I’m partial to the desert mountains of West Texas, but on my frequent visits out here I’m always surprised – and touched – by the strong spirit of friendship and community that marks the place.
“Friendship holds political communities together,” said Aristotle, and he was on to something. American political culture has deteriorated as the various perils of modernity weakened the role of friendship in our political life. It’s a weighty, complicated topic. I just don’t want to be friendly with Glenn Beck.
It seems appropriate to kick off the New Year with a reminder that “concord” – the word Aristotle used – is instrumental to a community’s pursuit of justice. The loss of some sense of reciprocity and mutual concern for others is a dangerous consequence of a political culture lost in myths of hyper-individuality and zero-sum thinking in which one’s gains seem to depend upon the losses of others.
Out here for a West Texas New Years with large groups of friends from all over America, I find a common understanding of our absolute dependence upon one another. And this is a place our myths tell is a veritable source of the independent rugged individualist.
There are some rugged folks, and they understand that concord doesn’t mean conformity. But by God if your truck breaks down, they’re there to help you, and they expect the same in return.
I have been going out to the Big Bend area for many years, largely as a member of a group of high school friends who began to camp and backpack in the National Park back in the 70’s. Some time in the mid to late 80’s we began camping in the Black Gap National Wildlife Refuge, located just east of Big Bend National Park. We found we enjoyed the remoteness and relative solitude of Black Gap. We also found that turning southeast on 2627 off of U.S. 385 just north of Persimmon Gap, put us in Hallie Stillwell’s neighborhood. We found Hallie holding court at the Stillwell Store, always welcoming, friendly to all, accommodating the curious among us with any one of the many anecdotes that she seemed to effortlessly recall from a library full of experiences she had acquired during her rather full life at the ranch along the Maravillas.
It would be safe to say that there have not been too many people who have lived such an eventful life as Hallie Stillwell. Born Hallie Marie Crawford in Waco, Texas, in 1897, Hallie’s family always seemed to be moving west. As a child she drove a covered wagon to New Mexico where her family homesteaded land. As a teenager she taught school in Presidio just across the river from Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolution. Then, in 1918, Hallie married Roy Stillwell, a man twice her age and moved with him to his remote ranch along the Maravillas Creek some forty-five miles south of the nearest town, Marathon and 20 miles north of the Rio Grande River, the Mexico border.
Making the transition from schoolteacher to ranch women was no small feat as Hallie broke with the prevailing tradition of the day for rancher’s wives and learned the ranching business at her husband’s side. For seventy years Hallie punched cattle, wrestled with bankers, survived the Depression and numerous droughts and after Roy passed away in 1948 she did whatever needed to be done to keep the ranch going. From working at cafes, a flower shop and a beauty parlor, Hallie eventually became a justice of the peace and a popular newspaper columnist, which led to a successful stint as a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. Later, Hallie and the family built and operated a trading post and popular RV park adjacent to Big Bend National Park. In her later years, Hallie authored two books about her life “I’ll Gather My Geese” and “My Goose is Cooked” and also co-authored a third “How Come It’s Called That.”