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
- 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
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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
- Alpine and Big Bend National
- 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 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
Observatory hosts its most popular program, the
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,
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
- After all the Y2K hype, no problems - or rather very
few. Some television newscasters seem to be
- 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.
- Updated 3/05.
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