Texture Presidio – Charlie Cecil

Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

Texture Presidio uses the art of photography and storytelling to explore and highlight the textures and tales that make Presidio County and the surrounding desert landscape both beautifully ordinary and unique.

While Charlie Cecil’s youth lacked many of the quintessential aspects one might equate with a “happy childhood,” he always found refuge in Presidio, Texas. At an early age, Charlie entered a dance between being raised by his maternal grandmother in Coleman, Texas, a small town outside of Abilene, and his paternal grandparents along the border in Presidio.

Charlie’s father, a young oil field driller, was killed by a drunk driver when Charlie was merely two years old. In the aftermath, Charlie’s mom, Carolene, never recovered, resulting in years of substance dependency and a lifelong struggle to find her footing. This resulted in Charlie being placed in the legal care of his collective grandparents. Except for a first-grade year in Presidio, he would spend his remaining school years in Coleman. Come summertime, he’d head south to the CC Ranch, his grandparents’ home outside of Presidio — a season Charlie would look forward to every year. 

While life in Coleman was brimming with physical and emotional toil, his summers in Presidio involved a hearty dose of care. His grandparents in Presidio, Charlie and Carol, while by no means affluent, provided Charlie with a wealth of experiences and richness in freedom, adventure, good food and space to evolve. As an only child, he spent much time alone exploring the property, fishing on the Rio, or hunting with Grandpa Charlie. He has fond memories of jumping in the back of the truck of Beto Marquez, a family friend and helpful ranch hand –– heading with Beto’s family to swim in Shafter or The Three Palms Inn or staying at the Marquez’s ranch in Mexico just across the river. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to make the trip back and forth across the border several times a week. Charlie notes it was much easier then. 

Charlie’s grandparents bought the CC Ranch in 1979. They rented section 2, land along the river known as the Arenosa Campground in The Big Bend Ranch State Park. Grandpa Charlie would bring clients and friends down to the river from the Permian Basin, where he ran his business. They set up a self-sustainable camp with a garden. The heat would get so high they would often sleep on top of the trailer at night, with only the vibrant stars above them. 

During Charlie’s first-grade year in Presidio, another boy challenged him to a “rock fight.” As he describes how he and the other boy squared off, he shares the irony that as an only child on the ranch, he spent many hours perfecting his rock-throwing skills. He bent down, running his fingers through the rocky dirt to select the best stone to throw down into the cottonwoods as a demonstration. While Charlie is fond of the view that looks out onto the Rio Grande, his favorite scene is on the opposite side of the property, looking down into a sea of cottonwood trees at the bottom of the ridge. 

Charlie attributes his ability to think ahead and fully grasp that his actions have consequences to the many times he got himself into sticky situations on the ranch and the sheer amount of time he had with his thoughts. The skills and lessons learned at the farm would stay with him well into adulthood. 

That said, Charlie did not follow in the footsteps of his father or grandfathers, who all worked various jobs in the oil field Industry. Unexpectedly, Charlie found himself in medical school. His journey to becoming a urology specialist was a complex one. 

Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

Charlie spent his early twenties being “a bit rudderless,” as he describes it. He struggled to get through school and found himself unsure of what path to take, trying on a few different hats for size along the way and not without success. During this time, Charlie’s mom sent him this advice in the form of a letter: “Stop with these get-rich-quick schemes and finish your degree,” adding her desire to have done so in her own life. These words were hard to hear from her, given her life choices and the many ways those choices had affected Charlie. However, he got more serious about his studies with the encouragement of his grandfather, who, though he often did not agree with Charlie’s mom, urged him to heed her advice. This was a first for Charlie. 

Charlie excelled in medical school, motivated by a desire to help people and a way to break the cycle of struggle in his family. After an impactful encounter with a doctor comforting a friend hospitalized after a series of seizures, Charlie knew instantly and finally that was the path he wanted to take. It is evident in talking to Charlie that while he carries with him much gratitude for parts of his childhood, he is deeply motivated not to let the individual challenging pieces of his story define him or determine his family’s future. His efforts to do so come from a place of understanding and respect for the individual characters of his personal story — which is no easy task. 

Charlie’s greatest delight is sharing the ranch with his wife, Lauren, and their three girls —  Channing, Reagan and Holland. Despite working very hard in his professional life in Abilene, Presidio will forever be where Charlie and his family return; it is simply his favorite place. 

Charlie renamed the ranch after his grandparents passed from the CC Ranch to the Rio Bravo Ranch. Since buying his first car after high school, Charlie has visited the Rio Bravo Ranch at least once every six weeks.

Charlie proposed to Lauren on one of the hills overlooking the Rio Grande. With a ring placed on the fence post, he declared, “I want you to be my wife.” Charlie tells me, “Lauren jokes that the way I phrased it, she didn’t think she had a choice!” He confesses he might need some assistance in the charm department, similar to his Grandpa Charlie and his father. 

The support that exists between Charlie and Lauren is worth envying. Asking Charlie what Lauren thought about his many career switches early on, he answered with certainty, “That’s how I knew I was gonna marry her; Lauren has had my back since I worked at Pizza Hut.” 

Charlie continues his grandfather’s passion and love for the area and his excitement for sharing the region with others. Over the years, he has introduced Presidio and the Big Bend region to countless others, including by offering stays at La Centinela, the gorgeous adobe home on a more recently acquired part of the Rio Bravo Ranch.

Spending an evening on the back porch of La Centinela as the vibrant West Texas sun sets, looking across into Mexico, is simply magical. While the Cecils enjoy their time at La Centinela, they aim to use the vacation rental to draw more people to their beloved Presidio. Despite the true luxury of the home —  a two-bed/two-bath cozy space complete with all the amenities your heart could desire — most of the Cecil clan’s time on the ranch is spent outside. When the house is rented (often) during their visits down south, they stay in the tiny one-room building down the hill, sleeping on cots or out under the stars. Before enclosing Charlie’s grandma’s former canning shed, the Cecil family would camp out there. This crew is not afraid of getting dirty and sleeping under the stars. Most trips back to the ranch involve much of both. 

La Centinela and the land it was on joined Team Cecil in 2021. As they began much-needed renovations, turning the home into a vacation rental and continuing to develop their existing campground and jeep rental business, they became exposed to the dismissive attitude towards Presidio as simply a “pass through” on the way to the Big Bend parks. Charlie notes how even as a boy, he idolized the stunning adobe structure sitting on the hill adjacent to his grandparents’ land. 

“The irony has been that Presidio has excellent services, great restaurants and a burgeoning entrepreneurial flair … we are firm believers in the ‘rising tides lift all ships’ philosophy,” said Charlie. “We are bringing events to the ranch that directly benefit the city, from increased traffic in hotels, local vacation rentals and restaurants and service providers. We hope to continue expanding our partnerships with local and regional businesses, outfitters and community stakeholders in efforts consistent with the mission to make Presidio more than just a pass-through. This is also personal; I want to expose people to the town and region that helped make me. Presidio is a living, breathing metaphor for resilience, and I love it.”

Up on the hill, with the sun setting across the Rio Grande and the sound of Charlie’s daughters playing in the background at La Centinela, Charlie points out the final resting place for his mother and both of his paternal grandparents. Charlie’s connection to this land reverberates into every corner of the property. Each and every new venture and planned event are just tools to better share his favorite place with all of us. 

“I believe Presidio is an amazing place with an amazing history that remains mostly undiscovered,” he said “It is the gateway to the wildest parts of Texas, and more than an art gallery and hotel, it is a living, breathing frontera Far West Texas experience. Presidio is unbelievably safe and welcoming. Presidio is the ying to Marfa’s yang, a known birthplace of West Texas/Northern Mexico civilization. It is frankly underappreciated for what it offers from both a cultural experience and a present-day throwback experience for what Far West Texas used to be.”

The last thing I ask Charlie is to share with me a favorite memory of his involving the ranch and watching his girls get to experience the same land that helped shape him. 

“We have had many adventurous times at the ranch, but my favorite moments are when we can allow the girls to feel that wild freedom that comes from similarly roaming the property to what I experienced as a kid,” he responded. “Their experience is different, but there is no imitable analog for developing the feelings/skills of independent thought, self-reliance and discretion than being on one’s own decision-maker, left to make mistakes (some quite painful), fall, scrape your knee, cry with no one around enough to realize the futility in feeling sorry for yourself. We want them to be tough in a throwback way, self-reliant in my family’s way, and compassionate in the way of their mother, learning to see the world in a tint that we are so fortunate to expose them to — they have seen poverty and great human beings of little means that would split their last apple with them. And to see color, race and socioeconomic disparity in the context of humanity in those conditions. When I was a kid, my mom was disabled with lupus; we lived on a workers’ comp check that totaled $6,188 per year, yet she made sure we adopted a ‘less fortunate’ family from our church at Christmas time. It was beautifully ironic, given our lack of financial means. We can never exactly replicate that for my children, but we want to give them every opportunity to have their souls scrubbed by the dusty roads of South Presidio County and Rio Bravo Ranch.”

Find out how to book your own experience at the Rio Bravo Ranch and La Centinela on their website: www.riobravoranchtx.com

Hannah Gentiles is a photographer and trained social worker who has lived in Presidio County since 2015. She currently runs “Texture Presidio,” a photo essay-based storytelling project, and splits her time between Marfa and Presidio. To find out more about Texture Presidio and her photography, visit www.hannahgentiles.com/texturepresidio or ig:texturepresidio