"In the Border Patrol we had several types of sensors. One was infra-red, and another measured the cadence of footsteps. That one worked rather well, except for the fact that a turkey walks at the same cadence as a human. We were scattered along the river, and wore headsets, so the dispatcher would tell us the coordinates of the sensor and two of us would converge on the individuals illegally entering the country. We often knew their destination, like a railroad siding, and would go there long before they arrived." Chris Cherry pointed off down at the mountains in Mexico.
We were driving the little strip of Highway 190 between Dryden and the road to Pumpville, on our way to the Old Pumpville Road. Mr. Cherry is working on a novel about a journey up that road and where the hero becomes lost (first in the here and now, and for the majority of the story, in the past.) During the times that he has volunteered at the Sibley Nature Center I have developed an appreciation of his character. He is a "tracker," law enforcement ethics instructor, superb photographer, and has a degree in history from Angelo State University, and a master's degree from the University of Cincinnati.
I personally had never driven the Old Pumpville Road. In the afternoon, we drove the Geddis Canyon Road. Hundreds of West Texans have become familiar with the Geddis Canyon Road (and a network of other county and oil field roads) in the past few years. The Brown-Bassett gas field has become an epicenter of new drilling. Jeff Smith is a consulting geologist who has been sitting wells in the region for over a year. "The shallow Wolfcamp formation, which is a low volume field, is now economically attractive. There are some Fussell and Strawn horizontal wells being drilled, as well." Jeff is an avid avocational botanist and often has a story to share about plants he has found in the region.
We saw dozens of vehicles and oil field hands in Geddis Canyon. On the Old Pumpville Road, however, Chris and I met no other travelers. If it had not been for two Terrell County road maintenance crews we would not have seen anyone at all, after waving at some railroad workers at the siding at Pumpville near the limestone Baptist Church. The first ten miles of the road snaked among Guayacan, creosote bush, and tar brush sprinkled over the tight gray clays of an outwash plain.
We slowly gained altitude and the vegetation gradually changed. Eleven or twelve miles up the road we spotted the first "cedar"(juniper). Within another five miles we were in a juniper forest, with a new "plant association." Sotol often carpeted covered acre-sized patches on the rockiest hills. On the north slopes of hills I was ecstatic about spotting Evergreen Sumac. I grew up with one at my front door. As a child I drank a Christmas-time tea made of its berries. Broad evergreen leaves, white blossoms, and red berries adorn the large multitrunked shrub that responds to heading back to create a dense ornamental screen. We ate lunch on a hillside with a view that stretched far to the west, and as we ate, we walked about, discovering tiny cacti while hoping to find an arrowhead.
As Chris drove his partially rebuilt old 4-wheel drive pickup (with 160,000 miles) I kept a triplist of significant plants and bird sightings as we discussed the ethnobotanical practices of Jumano Indians. Mr. Cherry, after producing the introductory chapters of his story, is now researching such things to better be able to portray the life to which his hero will adapt. When we popped out on the Sheffield-Dryden highway without finding the location where Chris himself had become lost back in the 1980s we decided to go down the Geddis Canyon road. On his long-ago journey, Chris turned around when the road become little more than a pasture trail that dropped steeply into a canyon. By turning down the Geddis Canyon road, we "figured" we'd find the other end of that road.
Within a quarter mile we stopped at a tinaja with a siltbar with a collection of tracks. A tracker is a different sort of human – to observe the spoor of one's quarry and interpret the goals of that individual is an art learned over years. Mr. Cherry tracked humans during his law enforcement career. Jumano hunters would have been trackers of game, as well as of humans. Coon tracks dominated the scene, but one round track had no clawmarks, but it was smaller than an average bobcat mark. Old turkey tracks had been almost "reabsorbed" by the saturated soil. Tinajas, depressions in solid bedrock of the bottom of steep headwater canyons, often hold water for weeks or months after a rain. Above the tinaja was a steep slope covered with sotol. Last year's bloom and seed stalks poked out of ten percent of the plants' spiny-edged yucca-like rosettes of long slender leaves.
Members of the Midland Archaeology Society have participated in many surveys in the region. In the organization's library (housed at the Sibley Center) I found a journal article that described the correlation between tinajas and sotol pits, which are still visible archeological features. Sotol, after being baked in a pit lined with rocks for three days, tastes like sweet potatoes, and the product can be dried and kept for months. A staple of the Mescalero Apaches, small groups of people harvested it and agave (processed in the same manner) every May. Sotol tastes best when prepared just before they begin to send up their bloom stalks.
East of the junction of the two main forks of Geddis Canyon, tall trees line a cliff wall, along with a windmill. Under the tall trees are thickets of black willow, the oldest and largest nogalitos (Little Walnut) and one of the largest Algeritas that I have ever seen, and dozens of "young" Mountain Laurel interspersed with a handful of older specimens. The tall trees are "native" Pecans. I checked with Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Biologist Phillip Dickerson and he agreed that he had heard of no native Pecans west of the Concho and San Saba River drainages. Surely other botanists have noticed the trees, but I am not aware of their mention in any scientific literature.
The size of the trees indicates their age – they are too large to have been planted since the region was settled. Spanish and Mexican travelers would have had no reason to plant them. The most likely anthropogenic origin of the trees seems to be that of the Jumanos. As late as the 1680s their traders traveled from La Junta de los Rios (modern Presidio) to the Concho valley. Touching those trees was like shaking hands with Don Juan Sabeata, the best known of the Jumanos!