Nature Notes: In the Shadow of the Chinatis: A New History of Big Bend’s Pinto Canyon

West Texans know it as one of the region’s signature back-country experiences. Ranch Road 2810 – Pinto Canyon Road – crosses 60 miles of Presidio County, connecting Marfa with the Chinati Hot Springs and the riverside hamlet of Ruidosa. From winding blacktop to rutted dirt road, the journey showcases unbroken grasslands and forbidding mountains.

Much of Pinto Canyon itself is owned by Jeff Fort, retired CEO of security-systems company Tyco. Recently, Fort commissioned Alpine scholar David Keller to write a history of the canyon.

In the Shadow of the Chinatis will be published by Texas A&M Press in 2017. Keller has unearthed an overlooked past, in a rich portrait of a place.

Southwest of Marfa, 2810 winds 30 miles over the Marfa Plain. The effects are hypnotic – there is only the golden prairie, the panoramic sky.

Then the grassland reverie is interrupted. At the plateau’s rim, the pavement ends, and the traveler confronts the canyon. The Chinati Mountains loom above a maze of jagged rock.

It’s raw geology. And Pinto Canyon’s dramatic landscape was shaped by dramatic events, Keller said.

Some 33 million years ago, the Chinati Volcano began erupting – in a series of explosions.

“These were Plinian eruptions,” Keller said, “which means the earth just cracked open and this massive column of volcanic ash and rock and lava shot skyward, all the way up into the stratosphere. It mushroomed out into a massive cloud and came roiling back to the earth, and started this massive flood of volcanic ash and lava that incinerated everything in its path.”

The effects were sweeping. The largest modern eruption was Indonesia’s Tambora Volcano in 1815. It killed thousands, and impacted weather in Europe. The Chinati eruption was 20 times larger.

Pinto Canyon is monumental scenery. But its isolation also casts a spell. And Keller said the canyon has always been a hinterland.

Late prehistoric peoples farmed floodplains nearby. But they made only brief excursions into the canyon. With white invasion, Pinto Canyon remained a Native stronghold. In the 1870s, a Cavalry officer described the area as the “runway of the Indians” – as Apache insurgents used it as a base of operations.

For settlers, the grasslands were a cattleman’s paradise, and the Marfa Plain became famed as “highland Hereford” country. But it’s hotter and drier below the rimrock. In the first ranching boom, no one bothered to stake a claim in sun-blasted Pinto Canyon.

In 1906, the state began offering homesteaders eight sections of land instead of four. A few pioneers tried their luck in Pinto Canyon. Only one had real success.

The story of Jose Prieto is the centerpiece of Keller’s book. A Mexican immigrant, Prieto ultimately assembled a 12,000-acre ranch. With his nine children, Prieto’s sheep and goat operation flourished.

It’s also a tragic story. Prieto lost his sons – several to violence. One was shot by a Texas Ranger, at Casa Perez in Pinto Canyon. Keller said the shooting – and the Ranger’s acquittal by an all-white Marfa jury – reflected increased tension between whites and Hispanics following the Mexican Revolution.

The Rio Grande may be the international border. But the transition from grassland to low desert is the real boundary line here, Keller said. Topography has shaped the lowland’s culture.

“You’re much more likely to see an adobe or a jacal than a framed structure,” he said. “You’re more likely to hear Spanish than English, more likely to see goats than cattle, and much more likely to be riding a burro or a mule than a horse. And of course that has everything to do with geology. It has everything to do with erosion. It has everything to do with climate and elevation.”

  Beginning in the 80s, the canyon passed to new owners – including artist Donald Judd, and then Fort himself.

For both, conservation was a top priority. Pinto Canyon is now protected by conservation easements – the land may change hands, but it can’t be subdivided.

Keller said he hopes his book will deepen appreciation for this majestic place.

“As Wendell Berry said, a place really isn’t a place until its stories are told – I think what I’ve strived to do is to make it a place,” Keller said. “I hope that when people read this book, when they drive through Pinto Canyon, it will be a different place for them, that it will have more meaning and much greater context. It sure did that for me.”

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.

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