Clinic Stories

More Than Meets The Eye

The Chihuahuan desert in Southwest Texas is an empty place. While biking across I decided to count the vehicles that passed me on one 20 mile stretch. It totaled one pick up truck going the other way. It was a Sunday afternoon but weekdays didn't seem much busier. I stopped at the only gas station in Comstock, TX to fill up on water before entering the heart of the desert. Further on is a stretch of 70 miles between water and 90 miles between towns. But I mainly stopped to make phone calls knowing that reception would be iffy for a few days.

A man pulled up to get gas and asked me about my bike trip. I intended to go another 30 miles to Langtry and camp there overnight. The man, Steve Black, is a professor of Archaeology at Texas State University and he invited me first to stop by in the morning for a tour of an archaeological site on a ranch in Langtry. Later he invited me to spend the night in the guest house on the ranch which I accepted.

To say the experience was fascinating would be an understatement. The guest house overlooked the Rio Grande River and Mexico. The 85 year old ranch owner, Jack Skiles, was born there and authored a book about Langtry's founder and one of Texas's most famous citizens, Judge Roy Bean, the subject of many books, a television series, and several movies including one starring Paul Newman. Jack maintains a personal museum of artifacts collected on the property by he and his father over more than 100 years. Indian hunter and gatherers lived in the rock shelters of Eagle's Nest Canyon for 8000 years, fishing in the Rio Grande, hunting game and eating very tough desert plants that took days of cooking to be edible. Arrowheads and rock tools were so common Jack's father cemented hundreds of them in the tiles around the guest house fireplace. Jack put the property into a state historic conservation trust to protect its ancient heritage. Many areas will not be excavated for generations.

A wet Spring had the desert plants in bloom. Rattlesnakes and Mountain Lions are common. Cave paintings are abundant. Burial grounds have revealed common diseases and parasites, hair analysis details their diet during different seasons and stool samples show what kind of animals they ate. Bat bones found in a sickly woman are believed to have been eaten in an attempted cure. Some of the vegetation was so high in sugars that many lost their teeth by early adulthood.

These tribes met their end with the appearance of Europeans. When the Apaches and Comanches got guns and horses they expanded into this territory and took the women as captives. Spanish conquerors took men as slaves to work the Mexican silver mines. Old world diseases decimated their small numbers. Combined, they ceased to exist three hundred years ago leaving millenia of archaeological treasures. A chance encounter revealed more than one could imagine beneath the desert's emptiness.

Back to Top