A wash-off in the Big Bend Country of Texas may closely resemble an arroyo in neighboring New Mexico. Both are ephemeral streams carrying big water only during winter storms and monsoon season.
The terms are often used interchangeably in the American Southwest. As water wears away geoforms, a deep gully forms from the fast moving current. Some of these irregular fissures are elevated with proper names. Terlingua Creek in Brewster County, Texas falls into this category. But hey! I am getting ahead of myself.
Jimmy Pro runs a mythical tourist agency dubbed OzQuest. I and a couple of other friends are his only real clients. Jimmy huddles at his fading computer in Sydney and churns out resos and itineraries. When I least expect it, an email pops up alerting me to an impending photo shoot at a venue where I really didn’t expect to go.
We have been friends for 50 years now since our Army days as journalists. In some ways, we may have peaked in 1970 as young writers at Fort Hood for the Armored Sentinel. I was arrested for consorting with antiwar protester, actress Jane Fonda. Jimmy Pro blew the lid off improper command influence as the Green Machine prosecuted My Lai perpetrator, Sgt. David Mitchell. On weekends we shot laconic monochrome photos of derelict CenTex railroad depots.
Somehow, decades later, this crazy journey evolved into something of substance. Jimmy coughed up OzQuest and we started rambling about on offbeat photoshoots to El Paso, Death Valley, the Nevada mining country, and even Gotham City.
Late one afternoon a few years ago as we stared into cold cans of Tecate in a dated Motel 6, we conjured up a name for our tediously obsessive, throwback photography. Forensic Foraging was born, and we attempted to stave off the mounting modern wave of techno driven, digital photography.
We rediscovered New York photographer, Stephen Shore, who decades before had helped to popularize color photography. We venerated his minimalist approach. He too was a wanderer who found Texas. His famous Amarillo Postcards fit snuggly into our favored West Texas motif.
We recently landed up in Study Butte, Texas late one January afternoon. Just say Stooody Butte! We hoped to shoot the wild border country of the Big Bend, along the Rio Grande. OzQuest had booked us into the Chisos Mining Company, a funky 1950’s décor lodge which intersected perfectly with Jimmy’s spartan travel tastes.
Study Butte is the home of the Terlingua ghost town set in heavily mountainous desert. It features remote getaways and famous chili cook-offs. The most prominent feature is a played out mercury mine which left the earth in perpetual upheaval with arresting, gaping pock holes ringed by dark brown, grooved piles of tailings.
Will Study was once mine superintendent here. Today, snowbirds, in near million dollar RV’s, populate local campgrounds in search of the warm winter sun. Their license plates indicate they hail from snow country – Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Brewster County is the largest county in Texas. Big enough to swallow up Connecticut with room to spare. Ronny Dodson is the smooth drawling sheriff here. He charms local voters over breakfast at a packed buzzing beehive diner. But his larger than life, Big Bend credo often clashes with intrusive, outside values. A big court case brought by pesky liberals forced removal of tiny crosses from his sheriff’s cruisers.
Ronny often blasts the preachy Texas media by saying “there is no border security problem in the Big Bend.” That’s because traffic back and forth over the border runs unfettered by the law on a daily basis. Jimmy Pro is mesmerized by the Sheriff whom he knows a bit from his previous sojourns here. They have a history of swilling very early morning coffee and solving complex problems.
One afternoon we decided to forage Terlingua Creek which bisects the lunar mercury mine site. The water was low and the well-polished creek stones provided a dry foothold. Jimmy led the way upstream in brilliant winter sunshine. Soon 100 foot, craggy bluffs soared overhead. The creek bent slightly northwest and Jimmy cooed excitedly as we grabbed some imposing images in the magnificent winter light.
Off on the creek bank framed horizon, some unexpected black clouds flirted with 7,000 foot peaks. Far above us, but out of sight, squatters’ dogs yapped happily in the ghost town. Squealing children attested to the families who were living rent free in long abandoned, stone miners’ cabins. An incongruous audio track squeezed into the mix. Barely audible across many miles, we almost failed to hear faint thunder even as we shot the sun bathed bluffs above us.
Jimmy Pro squinted through his camera viewfinder. He was isolating curious formations etched in the cliffs. The walls laced with traces of mercury, saltpeter, and even a bit of silver, were popping out in front of his lens. He suddenly lowered his camera and said matter-of-factly, “The damn water is coming up!” And it was, now four inches instead of two. My feet were suddenly getting wet inside my low cut hiking boots.
Now Jimmy Pro is a seasoned trekker in Australia’s quixotic outback. A light bulb suddenly exploded deep in his brain. “Crawdaddy! Big water is coming down through here from that mountain storm!” he screeched. But 100 foot bluffs blocked our lateral escape. A faint gurgling rumble cascaded south into our little canyon.
Things then turned into shit in a hurry when we tried to quickly retrace our steps to the bridge where we left our rental car. Terlingua Creek was suddenly a berserk washing machine tumbling us end over end. I caught a glimpse of Jimmy for only an instant as his backpack bobbed into view as I spun momentarily to the surface. A silly thought crossed my racing mind. Forensic Foraging can be dangerous.
We bobbed quickly down to the bridge more than a mile away. Jimmy tried to plaster his drenched body against the concrete abutment to arrest his journey. I was still midstream in the full grip of the now raging current. I flashed straight under the bridge and looked back to see bubbling brown water scrape Jimmy off his concrete finger hold.
My feet no longer touched bottom! We were in a severe desert flash flood. The sun still shone brightly and I saw patches of blue sky overhead as I tumbled toward the distant Rio Grande. Somehow the current swept Jimmy past me, and the steep terrain began to flatten out. The creek banks were now only three feet high with scrub shrubs projecting out over the raging torrent.
I traded upside down for right side up. In what I could imagine was only a terrified apparition, I observed a solitary figure hanging out from a stout shrub on the bank. Then I noticed a white cowboy hat above an outstretched arm. Jimmy grabbed the proffered hand under the white hat. I knew this might be my last chance. I mustered a little strength and swam straight for Jimmy.
My body inverted and corrected at least twice! Suddenly, I slammed into Jimmy dead on. I bear hugged for dear life. A familiar rich baritone voice out of a Marlboro commercial calmly intoned. “I think you boys should stop right here.” Even in my panic, I instantly recognized Sheriff Ronny Dodson under his trademark white hat. He had one big hand on Jimmy Pro and his other was squeezing that stout shrub. A big, brown uniformed deputy was back up on the bank reaching to grab his boss.
Now remember, Jimmy and Ronny had history. On Jimmy’s previous forays to Brewster County they sipped steaming coffee and unraveled world problems at the now defunct barbecue truck operated by Cosmic Cathy, a local icon.
As the sheriff wrapped our shivering bodies into some of his handy space blankets, the deputy helped us toward the nearby cruiser. As I slid shakily along the back fender, I noticed a small cross now faintly painted over because of an unwelcomed lawsuit. I placed my index finger lightly on the cross and gave silent thanks. Screw the ACLU! When you are in deep shit down in the wild Big Bend, then Sheriff Ronny Dodson dispatched by God is probably the only help coming.
A few days later we returned to the safety of El Paso. As we often do, we were snorting afternoon Tecates in The Tap, voted the best local dive bar for nine years in a row. Lingering mud and grit still infested every orifice of our aging bodies. I allowed as how my chronic hemorrhoids probably soaked up a toxic dose of mercury poisoning during our downstream ride. “Well Crawdaddy,” opined Jimmy Pro dryly, “might just be that they will be falling off, that is, if you live.”
Some 30 days after our washout, Sheriff Ronny Dodson opened a large, flat FedEx package. The sender’s address said Jimmy Pro. A framed 36×18 photo of a blood red sunrise over Study Butte appeared. Just a thank you from a serious shooter who respects law and order down on the Big Bend. Sheriff Dodson immediately began clearing wall space behind his desk.
William C. Crawford is a writer and photographer based in Winston-Salem, NC. He was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He has published extensively in various formats including fiction, creative nonfiction, memoirs, book reviews, and essays.