Dec. 8, Langtry, Texas – Last night after the Rio Bravo debacle we made a proper getaway from Big Bend country. First we stopped at the Terlingua Café on Texas 118 to get gas and use the restroom. As I walked through the dining room, I noted with considerable envy a table laden with tasty-looking pizza. I wished anew we had made a different dinner choice. Then I looked up and saw Fox News beaming from three different flat-screen TVs, and figured it was all for the best.
Becky drove north to Alpine through the enveloping darkness. We got gas and headed east on U.S. 90. We made it as far as Sanderson, where we found a small truck stop and took refuge for the night. We awoke, got $1 breakfast tacos for ourselves and a chocolate muffin for Max and pushed east through Sanderson Canyon. Its low-slung limestone walls did little to inspire after two days in Big Bend.
We drove on through Dryden. With its long-since abandoned general store and dilapidated gas station, Dryden has the ghost-town bona fides that Terlingua can only dream of.
We were soon lured off the highway and into sleepy little Langtry by the Judge Roy Bean Law West of the Pecos museum and visitors center. It had all the earmarks of a Wild West kitsch stop. As it was, I knew nothing of value about Judge Roy Bean. I vaguely recalled a movie from the early 70s, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, but I couldn’t even have told you it starred Paul Newman.
The Judge Roy Bean history emporium, much to our surprise, is a magnificent little oasis on the border.
Susan Goble, 58-year-old rancher and full-time hostess, docent and raconteur at the Roy Bean visitors center, greeted us warmly. The roadside gem is operated by the Texas highway department, and Susan wore her official red, white and blue official jacket, lone white star shining prominently on blue field. I was overcome by thoughts of Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and George W. Bush. Against my will, I seemed to be falling in love with retrograde Texas.
Susan Goble is a breath of fresh air out here on the eastern fringe the Chihuahuan Desert. She can hold court on the subject of Judge Roy Bean, man vs. myth. Or she can regale you with tales of Roy Bean’s enduring obsession with British music hall singer and actress Lillie Langtry. Or you can listen while she talks sweetly about the simple beauty of Val Verde County.
The place is a revelation. First, there’s no entry fee. Among the highlights are a half-dozen shadow-box dioramas. You pick up an old-fashioned telephone receiver and listen to a soundtrack and view the scene inside. My favorite is the one featuring the judge and a ghostly Lillie Langtry. As he dies, he croaks a final utterance: “This ain’t England, and I ain’t no king.”
Outside, in addition to the ramshackle “Jersey Lilly” and “Opera House,” is a beautiful cactus garden, connected by a lovely walkway made of creamy Texas limestone.
Susan Goble grew up 15 miles west of here, hard by the Rio Grande. She apparently hasn’t forgotten the lessons in decorum her mom and dad, Doris and Ross Foster, handed down. My questions invariably were met with answers that included “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.”
She exudes a passion for the region’s heritage, whether the subject be Judge Roy Bean, the sparse beauty of the landscape or the changing realities on the border. You can tell she’s happy you’re here and will do her best to help you learn something before you leave.
I asked what it is she loves so much about Langtry and Val Verde County
“I think people drive through here and they don’t really see the beauty and the history in the area,” she said. “It is very dry. We are at the start of the desert. We are going through a drought right now. They don’t think it’s very pretty.
“But I guess growing up here, I think it’s a beautiful country. It’s a harsh country. It’s not for the weak, I guess. You have to learn to deal with a lot of different conditions. But it’s a wonderful land to grow up in, and it has a lot of history that a lot of people just driving along the highway don’t see.”
She grew up on her daddy’s ranch, and she still works the same land today, raising sheep and goats.
“I went to school in Langtry until I was in third grade,” she said. “At that time the school only went to the eighth grade, so the kids were then bussed to Comstock for high school. So when my sister was going into the ninth grade, Dad didn’t want her – we were already riding about 15 miles – didn’t want her riding in another 30. So he went to Del Rio and bought a house in town. Monday through Friday we lived in Del Rio and went to school. Weekends, holidays and summers we would come back to the ranch.”
What are her feeling about the place’s namesake, the good judge hisself?
“He wasn’t totally on the up and up,” she put it, ever-so politely.
Yes, Judge Roy Bean was nothing if not colorful. His legend long ago outstripped his biography, which is rich enough in its own right. He was a drifter and opportunist who managed, after years of trial and error and moving from place to place, to become the eminence of his own desolate domain, the self-acclaimed Law West of the Pecos.
He was in his late 50s when he became justice of the peace here in the summer of 1882. By that time he had built quite a resume. He killed a man in duel, and was nearly hanged in retribution. He’d been a cattle rustler and a blockade runner. He was a dairyman until he got caught watering down his milk.
Bean was a large man. He sported an unruly gray beard. One writer described his appearance as that of a “degenerate Santa Claus.” He finally hit on something big when he up a saloon in a tent city he called Vinegaroon, named for desert arachnids colloquially referred to as whip scorpions. About 8,000 railroad men worked nearby building the original bridge over the Pecos River.
He eventually moved west and settled here, squatting on land that sat on the railroad right-of-way. That was just his way. He took whatever he could lay his hands on by a self-styled eminent domain. He was the law west of the Pecos, after masterfully helping to foster the wide-open, booze-fueled no-man’s land that led to the demand for a justice of the peace.
His reputation as a hanging judge is pure fiction. But he was reliably unscrupulous when it came to money. There was no jail here, and most cases were settled by fines he could be counted on to pocket. If you had money, he’d try to find a way to get it from you.
He wasn’t a lettered man. They say he had one book his his law library, the 1879 Revised Statues of Texas. If any new books arrived in the mail, he reputedly used them for kindling.
“I think if you were on his bad side, well, I would not want to be on that side of him,” Susan said. “I think he did have a generous side. He did help the community, and he was kind to children.
“He did want to want to try to get your money into his pocket, if he thought he could.”
He lived crudely for a man of his influence and power. There is no sign of ostentation, luxury or indulgence here. Still, he lusted for Lillie Langtry, a 19th century woman of the world.
Langtry, who among other notable achievements once was mistress to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. She had other well-heeled paramours, owned thoroughbred horses and once owned a winery in California. He, well, he was the Law West of the Pecos, the lord of his rude, one-bedroom “Opera House.”
“I think that’s fascinating,” she said. “The kind of person he was, I don’t know if he was used to the finer things in life, and evidently she was. I think it was a strange relationship, probably more so on his part than hers.
“He was very persistent in trying to lure her here. He did accomplish it in some way (she did visit Langtry after his death). He lived a very simple life. I often would’ve wonder what it would’ve been like for them to have met.”
Nowadays Langtry (which wasn’t named for Jersey Lillie, by the way) boasts a grand total of 17 residents. Not many people live in these parts anymore. Most of the big ranches have been broken up and sold off to create hunting ranges.
When she was a girl, her family was on intimate terms with the border patrol officers – both of them. Mexican laborers and immigrants coming north often passed through the family ranch. Her mom provided them with water and food before sending them on their way.
Things have changed, of course. What once was a grass-roots northward migration is now a heavily managed business trafficking in both people and contraband. And there are about 200 border patrol cops working out of the Comstock office. Now she carries a gun when she ventures out onto her 500-acre parcel.
“They don’t want to see me anymore than I want to see them,” she said of the illegal trespassers. “You just have to be aware of the situation.”
Still, she hasn’t seen much trouble from the cross-border traffic.
“So far I’ve not had a lot of trouble that some places have had,” she said. “We’re very fortunate in that. We’ve probably been broken into twice. And really they didn’t a lot of stuff. My brother lives in the house where I grew up, and as far as I know, he hasn’t had any problems with people coming through and stealing anything.”
As it was when she was a kid, Del Rio remains the hub of Val Verde County.
“That’s where we get the groceries, medical care, everything,” she said. “And I go in about once a week. When I grew up out here we probably didn’t go but once a month or even not quite that much. But Langtry had a little store here. Pumpville had a little store. So if you needed something, you could go to the store. We did not go to town like we do now.”
Now the border federales are regular visitors on her ranch. Some times they tear up the place a bit. Most of them are just kids, after all.
“They try to be very respectuf of your property and how you’d like them to be on your land,” she said. “A lot of them are young. And some of them are from up north and they’re not familiar with this land at all. But the people in Comstock try to really orient them to the lend and the owners and how we would like them to conduct themselves on our land.”