Friday, December 12, 2008

Wall to Wall Protest

Wall protesters get rowdy in Marfa

Wall protesters gathered in mass at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa Wednesday afternoon (January 2008) to let the US Border Patrol know exactly how they felt about the Security Fence Act of 2006. Signs, shouts, speeches and screams filled the air an hour prior to the formal Environmental Assessment which is designed to be a public forum to discuss the pros and cons of the “tactical infrastructure” also known as the wall at the international bridge at Presidio/Ojinaga.

“When you have truth on your side, you still stand a chance in this country,” Billy Addington of Sierra Blanca the first speaker to address the crowd said, crooning into a makeshift microphone set up on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

“They said it was a done deal at Sierra Blanca too,” He referred to the nuclear waste site that the federal government had hoped to create in Hudspeth County. “But we worked hard for eight years and beat them. It can be done,” he hollered. The speakers rattled and the crowd of protesters cheered.

Meantime, the local police, state troopers and green uniformed Border Patrol agents hovered nearby.

“I’d estimate somewhere between 100 to 150 people,” Marfa Police Chief J.D.Wilbourne said.

“Big group, exercising their rights,” State Trooper Morris added.

A released bouquet of black balloons floated over the crowd, dull against the gray clouds in the sky.

“I don’t think Homeland Security knows what they’re in for,” Don Dowdy of Alpine said as he turned from the mike to the cheers of the crowd.

“When they look across the border they see potential terrorists, drug smugglers, we see a beautiful culture, and friends,” Robert Halperin of Marfa said.

“Cherkov? He aint never had an enchilada. What’s he know about this country?” Harry Hudson of Marfa said, bending over the mike. “I’d like to fix him an enchilada, a real hot one.”

“Anybody who knows their history and hasn’t played too much football, knows that walls don’t work; Troy, China, Germany, Palestine…”

Yellow, red, black and white signs waved above the heads of the crowd. “Stop the Wall,” “Love thy Neighbor,” “Fear tactics don’t work,” “Walls – antithesis of democracy,” read the signs.

More people arrived. Rod Ponton of Alpine spoke then Father Mel of Redford,
“78 years ago I was born into a free country and today I am a casualty of a police state.”

“The first thing we do is get mad, get very angry,” the Terlingua Justice of the Peace said.

“If the river could speak…,” Adrienne Evans of Terlingua said to the crowd. Her eyes filled with tears and then she walked away from the mike.

Singer/songwriter Mike Stevens of Alpine followed with a wall song of his doing and then gave way to a trio of local guitarists. People began to shuffle across the tiled floor of the hotel’s patio, in small groups and singletons, past the dry fountain and into the Buffalo Room where the official information – public forum was to begin.

Inside the room, the seats were full and a large standing crowd in the back of the room huddled, talking amongst themselves. The strong smell of cat urine hung in the air.

A large white-haired man with a British accent addressed the crowd from the podium, “I’m Loren Flausman of Customs and Border Protection in Washington D.C. and we’re here today to find out if we’ve missed anything.”

The crowd roared back, “Yes,” “Plenty,” “Are you kidding?” “Where would you like to begin?”

A series of questions barraged the speaker from different parts of the room. Some were addressed, few were answered. Then the crowd was told to fill out a form with their questions and comments and mail it, fax it, email it, or visit

More and more official speakers stood up in various parts of the room trying to handle the stream of unanswered questions.

“If this is about terrorists and not immigration, then why aren’t they building the wall on the Canadian border, because that’s where the only known terrorists have passed?” Barbara Baskin of Redford asked.

Toward the end of the meeting Flausman’s voice broke through the rumble in answer to a question,” This is nothing. I’ve been shot, I’ve been mortared. I’ve been through a lot worse than this. Believe me, this is a cakewalk.”

John Smietana Jr., Chief of the Marfa Sector Border Patrol sat at a table, near the back of the room, behind stacks of government information brochures. “They won’t build it until everything’s been put together, piece by piece, inch by inch.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Los Jaks MC

“You don’t need a bike to join us,” Ruben Gonzales said from his chair at the bar of The Oasis. “Chile Verde, hamburgers, beer, music and Harleys. You can’t beat that, man.”

He wore a black skull cap with red, orange, and yellow chiles. Boxes of Tecate were stacked on the bar and a poster of a pearly-white Harley-Davidson covered the front wall. His black mustache quirked. “Bring your kids,” he said, “The Hamburgers are free.”

Gonzales is talking about this weekend’s Los Jaks MC biker bash at The Oasis in Marathon, Texas. It starts Friday night and goes all weekend. For the riders there’ll be a Poker Run, A Slow Move and a Weinee Bite. All proceeds benefit St Mary’s Church.

Los Jaks is a motorcycle club started in Marathon several years ago. All twelve members ride Harley Davidsons. “But we’re open to any kind of bike,” Gonzales said. “I had a Honda, but I gave it to my son. Now I ride a Dyna Super-Glide with the Evo motor.” He rubbed the gold chain on his neck. “I love that machine.”

Gonzales handed me a Tecate. The Monday night dinner crowd is streaming in. The locals wave, the tourists aren’t sure which door to use. Marilyn Shackleford stops. “Ruben, who’s cooking tonight?”

“Don’t worry,” Gonzales said. “I’m going to fix you some good beans.”

She laughs and walks to the restaurant wing.

Gonzales is also Marathon’s Constable. He’s in his third term and up for re-election in November. “Un-contested,” he grinned. “The job is all about civil process. Serving papers and other official duties.”

A couple walked in holding hands. He’s in khaki pants and a tucked in blue polo shirt. She’s wearing a long cotton chafon. They walk past the bar and into the restaurant.

“Seventy-five per cent of my business is tourists,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales was born and raised in Marathon. As a kid he spent a lot of time at The Post. “We’d walk there. Across the pastures, it was faster,” Gonzales said. “Fish and swim all day.”

One of Gonzales’s first jobs in Marathon was working as a service station attendant. “There were four gas stations then. By the 1970’s there were seven,” he said.

Later he got a tortilla route. “Thirty-nine cents a dozen, and gas was eighty-seven cents a gallon. I had stops in Terlilngua, Alpine, Presidio, Redford, Balmorhea. I was always asking questions, thinking, one of these days I’ll open my own restaurant.”

Ruben and his wife Coi opened The Oasis Restarant and Bar in 1995. They opened a second restarant this year, next to the Gage Hotel called, “Jonnie B’s”.

“Business is good,” Gonzales said. He grins, “I like my job.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Terlingua Ranch - Property Rights

With discovery done and mediation failed, District Judge Kenneth DeHart heard final arguments from both sides of the ongoing dispute between Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch Inc (POATRI) and Marion Craig Suber, one of several Terlingua Ranch property owners who have sued their association to gain exclusive easement rights to their land.
POATRI contends that they share easement rights with property owners to all parcels on the ranch. According to the association by-laws, no gates and especially no locked gates are allowed. Suber is accused of chain-locking three gates on his property, making it, according to the suit, “impossible for vehicular traffic to pass.”
“My client is an advocate of private property rights,” attorney Rod Ponton, who represents Suber, said.
“For years there has been a tension between POATRI and owners whether the roads were public or private. The question is, do owners have the right to keep people off their land like any other land owner can,” Ponton said.
“The way POATRI has it set-up, people can drive anywhere, anytime and sightsee, like a park,” 13- year Terlingua Ranch resident Kassandra Mead said. “We just want to own our land like anybody else,” Mead said.
Many of the roads serve as long drive ways as very few parcels have direct access to public roads, essentially making most of the land, land-locked.
A temporary restraining order against Suber to keep the gates open has expired. Now the judge must decide the future of the case.
Terlingua Ranch, a 300,000 acre “sub-division” with 1100 miles of unpaved road and over 4900 individual tract owners, most of which do not live there, started as a land development scheme in the late 1960’s by a company known as the Terlingua Ranch Land and Cattle Company, led by Carroll Shelby and a disbarred lawyer named David A Witts. The Terlingua Chili Cook-Off was part of the marketing plan to develop interest in the area.
In the early 1970’s Shelby and company sold the enterprise to Great Western Corporation who in turn transferred the assets, including easements, to the present developer, Terramar Corp in 1976. Whether the transferred easement was an assignment or a license is, according to Judge DeHart, “the critical element in this case.”
Today the largest land owner at Terlingua Ranch is the Brewster County Oil Company, who not only is prospecting for petroleum but is operating one of two bentonite mines on the ranch. The company operates under several names and has its headquarters in Brenham, Texas.
Victory for Suber would mean that Terlingua Ranch owners would have the right to gate their properties but not block egress or ingress to their neighbors. A Suber victory might also require POATRI to give up some land.
“Owners in the past who have lost their land due to liens filed by POATRI because of easement disputes, might be in position to reclaim their land,” Ponton said.
Jerry Patterson, director of the Texas General Land Office, has discussed the possibility of allowing POATRI to manage Christmas Mountain.
“They would keep poachers and other trespassers off the mountain,” GLO spokesman Jim Suydam said.
A draft agreement between the GLO and POATRI has been distributed to the public, but whether easement is an issue to gain access to the mountain from the Terlingua Ranch side remains cloudy, until the Suber case is resolved. Christmas Mountain already has access and easement from the south through the Big Bend National Park.
Judge DeHart who “will take the matter under advisement,” will likely rule on the case in the next sixty days.

Fatboy in the Sun

For the past two years, Harley-Davidson has sent film crews to the Big Bend Region to capture the beauty of our landscape and to seduce the American spirit with the big rumbling iconic motorcycles. Two film crews worked the region this week, and our reporter Mark Glover joined them.

On the Matrix Ranch side of Hwy 90 just a few miles east of Marathon, Texas a 2008 Harley Davidson Fatboy angles on it sidestand, rider-less. Men hover close-by, flat black equipment spread around, cans of polish, light stands and other essentials of a photo shoot busy the spot. A gust of wind rifles threw and slams the cargo door of one of the parked vans.

“The chrome is flat,” Madison Ford, the photographer says. He rises up from his camera. “Where’s the sun? Dammit, That’s why we’re here.”

A giant purple-gray cloud hovers in the blue winter sky.

His assistant, Kevin Netz holds up a light meter. “I got a negative three.”

Mid-Lo Studio of Detroit and VSA Partners of Chicago have sent their film crew down here to produce photographs for the latest Harley Davidson accessories catalog.

“The custom tank, fenders and extra chrome will set you back five g,” Erik Eul another assistant says. “Go down in a cloud of glory if you wreck that beast.”

A gust rustles up styro-foam in the grass and our dull shadows lengthen. Dylan plays on the radio and a unit train with pale green freight cars rumbles by.

“Pretty good station. No stops,” Jason McKean of VSA Partners says.

Kevin kicks at the asphalt. Eric offers a cup of coffee and Jason has picked up a baseball bat and is popping rocks into the desert. Deputy Sean Roach slows another car on the highway. The cloud does not move.

On a table set up on the shoulder, black and white snap shots are laid out with numbers hand-written on each.

“We move the bike around to get the best look then take Poloroid test shots with a 2x2 Hasselblad (camera). When it’s close we shoot it with the big one.” Jason points to the tripod mounted Swiss made Sinac 4x5 camera.

”We’re not digital, although 98 per cent of the industry is. We’re holding on to film. We like it.” A smile breaks out on his teddy-bear face. “They convert it at the post-production lab but loose some of the essence.”

“Bel-Air job,” Kevin says. The crew looks at each other and laughs. “Bel-Air works in the lab. Says he fixes stuff for us.”

Madison Ford holds out a test shot. “You see anything wrong with this?” He shakes his head. “I give it to them perfect.”

Deputy Roach now stands at the barbed wire scanning the desert with a gunstock mounted monocular. Hunters in a white pick-up crawl off-road then vanish behind a hill.

“Lets get the lights going,” Madison Ford says.

Eric sets up the 2000 watt lights each powered by its own Honda generator. “Give me a green screen,” Madison Ford says.

Kevin kneels behind the big camera.

“Go a little more front,” Madison Ford instructs Eric with the light. “Lee me see if I can fix that… OK – good, stop there. That’s better.”

Jason leans over to me. “It’s hard to fake natural light. In these conditions we have to use a lot of artificial for fill, to get definition.”

“We’re outside the bracket,” Madison Ford said, peering at the LCD display on the camera. He shakes his head. Getting the exposure within the light meter brackets allows the possibility of the perfect photograph.

It’s like waiting for paint to dry sometimes,” Jason says gesturing toward the cloud.

Harley Davidson publishes the fifty page accessories catalog once a year. In it, you can buy anything from fish fin exhaust pipes to black and orange leather-handled knives. Its all part of the rugged individual look.

“We got something coming to life here,” Madison Ford calls out.

The sun has dipped below the giant cloud, radiating just minutes above the horizon.

The crew hustles to position.

“Good, good, good” Madison Ford says, the camera clicking. “I got brackets.”

Gage Garden Extension

“J.P. said he wanted something with a running brook,” Gage Garden Project Manager Rip Winkel said. He looked down a freshly bulldozed dirt corridor in the middle of Marathon. “So that’s what we’re doing.”

J.P Bryan owner of the Gage Hotel and The Gage Garden acquired the old Adam’s Dairy Farm some time ago.

“They had cows back in the 40’s and 50’s,” Sam Caveness said. His brother-in-law, Taylor Adams, now deceased, owned the dairy. “It was a raw milk operation.”

The 18.75-acre parcel will allow J.P. Bryan to extend the present Gage Garden and have a running brook.

“It’s in a flood plain. Some of the old timers have told me that during the strong rain cycle of the 1940’s water would lake from here to the railroad tracks,” Winkel nodded his head to the north. “What’s cool about the flood plain is the 6 feet of topsoil.”

“We plan a running brook down the center, a pathway, exactly one mile around, a couple of bridges and clumps of trees, forests.” He pointed toward several knolls around the property already shaped in soft rolling mounds.

“We’ll plant three varieties of Red Oak, Native Maple, Pine and Cypress. Buffalo Grass and Blue Gamma will hold the dirt down and Bull Rushes along the water. Initially we’ll rely on our irrigation system that can pump 100 gallons of water a minute – 90 lbs of pressure, until nature can take care of itself.”

The wind was blowing and dirt from the project was flying through the air.

“There’ll be several gazebos, protected spots along the pathway to get out of the weather,” he said.

We walked away from the old farm toward the metal sheds near the heart of Gage Gardens. The entourage he led consisted of myself, Gage Hotel General Manager Wilma Schindler, and three marketing consultants; Melissa Baldridge from Denver, Philip Fell from Houston, and Pat Sherby from Austin.

At a small fenced vineyard Winkel pulled his braided beard and continued the tour. “We had a problem with Pearce’s Disease and had to remove the old vines. The soil is so alkaline, you can’t dig around here without hitting caliche, I had to find some varieties that could resist Pearce’s Disease and handle the high soil PH.

“We’ve got Champanelle and Favorite growing now,” Winkel said. He lifted his head a little and smiled. “ Expect to see a vintage wine come out of here in 2009.”

Inside the greenhouse the warm humid air was heavy with a rich biotic smell.

“These plants are for the grounds at the hotel. “We’re building another green house to grow vegetables and herbs for the restaurant,” Winkel said.

“Buy less grow more,” Schindler said. “Fresh organic vegetables are essential to the restaurant.”

“The vegetable green house should be up by next month. We’ve already got Rutabaga,” Winkel, who hails from Colorado, points to a row of potted plants. “Texans need to know about rutabaga.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meeting Jeff Fort

Former two-time Tyco International Ltd. CEO, Jeff Fort, has found a lot to do since leaving the giant conglomerate. Exploring for petroglyphs on the ninety sections of his Pinto Canyon Ranch in a big-tired Jeep fills part of his time. Testifying against ex-officers of his former company fills another.

“I spent five days in New York giving deposition last month,” Fort said, leaning back in his chair. “The civil part of the matter is not over.”

The waiter came and Fort let me choose the wine, “as long as its red,” he said. I went for the 2004 Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel. Fort nodded. He was casually dressed, lean and maybe sixty. Only one table remained open at the Cochinelle that night.

Fort served as CEO for Tyco from 1982 to 1992. He brought in Dennis Kozlowski to fill his shoes. In ten years, Kozlowski added hundreds of companies to the TYCO banner and billions to its sales but calls of impropriety from shareholders, about the time that ENRON and WORLDCOM came down, instigated an internal investigation.

“They had quite a lifestyle,” Fort said, referring to Kozlowski, the CFO and the general counsel for Tyco.

Kozlowski bought an 18.5 million dollar penthouse on Fifth Ave., then stocked it with art. To avoid New York sales tax he showed an out of state address.

“He was shipping empty boxes to New Hampshire,” Fort said.

Tax evasion brought on the heat, but the company’s internal investigation showed many other problems too. After negotiating with Kozlowski to step down voluntarily, which saved Tyco 120 million dollars in potential severance fees, Fort returned to Tyco to serve as interim CEO in the summer of 2002. Criminal charges were brought against Kozlowski and three other Tyco associates. Two trials later, Kozlowski and one other former employee are now serving time in a New York State penitentiary.

And Fort is glad to spend his time in Texas.

“I love the mountains out here,” he said.

He visited west Texas a little over ten years ago after getting a tip from his friend Tim Crowley.

“I grew up in the northeast and hiked a lot in New Hampshire and Vermont. But big open spaces are shrinking. And that’s why I’m out here,” Fort said.

Fort has put all of the Pinto Canyon Ranch under a conservation easement.

“A conservation easement is a permanent burden to title,” John Karges of the Nature Conservancy, in Ft Davis said. “The landowner agrees to a certain amount of conservation. No sub-division is allowed and coordination with certain agencies like U.S.Fish and Wildlife to monitor the health of the land is suggested. Conservation easements are helping to re-wild America.”

“I’m sensitive to the environment. I’ve seen what development can do, if capitalism runs unfettered.” Fort leaned back and swirled the Zin in his glass.

When asked about America’s version of democratic capitalism, he stared for a moment, then said, “I’m a big fan of capitalism. I think it’s the only way to go. The trick is, regulation and how to craft it.”

The waiter brought a green salad and before lifting his fork, Fort said, “Innovation. Capitalism. You never know where its going to pop-out. It’s always moving. Business tries to find ways around regulation, which is neat and good because the government is not very good at crafting good regulation.”

I mentioned that I lean left, politically.

“Did communism work in Russia?” he asked, like a father, like a wise man.

I shakes me head.

“And now they are run by thugs, nothing subtle about it,” Fort said. “The big difference between Russia and us, is our legal system. Our law has teeth.”

I thought about Kozlowski in the pen and his art and the gray and red walls of the restaurant.

“In Russia they’re buying up art,” Fort said. “Sotheby’s, Christies. They buy it to be ‘Big Guys’.”

There was half a bottle of wine left and he poured us each another glass. The ring on his finger was some type of yellow stone, flat, aged and square.

“I like my wine thick, red, and rich,” Fort said.

Fort is a big supporter of The Center for Big Bend Studies.

“I love what they’re doing.” His eyebrow quirked. “They taught me how to find the sites.”

The center has documented over 450 archeological sites on the Pinto Canyon Ranch including wikiups from the ancient Cielo Complex people.

“The vibes you get from an 8000 year old spear head,” Fort said. He shakes his head.

Fort’s wife, Marion Barthelme, is a free lance writer and a Time Magazine correspondent. She is also the former wife of short story meta-fictionalist Donald Barthelme, who died in the late 1980’s at 58.

Somehow, I recalled an opening to one of his stories: “The death of God left the angels in a strange position.”

“Does she find it scary?” I asked.

“To come out here?” He asked.

I nod.

“It is scary. But after a while you get over it.”

Marion spends most of her time in Houston.

The waiter came by with the check and I asked Mr Fort if we can split it, hoping that he’d say “of course not.”

“No way,” Fort said. He put his glasses on, examined the bill, then laid his credit card on the table.

Tiny rocks crunched under our feet as we walked out through the dim lit courtyard. The Marfa wind howled. We reached the curb and Fort’s hot rod Jeep.

“Can I call you if I’m fuzzy on the facts?” I asked.

“Sure, call me any time.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Water and Waste

Marathon’s water tower glimmered in the afternoon sun overlooking the town from its high perch at the end of North 8th Street. Inside the office next to the tower, Bernice Martin, bookkeeper, combed the files.

“We pumped 28,410,000 gallons in ’07. Rainy year. Pumped 32,375,000 in
06,” she said.

The Marathon Water Sewage Service Corporation was formed in 1969 to provide water and sewage services to the people of Marathon. The well, adjacent to the tower, was drilled down to one thousand feet, but pumps at 232 feet.

“We got water at a hundred and sixty nine feet,” Jim Roberts, manager of the public corporation said. “The aquifer is more or less vertical around here.”

Beakley Draw which runs out of the Glass Mountains is one of the recharging systems for the aquifer. Artificial recharge zones also exist. They were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Roosevelt administration.

“A little over half the people take their water from us,” Roberts said. “And a little bit more than that use our sewage system.”

Paisano Cattle Company leased fifty acres to Marathon for the first sewage plant. Then bought the land and built a bigger plant.

“According to the rules, once you reach 70 per cent of your capacity you’re suppose to be planning a new one,” Roberts said “That happened to us about six years ago.”

“We were real fortunate to get the grants and get up to date,” Roberts said. “The money came out of the North American Development Bank part of the NAFTA agreement. We qualified because we were within so many miles of the border.”

Marathon operates a cyclative-lagoon type sewage system.

“We have a state of the art sewage treatment plant,” Steve Houston, board president of MWSSC said.

“The sewage is pumped between lagoons,” Roberts said. “We have an irrigation pond but we’re not using it, because we’re not near capacity. Evaporation is important and we’ve had plenty of that the first half of this year. We’d like to use the irrigation pond and grow something out there. There’s a whole bunch of ideas about it.”