Texas couldn’t come soon enough. That is one sentence I never thought I’d write, but alas, it’s true. After a week at Brantley Lake State Park, where the fish are toxic, the wind never dies, and the air smells like a dumpster, we were more than ready to cross the state and line and say hello to the mountains of West Texas.
It only took us three and half hours to reach Davis Mountains State Park, but in that time the landscape changed radically. Up to this point in our trip, we’d experienced the red rock canyonland of central Arizona, the scrub grasslands and sky islands of southern Arizona, the fine white gypsum of White Sands National Monument, the moist depths of Carlsbad Caverns. Brantley Lake State Park is best defined, ecologically speaking, as a “wasteland,” good for nothing and no one.
West Texas, in some ways, was a return to the environment we’d found in southern Arizona. The Davis Mountains are a mix of grasslands, woodlands and isolated pine stands. Many of you familiar with Texas are probably wondering why we didn’t aim for Big Bend National Park. At first we did. But within all of Big Bend – a park the size of Rhode Island, nearly 1,250 square miles – there is only one campground with electrical hookups, and it is privately run. So far we had camped in only public parks, and we weren’t excited to break our streak now.
(Note: For what it’s worth, we’re not complaining here. We like our wilderness wild, and we value nature for nature’s sake. But Elsie has her limitations. Without electricity, we have no heat. And no heat in December means freezing water lines and a very cold sleep.)
As we pulled into Davis Mountains State Park, a gang of wild javelinas scurried past the headlights, three or four reds (baby javelinas) bringing up the rear. It set the right tone for our Christmas week in West Texas, marked by an abundance of wildlife, gluttony and a spirit of adventure. Our site was the last one in an empty loop removed from the rest of the campground, a canopy of gray and Emory oak trees above. A dry creekbed ran just behind our site, and the nearest camper was well out of earshot. So yes, of course we peed outside. Is there a greater benefit to camping?
In the morning, we woke to a low growl from Costello. I threw a pillow at him and told him to hush down. He kept at it. I kicked him off the bed. He kept growling. Finally, I opened the window shade. Four deer were grazing just outside the camper, less than 15 feet away, some of them straining their necks to chew leaves from the oak trees. Feeling more awake after the excitement, Mel and I leashed up Costello for a morning walk around the park. We found another javelina rummaging through someone’s campsite. We stopped to watch the scene, and soon enough another one emerged from the brush, and then another, and another, and another. Before long, the campsite was under siege. They tore apart grocery sacks and cooler bags, tipped over lawn chairs and climbed on the picnic tables. Now and then they would turn to give Mel and I a look that said – I’m paraphrasing – “What the hell you starin’ at? Keep movin’ jackass!”
Later that afternoon, we hiked the Skyline Drive Trail, nine miles roundtrip. Fine, we hiked most of the trail. From the summit we could see the white dome of the nearby McDonald Observatory, and nestled into the hills below, the white adobe walls of Indian Lodge, a charming inn built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s to resemble a pueblo village.
We continued hiking past the summit and down the other side, but the thought of taking our books and grabbing a seat by the fireplace at the Indian Lodge quickly lured us back the way we came. Before we retreated entirely, however, we stopped for a quick Christmas Eve phone call to our families. Unlike our campsite, most of the trail had perfect cell service. We used FaceTime to connect with our parents and wish them a happy holiday. On one side of the call, Mel and I stood in our tee shirts under a big blue sky. On the other, our parents sat around the dinner table in Nebraska, snow piling up as we spoke.
Once we’d returned to our campsite, we quickly headed to the Indian Lodge. Clean, quiet and incredibly well-kept, the Lodge was exactly what we had hoped for. And though we had brought our books, we were too captivated by the Lodge itself – the clear blue water in the pool, the logs in the fireplace, the long wooden beams overhead, the porch swings in the courtyard – to crack them open.
While we gawked at the rustic charm of the lodge and I fantasized about spending an entire winter here writing by the fire, we ran into a couple from Maine who we had seen earlier that day on the trail. We introduced ourselves, and the next day, they invited us to their site for drinks. We have a strict policy prohibiting the refusal of free drinks, so it really wouldn’t have mattered who asked. But in this case, the couple turned out to be incredibly kind and funny and had more than a night’s worth of entertaining stories to tell. If all goes well, we may find them again when we swing through Maine. Like so many others have along the way, they offered us a free parking spot and plenty of hospitality if and when we’re in the area.
We hadn’t really planned on it, but after touring the Indian Lodge, we realized it was Christmas Eve (time is a funny thing when you’re traveling full-time) and our parents’ would be proud to know we went to church on our own volition. So we drove into nearby Ft. Davis, Texas, an unincorporated town of just more than 1,000 people, found a Methodist Church (less a preference than a familiarity – Mel was raised Methodist) and took a front-row seat in the church’s historic sanctuary.
A tall man with a striking resemblance to General George Custer led the service. His sermon was short and aimless. Luckily for Mel and I, we weren’t really there for the sermon. It was Christmas Eve, and we wanted that Christmas Eve feeling: a congregation of old country folk, some candles in plastic cups, a musty church and the twinkle of Christmas lights outside. We got exactly what we were looking for. On our way out, General Custer thanked us for coming, and wished us well in our adventure.
We spent almost all of Christmas Day inside Elsie, just the two of us, watching movies we’d downloaded the week before. I know! I know! But we’re not ashamed. We made a batch of hot buttered rum, spread out the blankets, pulled Costello onto the bed between us, and we vegged all day, baby. We had already spent several days exploring the park, and though we certainly could have seen more, we needed a day off, a day without the inane pressures of internet/blog/social media life, a day without goals or sights to see. So we vegged, and we vegged hard, and we loved it.
The day after Christmas, we hitched up Elsie and drove to San Antonio, where we spent a few days with family and friends before moving on to Port Arthur, Texas, an experience we wouldn’t soon forget.