Austin, Big Bend, and West Texas
In late December, we arrived in Austin to visit Annette's sister Arrion. In addition to a great basketball game between University of Arizona and University of Texas, we enjoyed a visit to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Because it was winter there weren't many wildflowers, but we enjoyed walking around the grounds. The gift shop was filled with wonderful gardening books, posters, shirts, and other great stuff.
The center was founded in 1982 to educate people about the environmental necessity, economic value, and natural beauty of native plants including wildflowers. Ladybird Johnson is known for her work in promoting beauty along roadsides around the US.
Ft. Davis
We decided to spend Christmas at the Davis Mountain State Park in West Texas. Annette's mom and dad arrived on Christmas Eve to join the fun.
What a beautiful Christmas morning! With a light layer of sleet and snow melting off the ground, we enjoyed the sight of a group of mule deer grazing near our motorhome. Icicle lights hung from both sides of Harvey and gifts were spread under the poinsettia sitting on the front dash. Santa found us here in the mountains!
We ate cereal for breakfast with home-made banana bread and juice. Then, we enjoyed a leisurely morning of unwrapping gifts including a four-pack of propane bottles (silly, but fun). We went for a mid-afternoon lunch at the Black Bear Restaurant at the Indian Lodge in the park. We enjoyed turkey, ham, and roast beef with all the trimmings. Food is particularly good, when you don't have to prepare it yourself! A lonely, older couple told us that our family smiles and laughter brightened their Christmas.
When we returned to the campground, we found light drizzle and mist with low-overhanging fog and clouds. By afternoon, the fog began to lift, but we didn't notice as we enjoyed afternoon football and our gifts inside our cozy motorhome.
Annette and Larry took a walk around the campground and up into the hills above campsite. Here we found lots more mule deer and got some great digital photos. We spent a relaxing evening playing games and watching one of our new DVD movies.

Wildlife Loop
By the next morning, the ice and snow from Christmas was completely gone. Bill and Nancy stayed overnight a second night in the campground with us. We drove the wildlife loop (about 75 miles) around the Davis Mtns. The first stop was McDonald Observatory entrance center. The skies were still cloudy, misty, and overcast but the sun peaked out sometimes. It was not a good day for a tour, so we decided to come back Tuesday night for the 'Star Party.'
On south, there was still snow on the roadside. The contrast of green shrubs and trees against the very sparse beige grasslands made for beautiful vistas. There was very little traffic, so we had the road to ourselves. We saw a little wildlife including several roadrunners scampering away at the roadside, ravens flying away from unidentifiable roadkill, and a pair of redtail hawks, one definitely younger, flying overhead. Not too far from completing our loop, a few miles south of Fort Davis, we finally saw a herd of pronghorn antelope.
We reached the historic town of Fort Davis in mid-afternoon and ate a great mid-afternoon lunch at the Hotel Limpia. The wonderful food included fresh garden salad, main courses, fresh home-made biscuits, and delicious stewed okra, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes with the skins that seems to be a standard around these parts. The side orders were served family style with plenty of refills. The fresh-brewed iced tea was great. The meal ended with a desert of warm blueberry cobbler topped with a scoop of ice cream. To top it off, the meal was very reasonably priced.
We commented to the waitress about the excellent food and she replied that it was all prepared by high school or college-age cooks that were 'well-trained' by other staff. This brought conversation at our table around to business and education dilemma of the gap between 'knowing and doing.' Bill introduced us to his current reading "The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action" by Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. We found some 'necessary purchases' in the attached bookstore and gift shop.
Then on the edge of town, we toured the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Here we viewed a brief 15 minute film that outlined the history of the fort and toured the reconstructed barracks and living quarters. The sounds of pre-recorded bugle calls helped envision the parade ground during the time that the fort was home to 'buffalo' soldiers. The southern Butterfield stage line ran through here for a couple of years. We finished up the day back at the campgrounds and had chili for supper. Nancy and Bill moved on to Alpine's Ramada Inn for the next few nights.
Alpine and Big Bend National Park
We thought about staying at Davis Mountain State Park Campgrounds through the New Year, but found out that the park was completely booked with Y2Kers seeking refuge from the cities. We were lucky to find a space over Christmas without a reservation. We moved Harvey to Alpine, TX to the Lost Alaskan Campground on Monday morning. Then, we loaded the guidebooks and cooler into the Explorer, picked up Nancy and Bill at the Ramada Inn, and headed west then south on Texas 385 to Big Bend National Park, about 75 miles to the south through Marathon.
We kept our eyes peeled on the way for wildlife. We caught a fleeting glimpse of a javelina near a group of cattle grazing in the scrubland. Scrublands thinned to desert as we neared the park entering at Persimmon Gap. After stopping at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, we drove through Green Gulch to the Chicos Basin. We were impressed by the most photographed peak in the park. This peak often represents Big Bend and is called 'Casa Grande' meaning 'big house' in Spanish. Within the Basin, we were surrounded by fantastic views of nearby Toll Mountain, Emory Peak, the highest in the park at 7,825', Pulliam Ridge, and Appetite Peak. To the southwest of the lodge is Ward Mountain that terminates at the low point in the basin- the Window. The low peak within the Window is Amon Carter Peak and to the right is Vernon Bailey Peak.

We stopped for a great lunch at the Lodge Restaurant. As we left the parking lot, a small group of 'collared peccaries' called javelina crossed the road and headed up the hillside. Annette jumped out of the car with the camera for a closer look. We backtracked out the basin road then headed west to catch the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (13 miles west of Panther Junction). This drive led us through a variety of geologic landforms including a view of the western side of the 'Window', rock outcroppings that form walls or 'dikes', a view of the Santa Elena Canyon from Sotol Vista, tuff formations consisting of compressed volcanic ash and contrasting black basaltic rock.

We reach the historic village of Castolon, located near the Rio Grande riverbank. From Castonlon, we drove northwest parallel to the river until we reached Santa Elena Canyon. If you look closely at the land along the river, you can find a few traces of irrigated farmland that produced lint cotton from 1921 until the floods of 1974 that wiped out the ginning machinery and destroyed the irrigation system. A cute, primitive campground is located in this area surrounded by the last remaining cottonwood trees.
At the mouth of the canyon the Rio Grande river emerges from between matching cliffs that tower 1,500' above the golden brown water. To get a closer look of the river and canyon, we crossed the dry Terlingua Creek in front of the parking lot. We hiked into the canyon following the 'Nature Trail.' Then, climbed and walked up the canyon for about 1/2 mile until the trail ends abruptly at a sheer rock wall.

We finished our hike in late afternoon, then took the 'Old Maverick Road' northeast. This wide gravel road is largely 'washboard' surface and provides a bone-shaking ride. During the 14 mile section we saw only one other vehicle, an opposite-bound U.S. Border Patrol vehicle. Much of the surrounding area we passed was barren flatland or desert scrubland. It is hard to imagine that a century ago, when European descendants first settled here, there were lush grasses on the hillsides and cottonwood and willow along flowing streams. But in a few scant years this entire area was subject to heavy abuse as the trees were cut down for building and overgrazing and farming did the rest. As the desert lands spread, the remaining trees could not survive. We exited the park at the Maverick entrance station and returned to Alpine via Study Butte ('stewdy).

McDonald Observatory
Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evening the McDonald Observatory hosts its most popular program, the Star Party. We considered going New Year's Eve, but found out that programs are canceled on holidays.
The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory is located in the heart of the Davis Mountains, 16 miles northwest of Fort Davis, Texas on highway 118, at the summits of Mt. Lowke and Mt. Fawkes. The Observatory is home to the Hobby-Everly Telescope (HET), whose 433 inch mirror is 3rd largest in the world. McDonald also has an 82-inch and 107-inch telescope, the Harlan J. Smith.
We had stopped at the visitor center a few days earlier as we drove the wildlife viewing tour in the Davis Mtns. Tonight we followed six cars in the darkness toward the Observatory. We were shocked to find 400 other people braving the cold weather to see the show. We were even more astonished to find that we had not set a record. During the 1999 spring break season, over 1100 persons showed up one Tuesday night.
The 'star party' began in front of the visitor's center. Our group included people from around the world including Germany, Nepal, and Canada. After a brief introduction, the 400 stargazers slowly stumbled around the corner of the building to a darker part of the grounds. Our Observatory guide reminded us that people have been looking at the stars for thousands of years and used stories as a way to remember the names of the stars. He led us in locating many popular constellations such as the Little Dipper. The German tourists pointed out that this is called the Little Wagon in German. The guide said that we were too far south to see the Big Dipper. He explained that if we ran really fast toward the Little Dipper we could see the Big Dipper on the horizon. We decided to stick with the tour. Next, he pointed his super powered flashlight toward the Orion, Dolphin, Taurus, and the Northern Cross constellations. We also saw the planets of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter as well as a nebula. The farthest object we can see is another galaxy, Andromeda.
There were several telescopes set up for visitors to take a closer look at Saturn and Jupiter. We stood in line a few minutes to look at Jupiter and its 3 moons. We were so excited about the experience that we purchased a "celestial seeker" to help us find the constellations we learned. Thanks to the McDonald Observatory and UT for providing this great educational outreach program. We will have to return another year; they break ground summer 2000 for a new visitor center complex that is 4-times larger than the current facility.
Although the evening was cold and crisp, we found the experience well-worth the trip. Even though the daytime temperature was in the low 70s, at this altitude it cools down quickly at sunset. If you go in the winter, be sure to dress warmly, wear gloves and cover your ears. Also, bring along the binoculars for the best viewing. You can also go on daily guided tours of the Observatory and each Wednesday evening that is nearest the full Moon, they host a 'public viewing night' where visitors are allowed to look at astronomical objects through the Harlan J. Smith Telescope and hear about current research. Reservations are needed for the latter event, typically several months in advance.
Marfa Lights
When we left the Observatory, we looped south from Fort Davis down to Marfa and then took route 90 east toward Alpine. Our destination was a pull-off area on the south side of the rode about 8 miles outside of Marfa. You can't miss it, there are green highway signs alerting you that one mile ahead is the 'Marfa Lights Viewing Area.' We had heard and read about the ghosts lights of Marfa and were skeptically returning to check it out. These ghost lights were first noticed by settlers as early as 1883. We joined other viewers in the parking lot and focused our gaze to the southwestern horizon. Using a red light on a tower in the distance to direct our search, we immediately noticed two areas of light glow on each side of the red-light tower. We had been there less than ten minutes, when a pin-point of light appeared, moved horizontally along, then separated to two lights. The lights faded and disappeared, then reappeared singly in pairs. They frequently moved. We stayed watching the 'Marfa lights' for at least 30 minutes, wondering about their source, puzzled by their seemingly random-like horizontal patterns and their dimming, reappearance, then brightness, and again disappearance. Still unsure about the phenomenon, we strolled to a neighboring vehicle and talked briefly with some young men from Oklahoma, just checking to see that they were seeing what we were seeing. H'mmmmmmmm.
An end to a great evening, first the scientific examination of our night sky with astronomers at McDonald and then a sighting of the 'Marfa lights.' We wonder what McDonald Staff would have to say about them.
Larry wanted to investigate the Marfa Lights more, so he developed a special Mysterious and Unexplained webpage on the topic.
Another day we loaded the car and headed south to Stewdy then southwest to Terlingua. Dry, dusty, part ghost-town, part mining town where the outside world has pasted by. We stopped at a neat tourist store that has large and great selection of books and gifts - not everyone in town is sleeping.
We stopped briefly at the cemetery and took pictures of graves, one decorated with wide variety of beer bottles. Crumbling adobe ruins were found nearby. Then w headed on west to the Rio Grande river. Along the way, we crossed some 15% grades, not recommended for the RV. We stopped at a ranch-owned movie set on the river. Several buildings were there, even a bathroom that worked. One or two buildings contained real constructions, several others including Spanish chapel were fake.
We hiked back into the Closed Canyon trail. It was a great hike into a narrow canyon. The steep, igneous cliff walls contained seams of quartz or calcite. We made it about 7 tenths of a mile back, but stopped when we ran into a pool of water that would have required wading. There were signs that a few had gone on past this obstacle, but we turned around. Next we found the site of an abandoned farm/ranch with crumbling rock walls and a windmill.
On to Presidio we stopped at recreated Fort Leaton but it was closed (slightly after 4:30 p.m.). We gathered from our reading of travel guides that Leaton, not a military fort but a store-garrison, was not well-liked by his neighbors. He 'played both sides of the fence' trading with the Comanches and the settlers. In town, we stopped briefly at gas-convenience store. Here we ran into vigilant Border Patrol officers and noticed that all the automobiles at the pump had Mexican plates. This is nearest town to shop. But have heard that Border Patrol has gone on alert being the day before New Years Eve.
We make the drive back to Alpine up through plateau ranch lands. This is wide-open scrub ranch-land. As we understand from locals, the area is in a severe drought for past several years. That is normally, they average about 10 to 14 inches of rain per year but for last seven have only gotten about 5 inches. That means its brown and dusty, but it is also wintertime.
New Year's Eve 1999
Annette set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. in order to watch the CNN coverage of 'Millennium 2000' around the world. It started in the Pacific Islands. We went back to bed, but later woke up and picked up again. The PBS network had the best overall coverage of cultural events and CNN had the best overall coverage.
We heard that the RV park was having a party at midnight. About 10PM we saw people heading to the recreation room and close to midnight we headed up only to find that the "older" crowd had called midnight at 11PM. They had already cleaned up and gone to bed by midnight. Other than an occasional Texas shotgun blast in the distance, midnight was pretty uneventful in Alpine, Texas.
After all the Y2K hype, no problems - or rather very few. Some television newscasters seem to be disappointed.
We found some great Mexican food in Alpine. La Casita Mexican Restaurant was one of our favorites. It's just an old house on a corner in a residential area near downtown Alpine, but it had wonderful food.

Created by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 7/01.
Updated 3/05.
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