“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” -poet Muriel Rukeyser
|Mesas where people once lived in La Coyota.|
“Coyotes move within a landscape of attentiveness. I have seen their
eyes in the creosote bushes and among mesquite trees. They have watched
me. And all the times that I saw no eyes, that I kept walking and never
knew, there were still coyotes. When I have seen them trot away, when I
have stepped from the floorboard of my truck, leaned on the door, and
watched them as they watched me over their shoulders, I have been aware
for that moment of how much more there is. Of how I have only seen only
an instant of a broad and rich life.” - from 'The Animal Dialogues:
Uncommon Encounters in the Wild' by Craig Childs
History, stories, coyotes....... they share a common thread. The wily
canine that appears in many movies, cartoons, songs and books is one of
the most adaptive and intelligent species on the North American
continent. Their key to adaptation is careful observation, mimicry, and
experimentation. It is no wonder that the coyote is the most popular
animal persona used in storytelling and mythology.
Humans are creatures of stories. Stories teach, convey value, and define
us. They are tools that help us understand the world around us, who we
are, and what we do. History is storytelling to describe events and
actions, interlaced with our interpretations of the past so that it
relates with the present and future. History, and storytelling, tell us
about ourselves - who we are and how we got here. And where we might be
So it was no wonder that a mostly forgotten place called 'La Coyota' tickled my curiosity.
For decades the general policy of the National Park Service was to
eradicate evidence of human habitation on land acquired by the agency.
They forced native Americans off their homelands or prohibited them from
hunting on their traditional hunting grounds. Park staff bulldozed
buildings that were homes to settlers that subsisted on the land before
they became 'parks'. The root of this was (and still is) a
misunderstanding of the relationship between humans and nature that
reflects cultural confusion about wilderness.
|Top of the mesa in La Coyota overlooking Rio Grande.|
Wilderness is defined as land that "has not been significantly modified
by human activity". Some people take that to extremes to mean no human
presence or human footprint. Ever. Which was the basis the American
Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as “an area where the
earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man
himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Yet, since at least the
mid-1900's, very few acres (if any) on the North American continent have
not been set upon by human feet. And no acre left has not been affected
by human activities.
Since incorporating the 801,000 acres of the rugged northern Chihuahuan
desert in the 1940's, the federal agency in charge of the national park
system followed general policy in trying to obliterate the evidence of
habitation by hundreds of people that called the area their home. Most
visitors erroneously think that the land of the national park is a true
'wilderness', except for the few roadside displays that provide
abbreviated stories about tiny homesteads that once occupied the same
ground. These are like little specks of atoms that one is told exist,
but people don't see them so the reality of this 'truth' is fleeting and
easily forgotten. Just like historical accounts of lives and events
long before them.
Sometime between mid-1885 and mid-1885, Severiano and Rita Chevarria
moved from Fort Stockton with their four children to a mesa on the banks
of the Alamo Creek and the great Rio Grande. At the base of the mesa,
the Chevarrias built a modest home. Here they raised sixteen children.
It is said that the name La Coyota was bestowed by the sighting of
female coyote on the homesite.
Ruperto, the Chevarria's first-born, built a home on top of the mesa
after his first house was washed away by a flood. He recruited a number
of immigrants to settle there in 1908 and Ruperto became a leader of the
settlement. Jose Garcia built his home on top of the mesa near Ruperto,
but other members of the community built their homes on the north and
eastern slopes of the mesa. Because of close proximity to the creek and
the river, they raised corn, beans, wheat, squash, tomatoes and melon by
As ranching and mining operations cropped up around the southern portion
of the Big Bend, some of the men worked as cowboys or in the nearby
mines. Around 1903, Cipriano Hernandez built and opened the first store
on Blue Creek about a mile or so north of Alamo Creek and named the
immediate area Santa Helena. Hernandez farmed the floodplain growing
cereal grains and corn, as well as fresh vegetable which he sold to
mining camps, and La Coyota residents bought and traded goods and food.
Hernandez built an adobe home further north in 1903, just below where
the future military camp would be built. (that adobe home is now called
the Alvino adobe). In 1914, he sold the lower farm and store to Clyde
Butrill, and ultimately it became the holdings of the La Harmonia
Company, the brainchild of Wayne Cartledge and mining tycoon, Howard
Perry. The store was renamed the La Hamonia store, opening in 1919. And
that area became known as Castelon. Now it is known as 'Old Castelon',
after the La Harmonia moved into the building that was built as barracks
for the US Cavalry.
|Buildings of the Santa Helena, later the original Castalon.|
On my second day of my Retirement Ride, Ed and I set a goal to find and
explore the past of La Coyota. After parking the bikes, we ascended a
mesa that we had found location tips as the area of the former
community. On top was little evidence of what was once either stone or
adobe homes. One part of the mesa had obviously been completely and
mechanically leveled. On an adjoining part of the mesa we found a barely
visible stone foundation and shards of porcelain plates and glass
bottles. This was clearly once a homesite. (see photo above)
Turning our attention to the eastern and northern slopes of the mesa, we
found well hidden by tall mesquite remnants of small stone homes. The
climb down the slope of loose rock was an invitation to succumb to
gravity with unfortunate results. But the careful descent was rewarding.
Some of the rock walls of home below were still intact, most of them
crumbling with large cactus hanging down from the wall tops like a
One small home was built literally carved out of a tiny upcrop of red
and brown angled rock. The back of the home was the bare intact rock.
The remnants of a front door lead out to a small circular area built of
the same stone as a retaining wall and long-gone steps leading down to
what was once a cleared floodplain area.
|View from mesa; Rio Grande and Mexico in background.|
|Ruins of a home constructed of rock from hillside.|
Around the base of the mesa is the remains of a large homesite built of
both rock and adobe. Given the size of the remains, I wonder if this was
the original Chevarria home.
We continued exploring, trying to imagine daily life here. Knowing that
Rita Chevarria lived here in La Coyota for 53 years before moving back
to Fort Stockton in 1938, one has to imagine what life was like here
raising 16 children. We can only wonder. And compare it to the lives we
live now. They contrast our imaginings with what we see in front of us,
for these ruins are very well hidden. Only one who knows what they are
looking for would find these ruins and the stories they whisper.
|Ruins of an adobe and rock home, probably Chevarria's.|
|Ed examines the rock walls. Still standing for nearly a century.|
I could almost hear the laughter, the laments, clinking of hoes, brays
of donkeys, clangs of stone and slapping of adobe construction. And the
wails of the coyotes in the distance.
"Histories never conclude; they just pause their prose. Their stories
are, if they are truthful, untidy affairs, resistant to windings-up and
sortings-out. They beat raggedly on into the future.... "
Labels: Adventures, Big Bend, Texas