The Spirit of Bruja Canyon
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 across 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 John 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 had 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 had even hiked several miles up the creek to visit the ghost town of Terlingua Abaja, 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 Abaja.
We left our car at Terlingua Abaja early in the morning, shouldered our packs, and set out. As we moved through the barrenness that had been 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 farming techniques rapidly depleted the floodplain soil. All the buildings of Terlingua Abaja 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 inhabited Terlingua Abaja 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 rough 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 one hundred or more feet high. Although we had to climb an occasional 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 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 at least 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 up 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 became 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 edges of the tiny pool, literally hundreds of 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 wasps; 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 survey the cut further.
I lifted my foot to step across the pool, and instantly the peaceful drone of the wasps took on an angry tone. 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 grew peaceful. I tried to step forward again, and again they became angry, flying at my face, keeping me back. 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 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 John. 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 John, 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 John, 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.
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 vision. 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 John, who was still talking about holy men. There was that movement again! Again I turned slowly and again 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 watched using my peripheral vision, I could make him out quite clearly.
He 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 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 thought about 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 wouldn’t 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 John 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 John 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 instead, without really talking about it, we returned to the car at Terlingua Abaja. 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 that 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 John’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 John would turn back 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 in the park 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 Abaja, 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, John 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 we 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.
John’s account of the incident:
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 Abaja, 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, but 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—and 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 a typical 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 the former resident, and our minds clothed him in early Mexican peasant clothes—for each of us, this was 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: 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, and 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.
In 2014, John emailed me to let me know that he and I had become a part, albeit minor, of Texas folklore. This tickled us both, since we both love Texas folklore. It seems that a previous publication of this article has been quoted several times in books and Internet write-ups on Bruja Canyon. Here are several of them:
The canyon has been thought haunted for hundreds of years. Bruja is Spanish for “witch,” and the area can certainly be considered bewitched. Photographs taken here often cannot be developed, and unexplained flickering lights are observed. In 1978, two hikers encountered the silent apparition of a Mexican man wearing a serape and sombrero. Both witnesses sensed a ‘dangerous but non-malevolent power coming from the man.’
—Haunted Places: The National Directory—Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings, and Other Supernatural Locations
by Dennis William Hauck (Penguin Books, 1996)
This passage also is quoted verbatim in:
“Bruja Canyon” (www.geocities.ws/Baja/Canyon/3741/area/texas/brujacanyon.html)
Nearby lies Canyon de Brujas (Witch Canyon), often the site of moanful [sic] cries from an Apache maiden who is said to have drowned herself rather than be defiled by her white captors. The spirit of the maiden is said to wander the canyon in search of a way home to her Apache village.
—“Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains: The Ghost Mountains of Far West Texas”
by Logan Hawkee (www.wintertexasonline.com/bigbend.htm)
(No longer an active site.)
Big Bend National Park – Bruja Canyon: Bruja is Spanish for Witch. The area is thought to be bewitched. Photographs taken often cannot be developed. Unexplained flickering lights are seen. A sense of dangerous, non-malevolent power.
Arkansas Paranormal Investigations (www.paranormalbeliever.com/Texashaunts.html)
As recently as 1978, hikers reported seeing the apparition of a man wearing a serape in Bruja (“witch”) Canyon. According to Tales of Big Bend, others have seen the daughter of a Spanish don who drowned herself in a pool rather than succumb to her bandit captors.
—“America’s Scariest Trails: Big Bend’s Deadly Past”
by Anthony Cerretani (www.backpacker.com/november-09-big-bends-deadly-past/destinations/13377)
It turns out that even had John and I managed to get past the wasps at the pool, we probably couldn’t have climbed far up the cleft. The upper portion of Bruja Canon is what is referred to as a “slot canyon,” and it is a pretty rugged climb that requires some rappelling and traversing several deep pools. It is considered a Class 5 climb, which should be undertaken only by the truly experienced.
My Internet search also revealed that there are a number of recent photographs online of the canyon, which belies the idea that “photographs of the canyon can’t be developed”—even though none of the many I took came out. However, all of the ones I saw online are of the upper canyon, not the lower section below the mesa where John and I were. Also, I assume that most, if not all, of the recent photos were taken with digital cameras, not the old film cameras that John and I carried. Perhaps that makes a difference.
Excerpted from Book of Curiosities: Adventures in the Paranormal, by Christopher Dow