The Great Vase of the Chisos

by Stuart Kelley

Photography by Larry Everitt and Kate Keenan

Big Bend. Geologists talk of volcanic lava flows and tectonic upheaval. Scientists offer evidence of shallow seas where fossilized remains of millions of years of prehistoric crustaceans are deposited. There’s even a meteor impact crater nearby, distinct from the rest of the landscape due to the smooth, rounded astrobleme that rises hundreds of feet within the faint crater rim.

To the curious visitor awed by all that is seen in Big Bend, these scientific observations provide a reasonable explanation as to how the unique geological majesty of the Big Bend region of Texas was created. This tumultuous formative history has resulted in a chaotic and brilliant landscape of shapes and colors.

Some mountains are smooth while others are sharply jagged. The Rio Grande River winds its way throughout, flowing along a massive wall of stone which then levels out to a gentle plain. Every color on Earth is here. Rich reds, vibrant yellows, and shades of green, black, and purple can be found in any direction. Dune-like waves of vanilla-colored clay lie only feet from black, crusty basalt rock. It is extraordinary in its beauty and enchanting in its complexity.

However, the real story of Big Bend and its beginnings is vastly different from what scientists offer. Its true history was recently revealed to me and Ms. Branaugh while visiting there late last summer.

Ms. Branaugh had been begging to take a road trip to Big Bend and she finally had a four-day weekend available from work that made the drive possible. We chose to stay in Terlingua, just north of Big Bend National Park. Our lodging was a delightful little renovated Airstream trailer named “Rosie” owned by a local who had planted herself there along with about six uniquely different early-model travel trailers – each bearing nostalgic names right out of the fifties. Betty, Iris, Sally. Terlingua is like that: a lot of locals, mostly from somewhere else, are all brought to the Big Bend region to get away from something or to pursue nothing but peace and solitude. Around the hardscrabble town, there are all manner of living quarters. Some are made of stacked stones, others of tin and cedar, and some are being constructed by enterprising entrepreneurs which look more like small resort lodges, no doubt for those who want to rough it smoothly.

We decided one night to head to the town’s signature watering hole and restaurant, the Starlight Theatre. As is often the case in the evening, there is a mixture of locals and tourists mingling on the massive front porch of the Starlight that extends down to the Terlingua Trading Co., a shop of souvenirs, jewelry, and books.

By Larry Everitt

While standing and waiting for our name to be called, I overheard a raspy-voiced man, seated on a bench, talking to a young couple. I heard him mention the name “Chisos” a couple of times, and knowing that the Chisos Indians once inhabited this land, I couldn’t help but begin to pay attention. I soon realized he was talking about having worked for the Chisos Mining Company back in the day when it was the only industry in this part of Texas. The younger man seemed to be tiring of listening to this oft-played-out porch saga, served up to any tourist who found themselves seated next to this crusty narrator while waiting for their table. He sensed that I was eavesdropping, and soon directed his narrative in my direction.

His name was Landon Tuttle, ninety-something and one of the last remaining residents from when the area north of Big Bend was a mining area for quicksilver, better known as mercury. In fact, he still lived in one of the rock homes that littered the Terlingua Ghost Town landscape. The Ghost Town is a collection of decaying, stacked stone homes left over once the plant closed and everyone moved. He had renovated it by replacing the rotted roof with corrugated tin, putting in windows, and replacing all the splintered timbers with cedar planking.

“You could see it right on the ground,” he declared, waiting for my reaction.

“What?” I predictably asked.

“The quicksilver!” he barked, as though I hadn’t been paying attention. “Mercury,” he went on. “It’s what’s in thermometers.” He pointed to a line of hills in the distance. “It was found in a red ore called cinnabar that ran throughout veins in the hills over yonder.”

The young couple seized their chance to escape and got up from the bench. Ms. Branaugh and I immediately took their place, her sitting next to him, me leaning forward with my arm around the back of the bench. I looked towards California Hill where he had pointed, the site of the Chisos Mining Company and nodded.

“You worked for the mining company?”

“Sure did.” He answered proudly. “Till after the war when mining just stopped.”

“So, why didn’t you leave? I mean, what kept you here?” I asked.

Landon looked toward the craggy mountains far to the south. “Those.” He said.

I looked at the long line of jagged mountains that jutted abruptly at one end of the horizon and etched a silhouette haphazardly across the sky, disappearing out of sight.

“The mountains? Big Bend?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said reflectively. “Those mountains have given me answers about life.”

“But how could you live? What did you do for work?” I quizzed.

“Oh, I did all right. Still do.” He smiled as he looked at the ground. “There’s always something ‘round here needs fixin’ that someone’s willing to pay for. You’d be surprised at how many people like livin’ here in the desert, but don’t like to be out in the heat.” He laughed.

“So, you know a lot about the history of this place.” I urged.

Landon’s face grew serious, and he too began to gaze towards the mountains, now bright orange, illuminated by the lingering sunset. “Yeah. I know the history, all right. I know it all the way back to the beginning.”

By Larry Everitt

Landon knew I was hooked now, so he geared up to begin a new narrative, one that would amaze and enchant both Ms. Branaugh and myself for the next couple of hours. Landon was about to tell an incredible tale that would explain just how the magnificent Big Bend and the Rio Grande came about. And so, he began.

“Centuries ago, this land was barren, flat, and pretty near featureless. From the Rocky Mountains down to Mexico, it was a desert wasteland, devoid of any life. Only a hardy tribe of Indians made this place their home: the Chisos. They were a nomadic tribe of foragers, formerly forest dwellers, who had made their way up from Central Mexico once fighting among competing tribes there became fierce. Here, they survived off their meager crops of corn and sotol roots, plus the jackrabbits and pronghorn antelope that were scattered throughout the prickly, cactus-infested desert.

“The Chisos were very religious, and their zealousness to their Gods was, in part, what kept them alive. They believed in a spiritual Father and Mother who watched over them for centuries from the Great Sky. This Father and Mother above the clouds would only reveal themselves through the infrequent but violent storms that roared through the desert a few times each year. Those cloudbursts would bless them with the much-needed rain to sustain their paltry crops and quench the thirst of the few animals living there.

“It is said the Chisos once experienced a long period of drought when even the few squalls that did roll through produced barely enough rain to wet the ground, much less nourish the crops and wildlife. So, the Chisos elders began to pray in earnest for their Father and Mother in the cloudless skies above to hear their cries for help and to send them life-giving waters. The Mother agonized as she overheard their pleading prayers. She was so overwhelmed by her children’s cries for relief she and the Father decided they must do something to save their children.

“The Mother decided to build an enormous clay pot which could be filled with an ocean of water and then poured down upon her children. Sending rolling storms of rain for weeks, this Great Vase would thus restore their crops and fill the desert with abundant wildlife.

“The Great Vase would be made of the finest clays and most brilliant of colorful pigments. The Mother would adorn the enormous vase with vivid images of desert life and scenes from the daily lives of her Chisos children. Every day she would labor over the clay, up and down the sides, working throughout the fall and winter to prepare it for the Spring planting season. As she worked, taller and wider it would become. She painted animals, flowers, meadows, and mountains all around the Great Vase and up its broad neck, now reaching high into the heavens.

“The Father was also hard at work preparing for his earthly Chisos children. He was wise in all things related to the Earth and its resources. He knew what habitat the animals needed, and the type of soil required to grow corn and wheat. He knew what plants would grow well there, the nutrients and water they needed, and when to plant and cultivate them. He was preparing a great basket of seeds to cast down upon the land for when The Mother was prepared with her great earthen vase. He would sow the seeds and she would then pour down rain. They both knew soon their children would thrive once more.

by Kate Keenan

“Spring came with hardly any notice except that the days were warmer and the nights not as cold. A few cacti, using the last of their moisture reserves, sprouted bright pink blooms, and a few antelope and jackrabbits bounded across the desert early in the mornings.

“The Mother and Father of the Chisos knew it was time to answer the prayers they had received daily for the last several months from their devoted children.

“One day, The Mother called The Father and announced, ‘The Great Vase is ready. Look! Isn’t it beautiful? We can now fill it from the Great River Cloud!’

“The Father, upon seeing the Great Vase completed, was overjoyed. In his enthusiasm, he grabbed up The Mother and began to swing her round and round through the wispy clouds that had formed in the early Spring sky. Swirling and spinning, she was laughing with glee as he shouted, ‘It’s magnificent! It’s wonderful!’

“But The Father didn’t realize how close they had been dancing next to the Great Vase. In an instant, they both slammed into the Great Vase with their bodies, knocking them both down. The Great Vase began to sway back and forth, slowly at first, dribbling water from its lip. Soon, it began to rock back and forth violently as the water in the massive vessel sloshed back and forth like waves on the ocean. They both rose to their feet and stood, shocked by what they were seeing yet powerless to stop the Great Vase from losing its balance.

“‘It’s going to fall over!’ The Father shouted.

“‘Oh, no!’ The Mother cried, holding her hands on her head.

“The Great Vase finally became too unstable to remain upright. It fell over. It was so big it seemed to take forever. When it did finally tip, rather than coming to rest on the thin clouds, it broke through and began a long descent towards the desert. Down and down it went, tumbling and spilling water as it fell.

“The Chisos, scratching in the dirt with their wooden hoes, were preparing their fields for a Spring planting of sotol and corn when they saw the sky begin to darken. When they looked up, they thought it was the time of the great Sun Cloud, that time when the moon would cover the sun and blot out the light. They were in terror of the Sun Cloud as they thought it was a sign of doom, and so fell to their knees to begin prayers of salvation. Some soon realized it was not the Sun Cloud, but instead it was a great object falling towards them. It sometimes appeared round, and other times appeared to have a neck and head on it like some great monster as it tumbled lazily towards them. The Chisos ran in all directions. Some fell and tried to shield themselves with their arms above their heads. Others tried to hide behind the few small rocks that lay about, or in the tiny dry creek beds.

“Before long, the Great Vase crashed upon the desert floor. It shook the Earth and sent dust and water cascading in all directions. It shattered into thousands upon thousands of pieces. Some were small and appeared as hills with rounded edges. Others were tall, buried themselves halfway in the desert, and thus created gigantic mountains with rugged ridges and towering peaks. Pieces of the Great Vase were thrown wide across the desert for miles in all directions. Some of the fragments of the Great Vase came to rest with their painted sides showing, revealing the vivid colors of the Mother’s works. Others lay flipped over, displaying the texture and tone of dark, wet clay. Still, other fragments, exposed directly to the sun, were bright tan, orange, and yellow. Near the center of where the Great Vase had hit, a grand mountain of stone had come to rest, rising as high as the clouds. Canyons and valleys had been cut from the flying clay shards, forming mesas and escarpments in the now-settled rubble.

“The water in the Great Vase had been unleashed in torrents of rolling waves and white-tipped swells that flooded the plain. Soon, however, the water began to settle and found its way in between the giant formations of clay protruding from the ground. Before long, the water ran in small rivulets, gathered, and then formed into one enormous river. This river went from one end of the desert to the other as far as the eye could see.

“The Mother and Father looked down helplessly on their children far below. They feared they had killed them all, wiped out by an immeasurable mass of hardened clay and a sea of rushing water.

“However, as the mist cleared and the water receded, they looked down not upon a desert, but rather a panorama of resplendent, majestic mountains and hills full of vibrant, earthy colors. Running throughout was an emerald green ribbon of water, flowing from one end of the desert to the other, bending only to yield to the great mountain at its center. The Mother held her breath with her hands over her mouth, for she was still fearful for the fate of her children.

“Suddenly, the Father shouted, ‘Look! Our Children!’

“Down below, they began to see small figures move about. There were just a few at first, but it soon became clear that the entire tribe had endured the fall of the Great Vase. The Father and Mother saw, too, that they were dancing gleefully about, looking skyward, with their arms waving above their heads. They were giving thanks to their Father and Mother. Not only had they given them a river of plentiful water, but the land was now adorned with hills and mountains, caves, and escarpments. Rocks were piled on top of rocks, creating monuments for which the Chisos would bestow great names: Turtle Rock, Sleeping Chief, and Mule Ears. There were now spaces and places for all manner of animals, birds, trees, and flowers to flourish. And yet there was also spacious, flat land embracing the river in which to plant their crops.

“‘Our Children are safe! The Mother cried.

“‘Yes, and I shall keep the land rich and their harvests bountiful from this day forward,’ The Father promised. “They will never want for water from the Great River that has been created. I shall keep it full and flowing. Their crops will thrive, and they will have abundant herds of animals from which to feed and clothe their children.’

“The sun began to set on the Chisos as they explored their new land of wonder and beauty in the dwindling daylight. The stone mountains, clay hills, and soil-rich plains were now shades of blue, black, red, and orange in the twilight, ultimately turning into dark purple all around them as the sun disappeared below the rugged landscape. Stars came out, and the moon illuminated the vast and magnificent landscape. Deep in the hills, coyotes could be heard howling a chorus of praise to their new surroundings. The Chisos, full of awe but feeling weary, finally turned and went into their tiny adobe huts. Before falling asleep they each offered up prayers of thanksgiving to their great Father and Mother for their salvation.”

Landon paused. Here, across the sprawling land surrounding the Starlight Theatre, the desert sun had set, and the first few stars were making their appearance in the Terlingua twilight.

“That is…that is quite the tale,” I remarked, still hypnotized by the sound of Landon’s rusty voice. I looked over at Ms. Branaugh. Her eyes, welling with tears, were transfixed on the sawtooth horizon of Big Bend in the distance. “I...I just never thought such a rugged, hard place could have such a beautiful beginning,” she admitted quietly.

Landon looked at the ground. “Well, sad to say, the Chisos are no longer here. In fact, the word “chisos” is now translated as “ghost.” The river and rich lands brought Apaches, Comanches, and explorers from Spain, all seeking to claim this territory for themselves, and they ran the peaceful Chisos Indians out.” He folded his arms across his chest. “But it’s forever their land. I take lots of satisfaction knowing it came from their great Father and Mother, and how, even now, it don’t change.”

The calling of our name from the doors of the Starlight echoed down the sidewalk and broke us free of our gaze.

“I guess we’re up,” I said, slowly helping Ms. Branaugh from the bench. “Landon, why don’t you join us for dinner?”

“That’s mighty nice of you, but I got some stew cookin’ back home. I ‘spect I best wander home and tend to it before it gets too dark, and the tarantulas start scurrying about.”

Ms. Branaugh’s eyes widened. “Tarantulas?”

His grin reappeared. “Oh, yes. This desert moves about at night, ma’am,” he said gleefully. “If it don’t jump, it crawls, and if it don’t crawl, it slithers about.”

With that, he, too, rose and stepped off the plank sidewalk. His boot sent up a tiny cloud of dust all around as it landed on the hardpacked dirt. He then began a slow walk towards the narrow highway and the soft light of the small stone house down the hill below the Starlight.

He waved without turning around as we wove our way through the crowd towards our host. He greeted us with a smile and large leather menus tucked under his tattooed arm. “Branaugh?”

“Here,” I replied.

“Please follow me,” he beckoned with an outstretched hand. We dutifully followed him towards the massive, carved wooden doors of the Starlight Theatre.

I looked over my shoulder at the darkening mountains, now bathed in soft pastel, framed by the expansive West Texas sky. I paused as I heard the faint chorus of coyotes howling, no doubt singing praises for the magnificent legacy of the Chisos and their Big Bend home.

by Kate Keenan

Stuart Kelley, native Texan and frequent visitor to Terlingua, was immediately drawn into the aura of the area as a source for story-telling. “This part of Texas is rich with history as well as captivating for its geological beauty. It begs to have tales told about its creation and evolution.” He adds, “The characters it attracts from both sides of the border also make for great lore, whether they be bandits or explorers.” Stuart is currently writing additional historical fiction featuring the Big Bend region as well as other notable places throughout the southwest.