High Desert Sketches: Happy Halloween

Art by Valerie “CrowCrumbs” Howard

Graveyards and Halloween are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. I’ve always felt that good Halloween stories should begin and end in graveyards. The Terlingua graveyard is one of the most photographed sites in West Texas. I once wrote that the chaotic distribution of grave sites was due to the fact that you were buried where you dropped, but the seemingly chaotic disposition of graves is what has inspired countless photographers.

While the Terlingua graveyard may have a collection of the oddest headstones and such of any graveyard in the Southwest, it does not have the poetic epitaphs. Among my favorites are:

“Here lies George Johnson

Hanged by mistake 

1882 

He was right 

We was wrong 

But we strung him up

And now he’s gone.” — ghost town in Arizona.

“Here lays Butch,

We planted him raw.

He was quick on the trigger,

But slow on the draw.” — Silver City, Nevada, circa 1880s

Unlike the rest of Anglo-America, we have three creepy critters that are around 365 days of the year. While we may share ghosts, ghouls and goblins as well as vampires, zombies and witches, we have our terrible trio of La Llorona, the man with chicken feet, and our most recent addition, the chupacabra. La Llorona has been accused of drowning children for over 400 years. Betrayed by her lover, she drowned her own children and has been after other people’s kids ever since. Modern mothers can wave their cell phones in the air and yell at misbehaving children: “Just remember, I’ve got La Llorona’s number and the dog’s water bowl is a lot deeper than it looks.”

The handsome young man with chicken feet has been around almost as long as La Llorona. The chicken feet symbolized that he is the devil, or more honestly this is a simple morality tale to warn young women away from devilishly handsome young men. It might be simpler to tell them, “Check out his feet before his face.”

The poor chupacabra has been maligned more than he has been seen. The word chupacabra can be roughly translated as goat blood sucker or Wall Street banker (I said roughly). This scuzzy-looking fanged creature with a beak is described as an anorexic, mangy dog that walks on its hind feet and picks on chickens and goats because they are the only creatures too dumb to run.

Legends begin in many ways. The Burro Lady was a legend by the time I moved to Alpine 23 years ago. There were many stories that purported to explain her life and why for over 25 years she was seen plodding along the backroads and byways of West Texas. From El Paso to Del Rio, her mule and burro trekked through all the seasons and conditions. Some said that she had been cheated out of her inheritance and rejected the world and all of its materialism. She never took handouts and would occasionally sell roadside finds to acquaintances in the little towns she passed through. If it can be said she had a home, it would have been in Terlingua. Her official address was “by Terlingua Creek.”

Bill Ivey helped her obtain that as an address at the local post office. Bill probably knew her better than anyone else in West Texas and respected her need for personal space. He tells the story of a Terlingua couple who decided to beat the high cost of funerals by going to East Texas and buying a simple pine coffin. They made it back to West Texas before the truck broke down and they were forced to camp by the side of the road at night. As they sat by their campfire The Burro Lady rode in and asked if she could share their campfire. They knew her from Terlingua and made her welcome. They explained  their dilemma and their coffin. The Burro Lady remarked, “I’d like to be buried in Terlingua.”

Years later, she was found dead of natural causes east of El Paso near Sierra Blanca. Bill Ivey, knowing of her request, drove to El Paso, and was on his way back to Terlingua. His cell phone rang and it was the couple from years before who had also remembered her request. They said, “Bill, we got this coffin…” The Burro Lady’s wishes were carried out when a hundred or so of us met at the graveyard in Terlingua and laid her to rest.

I like to think on moonlit nights along the beautiful backroads and byways of the Big Bend, the Burro Lady’s spirit plods down the road towards lights on the horizon, and she knows that be it Alpine or Marathon or Terlingua or a hundred other small towns, she’ll always be welcome.


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