January 13, 2011

Texas Ranging 04. The Davis Mountains

Jan 10. Erika and Dahr said they felt like living in this part of the desert often felt like living at the bottom of the ocean, and it’s so true. An ancient sea whose waters rubbed mountains down to soft and toothless nubs. Surprising reefs and volcanic moments you only find of you take the time to dive. Slow motion and eyes open.

I drove to Valentine to see the Prada Shop by Elmgreen & Dragset. It’s incredibly stupid. A 3-dimensional billboard. Yes, as in ha-ha, misplaced and displaced. Paid for by the Prada Foundation.


I hit the scenic route to Fort Davis, and immediately encountered a herd of pronghorn antelope.
then I got stopped by an unmarked cop car with very flashy lights, for driving 73 mph in a 70 mph zone (these are almost empty single lane roads, but smooth ones). He told me lots of drug smugglers coming up from Mexico, and let me go with a wait and a warning.

Davis Mountains State Park. Northern Chihuahua Desert. 5000’ plus elevation.
Hiked Modesto Canyon on the land of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Center, and visited their great botanical garden to get a handle on the flora. Checked in to the Davis Mountains State Park, and took a dusk walk along the empty camp sites (it’s 24º at night). these mountains were formed 65 volcanically, million years ago, and they feel animated. I saw deer bedding on the grassy slopes, and ran into a gang (a snuffle?) of javelinas who are very compact, cute, smelly and stout. There were babies, and a long string of them crossing my path, so I armed myself with some rocks and backed off. My room is in the old portion of Indian Lodge, the Texas State Park hotel that was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. It’s old-fashioned, dignified, and sturdy with thick white adobe walls and original clunky hand-carved cedar furnishings. Drove up Skyline Drive and saw the sun set over the valley – the ocean floor.

Modesto Canyon:

Indian Lodge:

Skyline Drive:


The desert was prep for the art at Chinati, and the art was prep for the desert. It’s been lovely. And consoling. And lonely. It is a good place to grieve.

“(Geologists) often liken humanity’s presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century but of the whole millennial moment of people on earth – a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its successive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second, temperatures building up into the millions of degrees and stripping atoms until bare nuclei are wandering in electron seas, pressures building up to a hundred million atmospheres, the core expanding at five million miles an hour, expanding in a way that is quite different from all else in the universe, unless there are others who also make bombs.”
“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way, you live forever.”
– John McPhee, Basin and Range

Jan 11 (1.11.11).  Woke up to 22º icy fog and a bad prognosis for sun. Took a walk along the park road to the place with a big binoculars sign – the place to sit and wait for Montezuma Quail. A handwritten sign in loopy script says,
When do the Quail come to feed? Anytime they please!
I saw no quail, but an array of bird feeders brought hordes of pine siskins, a pair of cardinals, a ladderback woodpecker, and house finches with their shabby chic upholstered red bellies. The doves were in there, too. But I was too cold to sit, so I walked back, got the car, and drove again up to Skyline – the only place in the park that  I knew from last night’s sunset I could get cell service. There was hoarfrost like antler velvet on every blade of Chihuahuan grass, and all the  branches. I called my pal Abigail, and my rancher contact. Then the ranger came to tell me he was closing the Drive due to ice,  and i had to leave. This is the same golden sun-kissed 60º locale I photographed only 12 hours earlier:

I went to the Fort Davis Historic Site, which was manned for many years by the Buffalo Soldiers – the freed African-American 10th Calvary Regiment who could enlist after the Civil War; and about Victorio, the Chiricahua Apache resistance leader. I looked at the restored barracks, commissary, and officer’s quarters. It was cold, but actually riveting. Again, glad to have been weathered and slow enough to take it in.

Bob, my rancher contact met me for lunch. He showed up with a trailer holding two beautiful chestnut quarter horses, that he was taking south tomorrow for a round up  to wean the 500 lb calves from their “mamas.” This is a man who can refer to a cow as “mama” and “product” in the same stream of conscience. We had quite a rangy, candid, fascinating conversation, tacitly agreeing to meet in the open between our contexts and opinions. It was surprising and really fortifying; we talked about meat, conservation, public vs private, CO2 sequestration, BP, and about getting chased out of places you might call homelands.

Fort Davis tested camels in 1957; I'm not sure why they failed.
Bob M.
Bob M.

Sun came out around 4, and I went on the 3 mile ridge hike behind Indian Lodge. Ran into a lone javelina, we scared each other (they are tiny football players), and a couple groups of deer who showed no fear, only curiosity. Very pretty deer (unrelated to the mangy goiter-laden scavengers of Fire Island, for instance).


Tonight I went to UT’s McDonald Observatory. I kind of missed the star party, but one dome was still open and I got to see the moon in ECU, and Jupiter, which was uncomfortable. I thought about the exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium I went to often when I was little, that described the gravity on Jupiter: If you go there, you won’t be able to lift even your pinky. Through the telescope in the dome tonight I saw Jupiter’s cloud band in the line of  orbit with its 3 moons. But even naked-eyed, without the light pollution, the stars were legible wall to wall.


Walking on the mountain today, I thought about Richard Long, and about the impact of walking. I am helping to erode and subside the mountains. Mountains coming down, mountains going up. Time sped up, and I became a tiny abrasion.

I found out in Donald P McGookey’s book Geologic Wonders of West Texas, that during the Desmoinesian age (310? million years ago), Midland Texas was situated on the equator; and “the Permian Basin must have been a tropical paradise.”
The Permian (286-245 million years go), the era to which Midland’s great riches of oil is attributed, was a period of great development, but then: “There had evidently been a wave of death, in which thousands of species vanished from the world… at least half the fish and invertebrates and three-quarters of all amphibians – perhaps as much as ninety-six percent of all marine faunal species  – disappeared from the world in what has come to be known as the Permian Extinction.” (McPhee, Basin and Range). All these dead organisms we use to run things, to eat off of, to wrap ourselves and all our shit in, are also extinct organisms. That captures me.