Meadow near Goliad

Meadow near Goliad

I’ve traveled back and forth from Austin to Corpus Christi probably hundreds of times, still making new discoveries every trip. On a recent weekend, though, I reached back to a distant, personal past.

My first night out away from family as a teenager was during the summer of 1965 or ‘66, early in my junior high experience. Raised Presbyterian, I got to attend a retreat center called Camp Aranama, just outside of Goliad, run at that time by the South Texas Presbytery. Aranamas were natives who lived there long ago, a band related to the Tawakonis and for whom 18th-century Spaniards built several missions.

Campers arrived on a Sunday afternoon and said farewell to their parents. The whole split into four separate groups, each consisting of five boys, five girls, and two adult counselors of corresponding gender. Every kid brought bedding and clothes. We slept in “hogans,” which were wooden-framed structures covered in canvas and netting. Each group cooked its own breakfast and supper and performed chores. Lunch happened with all four groups together in the central recreation hall.

Typical of such church-oriented operations, our schedule included religious study, learning outdoor skills, swimming in the pool, and gaming. The highlight of our week was the hike. We took off cross-country, first to the Big Tree—an enormous old live oak with branches that grew to the ground, forming an enclosed shelter and offering shady rest. From there, we continued to town to see the presidio and mission and learn the area’s rich history. A van or small bus gave us a ride back to the camp.

Come Saturday, the experience drew to a close and everyone went home, rugged and tanned and happy.

Derelict Camp Aranama Hogan

Derelict Camp
Aranama Hogan

I’d visited Goliad on many occasions in recent months, but at last determined to find the camp this trip. It’s now Aranama RV Park. I drove in and promptly met the proprietor, Bruce Jones. He’s also from Corpus and is a day younger than I. He told me that his family had acquired the property in 1990 after the place had been “abandoned” for two decades. The Joneses built sheds for vehicles and equipment and installed hookups for numerous trailers. They also enclosed what had been the rec hall. The swimming pool was fenced and unused. Bruce showed me a fading photo of one of the hogans, now likely returned to the elements.

I also looked for the Big Tree, following the circular road around towards a bend in the San Antonio River. The tree wasn’t evident from my vantage points, but the broad grassland with scattered live oaks and anaquas provided a pleasing green panorama, especially after a rain shower watered the sandy ground.

It’s pleasing to discover that those acres still cater to campers, albeit older and less rustic ones. It’s also meaningful for me to reconnect with the site where began my long experience of tents, fire circles, and fun out in the woods.

What was your first camp?

Platt Crossing

Platt Crossing

Austin’s outdoors hold many hidden gems. In particular, I just rediscovered a public place that isn’t a park or preserve per se. The Austin Water Utility owns frontage along 3.5 miles of the Colorado River’s north bank near Bergstrom Airport. The 1,200-acre Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant offers a major bird observatory, manufactures Dillo Dirt compost, hosts the Center for Environmental Research, and partners with several ecologically minded organizations. Among them and headquartered in an ecohouse on the Hornsby Bend site is Austin Youth River Watch. They held a party last weekend that featured a walk though woods down by the riverside.

Fellow geographer and guide Elizabeth Welch, who directs the youth programs, is a wealth of information about the flora and fauna there as well as their cultural uses. She led us past several ponds and tall stands of wild rice to the Colorado’s edge, which had been the historic Platt Crossing.  In view were violet henbit, catchweed bedstraw, variegated bull thistle, and teeny speedwell. We saw evidence of beavers and heard that otters were nearby.

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

At the end of the trail was the biggest pecan tree I’ve ever beheld. Leaning downstream from some ancient flood, this gargantuan being overwhelmed our little group. Six of us couldn’t have joined hands around it. On the ground were remnants of last fall’s nuts—the small native type. Still dormant, this and other Carya illinoensis will likely bud in April. The tree would have witnessed the Hornsby family’s arrival here in 1832.

In collaboration with Travis Audubon, Hornsby Bend offers frequent owl prowls at night and other birding events. The facility is open to anyone every day from dawn to dusk. The Center is accessible off FM 973, and the nature trail is at the end of Platt Lane.