Alpine, Texas, September 8, 2016

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A Trans-Pecos sunset

I am a long distance admirer of Alpine and other communities in the Trans-Pecos, and in short visits during many trips to the Big Bend region, I have built up an idealized perception of these places as friendly, easygoing refuges from the rest of the world. Today, a young girl in Alpine took her own life after shooting another student. The idea of a school shooting in Alpine seemed as impossible as the notion of a hate crime in paradise. It happens all too often in those other places in America, but not in the Trans-Pecos. Not in that beloved place where people live alongside nature and (mostly) do not wreck it. Not in that place where human evil does not dominate.

While Clint and I try not to be naïve, this idealized view was reinforced in a trip just last weekend to the Chinati Hot Springs. We met a warm and generous family from Alpine. As we started talking about what we were doing, it became clear that Symantha was fascinated with snakes and other wildlife, and we all became instant friends. There in the communal kitchen at the hot springs, we shared stories and they shared dinner with us. It was the kind of night we long for and seem to have lost – eating and laughing, walking out onto the porch to stare up into the stars or find unusual insects, miles out in the beautiful Chihuahuan Desert. If Alpine was like these people, it truly must be a charmed place, a little bit this side of heaven.

And these communities are scattered across the most beautiful country we know. The fact that most of the vegetation has thorns and many of the snakes are venomous does not take away from its wonder. On a clear night, you stare up into infinity into which the creator has thrown a double handful of diamonds. You can stand on a mountain and look out across a landscape without stores and freeways, where people are present in small numbers, not a teeming hive. It is easier to see our fellow humans as individual people, not an overwhelming hoarde. And when you want to see no one, that’s easy to do. The Trans-Pecos is one of our favorite places on the planet.

With that in mind, today’s violence feels like an assault. It must be much worse for those directly affected. We will never know the terrible impact of the girl’s death on her family, or how the gunshots that others suffered will haunt them. And we don’t fully appreciate what the other students may experience in the coming weeks, wondering if their school can ever feel safe again. How will Symantha feel, going back to school? But for those of us who just get to visit occasionally, who love the land, the wildlife, and the people we have met there, it feels like a nightmare intruding into a dream, or poison seeping into a precious refuge.

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