11.06.2012,3:54 PM
La Coyota
“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 going.

So it was no wonder that a mostly forgotten place called 'La Coyota' tickled my curiosity.

Top of the mesa in La Coyota overlooking Rio Grande.

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.

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 sub-irrigation practices.

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.

Buildings of the Santa Helena, later the original Castalon.

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.

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 hanging garden.

View from mesa; Rio Grande and Mexico in background.

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.

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.

Ruins of an adobe and rock home, probably Chevarria's.

Ed examines the rock walls. Still standing for nearly a century.

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.

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.... "
-Simon Schama

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