The Spirit of Bruja Canyon
by Christopher Dow
West Texas is a land of huge spaces and big sky, of gunfighters, mystery, and adventure. Billy the Kid spent his only night in jail in a West Texas town, and countless other bandits roamed the region searching for new crimes to commit or fleeing across the Rio Grande to the legal anonymity, if not exactly safety, of Mexico. It was the stamping ground of the legendary Pecos Bill and the notorious Judge Roy Bean and remains the center of legends of buried gold and lost mines. And no part of West Texas is as spectacular, or as mysterious, as Big Bend.
Named in 1849 by Lt. William Whiting, Big Bend is the area of Texas bounded on the south by the large bend in the Rio Grande as it runs southeast from El Paso, then northeast to Del Rio. Its northern border extends from El Paso, through Candelaria, Alpine, and Sanderson, then on to Del Rio. In the 1930s, the tip of Big Bend, comprising three-quarters of a million acres, was turned into a national park.
But despite the existence of the park service and a few paved roads, the area is as rugged and foreboding as it was when it was first surveyed in 1899. There are hot springs along the river, and the entire western side of the park is the product of volcanism, evident in the jut of rock, domes of hardened volcanic mud and ash, blackened iron-bearing rock strewn over the ground, and miles of geological dikes scarifying the landscape.
My friend, Charles, and I loved Big Bend and had made several trips to the park. The rugged terrain and recent wild history appealed to our sense of adventure. On our earliest trips, we’d concentrated on the eastern side of the park and the Chisos Mountains, which lie roughly in the center of the park. On one of those visits, however, we had stayed briefly on the western side of the park, near the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, where Terlingua Creek empties into the Rio Grande. We’d even hiked several miles up the creek to visit the ghost town of Terlingua Abajo, which had been the center of a small floodplain farming community that clustered on both sides of the creek.
In spring 1978, we decided to more fully explore the western side of the park. In particular, we wanted to get on top of Mesa de Anguilla, through which the Rio Grande cuts Santa Elena Canyon. Then we intended to hike back along the mesa to the river and look down on it from the canyon rim. Studying a U.S. Geological Survey map, we found a possible access to the mesa top: a steep cut that sliced up the mesa wall a short day’s hike west of Terlingua Abajo.
We left our car at Terlingua Abajo early in the morning, shouldered our packs, and set out. As we moved through the barren ruins of this small town, we reflected on how strange it seemed that this had actually been a farming community. Even as late as the 1920s, the land was arable. But the miners who came to this region to dig cinnabar from the ground and melt the mercury from it had cut almost all the trees from the slopes of the Chisos for their mining operations, and poor techniques by the farmers who fed them rapidly depleted the floodplain soil. All the buildings of Terlingua Abajo save one are adobe and are now mostly fallen and crumbled. The one exception is the tiny church, which was constructed of rock, although it too was half collapsed at the time. Right next to the church was a small cemetery consisting of about twenty graves. Only the dead inhabit Terlingua Abajo now.
As we passed the church, we took a line-of-sight bearing on the cut we sought. It was visible in the distance as a black scar running up the sheer mesa wall. Walking was difficult at first. We were carrying enough supplies and water for four days—one day out, two on the mesa, and one day back—and that much water is heavy. But after a couple of miles, we were well into the swing of things, and the packs rode more easily on our backs as the desert world opened before us.
Initially, the terrain consisted of dusty flats dotted every few hundred yards with mounded hills a hundred feet or more high. Although we had to climb an occasional low ridge, things went smoothly for several hours. Shortly after midday, we had a tense encounter after a baby javelina scurried across our path about forty feet in front of us. Its mama was right on its heels, and she stopped, snorted threateningly, and pawed a cloud of dust into the air with her sharp hooves. Just when we were sure she was going to charge, her baby disappeared into the scrub brush and cactus, and a few moments later, she followed.
As we neared the cut, the terrain flattened considerably, although the ground now was crisscrossed by a network of four- to eight-foot-deep gullies that were difficult to negotiate. When we finally reached the cut, we found that the gullies carried runoff rainwater from the mesa to now-distant Terlingua Creek, but while we were scrambling in and out of them in the desert heat, their purpose seemed to be to give us trouble. Gradually, they shallowed as we neared the foot of the mesa.
At last, we arrived at the bottom of the talus slope below the cut, where water had gouged a large crescent out of the base of the slope on the right side and smoothed part of the rocky desert floor with a bed of fine sand. Extending up the talus slope to the base of the cut itself was a lengthy fall of boulders looking almost as if a large cataract had lumpily solidified. This fall of boulders ran upward almost half a mile before it stopped at the bottom of the dark gash. The sum of the parts formed the head of a small but picturesque canyon.
We rested before we attempted to scramble over the fall of boulders, assay the cut, and climb to the top of the mesa. From the bottom, it looked as if it would take half an hour to haul our packs over the boulders to the base of the cut, and we’d have to go at least that far before we could judge whether or not we could climb up the cut itself.
After the rest, we began our scramble. The rocks at the bottom were relatively small, from pebble-size to several feet in diameter, but as we proceeded, the rocks were larger and larger, eventually becoming boulders of immense size. By the time we reached the top of the talus slope, the boulders were from eight to twenty feet and so tossed and jumbled that they created cavelike passages. As we went, crouching, the last hundred feet through these passages, we heard a strange droning sound that increased in volume. At last, we stood at the actual base of the cut and could look up it.
A trickle of runoff water seeped down the cut to pool briefly before soaking into the sandy earth at the top of the talus slope. At the edges of the tiny pool, literally hundreds of bees and wasps drank and daubed the mud to make their dwellings along the cliff walls. Thousands more hovered above the pool and in the air in front of their cliff dwellings. These insects were the source of the droning we’d heard. We were standing in a veritable cloud of them; yet strangely, they seemed completely peaceful and nonaggressive.
We slowly took off our packs and leaned them against a boulder, then we peered up the cut to see if we could climb it. We could see up it only about sixty feet before it took a turn. Noting that the wasps, for some reason, weren’t in the crevasse itself, I decided to step across the pool, climb up to the bend, and further survey the cut.
I lifted my foot to step across the water, and instantly the peaceful drone of the wasps colored with anger. A number of them flew menacingly at me, although none of them tried to sting me. I lowered my foot and stepped back, and the wasps instantly grew peaceful. I tried to step forward again, and again they became angry, flying at my face, keeping me away. As soon as I stepped back, peaceful drones replaced the angry sounds, and all was well.
There seemed to be nothing we could do. We both tried several more times to climb into the cut, but the wasps just wouldn’t let us pass. I guess the strange thing was that, despite their sheer numbers and the fact that we angered them much of the hour we spent in their company, the wasps never stung either of us.
At last, frustrated in our attempt to climb the cut, we started back down the fall of boulders, skirting a rattlesnake that lay sunning in our path about halfway down. Finally, we reached the crescent gouged out of the talus slope at the bottom of the canyon.
By this time, the sun had disappeared behind the mesa. We were tired, so we set up camp. We finished our meal about dusk and lay down on our sleeping bags to relax and chat. With the water gouge at our backs, comfortable temperatures, and a patch of soft sand under us, we were quite comfortable.
As night fell, a nearly full moon rose, illuminating the mesa wall and desert floor clearly in its light. Sometime between 8:00 and 8:30, I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my left eye. I had been lying on my right side, propped up on my elbow, facing Charles. He was lying on his sleeping bag, talking about legendary holy men from the Far East.
When I saw the movement over my left shoulder, I thought it was a tall stalk of grass right next to me, waving in the slight breeze. I turned to look but saw nothing of the sort. I turned back to Charles, and we continued our conversation, but out of the corner of my eye I could still see something moving slightly.
I looked again but saw only the familiar, moonlit desert. About the only thing I noticed in the right direction was a creosote bush about fifty feet away. Still, when my attention was directed at Charles, something kept moving in the corner of my vision. I even got up a couple of times and walked toward the bush. I never actually approached the bush to examine it before I’d go back to my sleeping bag. It seemed like just another scrubby creosote that was way too sparse to conceal even a small child.
Back on my sleeping bag, I tried turning my head slowly, watching straight ahead but paying attention to what my peripheral vision brought to me. Maybe I could sort of sneak up on whatever was puzzling my sight. As my head turned, I was astounded to see a man standing where I had seen the scrubby-looking bush! I stared sharply in that direction, but now only the bush was visible.
Thinking I had been imagining the man, I looked back at Charles, who was still talking about holy men. There was that movement again! I turned slowly and could see in my peripheral vision the man standing where the bush had been. For several minutes, I experimented, discovering that if I looked directly at the man, he appeared to be the bush, but if I used my peripheral vision, I could make him out quite clearly.
He looked to be in his sixties and was fairly short and slightly stocky. He could have been Mexican or Indian. He was dressed like a Mexican peasant, in light-colored pants, a loose tan shirt, and a serape. A sombrero hung over his back. His face was grizzled, his hair was white, and his eyes were like black voids.
I realized I also could sense his presence. For some reason, I wasn’t alarmed, although I thought he’d be scary to approach. At one point, I considered getting up and going over to him, now that I knew he was there, but something told me he wouldn’t be there when I arrived. He radiated a great power that was frightening, but I also sensed that he wasn’t inclined to direct that power against us, which was reassuring.
I continued to observe the watcher as best as I could, marveling at the discrepancy between direct and peripheral vision and seeing him in turn as a man and a bush. Then, about half an hour to forty minutes after I’d first noticed movement, I realized the man was gone. At first, I felt his absence; then, looking, I no longer saw him or the bush.
During the whole episode, I said nothing to Charles about the man, at first because I didn’t want to address the subject in the man’s presence, then later because I didn’t want Charles to think I was spooked over nothing. Half an hour later, we turned in for the night.
In the morning, we struck camp. The night before, we had discussed hiking farther down the mesa wall to try to find another way to the top, but the map showed that there wasn’t another access point close by, so without talking about it, we returned to the car at Terlingua Abajo. On the way back to the car, Charles asked if I had seen someone the day before.
I said no, not during the day, but during the night, I’d seen someone watching us. He replied that he, too, had seen a man watching our camp, but that he couldn’t see the fellow directly, only out of the edges of his sight. I asked for a description, and Charles’s matched mine almost exactly, even to the sensation of dangerous but nonmalevolent power coming from the man. He’d also seen the man for a little over half an hour, but in addition, he had spotted him several times as we approached the canyon. These sighting had been in the form of passing glimpses, but when Charles did double takes to look again, he couldn’t see anyone, only plants.
We discussed the possibility of returning to the area but decided to spend the night at a campground to ready our gear and clean up. The following day we would return. It would be the night of the full moon.
The next morning, we got into the car to drive back to Terlingua Abajo, and I turned the key in the ignition, but nothing happened. I tried again, and still nothing, not even a click. The car wouldn’t start, although it had given no sign of problems until now. In fact, I’d tuned it up prior to our trip to the park.
Feeling as if we were being told not to return to the canyon, we got a jump start and left the park. During the thirteen-hour drive back to Houston, we stopped only for gas. After we left the park, the car started without trouble. It may have been my imagination, but the entire way home, I felt as if we were being pursued.
Two years later, Charles and I returned to the canyon with a friend, Mike. We didn’t see anything unusual this time, but we did discover the name of the canyon. A ranger said it was called Bruja Canyon. Bruja is Spanish for witch.
A final weird note was that, of the many photographs I took of the area during our two visits—nearly three rolls of film were used to photograph the canyon and its approach—not a single one came out, although other pictures on two of the rolls developed just fine.
Chris and I loved exploring Big Bend National Park. I had acquired topographic maps of the park and noticed an interesting place on the west side. There was a large fault scarp that had been dissected by the Rio Grande. This meant that there was a huge mesa surrounded by the river and the fault scarp. I saw only one possible hiking trail up from the park side, and that was to climb up through an unnamed cleft, where a stream would pour off the top of the mesa.
We planned a trip and went to Big Bend. We parked the car at Terlingua Abajo, a small floodplain farming village that was tied to Terlingua, an early twentieth-century mining town farther north along Terlingua Creek. It was a long, slow hike across the hot, flat desert because there were many small arroyos. It seemed as if we were going up and down as much as we were moving forward. The fault scarp rises some 1,500 feet straight up, and from far away, we could see the notch that was our destination.
We went directly to the fault scarp and walked along its talus slope to the notch. At one point, I got far ahead of Chris, and I began to experience something I attributed to the heat. I kept seeing a figure, dressed like a 1900s Mexican peasant, out of the corner of my eye. I would turn my head to look, and it would only be a Spanish dagger or an ocotillo, the two forms of vegetation in Big Bend that get as tall as a man. This happened at least three times.
We eventually made it to the notch, and found it was a pour-off, with a trickle of water coming straight down hundreds of feet. More than that, there was a line of bees and wasps along the edge of the water, presumably drinking. I looked up and saw numerous rock ledges jutting a few inches out of the mesa wall, and they were lined with bee and wasp nests.
We considered using ropes to climb the notch—this was before rope climbing was popular—but we had never done that before. Other, more experienced, climbers have since found ways up, but there was another problem. Every time we approached the notch, the tone of the bees and wasps would get louder and more threatening. No way we could handle hundreds of bee and wasp stings. We gave up.
We settled into camp on a sandy island in the rock-strewn floor of the notch. The wall of the mesa was on both sides of us, since we were at the bottom of the notch. We set up our camp, lit our camp stove, and ate dinner, then lay on our pallets, talking about various things and watching the night.
I noticed that in the middle of our conversation, Chris would sometimes get up and walk away and then come back. I attributed this to his inquisitiveness about something he saw, but he didn’t say what it was. At one point, I got up and was walking around, when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the Mexican again. I was not hot and tired—I was rested—so I had the presence of mind not to look directly at him but to take in his details. He wore huaraches, a serape, white cotton pants, and a shirt. His face was a black hole, and the only details were his eyes, like two pinprick stars, as bright and piercing as any in the sky. When I looked directly at him, he was gone. This happened perhaps another three times during the night. I said nothing to Chris about it, but I knew this was something new. He seemed to be wondering who was invading his home. He seemed powerful but not threatening.
Nothing further happened that night. The next day, we packed up and headed back to the car. Halfway back, we stopped to rest, and I said to Chris, “We weren’t alone last night.” He said, yes, he knew. We then exchanged details on what we had seen. We described the man as wearing slightly different clothes, but the impression was the same. Chris said this was what he was investigating when he walked away from the camp several times.
A couple of years later, we returned. We stopped at the ranger station, and there were two rangers, one an Anglo National Park Service ranger, the other a local Mexican American employee who was emptying trash cans. We asked for a backcountry camping permit. The ranger asked where we wanted to camp, and I pointed to the notch in the mesa wall. “That’s Bruja Canyon,” the ranger exclaimed. The second ranger, who had been friendly up until then, hurriedly left the room. The first ranger said, “The local Mexicans call it that after a witch that used to live there. They will have nothing to do with it.”
The second trip was uneventful compared with the first. This time we saw human and horse footprints on the way there and in the notch, which we now know as Bruja Canyon. We camped in the same spot, but nothing happened.
Looking back on it, I am convinced that what we experienced was an entity that was once a human being. It had will and was not simply an impression of a past resident. I believe that Chris and I felt the presence of this former resident, and our minds clothed him in early Mexican peasant clothes—for each of us, this was slightly different, and so our descriptions were similar but did not match perfectly. We both saw this entity out of the corners of our eyes. Yet we know that the brain manufactures both color and pattern, and peripheral vision is not what we actually see, but what our brain interpolates. Chris and my minds were trying to come to grips with an unexplainable presence, and thus draped it in the most familiar conventional imagery possible.
However, the mind could not interpolate away the entity’s consciousness, its intelligence, the black hole of its face, or the piercing, starlike eyes that seemed for an instant like an endless universe. It was all over in half an hour, and I have never experienced anything like it before or after.
Excerpted from Book of Curiosities: Adventures in the Paranormal.