A Desert Love Story
Affection for the land — and each other — led Julius and Marilyne Dieckert to give their special place to all Texans.
By E. Dan Klepper
It isn’t often that Texans are lucky enough to secure a place where nature’s temperament faithfully reflects the mind in repose. Such a place, auspicious when discovered but often difficult to reach, must fit a rarefied set of criteria. First, it should inspire an immediate silencing of the mind’s voices upon arrival. It must provide the body with a stark but simple contrast to soft comforts by sacrificing ease for character. It should offer only the rawest of life; what can be cobbled from the fortitude acquired in crossing serrated, shank-filled terra and the sparse sort of grace encountered while resting on the smooth, warm flat of firma. Next, it should fill the lungs with a rhythmic sedation of clear air. Finally, it must allow the eyes to rest firmly upon a minimalist’s landscape and then draw — both sight and the mind’s eye — toward a free and unfettered vision of the earth’s breathtaking horizon.
The Masada Ridge Wilderness Unit of Big Bend Ranch State Park is just such a place. The unit, a gift to the people of Texas from fellow Texans Julius and Marilyne Dieckert, typifies the wild landscape spilling out of the Solitario caldera, Big Bend’s famous volcanic remnant, and tumbling south across an ancient seabed towards the Rio Grande. The 4,480-acre rise of recovering desert grassland lies above the dry rifts and ravines of the Chihuahuan scrabble like the prow of a desert brig. The up-thrusting sailfins of the Solitario walls tower behind the Masada to the north, making the ridge a geographic forecastle deck, or balcony, to the caldera’s grand brigantine. It is an apt analogy, as the Masada provides all of the best that a balcony offers — seclusion above the fray and an ideal vantage point for a stunning, world-class view.
Mule deer often trail the Masada rimrock in the afternoon light and catch a whiff of some far-blown scent carried across eroded canyons. In the distance, Mexico’s Sierra Rica range shadows against the onset of short winter days while the Chisos, to the southeast, brighten in their profile, blue and orange and exposed in their entirety. Humbler mountains and canyons stump the surrounding ground below — Bee, Clay, Amarilla, Contrabando, Tres Cuevas, Leon, Wildhorse, Willow, Indian Head, Cigar, Hen Egg, Maverick, Dark Canyon, Saltgrass Draw, the Blue Range, Pinks Peak and Black Mesa — along with a cast of no-name humps, lumps, drains, creeks and arroyos that scatter across a 360-degree arc of the Chihuahuan empire.
The Masada offers an astounding vision but yields little else above this hard country, an elevated plateau of rugged isolation where pioneers scoured out a history of overgrazing and prospect mining, scraping away the meager resources that an arid desert wilderness might harbor. What remains of human use and abuse lies scattered in wind-blown remnants across the Masada landscape, no more revealing than the hand-hewn chert fragments and shelter scrawls left by ancient men. At night, their campfires spit sparks out against their hopes and the wind drug the firebrands across the fuel-less plain until they were snuffed out.
Firelight against the Masada’s black plateau is just as bright and revealing today as in the past. On a recent night along the ridge, the light of a campfire drew down a migrating sandhill crane, lost and forlorn, that cried out for a familiar voice to campers gathered around the firelight. Hearing none, the crane disappeared into the void. The moment seemed to define the soul of the Masada — beautiful but alone, closer to heaven but not quite paradise itself, exquisite in its rendering of all the natural world offers yet subject to nature’s capricious tides. It is remarkable then that the preservation of such a place, where humans must bend no less than any other living thing to the will of the wilderness, grew out of the most fragile emotion of human design – love.
Julius and Marilyne Dieckert first came face to face, quite literally, on the peak of Enchanted Rock. At the time, Julius (known as “Dieck”) was a graduate student in biochemistry at Texas A&M University. He had accepted a job in the summer of 1949 as an instructor for an Audubon Camp held on the campus of the Schreiner Institute in Kerrville. Marilyne, a sophomore at Texas Christian University on a music scholarship, had been offered a chance to attend a summer session of the Audubon Camp. She had always enjoyed the outdoors and was “delighted with this chance to again study ‘things biological.’”
“I was a student in Dieck’s classes,” Marilyne recalls. “But we were each on a solo hike away from the other members of the field trip group when we actually became acquainted, meeting face to face when we each came around the opposite side of one of the huge room-sized boulders which sit on top of Enchanted Rock. We connected right away, and I postponed my return trip home because of our sudden discovery of each other. Our courtship and our marriage consisted of one long glorious experience of birding, hiking and backpacking in the wilderness.”
It was an experience that would, in fact, last for a total of 58 years. Over time the Dieckerts married, raised a family of five and pursued careers, Dieck as a professor and biochemical researcher for Texas A&M and Marilyne as his research associate. They also became regular visitors to the Big Bend area, spending family vacations backpacking across the national park. The Dieckerts’ love of the region ultimately evolved into a desire to preserve it.
“We began wishing for our own little piece of wilderness,” Marilyne explains, “which we could enjoy and ultimately leave as a gift to be protected in perpetuity after our demise.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Dieckerts began to acquire land that was contiguous to Big Bend Ranch State Park. They purchased what would become the Masada Ridge Wilderness in sections, eventually accumulating a total of seven square-mile sections of Chihuahuan Desert. “The acquisition of this land was not easy for us on a professor’s salary. The project took over a decade of scrimping, saving, selling other properties, cashing in insurance policies and obtaining bank loans in order to accomplish our goal.”
Once the Dieckerts retired in 1993, they began to spend each December and May camping and hiking the ridge, named “Masada” by the Dieckerts for its similarities to Israel’s Masada in geography and the metaphor in its sanctuary. “Fortress of old, by the Dead Sea: The Masada,” Marilyne wrote in her poem about the Dieckerts’ wilderness dream. “Invincible outpost held for most of a century by Jewish zealots, after all others had succumbed to Roman conquerors. Thus, we christen our private, wild fortress Masada — and we pledge to preserve this wondrous land as a refuge for all wildlife — plant and animal.”
The name imparts a certain pride and perseverance to the ridge’s identity, but underlying Marilyne’s dedication is also a much greater distinction of place — one born from intimacy. The Dieckerts truly loved the desert in a way that only those who sacrifice comfort and security to dwell within it come to understand. The Dieckerts spent months at a time living on the ridge with an ascetic’s discipline — conserving water, sleeping unsheltered, grappling with the elements day and night. It is an existence that strips the superfluous from the living and magnifies what remains — sustenance and warmth, in all their physical, emotional and spiritual manifestations. To dwell in the experience alone builds character. But to share a lifetime of experiences creates a bond that neither time nor mortality can break.
The Dieckerts’ desert sojourns ended with Dieck’s passing in June of 2006. But their legacy lives on atop the Masada Ridge, where an unflinching tenacity and a remarkable generosity preserved this ancient desert wildscape for all Texans.