The desert holds no one’s footprints for very long.


Looking through "The Window" of Big Bend National Park. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
Looking through “The Window” of Big Bend National Park. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

I FOLLOWED PETER KOCH across the desert.

It was his land.

It did not belong to him.

But the desert and he were old companions.

The terrain was flat, sandy, devoid of any vegetation other than cactus, and the horizon was a straight line in the sky.

The sun beat down like a hammer.

No clouds had arrived.

Rain was only a faint rumor.

Peter Koch
Peter Koch

We walked across the sand while the wind erased our footprints, and I looked around me for landmarks.

There were none.

Distant mountains lay around me in the early morning mist without shape or form.

We had gone three miles, give or take a few hundred yards, and Peter stopped.

Only he knew when to stop.

No one knew or ever understood the desert like Peter Koch.

He had journeyed to the Big Bend in 1935 as a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“Shoot the national park,” the editor said, “then come on home.”

Peter Koch shot the desert.

He never left.

The landscape had not changed, but the unbroken sands, as far as I could see or imagine, were thick with arrowheads and spear points fashioned from rocks spewed out by ancient lava flows.

He knelt down beside a fallen tree trunk lined with a row of perfect arrowheads. “Good,” Peter said. “Nobody has bothered them.” He grinned. “The last time I was here,” he continued, “I photographed them.”

“When was that?” I asked.

He frowned in thought, then said, “It must have been twenty-five years ago.”

Only Peter Koch knew where the ancient arrowheads and spear points were lying untouched.

Only he could find his way back in.

Those who tried it on their own might never find their way back out.

The grounds of the Plains Indians were his secret.

It was one he did not tell.

And me?

I might have well been tempted to write the directions, but I had no idea what they were.

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  • Don Newbury

    Peter Koch–a Yankee who was captivated by Big Bend National Park. My guess is he knew Dr. Barton Warnock, who headed science programs at Sul Ross State University during most of his adult life. He also made the 100-mile trek down to Big Bend many hundreds of times to study plants. One of his books is entitled “Flowers of the Big Bend,” or something close to that. I think if skills had been limited to shining shoes, he would have set up an Alpine stand before he would have left his convenient “jumping off” place to the BB. A third member of the group might well be another friend who taught for decades at Midwestern U. in Wichita Falls, and his fascination? Spiders in BB. He’s discovered a new species; I’ll write a piece on him soon–this man who made hundreds of trips from Wichita Falls to BB–about 500 miles each way–to look for spiders.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Dr. Warnock was another legend out in the Trans Pecos region of Texas. And your friend who studied spiders would have had a field day at Big Bend. In the shank of the day, spiders came out across the desert and looked like a scene out of a horror movie. Didn’t hurt anybody. But it made an eerie sight.

    • Lori Cooper Smith

      Peter Koch is my grandfather, Don. He was no Yankee, having migrated as a boy from Romania and settled initially in Ohio as chief photographer for the Chicago Times Star before unexpectedly relocating his young family to the Big Bend in 1945, where they journeyed en route to explore Arizona. The detour was to fulfill an assignment with the National Park Service to photograph the new national park for promotional purposes and … they decided to stay. He did indeed know Dr Warnock, working with him to provide photographs to illustrate their book, “Wildflowers of the Davis Mountains and the Marathon Basin, Texas” in 1977.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Great information your grandfather, Lori. He was the face of Big Bend and took me to places few ever went. He knew the desert like the back of his hand and was a walking encyclopedia of the flora, fauna, and geology of a magnificent mountain wonderland.

  • Yet the arrowheads are there for anyone willing to put in the same effort – and possibly the same reverence.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It was hard for me to leave the arrowheads behind, Alicia, but I stuck my hands my pockets and followed Pete out of the desert.

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