’m a frustrated writer," Tom Russell confessed to me a couple years ago. He finally did something about it, using his bully pulpit as a singer-songwriter to explain to listeners about the country, blues, folk, jazz and gospel he was exposed to growing up in Los Angeles and later in New York and how outsiders, notably the poet Charles Bukowski and the circus performer and poet Little Jack Horton, influenced him and his music. Hotwalker is hardly an album in the traditional sense but rather a pastiche of spoken-word readings-including the voices of Russell, Horton, Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Harry Partch, the Reverend Baybie Hoover, Virginia Brown and Lenny Bruce-and atmospheric background music elegantly articulated by Russell’s guitarist sidekick Andrew Hardin, with a few songs sprinkled in between. From the background circus calliope accompanying Horton’s colorful pronouncements (his telling of Bukowski and him driving a locomotive engine is hilarious) to descriptions of Dave Van Ronk’s apartment by Sheridan Square to his primitive paintings that decorate the CD, Hotwalker digs deep into the spirit of Outsider Art as expressed on canvas, as poetry, in books or as a record.
Far Out Far West Texas
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 16, 2005
Mythic Texas gives way to Montana chic.
When the bumpy dirt road to this Far West Texas ghost town was coated with asphalt four years ago, Terlingua became convenient. Its days as a sleepy, unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path reinvented mining town were over. All along Farm to Market Road 170, the main drag of the greater Study Butte-Terlingua Microplex, just west of Big Bend National Park, there are signs of the change. Some are overt, such as the For Sale signs advertising West Texas Realty that seem to have popped up all over like mushrooms after a rain. Others are subtler, like the opening of La Posada Milagro, the new four-room rustic luxury lodge with high-speed Internet access and massage, yoga, and chi gong services. Up the road around Lajitas, fake historical markers signal a resort called the Ultimate Hideout that used political clout to reroute the state highway around its property to make it seem more exclusive.
I’d predicted Terlingua’s fate to one of the town’s residents, Betty Moore. Last August, while we were sitting inside Desert Sports, the recreational outfitter in Terlingua where Betty works part-time, she reminded me of what I’d said. Betty and I were playing a parlor game enjoyed around the Trans-Pecos, Big Bend region–that wide swath of mythic Texas between Fort Stockton and El Paso extending south of Interstate 10 to the Rio Grande: Where was the next best place? Rating a town’s buzzworthiness was an amusing way to compare notes and bullshit away some of a blistering hot afternoon. In a way, though, it’s becoming a serious subject, especially if you’re a homeowner, a prospective homeowner or second homebuyer, a realtor, speculator, hustler or seeker of All Things Cool.
The starting point of the game is always Marfa (pop. 2,424). The county seat of Presidio County has been under the microscope as an unexpected international art destination ever since the late minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to town in the early 1970s and began buying up vacant houses and buildings and ultimately, the old Army camp, which is now the Chinati Foundation, a world-class destination for fine art pilgrims. But it isn’t just Marfa that is hot and haute anymore. Folks who can spot a trend before the masses catch on are moving in all over Far West Texas. And if real-estate prices in Terlingua are climbing, almost any wide spot in the road with enough dwellings to call itself a town is fair game.
The same forces that have brought a cultural and economic sea change to the state of Montana over the past quarter century are at work in Far West Texas, mainly because massive chunks of land can be purchased by people of means who are looking for a refuge from the real world. That became evident last spring when Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon.com, bought 239,000 acres of barren ranchland in Culberson County in the flats north of Van Horn with the aim of building a private spaceport. The build-out of the Blue Origin aerospace testing and operations site on the old Corn Ranch at the foot of the Guadalupes is expected to take five years. Rockets firing from the desert floor will fit right in with the blimp refueling station at the Van Horn airport, and the tethered border control balloon farther east on Highway 90.
Montana’s makeover also started with high flyers–like Ted Turner, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Jeff Bridges–who could afford huge pieces of acreage and the luxury of flying to their high country retreats for the weekend. They’ve since been joined by legions of CEOs and the crème de la crème of the creative class, who are goosing land prices out of the reach of working cattle operations, thereby completing Montana’s transformation from authentic western to mythic western.
Far West Texas has many Montana-like attributes, particularly mountains (albeit in the desert), giant ranches (tens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid region), few people (less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), and easy access to the outdoors. Like Montana, Far West Texas is in reasonably close proximity to massive amounts of public lands. More than a million acres-worth of national park, state park, and wildlife management areas sprawl across south Brewster and Presidio counties in a state that is 95 percent privately owned.
Nowhere else in Texas is a string of small towns several hundred miles from big cities and airports actually gaining population. Most of the new residents are folks who move by choice, rather than necessity–for the wide open spaces, big sky, starlit nights, clean air, and for the things Far West Texas lacks, such as Wal-Marts, Starbucks, malls, and big-box stores. Even better, Far West Texas has its share of weirdness to accommodate the quirks and eccentricities of the rich and famous.
Betty Moore–who moved to Terlingua 25 years ahead of the curve, blowing off a sweet publishing gig in Austin to be a part-time river guide, part-time peregrine falcon researcher, part-time secretary, waitress, landlady, and book buyer–all means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploring–offered her opinion about what still undiscovered town was prime to become cool.
“I think it’s going to be Sanderson,” she mused with her usual beatific smile. “There are some great old houses and buildings there. Adobes, too”
I agreed the whole region was undergoing a rapid makeover, but there were limits, and as far as I was concerned, Sanderson was over the line. Nope. No way.
I pointed out to Betty that no matter how appealing the housing stock and prices might be, Sanderson was surrounded by low canyons, not desert mountains. It was on the way to the Big Bend, not in the Big Bend. Our mutual friend Terry Tex Toler, who headed the Terrell County Economic Development Corporation long enough to have Sanderson officially designated as The Cactus Capital of Texas, had closed down his Savage Guest House in 2005 due to lack of business. The town just wasn’t ready to join the pantheon of Marfa, Marathon, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Terlingua as far out Far West Texas towns. If there was a next best place, my bet was on another town abandoned by the railroad in the flats between the Sierra Vieja and the Davis Mountains.
“Valentine is next,” I told Betty Moore with all sincerity.
The town of 200 may lack a gas station or any kind of store other than the post office, but it sure has cachet. I cited the Prada Marfa adobe art sculpture on Highway 90 near Valentine. It’s a full-scale reproduction of a retail outlet of the trendy minimalist Prada fashion line that was installed in October, causing quite the sensation. Within days, “Dum Dum” and “Dumb” had been spray-painted on the exterior and 14 shoes, all right foot, and six purses were stolen from the display window. The acts of vandalism may or may not have been committed by the artists themselves on their way back to the El Paso airport. Even if that wasn’t true, it made for a good story, which is an important element of life in this part of the state where people love to talk as much as they love to listen, and storytelling remains very much part of the cultural fabric.
Betty wasn’t buying. No way was Valentine about to get hot, she swore.
Maybe the media will give Valentine a boost. After all, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times (three times in one month), Salon.com, and Art in America have all taken note of Far West Texas and Marfa in particular over the past year. So has The Wall Street Journal, which profiled part-time Marfa resident Quality Quinn on the trials and tribulations of social obligations and charitable giving in one’s second hometown.
Discovery has evidently come with a price. The message out front of Carmen’s Cafe on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Cafe, a storied culinary institution in Far West Texas whose family recipes date back to 1887, is no longer owned by a Borunda. The real estate market in Marfa is so overheated the city government has imposed a building moratorium while planning and zoning rules are being rewritten.
Robert Halpern, editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly Marfa newspaper I occasionally contribute to, thinks Marfa is faring the buzz better than residents in neighboring towns, who derisively refer to the locals as Marfadites, would like to admit. “Folks moving to town are not doing anything outlandish,” he says. “The adobes being remodeled are being done in the vernacular. The architecture investment has been a positive. Many new additions have been positive,” he adds, citing Ballroom Marfa, the contemporary arts and culture space run by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn; Maiya’s Restaurant, which does northern Italian cuisine; the revitalized El Paisano Hotel where the cast of the movie “Giant” once stayed; and the Pizza Foundation, named in honor of all the arts foundations in Marfa.
Robert and his wife, Rosario Salgado Halpern, the newspaper’s publisher, have a catbird’s seat for viewing the Marfa and Far West Texas transformation. He’s a native of Alpine. She’s a native of Presidio. And as the town paper of record, they’ve seen it all. Both have embraced most of the changes while keeping tabs on what is lost in the bargain. They were friends of Donald Judd, the one person most responsible for this whole New Montana/Far West Texas phenomenon, and they and their children are docents at the Chinati Foundation.
If the Halperns’ strategy is to embrace change, it may be because there’s no alternative. “How do you control it, or can you even control it? No one has a lock and key,” Robert says.
Still, you wonder if it was better before the word spread, back when Judd was alive and employed more workers than any single business in town while shunning the kind of buzz and attention currently swirling around Marfa. For all the seeds he planted–the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, which oversees much of the property he bought and filled with rare artworks, and those infernal WWDJD? bumperstickers–there’s a real sense that if Judd were still alive (he died in 1994), the last place on earth he’d want to be is in Marfa, as his son, Flavin, insisted to me a few years ago. He’d rather be at his ranch, where no one could find him. Whatever Judd started, though, can no longer be stopped.
“Far West Texas might well be the next Montana, but is that good?” asks Larry Francell. Francell is the director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, and a resident of Fort Davis, where he’s a County Commissioner. The land boom has swept up Highway 17 to Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. With a population of 1,050, the unincorporated county seat of Jeff Davis County is landlocked by the Fort Davis National Historic Site, the Davis Mountains State Park, and big ranches that dominate the Davis Mountains. Those conditions, along with the presence of the McDonald Observatory and a campaign to lock in conservation easements by the Texas Nature Conservancy, may jack up real estate prices, but they are precisely the kind of amenities that make Montana so appealing, and explain the loud outcry locally and statewide when John Poindexter–the owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort down the road near Shafter–tried to purchase several thousand acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park for $45 an acre.
Francell said he’d heard about a lot in Limpia Crossing, the only subdivision in the Davis Mountains between the town and the McDonald Observatory, originally priced at $7,000 that went for a quarter million recently. He knew for certain that the effective tax rate in the county has risen due to the flurry of construction. “There’s even two mini-mansions going up in town,” he says. “One of them is being built by a Marfadite. A lot of Outlanders are moving in and bringing real money, as opposed to the indigenous rich. But at this point, it’s subtle, like old age–you suddenly wake up and you’re old.”
The land rush extends east of Marfa along US Highway 90 through Alpine (pop. 6,079)–the county seat of Brewster County, home to Sul Ross State University, and the biggest town in the Trans-Pecos–all the way to Marathon (pop. 600). That bucolic gateway town to Big Bend National Park was a sleepy little ranching community not too long ago. These days, Marathon’s practically bursting at the seams, with four art galleries, several new shops and cafes, and a slew of second-home residences. J.P. Bryan, the man who brought modern upscale tourism to the Big Bend when he and his wife Mary began refurbishing the Gage Hotel in the early 1980s, has been eclipsed by Russ Tidwell, a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who is working the tourism angle with his Chisos Gallery, the Captain Shepard’s Inn bed & breakfast, the Cottonwood Station barbecue restaurant, and the Adobe Hacienda Lodges, south of the railroad tracks. Since the Anglo part of Marathon north of the tracks has been pretty much bought up, properties on the Mexican side of town south of the tracks are going now too. You can tell which ones are Adobe Hacienda lodges by the BMWs and Lexuses parked out front.
The development boom extends 30 miles south of Marfa as well, to the aforementioned Cibolo Creek Ranch, three historic adobe forts refashioned into a rustic luxury resort where rooms go for $450 a night, but not to Presidio (pop. 4,167), the dusty border town whose great hope at the moment is a pork-barrel highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico that other towns in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos are fighting. Once notorious as the Hot Spot of the Nation for its high summer temperatures, Presidio is too poor and too desperate to qualify as a Far Out town of Far West Texas.
On the other hand, Terlingua (pop. 100 or so; nobody knows for sure), 67 miles east of Presidio along the River Road–one of the most scenic drives in this part of the world–is most definitely a Far Out town, mainly due to the creative desert rats who came to reinhabit the adobe ruins of the old mining town or build their own off-the-grid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park.
Over the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumulating more than 400,000 acres–half the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas.
“There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.”
Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hardly the first high rollers to move in. Long before they showed up, there were lavish spreads tucked back in the mountains, like the Sibley castle in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, and Don McIvor’s Scottish castle in the Davis Mountains. The late industrialist Justin Dart, who spearheaded passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, kept a place near Blue Mountain outside of Fort Davis.
Jeff Fort, founder of Tyco Industries and part-time Marfadite, has rehabbed and reopened the Chinati Hot Springs in the desert west of Presidio. Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Tim Crowley have bought up choice properties in and around Marfa. Hamilton Fish, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nation Institute, has a second residence in town. When Ed Albee is signing books at the local bookstore, Laura Wilson is showing photographs in a local gallery, playwright Wallace Shawn is staging plays in a local theatre, and John Waters is doing a local speaking engagement, there’s a sense that if you haven’t bought in yet, you’re way too late.
Carla McFarland, a former Dallasite who bought the Holland Hotel–the historic Alpine hotel designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest who also designed the Gage in Marathon and El Paisano in Marfa–insists that Alpine, which has experienced the Montana effect in its own way, is different.
“There’s a lot of people buying up stuff thinking it’s going to happen here,” she says. “Which fucks up your tax base and fucks up your people who’ve lived here all their lives. Instead of the tenfold increase in Marfa, the Carla Prediction is we’re going to see a 50 percent increase here in Alpine, maybe even a twofold or threefold increase in price. We’re OK. I don’t think it’s going to be as wild as Marfa, but there are some opportunities.”
This means a run on adobe, especially neglected, crumbling, and cheap-for-the-price adobe, which in Far Out West Texas translates to property south of the tracks–the historically Mexican part of town. All the good Marfa adobe may have been scooped up. Not so in Alpine, which, according to a Texas Historical Commission study, has an abundance of adobe structures exceeded only by El Paso. And as McFarland points out, “Who wants to live in El Paso?”
“My business partner looked at a crumbling adobe south of the tracks going for $42,000,” she says. “It was being sold by a guy who’d bought it last year for $32,000.”
The business partner, Andrew Nelson, is further evidence of the Montana effect in Far West Texas. Nelson is a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine who moved to Alpine from San Francisco by choice after visiting while researching an article on rail travel. Two of Nelson’s friends–Tom Michael, an editor for Britannica.com, and Katherine Shaughnessy, a writer specializing in gracious living–stopped in while driving from Chicago to Savannah in search of a place to settle down and raise a family. Three weeks later, they bought a place in Alpine too. Michael is now the general manager of KRTS-FM, the National Public Radio station that will soon begin broadcasting to the region to complement KVLF-AM/KALP-FM in Alpine, the only commercial stations in the Trans-Pecos, and three low-power community stations.
Alpine remains relatively down to earth, where function trumps form, Carla McFarland contends. “Marfa people have to drive to Alpine to get their Prada dry-cleaned,” she says. “You can’t get a prescription filled in Marfa. If you’re having a heart attack, you have to come to Alpine for a defibrillator.”
But it is not without its airs. The annual Gallery Night weekend puts more people in the streets than any other community event. A brewpub has opened in the Holland Hotel. La Tapatia Cafe changed its name to La Trattoria to better reflect the Italian heritage of owner Allyson Santucci. And Sul Ross State University, which used to be famous for its rodeo teams, has added a Writer in Residence to the faculty. That writer, David Marion Wilkinson, who partnered with Alpine resident Joaquin Jackson on Jackson’s memoirs One Ranger, is sold on his new sense of place. “These people are more alive, and live with greater joy,” the former Austin resident says. “I feel like it’s a privilege to be among them.”
We’ve started to have conversations about what’s going to kill the fatted calf,” says Robert Halpern, musing over what the tipping point will be, if there is a tipping point. “Will it be the militarization of the border?” he wonders. “The Border Patrol used to be huts and temporary buildings. Now it’s these huge complexes. The Marfa airport is getting a $16 million upgrade in facilities for the Border Patrol and US Customs.” Rich folks don’t much cotton to building castles in militarized zones. Maybe La Entrada, the envisioned superhighway from Presidio to Midland will do the trick, bringing enough truck traffic, noise, and pollution to neutralize any sense of specialness.
Maybe the real cool places will just move farther off the map. Shafter, the mining ghost town between Presidio and Marfa is gussying up with fewer and fewer ruins for sale. Presidio could come into its own. If Ultimate Hideout owner Steve Smith drops another $100 million and doesn’t run out of water, perhaps he’ll actually realize his vision to make Lajitas another Palm Springs, although someone should break the news to him that while Los Angeles is a two-hour drive from Palm Springs, Midland is at least four hours from Lajitas. The villages of Ruidosa and Candelaria, where the pavement ends on FM 170, the River Road, are relatively undiscovered. And don’t forget Kent.
Despite all the stories I’d read and the complaints I’d heard, Far West Texas appears to be pretty great in the here and now, no matter what’s coming, or how it used to be. The unease under the surface, though is palpable. Where do all those rugged individualists who make the Trans Pecos and the Big Bend so appealing go when they sell out to the outsiders? Stockton? Odessa? El Paso? Valentine? Sanderson? And does the sense of place they’ve instilled go with them, leaving the newcomers with a movie set version of the real thing, just like Aspen, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming, have become?
Some of the outsiders moving in are so obnoxious, they justify the endless gossip about them (e.g. Steve Smith of Lajitas). But others deserve praise. You’ve got to admit, a coffee shop that roasts its beans on premises like the Brown Recluse in Marfa would be a welcome asset to any community in which it was located. What makes Far West Texas one notch better is the Mexican abuela around the block from the Brown Recluse. As long as she continues to serve up giant breakfast burritos in the small dining room built onto the side of her house, the changes are welcome. But when the abuela can no longer afford to live in Marfa, whatever it is that makes Far West Texas so far out will be lost. In its wake will be the Texas version of the Hamptons, or a dry variation of Aspen, where the service workers have to be bussed in from 70 miles away because they can’t afford to live there any more.
Donald Judd learned that early on. These days, it’s easier to find a Gap in Soho, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of warehouses and old skyscrapers that artists like him first began inhabiting in the early 1960s, than it is canvas and painting oils. Real artists can’t afford to live in Soho any more. Will real cowboys, ranch supplies, feed stores, and saddle shops suffer the same fate in Far West Texas?
Far West Texas is not for everyone. People come for the incredible scenery, breathtaking vistas, and rugged beauty. Some of them decide to stay. But many leave shortly afterwards due to the relative lack of goods, services, and modern conveniences, especially “when they figure they have to drive two hours to get anything,” as Alpine realtor Joy Parsons told me. Such was the celebrated case of Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, who used his royalties to move from Ohio to a ranch near Alpine, and stayed some years before departing for a more civilized place outside Fredericksburg (at least he found his second wife in Far West Texas).
In early December, I stopped in Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, with a group of people that included my friend Betty Moore. The town was as empty as ever. But I began to see it the way Betty saw it. Buying a couple blocks of a real downtown including a vacant department store would be pretty cool, I thought to myself. Sanderson had a few things going for it, all right. Whether or not it was far out enough to qualify as a far out Far West Texas town was still a bone of contention, but at that particular moment, the hand-cut, skin-on French fries at Piruli’s, the only restaurant in town open after 2 p.m., were far out enough for my tastes.
Joe Nick Patoski loves to visit Far West Texas, but lives in the Hill Country village of Wimberley, which resembles certain far out towns in Far West Texas in more ways than he’d sometimes like to admit.
Hudspeth Hustlers (sidebar)
The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn (pop. 2,435) the Crossroads of the Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy’s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs.
The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people (3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra Blanca, Fort Hancock, and Dell City) live there.
Take Sierra Blanca (pop. 533), which sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch (see “Sued and Censored,” March 22, 1996) both thankfully out of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas (see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). And before that, Hudspeth County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-de-sacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru.
“Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker.
And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days.
In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Cafe, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main Street every day.
In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Florida-based developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches.
“The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs.
The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the time because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?”
“Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”–JNP
- Texas Mountains 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.
- The Ultimate Big Bend Hike Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty. [Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine, Travel Feature]
- Hangin’ Out With … Joe Nick Patoski interview in MyWestTexas.com
The cast of "The Real World: Austin," the 16th season of the MTV reality show, which will have its premiere on Tuesday night. Photograph by Michael Muller/MTV.
And the Hot Tub Goes to . . . Austin
The New York Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 19, 2005
WHEN Mayor Will Wynn of Austin announced last December that MTV’s “Real World” would be filming its 16th season in his city, he did so with the enthusiasm of a civic leader who had just persuaded a Fortune 500 company to move to his neighborhood. “MTV has discovered what we all know, that Austin is a great place to live, work and play,” Mayor Wynn declared. “We have a spectacular quality of life, particularly if you’re young, energetic, educated, driven and have a passion for the outdoors and live music.” The announcement was front-page news in the local paper, and it was deemed sufficiently important to be covered by news organizations around the world: “Real World” Discovers Another Cool City.
While the idea of playing host to seven hard-partying, hot-tubbing strangers ages 18 to 24, along with cameras and production crews for several months, may induce rolled eyeballs among the genuinely cool, a growing group of officials, civic leaders and economic advisers in a number of cities understand the value of being chosen to be host to “The Real World.”
Jonathan Murray, chairman and president of Bunim-Murray Productions, which produces the series, is the man who makes the final decision about where “The Real World” films.
“It has to be someplace where young people want to go, or a place they should want to go,” Mr. Murray explained. “When someone says” – and then he paused where the name of a city would be – “you go, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Beyond that, the city has to be supportive of the idea of allowing us to take our cameras everywhere and not putting up walls. We’ve gotten everybody from the New York City subway to the Paris subway to the Austin airport to let us bring our cameras into places that major films can’t get into.”
Will Wynn, mayor of Austin, in the house where it all takes place. Photograph by Bunim-Murray Productions.
The greater achievement is that cities are willing to cooperate despite incidents like the raid on “The Real World: San Diego” house in 2003 after a date-rape allegation had been made and an assault last year on a police officer hired to guard “The Real World: Philadelphia” house. He was attacked by several angry men, including two off-duty officers wanting to gain access to a party.
In exchange for the all-access pass, the occasional street closing and an inevitable brush or two with the law, the host city reaps 22 weeks’ worth of free advertising, plus additional exposure in reruns and on DVD’s.
“This is a postcard,” Mr. Murray said of the series. “The images we paint aren’t just pictures; the storyline and everything else reflect the vibrancy of the city we’re in.”
The consecutive choices of San Diego, Philadelphia and now Austin might suggest that Mr. Murray is straining for coolness, but ratings indicate otherwise. “The Real World: San Diego” was the top-rated series on basic cable among viewers 12 to 34 in 2004, seen by about 3.7 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen Media Research. “The Real World: Philadelphia” has been the most-watched series on basic cable among viewers 12 to 34 so far in 2005, averaging three million viewers per episode.
Austin, the smallest city to be host to “The Real World” (the show has its premiere on Tuesday night on MTV), had been waiting for the call for years. Officially known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it is the hometown of the South by Southwest music, film and interactive conferences and the “Austin City Limits” television series and music festival.
“Austin, I’m told, is the largest city without a major-league sports franchise,” Mayor Wynn said in an interview. “People occasionally ask when Austin will get a team. I say: ‘You know what? I hope Austin doesn’t get a major sports franchise.’ I want music to be our major franchise, where a family every few weeks or months spends a couple hundred bucks on live music. How perfectly does MTV play into that?”
So if cities like Austin compete for the opportunity to win a season of “The Real World,” why doesn’t Bunim-Murray make like an aggrieved owner of a National Football League franchise and demand tax breaks, freebies or incentives? “We’re not quite that arrogant,” Mr. Murray explained over a soda in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons in Austin, two blocks from the cast house where the wrap party would be held the following day.
Mr. Murray cites the Palms Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, where the cast of “The Real World: Las Vegas” lived during Season 12, as the best example of how hosts benefit from the show.
“George Malouf really stepped up,” he said of the hotel’s owner. “Most of the hotels in Vegas are owned by three or four companies, and all of them wanted to work with us. But when we went to see George, his hotel wasn’t done. He was still building. He walked us in and basically said, ‘I can make this anything you want it to be.’ We made it into a high-roller’s suite, which he effectively uses and markets to this day. I don’t think there’s a better example of someone taking the ‘Real World’ cool factor and commercializing it to great success.”
Last season’s choice, Philadelphia, was Mr. Murray’s most unexpected selection. “Philadelphia, more than any city I know, recognized they really need ‘The Real World,’ ” he said.
He had first visited Philadelphia when he was a college student and had observed a rebirth of its poorer areas. “More kids go to college in the Philadelphia area than Boston, but the majority leave when they graduate, and they need to change the image of that city,” he said. “They’ve been working on that, and as part of that, the mayor and the folks there recognized that if they could get ‘The Real World,’ that would go a long way toward changing the image among young people.” When a labor protest prompted Bunim-Murray to pull out, Mayor John F. Street and Gov. Edward G. Rendell intervened.
The upside for that city was an improved perception among an audience that the city had already singled out. Having two gay characters instead of the usual one for “The Real World: Philadelphia” dovetailed neatly with a gay-themed tourism campaign that had already begun, said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.
Mr. Murray is mum about where “The Real World” goes next but dropped a few hints. “There aren’t a lot of overseas places that are on my idea list, but Sydney has been a place I want to go to,” he said.
Canada was mentioned. Meaning Vancouver or Toronto? “Or Montreal,” he said with a poker face.
“I’m tracking 10 to 15 cities to see what they’re doing, what’s going on,” Mr. Murray said. “I probably have a list of six or seven cities in my head. There are cities like Philadelphia I wouldn’t have considered 10 years ago. Just because you’re not on my list today, that doesn’t mean you won’t be in a year or so.”
And if you are, Mr. Murray is confident that the feeling will be mutual. “When we’re through with a city,” he said, “they love us.”
Correction: July 10, 2005, Sunday:
An article on June 19 about the value derived by a city that plays host to the MTV series “The Real World” misspelled the surname of an owner of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, where the cast of the show’s 12th season lived. He is George Maloof, not Malouf.
Park and Parcel
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 7, 2006
Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty much business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal-unanimously.
In this instance, advocates for parks made their voices heard. Yet, the underlying problems with the state’s management of public resources didn’t go away.
Within three months of the almost fire sale at Big Bend Ranch, Texas Parks and Wildlife was so short on cash that 73 jobs were eliminated. The new Government Canyon State Natural Area, 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and limited to day use only. The Devil’s River State Natural Area is open only four days a week as well. The Resaca de la Palma World Birding Center in Brownsville, scheduled to open in two years, has neither a staff nor a budget. The north shore of Choke Canyon State Park has been closed, along with the park’s swimming pool. The San Jacinto Monument is shuttered due to building and fire code violations and antiquated elevators. After the Parks and Wildlife ferry to Matagorda Island State Park burned in 2003, ferry service to the island was ended and last October the state park was declared a state wildlife management area. The agency could no longer afford to operate the barrier island as a state park.
Other properties were handed off. Lake Houston State Park is now operated by the city of Houston, Lubbock Lakes was transferred to Texas Tech, and Kerrville-Schreiner State Park is now the property of Kerrville. Reimer’s Ranch, the newest showcase park in the Austin area, is operated by the county, not the state. New local parks such as Blue Hole in Wimberley, the new city park in Hondo, and Dick Nichols Park in Austin were funded by matching grants from TPWD to get established. That grant fund was $17 million two years ago. Today, it is $5 million. One agency official went so far as to dis restroom facilities at Goose Island and Galveston Island state parks as “Third World.”
But the surest sign that things aren’t so hunky dory is the more frequent violation of Parks and Wildlife’s unwritten commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Legislature.” Normally, Parks & Wildlife personnel have been known as quiet creatures, meek and mild as birders. They’d rather walk on eggshells than complain about funding. Otherwise, vindictive legislators might give them even less. But here was Walt Dabney, the director of state parks for Texas Parks and Wildlife, on a December speaking tour in Cooper, Giddings, and other communities affected by parks cutbacks, explaining to the people of Palestine why the Texas State Railroad was eliminating roundtrip departures from Palestine, costing the town considerable tourist dollars. There was no other option, he insisted. “We have stretched the budget as far as we can by using [prisoner] and community service labor in addition to park camp hosts.”
Joining Dabney in Palestine was Parks and Wildlife Commissioner John Parker, who bluntly told the gathering, “The problem lies with the Texas Legislature.” A month later, speaking at Bastrop State Park to the annual meeting of the nonprofit group Texans for State Parks, Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons and Commissioner Parker offered advice on how to inform legislators of the dire financial straits of the state’s parks. Executive Director Bob Cook used his “At Issue” column in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine to make clear the agency was low on funds and its infrastructure was failing. With a little investment, he said, parks could deliver great returns.
If only those sentiments echoed across the great divide.
Studies conducted by Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the State of Texas, and the Texas Parks Coalition over the past eight years have all reached the same conclusion: The majority of Texans consider parks an important measure of quality of life and are willing to pay more taxes for more green space. Yet the leaders of Texas act as though they’ve never heard of such studies. And the gap between what the public wants and what its politicians deliver is growing wider.
It’s hard enough managing a parks system under that kind of guidance, especially when the definition of a park includes a 26-mile steam railroad, a mountain tramway, a 100-year-old battleship, and several 19th century mansions and restored frontier forts. But when increased operating expenses eat up $8 million of the budget in four years and then the Lege lops $2 million more from an already anemic $51 million budget, the duct tape begins to loosen.
No one forced Walt Dabney to accept the task of running the parks division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. As a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, he didn’t need the gig. Lately though, he’s started to wonder about his decision, he admitted recently in his office at Parks and Wildlife headquarters in southeast Austin. “I came here seven years ago, rebuilt the staff, got rid of what little deadwood there was, [and] we’re in our third session of training park superintendents. We’ve got lots of good things going on, but I walked into a system that was totally underfunded. We got to ’06 and we ran out of rope.”
Dabney said the average age of a vehicle in the parks fleet is 10 years old. “We’ve replaced four vehicles out of a fleet of 900 over the last four years,” he said. “We’re lucky to get hand-me-downs from game wardens with only 120,000 miles on them. We’re thrilled, because we’d be walking otherwise.” Watching the budget get pared back puts Dabney in a “no more Mr. Nice Guy” mood. “Texas isn’t taking care of what it’s got, we’re not adding anything new, and we’re going backwards in a state that is growing so fast.” He wasn’t even looking over his shoulder to see who was listening. “I don’t think the rank-and-file senator or representative really knew how bad this was,” he added.
The buck, indeed, stops at the statehouse, where the prevalent attitude toward state parks in Texas seems to be: You want open space? Then work hard, get rich, and get a 10,000-acre spread of your own. Over the past 10 years, the Lege has commissioned several studies as part of its planning for 21st century growth. The findings have been studiously ignored. Former state representative Rob Junell (D-San Angelo), who held the purse strings to the TPWD budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to sit on the 2001 study conducted by Dr. David Schmidly and Texas Tech that suggested Texas ought to acquire 1.4 million acres of new state park land and 500,000 acres of local parks inside the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio urban triangle within the next 30 years.
The response from then-TPWD Commission Chair Katharine Armstrong–yes, the now-famous member of the Dick Cheney-Harry Whittington hunting party–was dismissive. “We are not going to launch into a great big acquisition campaign,” Armstrong told the Austin American-Statesman. “If I could wave my magic wand and realize everything in the Texas Tech study, perhaps I would. My goals have to be tempered by reality. We don’t have the resources to do that.” Instead, Parks and Wildlife launched the Land and Water Strategic Plan, calling for four new parks of 5,000 acres each or more inside the urban triangle. Five years into that 10-year plan, the project has yet to be funded.
Some legislators do fight for their local parks because they understand the economic impact of parks on surrounding communities, but no Texas legislator has emerged as a champion of parks across the state. Perhaps lawmakers just haven’t felt enough pressure. Park users may number in the millions, but as a special interest group they could take a few tips from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I’d hardly ever see park advocates at the commissioner meetings until the Big Bend Ranch flap,” Joseph Fitzsimons said. “Hunting and fishing advocates show up in big numbers and let you know where they stand on issues.”
The way Parks and Wildlife is structured contributes to the problem, starting with the nine commissioners who oversee the agency. They may be interested in conservation but most are privileged enough to spend their quality time outdoors on private ranches or farms. Typically there are only one or two commissioners who are strong advocates for parks in the tradition of Mickey Burleson, Nacho Garza, Tim Hixon, Terry Hershey, and Bob Armstrong.
Fitzsimons and Parker have assumed that role on the current commission. But rarely has there been a commissioner appointed specifically to look after parks first, rather than wildlife. It has been that way ever since the State Parks Board and the Texas Game and Fish Commission were merged into Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1963 by Governor John Connally in the name of a streamlined bureaucracy. The current structure is unlikely to change.
The two divisions are on different footing. The wildlife budget comes from Fund Nine, a federal excise tax on guns and gear and from hunting and fishing licenses. The parks budget is tied to a state sales tax on sporting goods. Unlike the Fund Nine monies, which the Lege can’t raid or cap because it is a federal tax, the state tax proceeds for parks are capped by the Legislature at $32 million, considerably less than the $100 million the tax currently generates. The balance goes into general revenue.
Texas ranks 49th in per-capita spending on parks among the 50 states (thank God for Mississippi). Even Arkansas has passed Texas by upgrading its system to meet current and future demands through a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for parks. Walt Dabney tells a story about friends from up north who used to come and spend the winter in Texas state parks. “Now they just make day trips into Texas because they’re spending the winter staying in Arkansas state parks. Their parks are in better shape than ours are.”
Quality-of-life factors, such as parks and amenities, are second only to an educated work force as the top criteria companies use when evaluating locations, Dabney said. In 2001, when Dallas-Fort Worth was one of three finalists for Boeing’s new corporate headquarters, DFW and Texas offered more tax breaks and incentives than Chicago and Illinois did. But Boeing ended up going to Chicago, which includes 87,000 acres of open space, parks, and forests in Cook County in its quality-of-life portfolio. Instead of increasing funding of parks to make Texas more attractive, Texas leaders responded with cutbacks. Dabney says that’s a dumb way to operate a government, especially if you’re trying to operate it like a business. “Tourism is the second or third component of the Texas economy and parks are the biggest component of the tourism segment,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of that, that’s bad economics.”
“What we’ve been doing is very parochial,” admitted Fitzsimons. “It’s ad hoc. There’s still not a plan to say how are we going to acquire new land, how are we going to tie the demand and the constituency to the service. The fish and wildlife constituency stay drilled into the department on a daily basis, from the squirrel hunters to the catfishermen to the bowhunters. They know their money [from hunting and fishing licenses] is going to the fish and wildlife division. They’re making sure they’re represented. But when you buy a canoe or a kayak or a mountain bike, you don’t have any expectations the sales tax from that is going to a place where you can use it. The sporting goods tax is a joke. It’s essentially GR [general revenue]. The sales of paddle craft have quintupled in the past 10 years. But I don’t have any more kayak trails to offer.”
The state of affairs has become so sorry that several wise men were recruited by Fitzsimons–a San Antonio attorney whose family owns extensive ranchland around Carrizo Springs–for a state parks advisory board. Among them are John Montford, who pushed through the sporting goods sales tax when he was a state senator; Andrew Sansom, the executive director of Parks and Wildlife under Governors Clements, Richards, Bush, and briefly, Perry; and George Bristol, a longtime fundraiser and advisor to the former Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who also sits on the board of the Texas Retailers Association and heads the Texas Parks Coalition. Bristol is pushing to lift the cap on the sporting goods sales tax and protect it from future raids and freezes. “If this Legislature, individually and collectively, says they believe in user taxes and user fees, and does not honor those user fees–I don’t care if it’s toll roads, parks, or what–then they got a real problem of honesty with the people of Texas,” Bristol said.
Bristol also said he was encouraged hearing Dabney and Fitzsimons speaking out. “Walter and Joseph and their predecessors get very goosy. They don’t want to talk money. They can say they need things but they wouldn’t touch money on a bet because they are fearful it looks like aggrandizement and empire-building, and they know when they go to the Legislature they’re going to get their asses handed to them. My advice to them is, "Boys, you’ve already had your ass handed to you. You might as well get up there and fight back."
Of all the returning wise men, none casts the long shadow that Bob Armstrong does. The former legislator, General Land commissioner, Parks and Wildlife commissioner, environmental advisor to Ann Richards, and one time assistant secretary of the interior is the only conservationist to have a queso dip named after him at Matt’s El Rancho restaurant in Austin. Armstrong should be resting on his laurels for swinging the deal that made the Anderson Ranch into Big Bend Ranch State Park. “I had thought after doing my duty to get Big Bend Ranch made a park for Texas, I’d go home and do something else,” he said. But he could no longer ignore the current parks crisis. “I’m back to look out for the ranch.”
It’s time, Armstrong said, that Texas suck it up and look forward. “We’ve got precious few parks and we’re going to grow immeasurably over the next 20 years,” he said. At the same time, he pointed out, “The average parks user isn’t on the commission, but there ought to be somebody there looking out for parks.”
Armstrong said he didn’t take umbrage at the commissioners for considering the sale of a piece of the Big Bend Ranch. He knew the circumstances too well. “When you’re out of money, you begin to do strange things,” Armstrong chuckled. “This is an example of people that are struggling to get what they want from the staff and here was a chance that maybe they could sell off a little bit of land and do some good things on the other parts.”
But he wasn’t buying that rationale either. “I sent a letter to the commissioners [after the Big Bend Ranch dust-up]. I said something like this should be considered not for what your problem is, but from what generations in the future are going to be saddled with. Your decision should be based on generations from now. This is such a small part of the budget–0.0007 percent–that to not upgrade our parks is just plain bad business. I don’t want there to be any kind of cap on the sporting goods tax. Parks should get the money it was intended to get so it can do things like repair the Matagorda Island ferry.”
Losing Boeing to Chicago should have been a wakeup call. The state should have gone on a green-space binge. Money alone won’t seal the deal. Compared to the Trans Texas Corridor, the Texas Water Plan, and all the multibillion-dollar big-ticket items being dreamed up to plan for future growth, a Texas 2050 park plan costs chump change, with guaranteed returns. If the current $35 million annual budget throws off $1.2 billion to local economies, as the number crunchers claim, think what a $500 million upgrade would throw off.
The solutions are simple. Raise the cap on the sporting goods tax from $35 million to $85 million, as Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) has proposed. Better yet, eliminate the cap on the sporting goods tax altogether, as Armstrong suggests. Make it an honest user tax. Last year’s take of more than $100 million is more than enough to operate the parks division and to launch a program to buy more parkland for future generations. And the governor would do well to occasionally appoint a member to the Parks and Wildlife Commission who is a parks-first advocate. If nothing else, that would bring a different point of view to the table.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimons dared to dream, wondering aloud if instead of selling off part of the biggest park in the state system, “why can’t we have a deal with John Poindexter in reverse–give him and his Cibolo Creek guests [direct] access, like we give that B&B by the Hill Country State Natural Area? Is it too crazy to say why shouldn’t we have it all?” Fitzsimons was right. We should have it all. But he knew as well as anyone that it was too crazy to take seriously. Bob Armstrong was reminded of that when he said, “People tell me I’m a communist when I talk about the need for Texans to have open space.”
“The people of Texas have to decide what they want for a park system,” Walt Dabney said. Visualize the people telling their legislators. Visualize Rick Perry using parks as part of his campaign, as he did back when he ran for lieutenant governor and used the Franklin Mountains State Park as a backdrop. Visualize any statewide candidate weaving a statewide parks plan into his or her stump speech. If that ever happened, Texas’s wide open spaces might be more a reality than a myth to the 25 million Texans who don’t own a ranch or a farm.
Keeping Up With Jones
AARP The Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July & August 2006
Fluffy, hot biscuits, fresh out of the oven and smothered with redeye gravy, with a thick slab of smoked ham on the side, are a great start to any day. But the biscuits and gravy I am eyeing are hardly standard fare. They are the signature menu item at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, the ultimate comfort food in my ultimate comfort city. After 30 years of visiting Nashville, I have finally arrived at the home of the gods–a white clapboard cafe attached to what once was a motel way out on the edge of town by the Natchez Trace. I am on the verge of understanding just why an ideal day in Music City USA begins here.
Yet as pleasing to the eye and mouthwatering as the biscuits and redeye gravy may be, I am not able to clean my plate. I seem to have developed a mild case of the nerves. Chalk up my condition to the anticipation of meeting my tour guide. If you’re going to see Nashville right, there is no better way to experience it than with George Jones, the King of Country Music, leading the way.
George Jones has spent most of his adult life in recording studios around Nashville singing classic cheatin’ songs in a powerful wail, from between clenched teeth, that would give Pavarotti pause. His record–or records–speaks volumes: 166 hit singles, from “White Lightning,” “Golden Ring,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” “High Tech Redneck,” and “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he is one of a select few country stars to receive the National Medal of Arts.
As soon as I spy him driving into the Loveless parking lot behind the wheel of a Ford van with his wife, Nancy, riding shotgun and his two most trusted backup singers and longtime pals, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, in back, I apologize to the waitress for the half-finished plate. “George Jones just ruined my appetite,” I tell her, smiling sweetly.
The NO SHOW personalized license plate on the van is a joking reference to his proclivity for missing gigs back when he was just as famous for his wild ways as he was for his music. He’s able to laugh at that reputation now. Newfound sobriety and a renewed work ethic following a near-fatal car accident–while driving drunk and talking on a cell phone in 1999–have energized him. These days he doesn’t just show up; he plays for half an hour longer.
At 74, The Possum, as he is known, could easily be resting on his laurels and letting his catalog, including his latest album, George Jones: Hits I Missed…And One I Didn’t, do the talking. Instead, he’s on the road every weekend (nearly 100 shows last year) and spends much of his downtime as he did the previous day, laying down tracks in the studio with young gun Blake Shelton and old-school honky-tonker John Anderson, as well as working on a collaborative venture with his fellow living legend Merle Haggard. And he still manages to squeeze in time to show off the real-deal version of his hometown to a visitor who thinks he’s seen it all. Within minutes of shaking hands, George has me confessing to a limited familiarity with Nashville.
Rise and Shine
“I don’t know all the history of this place,” George says, smiling shyly, as he surveys the Loveless lobby within arm’s reach of the autographed glossy photo of George and Nancy on the wall of country music stars behind the register. That’s understandable, because the Loveless opened its doors in 1951, four years before George hit town as a wet-behind-the-ears kid from the Big Thicket of southeast Texas by way of Beaumont. But he does know the Loveless is his kind of place. “We used to come out here all the time with different people back in the ’60s, for the biscuits, the ham, for a little bit of everything,” he says, patting his ample belly–food is one of the renewed pleasures following his renouncement of vices. “It’s just a good homey atmosphere, real country.”
Many of his fellow diners at the Loveless happen to be huge George Jones fans.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that many of his fellow diners happen to be huge George Jones fans. Before he and Nancy can finish their breakfast, fans are lined up with pen and paper in hand for an autograph. George obliges each and every one. One older man wearing a gimme cap wants to talk literature when he recognizes the familiar face.
“Hey there!” he shouts, grinning excitedly. “You don’t know me, but I just read your book "I Lived to Tell It All". You were the wildest, man!”
George manages a sheepish chuckle. “I ain’t supposed to be here, I tell you that.”
“I related to a lot of that,” the fan tells him. “I’m a survivor, too.” Gimme Cap bought the autobiography because he wanted to get to know George before he saw him for the first time at a recent concert at the Ryman Auditorium. The fan couldn’t have picked a better place. No one knows that better than George. The Mother Church of Country Music just so happens to be the next stop on his Nashville tour itinerary.
Tapping Toes and Tapping Roots
The Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and hosted the Grand Ole Opry during its glory years, from 1943 until 1974, when the Opry moved to the suburbs. The venerable red-brick structure fell into disuse for almost 20 years before it was revived as Nashville’s finest all-purpose concert venue, even hosting the Grand Ole Opry again every now and then. “The Ryman is second only to the Mormon Tabernacle in natural acoustics,” Nancy Jones points out.
Her husband is beaming at the building when we pull into the parking lot. “It’s my favorite place to play,” George says. He’s considerably more relaxed now than he was way back when he was riding his first hit, “Why Baby Why,” and he was very, very scared.
“George Morgan and Little Jimmy Dickens were standing off to the side, talking to me,” he explains, walking into the sacred space after signing an autograph for a little girl in a wheelchair at the entrance. He remembers becoming especially nervous when the stagehands informed him he couldn’t play guitar because he wasn’t a member of the local musicians’ union. “Hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my hands,” he recalls. “I was already shaking. When they told me that, I like to had a heart attack. Ernest Tubb was on stage singing, and right when he finished his song, they called me, and I said, ‘I just can’t go out there. I don’t have anything to do with my hands.’ As bad as I wanted to be on the Opry for the first time, I didn’t want to if I had to go out there like that. Dickens or Morgan–one of ’em, I can’t remember which–throwed their guitar over my shoulder and said, ‘We’ll take responsibility. You go ahead.’ So I did. It worked out.”
It sure did.
Deep in the Heart of Nashville
In a blink, George ducks out a side door of the Ryman, walks down a set of stairs, and crosses the alley into the rear entrance of an establishment identified as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. It is a route he’s taken many times, along with a number of country stars, back in the days when the Opry was in residence at the Ryman.
“We used to slide through the back door, have a beer or something,” George mentions as he walks briskly through the darkened bar, prompting heads to turn and cries of “George!” to erupt. This time, though, he’s just passing through, heading straight for the front door and Broadway, Nashville’s main drag. He’s not much on honky-tonks these days, and if he’s going to drink, it will be George Jones’s White Lightning bottled water, thank you very much.
On Broadway he surveys the streetscape like a proprietor. Tootsie’s is only one of several honky-tonks on the block, along with Robert’s Western World, the Bluegrass Inn, Second Fiddle, and Nashville Crossroads. These bars with stages are the most reliable venues for visitors to hear real live country music in its element. The storied Ernest Tubb Record Shop and some bar-bars are also on the street. Hatch Show Print, whose vintage posters are my favorite Nashville souvenirs, is one block down. The Nashville Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame are one block up. It takes less than a minute for a crowd to materialize once George hits the pavement, smiling a smile that telegraphs he made his peace with celebrity long ago.
Pickin’ ‘n’ Grinnin’
George beelines down the block, ducking into a storefront on the corner. The sign above the entrance reads Gruhn Guitars. “Gruhn is the place in Nashville for guitars,” George says as he gazes around twelve thousand square feet of vintage guitars like a kid in a candy shop. Within seconds, he plops on a stool, picks up an instrument, and commences to make sweet harmonies with his backup singers, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, running through “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” his voice hitting the notes as no one else can. Each pause between songs is met by a rousing round of applause from the growing audience that has followed him into the store. He is clearly in his element. When he stumbles on the lyrics of one of his own songs, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” he jokes to the gathering, “I didn’t write the song by myself. The other guy knows the rest of it.”
George wraps up the miniconcert after glancing at his watch. It’s time to go. There’s more to see.
Stars Crossed Paths
As George sneaks out the back entrance of Gruhn Guitars to his waiting van (he knows all the hidey-holes in Nashville), he is surprised by Shooter Jennings and a camera crew making a pilot for a reality show starring Jennings for the CMT network. George has known the son of the late Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter since Shooter was a baby (“He was raised pretty good by his mama, I tell you”) and delivered a resounding endorsement at the beginning of Jennings’s debut album.
The two musicians hug, smile, and catch up while another crowd gathers, joined by a Gray Line tour bus that screeches to a halt when the driver notices the sidewalk rendezvous. George and Shooter revert to a dialect familiar to those in the “bidness.”
“How long you gonna be in town?”
“We play the Gaylord Friday.”
“Friday? I have to go to work myself Thursday. I’ll be back in Sunday; maybe you can come see us. I’d love to take y’all out. Give me a call. You got my number?”
“Yeah, I got your number. I was nervous to call because everyone else is [calling].”
“What are you nervous about? You got you a hit going. Well, we’ll catch you later. See you Sunday, I hope.”
As Shooter and entourage depart, more fans move in for autographs, including a bearded fan with a dog.
“Hey, Buddy, say hi to George Jones!” the fan with the canine says.
Judging from how its tail is wagging, the shepherd’s a huge George Jones fan, too.
“Now I know what ol’ Hank Williams went through,” George murmurs as he struggles up the stairs into the side entrance of the Ryman and heads back to the dressing room to gather his gear. He’s peopled out and clearly looking forward to our last stop–his buddy, Manuel the tailor, whose shop near Music Row is one destination few out-of-towners are aware of.
If they only knew.
Dressed to Thrill
Manuel Cuevas is hardly just any tailor. He’s the Picasso of Nashville clothiers, whose flamboyant, sparkly stage creations have adorned the figures of Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan, among others. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.
Manuel Cuevas is the Picasso of Nashville clothiers. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.
Manuel and George have known each other since before either was a Nashville fixture, back when Manuel was working in Los Angeles for his father-in-law, Nudie Cohn. Cohn was creator of the Nudie suit (think Liberace decked in western wear), once a staple of every country star’s wardrobe. When he moved to Nashville in 1989, Manuel became the new Nudie, the gaudy rhinestone-and-spangle standard for every aspiring country music star.
“Manuel’s the only one to get it right the way we like it. He knows my taste. I’ll give him an idea–usually it’s just a little embroidery or something, or a rope on the sleeve–and he runs with it. It doesn’t take but a week or ten days to get Manuel to make me something,” George says as he emerges from the dressing room clad in a stylish denim outfit.
“Looks good,” he opines while Manuel fusses with the waist.
“I never fit him, ever. Nothing ever fits. I haven’t made him a good suit in 45 years,” the cherubic Manuel gripes, elbowing George as he measures him. Theirs is a relationship so familiar that every conversation is peppered with insults. “He has me make five pair of jeans every week. You know what that is? That’s a nightmare!”
George gives as good as he gets. “You know me, I’ll never put no pressure on you. This jacket don’t fit right. Nothing fits right. How come you never get anything right?”
“Everything is the wrong thing, every day is the wrong day,” mocks Manuel. “When you start complaining, that’s a sign it’s good.”
While they’re joshing, Nancy and Sheri and Barry are working the racks, and before you know it, they’re looking like stars, too, as they emerge from the dressing room, decked out in jackets that start at around $2,500.
In the midst of the couture chaos, George pauses and reflects upon the observation that he seems to be enjoying himself. “Well, I am,” he says. “I’ve had another chance on life. When I quit smoking, I started gaining weight, and it’s all in my belly,” he explains, patting it. “I can hit high notes now I couldn’t hit when I was 20.”
Then, no more drinking, no more doping?
“Nooo. I wouldn’t give you a dime for a toddy or a beer,” he says with a sense of finality. “And I quit on my own, with the help of the Good Lord and my wife. I drank for over 50 years. I did it all. But I had her there helping me. She didn’t give up on me. She stayed by my side when I was really needing her. It paid off for both of us.”
After one final pose–in which he strikes an “It’s Not Unusual” profile after Manuel says “Tom Jones” –George Jones calls it a day and heads for the van one last time, walking out arm in arm with Nancy. He needs the downtime because there’s more music to be made tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, until he can’t. That’s George Jones’s idea of being a senior. Slowing down is okay. Retirement is out of the question. And from all appearances, he’s liking it just fine.
The Boys with the Bands
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 10, 2006
For the past 19 winters, Roland Swenson, Nick Barbaro, and Louis Black have spent their Friday afternoons plotting and planning South By Southwest, a cool idea they came up with based on getting a bunch of bands and music people together. That cool idea has grown into the biggest music convention in the world, a film festival, and an interactive conference. For two weeks every March, Austin becomes the center of the Alternative universe, with 10,000 registered participants and another 10,000 with similar bents hanging around. In observance of SXSW’s 20th year, the three founders talked about what it looks like from the inside looking out after all these years. Excerpts follow:
Texas Observer: Do people ever come up and ask What is South by Southwest?
Nick Barbaro: I can’t remember the last time that happened.
Swenson: When I was in Sydney [Australia] we went to the Aquarium and the girl who did one of those green screen things where they put you on a photo–we were on a boat with a shark attacking us–she saw my jacket and she knew what SXSW was. She went on at length about how excited she was.
Black: I’ll be at dinner with my sister in California and I’m talking about it and the waitress will come over and start talking about her South By experience.
Swenson: And then they bring their CD.
Barbaro: I can’t really remember the last time that happened to me. What I would tell them is, it’s a music festival and something like 1,400 bands play in clubs all around Austin and music business people come and talk music business.
Black: …and a film festival and interactive conference.
Barbaro: There’s that, too.
TO: Why did you start this?
Swenson: There was already some momentum to do something like this. The New Music Seminar guys [in New York, agreed to put on a satellite festival in Austin before backing out] At that point, I went and told Nick and Louis, this could be big.
TO: Why do it now?
Black: It’s the most fun I have all year.
Barbaro: How could we stop? I’m not sure how that would work.
Swenson: I still have a kid to put through college.
TO: How has it changed?
Black: There were 200 bands the first year, and 1,400 registrants. There will be 1,400 bands this year, and 10,000 registrants. No movies were screened the first year because there wasn’t a film festival. This year there are 90 movies. No bloggers attended the first year. We’ll probably have 1,000 this year.
Barbaro: There wasn’t even an Internet the first year.
Swenson: We didn’t have a fax machine or desktop publishing or cellphones. Reagan was president…
TO: Is there a secret to growing a business like this?
Black: Tenacity. We all really believe in this. It’s the perfect model for the post-record company world of music where the biggest labels are only interested in a very limited number of acts, so it really works for musicians.
Swenson: I think it has more to do with Austin and the fact that when people traveled here from New York or Los Angeles, suddenly they didn’t have their secretaries with them and suddenly they could talk to people, and they liked it.
Black: At Sundance, they’re not on the streets that much. They’re at private parties and private houses. You come to Austin during SXSW and those people are on the street. Two years ago, I saw five of the top film distributors walking out of the convention center to go eat barbecue. These guys had come up together, but that was probably the first time they relaxed and enjoyed each other in a long time. They certainly didn’t do it at Sundance. It’s Austin, Austin, Austin.
Swenson: This was designed for people who don’t live in New York, LA or Nashville. That’s who we initially targeted. Because it worked, people from those cities started coming too.
TO: Now the town is full of people from New York, LA, and Nashville.
Swenson: And London and Tokyo and Sydney…
Barbaro: And Houston and Kansas City and weird places. I first thought this was going to be a success when we heard a group of bookers and managers from Houston had gotten together for the first time here. They had never met each other in Houston.
TO: Any particular memories about that first year?
Black: The first morning Roland called me at home. He woke me up and said, “It’s gonna happen today.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s today, Louis.” I said, “Yes, it is,” and I went back to sleep.
Swenson: I was very, very afraid.
Barbaro: Stubbs [the late barbecue maestro CB Stubblefield] turned up at the softball game with a trailer load of barbecue meat and no serving utensils. So he served meals to everyone at the tournament with his hands-beans, everything. He had big hands.
TO: What was the worst part of the first year?
Swenson: For me, it was this fear that okay, we’ve convinced all these people to travel here for this thing and what if they get here and they’re like, “Is this all? You got me here for this?” So, when they all got here and seemed to be having a good time, that was a tremendous relief. I had been having dreams where I’d be at the event and people would be going, “There he is! He’s the one! Get him!”
Barbaro: We really did go into it not knowing whether people would show up and whether they would have interests here when they did. So, when both of those things happened, it was all good.
Black: It was a period of time when I was psychotically depressed anyway, so it was the third or fourth year when I suddenly realized people loved this event, and they loved coming here.
TO: What was the best part about last year?
Swenson: You know, we don’t get to go to SXSW.
Black: I love watching the people who come. That’s mostly what we get to do. I just watch the faces of the people-the Scandinavians who look like they’ve died and gone to heaven, or the Japanese who are just trying to figure it out.
TO: Who are your favorite foreigners?
Black: The Uzbeks.
Swenson: We’re more famous in England than we are in the States.
TO: What are the biggest customer complaints?
Black: It’s really a drag when you’re dealing with a lot of people who want to get into something and you can’t let ’em all in it. I get fascist about it which makes it worse, but it really is a drag. You want to get everybody in. That’s why you’re doing this. The idea is not exclusion. We are not New York doormen. They wrote negative criticism about me one year on a forum about how I shouldn’t be allowed to work doors.
Swenson: There were always times when you couldn’t get in somewhere. It’s the nature of the beast. If we’re gonna do shows in these relatively small clubs and we’re gonna put out acts people want to see, then they’re gonna fill up, we can’t get around that. So what we try to do is just keep having lots and lots of shows so there’s always some place you can get in. The people who have the most fun are the ones who, if they go somewhere and can’t get in, go somewhere else. It’s the ones who stand in line for an hour and a half that get really mad [as JNP and family did last year waiting to see the Kaiser Chiefs and getting in too late]. We’ve gotten better anticipating and managing it, matching up the artist with the right size venue when we can. Frequently, it’s the artists that demand to play a place that’s too small because they want a line down the street, they want a sea out front.
Black: Sometimes they want to play a small room just because they figure it’s South By Southwest and they feel like playing a small room, and they love the line down the street. That’s part of what you’re here for, to get that buzz going.
Black: The thing most misunderstood about SXSW is that the emphasis is always on the event working as well as it can for as many people as it can. It’s never on making money. I don’t expect anybody to believe it, but it’s one of the things that makes it a pleasure.
Barbaro: I’ve got this down to where I don’t really do much during the event. I have hours where I have to sit around and wait for things to go wrong, but they don’t. Nothing ever goes wrong.
Black: You’re saying that chain mail vest you made is nothing?
Barbaro: I did have time to make a chain mail vest two years ago during the event. I go to see at least a couple movies each year and music. If the period leading up to the event were more restful then I’d feel more, more rested for going to events during it, but the lead up period is actually more work and more stressful than during the event.
TO: What do we have to look forward to this year?
Black: All the people who love music are coming back again; it’s no longer the Internet millionaires. One of the weird things that we’ve come to realize is that SXSW Interactive is a hot event. It’s the only one where I go online to read about what’s going on. I know a lot of bloggers come, a lot of next generation media people who aren’t interested in money, but in ideas.
Swenson: We’re beyond podcasting now into I don’t know what. One of the reasons we added the film and the interactive events was that entertainment is coming from those sources. The new music business is less about companies and more about artists. It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown. We’ve always had a broad base of participation. It wasn’t just about major labels or just about indie labels or just about artists or bookers or whatever. Now, artists have so many more options than they did when we first started.
Black: The evolution of technology is allowing new and different kinds of films to be made. You can make films cheaper. So people making films are younger. We always felt that docs and narratives are equal. I don’t think that we were even conscious about how different that was. I think that it was our organic training, treating docs as seriously as we did narratives. One of the real pleasures of this has been that most of the things we did because we thought they were the right things to do have turned out to be good for business.
TO: You still like each other?
Swenson: We fought a lot back in our early days. But it was over stuff that we thought was important. It was never about our personalities. Well, maybe, I don’t know.
Black: It’s been the dynamic of a marriage but there’s no sex. It took us a while.
Barbaro: It took 10 years for print media to win the softball tournament.
TO: Are you surprised how it’s turned out?
Swenson: People always say I bet you never thought it would be this big, but I did. I guess that doesn’t sound very modest. I always knew the idea was good. And it’s not even my idea. But once we got the first one under our belt, we said, okay, we got this down. We know now that we just can’t take anything for granted. I don’t take it for granted that there will be SXSW after this year. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen.
Black: I never dreamed that it could become what it is. I don’t think Nick did. But Roland did. He got what it was and how it was going to work. He always kept seeing ahead. We [Nick and I] were catching up. Roland was always the one who knew where we needed to go next.
TO: That’s the tricky part with growing a concept. You don’t usually find the same people in place this far down the line, especially considering how it has grown.
Swenson: We all complement each other. I had been involved in a lot of stuff that was good or cool, but that didn’t work out. Nick and Louis taught me how to be a businessman in the creative world, which is not easy. They had done it. They launched the Chronicle. They knew what you had to do to make that work, how to balance the integrity with making it financially feasible, which you have to do in any kind of creative endeavor.
Black: We all learn from each other. Sometimes we did it gracefully and sometimes not gracefully. But the bottom line is, we did it, even when were pissed at each other. Nick was the inspiration, the leader, I think we’re more equal now, but for the longest time and in many ways, he’s been the most anonymous of all. Nick taught Roland and I about money and the right way to do things, which was Nick’s way.
Swenson: It still is.
Barbaro: It’s unusual to see the same management in place after something has been going for 20 years. The tendency is to sell out to a conglomerate. But we can’t think of anything we’d rather be doing. There’s nowhere else to go, why sell out?
TO: When do you start work on ’07?
Black: We started two years ago.
Swenson: It takes about six weeks to mop up afterwards, pay all the bills, settle the lawsuits, then we spend a lot of time talking about what happened and what we want to do different or new. In June we start putting together the first brochures and then we start taking bands and films in August.
TO: This all sounds very interesting, but what I really want to know is, Is it too late to get a CD to you?
Joe Nick Patoski used to discuss the music business with Roland Swenson in the parking lot of Raul’s Club when both managed new wave bands in the late 1970s. He later shared office space with Nick Barbaro and Louis Black and the Austin Chronicle. He has attended every year of South By Southwest and does the play-by-play with Kevin Connor of the championship game of the softball tournament.
Back in Black
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
With or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.
It’s usually little more than a footprint in moist soil or a dark blur darting across a dense green forest, leaves rustling and branches cracking in its wake. Some sightings are more specific: a mammal as big as a person, only heavier, that can stand up like a human and run like a deer. A few reports in recent years are quite detailed, like the one in February 2005, on Interstate 10, one-fourth of a mile west of the official Texas welcome center in Orange, when traffic screeched to a halt as a bear rambled around the highway median. Or the regular sightings at an RV park on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend Reservoir. None should be too surprising — since the subject at hand pays less attention to state lines than people do.
All of them bear witness, as it were, to the obvious:
Black bear are coming back to East Texas.
“What we’re seeing here is a regional bear expansion,” Nathan Garner declares matter-of-factly. An affable bear of a fellow (more black bear than grizzly, actually), Garner is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas, overseeing a staff of 60 covering 57 counties. He also knows a few things about bears. His interest began as a child growing up in the Houston area and continued as a college student pursuing a biology degree at the University of Houston, then at the University of Montana, where he worked on a border grizzly project under Charles (Mr. Bear) Jonkel. His graduate studies at Virginia Tech included tracking 47 black bears around the Appalachian Mountains.
The black bear is afraid. By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.
He can tell you that black bear can actually be brown, red or even blond, stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, that they’ll eat anything and that they are not aggressive towards humans. “Grizzlies will charge when trapped,” Garner says. “The black bear is afraid.” Unless you get between a mother and her cubs, that is. Black bear coexist with deer. “By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.”
Garner will also tell you that Bud Bracken of Honey Island had 305 bear hides when he stopped hunting and that, while the last native Ursus americanus in the state may have been shot in Polk County almost 50 years ago, 47 verified sightings throughout the Pineywoods, the Big Thicket and along the Sabine River since 1977, as well as hundreds more anecdotal sightings, have been recorded since.
To prove how ripe East Texas is for the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) and its subspecies cousin, Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana black bear that historically roamed East Texas, Garner takes me on a tour of a couple hundred miles’ worth of bear habitat in the central and southern Pineywoods.
Even as black bear were being hunted out of Texas, Garner explains, recovery programs in adjacent states were underway. Beginning in 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission moved 254 bears into the Ouachita and Ozark mountains from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, the most successful restoration of a large carnivore population in the U.S. One hundred sixty-one black bear from Minnesota were moved into Louisiana between 1964 and 1967 to bolster the few hundred Louisiana black bear remaining. The ban on hunting bear in Texas in 1987, and regionally in 1992, when the Louisiana black bear was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, further bolstered bear numbers to the point of expanding their range as close as a few miles north of the Red River in McCurtain County in southeast Oklahoma and along the Sulphur and Sabine rivers. A permanent black bear population is just a matter of time.
The bigger question is, Will Texans greet the bears with open arms or loaded ones?
Garner is responsible for coming up with the answer. He’s invested four years heading the committee that recently completed the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan, 2005 2015. Now he’s spearheading the ETBB task force and still keeping options open for the most controversial element of the plan — relocating 30 females with cubs to sites in East Texas under TPWD oversight.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism.
As a biologist, Garner sees the obvious benefits in bringing back wildlife to its former native habitat. But as an administrator, he understands too well the wariness some humans have warming up to the idea. “How dare you put my child at risk?” one mother challenged him at a public meeting. For that reason, Garner makes clear that the relocation idea will move forward “only if there is strong support.” If public sentiment stands against TPWD helping to establish colonies, the project won’t happen.
But in one sense it doesn’t matter, because black bear are coming anyway.
Surprisingly, public reaction has been largely positive. Pollsters from Michigan State University surveyed 3,000 Texas households and 485 people who showed up at 10 town meetings that TPWD conducted around East Texas. The results were illuminating. The majority of those attending the public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive. The largest turnout was the 108 people who showed up in Kountze, in the heart of the Big Thicket. Meetings in Texarkana and Beaumont attracted the fewest. The greatest opposition was voiced by residents living near the Big Thicket preserves. Garner is not satisfied. “I want 75 percent,” he says.
A significant element of the East Texas bear plan is the mix of public and private stakeholders. Representatives from the Big Thicket Association, a landowners group from Newton County, the Texas Department of Transportation, Temple-Inland Corporation, the East Texas Beekeepers Association and the Alabama-Coushatta nation all had a seat at the table alongside various state, federal and NGO entities. The value of the partnership becomes evident when Garner veers south, then west of Lufkin to South Boggy Slough, where Don Dietz lives. Dietz is a biologist for Temple-Inland Corporation, the timber products giant that controls more than 1.2 million acres of East Texas woodlands, including South Boggy Slough.
Healthy black bear habitat translates into healthy forests, as far as Temple-Inland is concerned, Dietz explains, as we drive past clear-cut pine plantations, conservation forests of hardwoods that will never be touched and SMZs, the streamside management zones that provide critical riparian habitat for wildlife on the move, including black bear.
“We would not be for the bear if we thought it would negatively impact how we manage our timber,” Dietz states frankly. “Temple-Inland wants to make money off timber. As it is, biodiversity is in our best interest. We have seven bald eagle nests on T-I property in Texas.”
Dietz points out how selectively clear-cut land encourages growth of sedges, grasses and berries for bear to feed on in early spring. Pine plantations provide trees for denning and loafing. Mixed forests provide berries through summer. Hardwood bottoms in the SMZs provide downed woody debris full of grubs and other insects for bears to eat and drop the nuts to satisfy black bears’ dietary needs in the fall. If TPWD’s relocation program gets the green light, Temple-Inland has committed to hosting release sites in several locations, according to Dietz. Bear in the woods are good for the land and good for business. “They’re coming,” Dietz says. “I had dinner with a guy two weeks ago in San Augustine County who’s seen a bear twice in the past few weeks.”
“That’s 20,000 acres of the best black bear habitat in East Texas,” Garner says as he drives away. “That habitat offers bears everything they need. The Neches River corridor is the keystone. When I drive through the country, I think bear will do better on managed lands because they’re managed for diversity.”
Somewhere around the Angelina National Forest, he turns from the main highway and promptly gets lost on a network of unmarked back roads surrounded by forests and woodlands. “There’s groceries and cover in there,” Garner says, squinting into an impenetrable thicket. “It’s the roads that present the problem,” he says, changing direction again, “because roads bring people.”
The majority of those attending public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive.
Many roads also lead to hunting club cabins tucked in the backwoods, which is one asset Garner hopes to tap into. Hunters get back in the deepest woods, so they’re likelier to ID bears. Their cabins are also destined to be bear magnets if the clubs don’t take measures to properly store and dispose of garbage. Communicating with hunting clubs now will save a lot of hassles in the future, Garner believes.
The nuisance factor looms large. Black bear may be shy and prone to run, but they adapt quickly to humans. Garbage cans, raiding of deer feeders, bee hives and stock pens are all potential problems. As omnivores, black bear have been known to occasionally dine on small animals, be they wildlife, livestock or house pets. If measures aren’t taken to keep garbage lids secure, pet food out of reach, wildlife feeders monitored and so forth, bad stuff can happen.
What seems relegated to the past is human hostility towards bears. Some folks are still inclined to regard them as pests and vermin that should be eradicated, such as realtor Fuzzy Harmon, who told the Lone Star Eagle weekly of Marshall, “It makes about as much sense to spend money on bears as it does to stock Lake O’The Pines with piranha.” (For the record, piranhas are not native to East Texas; black bear are.) But Harmon’s sentiment is clearly in the minority.
“We’re never going to change those folks,” Garner admits. “There are people against this who are antigovernment and still mad about the Big Thicket,” portions of which were declared a national wildlife refuge, he acknowledges. “But I didn’t walk away from any town meeting discouraged.”
Garner’s patience with such concerns and fears, warranted or not, reflects one blueprint he’s followed while articulating Texas policy, the Black Bear Conservation Committee plan initiated in 1990 to promote the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. The Baton Rouge-based BBCC, whose members include Garner, Dietz, TPWD’s Ricky Maxey and several other East Texans, oversees the successful bear recovery programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, while raising public awareness and putting in place a plan for dealing with bears that cause damage, in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Fish & Game Commission.
In Jasper, at the TPWD offices, Garner hands me off to district wildlife biologist Gary Calkins. Calkins knows the southern hot zone of potential bear habitat along the Sabine and Neches river corridors well enough to fret about the area’s future.
“Bottomland hardwood forest is the most diverse ecosystem in East Texas,” he says. “It’s home to 500 vertebrates and 1,150 plant species, but 75 percent of these forests have been lost since settlement.” More loss, he fears, is just around the corner. While Temple-Inland remains a dominant presence, Calkins has observed other large timber companies such as International Paper and Louisiana Pacific selling off tracts to forest investment companies (among them, Harvard University) more interested in short-term profit than long-term conservation plans. “Some are pretty good stewards,” Calkins allows. “But others have no interest in biodiversity. They want to cut and get out. The northern part of East Texas has already gone through these growing pains. Here in the southern end, we had it made for awhile.” But with the short-term profit mentality moving in, he says, “all of it is at risk.”
Perception issues are less worrisome. He’s heard the comment, “My kids are going to be at the bus stop and the bears are going to eat them,” a dozen times.
“I try to explain that I’m more concerned about the neighbor’s dog running loose that’s going to hurt their kids.”
While cruising through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on the western shores of Lake B.A. Steinhagen between Jasper and Woodville, Garner surveys trashcans and camp sites that may have to be retrofitted. He breaks into a “Hey, Yogi” voice, assuming the cartoon character Boo Boo Bear spying a “pic-a-nic basket.” Garner is trying to emphasize the need for humans to dissuade bear.
Having had close-up encounters with black bear in Minnesota, in the Mexican state of Coahuila and at many zoos, I have been persuaded by Garner’s tour that East Texas is primo bear habitat, as long as the people of East Texas let it be. But I am also impatient enough to hope public support will materialize for a restocking program that will bring them back sooner rather than later.
- See A Bear?
- Call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112 or at regional offices in Tyler (903) 566-1626, San Antonio (830) 569-8700, Kerrville (830) 896-2500 and Alpine (432) 837-2051
- Don’t feed the bears. Period.
- What if a bear approaches?
- Don’t panic, don’t shoot and don’t approach. Don’t run, either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It’s trying to see, hear and smell you. If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. It’s afraid. And NEVER approach a bear cub.
Westside Bears: an Unlikely Success Story
In the late 1980s, black bears from the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, began migrating across the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region, returning to a home range that had been unoccupied for nearly 50 years. The recolonization movement was a natural process, surprising many wildlife experts.
“If you look at all of Texas, the eastern two-thirds of the state had the best habitat, precipitation, vegetation and ecological system for bears,” says David Holdermann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department endangered resources specialist who lives in Alpine. “The Trans-Pecos, ironically, has one of the lesser natural carry capacities to support bears.”
But the black bears (Ursus americanus) continued to migrate — driven perhaps by scarcity of food, drought or some natural instinct that told them there were richer resources, remote mountains and sparse human population to the north.
Holdermann says his best guess is that there are now around 80 black bear in the Trans-Pecos, primarily in the southern sections of Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde counties — some of the state’s most remote, inaccessible terrain.
Of that figure, the breeding population probably numbers around 30 to 40 bears, says Holdermann. Extensive state and federally funded research in the past decade has focused on determining the extent of recolonization, including monitoring bears’ movements through radio collaring, habitat analysis and field studies of bear sightings and bear depredations.
A biological key driving the bear recolonization process is the philopatric factor, which means a female black bear will allow her female offspring to remain on her home range. However, male offspring are forced to disperse outside the mother’s home range.
“Because of this pattern,” says Holdermann, “males will range farther outward, searching for a new home range with mates. Consequently, what we see is a slow, incremental expansion by females into new areas. Males are generally finding everything they need to expand except suitable females.” Male black bears may range over a 100-square-mile area.
The resident breeding black bear population is believed to occupy an area covering the Chisos Mountains in the center of Big Bend National Park, the Dead Horse Mountains and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (near the eastern edge of the park), the Del Norte Mountains (south of Alpine), the Davis Mountains (near Fort Davis) and the Guadalupe Mountains (south of the New Mexico border). Bear sightings, usually involving males, have also occurred in other areas of West Texas, but far less frequently.
The primary black bear breeding habitat in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Mountains.
Raymond Skiles Jr., the chief wildlife biologist in Big Bend National Park, estimates the current number of female black bears in the park to be around 15. The figure is down from a peak female population of around 30 bears in 2000, although Skiles believes the number is now increasing again.
“We had a precipitous decline starting around 2000 2001, following a failure in the food supply because of drought conditions,” says Skiles.
Even though black bears appear to be in a new recolonizing phase, he warns, “The population isn’t safe and secure here. We don’t know now how many bears are breeding females. It’s a very tenuous existence. We need a couple of good years to get that breeding population back up.”
Since 1987, Skiles has devoted a large portion of his time to studying black bears and devising programs and methods to lessen the chance of conflict between bears and park visitors.
“We’ve had to go through an immense change to adapt to the bears,” he says. Changes include an extensive public education program, the creation of bear-proof trash containers and food-storage lockers for campers, bear-proof landfill operations for waste disposal and the development of a bear management and research team. The work has paid off: no major incidents involving bear-human encounters have occurred in the park.
TPWD wildlife specialist Holdermann recalls an example of male bear migration that occurred in Alpine in June 2003, when a young, mature black bear was found wandering in the downtown area. Holderman received an emergency call at his home about 1 a.m. He loaded a dart rifle with Telazol, an immobilizing chemical that interrupts an animal’s nerve transmission system.
“We darted it in one shot and it took five minutes to be immobilized and drop from the tree,” he recalled. Nicknamed the “Courthouse Bear,” it was fitted with a radio collar and transported and released in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — all within five hours. In a few months, the bear had migrated 75 miles north to the Del Norte Mountains, about 15 miles south of Alpine, where it remained until radio contact was lost earlier this year.
Public opinion on bear recolonization is narrowly divided, according to a recent TPWD-sponsored survey. A questionnaire mailed to 1,100 landowners in nine Trans-Pecos counties who own at least one section of land received a 42 percent return response. Black bear recolonization was not favored by 46 percent, favored by 40 percent and not answered by 14 percent.
Holderman notes that the TPWD approach to the recolonization process is not proactive. The recolonization has occurred naturally. The state’s primary role has been to monitor the process, gather research data, attempt to minimize threats of bear-human contact and educate the public.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism and the return of a sense of “wildness” to the region.
Private landowners are an important part of any natural recolonization process, Holdermann notes, since 96 percent of the bears’ range is on private property.
“Once we’ve fully characterized how landowners feel about the black bear population, at that point we need to step back and ask what it means to the future of the bear population,” he says.
“The negative attitude toward black bears reflects a strong pattern that has grown from the frontier experience — it generally extends to all large predators. It’s a legitimate point for people to be concerned about property. The development of a successful bear strategy will have to include those private property interests, as well as the creation of a viable black bear habitat.”