The following excerpts and photographs are reprinted by the
kind permission of Western Horseman Magazine from their August 1998 issue,
in an article titled "Leading Off - West of Rio Bravo" by Mr. Randy Witte.
1998 Western Horseman
Four amigos wind up horseback
in Old Mexico,
and stumble back in time.
A million stars and a half-moon in the cloudless sky gave faint illumination
to the desert floor below...
We arrived at Lajitas late in the day and met Linda Walker, owner and operator
of Lajitas Stables. Over dinner that night, in the Badlands Restaurant,
Linda filled us in on the history of Lajitas. Lajitas means flagstone,
which is abundant in the area, and therefore used extensively for construction.
The area has been used as a good ford of the Rio Grande for more than 2(K)
years, she said. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Comanches kept the
flagstone ford well traveled by crossing over from Texas to make raids
on Mexican livestock.
A United States Cavalry Fort was established at Lajitas in 1916, under
the command of John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, in response to border raids
both by Mexican bandits and revolutionaries led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa.
Pershing's job was to see that the revolution stayed on "the other side"
of the Rio Grande.
The Rio Grande flows 1,248 miles from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, forms
part of the United States-Mexico border, and drops 12,O(K) feet in elevation
along the way. In Mexico, the river is named Rio Bravo, or Rio Bravo del
Norte - Brave River of the North. The river's water flow has been greatly
reduced in this century because of dams and irrigation needs upstream.
At Lajitas, it is only about 30 feet wide, and that comes mostly thanks
to the Rio Conchos, which flows from the upper Mexican state of Durango
into Rio Bravo.
"We'll have a Mexican guide and will be riding Mexican horses," Linda said.
"I think you'll find the horses well-suited to the country. They're small
- 700 to 900 pounds, 14 hands or less - and they're tough. They have to
be tough to live in this type of country. It's survival of the fittest
was raised on a ranch at Durango, Co., spent her younger years packing
friends into the Colorado mountains, just for fun, and was a barrel racer
on the rodeo trail. But she had family ties in the Big Bend country - her
grandparents had a ranch there, and eventually she came to help them in
their declining years, then stayed permanently. Now she has friends on
both sides of the border, and says she has found her true roots and a great
sense of contentment in this arid land of mountains, rocks, and cactus.
"We'll saddle up in Mexico tomorrow at 9 a.m.," Linda said, "mas o menos"
- more or less. In fact it was "more." We found ourselves ready to ride
out of the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas by 9:30 or so. Morgan (Lightfoot)
kept handing me plastic bottles of water to stuff in my saddle bags, and
a kindly Mexican woman implored us to "drink plenty of water, drink until
you slosh inside." Linda said she had water for us too - "but I'm not going
to tell anybody who is riding into the desert to not bring extra water."
Morgan handed me two more water bottles.
"Don't worry," Morgan said, "we'll have something besides water to drink
in camp tonight." Which was true. Earlier we had stopped at the Lajitas
Trading Post - a general store in operation since 1915, and currently famous
for a beer-drinking goat named Clay Henry Jr. - and purchased ice for and
ice chest Morgan had packed with a variety of beverages. The ice chest
would meet us via pickup truck with the rest of our gear, in camp at day's
And so we rode down the dusty streets of Paso Lajitas, past adobes and
cinderblock houses, past a small goat farm on the outskirts of town, into
the expansive desert, and into the heat, which was beginning to rise. Linda
took the lead, mas o menos, and a Mexican guide named Ruben followed along
Jim and Darrell rode uncomplaining, but Morgan reined up beside me after
a while and said, matter-of-factly, shaking his head from side-to-side,
"This is God-forsaken country." The assessment was accurate, but Linda
was determined to give us all a sense of the history and beauty of the
land. We stopped and investigated an abandoned flagstone casa with earthen
roof. When was it built - 100, 200 years ago? Hard to tell. Nearby was
the remains of a recent candellia wax operation, a desert cash crop that
brings forth a powdery substance used in makeup.
We stopped for lunch in the shade of a canyon wall, and offered our horses
a drink from a small spring that appeared out of a limestone crack. Linda
spread out the makings for fajitas on a smooth slab of rock, and sliced
avocado and mango to go with them. We drank water and observed that the
day was not nearly as hot as it might have been, thanks to a cool front
from the Pacific, far to the west.
On the trail again, we skirted the canyon single-file, walking and climbing
our horses along a limestone shelf. Jim's horse suddenly slipped and fell,
but Jim kicked out of the stirrup and rolled free of the wreck like he
was a movie stuntman. Neither he not the horse was injured, and we resumed
We traveled up an area known as Los Mongos, and explored a canyon with
a small but persistent waterfall that is Milagro Creek - Miracle Creek.
Linda pointed out, along the way, the four kinds of prickly-pear cactus,
plus the ocotillo with its with is wicked thorns and delicate blossoms,
the Christmas, rainbow, and strawberry cactuses, several kinds of yucca,
and the sotol, a cabbage-like plant that was a staple of life for the ancient
ones who peopled this area long ago.
"I prefer the Spanish names over the English names for a lot of these plants"
Linda said. "For instance, there is a desert plant we call leather stem,
but the Spanish or Mexican name for it is sangre de drago - blood of the
dragon. What we call allthorn is named corona de Cristo - crown of Christ
- in Mexico.''
We spent the first night at a ranch on Milagro Creek, putting the horses
in a stone corral, spreading our bedrolls on the warm desert dirt, The
horses ate alfalfa hay hauled in the pickup by Jana Nichols, who also helped
with the preparation of a Dutch-oven dinner for the rest of us, Ruben climbed
up to the little capia - religious shrine with a wooden cross on its roof
- that stood atop a knoll behind the house. He knelt to open the tiny door
on the structure, and inside lit a votive candle - a blessing on the ranch
A million stars and a half-moon in the cloudless sky gave faint illumination
to the desert floor below. A lone rider approached in the night, put his
horse in the corral, and turned in. Next morning, we were introduced to
Onorio Orasco, a native vaquero who would assume guide duties for our expedition.
Onorio had traveled from his village through the night, delaying his departure
to join us in order to be with his wife to witness the birth of their first
The following day was filled with contrast as we traveled through red rock
strewn landscapes that looked like photos from Mars, desolate miles of
cactus, more rocks, and tall, rugged mountains, seemingly devoid of life.
Interspersed among the thorns, spikes and needles was the occasional band
of native horses and burros, seemingly content and carrying adequate flesh,
though no one could figure out just what they ate.
We wound our way to the top of Sierra la Mora, and stopped at an abandoned
flagstone casa and rock corral. Nearby was a pristine spring that flowed
into a natural bowl formed by cottonwood tree roots. The horses drank and
we had lunch in the shade. A old capia stood guard on a tall hill overlooking
That afternoon we rode around and over mountains, continuing on our way
to San Carlos. We followed an ancient trail that was worn into solid rock
going over the pass on San Carlos Mountain, and thought of the Spaniards,
Comanches, revolutionaries, and desperadoes who had no doubt traveled the
same path years earlier. San Carlos (Manuel Benavides on the map) has seen
We rode through San Carlos late in the afternoon. Hoof beats on cobblestone
streets alerted the town's children that visitors were there, and they
rushed out of adobe houses to have a look at the sunburned gringos who
rode by. Our little entourage found its way to a beautiful hacienda - La
Gloria - on the far side of town, with irrigated gardens from the warm
springs up San Carlos Canyon.
We unsaddled horses and staggered up the hill to the hacienda, where soft
Mexican flute music played and Gloria Rodriguez greeted us with ice-cold
Tecates and lime. Gloria's Bed and Breakfast caters to American tourists,
many of whom, according to her guest book, return again and again. And
it's easy to see why - we didn't want to leave.
We had another full day of riding and then found ourselves once again trailing
in on the dusty little street of Paso Lajitas. Our horses seemed content
to be back, and so were we.