The Hermit in the Dugout
by Mike Cox
late afternoon sun gold-plated the West
Texas landscape, a fitting filter through which to view the deteriorating
remnants of a hermit prospector’s long-ago dream.|
Standing on a catclaw-and-greasewood
covered hill, C.B. Wilson and I surveyed a sprawling chunk of real estate that
would be absolutely empty were it not for a few oil wells, a distant gas flare,
a tank battery, and two major east-west arteries, the nearby Union Pacific mainline
and the adjacent Interstate 20 with its constant flow of 18-wheelers.
Before the oil play began, this country was even more desolate.
and Winkler counties are far out in the plains,” the San Antonio Light said in
late December 1921, “sparsely settled and seldom visited except by cowboys and
hunters. Communication is slow and uncertain.”
So why would anyone want
to live out their years in a dirt-floor dugout competing for shade with scorpions
and rattlesnakes in the summer and warmed only by burning chopped railroad ties
in the winter?
some point after the Texas and Pacific Railroad laid track through what is now
Ward County in 1881, most likely in the early 1900s, someone built a dugout on
the northwest side of the railroad and lived there for years, laboriously digging
and blasting a long trench in an obsessive quest of gold ore.
of the dugout is about four miles east of Barstow
on the Wilson Ranch. C.B. Wilson of Dallas,
whose grandfather founded the multi-section spread in 1906, heard about the hermit
from his father. But the tale came with precious few details.
“All I know
is that he was one-legged,” Wilson says of the mysterious miner. “When I first
explored the dugout as a kid it was in a lot better shape than it is now.”
Wilson’s guess, the dugout is 14 by 18 feet. Whoever built it did a good job.
First, he blasted and dug a fairly square hole in the hard, rocky slant of ground
deep enough to stand in. Then he piled flat rocks two or three layers high around
the U-shaped excavation. On top of the rocks he laid old railroad crossties. He
also used railroad ties and other piece of lumber to build the front entrance,
closing off the mouth of the U.|
An old section of rail (much smaller than
a modern piece of track) served as the dugout’s ridgepole, with a cross-wise piece
of pipe adding support. Upright cross ties support the rail ridgepole. The rafters
were wooden, with long strips of tin or corrugated metal serving as the roof.
On top of that, the builder piled dirt.
| Whoever did all
this work also sunk a square shaft through the rock as a chimney for his fireplace,
which Wilson remembers having a rock-and-cement hearth when he first saw the dugout.
The roof is beginning to cave in and sediment washed in by the occasional
heavy rain has raised the floor level to the point a person can no longer stand
upright in the shelter. Any trace of the prospector’s mining operation disappeared
recently with the Union Pacific’s construction of a two-mile siding adjacent to
its main line.
Wilson has no idea who the hermit was.
have died out here or gotten sick and went someplace else,” he says.
much fact, supposition will have to do. Since he had only one leg, the hermit
could have been a former railroad worker. Back in the steam era, the railroad
industry killed and maimed scores of workers every year. Or maybe he was an old
soldier living on a pension, possibly even a Civil War veteran. Quite possibly,
he had mental health issues.
Whoever he was, he must have lived a Spartan
lifestyle. He sure didn’t leave much trash, a sardine can here, a coffee can there
and scattering of broken plates.
“Back then, you could flag down a passing
train,” Wilson says. “He could have taken the T&P into Barstow
or Pecos to buy whatever
Searching the area immediately around the dugout ruins, Wilson
found three large Union Carbide can lids. The railroads used calcium carbide for
their lanterns before batteries and generated electricity became the norm. The
hermit might have scrounged remnants for his own lighting or used the 100-pound
capacity cans for storage.
Not long after the latest of the 30 or so freight
trains that pass this spot daily rumbled by, a coyote dashed across the tracks
in our direction. He disappeared in the brush, but soon walked into the open a
hundred or so yards off and turned broadside to us, staring intently in our direction.
After watching us for a while, he moved back into the brush. But soon
he reappeared, again scoping us out. Clearly curious, the coyote slowly circled
“If one thinks like a Native American,” Wilson says, “you would say
that coyote was a guardian spirit for our hermit and trying to figure out what
we were doing in his house!”
With the sun and the temperature both beginning
to drop, we headed back to Wilson’s vehicle, leaving the mysterious hermit’s old
dugout to the coyotes and his fellow critters.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February
12, 2009 column
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