Terlingua Christmas

by Bill Holston

Photography by Spencer Millsap

The Harley's engine woke Crockett from a sound sleep as it roared past his one-room adobe cabin.

Zoe must be headed down the hill for a croissant, he thought. He knew this as fact because it had happened each morning for the last year. Each morning at exactly 6:00, Zoe would head down the dirt road to the Cosmic Caffeine Cafe and return with a bag of butter croissants, baked that morning by Henry McGinnis, a former pastry chef from the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. It was perhaps the only reliable ritual left in Crockett's highly disordered life. Crockett rubbed his eyes and tried to remember where he had left his glasses last night. He picked up a dog-eared paperback copy of St. Augustine's Confessions and his glasses fell out onto the concrete slab floor. He got up and walked the twelve feet across the entirety of his home to his four-burner propane stove. He filled the ancient aluminum coffee percolator with water.

His one modern appliance was the electric coffee grinder, which he used to grind French roast coffee beans. He filled the coffee pot and placed it on the burner to boil.

He pulled on rag wool socks and hiking boots and walked out onto the front porch. It was still dark. He looked up. The Winter Hexagon was clear and bright. He glanced at the bright star Albderan, in Taurus, its gigantic V pointing the way to his favorite constellation: the Pleiades, The Seven Sisters.

He walked across the stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert that was his "lawn" and sat on a boulder. The December air was very cool. A cold front had blown through in the evening and it was much cooler than yesterday. His home was on the edge of Eagle Mountain, and he smiled as he looked down across the wide-open desert terrain at the crumbling adobe structures of Terlingua. These buildings had once housed the miners, who had worked the largest Cinnabar mines in the world. Once the mines played out, so did the town. Terlingua was not a dying small town, however. The combination of remoteness and austere desert beauty served as a magnet for the extraordinarily eclectic collection of personalities that called Terlingua their home.

How do you wind up in a place like this? Crockett wondered. He knew the answer: You want to live alone, but not too alone. You want solitude, but in a community. Crockett kept to himself, mostly. He had lived here for ten years, enough time for the Agave plant in front of his house to grow, sprout a fifteen-foot stalk and die. Crockett had lived here for five years before anyone even asked his "story." Everyone here had a story, of course. Everyone was recovering from something here.

Zoe, who in a previous life had been a modern dance teacher, had created a dance which she called the "Terlingua Twelve Step", in honor of the most prevalent social structure in the town. Crockett liked to think of himself as a recovering Baptist. One divorce and one DWI and his life of ministry were over. Baseball has a three-strike rule, but for a Baptist preacher, it's one DWI and you're out. At least that's true in deep East Texas. After a brief stint as a salesman in a funeral home, Crockett had headed his aging Toyota southwest. "The road to nowhere," someone had once called the river road, which snaked along the Rio Grande in far West Texas.

When the car broke down, Crockett decided he might as well stay. He was able to pay the rent in this one-room adobe house with what he earned as a clerk at the Study Butte grocery store, stocking shelves and operating the cash register. As for ambition, he was through with that. Over time, he had come to love this place. Perhaps it was because he felt totally accepted here, flaws, history and all. He sat and looked out over the desert. The only sound was the clear descending call of a canyon wren, calling from the bluffs, rising straight and sheer from behind his house. He closed his eyes.

“Thank you,” he whispered. His prayers had become simpler, but more frequent and sincere, in the years since arriving here.

The silence was broken as Crockett heard the Harley roaring up the dirt road. Zoe stopped her bike in front of Crockett's house and got off. She was slender, about thirty years old, and wore baggy, army green wool pants, tucked into knee-length leather moccasins and a fleece pullover sweater.

"Hungry, Padre?"

Crockett had acquired the nickname Padre when his past career as a Baptist preacher became known. Denominational subtleties were not recognized here in Terlingua, which was just as well, in Crockett's mind.

"Yeah, I'm hungry. Let me guess, Croissants?"

Crockett walked back into the house and returned with the coffee pot and two cracked porcelain coffee mugs. He poured each of them a mug of coffee and they sat on the two metal lawn chairs which Crockett had pulled out of the mud of a sand bar in the middle of Terlingua Creek.

"So, Crockett, what are you doing for Christmas dinner this year?"

"I hadn't thought about it."

"Why don't you have Christmas dinner with me and Wylie? Wylie got a check from his grandmother and he bought a turkey. He's smoking it right now."

For some reason, Crockett got a mental image of Wylie wrapping the turkey in rolling paper, and smiled.

"Why, as long as I'm not intruding."

"No church tonight, though. Father Zaragoza went back to Albuquerque to be with his brother—not that you would be attending, you lapsed Christian, you.”

Crockett smiled at the good-natured gibe.

"You know, I used to feel guilty about eating a butter croissant. When I was dancing, I always had to be hyper­ conscious of my weight. I ate like a freakin' rabbit. What a stupid obsession. I'm gonna eat Wylie's croissant too.”

She threw back her head and laughed, then took another croissant out of the bag and ate it in three bites. Zoe stood and brushed the crumbs off of her pants. She walked over to the Harley, started it, and drove off without another word. As the dust settled from the motorcycle, Crockett sat and finished his croissant. He was not working today and could do whatever he wanted. I think I feel like a hike today, but first, a little housework.

He spent most of the day cleaning his small house. He washed the dishes, stacked them on the open bookcase which served as a bookcase and kitchen cupboard, and swept and washed the concrete floors. He took all of the sheets off of the iron-framed single bed and washed them in the metal tubs serving as washing machines. The difficulty of these menial and mundane tasks was the price for the simplicity which he so valued in his new life. After finishing all of his chores, he ate a small but satisfying meal of tomato soup, corn tortillas, and water. Crockett decided his hard work deserved the reward of a good hike. He packed his daypack with water, a warm sweater—in case it got cooler—and his Psalter.

He walked out the front door and headed up the dirt road. After a few hundred yards, an older Jeep trail branched off, climbing down a gradual slope and across the desert. After walking for about an hour, the trace of a smaller trail branched off to the left towards an even larger mountain. Crockett had climbed it many times. As far as he knew, it did not even have a name. Like most walks around here, the destination was less important than the journey and was much farther off than it appeared. It took almost two hours to summit the mountain this time. It was already getting late in the day and the sun was playing hide and seek with a large billowy cloud, keeping it cool.

At the top, Crockett sat on the ground with his back against a flat boulder. He took a long drink from his plastic water bottle and stared across the austere landscape. As far as he could see in every direction was the desert, stark, open, beautiful. He took out the worn copy of St. Augustine. For years he had not been able to read anything of a religious nature. Father Zaragoza had given him a book of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. He enjoyed the simplicity of these fifth-century hermits. The sparing use of words contrasted nicely with the wordiness of most preachers he had encountered, including his own sermons. He had also rediscovered the Psalms. He sat the Confessions down and opened the Psalms. He enjoyed the beauty of the writing and the sincerity of the writer's emotion. He opened to Psalm 104:

“He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent…”

It's not hard to believe David lived in the desert, Crockett thought.

It was getting late in the afternoon, so Crockett packed up and began walking back. Crockett had just made it to the beginning of the Jeep trail when the sound of a motor startled him. He could see an ancient Chevy pickup making its way up the road. As it neared, he could see Ramon Cardoza was the driver. Ramon was one of the only people in Terlingua with any knowledge of heating and air­ conditioner and made a decent living doing repairs.

Ramon pulled over and rolled down the window. "What are you doing out here, paisano?"

“Just doing a little walking. How about you?"

Ramon didn't answer.

"Want a lift?”


He climbed in the cab of the truck. Ramon was about forty years old, close to the same age as Crockett. He had a lovely family with two beautiful girls, about seven or eight years old, Crockett guessed.

"Tell me, Ramon. How long have you been out here?"

"Five years."

"I've never heard what brought you here."

"It's an interesting story. I was born in a small town in northern Mexico. My father, like many men from our village, made his way to El Norte to find work. He found good work in an auto parts plant in Michigan. There were only two problems: one, he was not legal here, and two, it was very cold. The cold was very hard on him. One of the plant owners took an interest in my father, since he was such a reliable hard worker, and arranged for him to obtain work authorization. Eventually, he was able to become a resident, and brought my mother up here. Me and my brothers were all born here, and are therefore citizens of the United States. It was something my father was very proud of."

"Where is your father now?"

"He is dead."

"I'm sorry."

"He was diagnosed with lung cancer. He wanted to see his family one more time and so we all went back to Mexico. His health steadily deteriorated. I was about ten when he went into the hospital in Saltillo for the last time. He knew he was dying, so the whole family gathered around his bed. He told us goodbye and fell asleep. You know, in Mexico, you can do all kinds of crazy things, so we could take his body with us. We took his body in the back of the pickup truck to bury at the church plot in our small village. I lay in the back of the pickup and hugged my father until I fell asleep. I know he was dead, but I felt much better laying next to him one last time."

"What a sweet story. It doesn't explain how you wound up here, though.

“Well, after Dad died, we went back to Detroit. My brothers and I all graduated from high school there. I got a job where I learned this air conditioner and heating repair business. The only problem was I have a heavy Spanish accent. I never felt comfortable in Michigan. In school, people always made fun of the way I talked, and when I started working, the customers sometimes complained, “Sorry, I don't speak Spanish.' I would explain that I was not speaking Spanish; I was speaking English. I decided to move closer to the border. One of the neighbors was from a little town in Texas called Terlingua, so here I moved. Sometimes I speak English, sometimes I speak Spanish. Sometimes I do not speak at all. Here no one notices my accent. In fact, here people accept me for exactly what I am. This is home."

"Yeah, I know what you mean."

Ramon stopped in front of Crockett's home. "Here we are. See you at church tonight, I hope."

"I hear Father Zaragoza is gone, so there will be no service." Crockett said.

"I heard you are a priest."

"Oh, I used to be a Baptist preacher, in an earlier time. I haven't done that in years, though.”

“Why not?"

"It's a long story. Let's just say I no longer feel I have anything to say."

"Of course you do. Crockett, I would come to hear whatever you have to say."

"You're a kind man, Ramon. People want to hear someone they respect, someone qualified."

"People want to listen to a friend here, Crockett. This is what Father Zaragoza is and what you are. I will spread the word. We will have Christmas Eve service, after all, tonight."

"No, no, no, Ramon. It is a nice thought, but I am not going to do this."

"Well, you cannot stop people from coming to the church. You will either be there or you will not."

"I'm afraid you are going to be disappointed." Crockett opened the door and walked towards his house without looking back.

He could hear Ramon's words as he drove off, "See you in church, Crockett."

It was now about six o'clock. Crockett sat on the metal chair. He pulled out St. Augustine's Confessions. The words of the first passage hit him like a refreshing cold breeze. I cannot believe it. This is exactly what I would tell a church. What would it hurt? I could share a few words with a few neighbors. It isn’t as if there is likely to be a huge crowd. It's Christmas.

The traditional Christmas evening service was always at nine o'clock in the old adobe church at the bottom of the mountain. Crockett put on a clean pair of jeans, grabbed his ragged copy of The Confessions, and started walking into town. Crockett smiled as he noticed the Ocotillo plants covered with white lights, decorated for Christmas. As he neared the church, he was shocked. The parking lot was full. He could hear the music playing loudly. He opened the door and was astonished to see that all of the pews were full. Ramon was playing "Adeste Fideles" on the accordion, while Wylie was on guitar. An attractive Hispanic woman who he did not recognize was playing the Bajo Sexto, the traditional guitar, her long graying hair tied in a ponytail. The church was full of his neighbors, all singing, "Gloria, Gloria, in Excelsis Deo." Crockett felt his throat tighten at the utter beauty of the old hymn.

He walked in and sat in the back. The church was rustic but beautiful. The smell of incense filled the church, which was lit by dozens of small candles. After the song, Zoe walked to the podium. She was wearing a pair of foam reindeer antlers. Wylie was wearing a Santa hat.

"Well, tonight we are honored to hear from one of our own, our friend Crockett Tyson. Many of you know him as Padre and some of you know that he used to be a preacher. We weren't quite sure if he was going to show up tonight, but we’re glad he did. Tonight he is speaking to us as one of our neighbors, one of our friends. Crockett, let's hear what you have to say."

Crockett stood and walked to the front of the church. There was no elevated podium here in this building. Here, he stood on the same level as the congregation.

"Thank you for coming here tonight. You don't know how much it means to me to address you, my friends. It's been a long time. I am going to do something that I never did as a minister. I am going to be brief. I will share words from a man I only recently discovered. When I came here to Terlingua, like many of you, I was a wounded man. I did not feel, I don't know...worthy. I felt judged, rejected. I felt that way because, well, because, damn it, it was true. I had been rejected. I had failed. I failed in my marriage. I drank too much. I broke the law. I went to jail. I lost my church, my job, well, everything that seemed important. I just wanted to become invisible. But here among you good people, I began to feel that no matter who I was, or what I had done, I could just be accepted, as long as I was a good neighbor, did my job, didn't harm anyone. I began to see what a community is supposed to look like. These words I am about to read were written by a man in another desert: the desert of North Africa. They were written by St.Augustine in the fifth century. They are as true today as they were when they were written over fifteen hundred years ago; they express in clear terms how I feel about you.

‘Let all who are truly my brothers love in me what they know from your teaching to be worthy of their love, and let them sorrow to find in me what they know from your teaching to be an occasion for remorse. This is what I wish my true brothers to feel in their hearts...But my true brothers are those who rejoice for me in their hearts when they find good in me and grieve for me when they find sin. They are my true brothers because whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still. To such as these I sha11 revea1 what I am.’"

Crockett felt his throat tighten. For the first time since he was a child, he began to cry. Tears flowed down his cheeks and he knew he could not go on. "I'm sorry", he managed to say very softly. Zoe stood up. In a crystal clear soprano, she began singing:

“Silent night, holy night,

All is calm. All is bright.”

First one, then another, then everyone stood and began to sing, filling the cold desert night with song. As the song finished, someone in the very rear of the church began to applaud. Soon the entire room was clapping and looking at Crockett. He felt a tremendous emotional release as he continued to weep. The people in the back row shifted around as they made their way through the church aisle. Crockett was startled to see Father Zaragoza make his way, still clapping, to the front of the church. People began to laugh and yell, clapping each other on the shoulder.

Father Zaragoza walked to the front of the church and put his arm around Crockett's shoulder. He was about sixty years old, wearing jeans, wearing a starched black shirt and cleric's collar. He had a tremendous and infectious smile.

"Please forgive us, Crockett. Your friends felt that it was time you spoke to our little community, so we arranged a quick trip to El Paso for me, hoping that you would volunteer to preach today. Thankfully, you obliged us. So, technically, we told you the truth—I was in El Paso. I was able to return in time to hear your marvelous words of devotion from Augustine of Hippo. The entire town was in on this little conspiracy. We felt it was time to hear from you. It was originally Zoe's idea. It is both your gift to us and, in turn, our gift to you. I hope that you will honor us again from time to time. Perhaps a lesson on John the Baptist next time."

Crockett smiled. "Thank you, Father. Can we close with a song? Ramon, do you know, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?"

Ramon jumped up, running to the front of the church. Wylie, Zoe, and the Bajo Sexto player all joined him and started playing, Father Zaragoza's rich Baritone rising clear and strong.

"...God and Sinners reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies. With angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem."

As the music filled the church, Crockett's tears stopped. He stood arm and arm with the older priest, leaned over, and whispered, "To such as these, I will reveal what I am."

Since 2012 Bill Holston has been the Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. Since the 1980’s, Bill has been hiking, backpacking, and camping in the Big Bend region of Texas. Bill is a member of the North Texas Chapter of Master Naturalists and guides hikes in the Great Trinity Forest. Bill has written editorials and commentary on human rights issues and immigration for the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American Statement, and KERA Public Radio. He writes a column for D Magazine’s Front Burner Blog: Law Man Walking. Bill’s commentary, "Confronting Bigotry In Others And Ourselves," was awarded the First Place for Commentary in the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters contest by Public Radio News Directors, Inc. Bill is married to his best friend Jill, a Dyslexia Specialist for RISD.