Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Texas”

Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond – Day 2

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I knew the second day at Big Bend Ranch State Park would be long and challenging. W insisted that she could do and I should see the hike from the Chilcothe trailhead to the Fresno Rim, overlooking the flat irons surrounding the collapsed magma dome Calle “El Solitario”. The length of the hike was 5 miles round trip, we had plenty of water, and the high was to be only 80 degrees.

We got off to a later start than we had wanted, finishing breakfast at 8:30, so despite aggressive driving on the long straight stretches of road with no traffic and an 80 mph speed limit posted, and later on the 27 miles of gravel road that leads into Big Bend Ranch State Park, we got to the trailhead at 11:30.

 

In many ways this was a rerun of Tuesday, only with a destination in mind. Beautiful blooming desert cactus: flame tipped ocotillo, barrel cactus with fiery orange, muted brown, or clear yellow blooms, and indeed a marvelous vista from the overlook, down hundreds of feet to the river twisting along the flat brown desert floor, and the remains of a mighty mountain moldering within the jagged circle of flat iron teeth. We picnicked  leaning against a rock, hydrating and energizing with P&D grapefruit, grapes, and replenishing our salt with sardines and flaxseed crackers.

The trail across sandy washes and barren rock was marked by small piles of rocks, put together by earlier hikers with varying degrees of creativity.  As we worked our way back through the desert, these small messages from earlier hikers seemed like silent little cheerleaders, beckoning us on.

 

There was not a speck of shade. W had the idea of dampening our bandanas and tying them around our necks, which helped a lot. (Hooray for stuff that is always in the backpack and seldom gets used!) By the time we sighted the truck again W was moving at maybe 60 steps at a time, then stopping to rest with her head and arms propped on her walking stick. I did not let myself think about what would happen if she fell over- maybe I could have driven the truck at least partway down the path, but getting her into it… Ah well, a bad thing that didn’t happen. She said “I knew I could do it if I just took it a little at a time.” We rewarded ourselves with a shared granola bar.

We had hiked at an average rate of one mile an hour.

Back at the Visitor’s Center, we found that the water supply was under repair due to a leaky pump, so we were directed to the bunkhouse, where we would have stayed if not for the geologists convention. The facility looked quite comfortable, each cubicle with two twin beds, a shelf and plenty of under-bed space for stashing things, and a curtain for privacy. And best of all, showers! I rinsed my feet under cold water and changed to sandals. Bliss!

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If you go (and it IS a marvelous vista!) take PLENTY of water, use PLENTY of sunscreen, and wear sun-proof hat, long sleeves, and long pants. Take your time and look around! We had completely missed these hoodoos on the way in.

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Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond

20190326_103521docWe had planned to leave at 7AM for Big Bend Ranch State Park, but ended up feeling a bit lazy after our cold evening at McDonald’s Observatory and hit the road in Moby Dick at about 8AM. Two hours and 100+ miles later we arrive at the turnoff – 27 miles of gravel road getting progressively rockier and washboard-y as we go along. 10 miles in is the “Welcome to Big Bend State Park” sign.

20190326_105934webWith a sigh of relief, I spot a privy decorated with a cowboy mural down a little side road.  The Visitors’ Center is 17 miles further on. The gravel road is bordered  with ocotillo (long slender bare dead-looking sticks with flames of bright red flowers blooming at the tips) and Spanish bayonet (giant pompons of green narrow leaves cupping a torch of white and pinkish downward-facing blooms) and lots of bare earth where the cattle have grazed and platinum blonde grasses where they have not.

20190326_115748docAfter about an hour of jouncing over mostly-pretty-good gravel road, we get to the Visitor’s Center, a plain building with a minimal gift shop and a sign saying “Welcome to the Other Side of Nowhere.” The center also offers an up-to-date set of rest rooms with cool running water, and a friendly ranger who supplies us with trails and suggestions.  We decide to eat our lunch at the lone picnic table under the lone bit of shade, and then head out on the Horse-Trap Trail that promises a view out over the central interior of the park, and possible encounters with local wildlife.

We spot a bird nest in an ocotillo bush, but no bird. The blooming cactus lures us on down the trail, and near the end of the hike we do encounter one large deer drinking at the oasis spring, and several even larger cattle with alarmingly long horns.

Not a great pay-off for a 100-mile one way trip, you might object.  Still, we felt we had explored some amazingly alien territory, and we still had dinner at Magical Marfa to look forward to on the way back from the Other Side of Nowhere.

Freeway Free in Texas: Into the Infinite at the McDonald Observatory

20190326_202551docW had made arrangements for us to attend a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory 15 miles west of the Lodge. We knew reservations were required and had them, but did not realize that each party had over 200 invitees. I negotiated the twisty road in Moby Dick, our outsized 4×4 pickup, and parked in daylight, hoping to be able to find the truck later in the dark.

starparty_1We were early for the star-gazing, and browsed the Visitors’ Center and Gift Shop, as my spouse, a big fan of the Observatory’s Star Date broadcasts on PBS, had asked me to bring him something from MacDonalds.  I managed to find some postcards and an affordable and portable book at the gift shop, and made it through the line at the cash register just as they were calling for the partygoers to come to the outside auditorium for the start of the star gazing.

Starparty7Whatever did we do before fleece! Cozy in fleece jacket and pants and three layers beneath, topped with hats and scarves, we sat on concrete benches as the star ranger pointed out details we had never seen before of Orion.  The ranger drew a big laugh with his description of  “the hunter, he has a sword, shield and these two bright stars mark his brawny shoulders, but like some other athletes, his head is this fuzzy thing…;”  We were introduced to  Leo,  Taurus, Canopus Major and Minor, the Pleiades, and our old friends the two Dippers, .  We were pressing our luck,  as the observatory happened to be positioned between two thunderstorms.  We saw lightning all around but heard no sound.

mcDonald_observatoryThen the host recommended we adjourn to the telescopes for viewing, as clouds were beginning to obscure the sky. There were three outdoor telescopes and two domes open, but even though some of the 200+ viewers had left the amphitheater early to get a head start, there were still long cold lines. We wished we had a fourth fleecy layer.  We saw the Pleiades up close and two star clusters and then headed for the interior Sky Tour, which was rather redundant but at least it was indoors, warmish, and sitting. We bailed at 10:30, foregoing another classroom talk, and I drove prudently down the mountain.  We crashed into bed at 11:15, piling on all the warm quilts we could find.

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If you get an Invite to a Star Party: Even in summer, you are at elevation at night.  You will be sitting on cold benches, and standing outside waiting your turn at the scopes. I suggest a backpack full of extra layers to be added as needed.

Also, bring water, or a thermos of hot chocolate, or both. Don’t count on eating at the Observatory restaurant, as those other 200 guests will be crowding in also.  Better and easier to eat dinner before and bring some energizing snacks.  The Star Party starts late and ends later – particularly in summer.

And say Hi! to Orion for me!

Freeway Free in Texas – The Civil War’s Westernmost Outpost

FtDavisFt. Davis National Historic Site preserves an outpost in the Back of Beyond which actually saw some action in the Civil War.  The Federal troops at Fort Davis fled the advance of  CSA General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who  dreamed of conquering New Mexico and establishing the Confederacy all the way to the Pacific. Sibley’s forces were beaten back at  Glorieta Pass, ending Sibley’s dream.

After the Civil War ended, the fort was re-manned mostly by black soldiers, with the mission of keeping wagon caravans safe from Indian attack as they headed toward El Paso and the gold fields of California.  There is some evidence that officers with a black mark on their record were sent to command the black troops, although in general Ft. Davis was considered to be a very comfortable posting, tucked into a stream-fed canyon, with reasonably decent weather most of the year and relatively little actual fighting required.

An informative short video sets the stage at the Visitor’s Center, which also offers a very good museum dealing very fairly with the black soldiers and the racism they encountered, and their medal-worthy battles with the mostly Kiowa and Commanche Indians.  The Kiowa, Apache, and Commanche tribes are also given a fair presentation, and the museum reminds us not to judge the behavior of the soldiers by our current gauge of how native peoples should be treated.  And a full shoutout is also given to the roles of the officer’s wives and children in providing structure and keeping up society’s standards in this remote outpost

It’s hard to be politically correct  in so many directions!  But where are the Latinos?  Maybe there weren’t many, as this part of  what is nowTexas was not part of the disputed territory which  became the Republic of Texas before the Mexican-American War.   W says that there were outposts of Spanish rule all along the Rio Grande, (Presidio, El Paso) but maybe not above in the desert.

The fort is in process of being restored to its 1860’s appearance.  Some homes and hospital rooms and barracks are already fully restored and furnished, others not, so you can see what has been done and is still to do. Lots of walking is required, as the Parade Ground needed room for cavalry manoevres. In the restored sections, you are likely to find a docent in period costume eager to tell you all about life in the fort back in the day. It is a peaceful place for a National Historic Site, with less than 50,000 visitors a year.

20190325_135040webIf you stop, I can recommend the Stone Village Market and Deli in the nearby town of Fort Davis – excellent soup and sandwiches and a cheerful decor full of oddities to look at man maybe purchase. 

 

It is located just up the street from the courthouse square, with its requisite ornate detailing, historic marker, pictures of stern mustachioed judges from time out of mind, morphing into smiling, nicely coiffed modern ones , and of course a carved cowboy statue.  It’s a nice stroll to settle your soup and sandwich.

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: A Distillation of the Desert

20190325_102708docIf you are going to spend time in the desert, it’s best to know what you may be seeing, smelling, and getting stuck onto.  The Chihuahua Desert Research Institute and Botanical Gardens, about 10 miles east of Ft. Davis, provide a convenient and comprehensive introduction. 20190325_110507web

The site includes a pretty little visitors center, surrounded by very well laid out gardens highlighting desert plants by family (e.g.  verbena, rose, oak, beech) explained with a very informative brochure. (who knew that mangoes and blueberries are both part of the verbena family?)

At the end of a winding trail through the gardens is a greenhouse full of exotic cacti.  Some are potted on benches, others set into a lovely mini-garden at the end of the greenhouse.

The very charming lady at the visitor’s center explained a couple of short hikes available starting  from the center, but just the 1 mile circuit of the garden on our second day at altitude was enough.  We took our brochure and photos back to peruse over lunch, to prepare us for the morrow’s ventures further into the Back of Beyond.

Freeway Free in Texas: Rustic Comfort in the Back of Beyond

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We continue south from I-10, down through the Davis mountains, which look like someone had taken sections of Bryce Canyon and coated them with dark brown cocoa powder. We turn off onto an even smaller road before Ft. Davis, wind slowly (20 mph speed limit) through the campgrounds in Davis Mountains State Park, and dead-end into the parking lot at Indian Lodge.

Indian Lodge is a blindingly white adobe rustic lodge built by those ubiquitous Civilian Conservation Corps  guys, with wooden shutters, twig ceilings, rough decorations chopped out by hatchets, and a swimming pool.

Our room sports two queen sized beds,  a spacious handicapped-equipped bathroom, and very unreliable phone and net service. The Lodge includes a charming lobby with two big fireplaces, an outdoor patio with hanging porch swings and another fireplace and a fountain, a small upstairs lounge, and a gift shop (naturally).

20190324_182737docA trail leads off from the parking lot, so we  put on boots, grab sticks, and off we go, altitude, loose rocks, and elevation gain be hanged! We make it about half a mile up the trail before stopping to look at the Lodge below and deciding we had done enough.

We think of diving into the pool, but it is only March and the pool is sun-warmed – the temperature of the water is in the low 50’s.  But wasn’t that a hot tub next to the pool?  Nope, that’s a kiddie wading pool.  Being shallow, it is just a bit warmer than the main pool and quite refreshing to our feet. 20190324_174629web

We picnic on the patio with hummus and veggies, sardines and crackers, grapes and pears, and sparkling water. Then we add some cozy clothes and head up the mountain on a road full of hairpin turns to the observation platform at the end of the road. The sun has set, and as ambient light decreased, we see STARS! Orion at his best, red Betelgeuse, Antares, and both dippers, plus a cloudy belt we think was the Milky Way. We will have more star dates in future nights;  the Big Bend area is supposed to be one of the least light-polluted sites in the lower 48.  After ooh-ing and aah-ing, we carefully make our way back down to our cozy room, blessing those hard-working CCC boys as we sink into sleep.

Freeway Free in Texas: An Oasis in the Back of Beyond

We weren’t very far off of Interstate 10, the scarlet ribbon on our map which bisects West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso, when we pulled off at Balmorhea State Park.  This unlikely spot was once a life-saving source of water for pioneers on the long southern trek to California

20190324_160847docImaging the astonishment of the first discoverers of San Solomon Springs.  In the middle of flat emptiness, with nary a mountain in sight, and no sizable trees or vegetation from here to the horizon, an artesian spring bubbles out of the flat ground.  This is no trickle of water which ebbs away between hot rocks, but a cool ( 72-76 degrees) endless source of liquid bounteous enough to fill a 1.3 acre pool up to 25 feet deep.

20190324_161619webThe oasis is now civilized, thanks to the efforts and energies of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s.  The swimming pool fed by the spring is now enjoyed by families  and scuba drivers (in the deep part).  No thirsty mules or cattle are allowed to approach. There are changing rooms, picnic tables, and a snack bar. But the presence of abundant water in the midst of the sagebrush is still miraculous.20190324_161043doc

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: On the way to the Back of Beyond

20190612_090827docOK, I’m cheating a little.  We actually spent quite a bit of time on the freeway on our way to the Big Bend area of west Texas – there is no other way to get there.

W picked me up at the Austin airport in a giant white 4-door truck which we have christened Moby Dick. It has mirrors that can fold in electrically so you can squeeze through narrow spots, and a backup camera, and a hands free phone,  and a beeper in front and in back if you are about to hit something.  You can adjust the seat back and forth and up and down and the brake pedal and accelerator also up and down. It took W awhile to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers without turning open the windshield washer, and there are a few more bills and whistles we probably didn’t notice. And most importantly, it has four-wheel drive and rides high off the ground. (This last is a bit of a challenge to W and me, who are both on the short side.  We have learned to vault up to our seats with the help of a grip on the window frame, and slither down to the ground carefully to avoid jolts to our knees on descending.) Moby Dick seems very out of place driving through the well-manicured Austin suburbs;  we might as well be driving a Sherman tank.

20190325_155456docSo off we go out of Austin and past places that we have visited before, into the unknown spaces of the Big Bend country of southwest Texas.  We move out of the area where bluebonnets and scarlet paintbrush are blooming and into an area where odd geological formations punctuate the skyline like very broad pencils with sharp tips.  Scattered yuccas bloom like pale torches among the scrubby bushes. The occasional farm augments its income with pumpjacks in the valleys and windmills on the ridges, hedging its bets between the old energy and the new.

Knowing that our access to fast food restaurants will be scarce, we stock up at a Lowes market in  Ft. Stockton on raw veggies, hummus, oranges, pears, grapes, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, tuna fish, sardines, and crackers – good for several breakfasts and dinners, we hope.20190324_150327web

And finally we abandon the cheery red line on our Texas map, and head south on the black lines.  Our first stop will be at an amazing oasis in the Back of Beyond, so stay tuned!

Freeway-Free in Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

Texas Freeway Stops on the Way to the Back of Beyond: Ozona

20190324_125621docFrom Austin to the Big Bend country of Texas, you pretty much have to go by freeway.  But there are plenty of stops to be made along the way.

Ozona, Texas, is one of those towns whose reasons for existence seems to have evaporated, leaving only shells of former splendor, like dinosaur fossils, to evoke what once was.  Like many another small Texas county seat, it boasts an impressive courthouse facing the central square.  As a general rule, the vintage of the courthouse (in this case, late Victorian) is a good indicator of when the town was at its peak.

20190324_124525webThe courthouse, like many others, is a Texas Historical Landmark, attested by a plaque next to the front door.  The square boasts a statue of a pioneer family, in addition to a large memorial to Davy Crockett (Ozuna is county seat of Crockett County).  Judging by the style of the memorial, it was  probably installed soon after the coonskin cap craze of the mid-50’s. Probably predating the Crockett memorial by at least 20 years is a brave neon sign proclaiming Ozona as “The Biggest Little Town in the World”.

 

But the other buildings around the square belie the boast. There is a bank building with a beautiful classical façade, now boarded up.  There is a decaying three story hotel with a  vintage look, now boarded up.  The largest business on the square is a gun shop.  The second largest is a stockman’s supply store.  The third largest… well, I’m not sure among the many vacant facades which might have been open.

Ozona’s town center with its boastful sign eerily evoked the ending of Percy Shelley’s classic poem “Ozymandias”:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
…. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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