The stars at night are big and bright
Deep in the heart of Texas,
The prairie sky is wide and high
Deep in the heart of Texas.
The sage in bloom is like perfume
Deep in the heart of Texas,
Reminds me of the one I love
Deep in the heart of Texas.
(popular song c. 1941)
Never, not in a million years, would I have predicted how much we’d like Texas. Two weeks in and, if we didn’t still want to see too many other places before our time in the USA runs out, we could easily spend much more time soaking it all up. Of course, we are here in December/January and not July/August when I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t feel the same. But then this is no different from any other place – our experiences are always wholly subjective and time-sensitive. With respect to Texas, we got some mixed reviews from a few people we met before we got here. Because of this, we weren’t totally sure about it and considered just cutting a quick path through – as some people tend to do with Canada’s Saskatchewan – and getting right on into New Mexico. For Christmas already.
True, we heard Big Bend is beautiful. And parts of the panhandle as well. But the panhandle threatened to be cold at this time of year and a brief look into camping availability at Big Bend, around when we might get there, made it pretty clear we were SOL. Later, as we actually got close, I called the park to see if they had any cancellations and the woman at the office told me: If you’re not in the park now, don’t come. It was that busy, apparently, even at the dispersed sites. Online, the sites were showing booked right through the second or third week of January – too late for us. I also downloaded and read the brochure put out by the state park next to the national park, Big Bend Ranch, but it sounded like most of the roads leading to sites in that park were pretty rough and of the “must have high-clearance vehicle variety”. While we do have 4WD, we weren’t completely comfortable with the high-clearance part.
We also weren’t drawn to the Gulf coast of Texas. It felt like we had enough time with the ocean for a bit and we wanted to see a different landscape. So goodbye Texas we said. Except, since we weren’t about to head north and into the cold we only recently raced away from, we had to pass through at least a part of Texas and, in passing through, the scenery won us right over. Pretty much right from the start.
Lucky for us, Texas has a lot of state parks and they promote them well. I got both a hard copy and an app version of the brochure listing them all so searching for places to stay was easy. We decided to slow right down, chart a new route, and do some exploring. The first thing we noticed was the sense of space. Texas may have two-thirds the population of the whole of Canada but, in the parts of the state we visited, you’d never know it. I’m not sure where the bulk of the Texans are but we came in through the Prairie Lake region, passed across and down Hill Country, and onto Big Bend Country, and none of these places seemed crowded. Far from it. In fact, we hadn’t encountered so much uncultivated land since we left Canada. Ranch upon ranch upon ranch, huge tracks of grazing country where the dry air, open sky, and open spaces were a sweet sweet contrast to the sense of damp encroachment we felt in the southern states toward the end of our visit there.
And the landscape? I passed through Texas with my parents one summer and all I remember is a dull flat seemingly endless stretch adorned by oil rigs. But Roland and I now rode through hills full of wild sage, cottonwoods, prickly pear and other cacti, ocotillo, yuccas, oaks, and dozens of grasses. We saw herds of deer and black buck there, happily munching. Then, heading toward the southwest, the hills eased out and we were in places where the earth shows her age – where pancake layers of sedimentary rock, siltstone and limestone, form looming walls and outcrops along the highway. I tried to recall my university geophysics lessons but all that came back to me was that each layer represents a really long span of time. And there are many layers.
On the way to the Davis Mountains the land changed again, to mesas and buttes (don’t ask me tell you which is which), and to hills turning to violet in the distance. Then, heading into Fort Davis, and into Davis Mountains State Park, the road passes through fantastic limestone pillars that huddle together in groups and, in late afternoon light, seem like the petrified people in The Talking Bird, the Singing Tree, and the Golden Water – one of my favourite Arabian Nights tales.
Texas, it turns out, is extremely diverse. That’s what one of the shop owners in Fredericksburg, a small town originally settled by Germans, told us. We passed through on our way to Lost Maples State Park, on the day of Christmas Eve, and the whole place was decked out, old world style, and full of Yule spirit. The place was charming and hit all the right triggers for us, what with our European ancestry.
But Texas is also rich in natural history. At Dinosaur Valley State Park, I tested my balancing skills by hopping rocks across a stream up to a trail leading to million-year-old dinosaur footprints. They’re captured in limestone submerged under water. At Pedernales Falls, we spent hours clambering over huge limestone slabs where clear pools of water stand in rock bowls carved out over the millennia.
At Seminole Canyon, hiking along a crest that looks down at the Rio Grande, thousands of ancient fossils lie embedded in the limestone rocks which border the trails and lie scattered everywhere. At the visitor’s centre, you can sign up for a tour of caverns where four-thousand year-old paintings on the rock faces tell the stories of an ancient and mysterious civilization. Roland went on that tour at and tells you about it in his post (link below).
So many lovely sights and impressions and in only two weeks. We only saw a small part of the whole. I’m embarrassed by my ignorance – for thinking Texas was all just cattle, cowboys, and oil wells. There’s astounding beauty here. A harsh beauty – it seems like so much of the vegetation is endowed with something that will pierce or jab or slice – and it’s easy to imagine how scorching and parched the summers are. But right now, in early January, when the wind blows and the golden grasses sway like a fluid thing all around you, it’s easy to fall in love with it all. Briefly.
They say everything is big in Texas. They say it so much it’s become a cliché. The punchline of jokes. Yet the mythology of Texas is so vast and far-reaching that, even as a kid in the Czech Republic, a place then dominated by communism, we had pop songs where Texas figured prominently and the mystique and romance of Texas was huge. How could I, I ask myself now, actually consider just scooting on through? It would have been a mistake. Now, even after such a short time here, I realize that the plus side of being in such a “big” place is that you can let yourself expand into it. You can stretch your arms wide and stretch your soul wide and feel like a giant too.
Check out Roland’s take on what he found in Texas here: