By James C . Moore
Ann Richards and the Lost Eagle
This is part one of a three-part serial . James C . Moore has kindly allowed this piece to be reprinted from his Substack , “ Texas to the
World : Dispatches from the Center of the Known Universe .”
Down near the Terlingua ghost town , the Rio Grande marks a course through ancient volcanic lava before it enters Santa Elena Canyon ’ s 1500-foot walls . The river ’ s history and geology are profoundly complex as it approaches the remote National Park . In one low , sandy , flood plain , the horses of General “ Black Jack ” Pershing ’ s soldiers long ago trod toward a shallow crossing to enter Mexico in a vain pursuit of the revolutionary Pancho Villa , who had prompted military response by his attack on American soil . A hundred yards distant , the water ’ s flow edges up against a shining green golf course laid out by a resort designer amid a deadly arid land .
Westward , the ranch road that parallels the river to Presidio rises sharply through switchbacks , toward a mountain pass with a panoramic unmatched on most American roadways . A traveler can stop and look in either direction and see the power of time and water , and the evolution of a natural boundary that has seemed to both unite and divide . The caliche roadbed is the sole , and somewhat feeble , indication humans have ever reached these heights . Even the appearance of birds is rare in the aeries of these imposing Precambrian mesas .
A group of people had gathered on a cliffside overlook as the morning sun was chasing shadows up the mountain . The center of their attention was a woman , the governor of the state of Texas , who precariously held an American bald eagle on her leather-sheathed and extended arm . The wounded creature had been rehabilitated by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists , and Ann W . Richards was releasing the great bird of prey back to the sunburnt wilds of the Southwest . “ He looks like he ’ s ready to go , y ’ all , don ’ t he ?” Richards turned to the onlookers ; her fierce blue eyes barely visible under a straw hat . Our TV camera captured the bird ’ s tentative extension of its broad wingspan , testing a long unused ability to lift itself into the air .
“ Governor , if you ’ ll just step a little bit closer to the overlook , we can let him see the canyon and maybe give him more encouragement to fly away .”
The park ranger gently edged Richards and the bird in the direction of a thousand-foot precipice . A thermal lift quickly came up the canyon and curled against a broad talus slide . The eagle bent his head sharply in the wind ’ s direction , opened his beak , and flapped wings , tentatively , but with intent . The great bird must have instinctively known the purpose of the breeze , and lightened , he arose from the governor ’ s arm with a powerful push of talons and press of feathers .
The eagle went down instead of up , though , diving toward the canyon and the river , gliding , not ascending . We lost track of the line of flight below the edge of a rock incline , and a few of us were startled by thoughts the creature had simply swooped to a demise , unable to remember how to fly . Momentarily , though , he sought altitude with effort , almost straight up against the pale blue heavens , the outstretched wings driving him nearly beyond the reach of our vision over the increasing distance .
“ Oh my , y ’ all ,” the governor said . “ Ain ’ t that a beautiful thing ? Look at him .”
I was looking , instead , at her . Ann Richards appeared to contemplate her own freedom . In a denim shirt and jeans , she had a profile of the casual explorer , and the weight of office was not visible . Critics and opponents and budget worries and coalition building did not appear a burden . She was in one of her favorite spots in Texas , maybe the world , and did not have to hurry to a meeting or a news conference to speak to reporters . “ Here he comes back !” Someone yelled and pointed . The eagle was on a straight line from a spectacular height out on the horizon and he appeared to be targeting our small gathering like we were mere rodents ready for grasping in curled talons . We all stood , motionless , waiting , and watched his fearless descent . The space between us closed with increasing speed until he could have landed in our midst . Instead , he bent his long neck south toward Mexico and wheeled back out over the river rapids below and disappeared behind a dark mesa .
A few minutes later we gave up on the bird ’ s return and began walking to our vehicles . The governor , energized , was talkative . She had made plans to raft through Santa Elena Canyon with friends before returning to Austin . Musician Steven Fromholz , a veteran river rider and guide , she said , was to be her boatman , and an outfitter would provide a gourmet meal at an overnight camping site . “ Why don ’ t y ’ all come along ?” I did not realize she was speaking to my cameraman , Jerry , and me . “ Us , governor ?”
Continued on page 8
Cenizo Winter 2023