Ann Richards and the Lost Eagle
The center of attention was a woman, the governor of the state of Texas, who had just released an American bald eagle from her leather-sheathed and extended arm. She'd made plans to raft Santa Elena Canyon with friends before returning to Austin. “Why don’t y’all come along?” She was speaking to us.
(Ann W. Richards, the 45th governor of Texas, was born on September 1, 1933. Her birthdate would have made her 89 a few days ago. I reported on her throughout her entire political career from county commissioner to state treasurer and governor. This reminiscence of her is subjective, but drawn from the experience of more than a quarter century as a journalist in her near daily orbit).
Down near the Terlingua ghost town, the Rio Grande marks a course through ancient volcanic lava before it enters Santa Elena Canyon’s 1500-foot walls. The river’s history and geology are profoundly complex as it approaches the remote national park. In one low, sandy, flood plain, the horses of General “Black Jack” Pershing’s soldiers long ago trod toward a shallow crossing to enter Mexico in a vain pursuit of the revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had prompted military response by his attack on American soil. A hundred yards distant, the water’s flow edges up against a shining green golf course laid out by a resort designer amid a deadly arid land.
Westward, the ranch road that parallels the river to Presidio, rises sharply through switchbacks, toward a mountain pass with a panoramic unmatched on most American roadways. A traveler can stop and look in either direction and see the power of time and water, and the evolution of a natural boundary that has seemed to both unite and divide. The caliche roadbed is the sole, and somewhat feeble, indication humans have ever reached these heights. Even the appearance of birds is rare in the aeries of these imposing Precambrian mesas.
A group of people had gathered on a cliffside overlook as the morning sun was chasing shadows up the mountain. The center of their attention was a woman, the governor of the state of Texas, who precariously held an American bald eagle on her leather-sheathed and extended arm. The wounded creature had been rehabilitated by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists, and Ann W. Richards was releasing the great bird of prey back to the sunburnt wilds of the Southwest.
“He looks like he’s ready to go, y’all, don’t he?”
Richards turned to the onlookers; her fierce blue eyes barely visible under a straw hat. Our TV camera captured the bird’s tentative extension of its broad wingspan, testing a long unused ability to lift itself into the air.
“Governor, if you’ll just step a little bit closer to the overlook, we can let him see the canyon and maybe give him more encouragement to fly away.”
The park ranger gently edged Richards and the bird in the direction of a thousand-foot precipice. A thermal lift quickly came up the canyon and curled against a broad talus slide. The eagle bent his head sharply in the wind’s direction, opened his beak, and flapped wings, tentatively, but with intent. The great bird must have instinctively known the purpose of the breeze, and lightened, he arose from the governor’s arm with a powerful push of talons and press of feathers.
The eagle went down instead of up, though, diving toward the canyon and the river, gliding, not ascending. We lost track of the line of flight below the edge of a rock incline, and a few of us were startled by thoughts the creature had simply swooped to a demise, unable to remember how to fly. Momentarily, though, he sought altitude with effort, almost straight up against the pale blue heavens, the outstretched wings driving him nearly beyond the reach of our vision over the increasing distance.
“Oh my, y’all,” the governor said. “Ain’t that a beautiful thing? Look at him.”
I was looking, instead, at her. Ann Richards appeared to contemplate her own freedom. In a denim shirt and jeans, she had a profile of the casual explorer, and the weight of office was not visible. Critics and opponents and budget worries and coalition building did not appear a burden. She was in one of her favorite spots in Texas, maybe the world, and did not have to hurry to a meeting or a news conference to speak to reporters.
“Here he comes back!”
Someone yelled and pointed. The eagle was on a straight line from a spectacular height out on the horizon and he appeared to be targeting our small gathering like we were mere rodents ready for grasping in curled talons. We all stood, motionless, waiting, and watched his fearless descent. The space between us closed with increasing speed until he could have landed in our midst. Instead, he bent his long neck south toward Mexico and wheeled back out over the river rapids below and disappeared behind a dark mesa.
A few minutes later we gave up on the bird’s return and began walking to our vehicles. The governor, energized, was talkative. She had made plans to raft through Santa Elena Canyon with friends before returning to Austin. Musician Steven Fromholz, a veteran river rider and guide, she said, was to be her boatman, and an outfitter would provide a gourmet meal at an overnight camping site.
“Why don’t y’all come along?”
I did not realize she was speaking to my cameraman, Jerry, and me.
“Yes, y’all. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.”
“Ha, of course, I would. But just sounds like it’s old friends and private,” I said.
“Well, I’ve been looking at you since I was at the county, so I reckon you’ll be okay.”
“Sure, we’ll go, assuming we can bring our gear?”
“That’ll be fine.”
I had long loved the river but had never passed beneath the walls of Santa Elena. The Rio Grande was a mysterious transition zone to me, where countries and cultures and geographies merged into a unique landscape nearly impossible for an outlander to comprehend. I had wandered its reaches, though, from the Rio Grande Gorge in Northern New Mexico to Boca Chica Beach where it emptied into the open water at the Gulf.
My fascination began when we were young and newly married; my employer had ski parties on his boat down where the river passed under the international bridges connecting the two countries. The day he invited us I hardly noticed the turgid water, but I saw the tall Washington palms and sugar cane on shore. Children sat on the muddy south bank and watched us with hungry eyes as we passed carefree into the sun. I saw them staring when the boat trailer was backed down the ramp and the craft was reeled up to be towed home. I see them still, their brown skin and muddy clothes, plastic bags of modest belongings shuffling back toward the brush where parents waited on their haunches for darkness, as if they were poised to leap into the unknown.
We later moved up the river to Laredo and lived in a trailer on a ranch about a half mile from the Rio Grande and sometimes at night the immigrants, still dripping with water, came to our doorstep to ask for a drink or food. There were often children, silent and frightened, and they followed their parents out toward the Interstate highway and the railroad tracks. I did not understand what they were doing but the rancher who was our landlord said the immigrants walked north between the rails through the night and before sunrise they crept off into the brush among the prickly pear cactus and rattlesnakes to sleep during the day. San Antonio was 120 miles distant. Nights later, I might be on the TV news where I worked, reporting on black and bloated bodies caught in root tangles under the river’s edge. These were, not infrequently, drowned children.
All rivers are mysterious, but the Rio Grande has always been particularly vexing to me. The valley of its passage has certainly known joy but existence within the watershed is often more unforgiving than happy. I suspect the role of international frontier changes the character of a river with commerce and immigration and the pull of two cultures and economies tearing at each other while they also try to stitch together a simple way of being.
The union of two rivers can even be mystical. After it drains a watershed almost the size of the Mississippi River Valley, Mexico’s Rio Conchos meets the Rio Grande at Presidio and Ojinaga. The sere earth was made green and fertile by floods over a plain that came to be known as “La Junta de los Rios,” the junction of two rivers. Recent archaeological digs have turned up detritus from ancient civilizations at La Junta that indicate it may be the oldest continually occupied location in North America. Indigenous peoples known as the Jumano, and later the Comanche and Apache, lived thousands of years by taking wildlife, fishing, gathering nuts, and picking wild peaches and berries. They were the first to encounter Spanish missionaries traveling through to look for cities of gold.
A European presence did not begin to be felt at La Junta until after the conclusion of the 1848 Mexican American War. Two U.S. soldiers lingered by the water and adjoining green pastures after they had put down their guns. Milton Faver, who had traveled alone on horseback from Missouri as a runaway 17-year-old, began hauling produce and dry goods in a cart from Chihuahua City and, ultimately, became a renowned merchant and rancher. He might have even been the first American cowboy when he initiated cattle drives of longhorn to Fort Davis where he sold beef to the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at the remote outpost.
Faver protected his family from Comanche by building a fort at Cibolo Creek, which was constructed with three-foot thick adobe walls. When civilization began its hesitant approach to the remote Southwest, he once rode a train to San Antonio to meet his son returning from the Civil War. Faver found the experience so disconcerting, he bought two horses to ride for their return trip. His home has become a contemporary resort with an airstrip for flying machines that deliver movie and rock stars seeking a retreat, and where he raised his family and ran a great ranch, a U.S. Supreme Court justice drew his last breath inside the fort’s now luxurious walls.
Ben Leaton, who had also fought the Mexicans, prospered at La Junta like Faver, though he was not the sole progenitor of his story. Lacking any interest in returning to the organized states of the north, he started a trading post with his Mexican wife, which also turned into a fort and the headquarters for a cattle company. Leaton’s horses and peasants hauled giant loads of freight on massive, wooden-wheeled carts to be sold to the strangers drifting toward the river’s comforting promises to make a life, or who were, perhaps, mid passage on their way to Chihuahua City to search for silver.
His relationships with the Comanche and Apache were fraught with anxiety and distrust, even though he had made money by purchasing goods they had stolen from settlers. The Indians kept rustling his cattle, however. Leaton’s version of an olive branch was to invite the chiefs to his fort to dine and drink his peach brandy. One of his workers translated to his guests and expressed Ben’s interest in reaching a peace accord by offering the tribal chiefs a few animals, and when they agreed, he thought his problem was solved. The departing natives, however, made off with dozens of longhorns that evening. Drunk and sated, they were still able to think deviously enough to steal.
Leaton had another idea, considerably less charitable. The Comanche were invited for a return feast. They again grew intoxicated on the sweet peach liquor and drowsy on the chunky steaks served up on a broad oaken table in the fort’s courtyard. None of them took note of the false wall that had been erected, which hid a couple of cannons. Leaton excused himself and his wife from the table and went around a corner to give a signal to fire. The blasts did not kill every Comanche seated, but riflemen standing on the parapets of the fort and firing into the courtyard, stilled the last moving Indians. Leaton’s cattle was never again stolen by that tribe.
His stories are still alive, and the fort bearing his name remains standing in restored, pristine condition on the Rio Grande almost two centuries after his passing, and he persists as an archetype of the white, male European who imposed their vision of development on the border. Leaton’s legend, though, was constructed partially of apocrypha, and a certain narrative cleansing. No one is certain the slaughter of the Comanche occurred as the story was related but Leaton was a known killer and scalp hunter. The term for how he earned his daily bread on the frontier was “Comanchero,” which meant he swapped with the Comanche and Apache, guns, wagons, and cattle, or anything of value that either party had robbed from settlers and adventurers passing through the borderland.
When the Mexican government decided it wanted to be shed of indigenous peoples and end their depredations, it began paying $1.50 per scalp, and Leaton took to marauding. This is how he initially earned his living, on the deaths of innocents. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian had an evil protagonist, too vile to be considered even an anti-hero, a scalp hunter and murderer, which many researchers are convinced was based, in part, on Leaton, and cold soul Irishman, James Kirker. Both men killed whoever they came upon in possession of a scalp on their heads, left bodies to desiccate in the harsh sun, and sold their bounty to the Mexicans.
Leaton might have fallen into honest commerce, eventually, but his history would have almost certainly been diminished had he not come upon Juana Pedrasa, a Mexican widow with money, who bought a vast tract of land in La Junta. As a consequence of that encounter, she became the catalyst of the outlaw’s transition to businessman and historic figure. Juana, obsessed with an entrepreneurial ambition, knew that the river offered a route for commerce between San Antonio and Chihuahua City, and she intended to get wealthy off the wagon haulers, cowboys, dreamers, and merchants making their way to the silver mines of Mexico. Mule trains rumbled along the Chihuahua Trail, which passed through her ranch, and Juana saw wealth that needed to be captured.
Life, however, has never been simple or easy for women in Texas.
When she met the Ben Leaton, her emotional reaction was probably informed less by love and romance than enlisting the partnership of a man who had the fearlessness to help her get rich. Pedrasa had also purchased an old Spanish mission on the banks of the Rio Grande and had transformed the crumbling adobe into the first private fort on la frontera, even in advance of Faver’s Cibolo Creek. The 40-room structure became a trading post for travelers and merchants transiting the border, and each arrival led to barbecues and memorable celebrations that only built her reputation as a businesswoman and visionary.
Because much of their trading company still involved negotiating with Indians for goods they had obtained illegally, Leaton got most of the credit for the fort’s prosperity. Unfortunately, when the U.S. annexed Texas, and Leaton was shot and killed on a trip to San Antonio, Juana Pedrasa discovered her considerable holdings were no longer governed by Mexican law, which meant they were passed onto her sons, Leaton’s heirs, not his spouse.
She managed the operations for many years but was unable to adapt to the changing nature of border commerce, and, eventually, they all lost the fort to lenders. Juana returned to Mexico, but her sons and their descendants continued a violent vendetta in a decades-long and failed confrontation to reclaim the fort. The structure, eventually, became a Texas state park that bears Leaton’s name, not Juana Pedrasa’s, and the docents do not lead their storytelling with Leaton’s mendacious beginnings as a scalp hunter and robber, or how he might be unknown to history were it not for a singularly focused woman.
Across the river to the south of Fort Leaton, three crosses adorn an old stone chapel known as El Cerrito de la Santa Cruz. Dona Juana took great comfort in the shrine because the legend had assured believers that the crosses possessed a spell that “kept the devil in his cave.” She often relaxed in a rocking chair, gazing across the water at the rustic structure in the evening light, whispering her prayers. The mythical power of the crosses, though, ultimately, appeared to have failed Juana Predrasa, and she survives as hardly more than a footnote to her husband’s terror and myth.
No stories along the border ever feel old, though. A nameless appeal sustains them into the present, and they continue to live the entire length of the Rio Grande. Not much cleverness is required of a writer to engage an audience with the frontier’s history. The challenge has always been to find a clear and sustaining narrative. The river moves, time changes its course, humans struggle and celebrate, but the tale is not singular or truly understandable, which, I suppose, accounts for my personal intrigue.
None of this was distracting me the morning my cameraman Jerry and I pushed our raft into the water easing toward Santa Elena Canyon. The only subject baffling me was why we were the only journalists that the Texas governor had invited on the excursion. The group was comprised mostly of her senior staffers, a few major donors, and personal friends. Normally uninhibited for a politician, I suspected the presence of our TV camera might, nonetheless, constrain Richard’s enjoyment of the trip.
Slightly downriver from our raft, balladeer, and musician Steven Fromholz, sat the stern of his inflatable boat, paddles in hand, guiding Richards into the current. An experienced river guide, he was, I thought, the perfect match for the governor’s journey. Richards had given up drink, but Fromholz, a raconteur whose stories were often burnished by alcohol, kept his friend from too much introspection and acted determined to see her openly express enjoyment.
“Let’s have us some fun today, Governor.”
I heard him across the water as we floated near, and Jerry raised his camera. We drifted into the canyon and the walls began their dramatic, tectonic rise on the approach to Mesa de Anguila.
“Oh Steven, just stop. I know how to have fun.”
The water’s movement was languid. Previous months in the Conchos River Valley of Northern Mexico had been dry and the snowpack in the southern Rocky Mountains was also seasonally diminished. Reduced runoff left the river slow, which offered more time for observation.
On a gravel bar to the Mexican side, a small group of half-naked children in ragged clothes, stopped scratching in the dirt with sticks, and tracked our passing. No adult was present when two of them stepped into the water’s shallows as if they were intent on boarding a raft. The oldest could not have been ten years, and all were shirtless, protruding ribs betraying their daily existence. The governor turned her head to meet their eyes before we left them astern.
“Oh my,” she said. “I just don’t….”
Fromholz did not let her be troubled.
“Governor, I think we can assume everything’s just fine right there. That might all be less complicated than we know. Children are playing in this beautiful canyon. Let’s look down the river.”
On both sides of us a hundred million years of rock sediment was reaching up from the inner Earth. A volcanic upthrust had pushed the layers against the river for countless millennia and it had cut the canyon, slowly eroding molecules of stone until monolithic walls stood against the Chihuhuan Desert sky. The geologic striations also created an illusion the river was flowing uphill. Cliff swallows flew against the tall edifices and scattered ocotillo and pinon had found rare and lonely purchase hundreds of feet above our heads.
The air was still and there was almost no sound other than murmured conversations across the water as our small flotilla of rafts moved eastward. Although I tried to avoid the memory, I found myself recalling what had happened a half dozen years earlier in that stretch of the river. I had been dispatched by a Houston television station to report on an assassination in this sacred canyon. My crew and I never made it back into the location, but we gathered information on an almost unbelievable story.
A river outfitter and his two clients had become the targets of shooters with high-powered rifles on the bluffs along the Mexican side. The guide was shot in the thigh, and as his passengers were escaping the raft, the husband took a fatal bullet in the back. Almost unconsciously, I kept looking up at the palisades for shadows and movement that did not exist. I had been robbed of the canyon’s comfort by memory of a horror, and then a gust of wind far above us blew a swirl of dust into the sky that briefly refracted sunlight into a bright palette like a ghostly prism.
Our camp that evening was set up on a sand and rock arroyo that rose away from the riverbed. Radiated heat off the canyon walls was not noticeably reduced by the setting sun, though recurrent colors were splayed across the rock strata by the long light arriving at day’s end. Our chef was one of the outfitter’s boatmen, a slender young man with stringy brown hair who claimed to have spent the last decade taking adventurers down great rivers and Class 5 rapids in the western hemisphere. His veracity was marked by premature lines in his dark, sun-tortured skin, and stacks of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.
Before Jerry and I had erected our tents, a fire was jumping into the lowering night and frozen steaks were laid upon a grill. Fromholz had begun his evening’s libations and was growing dangerously witty as he hovered over a Dutch oven giving off the aroma of an apple cobbler. Unfortunately, silverware had not been packed by the suppliers and we were consigned to eating prime rib with our fingers. A guide who always traveled with a Swiss Army knife offered his utensil to the governor and salvaged a bit of decorum for her as the stars tilted over our tents.
“Governor, you wanna hear about the constellations and what they really are?” Fromholz, still steady on his feet, walked close to where Richards was relaxing in a collapsible camp chair.
“Oh, Steven, please.” She dismissed him with a wave. “You’re an astronomer, too?”
“Yes, ma’am, in a manner of speaking, I think so.”
“I’m so sure.”
The singer turned astronomer pointed skyward. “You see those three stars there, don’t you?”
“Of course, everyone learns those first.”
“And what do you think they are?”
“They’re Orion’s belt, as I recall, Steven.”
“No, no, they’re not, Governor.”
“Well, what are they then?”
“That’s Orion’s penis. It’s in that location near his belt because he was erect.”
She laughed, uproariously, a sound I had never heard from Ann W. Richards. I had been in her presence frequently for twenty-five years, reporting on her time as a county commissioner, state treasurer, and governor, while also accumulating endless hours on campaign trips and small aircraft, but I had never heard her produce a hearty laugh. She certainly was not humorless because she had been able to generate an abundance of comedic barbs during her public speaking and private asides, most memorably when she skewered George W. Bush during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. The governor was not, however, the cleverest person in that canyon.
Fromholz sat a rock and picked up a guitar he had packed for the trip. He started and stopped a few songs; the campfire lit his face with a flickering glow. The singer’s baritone bounced off the granite and igneous outcroppings and gave his voice a magisterial resonance not possible on a honky-tonk stage. Between riffs he told the story of a pivotal moment in his musical career, a call from Willie Nelson expressing interest in recording a Fromholz lyric.
“I said yes, of course,” he told the campers. “Ya don’t say no to Willie. Then I went back on the road and forgot about it. Got home several months later and there was check on the table from the recording company. I had become a multi-thousand-aire.”
The Governor’s subsequent laughter, this time, sounded as much like an emotional release to me as it did an appreciation of Fromholz’ punchline. She was anticipating a campaign against a former president’s son, George W. Bush, and had seemed to a few associates and a handful of pundits that she did not have the spirit for the fight. The governor had acquired an impression that her accomplishments in the job had been underappreciated. Recent polls had shown that male voters had backed away from her after a speech to high school girls at the legislature when she warned that their future husbands were likely to leave them alone with “the kids, the mortgage, and the Volkswagen payments.”
Was she being a bit too honest for a candidate seeking reelection?
One of the programs of which Richards was proudest involved a retraining effort that had been entitled, “Smart Jobs.” When technology began to emerge as an economic force in Texas, and oil faltered, the governor had gotten the legislature to fund an effort to teach displaced energy workers how to function in the increasingly digital economy. She chose to highlight the success of the transitional training when she, ultimately, launched her reelection campaign.
And I grew to regret her decision.
The governor flew her media entourage to a factory in East Texas where welders were learning how to create aluminum vegetable trailers. The day had been long and hot, and we had been anticipating a different type of event. We trailed behind her through the un-air-conditioned plant trying to capture snippets of her conversations with the welders. I was overdressed for the heat, playing correspondent in a French blue shirt with a coat and tie, not having anticipated a factory floor as a destination. Lugging a tripod and microphone on a boom only made me hotter.
“How is welding aluminum different?” Richards asked a trainee.
“I can’t say it right. But it’s just diff’rent.”
“How, though? Can’t you explain it for me?”
“Well, you just put your tip up in there, and, and it’s just diff’rent.”
“Well, okay,” she said, satisfied at the accomplishments of her Smart Jobs funding and how it had been spent.
The temperature in the factory was blazing greater than an arc welder but the governor persisted in talking to what felt like every man alive in the building while trying to understand the glories of aluminum welding and what her policies and politics had brought to the piney woods of East Texas. My light blue shirt had turned dark navy with sweat as I lugged the mic boom and heavy camera tripod on her circuit through the shop, which lasted over an hour. There was no one who was not soaking in perspiration and silently urging our garrulous governor to wrap it up and hold her news conference.
No podium was available for her to stand behind or support all the audio gear, which meant TV photogs and technicians taped their microphones to a light stand where Richards was to speak. There were also no chairs for reporters, and they were consigned to a location behind the row of TV cameras to avoid blocking the view. My cameraman did not want all that gooey gaffer’s tape on his expensive wireless rig, which meant I had to hold the long, extended boom out toward Richards.
When she finally arrived to take questions, I assumed that she was astute enough to have sensed our frustration with the heat and her lingered inquiries regarding the mysteries of welding.
I may have been the only familiar face the governor saw in the crowd, alone in front of the bank of cameras, and off to the side. Consequently, she turned to me for the first question of the news conference.
“Well, Jee-im, you want to get us started?” I was never sure if she was overdoing the accent to have fun, but she often gave my name two Texas syllables.
“Why, yes, governor, I do.” I was ready, frustrated, dripping with sweat, and thought I had the sharp wiseass crack to highlight the absurdity of this campaign event.
“Go ahead, then,” she said.
“Governor, I’m wondering if welding is a ‘smart job,’ what exactly is a dumb job?”
The question did not reflect my values about work. I believe all work is honorable, and ought to be respected, but the governor had been dragging us through various campaign stops for a week and we were all on a physical and emotional edge with deadlines and daily reporting. I saw my question register as the dig it was intended to be and Richards looked me over closely as I cradled the long microphone boom in both hands and struggled to keep it steady while she spoke.
“Well, Jee-Im, it don’t look to me like bein’ a microphone holder is a real smart job.”
If I had been able to formulate a comeback, or a follow up question, it would not have been heard over the laughter of my colleagues.
Ann W. Richards often viewed reporters as adversaries, determined to write only of her failures. My sense has been, through the decades, there was some fairness to this assessment for all public officeholders, but daily, we were simply doing our jobs of gathering information about the government and trying to put it into an accessible and understandable form for our audiences.
I was not certain how the governor had viewed me during my time reporting on her and had not given it much thought until being invited to ride the river. In fact, I did not care what her perceptions might have been because I knew I was acting professionally and objectively in the execution of my journalistic tasks. I had no control over her opinion and wanted no such influence.
When we pulled up our tent stakes after our night camping and stuffed our sleeping bags before pushing back into the river the next morning, I was still stuck pondering my invitation for this trip. I was pleased to have seen the governor more relaxed and uninhibited in her surroundings and when she did a few brief interviews on camera she did not sound like she was measuring her words for fear they might be improperly parsed. There was the thought that, perhaps, she was determined to be seen as a person of considerable charm and not a calculated politician.
The water level remained low, and the gentle rocking eastward afforded the time to look up at the canyon walls. Neither Jerry nor I needed to do much more than occasionally dip an oar to guide our raft. I realized, in my doldrums, I was looking for the eagle as much as I was scrutinizing the natural beauty of my surroundings. Even for a mighty raptor, this was a hostile environment at the edge of its North American habitat. Eagles migrated to Texas from lands as distant as Canada and the Northern Rocky Mountains, but, generally, found their winter nesting grounds along rivers lined with cottonwoods, oak, and cypress in the central parts of the state. They were never far from water.
I figured the freed bird might have been disoriented by the unseasonal heat and anomalous thermals and had instinctively turned to the north. There was no shortage of food, though; the desert was populated with small critters like lizards and mice and snakes and horny toads. The diet might not have been what he was seeking, however. Really, these bouldered and barren flats did not offer a fine habitat for a creature as majestic as an eagle or even as mundane as a human. Surely, he had to be halfway to Amarillo, which, in no way, stopped me from contemplating his possible appearance over our heads, a speck or a shadow in the sky. To see any living being fly will always be a wonderment.
We came upon a narrow chute called Rock Slide Rapids, the only whitewater stretch offered by Santa Elena. Getting through was a skill of properly aligning your raft and squeezing between boulders half exposed above the waterline. Not much bouncing over rushing waves was included in the experience. Jerry and I pushed through ahead of the governor and turned the boat to get a shot of Steven Fromholz guiding his friend through the bubbling channel. Richards was smiling, arms up, almost giggling, as if she were rampaging through the standing waves of Taos Box Canyon.
My insights are often pedestrian and many years unrolled before I became cognizant of the disparities extant between the roles that we expect our public servants to play and who they actually are as humans. Richards became an iconic example of this for me, and my education began with her attention to our daughter, Amanda Noelle.
The first Christmas she was living in the governor’s mansion, Ann Richards opened the annual media party to the families of reporters. Amanda was only three years old but was drawn to the dancing lady singing carols and leading children to join her in front of the towering tree. When she later began to understand that I encountered the governor on a frequent basis, and she saw her on TV, Amanda started asking questions. The concept of a campaign was not difficult for her to understand four years later as the governor ran against George W. Bush, and our little girl was horrified that her governor might lose the job.
Amanda was, admittedly, a bit politically prescient. The night Bill Clinton made his acceptance speech at the ’92 convention in New York City and her father was away at that convention, she asked her mother for permission to stay up late to hear the future president. She was only five and had already stood in front of the screen lecturing Dan Quayle for how he spoke about journalists.
“Oh yeah, mister!” she said. “My daddy’s a reporter and so is his cameraman and all of our friends and they’re all nice people. So there!”
She was also watching the TV when the election returns declared Bush had defeated Richards to become the governor-elect of Texas. Our gentle child, who had never whined or wailed, was suddenly on her back when she understood the vote. Her arms and legs were swinging up and down, hammering on the floor.
“No, no, no. It’s not fair. He doesn’t get to be governor.”
He did, though, and used the office as a platform to run for the Oval Office. Had Richards defeated Bush, we might never have invaded Afghanistan, a million Iraqis would still be alive, thousands of U.S. troops would not be horribly maimed or killed, and the Mideast might not have become almost completely destabilized by Bush’s wanton, military overreach.
No one was contemplating those eventualities that sunny morning, though, gliding between two countries on a river that literally sparkled in the new day sun. Richards was almost certainly trying to avoid thinking of the campaign challenges, attempting to not give it a thought in a place where the spiritual might be more alluring than any pragmatic considerations. Everyone around her entertained a certainty that her political work was not finished.
The governor had subtly entered my household through a friendship with Amanda. She sent handwritten notes to our daughter at the end of each year. They included encouragements to read and attend a university outside of Texas to broaden her perspective and recounted the governor’s adventures of the just-concluding year. When Amanda was confirmed in her church, Richards gave her the gift of a commemorative bracelet, and upon completion of high school, a crystal bowl arrived at our house with a pewter lid, personally inscribed to Amanda, date of graduation, and the governor’s name and permanent title. She had already been writing letters of recommendation to support our daughter’s applications to several universities.
These kindnesses ought not to have been so confounding to me. Richards’ thoughtfulness and charms were not secrets, but I had studiously avoided any type of relationship with her beyond being a TV correspondent who asked questions. In fact, my practice as a journalist was to keep a considered distance from all the public figures who were the subjects of my reporting. Being an astute observer of people, the governor probably understood my comportment, which made her outreach to my only child even more touching.
Richards had seemed unstoppably ascendant. Opinion makers east of the Hudson and Potomac Rivers, though, had fixated on her opponent’s candidacy during her first run for governor. He offered the comforting Texas stereotype to East Coast intellects, with a cowboy hat, an oil company, and an ability to sing Mexican campfire songs in Spanish. He also, however, counseled women to “relax and enjoy it,” if rape were inevitable, refused to shake the lady’s hand in advance of a debate, and then admitted to paying no federal income taxes during an interview in the final week of the campaign.
Long shot Richards never got to evolve into a sure thing, though; especially when the inexperienced Bush walked in from his dry hole drilling enterprises in the West Texas hinterlands. On the last day of the campaign, she sat across from me on the jet that was taking us from El Paso to Austin. Reporters were hurriedly making margaritas on a battery-operated blender to consume before the flight landed. The governor sat, almost serenely, reading Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece novel, “The English Patient.” She closed the hardback, scribbled on something, which prompted me to turn my head, and then she looked up at me.
“I think you should read this,” she said, and offered me the book
The author’s name was unfamiliar. “Don’t know him. But it’s good?”
“I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it.”
“Well, thanks, governor. I appreciate it.”
Safely in my truck a bit later at the terminal parking lot, I opened the book to see if she had left me an epigraph or any type of note, but the frontispieces were blank. Maybe she just did not want to carry the novel in her bag. I might have also been making too much of her gesture. I never knew, but it was the first real personal interaction we had shared.
Santa Elena finally began to open in front of our boats. I saw our TV station’s big satellite truck parked near the river in the distance and the slanted dish pointed at the sky was an absurd technological anomaly in the wilds of the Rio Grande basin. Jerry jumped out in the shallow water with his camera and recorded the governor leaving her raft and walking to the parking area for a ride up to her hotel in Marathon.
I dragged our boat up on a sandbar and stared downstream at the Chisos Mountains beginning to shimmer with a reddish fire in the lowering sun. The river gurgled across a gravel bed and moved toward the great curve that described its “big bend” across the face of the Mexican frontier. The sky was as clear as it must have been before humans started building fires. I saw nothing but pastel blue and darkening ranges.
Where was that damn bird?
I ride my motorcycle often on the River Road between Presidio and Terlingua, and I am hypnotized like most travelers by the transcendent beauty of the land. Contradictions, though, are inescapable on the border. Passing through Redford, a weary little outpost just north of the river, I think often of Lucia Madrid, whose grandparents founded the tiny community of a few hundred souls. She was honored by the White House after spending years gathering 20,000 books for impoverished children to read at her house.
“The river,” she told an author, “Has never divided us.”
There is also no avoidance of a bitter memory of tragedy when the road bends away from the mesa located just northeast of Redford. Up there rests a 17-year-old boy who was victimized by a military operation designed to suppress drug traffic. Ezequiel Hernandez was shot through the heart while tending his family’s goat herd because in a Marine sniper’s scope he looked like a drug smuggler. Ezequiel had dreamed of becoming a Marine himself and leaving the border, and in his bedroom a “few good men” poster was taped to the wall above where he slept. The spot where he rests permanently was long marked by a handmade wooden cross and affords a sweeping view of the river valley where he had spent every minute of his short life.
I do not know if these extremes in human experience make the U.S.-Mexico border different than what transpires on urban American streets. Perhaps, the landscape gives lives and losses a more graphic relief and power in their isolation. My conclusion from interviewing those victimized by the collision of cultures is that diminishment seems to be more profoundly felt, and normalcy almost irrecoverable.
The roller-coaster ride along Ranch Road 170 is exhilarating, though, and my memories tend to run toward pleasant imagery. I recall nights in the plazas of Mexican border towns, drinking rum punch and listening to mariachis beneath the palms, running through orange groves and snatching fresh fruit to eat on a warm, sub-tropical winter morning, laying on the soft sand by my young bride in front of the sounding sea where the “big river” reaches the Gulf, music rising above the levees and cold beer on muggy nights as the tourists passed on their way to the international bridges.
Whenever I reach the mountain pass and the Rio Grande overlook, I always put down the kickstand and look west down the river and south to Mexico. Fairly often, I think of the day with Ann W. Richards and her recuperative eagle taking off from where I usually stand. The only birds I ever see up there are vultures, circling patiently over any animated life form.
A solitary eagle is all I ask.
The moment Ms. Richards exited Santa Elena Canyon that day and stepped onto the north bank she had already shed any notions that she might fail and wasted no minutes looking over her shoulder. Unbidden, though, defeat came her way and a corn chip company signed her and another state’s governor to a lucrative contract to appear in a few thirty-second TV commercials as she transitioned from a potential presidential candidate to a kind of cultural and political icon, the last Democrat to hold a statewide office in Texas for a quarter century and counting.
Not all her staffers kept the political faith. A few, when they realized she was no longer bound for the big show in Washington, jumped aboard the next train leaving Austin. One of her communications experts rationalized joining the Bush campaign several years later by using a craven, sexist analogy. He said he saw the future president at a function and felt the same way most men did when they were at a party with their wives and noticed a beautiful woman across the room. The former progressive thinker, and one other Richards’ wonk, played critical roles in helping Bush win the White House, and then led the messaging campaign to justify the invasion of Iraq.
When the governor died from throat cancer, Mary Lou and I joined a large crowd of people at the public memorial inside a University of Texas sports arena. Amanda was away at college and unable to attend. She had taken the governor’s advice and found a campus about as distant from Texas as possible while still barely inside the confines of the continental United States. She continues to emotionally measure the loss of someone she considered a friend, not just a mentor.
The next month after the memorial, I was back out at Big Bend. I will never be able to stay away from those canyons and the mountain ranges and stark mesas. There is something there inexplicable that wants to be understood. Ancient indigenous people of the region said it was where the Great Spirit dumped extra rocks that were not used in the creation of the world, and Mexican vaquero poets explained Big Bend by claiming it is “where rainbows go to wait for the rain.”
Those are beautifully descriptive sentiments, but I have an unfailing, singular memory of Big Bend as a place of eagles, their great grace and beauty adding to the epic landscape. The only sadness in my memory is the certain knowledge that all eagles will, eventually, fly away.