Exploring the Big Bend Country

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Exploring the Big Bend Country

By Peter Koch and June Cooper Price

One of the Big Bend’s most respected photographer-naturalists conducts a personal tour of the natural and human history of the region in words and photographs.



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6 x 9 | 192 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71655-1

Photographer-naturalist Peter Koch first visited the new Big Bend National Park in February, 1945, on assignment to take promotional pictures for the National Park Service. He planned to spend a couple of weeks—and ended up staying for the rest of his life. Koch's magnificent photographs and documentary film-lectures Big Bend, Life in a Desert Wilderness and Desert Gold introduced the park to people across the United States, drawing thousands of visitors to the Big Bend. His photographs and films of the region remain among the best ever produced, and are an invaluable visual record of the first four decades of Big Bend National Park.

In this highly readable book, Koch's daughter June Cooper Price draws on the newspaper columns her father wrote for the Alpine Avalanche, supplemented by his photographs, journal entries, and short pieces by other family members, to present Peter Koch's vision of the Big Bend. The book opens with his first "big adventure," a six-day photographic trip through Santa Elena Canyon on a raft made from agave flower stalks. From there, Koch takes readers hiking on mountain trails and driving the scenic loop around Fort Davis. He also describes "wax smuggling" and other ways of making a living on the Mexican border; ranching in the Big Bend; the prehistory and Native Americans of the region; collaborating with botanist Barton Warnock on books of Trans-Pecos wildflowers; and the history and beauty of Presidio County, the Rio Grande, and the Chihuahuan Desert.

This fascinating blend of firsthand adventures, natural history, and personal musings on anthropology and history creates an unforgettable portrait of both Peter Koch and the Big Bend region he so loved.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Santa Elena Canyon
  • 2. Mountain Trails
    • Betsy Koch Clark: Dad and I Hike in the Chisos
  • 3. Fort Davis and the Scenic Loop
  • 4. Smuggling and Other Career Paths
  • 5. Longhorns and Pronghorns
  • 6. The Search for Early Man
    • Betsy Koch Clark: Arranging the Snake
  • 7. Desert Diversity
    • Patricia Koch: My Hot Springs Flood Story
  • 8. Working with Warnock
    • Don Dhonau: The Single Blooming Flower
  • 9. Presidio County
  • 10. Wild and Scenic Río
  • 11. Silence of the Desert
  • Notes
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Index

Peter Koch (pronounced "coke") spent his lifetime climbing mountains. As soon as one summit was reached, he found another lofty goal to take its place. Well known in the 1950's for his lectures and his extensive knowledge of natural history and photography, he was also a positive thinker and a public speaker gifted with confidence and authority.

Peter Koch would have described himself only as a self-taught photographer interested in nature. He was thoughtful, focused, and I thought he could do just about anything, but, then, I was his oldest daughter.

Dad was strict but never negative. He taught us respect not only for people but also for the natural world he found so important. He also taught by deed, not word, and filled our home with classical music and literature purchased on his lecture tours.

Dad and his family arrived in the United States from Romania when he was nine. His first challenge must have been learning English and the customs of America. As a Boy Scout, he was introduced to photography and discovered his lifelong passion. His curiosity about the wildlife of this country is evident in his first simple negatives of flowers, birds, and butterflies.

This Introduction should also include a few words about our family as it was in our "life before Texas." Dad, my mother, Etta, and two younger sisters, Betsy and Patricia (Patti), completed my immediate family. We lived in the quiet rural community of Terrace Park, a few miles east of Cincinnati, Ohio. Dad provided a modest but comfortable living as chief photographer for the Cincinnati Times-Star. He was also associated with the Museum of Natural History and was occasionally an instructor of photography at the University of Cincinnati Evening College. However, even more important than his career was the enjoyment he found outdoors as a self-taught naturalist and a dedicated wildlife photographer.

I recall our comfortable, small white house in Terrace Park, surrounded by woods and fields. I enjoyed climbing the sycamore trees and playing house in the woods behind the garage. I was much too busy to be surprised the day Dad came home towing a twenty-three-foot house trailer behind his Chevrolet.

It was 1944 when Dad requested a leave of absence from the newspaper. My parents told me we were going to Arizona to see if the climate would cure my mother's asthma. Betsy was seven; Patti was almost two. I was eleven and ready for adventure.

Photographers were excited at this time about the high quality of Kodak's newly introduced color movie film. Dad was particularly interested in its potential to offer a more appealing presentation of his wildlife films. He called them "documentaries"—like those I'd seen when he took me to the Museum of Natural History on Saturday morning. He felt the quality of Kodak's movie film would be a big factor in launching a new career. Dad wanted to finish his two natural history films, which were already in progress, and planned to do another of the Arizona desert while Mom regained her health.

It was early in September of 1944 when Dad hooked up the trailer Mother had named "Porky the Road Hog." We crossed the Ohio River and headed for adventure.

We stopped first in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to enjoy the fall colors while my father finished filming Along Smoky Mountain Trails. We spent the Christmas holiday in Venice, Louisiana, as he worked on final footage of the Mississippi River delta for The Blue Goose Flies South.

While we were in the Smoky Mountains, National Park Service officials asked him if he had time to swing by newly established Big Bend National Park, in southwestern Texas, and take photographs for their files. Dad accepted the assignment, and in February we crossed the Mississippi and followed the sunny skies to Texas.

Both my parents were thrilled by the rugged beauty of the Big Bend and the mysterious Chisos Mountains rising high above the surrounding desert. They parked our trailer in the Basin beneath the piñon pines at the foot of Casa Grande and decided we might as well spend the summer. Mother recovered her health in the clean western air and soon joined us as we hiked the mountain trails and walked the windswept desert filled with intriguing wildlife, incredibly thorny plants, and ancient history.

Dad was excited about the photographic possibilities of the country, so Mother was not surprised when he decided to do a documentary of the Big Bend. His new film was conceived while he climbed the mountains, explored the canyons, and walked the silent deserts. His keen perception of the country and a curiosity about its people grew swiftly. Before long, his thoughts of leaving the Big Bend vanished like a desert whirlwind.

Just where is this incredibly magic place? Look at a map of Texas and you will see, in the southwestern part of the state, an area that dips down into Mexico. The Rio Grande and the Río Conchos get credit for carving this exceptional "elbow" as they flow to the Gulf of Mexico. The area within the encircling elbow is known as the Big Bend Country of Texas.


Dad was forty, just a "pinch" under six feet tall, with the tanned complexion of an outdoorsman. He had strong features, a lean body, and walked straight, tall, and effortlessly. I never heard him complain about his health or the weather, or brag about his accomplishments. His love for nature was passionate, and he quickly soaked up the area like a desert absorbs a slow rain.

He was as tough and tireless as a longhorn steer. His only weakness seemed to be a penchant for coffee cake at bedtime and a stack of graham crackers dunked in milk or coffee after a long hike.

Perhaps the snacks gave him the energy he needed in 1945-1946 to produce two full-length documentaries focused on the Big Bend. His lecture brochure says his oral presentation "caught the spirit and tempo of the land and the easygoing confidence of frontier people." It also reflected his understanding of human nature, gained in contact with people during his years as a newspaper photographer.

My father's approach to photography can best be understood from his words in Chapter 1, as he contemplates the meaning of what he is seeing and how to express these feelings on film. Just as an artist doesn't discuss his artistic emotions with casual acquaintances, he declined to discuss his photography. Setting f-stops and shutter speeds came to him naturally. Depth of field was not a conscious decision. In the early days, if he was in doubt, he tried several variations, but it was not something he pondered. More important to him was finding a location to best portray his interpretation of each particular scene. In his words, "What I saw and how I felt seemed much more important than how I did it."

He rarely included people, buildings, or other man-made objects in his photos unless they had relevance. He felt that these dated the photograph, and he wanted his work to be timeless.

In planning his documentaries, he began by visualizing the script and planning the story he wished to tell. Then he spent weeks, sometimes months, searching for locations and symbols to illustrate his words. He introduced a poetic narration, which was presented in a masterly way, according to some who saw his films. It was a new concept, much different from the "incidental" style used at the time by other lecturers. Dad would show a bird and name it, then show a flower and name it, and so on. He wrote the script as a story, then filmed scenes to illustrate it.

His film Desert Gold was extremely popular. It opens with a fast-moving sequence of Spanish explorers crossing the continent in search of treasure. He then tells an Apache Indian legend that explains how their vast desert domain and the Chisos Mountains were created. It continues with the legendary tale of Chief Alsate, whose profile remains as a silhouette on Pulliam Ridge to be seen forever by anyone entering his Chisos Mountain hideaway from the north. The film closes with the romantic story of Pabla Blanca and her explanation of how giant whirlwinds form and why sand dunes are so beautiful at sunset.

My father's agent, Harold R. Peat, booked Dad's lecture tours throughout the northeastern and midwestern states. They were quite popular. Gregor Ziemer, educational director of New York City's Town Hall, considered Desert Gold "a travelogue film that has everything it should have—Poetry, Color, Symmetry, Symbolism, Drama."

Residents of Brewster County were also pleased with the film. Local photographer Glenn Burgess wrote an article for the Alpine Avalanche On May 2, 1952, that includes these words: "One-fifth of the entire population of Alpine turned out Monday evening to discover what Peter Koch, nationally known travel lecturer, considered the value of Desert Gold, West of the Pecos. They found out . . . and also realized that Koch, as leading salesman for the Big Bend National Park, was indeed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and [is] one of the best assets this colorful part of the Southwest has."

Meanwhile, Mother's health continued to improve. To supplement the family income she took a secretarial position in 1946 with the National Park Service in Big Bend National Park, and our family moved from our trailer into a Park Service apartment in the renovated Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp complex in the Basin.

After six long, weary winters of living on the road showing his films, Dad decided to end his lecture tours and take on new challenges. It was 1951 when he applied for, and received, a concessions permit to open a camera shop in the Basin. He advised tourists on trips and camera techniques and sold film and inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras from our remodeled house trailer. The front room became an office; the kitchen he converted into a darkroom. He arranged for the publication of a tourist handbook, A Guide for the Big Bend, written by Helen Maxwell and illustrated with his own excellent photographs. Dad also entertained tourists at evening programs with his Big Bend color films and slide shows. Talented naturalists in all fields of study were visiting the Big Bend at the time and often sought his advice on how best to meet their photographic goals. In Wild America, Roger Tory Peterson refers to Dad as "one of those fabulous individualists one sometimes meets at outposts such as this. Graceful in his stride as an Indian, and tireless . . . he knows these lonely deserts, mountains, and river canyons as no one else does."

In 1955, my father moved his business from the park into Alpine and assumed the office of vice president of the Highway 90 Association, a developmental organization of small towns along U.S. Highway 90 in West Texas. He helped the association in its efforts to lure more visitors into the Big Bend Country. In 1958, he bought a local postcard distributorship. Dad published over thirty of his own West Texas scenic photographic cards for the line. He kept businesses from Del Rio to Van Horn stocked with his colorful cards and display racks as he traveled to business meetings involving the Highway 90 Association and its agenda.

He sold the postcard business in 1962, when he accepted the position as manager of the Alpine Chamber of Commerce. During his four years with the chamber he was also involved with organizations such as the Big Bend Development Committee, the International Good Neighbor Commission, and Rotary International. Local journalists dubbed him "the Big Bend's un-official press agent" and praised his efforts in bringing tourists (and their dollars) to the Big Bend Country.

In the mid-1960's, my father was asked to do a promotional color film with sound to publicize the urgent need to create the Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas. It was a long 550 mile drive across the state for each of his filming sessions, but Dad believed in the mission: protecting the unusual ecology of a small, pristine portion of the Big Thicket from exploitation by the oil and timber industries. The film was a success and helped achieve the desired results. The preserve was established in January of 1967. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was an ardent and vocal conservationist and a firm supporter of the Big Thicket project.

Douglas made several excursions to the Big Bend Country on his visits to Texas. He participated in float trips through the canyons and hiked into the desert backcountry to photograph beautiful Capote Falls. During one of Douglas's visits, Dad arranged for a horseback pack trip with Buck Newsome up to Boot Spring and the South Rim. From there they rode down the Blue Creek Canyon trail to the Wilson headquarters ranch house.

In Farewell to Texas, Douglas includes lengthy descriptions of his impressions and experiences in the Chisos Mountains, the canyons, and the Big Bend in general. The quotations and comments attributed to my father led me to a better understanding of Dad's environmental thoughts and ideas during the 1960's. Douglas's foreword is an eloquent acknowledgment of my father's help: "Peter Koch of Alpine made me see the Chihuahuan Desert in a new dimension, took me to the relic forests high in the Big Bend area, introduced me to the golden eagle and to the music of the canyon wren, showed me the slow magic of sunlight on colored cliffs, and helped me discover the warm hearts of the River People."

In spite of my father's many obligations, he somehow found time to purchase and completely remodel an abandoned homestead on fifteen acres of land just west of the scenic town of Alpine. Dad and Mother lived there for many years, enjoying the picturesque, uncluttered view of Twin Peaks from their patio.

About this time, Dad bought a Linhoff camera and prepared for a new pictorial challenge. Harold Rickett of the New York Botanical Society had requested photographs of Texas wildflowers for the society's fourteen-volume American Wildflowers. Dad correlated this request with local botanist Dr. Barton Warnock's need for floral photography to be used in his publication of three important wildflower books of the Big Bend Country. Together the team of "Warnock and Koch" searched mountain and desert for many months to locate and photograph hundreds of flowering plants. (All of these books were published in the early 1970's.)

In 1971, Dad opened Koch Travel with the assistance of my sister Patti. It was Alpine's first travel agency, and he conducted photo safaris through the Big Bend Country. He also organized trips into Mexico on the newly completed Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad.

His Mexican photo safaris began in Ojinaga, Mexico (across the river from Presidio), and crossed the desert to Chihuahua City, Mexico. After a festive weekend in Chihuahua, participants were treated to four unforgettable days exploring the remote mountains and valleys of the Tarahumara Indian country and Copper Canyon, the greatest of all North American canyons. Most of the rail tours continued west through the Sierra Madre to Los Mochis and the photogenic village of Topolobampo on the Pacific coast.

My father also somehow found time to submit occasional articles about and photographs of the Big Bend to magazines and to work on other projects. One involved photography for Texas Tech University's development of the Texas Trails System.

In the mid-1970's and the early 1980's, Dad began sharing his desert adventures and environmental philosophy in the Alpine Avalanche. His weekly column was called "Exploring the Big Bend . . . with Peter Koch." He rarely documented his resources in these articles, since his knowledge was accumulated firsthand or gathered from thirty-five years of reading, conversation, and extensive exploration. He addressed his column to the local people as well as to visitors, photographers, and others interested in knowing more about the country. He wrote often and with passion, especially in the later years, urging his readers to share his deep concern for the environmental well-being of the Big Bend Country.

Dad stressed the need for preservation of the fragile environment. He felt that those who used the trails, explored the backcountry, and floated the Rio Grande were the ones who understood its values. These visitors were the ones who would develop a relationship with the land. Hopefully, they would also defend from overuse and exploitation the values found only in a true wilderness.

In 1977, my father moved into the desert. His hands were trembling and his eyesight was failing. Neither could be reconciled to good photography, so in his typically stoic way he packed his cameras away, built a modest home near Study Butte, and devoted his attention to archeological work being done in the Big Bend. Most of his last published words were devoted to sharing his understanding of the prehistoric people who came to southwestern Texas as early as ten thousand years ago. He also began outlining a fictional book about a paleo-Indian Jumano clan living in a primitive Big Bend. In May of 1981, at the Lajitas Gallery, he exhibited a retrospective of his work and sold many prints from his large collection of Big Bend photography.

Dad climbed his "final mountain" and found eternal rest on April 29, 1986.


It is hard for me to remember, or even imagine, my father living happily in a large city, dealing each day with the problems and concerns of a metropolitan lifestyle. It must have been a time filled with deadlines as he and his cameras pursued the famous, the politicians, the sports heroes, and the achievers. I am sure he documented disasters, floods, and fires at close range and brought to his readers the visuals of happiness, grief, and sorrow.

But that is not the story he would want me to tell. In these pages you will read about his forty-year relationship with the West Texas desert, his environmental concerns, and his interest in prehistoric peoples. This text has been distilled from the more than 150 newspaper columns written for the weekly Alpine Avalanche from 1975 to 1980, as well as from an unpublished manuscript of his first trip through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend. In addition, I have also read his collection of books and pondered his photographs. Most of his photos, journals, and correspondence files are now resting in the Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. It was there that I sorted and carefully considered more than twelve thousand slides, transparencies, and negatives in an effort to choose those he would want included in this book.

You will notice three places where I have added to Dad's writing by inserting endnotes and important recent discoveries that pertain to the subject.

While preparing this manuscript, I wanted to include more information about Peter Koch as a family man, so I added several stories I think you will enjoy. You will find them following Chapters 2, 6, 7, and 8.

My sister Betsy's two stories recall our early years in the park. They might help you understand a little of what we girls "endured" whenever we were called upon to accompany our father—the mountain man who could hike all day without water, climb cliffs, capture wildlife in his bare hands, and sleep anywhere!

My sister Patti writes about her experience with floodwater at Hot Springs in the park in 1953. For a different viewpoint, my cousin Don Dhonau sent me his memory of one night spent with Dad in the field.

In our first year in the park we always seemed to have an assortment of insects and other small creatures snoozing in glass bottles under the trailer waiting for Dad's inspiration or until the sun was right for their individual photographic session (after which they were returned to their environment). My goal has been to blend verbal pictures with his photographic images to preserve my father's vision of the Big Bend Country from 1945 to 1985.

I hope you enjoy and find much to learn about the Big Bend in the pages that follow.


June Cooper Price
June 2006

Peter Koch (1904-1986) was an acclaimed natural history photographer and documentary filmmaker and lecturer. He also promoted the Big Bend region as Executive Vice President of the Highway 90 Association, manager of the Alpine Chamber of Commerce, and owner of Koch Travel.

June Cooper Price was a freelance writer who lived in Mesa, Arizona, when not on the road in an RV with her husband. She and her mother Etta Koch told the story of their family's move to Big Bend in Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir.