Thursday, January 31, 2019

West Texas Mountains: Guadalupe Mountains NP, Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa

Leaving Hueco Tanks for the mountainous region of West Texas was like moving to a different house in your neighborhood … same terrain, same feeling, and yet totally different and exciting.  

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the most remote and least visited.
You can "walk the line" down the center of the highway for 20 minutes before anyone comes by.

Its namesake peak, Guadalupe Peak, juts skyward as the highest point in all of Texas, at 8,750 feet elevation.

Other people were scarce, due to the national government shutdown, but we entered anyway and explored plentiful hiking trails, including the remains of a Overland Butterfield Line stage stop.

Davis Mountain State Park, though only 140 miles south from Guadalupe Mountains, is perched a mile above sea level on a “sky island” above the surrounding deserts, offering gorgeous views and a plethora of flora and fauna.

It was here that we saw our first spindly, ugly, cactus-munching javelina.

Skyline Drive winds to the park’s highest ridges (and only location for cell service), providing breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.

From the top of Skyline Drive, you can see down to our RV campground.  Can you spot the Lucky Charm?

You can also spot the distant, historic Indian Lodge Hotel, a pueblo-style building from 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, organized to provide work opportunities through the U.S. during the Great Depression.  For $30 month (most of it sent back home), the men of the CCC molded 40-pound earthen blocks from water, straw and soil excavation on-site, and muscled tens of thousands of them into place to form 18”-thich walls, 3 stories high, to create this architectural jewel.

Nearby McDonald Observatory is one of the world’s leading astronomical research facilities, under some of the world’s darkest skies.  In fact, the local high school was the last in football-crazy-Texas to install football stadium lights, to help preserve this darkness.

 On certain nights when the moon doesn’t rise until after midnight, McDonald Observatory hosts “star parties.”  We were treated to a “tour” of the night sky’s many stars, planets, constellations and galaxies, and got to look through seven of their high-powered telescopes at specific astronomical objects.  It was fascinating, but it was freaking COLD! We **think** those are planets in the dark sky behind me below, but not entirely sure, and if they are, it was an accidental photo capture.

Fort Davis is one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post from the days of the Indian Wars, in this case 1854-1891.  When we arrived, a familiar tale … CLOSED due to the government shutdown.  Foiled again!  But then, a minor miracle, the shutdown was postponed for three weeks and the following day we were able to get it.

Fort Davis was an important strategic location to protect emigrants, freight wagons, and mail coaches going hundreds of miles between San Antonio and El Paso, from Indian raids.

There are more than 100 ruins in various states of disrepair, and five buildings that have been fully restored and refurnished to the 1880s.

The Enlisted Men’s Barracks offers a view of 1884, when it was occupied by Buffalo Soldiers of Troop H, Tenth Cavalry, an all-black battalion.  Some historians think it was the Indians who named them, comparing their hair to Buffalo hair and finding them worthy adversaries.

The post hospital could accommodate 24 of the sickest patients, but most ill or injured were sent to their barracks to recuperate, or were discharged from service and sent home.  Soldiers suffered mainly from injuries and disease, and rarely from battle wounds.  We learned of one officer and his wife, whose 7 children all died within a 2 week period from dysentery.

A day trip to Alpine, TX was guided by Philip’s work colleague Hillary, who had excellent suggestions.  The charming downtown has several paintings on the sides of buildings, similar to those we enjoyed in Silverton, Oregon, and a lovely, artsy flair.

Kokernot Field is a fine example of a classic, small baseball stadium, circa 1947, which Sports Illustrated has called “The Best Little Baseball Field in the World.”  The local Sul Ross State University team was holding a scrimmage when we stopped by, and it is home field for Alpine’s professional team, the Cowboys.


We also attempted (unsuccessfully) to locate a desk, with a notebook in which to sign your name, which was hauled to the top of Hancock Hill on the Sul Ross University Campus.  Perhaps it was just a hoax and students are laughing their butts off, watching from their nearby dorm windows, as hapless strangers tromp around the mountaintop in search of that which no longer (or never did) exist.  But it was a nice hike with beautiful views of the campus and town below anyway!

Marfa is a quirky town best known for the “Marfa Lights,” seemingly sourceless lights which randomly dip and dance on the horizon from time to time.  It was also the filming location of the epic 1950's movie "Giant" starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in his final performance.

Fascination with the strange and unexplained phenomena of the Marfa Lights began during the 19th century and continues to such a degree today, that an entire building devoted to its viewing has been built roadside, including telescopes, a huge parking lot, and surprisingly nice restrooms.  

We were not there at night to verify their existence, and supposedly they only appear once every few months, but the show goes on for those with an open mind.  Here is what we saw (cue the disappointment):  Nothing.

 Marfa’s downtown is like so many small Texas towns, a whiff of hopefulness mixed with a tinge of disrepair, as beautiful old buildings surrounded by sagging downtowns attempt to breathe new life into their tourist economies with local shops and galleries, and a homegrown, hipster vibe.

This area boasts several breathtakingly beautiful old hotels which have been restored to glorious grandeur. Here as examples, the lobbies of the historic Holland Hotel, built in 1912 after a fire leveled downtown Alpine, and Hotel Paisano in Marfa.

As the Lucky Charm pulls away from this mystical, beautiful place, we leave with with some unanswered questions, courtesy of an abandoned Marfa building-side.  If you come up with some deep thoughts on these issues, please let us know!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

West Texas: Hueco Tanks State Park, PLUS a Texas Destinations Quiz!

Ahhh Texas, you're a beautiful state, but you sure do have a bad reputation.  Anyone who has ever driven across the state with their eyes glazed over says three things:  it's big, it's boring, and it's empty!  But alas, while this may be true in some case, there is also a lot of variety.  Think you know Texas?  Take the quiz at the end of this post, outlining a few of the things we'll be seeing over the next six weeks, and find out!

At Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site outside El Paso, a remote location boasts one of the largest concentrations of Native American rock paintings and inscriptions in North America, as well as the largest number of painted "masks."

"Hueco" means "hollow" , with Hueco Tanks referring to the thousands of indents (both large and small) which hold water even when the surrounding desert is dry as a bone.  This captured water supports a bunch of critters, up to and including freshwater shrimp, presumably the microscopic kind and not the kind you get on weekends at Costco.

Archaic hunters and gatherers lived here approximately 10,000 years ago and left behind hunting scenes and geometric designs.  This is one continuous line!

To see many of them requires crawling, scrambling, and neck-craning, not to mention a park guide.  
This is to protect the park resources, and also because you could never find nor interpret "the good stuff" on your own without them!

Native Americans called the Jornada Mogollon lived here starting around 1150.  Scoffing at hunting scenes and geometics, they instead painted animals, birds and large-eyed faces or "masks."  

With more than 200 hidden throughout Hueco Tanks, this is the largest assemblage of masks in North America.  This guy is the unofficial mascot of the park .... behold "The Starry Eyed Man."

Even after the Spanish slowed their roll here, other Native Americans like the Kiowa and Mescalero Apache came to satisfy their thirst.  Most recently, the Butterfield Overland Mail Line used Hueco Tanks as a relay station on its trail between St. Louis and San Francisco.  Many-a-traveler in the 1800's and 1900's took the time to literally leave their mark on this place.

The inscription are similar to the excellent ones we enjoyed in New Mexico's El Morro National Monument, although Texas travelers were perhaps more chauvanistic, as many of the inscriptions noted their dearly beloveds as simply "wife." 

What is astounding about all of these pictographs is their durability.  How often do you have to paint your house ... every 10 years??  And yet after hundreds or thousands of years, these representations remain.

The exception to the durability rule comes from vandalism and graffiti.  (WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?)  When priceless pictographs were being ruined or lost forever, something had to be done, so now the park now limits entry to only 70 people at a time. Security at this place is tighter than at a Michael Cohen deposition.  However, what this means to visitors is that you have the mountain and trails nearly all to yourself at all times!

Hueco Tanks is a world-class "Bouldering" destination and rock climbers come from Japan, England, Germany and around the globe to climb here.  Groups of climbers are easy to spot; they are the ones carrying what looks like folded mattresses on their backs.  They are officially called "crash pads" and are super handy when you careen to the ground from high up.

Bouldering'ers (bouldereers?) are also easy to spot because they are on average 24 or younger, have 0.2% body fat, and seem to subsist on strictly beef jerky and Bud Light.  Most of them tent camp in the area, regardless of the 23 degree temperatures overnight.

Hueco Tanks rocks (34 million years old, but who's counting) are perfect for this demanding sport because of the many craters and hand-holds.  

The white marks are leftover from chalk on the climbers' hands.  Winter is a popular time for bouldering because your hands are less likely to be sweaty as you are holding on for dear life.

The rocks have super cool names, and each rock can have multiple routes up.  Who wouldn't want to be able to announce, "Today I did Burn Baby Burn," or Turtle Wax, or Call Me Ugly, or Rhymes With Rich?  If only street names were so poetic.

Each of the routes is called a "problem" which I find hilarious because it would definitely be a problem for me and most everyone I know to do this sport.  I gave it the ole college try and immediately threw my back out.  So much for that.

The most-fun route to the top is called The Chain Trail, as it is fairly steep and so chains are embedded to aid you as your drag your sorry carcass skyward.  (Although this was nothing compared to the Chain Trail at Picacho Peak State Park, more about that here.)

On the way to Hueco Tanks in Las Cruces, NM, we stopped to admire "The World's Largest Roadrunner," made entirely from recycled items. 

It's like a huge game of "I SPY" ... I spy a crutch ... I spy a computer keyboard ... I spy a badminton racquet ....

We logged it along with other "World's Largest's" we've seen, including the World's Largest Pistachio (Alamagordo, NM) and World's Largest Paul Bunyan + Babe the Ox (Klamath (Redwoods), CA).  Someday we will visit Casey, Illinois, which has the World's Largest collection of World's Largest Things!

OK, quiz time.
Can you guess where in Texas each of these can be found?  
If not, stay tuned to our RV Blog over the next six weeks and learn a thing or two about some of the lesser-known attractions of Texas!

one of the largest concentrations of Native American rock paintings and inscriptions in North America, as well as the largest number of painted masks
(if you missed the answer to this one, there truly is no hope for you)

the fossilized remains of an enormous coral reef that formed when the state was covered by a sea

the "Top of Texas" with a summit at over 8,000 feet of elevation

one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars' frontier military post in the Southwest

a world-renowned observatory under some of the darkest night skies in the U.S.

a hill where students hauled a desk in the 1980’s and where you can add your signature to a notebook left behind there

the location of strange and unexplained phenomena and sourceless lights which began during the 19th century and continue to this day

a delapidated ghost town where the dead in the cemetery outnumber the living in the town

a ginormous national park made of 800,000 square acres 

the oldest winery in Texas, in continuous operation since 1883

a working cattle ranch (whose museum has an employee named Tessa Miller)  :) 

one of the largest aquariums in the U.S. 

the U.S.S. Lexington, known as "the Blue Ghost"

miles of sandy beach that you can drive your vehicle upon for as far as you like

a ferry which can handle RV's and upon which we will attempt to drive the beast (yikes)

alligators! oh my!

a hiking and biking trail that runs through a park alongside herds of southern plain bison

the "Grand Canyon of Texas," second largest canyon in the U.S. (behind the Grand Canyon)


coming soon to a blog near you!