University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

The Land and its Caretakers

In this section:


Wilmuth Skiles in Bonfire Shelter, 1953. This photograph was taken by Jack Skiles long before the archeological potential of "Ice Box Cave" was known.
Wilmuth Skiles in Bonfire Shelter, 1953. This photograph was taken by Jack Skiles long before the archeological potential of "Ice Box Cave" was known.

Bonfire Shelter is situated in a short, narrow canyon sometimes called "Mile Canyon" near Langtry, Texas. The land is dry, harsh, and unforgiving; almost every green thing that survives for long does so because it is protected by thorns and can tolerate drought. Drought visits Langtry more often than not. Rain is rare and when it finally does occur, it often takes the form of a sudden downpour that quickly runs through the canyon and into the Rio Grande. Once a generation or so, a dying hurricane or tropical storm stalls out over Mile Canyon and the water moves mountains, almost literally. This happened in 1954 when over 20 inches of rain turned Mile Canyon into a torrent that carried a boulder the size of a small house almost a quarter of a mile downstream.

Mile Canyon is owned by Jack and Wilmuth Skiles. They live in a house overlooking the canyon and keep a wary eye on Bonfire Shelter and other archeological sites within the Canyon. This job is easier than you might think because the acoustics of Mile Canyon are such that sound reverberates off the canyon walls and travels up and down the short canyon. Jack and Wilmuth can stand on their back porch and hear the crunching sounds of footsteps on limestone gravel. They know from the direction of the sounds and time of day that an inexperienced Mexican worker is trying to sneak into Texas up Mile Canyon. The US Border Patrol agents assigned to Langtry know just where the worker will have to climb out of the canyon. Experienced "undocumented workers" choose easier routes. More worrisome are the occasional unwanted trespassers who think they can explore the canyon unnoticed. Several prosecutions and a .30-06 warning shot or two have effectively spread the word: you don't come into Mile Canyon unless you are invited.

But today is your lucky day, you've been invited to join me on a virtual tour of Mile Canyon.


Moon rising above Bonfire Shelter during the 1983 Excavations. A generator provided the florescent light emerging within the shelter and allowed the crew to work longer hours. Photo by Jack Skiles.
Moon rising above Bonfire Shelter during the 1983 Excavations. A generator provided the florescent light emerging within the shelter and allowed the crew to work longer hours. Photo by Jack Skiles.

Click images to enlarge