What can you do when the news is one crisis after another?


The Big Bend Sphinx looks out across the Great Chihuahuan Desert. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
The Big Bend Sphinx looks out across the Great Chihuahuan Desert. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

HE WAS A WISE MAN who lived on the edge of the desert.


He was a wise man who lived on the edge of Big Bend National Park in far West Texas.

Peter Koch lived inside the barren wilderness of the Great Chihuahua Desert.

It was dry.

It was arid.

There were no trees as far as the eye could see.

It was beautiful.

Across the desert grew 2,500 varieties of wildflowers.

But few noticed.

Desert, they said.

Stay away, they said.

A book about the Big Bend, written by Peter Koch
A book about the Big Bend, written by Peter Koch

Peter Koch grinned.

Let them stay away, he said. Can’t mess it up if they’re not here.

Peter Koch’s home was nestled in the little village of Study Butte.

He lived alone.

The population was always changing.

Some coming.

Some going.

Mostly, they were going.

By the time Peter learned their names, their little houses was vacant again.

The desert was a hard taskmaster.

A man, he said, was always six miles from water and six inches from hell.

But Peter Koch was home.

This was his land.

His small black and white television set received only one station.

It came from Alpine, more than a hundred miles away.

But maybe that, he decided was more than he wanted.

The world’s a terrible place, he said.

It was 1972.

I don’t know what will be happening next, he said.

He was afraid of what might be happening next.

“What has you worried?” I asked him.

“The news,” he said. “Every day on the television, I see the world coping with one problem after another. It’s one crisis piled on top of another crisis.”

He let his gaze wander toward the Chinati Mountains.

“I sometimes think this old world of ours has three kinds of people,” he said.

I waited.

“Those who are killing people.”

He sadly shook his head.

“Those who need to be killed.”

He sighed.

“And those who shouldn’t be killed.”

“Think the bad guys can find you out here?”

Peter Koch laughed.

“This is the Texas Outback,” he said. “The bad guys can’t find out here.”

However, life was getting better, Peter told me.

He had learned how to ease the anguish and the fear. For him, the world didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as it once had.

He had it figured out.

He shut off the television.

He packed a few clothes, a sleeping bag, and sometimes a tent.

He headed back into the mountains.

He wandered down one canyon, then another.

He camped alongside the old Comanche War Trail.

He watched the sun rise.

He never failed to see it set.

He saw the wildflowers bloom.

He photographed a few ridges, waiting until the sun hit them with a glow the color of gold dollars.

He knew where all the arrowheads lay scattered on the ground.

He walked through the seashells atop the mountains. When the world was destroyed by water, Peter said, these were the reefs. The floods left, and all that remained were the seashells.

After a couple of weeks in the desert, Peter would wander on back home to Study Butte.mAnd a miracle had occurred.

“I turn on my television,” he said. “And you remember those crises I was worried about?”

I nodded.

“They’re solved,” he said. “Or they’re forgotten. Or maybe none of them was such a big crisis after all. Anyway, nobody was talking about them anymore.”

He paused.

The sun lay low across the desert.

“But there are new crises confronting me,” he said. “If you watch the teevee news everyday, you never know when one crisis ends and another begins. After a while, they all begin to run together and overwhelm you, then suffocate you, and finally leave you full of despair and wallowing in your own discontent. You never get a break. You never have a chance to breathe. You’re afraid to get up in the morning. You’re afraid to close your eyes at night.”

Peter Koch watched purple shadows crawl across the land.

“Want to be happy?” he asked me.

I nodded.

“Want the answer?” he asked.

I nodded again.

“Turn the teevee off and go the desert for a while,” he said.

It was good advice.

“But I don’t live near a desert,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Why not?

“You can read a book instead,” he said.

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