The best friendship I’ve cultivated in my thirty trips through the Lower Canyons is with Pete Billings of Langtry, a retired Southern Pacific railroad engineer, who grew up along the river in Langtry in the years when it was a thriving railroad town of close to five hundred inhabitants, not too many years removed from the era of Judge Roy Bean. Nearing ninety years of age, Pete still fishes the stretch of river between John’s Marina (Dryden) and the Pecos River.
If you were to meet Pete and witness his energy and spirit, you would likely find it difficult to believe Pete will turn ninety in June of 2007. I know many people half his age who couldn’t keep up with him. However, if you have any doubts about his age, all you have to do is listen to his many stories about growing up in Langtry in the 1920’s, an era when the railroad was king in the Trans-Pecos, and Pete’s father was section manager for the Southern Pacific in Langtry.
Pete’s father came to the railroad after several years of making a living “running” goats on the west side of the Pecos above Shumla Bend. The hard winter of 1914 claimed most of his herd, forcing Mr. Billings into town for work to raise his new family. Pete’s mother had given birth to his oldest brother in a cave above the Pecos River.
The second best friendship I’ve cultivated during all those Lower Canyons trips is with Andy Kurie, a former Dupont geologist who worked for decades in the mines of northern Mexico and who has for the last dozen years owned the Heath Canyon Guest Ranch at the Lower Canyons put-in, opposite La Linda. I had heard much about Andy for almost a decade before I even met him.
When I was a graduate student at Sul Ross in the late 1980’s, I spent many weekends playing baseball in La Linda, both for the mine team and against them. During the post-game meal, admiring mine workers would often refer to Andy as “el gringo amable,” or the kind gringo.
For me, having Andy at the top end and Pete at the bottom end of a Lower Canyons trip has always been more of an incentive to make another run down the river than even the draw of a long soak in the pools at the Hot Springs, the grandeur of the canyon scenery, or the challenge of running all the rapids.
Most people call me a loner, which isn’t quite accurate, since if you put me in a group of Mexicans I’ll typically be right in the center of the social action. I like to think of it this way: I choose my friends very carefully, and two of the best choices I’ve ever made are Pete Billings and Andy Kurie.
And for that reason I considered it a very special early Christmas present when Pete agreed to drive me to Heath Canyon to begin my most recent Lower Canyons solo run on December 23rd. Not only would I get to spend the hours of the drive with Pete and his daughter Linda, but I would witness the initial meeting of the two men I most admire in the Trans-Pecos.
Unfortunately, I missed most of their meeting because I was down at the beach unloading the gear, but I could see from the moment I returned to Andy’s house that it was going well. Already, Andy had given Pete a significant gift, an 8 by 11 photo of the original Hill Expedition, the first successful attempt by the US government to survey the unknown territory we currently call the Lower Canyons.
For those of you who haven’t seen this photo, it features six men standing on the bluff above the river in Langtry in 1899. One of the men, boatman James McMahon, was Hill’s guide for the trip. McMahon had made at least three previous trips through the canyons, and most recognize him as the first white man to have boated this remote section of the southwest.
We know now that McMahon continued to boat the Rio Grande in the decades after Robert Hill’s USGS expedition because as soon as Pete viewed the photo Andy gave him, he exclaimed, “Sure enough, that’s ol’ James McMahon, the trapper. I used to run down to the river when I was a boy whenever he would come in from trappin’.”
“I sure am glad to get this gift,” Pete said as he enthusiastically held it out to show to me.
I suspect watching Pete’s joy to have the picture and to recall his experiences with McMahon was every bit as good a gift for me as the photograph was for Pete. We often forget that the recorded history of the Lower Canyons is relatively brief, and Pete serves as the last living link between the earliest known river man and those of us who run it today.
Pete and Andy shared another link. Langtry author Jack Skiles, perhaps Pete’s closest friend, was a classmate of Andy’s at the Sul Ross State University. Mr. Skiles is widely known and respected for his research on the Trans-Pecos and his long tenure running the Judge Roy Bean Visitor’s Center in Langtry.
Sadly, Pete’s visit with Andy concluded not long after I was ready to shove off for the beginning of my two-week float down to Pete’s house on the bluff in Langtry, but Pete told me as we were driving to the river, “I sure liked that fellow. I can see why you’re always coming out here.”
Later, he offered to drive me out to La Linda anytime I wanted to go, so I’m hoping I can see these two venerable men together again.
I found it almost anti-climactic to get on the river after bidding goodbye to Pete and Linda at the Gerstacker Bridge, and admittedly I grew a little sad to see them drive away.
However, three days later at Hot Springs, I met yet another link to Pete Billings. I pulled in about mid-afternoon, set up camp between the two drops of the rapid, and walked downriver to bathe in the springs. There, in the shade of the bald cypress tree above the main pool, I saw a cooler and several bottles of the top-dollar scotch sold in Mexico.
A few moments later a short, dark man appeared next to the cooler, and in our brief conversation, he revealed he was present to cook for the owner of the ranch and his hunting buddies. I asked him where the owner was, and I found him returning from setting fishing lines a couple hundred yards below the pools.
In polite and formal Spanish, I asked him if it would be ok if I pitched my tent and stayed the evening. He smiled warmly, and replied in Spanish, “You know, I’ve seen many many people stop here but you’re the first person who ever asked my permission. Thank you. Of course you can stay as long as you like.”
In spending much of the rest of the afternoon drinking beer with Beto Peña, the owner of San Rosendo Ranch and much of the Mexican side land within Reagan Canyon, and his five friends, I made a new group of friends. The only downside to our meeting was I had to refuse their offer to accompany them up to the ranch for the night because when I asked when they might be able to bring me back to the river, Beto replied, “sometime before January first.” As tempting as it was to spend as many as six days with this fun-loving group, I couldn’t risk leaving my boat and gear along the river that long, not to mention worrying Pete by arriving as many as six days late.
These six hunters found me very curious, which I complain about only because it meant I had to answer far more questions than I was able to ask. Beto and I talked about his various animals, many of which I knew personally from so many trips along the periphery of his ranch. He particularly liked the story of the time his mean bull ate my baseball shirt while I was sleeping next to the springs.
But the one story which all six found hilarious was the time Hayesy and I attempted to rid our camp of a raccoon by getting it drunk. The raccoon came to the edge of camp and stared at us longingly while we prepared a supper of potatoes, onions, carrots, and beans. When I asked Hayesy for suggestions on how we might get the mapache to leave us alone, Hayesy recommended we try getting it drunk enough where it would retreat to its den to pass out.
We tried to accomplish this by digging a hole nearby the raccoon and placing in it a bowl filled with our night’s supper and three shots of Herradura tequila. We watched in amazement while the raccoon lapped up the entire serving but appeared no worse for the tequila, even forty-five minutes later.
At that time, we filled the bowl a second time, this time adding two shots of tequila, and this time the raccoon again ate the entire stew. Within seconds of finishing this second helping, it wandered off into the brush, and we didn’t see him again that night.
In the morning, however, I awoke to find that bottle of tequila had been spun in circles all around our camp, each circle defined by the footprints of the raccoon.
When Beto and his hunting buddies were preparing to depart, they insisted I drink yet another beer, and when I refused, one quipped, “Or else we’ll find your footprints in circles around our cooler when we wake up at the ranch tomorrow morning!” The entire group roared with laughter at my expense at this joke.
Before they departed, I told Beto I was interested in traveling from Acuña to San Rosendo Ranch via the Mexican side roads, and he invited me along anytime I wished to go. He told me he had taken two older gringos on a similar trip back in the 90’s. He said they began in Acuña, drove out to the ranch, then continued on to La Linda, where they crossed into the US at the then-open Gerstacker Bridge, and then returned to Del Rio via the US paved highways.
When I made it to Langtry ten days later and found Pete waiting for me on the bank next to his boat, I told him excitedly about my encounter with the Mexicans at the Hot Springs, and Pete asked for the name of the ranch owner. I told him “Beto Peña,” and Pete immediately brightened up and said, “Sure enough! I know that fellow, Humberto Peña from Acuña. He’s the fellow who took Jack and me through the back roads to his ranch and then over to La Linda. You remember the story, right?”
I thought to myself, “there hasn’t been too many words Pete has uttered that I’ve forgotten,” but because I so much admire him and enjoy his stories, I baited Pete to tell me again about his trip with Beto and Jack Skiles. I could see that among the many fine experiences Pete has had during his 68 years running up and down the river, his trip to San Rosendo Ranch, and then La Linda, rated high on the list.
Pete’s gets a little misty eyed when he talks about running down to the McMahon’s boat as a young boy, looking at the heap of pelts the boatman brought in from the Lower Canyons. Watching him recount these tales, you can see his joy in remembering those highlights of his youth mixed with a sadness due to the distance in years from that boyhood. You sense his profound admiration for McMahon and how McMahon’s presence helped to cultivate Pete’s own interest in exploring the river.
And then you wonder if you need to tell Pete that for you, Pete is your James McMahon.
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