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Why the Raven Calls the Canyon

Book excerpt captures life off the grid in the Big Bend

From 2006 to 2013, I divided my time between Marathon, 50 miles north of Big Bend National Park, and Fresno Ranch, an abandoned, off-grid, horse-and-mule operation located along the Rio Grande. Relatively uninhabited for almost a decade, the ranch encompassed more than 7,000 acres of springs, canyons and volcanic peaks. In 2006, absentee owners recruited Rodrigo Trevizo, a friend of mine and local state park superintendent, to keep an eye on the place. Two years later he moved into the ranch’s adobe studio, determined to bring the rudimentary infrastructure of the ranch back to life. I joined him for weeks at a time, lending a hand to unearth the ranch’s water system, repair livestock corrals and restore the solar power, all while adjusting to the day-to-day challenges of living off the grid. With Trevizo’s help, Fresno became part of Big Bend Ranch State Park, at over 300,000 acres the largest state park in Texas.

Fresno Ranch was established in the 1900s as a 640-acre section bordered by the river at its confluence with Fresno Creek and present-day FM 170. During the 1980s, another 10 sections were added, including nine sections up Fresno Canyon and an additional mile of riverfront. At one point, Fresno also covered the Picachos, a 5,000-acre ranch directly across the river in Mexico.

Ancient campsites and historic ruins litter the desert terrain around Fresno, sharing a robust cultural history with defunct mercury mines and remnant candelilla wax camps. A collapsed magma dome, so large it can be detected from space, dominates much of the ranch’s northeastern horizon. Among Fresno’s hand-built attributes, a 2,000-square-foot adobe painting studio lies at its heart, constructed for the late Jeanne Norsworthy, Texas artist and granddaughter of George B. Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News.

Fresno’s natural world shares the allure of wild places found across the entire Big Bend region. The inscrutability of this West Texas country inspires lifelong appreciation for its rare natural beauty as well as an unorthodox creativity, resulting in artistic endeavors like this one, and often rousing those who hail from gentler places to abandon creature comforts and move to the Big Bend for good. Here, adventurers, artists, and writers live in stone ruins, campers, and make-shift shelters, contending with extreme summer temperatures, winter freezes and venomous wildlife like scorpions and rattlesnakes, all in an attempt to understand the enigma possessed by mountains and canyons scattered throughout hundreds of uninhabited miles. Much of the territory’s draw may reside in the region’s volcanic upheaval, conjured from the planet’s bedrock, and a geography lit by an ever-changing light, as cryptic as the human psyche. With time and consideration, an artist can thrive here on conclusions that reveal as much about the land as our own internal landscapes.

Writer and photographer E. Dan Klepper works from Marathon. Why the Raven Calls the Canyon was published by Texas A&M University Press in 2017.