A woman who went West with her husband in the 1840s must have expected hardships and privation, but during the 1940s, when Etta Koch stopped off in Big Bend with her young family and a 23-foot travel trailer in tow, she anticipated no more than a civilized camping trip between her old home in Ohio and a new one in Arizona. It was only when she found herself moving into an old rock house without plumbing or electricity in the new Big Bend National Park that Etta realized, "From the sheltered life of a city girl of moderate circumstances, I too would have to face the reality of frontier living."
In this book based on her journals and letters, Etta Koch and her daughter June Cooper Price chronicle their family's first years (1944-1946) in the Big Bend. Etta describes how her photographer husband Peter Koch became captivated by the region as a place for natural history filmmaking-and how she and their three young daughters slowly adapted to a pioneer lifestyle during his months' long absences on the photo-lecture circuit. In vivid, often humorous anecdotes, she describes making the rock house into a home, getting to know the Park Service personnel and other neighbors, coping with the local wildlife, and, most of all, learning to love the rugged landscape and the hardy individuals who call it home.
On a recent trip there, I visited Hot Springs and saw that the National Park Service is seeking to keep alive the physical evidence of the old trading post on the Rio Grande. Memories of the winter the children and I spent there stirred. In a nostalgic mood, my thoughts turned to what was probably the heyday of that place... from 1944 to 1953 when the park service no longer permitted a concessioner to operate there.
I recalled her echoing laughter ... and the laughter of those she regaled with her inimitable stories of the natives and visitors who made her everyday life as manager fullflavored. But the echoes that reached me in this nostalgic moment with greater poignancy were those of childish voices, little-girl voices of June, twelve; Betsy, eight; and Patty, two. Their young voices echoed from the hills and the bluffs, the river and the creek, but more especially from the house on the hill ... the house we called our own for a little time, fifty years ago.
From the parking lot, I climbed the hill—still as hot as I remember it then. The house was in great disrepair. Changes time had made saddened me, for our former home was merely a shell. The roof was gone; the fireplace that once charmed and warmed us had been ravaged, its fossil sea animals gouged out by vandals, leaving the stone facade pitted and stricken. With the roof missing, the ceiling that was once a patchwork of cardboard and cartons had vanished.
On the front wall, though—and I could not believe it!—there still remained our painting of Casa Grande and a huge prickly pear, in giant proportions, that Pete and I thought would lend a splash of color to an otherwise anemic wall. On the kitchen wall my painting of a Mexican boy kneeling beside his burro could still be seen. The saguaro (suh-wah-ro) cactus beside them was a futile effort to disguise the cracks and patches of disintegrating plaster. Both were now faded and sun-bleached and will not survive much longer.
I turned for a last glance through the window at the desert and mountains and sky. At least they remain unchanged, for now, by mindless vandalism.
I walked down to the store. With its newly restored exterior it appears far more dressy than I remember it in 1945. Then, its wooden doors were faded beneath a peeling "HOT SPRINGS POST OFFICE" sign. Inside, now, was emptiness. Gone were the counters, the old wicker divan, the useless but decorative pink-and-blue spool curtains that hung at the windows. Gone were the glass cases of candies and gum. The old range and the gas refrigerator. The curtained-off area that was Maggy's private corner and the screened porch along the side were no longer there. Even the floor was gone. The murals Maggy urged me to paint for her "to cover them bar' walls" were "restored" by others with garish paint into scenes of a different style, no resemblance to the dull blues and reds of my "Madonna of the Desert" kneeling to bathe her babe in the creek waters.
Standing at the wire barrier, I looked into the store's emptiness, and realized what I missed most. People! Not the strangers now wandering along the trails looking about curiously, but the Mexicans astride their dusty burros; the "wetbacks" who risked tangling with the law when they crossed the Rio Grande to trade, and who dove for bushes at the sound of any approaching car.
Visitors stand but a moment beside the historical plaque, peering into the gloom and unable to imagine the events that took place along the border.
But Tornillo (Tor-nee-oh) Creek still meanders past the flagstone cliffs, the muddy Rio Grande flows beside the mineral springs. Mesquite thrives along the narrow one-way road still winding crazily along the draw. Native people ride to other trading posts. Whiptail lizards spend hours tiptoeing in the hot desert sand and perhaps even climb a rock at sunset to enjoy the glowing distant mountains of Mexico.
Later we drove to the Chisos (Chee-sos) Basin for dinner. The switchback road still curved the same as it descended, but the first park headquarters had become a fancy campground and the dear friends I had grown to know so well, now gone. The Maxwells, Harry Linder, the Shollys, and others of those first two years. The piñon pine that marked our trailer site had died long ago and a prickly pear had taken over that favored spot. Special boulders that the children loved to sit upon were now the vantage point of other little girls and boys. The flat where we had searched for flint flakes and arrowheads after every rain was now an asphalt parking lot serving visitors at the concessions area.
The stone cottages were down the road a way, their porches the perfect place to watch a Big Bend sunset. Lone Peak pointed to the sky, and Casa Grande blushed in the late afternoon light. In the modern dining room countless tourists sat in air-conditioned comfort and wondered if they'd see a deer before they left.
As I sat there looking at the mountains, weathered in still familiar shapes of monks and laughing Irishmen, I realized that I must record life as we had experienced it, in the park's early years, or a portion of park history would be lost to legend.
There is no fiction in what follows ... no strain on the imagination ... merely an attempt to report—from my notes, memories, and letters home—the adventure that was Big Bend National Park when we arrived in 1945.
Etta Koch, 1995
February 22, 1945. I couldn't believe the road was a highway to anywhere, and I argued with Pete that we had missed the road and were on an abandoned path to some deserted ranch. It certainly did not resemble any road I had ever seen near our hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Even in the Smoky Mountains, or in the bayous of Louisiana, where we had just been traveling, there were no roads as rough as this.
"No, the sign along the road clearly states that it is Highway 227, and it must be right."
But I hadn't noticed the sign in Marathon and refused to consider this bumpy trail a "highway."
Patty, eighteen months old, settled down for a nap, and the older children and I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of cowboys. The miles passed and we saw no one.
The girls suggested that Daddy point some out to us. So for miles we strained our eyes for a glimpse of a moving object—any moving object—on that wide, bleak February morning. There must be at least one cowboy in Brewster County.
Where was everybody?
"There!" said Pete suddenly. "There's a cowboy!" Amazingly the car did not roll over as the children and I leaned toward the windows to the right of us, shouting "Whe-e-ere?"
"Out there ... on that horse!" He flung a hand indicating the entire southern horizon. We finally made out a figure on a horse some distance from the roadway.
"Daddy, that's not a cowboy," sighed June with the wisdom of a twelve-year-old. "He isn't wearing blue jeans!"
"And no chaps, either!" added eight-year-old Betsy. By this time the man and horse had blurred again into the scrub, and we settled back to discuss the vision we had just seen.
I thought he'd look like cowboys such as I had seen in Western movies. A man wearing furry chaps, a wide sombrero, a bandana round his neck, and a guitar on his knees.
Such was my knowledge of the workaday cowboy. I'd have to change my Yankee impression of Texans, gleaned from movies that in those days would never have included a slumping figure on a nondescript horse.
My gaze wandered across the vast expanse of mountains and deserts. There were no words to describe it. I was intimidated by the space but I acknowledged that the desert did strike a response, whether repulsion or ecstacy I had not yet sorted out. I couldn't remember ever being out of reach of telephone, neighbor, or a horizon of skyscrapers in my lifetime. Living so far from communication without a doctor, or even a drugstore, worried me more than a little. It is true that you can't take the city out of a girl too quickly.
We were amused whenever we crossed a dry arroyo where huge signs held the warning: "DO NOT CROSS WHEN WATER IS HIGH," complete with a gauge marked to show water depths at one-foot intervals. More than once we stopped before entering a dip in the road to move large rocks out of our path which should have proved to us that the warning was real.
The road was so rough, so rutted that we were bouncing along at only twenty miles per hour. Our twenty-three-foot house trailer, dubbed "Porky, the Road Hog," was lurching badly behind us. We'd ridden thirty miles or so when Pete concluded we'd better gas up at Cooper's store, since the brochure said it was the only gas pump on the eighty-mile drive. I was on my usual bed of needles and pins for fear we'd run out of gas before reaching their store near Persimmon Gap. My alarm really picked up momentum as we drew up to the store, to find it closed!
"Of course," Pete remembered soberly, "This is a holiday ... I forgot it's Washington's Birthday!" I was so relieved when he found we still had enough fuel in our emergency gas can to reach park headquarters. (We later learned that the Cooper family had gone to town for supplies and we could have pumped the gas ourselves and put the money under the special nearby "money rock.")
After pouring all our extra gas into the car, we went on, but what a road! The fact that we had passed a bona fide country store as indicated in the brochure renewed my spirits a little; yet how distant was the blue etching of a mountain group we knew must be the Chisos.
The road across the desert was rough and our trailer bumped along behind us in sync with my thumping heart. Never had I seen such an expanse of arid land, such far horizons! I was sure we were in the midst of nowhere for there was no sign of a living soul, man nor beast.
Miles passed and we neared human habitation once again. A stone house nestled at the foot of the mountains. A Mexican lady appeared in the doorway and gaped at us as we passed. To this ranch woman we must have presented something of an apparition as we bounced along followed by the swaying trailer, since in this period of gas-rationing imposed by World War II, people weren't able to travel just for fun.
We didn't get far beyond the house when the road steepened ... and the car stalled ... and the radiator steamed. We all piled out to await further orders from our leader. Pete told us to bring him some large rocks, and these he placed under the trailer wheels to keep it from rolling into the nearby canyon. The trailer unhitched, we climbed back into the Chevy and continued our slow trek up the mountain. We reached some water barrels, placed there by the park service for cooling hot radiators and puffing engines. Pete brought the Chevy to life with long drinks of water, and we drove on.
Up ... up ... around curves, higher and higher into the green coolness of the mountains. The vegetation was a welcome sight after the glare of the desert.
You need to see this place to experience the awesome moment when your heart stands still and your whole body seems to swell—almost to soar. The scene was so unexpected, so spectacular, we gasped as we saw for the first time this view of incredible beauty. As we topped the divide we could look down into a small bowl of a valley where typical government barracks were clustered like so many toy houses. The valley was surrounded by sparsely vegetated mountains spiked with pink rock formations that rose on all sides in rugged spires and cliffs.
At the far end of the valley, beyond the winding road, our eyes settled on a cleft in the ring of mountains—the Window—and through this window we could clearly see another world. It was a white desert world like the one we'd just passed through, and beyond the whiteness were the purple and blue mountain ranges of Mexico.
Wordlessly we crept down the road in low gear. Pete carefully braking the Chevy at every turn. The narrow road was bordered on occasion with a sparse row of boulders to keep vehicles from bounding over the edge. I clung to the car with sweating palms, and dug my shoes into the floorboard as I put on my own brakes. I was breathless, and found myself still clutching Patty and the side of the car with tense muscles when we finally arrived at the headquarters building.
Our trip that day had been a paradox of delight and anxiety that would return more than once as we settled into our new life in the Big Bend.
At last we reached our destination, the park headquarters, and happiness washed away the ragged edges of my fear. We drew up before the National Park Service office, identifiable by the American flag testing the breeze.
Pete left us in the car while he made himself known to the park personnel. The clerk, Harry Linder, received him enthusiastically, saying he had expected our arrival. The Washington office had advised them that a photographer and his family would be arriving to take publicity pictures for the National Park Service. Ross Maxwell, the park superintendent, came out to welcome us. Tall, quiet Ross, with a confident authority that set my mind at rest, arranged for someone to get the big truck and go back over the mountain for our trailer. Then we followed Ross's pickup to the campground, where he showed us the best place to settle down and gave us a brief overview of the Basin.
It was a relief to know that we were expected for our weeklong stay in the Big Bend before we continued on our scheduled path to Arizona.
Etta Koch lived in Alpine, Texas. This is her first book, written in her nineties. June Cooper Price was a freelance writer who lived in Mesa, Arizona.