There’s a desire that builds in me after too long a time away from Trans-Pecos Texas. The final winter weekend of 2016 presented an opportunity to scratch that itch when I learned that the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve would be open. Lina and I chose to combine this year’s wedding anniversary trip with a hike in that seldom-accessible property.
Thur, 03-17: My phone alarm broke our slumber at 4:55 a.m. on Saint Patrick’s Day, and up we sprung. Threw all last-minute items together and into Twinka, L’s two-door Hyunda, and rolled out at 6:00, while outside was still dark. Streets weren’t badly crowded, but we marveled at the steady stream of cars heading into town. A light mist dampened our windshield. Westward ho!
Day dawned by Fredericksburg, and the sprinkling abated. Seamlessly we merged onto good ol’ I-10 and attained 83 mph. By tradition, first stop is breakfast at our favorite café in Junction, where we arrived at 8:30. Helen is the very same waitress who’s worked there since I first began going west in the mid-1970s. She claims to remember me. The Junction Special consists of two of everything: bacon strips, sausages, pancakes, and eggs over easy—all washed down with steaming coffee.
After filling Twinka’s tank, we were under way again, on and on, zooming past Sonora and Ozona, crossing the Pecos at Sheffield, exiting onto TX 349, which followed the Pecos into Iraan. There I showed Lina the city bathhouse and Alley Oop Park (where my first family had camped when daughter Kristiana was young). There we posed as Alley and Oola.
The Iraan Museum wasn’t yet open, but we chatted with maintenance man Tory, who answered questions about the facility and our next destination. Would have gassed there, but a computer reinstallation nixed our chosen pumps.
Winding west on US 190, we turned north onto TX 305, crossed the Pecos again, and shortly found McCamey. US 385 then headed to Castle Gap Road, which we traced a mile east or so to get a photo of the Gap. It was a major trail landmark and route in stagecoach days. Amazing. Back in McCamey, we gassed yet again, then continued non-east on 385.
Noticed well-watered fields on the approach to Fort Stockton, and again towards Balmorhea. Flowing irrigation ditches led us to Uncle’s Convenience Store, the one we’d found on our 2014 California trip. There, we bought thick and crispy potato chips, our only food since the yuuuge b’fast.
TX 17 offers a terrific introduction and advance to the Davis Mountains. I especially love Wild Rose Pass, which edges Cieniga and Chihuahua Creeks. Before long, we pulled up to Fort Davis’s Butterfield Inn and stepped inside Along the Trail Antiques.
Kelly Prude checked us in and escorted us to Cabin 2, set in the southwest corner of a compound of three others of identical—though mirror-image—other ones, each with a brick and native-stone fireplace. I guessed the dimensions at 18 by 21 feet. Above the queen-size bed was a vaulted ceiling. Main room had a big La-Z-Boy couch jammed into the bay window and a drop-leaf table up against the teal-painted far wall. No other opening illuminated the interior. A TV occupied the northwest corner on a triangular shelf, and the fridge, microwave, and armoire fit the northeast. A closet and bathroom sat on the left end of the space. After bringing our effects inside, we shifted the couch to the foot of the bed and placed the table in the bay, curing any awkwardness.
Looking for info and maps of the preserve, we strode to the Chamber of Commerce, which offices in a former feed store. It was closed, but we helped ourselves to several brochures. Adjacent was the library, where director Toi Fisher greeted us with a 3D printer and lots of great data on hiking and dining and building history. She spoke highly of Maddog’s Cantina, just around the corner in a structure we remembered from our 2007 visit as a pizza parlor.
Figuring to cook and eat in, imagine the shock and shame when we realized we’d packed no utensils. Plan B: go to Maddog’s. Funky and ramshackle it was, with a big bois-d’arc poking through the roof. Only two other tables were taken when we sat down. E_____, the one waitress, took our order. Dismayed were we when the burger and veggies came 40 minutes later and not to our specs. The place filled up as we finished. After pointing out the establishment’s foibles and learning that the credit system was nonfunctional, I handed the embarrassed serving girl a five and a twenty.
Next door, a dollar store supplied us with our forgotten items: a couple ceramic bowls, a pair of oversized coffee cups, four dessert spoons, and two stemless wine glasses—all for a mere ten bucks.
In the room, we settled in to watching 50 First Dates and Hogan’s Heroes, the latter not aging well. Finally got to bed after surrendering to my laptop’s connectivity stubbornness.
Friday, 03-18: No alarm this a.m. Cloudy in Fort Davis, 34° at 8:11, NE winds, quiet except for Eurasian collared doves cooing and the family next door stirring. Lina did online research into the artist Arthur Tracy Lee, whose book of Fort Davis paintings I committed to gifting her. Annoyingly puzzled over how the expletive I could have neglected to bring my black wool beret, I questioned my experienced traveler qualifications.
Lina was chomping at the bit to get on out and head for the high country. She packed meals and snacks. After a nagging time getting out the door, we were at last underway after 9. A bright day illumined our road into the mountains along Limpia Creek past McDonald Observatory, which now boasts another dome on a nearby peak. Plenty of cholla grew along the way, but none presented itself for harvest.
Just past the Madera Canyon roadside park opened the new gate into Davis Mountains Preserve. Pulled up to the spacious visitor center and stepped inside. Cruciform, the central square of the edifice features a soaring roof with windows all around in every direction and exposed wood beams. Off to the left side of the entryway stands an office; to the right is one of a couple dorm rooms with six bunk beds each. The southeast corner features rest rooms with showers; NE wing contains a spacious kitchen. In between are lounging, presentation, and dining areas.
Greeting us were Dierdre (last syllable pronounced ah) Hisler, project director, and Gary Freeman, a retired UT botany professor and volunteer. They oriented us to the situation: no driving Twinka on the rugged and rough road into the property’s heart, but we could likely hitch a ride with better-equipped patrons. Almost immediately, a tall fellow with a gray beard called me by name. It was Don Alexander, fellow Kerrvert and biologist who comes on my Quiet Valley Ranch nature walks. With him was his niece Alison James, a Nature Conservancy employee in Montana, twin of Wendy of Ike and, utterly remarkably, cousin to my Capitol co-worker James Chapman. Also along were Uncle Ian, an older man with a cane. Who else should walk in but Scott Newsom, our Austin buddy Leigh’s brother. To our heaping gratitude, Dierdre loaned us her personal vehicle, a white four-wheel-drive, four-door Tacoma. Off we went.
The 4.9-mile lane offered plenty of creek fords and bumps, against which I held on mightily to save my beleaguered crooked spine. Just past a wind pump and empty iron tank at the end of this road, we parked and set out up a jeep trail that led to a narrower path. Our goal was Tobe Spring, the name reminding us of our best friends back home. Up and up we ascended. Don knew many plants and trees, and I knew others, introducing him to the manzanita, madrone’s cousin. We all marveled at the silver-leaf oaks here and the frequent ponderosa pines. Also painfully evident was the massive wildfire that swept through here in 2011, consuming 60,000 acres in its rage. Drought increases in this now-warming world. I apologized to the grasses and forbs for us civilized humans’ fault.
Saw a red-tailed hawk and a couple woodpeckers, heard one or two high-altitude planes. Otherwise, things were quiet enough to whisper. At one point, Ian stopped and the rest of us strode on. Photo’d L under the champion ponderosa pine. Closer and closer we came to Livermore’s baldy knob and eastern cliff, but could spy no humans up there.
Stopped by an algae pool for lunch: avocado and cheese sammiches with hard-boiled eggs. We each brought precious drinking water in our Zion National Park vessels, mine a purple collapsible pouch. I rested on prickly pine mulch and closed my eyes while Don and Alison climbed up a bit farther.
All done with repast and relaxation, we descended, using different muscles. L’s knees gave trouble. I experienced shortness of breath from the 7,000-foot altitude, but otherwise fared well enough. Rejoined Ian and got back to the vehicle around 3:00.
Bumpity-thud back to the center, we asked a gal for a group shot of our merry crew. Inside, we drank more lemon water, sprawled on a couch, and conversed with our gracious hostess. Folks arrived in a steady stream, each getting the same earful about trails, camping, programs, and facilities. I pledged my support to Dierdra, who will soon initiate a Friends of the Preserve club.
Saying our reluctant so-longs, we traipsed out to see Scott’s curious camping trailer, which metal lids form work surfaces. From racks hung a towel plus pots and pans and lids. An open grate by yon tongue supports his propane tank and fuel bottle. A tailgate holds a spigoted jug of water. Various boxes contain everything else. The whole device operates quite efficiently but without the Chuck Wagon’s charming personality—just sayin’.
The famed Davis Mountain scenic loop took us 45 miles back to the town via Sawtooth Mountain, Rock Pile, the road to Valentine, a much-built-up Bloys Camp Meeting, Davis Mountain Resort, Point of Rocks, and sweeping views of high-altitude grasslands. The 25-mph speed limit at the village square appealed to me. Back in our cottage, we drank beer, wine, and wodka and ate soup. Much resting ensued, and I wept from music such as that of Joan Baez, Grace Park, the Roaches, Cocteau Twins, and others. I edited L’s latest novel chapters, and we watched Perry Mason, Twilight Zone, and part of Dark Knight before crashing for good.
Saturday, 03-20: Awakened to a cold and cloudy last day of winter. Bundled up as much as possible by donning navy trousers and two long-sleeve t-shirts beneath an orange Oxford. First stop: thrift store adjacent to a stone former tourist court across from a current tourist camp. Providence provided me with a $5 Scottish wool Trilby, which matched my coat’s lining. We chatted with the cute young clerk there and with the enthusiastic fellow out in the gallery, located inside one of the former lodging rooms.
At the fort, Ranger Bill Manhart gifted me a roster from the 1870s, which showed that my great-grandfather “H. Frick” earned $75 per month as a blacksmith. Walked through exhibits in barracks, officers’ quarters, the hospital, and a Native American wikiup. Took photos and kept warm. At Bookfellow, paid $75 cash for Captain Arthur T. Lee’s frontier landscapes in an out-of-print volume.
Refueled and steered south on TX 118 to Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute’s Nature Center, joyfully greeting our hiking companions from the day before. Ralph the volunteer checked us in and sold me guides to the Botanical Gardens, where Lina ambled, and Modesta Canyon Trail, where I stepped. My path plunged steeply into this crevice where two distinct geological formations butt together: Sleeping Lion rhyolite and Weston basalt. Scrambling was fun, and at the bottom I marveled at the gurgling trickle, little ponds, several birds, and blooming mountain laurel and madrone. Shot a one-minute video of this panorama, which you can see here (111 Mb file).
Up again, past rock pillars and sweeping vistas (now sunny) and back to the center, where L and I sat on the porch to enjoy cheese and guacamole on sprouted bread while gazing out towards Livermore. Marvelous there was the display of Earth’s geologic ages, with representative rock samples from each. Missed the mine exhibit, but found the whole experience most delightful and highly recommendable.
Wound down Musquiz Canyon past Mitre Peak into Alpine. Found Museum of the Big Bend behind Sul Ross State University in a 1937 lamella-arched stone building. Fab was the Tall Rockshelter panel and Livermore Cache. Ditto the surveying display and Tom Lea’s art.
Zooming westward, we learned that Paisano Pass’s name came when two Spanish explorers greeted each other (paisano = countryman) here. This is the highest elevation (5,074 ft.) on the Sunset Limited railroad line. Took a fine shot of the peak, as well. Continued past the lights viewing installation and into Marfa (named for a character in Brothers Karamazov), listening to its public radio, KRTS.
Circled ‘round the scales-less Presidio County courthouse and parked at Hotel Paisano to explore. Almost a carbon copy of Van Horn’s Hotel Capitan, here Giant runs 24/7, and the place oozes hipness. Declining to drink or eat the high-dollar offerings there, we tried Planet Marfa from an online listing. It was way cool, but offered only chips and salsa. Mando’s on the town’s west end brought us satisfying enchiladas, chile rellenos, and Big Bend Brewing Tejas Lager.
Liz Lambert’s El Cosmico amazed us with its uniformed desk clerks, wood-fired hot tubs, Mongolian yurts, hammock grove, group kitchen, canvas-walled outhouses, tipis, safari tents, cozy lobby, and colorful vintage trailers. Stopped at the former-gas-radio station and met Joe Nick’s engineer during his Texas Music Hour of Power. He’d been there the week before.
As dusk overtook, we retraced our route ten miles east to the viewing area and angled Twinka southwest towards the Chinati Mountains. Even before complete—though moonlit—darkness, lights appeared way out on the horizon. L remained skeptical and even bored as we attempted to discern patterns in the locations and twinklings. The state-supplied structure gave some shelter from steady north winds, and I overheard at least one local gentleman verifying my memory of flashing orbs and hues. Endured until 9:35.
The waxing Worm Moon outlined a few roadside peaks on our way into Fort Davis. Remarkable was the lack of streetlights in town, a nod to the observatory’s dark skies initiative. We readied our bags for an early departure, drank beer and wine, and performed ablutions. I set the alarm for 4:01.
Sunday, o3-20: Rolled out of Fort Davis at 4:40 a.m. under pale lunar illumination. Could just make out mountain silhouettes as we steered down Wild Rose Pass. Bizarre was seeing red lights of the wind generators blinking in unison. Sun rose precisely in the east on that Spring Equinox just past Ozona. Pulled into Fig Cottage, our Upper-East Austin home, at 11:30 a.m. after 424 miles.
When can we go again?