from the Friday, July 15 southwestern edition of the New York Times via the Texas Tribune
Tomorrow is World Snake Day, meaning a large number of vehicles will be veering off of southbound Interstate 35 at Exit 182, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, to pay their respects at the Snake Farm.
Before there was Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas, there was the Snake Farm. Since 1967, when the main highway out front was still Route 81, parents of a certain age have viewed the Snake Farm as the only truly irresistible roadside attraction on the iconic car trip to the Alamo. Inner Space Cavern, Aquarena Springs (which featured Ralph the Swimming Pig), Wonder World Cave and the Natural Bridge Caverns could all be ignored. But if there was a herp freak in the back seat, you had no choice but to pull over at the Snake Farm.
Those carloads add up — and it’s not just families. Even after four-plus decades, the Snake Farm manages to attract 400,000 visitors of all ages annually. At $9.95 per person ($6.95 for children 2 to 12), it’s a tidy little business.
In the late 1970s, the iconic New York punk rockers The Ramones stumbled upon the Snake Farm while on tour between Austin and San Antonio. The band subsequently began to wear Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their stage and offstage personae. Snake Farm shirts, replicas of those worn by the late Dee Dee Ramone, have been available online for $49.95.
Five years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the singer-songwriter who performs on the other side of New Braunfels tonight at Gruene Hall) paid homage with “Snake Farm,” a song about a guy in love with a stripper who works the counter at, yes, the Snake Farm. The engaging sing-along refrain: “Snake Farm, sure sounds nasty. Snake Farm, pretty much is. Ewwwwwww.”
A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.
The reality is snakes, and lots of ’em. More than 200 species are on display inside a no-frills cinder-block building. Stickers on some vivariums identify the Snake Farm’s Top 10 Most Venomous Snakes. The No. 9 King Cobra and No. 2 Black Mamba appear far more threatening than No. 1, the Inland Taipan, a small, rust-colored snake.
In addition to snakes, there’s a petting zoo, outdoor cages with lemurs, hyenas, parrots, monkeys, kinkajous and peacocks, and a pond filled with crocodiles and alligators. This explains the official name, Animal World and Snake Farm, even though the souvenirs all say Snake Farm Exotic Animal Park.
For the past eight years, the staff, led by Jarrod Forthman, the director of outreach, has overseen daily animal encounters at noon and 3 p.m., offering lizard talks and bringing out a huge python for photo ops. The big ’un is the Sunday 3 p.m. Croc Feed, in which the resident family of crocodilians have their once-a-week meal of raw chicken parts.
Mr. Forthman, 30, describes the weekly feeding as the most dangerous show in the country. “I have some job security, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. Mr. Forthman added that the farm was not regulated like most zoos. “So we’re able to do things normal zoos cannot,” he said. “You can get up close and personal.”
You can also get bitten. Mr. Forthman, who has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has 100 stitches in his right hand from one croc bite and is missing half a thumb from another.
With the recent purchase of 45 acres behind the present three-acre footprint, Mr. Forthman envisions more snakes, more animals and a drive-through safari. But it’s the old-fashioned cheesy aura and staff members’ willingness to risk digits and limbs in the name of putting on a good show that will keep drawing the crowds.
“I get no greater thrill than having to handle some of the deadliest snakes,” Mr. Forthman said. “Call me crazy, but I’m doing what I love.”
Joe Nick Patoski is a regular contributor to these pages.
The band I managed back in the 1980s, Stiff Records artists Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Joe King, Kris Cummings, Brad Kizer, Miguel Navarro) have reformed 30 years after the fact for a Texas Tourette.
Dates are Friday, June 17 @ the Continental Club Houston
Saturday, June 18 @ the Back Porch, Port Aransas
Friday, June 24 @ Poor David’s, Dallas
Saturday, June 25 @ Antone’s, Austin
Sunday, June 26 @ Sam’s Burger Joint, San Antonio.
Here’s the story:
In the late summer 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco formed a stripped-down four-piece combo to replace his Chicano big band, El Molino. Dubbed the Crowns, organist/accordionist Kris Cummings, bassist Brad Kizer, and drummer Miguel Navarro backed up Carrasco at Raul’s, the famed punk club, and the Hole-in-the-Wall, and other University of Texas-area venues in Austin, quickly gaining a following around their revved-up Tex-Mex brand of punk rock, harkening back to the classic Vox and Farfisa organ-driven sound first popularized by the 1960s Texas bands Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About A Mover”), Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs (“Wooly Bully”), and ? And the Mysterians (“96 Tears”).
In November 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns made their first trip to New York City where Joe “King” almost gave the Lone Star Café’s owner, Mort Cooperman, a heart attack when he jumped off the club’s balcony onto the stage. The band was such a sensation, they were invited to play the storied Mudd Club downtown, and returned to Austin with critical praise from New York’s music press including Lester Bangs and John Rockwell of the New York TImes.
Armed with a 45 rpm single “Party Weekend” b/w “Houston El Mover” that was financed by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the band returned to New York in the spring of 1980 to record a demo album for Warner Brothers Records, which was eventually released on ROIR records as “Tales From the Crypt,” and platy two weeks worth of dates at CBGB’s, Hurrah, TR3, which would lead to more bookings at the Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge, and the Bottom Line, as well as appearances in Washington, DC, Boston, Toronto, Providence, and other cities in the northeast.
By the end of the summer, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns signed a recording contract with Stiff Records in England and embarked on the Son of Stiff Tour with Tenpole Tudor, Dirty Looks, the Equators, and Any Trouble, an extended three-month tour of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the northeastern United States, promoting their debut album and the single “Buena,” a Top Ten hit in France and Sweden that charted in the Top 40 on the BBC.
While overseas, the band filmed a video of “Buena” in London, and taped television appearances in Spain, France, and on Musicladen in Germany, which was broadcast across the Continent.
In January, 1981, the band issued their first US album on the Hannibal label for music empresario Joe Boyd and appeared on the television series “Saturday Night Live” and was a featured act on a new cable television channel called MTV. Later that year, JKC and the Crowns made their West Coast debut at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go behind their Hannibal EP “Party Safari” and played a date in the basement of Hollywood’s Cathay de Grande where they shared the bill with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs and Los Lobos, making their West LA debut.
Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns played a critical role in exporting the Austin sound and Texas music around the world, while establishing the band as one of the most popular music-makers in the Lone Star state in clubs, at Spring Break in South Padre Island, and in arenas and outdoor venues such as Red Rocks, the Frank Erwin Center, the Summit, the Ritz, and Southpark Meadows where they shared the bill with the Talking Heads, the Police, REMm UB 40, the English Beat, the Go-Gos, George Thorogood, and Culture Club.
Thirty years later, the band that exported Tex-Mex Rock-Roll around the globe has reunited for a limited number of Texas dates, demonstrating to fans that what they had heard all those years ago was no mirage: Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns rock like no one else before or since.
Big Bend National Park News Release
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK SEEKS PUBLIC COMMENT ON PROPOSAL TO CONSTRUCT VISITOR CONTACT STATION,
ESTABLISH PORT OF ENTRY AT BOQUILLAS CROSSING
The National Park Service (NPS) proposes to construct a visitor contact station in Big Bend National Park near the Rio Grande and across from Boquillas, Mexico. The facility would provide visitors with information and would house the equipment necessary to permit the area to function as a Class B port of entry between the U.S. and Mexico. The public, organizations, and other agencies are invited to review and comment upon an Environmental Assessment (EA) describing and analyzing the proposal.
The purpose of re-establishing the Rio Grande crossing near Boquillas and constructing a visitor contact station is to provide visitor information and to support safe and secure international crossings of the Rio Grande. This new contact station and re-established border crossing are intended to facilitate opportunities for visitors, scientists and researchers, and park and protected area managers to enter Mexico, as well as permit residents on the Mexican side of the border to enter the United States to purchase goods and services and to visit friends and family living in nearby West Texas towns. Construction of the visitor contact station is proposed to begin in July 2011. The port of entry opening is proposed for April 2012.
This Environmental Assessment (EA) evaluates two alternatives and the potential environmental impacts of each: 1) Alternative A, the No Action Alternative; 2) Alternative B, Construction and Operation of a Visitor Contact Station. Alternative A describes the current condition of the project area and the environmental impacts that may occur if there were no changes in the way the park currently manages the area. Alternative B describes construction and operation of a new visitor contact station and establishment of a Class B (remote, automated) port of entry. Alternative B is the preferred alternative.
The EA has been prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations (40 CFR 1500 et seq), and NPS Director’s Order 12: Conservation Planning, Environmental Impact Analysis, and Decision-making (DO-12).
The 30-day review and comment period starts May 4, and continues through June 2, 2011. To see the Environmental Assessment, visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/bibe during the comment period. Written comments may be submitted on the PEPC website or may be sent to: Superintendent, Attention Boquillas Contact Station, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 79834.
Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment – including your personal identifying information – may be made public at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.
The Wild Coast
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Headed for the beach this summer? Escape the crowds at these five out-of-the-way places where the coast is always clear.
The long, languid coastline of Texas takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Finding that wild coast can be done with just a little bit of effort. You can discover hidden places as remote as far West Texas, but tempered by the constant calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of boom boxes. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places–the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach–are there for anyone who wants to indulge the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend
SEA RIM STATE PARK
| The Scoop: Sea Rim
Getting there. From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then Texas Highway 73 east to Port Arthur. Follow the signs to Sabine Pass and Texas Highway 87. From Galveston take the Bolivar ferry to Highway 87, turn left at High Island on Texas Highway 124 to Winnie, and follow directions above. The distance to Sea Rim on both routes is around one hundred miles. Park info: Entry fee $2 per person for everyone 13 and older. No beach lifeguard. Amenities The park headquarters (409-971-2559) has rest rooms, showers, and picnic tables; ice and bug spray for sale; and beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, as well as a small interpretive display. Camping: Twenty spaces are available for RVs in a paved campground east of the headquarters, with electricity, running water, and a dump station, $10 per night, ten tent sites are located in an adjacent area with running water, grills, picnic tables, and a rinse shower, $7. Weekend reservations should be made at least three weeks in advance. Primitive camping is available on four raised wooden platforms in the marsh, accessible only by boat, with attached privy, $5 per night. Beach camping is allowed. Activities, Airboat tours: $13.50 adults, $8.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Canoe rentals: $15 full day, $10 half day. Side trip: Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park. The strategic importance of the pass, now surrounded by oil platforms and heavy industries, is underscored by the presence of concrete bunkers built during World War Il. The Civil War battle is reenacted every September.
“People who’ve lived around here for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and for launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdy bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
At Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinating themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were so close that I had to remind myself of the sign that addressed my erroneous impression: “This park is not a zoo. The animals here are wild.”
For The Birds
| The Scoop: High Island
Getting there: From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then turn right on Texas Highway 124; it’s 18 miles to High Island. From Galveston, take the Bolivar ferry to Texas Highway 187, then continue 28 miles to High Island. Activities: Birdwatching. There are two primary in-town sanctuaries, including Smith Oaks, around one hundred acres next to Birder’s Haven (admission $5 a day or $20 a year). Other popular spots are the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, near the Bolivar ferry landing, each less than half an hour away. Side trips: George E. Kahla’s Fresh Junk (pronounced KAYluh), on the west side of Highway 124 in High Island. This is my choice for the most imaginative Junk shop on the Texas coast. The free ferry from Bolivar to Galveston provides a twenty-minute ride across Galveston Bay to Galveston.
Everywhere you look in the little Birder’s Haven shop tucked away on Winnie Street in High Island, you see birds: T-shirts on the wall with warblers and buntings silk-screened on the front, bird maps, bird books about the upper Texas Coast, cassettes of bird calls, bird videos, bird gimme caps, “I Brake for Birds” bumper stickers, and all sorts of avian accessories, from jewelry to binocular straps.
High Island is for the birds. The small town of fewer than five hundred residents, named for an unusual coastal hill (which turned out to be an oil-rich salt dome), has become one of the great birdwatching centers of North America. This is largely because of its strategic place in the annual trans-Gulf migration of birds moving north in the spring. When a cold front blows in from the north, birds fall out of the sky into trees. In 1991 Jon and Glendaweena Llast, two avid birdwatchers from Dallas, opened a one-stop bed-and-breakfast, birders’ shop, and gateway to Smith Oaks, a sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon Society. Although Jon and Glendaweena are both dead now, owner Kenneth Ferguson operates the store and Birder’s Haven B&B in the house across the courtyard. Testifying to High Island’s world renown was a group from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who occupied the sitting area underneath the spreading shade of thirty-foot oaks, cottonwoods, and fig trees. Feeders hung from the branches, which seemed to be a Grand Central Station of the avian world. Gurgling fountains served as birdbaths. “Last year we went to Arizona and wound up here,” one woman told me. “This year we’d planned a trip to Florida, but here we are.”
Leaving The World Behind
MATAGORDA ISLAND STATE PARK AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
| The Scoop: Matagorda
Getting there: The Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry departs from Port 0’Conner. From the south, take Texas Highway 35 to Green Lake, then torn right onto Texas Highway 85 to Seadrift and continue to Port O’Connor. From the north or west, pick up Highway 185 in Victoria and proceed as before. Port 0’Conner is approximately 50 miles from Victoria. Park info: For ferry service information call 361-983-221 5. Camping: Two campgrounds-Army Hole near the beat dock and the Beach Campground two miles away. The latter has two covered picnic tables. Fees: None. Reservations: Not needed. Fires: Permitted only in designated fire rings or in the tidal zone of the beach where there is no vegetation. Activities: Hiking, biking, fishing, and birdwatching are the main activities here. The visitors center display includes three aquarium tanks with silversides, hermit crabs, sand minnows, and Atlantic drills, and a collection of flotsam and jetsam that washed onto the beach, including driftwood from Braze and a whale vertebra the size of a truck tire. Side trip: The ruins of Indianola–one of Texas major nineteenth-century ports, wiped out by two hurricanes. From Seadrift, go north on Texas Highway 238 toward Port Lavaca, then east on Texas Highway 316 to Indianola.
The mainland gradually disappeared in the humid haze as the ferry headed south on the eleven-mile trip across Espiritu Santo Bay toward Matagorda Island. First the 110-foot cast-iron lighthouse came into view, then several outbuildings on the bay side of the island near the ferry landing, remnants of an abandoned Air Force base. After a trip of almost an hour, we arrived at the 38-mile-long barrier island, which was inaccessible except by private boat until ferry service began in 1995. Today Matagorda remains as close to a wilderness as you can get on the Texas coast–a 58,000-acre park and preserve that is off-limits to private motor vehicles. Only bicycles and park vehicles (including two open-bed shuttle trucks and an old school bus that carry visitors around the island) are allowed on the roads left behind by the Air Force.
“People call this place pristine,” Runny Gallagher, a former park superintendent, told me during a tour of the park, which is surrounded by a much larger national wildlife refuge. “This is nowhere close to pristine. Cattle ranching went on here for more than one hundred and fifty years, and the Air Force tried to bomb it back into the ocean.”
Gallagher suddenly stopped the truck. “Horny toad!” he shouted. It was a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy. I picked it up, and a childhood memory told me to turn it over on its back and tickle its belly. Sure enough, its eyes closed. A few hundred yards up the road we stopped at an elevated observation platform that provided a view of a marsh, where red-winged blackbirds chittered and chattered and a couple of black-headed coots loitered in the tall grass. An eastern meadowlark and two cedar waxwings glided by, and a whistling tree duck emerged from the water. For such an isolated spot, Matagorda has a rich history. La Salle, Cabeza de Vaca, and Jean Lafitte all passed this way. The antebellum lighthouse, now shuttered and lightless but majestic nonetheless, was originally located two and a half miles northeast of its present site, then moved in 1878. It marks the entrance to Matagorda Bay at Cavallo Pass.
Gallagher zipped past the old airbase runway, where the cracks between the slabs of concrete were filling in with native grasses, Mexican hat in bloom, and prickly pear. The runway has become a nesting area for the endangered least tern, just as the poles that once carried electricity to the island have been claimed by great blue herons. Mother Nature is slowly taking back the island. We got out of the truck again at the beach, which was wide and white. Gallagher examined a dug-up area around ghost crab holes, which he blamed on feral hogs. “They root the devil out of everything,” he snarled. The hogs are the scourge of the island, an invader whose presence threatens the balance of a fragile ecosystem that shelters 325 species of birds, 20 of them protected or endangered species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, and a herd of around nine hundred white-tailed deer. More bird species have been recorded here than anywhere in Texas.
Currents bring the trash here–most of it dumped from ships and offshore platforms–and little can be done about it. The twice-a-year cleanups organized by the General Land Office keep the situation somewhat under control. “We don’t rake the beach or clean it,” Gallagher said. “Leaving it alone protects the salt cap on the sand, prevents wind erosion, and lets the beach grow.” But he still tries to do his part. “You know about the message in the bottle?” he asked me. “When I find one of them, I write a letter hack to say, "You’re polluting my beach.”
The Longest Drive
PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
| The Scoop:
Padre Island National Seashore
Getting there: Padre Island National Seashore is 30 miles from downtown Corpus Christi via Texas Highway 358 and Park Road 22 and 36 miles from Port Aransas via Texas Highway 361 to the park road. Park info: A seven-day pass is $10 per auto or $5 per individual hiker or bicyclist. Seniors may obtain a lifetime pass for $10. Disabled visitors are admitted free. Camping: Malaquite Beach has 50 sites for tent and RV camping, first come, first served. Primitive camping is permitted on the beach and at two locations on the Laguna Madre: Bird Island Basin, just east of the entrance gate, and Yarborough Pass, at milepost 15. Most campers are limited to 14 consecutive days, but at Malaquite campgrounds, campers can stay 30 days. Activities: Malaquite Beach is Texas’ best. Umbrellas and Boogie Boards are for rent. The Grasslands Nature Trail is a three-quarter-mile self-guided walk through dunes and grasses. The trailhead is just south of the entrance gate to the park. Bird Island Basin is a popular site for windsurfing. Launch fee: $5. No rentals. The visitors center has exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and history of Padre Island.
The road from Corpus Christi to Padre Island National Seashore foretold what lay ahead: First the convenience stores disappeared from the roadside landscape, followed by subdivisions, motels, shell shops, and condos, leaving only telephone poles to mar the view. Then even the poles and the shoulders of the pavement vanished, leaving only a narrow ribbon of asphalt to split the dunes and tidal flats on the longest barrier island in the world. And we hadn’t even gotten to the park visitors center yet. It was the perfect introduction to driving to the Mansfield Cut, a 120-mile round-trip on the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the United States.
I had rented a Jeep Cherokee, summoned my buddy Red, and risen with the sun. The chalkboard at the entry gate to the park warned that beach driving conditions were poor. But the other statistics that are important to the down-island traveler–wind, weather, water temperature, beach debris, and presence of jellyfish–were agreeable for a full days adventure. A mile after the visitors center, the pavement veered straight toward the beach. By a few minutes after eight we were rolling along the firm sand. Perhaps fifty vans and pickups were parked along the first five miles, most of them rigged for overnight camping. The next milepost warned that motor traffic for the next 55 miles was restricted to vehicles with four-wheel drive. Another sign raised the speed limit from 15 miles per hour to 25.
Around twenty miles into the four-wheel-drive zone, we passed what would be the last of the vehicles parked on the beach. We were alone except for the occasional all-terrain vehicle driven by a ranger or a volunteer looking out for the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose nesting season had just begun.
Driving anywhere on this beach required nimble steering, quick reflexes, and constant vigilance–exactly what makes it one of the great driving experiences in Texas.
The Tip of Texas
| The Scoop: Boca Chica
Getting there: Boca Chica beach is 22, miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4. Park info: No entry fee. No lifeguard. No showers, no phone, no rest rooms or privies. No staying behind the beach. Activities: The beach is one of the best in the state, as nice as South Padre except for more trash. Side trip: Boca Chica is a side trip.
Easter weekend at South Padre: No Vacancy signs, long lines in the restaurants and stores, long lines on he road, the beach packed with people. Easter weekend on Boca Chica, a peninsula just across Brazos Santiago Pass from the towers of South Padre: around 75 cars cruising up and down the beach, with perhaps 10 more vehicles clustered at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Boca Chica is a narrow finger of land between the Rio Grande and South Bay, the bottom of the Laguna Madre. When it reaches the sea, the peninsula makes a sharp left turn to form an eight-mile-long beach. Behind it is a harsh landscape that, compared with the marshes of Sea Rim, is almost a desert–a yucca-spiked prairie studded with tall grasses, mangrove, mesquite, and big thickets of prickly pear. The drive out is a boulevard of broken dreams: a roadside marker commemorating the last battle of the Civil War, a scattering of homes in a ailed subdivision (Kopernik Shores, marketed to Polish immigrants from Chicago), the crumbling gates of mother development that never got under way, and the most recent failure, Playa Del Rio, envisioned as a mega-resort of hotels and golf courses when it was announced in 1986. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of Boca Chica, as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to South Padre, the beach at Boca Chica is practically untamed. There are no shelters, no services, nothing but beach and sea and a few cars. I took my two sons there on a day trip from South Padre. It’s only a few hundred yards as the crow flies, but to get there you have to drive eighteen miles hack to Brownsville, then toward Boca Chica on a shoulderless road. We turned right at the beach and followed it three miles to an impassable point where a lighthouse was positioned across an inlet. The lighthouse marked Playa Bagdad, the beach of Matamoros. The small inlet was the once-mighty Rio Grande, now less than 75 yards wide, a gentle stream running clear and cool enough to attract swimmers from both sides. The Spanish name Boca Chica was perfect; it means “little mouth.”
We found a spot at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest car. The beach was almost a hundred yards wide and bordered by a continuous row of dunes. The older boy went straight in with a Boogie Board in hand, while the younger boy squawked and hollered with pure joy, splashing around in the surf. I showed him how to body surf, diving with a breaking wave, arms extended forward, legs kicking. He picked it up right away.
For me, the respite from the crowds offered a chance to reconnect. I watched the younger one’s fascination with a dead man-of-war that had washed up on the beach and observed the older one studying the waves intently, waiting for just the rights sets and perhaps the perfect swell in the hope of making the most of what it is, at best, a three-second thrill. After drying off, I wandered back into the dunes, hoping to scale one of the hills that looked taller and sturdier than those on South Padre. I was immediately besieged by a swarm of hungry deerflies, an experience that gave me a better understanding of the Karankawas, the fierce coastal tribe that smeared stinky alligator grease and dirt on their bodies to cultivate a foul and offensive body odor. Now I knew why.
Meanwhile, the older boy had retreated to the water’s edge. “He’s not a kid anymore,” I thought to myself, as he busied himself in the sand, constructing a moat for a handful of tiny coquinas he’d dug out of the mud–only to have an errant wave sneak up and wash the whole thing away. I recognized his cry of disappointment as a mock one. He knew as well as I did that the ocean always takes back what it has given. At the beach you’re never too old to play in the sand.
Union Station and other transportation hubs in the nation’s capital reflect heightened precautions for passengers.
Two Towns Still Terrific
San Antonio Express-News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 28, 2002
A family’s summer trip to Washington and New York finds unexpected enrichment in the poignant aftermath of 9-11.
Common sense inspired our family’s summer vacation plan to go to New York and Washington, D.C. We’d thought about Europe, but our 12-year-old had never been to the nation’s capital and the 16-year-old was contemplating New York University. Four Rapid Rewards freebies on Southwest sealed the deal. We’d be doing our patriotic duty spending our money where it’s needed most, I’d joked, but 9-11 really wasn’t a motive. Or so I thought.
Since security has tightened around all airports, we arrived at San Antonio International a full two hours before departure on a Sunday morning. With long check in lines at curbside and the ticket counter and a thorough security check, we made it to the gate with fewer than 30 minutes to spare. We drove to D.C. in our rental car from Baltimore-Washington, got lost, and entered the district through Alexandria, navigating to our West End hotel, the Park Hyatt.
We walked back into Georgetown, then strolled toward the White House. Barricades a block away and a significant police presence were the first signs of stepped-up vigilance. Still, we were able to walk to the gate separating the White House from Lafayette Park. Along with us were a handful of tourists from Sweden and Japan, and we visited briefly with an anti-nuclear protestor who’d been at this very spot along with his partner for 30 years.
We woke up the next morning to a Code Red Day with which Tom Ridge had nothing to do. It was a bad-air day, so bad that schools in Virginia cancelled classes, but still nice enough to allow us to walk four blocks to the Metro, where I finally felt like a tourist. I thought I understood the directions to buying tickets from an automatic machine and using them in the turnstile, but a man in uniform materialized to show me what I’d done wrong.
Jane Wooldrigde/Miami Herald
The boys picked up on it quick enough to get us on the right train to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum was as great as I remembered it, once we cleared the security check of personal items at the entrance. The free admission made me proud to be an American, though I quickly learned how expensive “free” can be after the family watched a 20-minute show on the universe in the planetarium ($7 each) and the boys rode in a flight simulator ($12 each).
Kris snuck out to the Corcoran Art Museum, where we caught up to eat lunch. Then we all detoured to the Smithsonian’s “castle” head quarters, drawn by the ground-floor photo exhibit on the World Trade Center disaster, which kept us riveted.
By the museum’s 5:30 closing time, we were exhausted. Thankfully, the kids mastered the Metro ticket system well enough to get us to the hotel without assistance. The local and national TV news was buzzing with stories about Jose Padilla, the accused “dirty bomber,” along with graphic explanations of how many people would have been killed on the Washington Mall if a dirty bomb had exploded there. Evidently, a mock drill had been conducted several days before, so we were treated to video portrayals of bloody victims crawling around the same grassy lawn we’d just walked across. We shrugged.
We found our way to Adams Morgan, a loose, hip, multicultural neighborhood, unlike the government part of the district where we were staying, and ate Ethiopian, something hard to find in South Texas, enjoying the rich curried stews and the communal style of eating, but not the spongy bread that’s used like a spoon, in the tradition of tortillas or tostadas.
New York, still familiar
The five hour drive to the Big Apple the next day pretty much boiled down to paying tolls every 10 or 15 miles and stopping twice at rest areas on the New Jersey turnpike, the cleanest restrooms I’ve seen on a major highway in the country. One even had a Dickey’s Barbecue franchise from Dallas, though not many customers.
Finally, we spotted the New York skyline through the haze. All eyes focused on the south end of Manhattan Island, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Not seeing them was like a missing tooth, or an amputated limb, but the skyline was still plenty stunning.
We descended into the Holland Tunnel to get to Manhattan. Despite the hundreds of other vehicles doing the same, my wife and I later admitted to one another we couldn’t help thinking of terrorists during the five-minute drive underneath the Hudson River. I felt a sense of relief leaving the tunnel, no matter how congested the Lower Manhattan rush hour traffic we drove into.
| IF YOU GO
Getting there: Southwest has one daily nonstop to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about an hour drive from D.C., with shuttles and metro connections. We booked a Nissan Altima through Hotwire.com for a week at BWI for $270, including tax and additional driver fee.
Lodging: We booked a room for four at the Park Hyatt, 24th and M Street N.W., (202) 789-1234, through Expedia.com at a $149-plus tax rate. However, our room only had one bed. ‘Happens all the time with Expedia,’ the concierge explained. ‘You should always reconfirm with the hotel when booking online.’ The hotel graciously upgraded us to a junior suite, which runs $175 a night.
Dining: Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant 2434 18th St. N.W. (202) 462-4100. A communal meal for four, with drinks, was $60.
In New York: TKTS has half-price tickets to Broadway shows on sale at Duffy Square, the island at 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The booth is open from 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances, and 9 am. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Cash and traveler’s checks only.
It’s the same New York, I learned over the next four days, reconnecting with some of Kris’ and my old haunts. But it’s a new New York, too. I’d already seen the effects of Mayor Giuliani’s clean-up campaign over the past 10 years, but this time people really were nicer, happy to give directions to lost, clueless, out-of-towners, and more than once, after hearing me speak, asking where I was from.
The kids loved Times Square, especially the new Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway – the biggest toy store in the world, effectively haven stolen the thunder from the storied FAO Schwartz.
While hanging out at Virgin Records Superstore, right across from where MTV stages “TRL,” the 16-year-old noticed someone giving away tickets, and we managed to hustle seats for my wife and him, passing Jake off for 18, the minimum age to be in the audience. Since I’d already been before, I hung out with Andy
We saw “The Graduate” on Broadway, taking advantage of the TKTS half-price booth in the middle of Times Square, and witnessed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy in a small venue in Chelsea. We spotted the Naked Cowboy, a local character in a cowboy hat, white underwear, boots, and guitar, entertaining tourists in the middle of traffic in the heart of Broadway. I contemplated taking advantage of the street hustler holding a sign that advertised, “Pick up lines, $1,’ and the kids bought bootleg Oakley sunglasses from an African man clutching a black trash bag on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Tiffany’s jewelers, two for $15.
We ate the best 75-cent hot dogs in the world at Gray’s Papaya on Broadway, “Nobody, but nobody serves a better frankfurter” and scarfed some mighty fine thin-crust pizza at John’s on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. We had very inexpensive, very authentic Chinese at the Wo Hop in Chinatown, and not so inexpensive Italian at Due Amici in Little Italy the night after mobster John Gotti died. My friend Joe Angio, editor of Time Out New York, a weekly guide to the city, later advised Little Italy is really just one big restaurant serving the same red sauce and pasta and that you have to go elsewhere for the good Italian.
We shopped at Canal Jeans, where I bought a Billie Holiday T-shirt for $2.50, heard and saw some wild stuff at the Museum of Broadcasting, and at the boys’ request, went to the world’s largest Pokeman store near Rockefeller Center. We went back to Times Square just to bask in all the lights.
At Andy’s suggestion, we went to the World Trade Center site, a quick subway ride downtown. We had to ask where to get off: at Chambers, on the E or the 1 or 2 train, or City Hall, on the N or R trains, since the World Trade Center stops listed on subway map no longer exists.
Sad feelings, good things
People directed us to the overlook at Broadway and Liberty Street. The site had officially been cleaned up 10 days earlier, but the crowds hadn’t stopped. We walked up the catwalk, adjacent to an 18th-century church cemetery. The ramp’s plywood walls were decorated with memorial posters, tributes, and messages from all over the world. From the overlook, 20 feet above the street, we viewed a vast, empty swath, with only a scattering of heavy equipment and workers milling about to interrupt the flat, abstract landscape.
No one said much. Kris and Andy took pictures. Mostly, we just looked. The same sad feeling that haunted me at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Day’s Inn in Corpus Christi came over me again: something very bad happened here, something fueled by hate.
We walked along the southern perimeter of the site to the World Financial Center, just west of the WTC. Around back, where the plaza faced the Hudson River, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty beyond, the composer Randy Newman was playing for free, just him and his piano. He was singing about his birthplace New Orleans and riding the train across Texas, reprising his song from the film, “Toy Story,” but making no note whatsoever about the place where he was playing. It was a good thing. It meant life goes on, even at ground zero.
A writer friend who lives in Tribeca, less than a mile from the twin towers, allowed how the absence of the Twin Towers has brought the ornate Woolworth Tower, once the tallest building in the world, back into prominence, as well as other architecturally significant buildings that were dwarfed when the World Trade Center went up in the ’70s.
I saw what he meant on our last day, when we hopped the Staten Island Ferry, the best free ride in the Big Apple, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back from Staten, a crowd gathered at the front of the ferry to look at the skyline, many of them taking photographs, including a family of four from South Texas.
[visit the San Antonio Express-News]
Pass The Bass, Por Favor
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A JUNGLY SANCTUARY ON THE SAN RAFAEL RIVER
Drive Five hours South of the border from Brownsville, Texas, and hook a left at the town of Aldama. Drive another hour east and you’ll find yourself in the fishing village of Barra del Tordo, Tamaulipas. The community is so peque–o that a thick strand of shipping rope passes for its sole speed bump. On some highway maps, Barra del Tordo doesn’t exist at all-which makes it the ideal backwater.
The village of roughly 1,000 inhabitants sits on the banks of the San Rafael River, a half-mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The saltwater river harbors prized snook, trout, largemouth bass, redfish, and even tarpon. Schools of grouper, snapper, ling, wahoo, and kingfish swarm the Gulf, and the sweetest oysters this side of the Apalachicola River thrive in the lagoons and inlets in between. The town’s main beach, Playa No. 2 (with showers, day shelters, picnic tables, and cooking pits) lies two miles southeast of town and is such a big nesting ground for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that an international research station was established there in 1977. From March through August, visitors can help locate arriving ridleys and transport their eggs into the nesting corral.
But the real show begins on n rickety clock on a creek near the San Rafael, about a mile west of town. Make arrangements in advance and a wooden launch will ferry you four miles upriver to El Paraiso, a 16room resort set on a bluff, part of a 1,000-acre ranch in a zone once known as Los Jaguares (the big cats still stalk “way hack in the thicket,” or so the locals say). Wherever you look, fish are jumping out of the placid water, landing with audible plips and plops, while ospreys swoop down to pluck up dinner.
Factor in kayaking on the river; horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking on more than 15 miles of trails around El Paraiso; and windsurfing on the Gulf (the lodge’s staff will boat you back down the river); and you may find yourself too wound up to remember the purpose of your journey. Lest you forget, you’re here to relax.
Access and Resources
CLOSEST AIRPORT: Tampico, 100 miles south
GETTING THERE: Barra del Tordo is 270 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, via Mexico 180. Bus service from Brownsville to Aldama (30 miles west of Barra) costs $26. Call ahead and someone from El Paraiso will meet you at the station.
WHERE TO STAY: A room in one of El Paraiso’s palm-log cabins, arrayed around the swimming pool, costs $95 per person per night, meals and activities included (011-52-833-213-9956, www.spagetaway.com/gulf/paraiso/paraiso.htm). The only in-town option is the spartan Hotel Playa Azul, a two-story, 14-room hotel next to the fishing docks (doubles, $35; 011-52-833-250-1272).
WHERE TO EAT: El Paraiso, for fresh sea bass garnished with cilantro, oysters in garlic broth, or whatever the chef has handy.
Big Bend is Better Than Ever
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Laurence Parent
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here’s the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won’t find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas’ greatest treasure.
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres–1,250 square miles–of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.
Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet–and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.
Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that–whether you are a newcomer or a veteran–you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.
How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks? It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match-a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and in international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.
I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend? A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.
The tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks at Ernst Tinaja. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert–ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.
The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.
Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. 0. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it’s time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads U I) Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable byroad, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park-both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.
For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises-reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.
The Chisos Mountains, viewed from Lost Mine Trail at first light. Photograph by Laurence Parent
From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and ,grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events-sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.
If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SW with four-wheel drive? Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.
The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed–fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock–but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.
Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.
Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.
Can I get on the Rio Grande? There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow–like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua–I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.
Seldom-seen Cattail Falls, near Oak Creek Springs.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.
How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there? Two villages are across from main areas of the park–Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a roundtrip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcon’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.
West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrees priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Ca–on were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalape–os instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.
I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day? If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet-enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below-before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.
For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile roundtrip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and pi–on pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)
Chisos Mountains on the western edge of the basin.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hunched yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.
Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mountain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.
I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more? The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles byway of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return byway of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.
You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.
A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead-and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.
Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.
I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”
Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip-which can be done in about a week-though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.
I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.
The Giant yuccas at Dagger Flat.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.
I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?
It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.
You could also study topo maps and et your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 24, 2003
"Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the pop hit by Peter, Paul and Mary, may have put the romance in flying. But despite all the nonstops from D/FW Airport to just about anywhere in the world, and as appealing as Machu Picchu on the Same Day sounds, truth is I have neither the money nor the time, much less the patience, to play that fantasy out.
My song is “Sixty Minute Man,” the doo-wop classic recorded by Billy Ward & His Dominoes 52 years ago. I’m not that kind of 60-minute dude (I wish!) but a 60-minute man when it comes to getting away. Give me the road trip that’s brief and close to home.
Unfortunately, sticking to the Dominoes’ theory by getting away in an hour or less around these parts is a real challenge. You can blow an hour in traffic alone and still be stuck inside the city limits.
Avoid rush-hour traffic, leave from the right part of the sprawl, and most important, head in the right direction, and you’ll find the ideal version of Texas, exotic nooks and crannies that are way, way out there, all reachable in LensCrafters time.
Disclaimer: Our 60-minute man assumes no responsibility for speeding tickets caused by trying to get to where you’re going within the officially designated time limit. Don’t rush it.
Twenty-eight miles south of Dealey Plaza is about the most perfect small town in Texas, an opinion shared by dozens of film crews that have used Waxahachie, its gingerbread homes and the surrounding countryside as stage sets. Bob Phillips even stages his annual Texas Country Reporter festival here.
DMN FILE 2002
The Ellis County Courthouse is the centerpiece of downtown Waxahachie.
The 15-block downtown clustered around the majestic Ellis County Courthouse is a mega-flashback, including the meticulously restored, 91-year-old historic Rogers Hotel, a working soda fountain (Weezer’s Classic Cup) and fancy dining choices (LaPrelle, Emory’s Bistro).
Check the Webb Gallery for Venzil Zatoupil’s toothpick sculpture of a Ferris wheel (constructed with 9,900 toothpicks and 140 chopsticks) and an excellent array of other folk art.
Stop in at the Ellis County Museum on the corner of the square for driving-tour directions to places that appeared in such films as Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, Places in the Heart and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” music video.
From Waxahachie, it’s a 15-minute drive west on FM66 – which, for romantic purposes, will be referred to as Texas Route 66 – to Maypearl, through a rolling countryside where tract homes are beginning to pop up, the kind of setting that so intrigued David Byrne when he filmed True Stories, the quirky paean to specialness, around Dallas.
Casting director Carla James says Maypearl “may be the most beautiful place on earth in the spring.” The wide open spaces hold up pretty well, too. The reward at the end of the road is a real, honest comfort meal at the Busy Bee Cafe, a classic chat ‘n’ chew where CFS on Mondays for lunch is $5.75 with tea and dessert. The Busy Bee is now open on some evenings, and on weekends there’s music by touring Texas singer-songwriters at the Back of the Bee.
Head home by taking FM157 north from Maypearl to Venus, 10 miles away. The old bank on the corner of the humble rectangle that passes for the town square and part of the covered sidewalk on the main street were used as a backdrop when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were playing Texas’ most notorious bank-robbing couple in the film Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.
Rogers Hotel: 100 N. College St., Waxahachie. 972-938-3688 or 1-800-556-4192. www.rogershotel.com
Webb Gallery: Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. 209-211 W. Franklin, Waxahachie. 972-938-8085. www.webbartgallery.com
Ellis County Museum: Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. 201 S. College St., Waxahachie. 972-937-0681.
Busy Bee Cafe: Mondays through Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., also Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Fridays from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. 301 N. Main St., Maypearl. 972-435-8222.
OFF-ROADING A CONVERSATION AWAY
Sure, that Hummer may look like a tank and act like a rugged off-road vehicle on a four-lane superslab. But has it really ever been deep in the mud or crawled up a pile of rocks? Put that big-wheeler hog or jimmied Jeep to the test at Tim McGill’s AGR Wheelin’ Ranch. The street-legal off-road ranch is 69 miles northwest of Denton and the Interstate 35 split. Overnight at the Nocona Hills Motel and Campground or the Nocona Inn.
AGR Wheelin’ Ranch: Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays by appointment. Take I-35 north to Gainesville, go west on U.S. Highway 82 for about 30 miles, go right on FM1815 until it dead ends, go left on FM1956, right on FM3301, then enter the Nocona Hills gate on the left. $20 a day for vehicle and driver, $5 for each additional passenger. 214-435-7196. www.agrwheelinranch.com.
Nocona Hills Campground and Motel: FM3301, then left on Nocona Drive, left on Country Club Drive, Nocona. 940-825-3445 (campground) and 940-825-3161 (motel).
Nocona Inn: 219 Clay St., Nocona. 940-825-8800.
HIGH ROLLING ON THE LONE STAR SAVANNA
Glen Rose, about an hour southwest of downtown Fort Worth, used to be known for its outstanding examples of petrified wood architecture and the dinosaur tracks in the bed of the Paluxy River. These days, it’s a nature hub, beginning with Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, part drive-through zoo and part breeding and research facility for native, exotic, threatened and endangered wildlife including giraffes, rhinos, zebras and wolves. Self-guided tours ($16.95) and behind-the-scenes guided tours ($35, $25 for kids) are fun, but overnights in the Lodge or the Foothills Safari Camp, inspired by lodges in Kenya, are dreamy.
Hunters and nonhunters gravitate up the road to Rough Creek Lodge, an even higher-end rustic luxury lodge that features upland bird, deer, and hog hunting, fly fishing, bird watching and fine dining.
On the same road is Dr. Rickey Fain’s Quail Ridge Ranch, a more intimate five-room version of Rough Creek, with a main lodge, upland bird hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and gourmet meals. The ranch is a showcase of sound stewardship, with the land restored to its native condition of more than 100 years ago.
Hico, 20 more miles down State Highway 220, is about as Western as a Western town can get in these parts, with saddle shops, a Billy the Kid Museum (the outlaw William H. Bonney allegedly hid out here and died an old man) and Dublin Dr Pepper served at better establishments.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: Daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Three miles southwest of Glen Rose just off U.S. Highway 67. $16.95, $12.95 seniors 62 and up, $10.95 children 4-11. All ages half-price on Wednesdays. 254-897-2960. www.fossilrim.com.
The Lodge at Fossil Rim and the Foothills Safari Camp: Inside the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose. 254-897-2960.
Rough Creek Lodge Executive Conference Center Retreat & Resort: Take Highway 67 west through Glen Rose. Take a left on County Road 2013, about 12 miles outside of Glen Rose, then go about four more miles and look for the signs. 254-965-3700. www.roughcreek.com.
Quail Ridge Ranch: 1755 County Road 2013, 13 miles outside of Glen Rose. 1-866-897-3618. www.quailridgeranch.com.
RUN FOR THE BORDER
IRWIN THOMPSON / DMN
Check out Oklahoma’s recently upgraded WinStar Casino.
OK, the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma isn’t Vegas, much less Ciudad Acuña. Then again, Acuña isn’t Acuña anymore. And it isn’t Bossier City, La., either. What the Chickasaw Nation’s former Touso Ishto bingo is, is a long hour’s drive from downtown Dallas, half the distance to the Louisiana line, which translates into more quality time when you get there to fritter away whatever coinage you’ve brought with you.
The recently expanded and upgraded 110,000-square-foot layout has two spacious casinos with more than 1,000 slotlike video lottery terminals operating bingo, poker and eight-liner-type games, as well as off-track betting, a mega-buffet, an upscale restaurant specializing in Southwestern cuisine and a theater bringing in “name” talent (Jimmy “JJ” Walker!).
What WinStar doesn’t have is booze. No alcohol is served. To compensate, save enough running change to motor north up Interstate 35 to Exit 24 for a suite, cottage or floating cabin at Lake Murray State Park and Resort and throw yourself a party.
WinStar Casino: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning. I-35 north to Exit 1, near Thackerville, Okla. 580-276-4229. www.winstarcasinos.com.
Lake Murray State Park and Resort: I-35 north to Exit 24, go east two miles to the park, which is just north of Thackerville. 1-800-257-0322 or 580-223-6600.
Stop obsessing over the St. Augustine, Bermuda and bent grass and get out in real nature. Just east of Greenville, 60 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, is the Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve, a pristine meadow of grasses that were here before people were. The prairie’s good earth has never been broken by a plow and is one of the last remnants of the once vast, 12 million-acre Texas Blackland Prairie, a surviving chunk of wild America in a region that’s been otherwise tamed or paved over.
See what Spanish explorers and early pioneers were talking about when they described grass as high as a horse’s belly. The sweep of the sea of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass waving in the wind is downright exhilarating. In springtime, the prairie is about as close to heaven as you can get in Hunt County.
Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve: From the U.S. Highway 69 junction in Greenville, go west on U.S. Highway 380 for 4 1/2 miles, then north on FM903 for two miles, west on County Road 1116, then west two miles to County Road 1119. Look for the wood sign marking the prairie. (There’s no parking lot or building, just the meadow.) For more information or directions, call the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 903-455-1510.
This Athens may not be in another country, but to scuba divers, it’s close enough. Until recently, they had to settle for Possum Kingdom northwest of Mineral Wells or Lake Travis near Austin for some semblance of diving clarity, if they couldn’t make it to Cozumel for the gin-clear stuff.
That was before Calvin and Shannon Wilcher and their son Alex took a 7.5-acre spring-fed quarry six blocks from the town square and 70 miles southeast of downtown Dallas and salted it with underwater wrecks including singer Ray Price’s first touring bus and a Lockheed C-140 Jet Star. They constructed entry docks and a full-service dive shop and let the 35-foot visibility (sometimes ranging up to 70 feet) do the rest. The result is Athens Scuba Park, an unexpected haven for divers and swimmers, with scuba instruction, RV hookups and overnight camping.
Next up to take the underwater plunge: A Dallas DART bus will become the newest attraction when it’s pulled into the water on Nov. 1.
East of the scuba park is another water attraction tailored for the rod-and-reel crowd, the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. The Texas Parks & Wildlife’s tribute to fishing includes a Fishing Hall of Fame museum; replicas of streams, lakes, and wetlands; catch-and-release fishing in stocked ponds (tackle supplied); aquariums; dive shows; and a hatchery and lab.
Athens Scuba Park: Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Camping available. $15 per diver per day, extra for camping. 500 Murchison St., Athens. 903-675-5762. www.athensscubapark.com.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center: Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. 5550 Flat Creek Road (FM2495), Athens. $5.50, $4.50 seniors, $3.50 ages 4-12. 903-676-2277. www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/infish.
German towns have a rep for being well-built and neat as a pin. Muenster, a small, close-knit community of 1,500, is 73 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth on U.S. Highway 82, just south of the Oklahoma line, and it plays to the stereotype.
Surrounded by a wide-open landscape of rolling hills that sprawl west all the way to the foothills of the Rockies, the town was settled by German immigrants in 1889. Over the years it has managed to retain much of its Old Country charm in the forms of the Catholic church (the town’s most prominent structure), restaurants serving Westphalia-inspired cuisine, three meat markets that grind their own sausage, a bakery with all the requisite sweets, a town museum and a main street of shops and stores. You can also buy your natural dog food direct from Muenster Milling, endorsed by Nolan Ryan and Howard Garrett, the Dirt Doctor.
There’s one motel in town, the A-OK, and Miss Olivia’s bed and breakfast, and plenty of other overnight options are available in Gainesville, 13 miles east.
The town rolls out the barrel for Germanfest every April. The Muenster Chamber of Commerce (940-759-2227) and the North Texas Info Web site (www.nortexinfo.net/gfest) have the details.
Muenster Milling: Open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 202 S. Main, Muenster. 1-800-772-7178. www.muenstermilling.com.
A-OK Motel: 700 E. Division, Muenster. 940-759-2268.
Miss Olivia’s Bed & Breakfast: 319 S. Denton, Gainesville. 940-665-5558. www.missolivias.com
Caprock Canyons Trailway Ranger, Clyde Dudley, keeps careful watch over the 64-mile trail and its spectacular scenery. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The Real Texas: Caprock Canyons Trailway
Rails to Trails
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Forrest MacCormack
History pulses along the Caprock Canyons Trailway as it courses by ancient flatlands, wild canyons and authentic, old Texas towns.
On October 20, 1541, Franciso Vasquez de Coronado wrote to the King of Spain, describing the remarkable landscape he had encountered during his exploration of the American Southwest. The Spanish adventurer had come upon the Llano Estacado, a huge mesa spanning northern Texas and eastern New Mexico. “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” he wrote. “With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
As I stand at the western end of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway nearly half a millennium later, I can see pretty much what Coronado saw on his fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold: perfectly flat grasslands sprawling to the western horizon with little interruption, save for the neatly ordered rows of corn, sorghum, wheat, peanuts and cotton. But once I head east a couple of miles on the trail’s wide gravel bed, following the path blazed by thousands of modern explorers on bicycle, horseback and foot, I encounter a different view altogether. The plateau drops off dramatically to another kind of rough country-rolling hills and valleys. Those contrasting vistas are the calling cards of this Texas rail-trail, colored by the direct connection to deep history and richly ornamented by such picturesque railroad artifacts as the 46 bridges and one tunnel. But for some of us, it’s the privilege of savoring sweet isolation and absolute solitude that puts the Caprock Canyons Trailway in a class of its own.
To navigate this spacious open country, travelers of yore needed something, anything, to help them figure out exactly where they were. Coronado began a history of references to the tabletop plain’s few landmarks as “stakes,” thus the name Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. A jagged 300-mile-long palisade, known as the Caprock Escarpment, that runs southwest to northeast divides the higher Llano from the rolling plains below, and there’s no better place than the trailway to witness this geological transition of the famous Red River Valley The “breaks” are particularly vivid two miles east of South Plains, a vaguely defined settlement at the rail-trail’s western end, where the high plateau drops-up to 300 feet in some places-forming red dirt canyons pocked with arroyos, washes, pour-offs, and even hidden creek bottoms bristling with cottonwoods, willows, oaks, pecans and mesquite. During rare wet periods, there’s even a waterfall or two. It’s the stuff of a Western movie. Only this is the real thing.
Since ancient times, the Caprock canyons and the Llano above them have been nomadic country. The land is too tough, too harsh ever to be really settled. Prehistoric peoples moved through with the seasons. Modern Plains Indians, notably the Apache and Comanche, traded with comancheros, people of Mexican descent in New Mexico. Briefly, ciboleros, New Mexican hunters, moved into the area, following in the footsteps of the Native Americans to hunt the plains buffalo, and doing it so efficiently that they killed them off. Third and fourth generation descendents of Anglo pioneer ranchers and farmers still work the land, trying to hang on.
Tomas Hinojosa, Quitaque Riding Stables owner, leads a pack of trail riders in Caprock Canyons State Park. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The ideal way to get a feel for this wild country is to cycle, hike or ride horseback along the Caprock Canyons Trailway at a pace similar to that of the people who moved through here centuries ago. Buzz through the still-wild frontier by car at 70 mph and you miss the nuances. The distant honk of a sandhill crane on a clear, mild winter’s day. The crackle of branches signaling a family of white-tailed deer or pronghorn antelope moving through the brush. The sight of a young rattlesnake sunning on the trail a few feet from a horned lizard that skitters into the grass. The sudden flap of quail flushed out of the tall grass by the sound of a bike tire rolling on a cinder path. Paw prints and scat on the trail, vivid evidence of mountain lion or bobcat nearby.
A little knowledge of the past, whether measured in geological time or on the more fleeting human scale, will summon ghosts-of cataclysmic floods and creeping erosion; of buffalo herds rumbling across barren valleys; of migrating flocks on the Central Flyway above; of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief; of Charles Goodnight, the first mythic rancher of the Texas Panhandle; and of the spring cattle drives from Matador Ranch, a few miles south, all the way up to the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, one of the longest, most storied livestock migrations in the cowboy kingdom.
The railroad arrived in 1928, late by Western standards. Denver Road general manager Frank Clarity promoted the idea of a South Plains spur of the Fort Worth-Denver railway to connect the cotton and farming hub of Lubbock, Texas, with the town of Estelline on the railroad’s main route. He was honored by having the tunnel on the new line named in his honor. But the Fort Worth-Denver South Plains Railroad didn’t last long. The growth of the trucking industry and a declining agricultural base made the line a luxury for its parent company, Burlington Northern, to operate. The line was abandoned in 1989.
When the railroad pulled out, local citizens already were ruminating about the idea of converting the corridor to a one-of-a-kind trail. The late OR. Stark, Jr., a banker and local booster in the little town of Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-Kway,” and named by Charles Goodnight after the Indian word for “end of the trail”), along with two area pastors, since departed, organized grassroots support for the rail-trail, while the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took the initiative on the state level. They figured the trailway would complement the newly opened, 14,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park and could be maintained and operated by the park’s staff. Residents of the three farming and ranching towns along the trailway-Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline-were behind the concept, since each was losing population (a plight common to small towns throughout the Great Plains). With no industry or natural resources to promise salvation, tourism via the trailway was a last, best hope.
“O.R. Stark saw the natural beauty of the Caprock and knew it would be an asset, not just for the community but the whole area,” his son, Randy, says. “The hardest part about making it happen was all the waiting. It took two years to get it going, mostly because he had to deal with the state”; navigating through a government bureaucracy takes time.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) eventually stepped in to help the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department acquire the rail corridor for recreational use, funneling federal funds for infrastructure improvements to the state through federal transportation ISTEA grants. For its part, Burlington Northern was happy to donate the land, structures and trestles once the rails had been sold for salvage.
In 1993 the Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park was officially dedicated. The rail-trail is composed of six segments, five to 17 miles long, and has eight access points along the way. The first two segments, Quitaque Canyon Trail and Los Lingos Trail, extend 22 miles from South Plains to the town of Quitaque. The most scenic stretch, Quitaque Canyon, traverses the escarpment and passes through one of the few railroad tunnels in Texas. South of Quitaque, the Los Lingos Trail crosses the Valley of Tears, so named for the sobs of captured Anglo pioneer women and children being held by the Comanches before being sold off to the comanchero traders of Mexican descent and taken west into New Mexico.
Interpretive markers on the trailway lay out all the details.
The 10-mile Kent Creek segment that runs along the trickling creek bed links the towns of Quitaque and Turkey, each sporting populations of about 500. The trail’s 32-mile eastern half, running from Turkey to Estelline, population 150, cuts through soft hills and valleys-prime Texas ranch and farmland. On the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail segment, between Tampico Siding and Parnell Station, wide-angle views encompass the Cap rock Escarpment all the way to the banks of the Red River. And on the easternmost Plains Junction Trail segment, just outside Estelline, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted.
While the entire trail can be done in a day, my wife, Kris, and I opted to start at South Plains and ride the Cap downhill into Quitaque. Roland Hamilton, Quitaque mayor and owner of the Caprock Home Center hardware store, shuttled us up to our starting point. As we cruised up the road to South Plains, Hamilton shared a little lore, mostly about the Valley of Tears and the Ozark Trail. (Founded in 1911 by a man from Arkansas, the Ozark Trail ultimately spawned Route 66, the storied Mother Road that linked the Midwest to the West Coast. There’s still an Ozark Trail marker to be seen in Tampico, if you know where to look, Hamilton told us, and another buried under the highway in the middle of Quitaque that folks talk about digging up someday and putting on display.)
Once on the trail, Kris and I saw not another soul for four hours, save for a man and a boy crouched above the entrance to Clarity Tunnel. They told us they’d arrived early for the evening bat emergence. Every night from March to October, they explained, up to 50,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the tunnel en masse, spiraling into the sky for their evening meal of insects. While the phenomenon also attracts the interest of coyotes, raccoons, snakes and raptors, we didn’t stick around to witness the amazing emergence, but walked our bicycles through the 582-foot-long tunnel, half expecting a band of outlaws on horseback to meet us midway.
Throughout our ride, we kept a slow, purposeful pace, pausing on the bridges to examine the gullies and creek beds below, and stopping more than once to savor total silence, a sensation known to precious few city folk. That alone was worth the price of admission.
We made it to Quitaque as darkness fell, in time to chow down at the Sportsman’s Cafe and relive our afternoon on the trail. After dinner, we packed it in for the night at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse, too tired to do much but go outside to look at stars, then crawl into bed.
Next morning we headed over to Caprock Canyons State Park, in the heart of canyon country, three miles north of Quitaque. We could have spent the day riding there, since there are more than 30 miles of paved roadways and off-road bike trails to negotiate among the spectacular red rock formations. Instead, we drove around, hoping to spot the official state buffalo herd, which lives behind a high fence in one corner of the park. The rarely seen bison are descended from the herd Charlie Goodnight put together from remnants of the southern herd that once roamed the Great Plains.
Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline offered eerie evidence of the steady depopulation of the Great Plains over the past half-century. Each town’s main street summoned visions of Larry McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show”-blocks of sturdy, red brick storefronts, most of which have been boarded up and deserted. The buildings have outlasted the people they were built to shelter. Now they stand as mute monuments to another time. With no resources to pluck, the water table of the Ogallala Aquifer steadily being lowered, and the vast expanse subjected to some of the most extreme weather on earth (the trailway is in the heart of Tornado Alley), it’s safe to say Caprock Canyons is in no danger of being overrun by seekers of the Next Best Place, nor is Quitaque destined to become the next Moab. For me, that was beguiling, as much a draw to biking the trailway as the scenic plenty.
Sure, it would have been nice to dial up a bike shop on the cell phone when Kris blew her tire near Clarity Tunnel. A place to eat that serves fresh greens would be okay, too. The upside to the absence of those amenities was an up-close and personal encounter with an authentic, rural Texas that is getting harder and harder to find.
Along the trailway, that authentic Texas was everywhere. Staying at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse was like visiting the rural Texas grandparents we never had. The Hotel Turkey is that rare railroad hotel that hasn’t been gussied up too much; it still functions like a railroad hotel, just without the railroad. The breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros at Galvan’s Mexican Food in Turkey were as filling and autentico a breakfast as I can find in Falfurrias, 600 miles south. The Midway Drive-In halfway between Turkey and Quitaque, one of the last four drive-in movie theaters in Texas that still show first-run movies in the summer, was straight out of “American Graffitti.” The western horizon at sunset, which lit up the sky with streaks of flaming reds, oranges and pinks, was just like the one buffalo hunters and seekers of gold must have seen: glorious, radiant and unsullied.
The few people who do live along the trailway are some of the friendliest folks I’ve met traveling across Texas. Take Wilburn Leeper, the 67-year-old former mayor of Quitaque and president of the Caprock Bike Club, who’s racked up probably more miles riding the trailway than anyone else. Leeper appreciates the big views and isolation of the trailway. That’s why he is involved with Caprock Partners, the organization that helps support the state park and trailway, and helps run the group’s moonlight ride on the trailway every fall. “It’s the expanse of it all,” he says dreamily, explaining why he’s become hooked on cycling the route whenever he can. “It seems like you can ride forever.”
Or Randy Stark, a banker like his daddy, who considers the trailway the region’s calling card. “1 saw last year where Caprock Canyons State Park had 115,272 visitors. That’s quite a bit to be passing through a town of this size. That shows what a tourism economy can do, especially with the farm economy the way it is. We like having visitors, but we still want the slow, country way of life too. We get a little of both here in Quitaque,” says Stark. “I’m a photographer,” he adds. “What I enjoy most is all the scenic spots, all the canyons, and how the light is always changing how they look.” Since he tries to capture scenes at the end of the day, when the lighting contrast is sharpest, he’s been exposed to the calls of the wild. “1 hear coyotes howling all the time. If you’re on the trail at sunset, I guarantee you’ll hear the coyotes. I’ve heard as many as six at once, howling and barking away. One night on a full-moon ride with a club from Dallas, someone recognized the cry of a mountain lion. And wild turkey-you can find them mostly in the creek beds towards the latter part of the day.”
Or Raymond Roy, an Amarillo accountant who has spent so much of his free time around Quitaque, fishing, hunting and just kicking back, that he finally bought the Sportsman Cafe, Quitaque’s social hub and culinary heart and soul. When Kris and I ate dinner there, Roy took it upon himself to come over to our table and introduce himself. “1 knew you weren’t from around here,
when I saw her taking her purse with her to the salad bar,” he said, nodding to Kris. Locals don’t need to fear for their valuables, because everyone knows everyone else. “1 just wanted to make you feel at home,” Roy said. It’s hard to be a stranger on this rail-trail.
By the time we headed south toward home, we were making plans for a return trip in the fall. That’s the sweetest season of them all, according to Randy Stark, with warm days, cool nights and none of the wind or violent weather that defines springtime on the plains. Kris was ready to buy up half the downtowns of Quitaque and Turkey, drawing up plans for each building in her mind. Me, I was still buzzing, happy to have savored the real Texas few Texans get to know or see.
BEFORE YOU GO: Bring your own water, food and tire repair kit. In summer, pay heed to the extreme heat advisory included in your trail map. Although there are pay telephones at six stations along the trail, a cell phone comes in mighty handy. Fall is prime time, weather-wise.
GETTING THERE: Lubbock, the closest gateway with regularly scheduled air service, is 69 miles southwest of South Plains, the western terminal of the trailway, via State Highway 207 South and U.S. Highway 62 South and West. The Caprock Canyons Trailway is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 287 at Estelline, 101 miles southeast of Amarillo, and 238 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Quitaque, at the junction of State Highway 86 and Farm to Market Road 1065, is 98 miles southeast of Amarillo, via U.S. 287 to Claude, State Highway 207 to Silverton (a scenic route that cuts across Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest gaping maw in the United States), and State Highway 86 East.
TRAIL ACCESS AND EQUIPMENT: The trailway is maintained and managed by Caprock Canyons State Park. You can buy trailway entrance permits ($3 per person) at park headquarters. There are eight trailhead access points with parking areas, spaced about 10 miles apart along the 64-mile trailway. The most popular trailheads are in Estelline, at the eastern terminal of the trail on U.S. Highway 287; at Quitaque; at Monk’s Crossing, 4.5 miles east of the Clarity Tunnel; and in South Plains, at the western end of the trailway.
If you want to do the trail the old-fashioned way, on horseback, contact Quitaque Riding Stables (806-455-1208). Queen of the Valley Tours (806-983-3639) offers guided tours of the Quitaque Canyons and Los Lingos trail segments on an old school bus.
For bicycle rentals, shuttles and repair kits, contact Roland Hamilton at the Caprock Center hardware store in Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260).
WHERE TO STAY: Roland Hamilton’s spacious family farmhouse about two miles east of Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260) is comfortable, and a real bargain at $50 for two. The house has nine guest beds, and porches from which to watch both sunrise and sunset.
More upscale accommodations are at the Quitaque Quail Lodge B&B (806-455-1261), a country-style, ranch house and hunting lodge featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and hiking trails.
The Hotel Turkey (806-423-1151, www.turkeybb.com) in Turkey is a 1927 railroad hotel that was converted to a bed-and-breakfast, though the rocking chairs on the front porch remain.
There are seven designated backcountry campsites on the trailway, plus campgrounds with RV hookups and additional backcountry campsites at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque.
WHERE TO EAT: The Hotel Turkey cooks dinners on weekends. The Saturday night special is mesquite-grilled steak with all the trimmings; two-day advance reservation only.
Groups of 20 or more can enjoy Comanchero breakfasts and Chuckwagon suppers at Joe and Virginia Taylor’s Circle Dot Ranch (www.circledotranch.com), a working cattle ranch five miles from South Plains (March through October, by advance reservation only).
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Caprock Canyons State Park schedules wildflower walks, history and nature tours, star parties and other events throughout the year.
The Bob Wills Museum in Turkey features memorabilia of the King of Western Swing, the Texas original fusion of jazz, swing and country. The Turkey Heritage Association stages a free talent showcase jamboree at the Bob Wills Center the first Saturday of every month. Celebrating its native son, Turkey goes full-tilt boogie on Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday of April.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park c/o Caprock Canyons State Park (P.O. Box 204, Quitaque, TX 79255-0204, 806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock/caprock.htm), Quitaque Chamber of Commerce (www.fnbquitaque.com), Turkey Chamber of Commerce (www.turkeytexas.com). For more cycling information, visit the West Texas Cycling Web site (wtcycling.com).