Lost in Maples Paradise

About halfway from San Angelo to Vanderpool, right about Eden, we lost cell signal. After a while it became apparent that we would not be getting that signal back anytime soon. We hadn’t expected it and had failed to let our children or anyone know we would be out of range. Not much to be done about that now. It may have been the lack of contact with the outside world or just the park itself, but our two days at Lost Maples State Natural Area were way too short.

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Entering Lost Maples is like discovering a verdant, hidden valley. It is hard to do the tremendous beauty justice. Turning off the highway one is immediately surrounded by tree-covered ridges. It feels safe, secure and delightfully isolated. After a few weeks in the very arid desert in both Texas and New Mexico, the effect of all this green and tree covered hillsides was all the more welcome.

This park has a small campground with 24 sites. The park was about half empty, but we later heard that it is an incredibly popular park especially when the leaves turn in the fall and people book sites a year in advance.

We did a full camp set up with mat, chairs, Jim’s site toys and awnings. Our site wasn’t completely even. In fact we ended up with a very long last step out of the trailer and we were unable to deploy the back stabilizer, but otherwise this was a very charming and congenial camp site. The afternoon was quite warm, but there was a nice breeze to keep us cool. We crossed our fingers that this park experience would not devolve into some terrible storm event.

We sat out in the afternoon and evening and enjoyed the stillness and bird song. Our site was sheltered by some lovely tall oaks. With no television and no cell service, we relished the quiet. No news from the outside world could disturb our peace. As the sun slipped behind the valley walls, a gentle darkness fell and we crawled into bed with the windows wide open to catch the sounds of the night.

One reason it felt so tranquil here is we had finally escaped the west Texas wind. For the last two weeks we had been continually swept by unrelenting winds. From the beginning of our transit across Texas to the interlude in Ruidoso to Monahans Sandhills and San Angelo, whether we were in a storm or just normal weather, there was the unceasing wind. I don’t know if I could take that on a permanent basis. It was a relief to feel the stillness in the air.

Lost Maples is known for and named after the bigtooth maples which are found on the rocky slopes of the Sabinal River. Cypress and sycamore trees and several varieties of oak trees are also found in the park. The park offers quite a few miles of trails and it was tough to make a choice. We only had one day to hike.

We decided to hike the East Trail. We chose this trail because it promised the most exposure to the bigtooth maples. These are the maples for which the park is named. This trail follows the Sabinal River and even cuts back and forth across it quite a few times. Dakota was really enjoying crossing the river. This dog who once disliked getting his feet wet was now wading with abandon through the rippling water.

From its beginning on the valley floor, the trail winds through wooded areas overhung by rocky slopes and outcroppings. The rock formations are remarkable. One highlight is Monkey Rock–named so for obvious reasons.

The trail gradually gains altitude until, after some steep stone stairs, it hugs the top of several ridges and eventually descends another steep and rocky grade back to the valley floor.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch up on top of one of the ridges with a dramatic vista across the valley. The sun was warm on our faces and looking out across the ridges covered with trees was dramatic. We sat on two large rocks eating our lunch and meditating on the view.

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The last stretch of the trail was a steep downward grade. It was very rocky and easy to slip or twist an ankle. We had to walk carefully. It was also incredibly tough on poor Dakota’s paws. He was a game fellow but finally we ended up carrying him over a good portion of it. We needed two pairs of doggy hiking boots. Those rocks are tough on little paws.

The park map warned the trail would be strenuous and challenging and they weren’t kidding. By the time we descended and joined the East-West Trail for the last mile of our hike we were walking mighty slow. Despite our fatigue, it was a really wonderful hiking experience and we were very sorry that we would have no more time for the other trails in the park.

IMG_1067We were a weary crew after our hike, but not too tired for a campfire and s’mores. The ranger’s station offered all the makings for s’mores and, unbelievably, Jim had never had one. We enjoyed our dinner sitting outside at our picnic table. We had been hauling some firewood with us since Ocklochonee (a big no-no we discovered, you’re supposed to only burn local wood) waiting for the right moment. It had seemed that there was always an impediment to make a fire undesirable—too much wind, rain, too much heat. But on this evening all systems were go.

We sat and watched the fire for a long time. Its warmth was welcome in the cool night air. We were pleasantly tired and very peaceful. It was truly a delightful evening and stay and we wished it could be longer.

Angling Towards San Angelo

Our drive would take us east to Odessa and Midland and then south to San Angelo. My Blue Beacon app told us a truck wash was to be had in Odessa. We stopped, got cleaned up and headed through the arid west Texas plains.

Right outside Sterling City we saw our first big wind farm. We couldn’t count the number of turbines standing at the top of the ridge silhouetted against the bright blue sky. It was quite striking and in this easterner’s opinion, much more beautiful than the oil derricks dotting the west Texas landscape. But I know that would be a minority opinion among most in these parts.

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San Angelo lies south east of Midland and north east of Fort Stockton. We had almost closed a giant loop of travel through west Texas and up into southeast New Mexico. The San Angelo State Park is just west of the city of San Angelo. The park sits just outside the city which is slowly encircling the park. The park is shaped somewhat like a bent hourglass with two distinct sections joined by a narrow middle.

We were camping in the Red Arroyo section of the park which abuts the O.C. Fisher Lake. The O.C. Fisher Reservoir Dam was visible to the right of our campground and beyond the dam was San Angelo. The other section of the park contained the North Concho and Bald Eagle campgrounds.

Our campground sat on a plateau above the lake and was sparsely populated. The sites were spaced well apart.

Our site overlooked the lake but the water’s edge was still quite far away. When we got to our site, we were pretty excited to see our next door neighbor was another Airstream. The wide spacing between sites was not conducive to campsite chatting and we never did speak to them.

It was very hot and sunny when we un-hitched. The picnic table and shelter were a cooler oasis and caught the breezes. We sat there as dusk deepened to night sipping our wine and enjoying the vast sky. It was a sweet magical evening. The ever-present west Texas wind was soft and gentle.

The next morning we got ourselves up and headed out to find one of the park’s trails. Darn if we could find it. We ended up following the park road back to the ranger headquarters to ask where to pick up the trail. Of course, it had been just inside the bushes and brush the whole time. We followed a big loop trail through our end of the park. It was very hot and the sun was strong. There was no shade and I had an eye out for snakes and other dangers. The thermostat read 92 degrees and I worried about Dakota in his heavy coat.

Once we had the trail, it was no problem to follow and we wound through our end of the park ending up quite close to our campsite. We were hot and sweaty and surprisingly tired since it wasn’t that long a hike. We got cleaned up and decided to head into town. We needed to re-supply groceries.

The parking lot at the H.E.B. was packed and hotter than hades. We had grown to love these Texas supermarkets named for Howard Edward Butt. They had great produce and pretty much everything else was first-rate. Traveling through small towns you are at the mercy of the local supermarket and some of them had been pretty dismal affairs. Of course in this kind of heat, we couldn’t leave Dakota in the truck alone so poor Jim was relegated to the firey-hot parking lot while I shopped. I felt vindicated to hear the checkout people complaining to each other about the excessive heat.

We succumbed this second night to the high winds and heat, closed the trailer and put on the air conditioning. The news broadcast predicted more heat for the next day and the arrival of a major storm front which would ultimately break the heat wave. It was a quiet night in the campground and we were grateful for the creature comforts of our Airstream.

Despite the weatherman’s prognostication, the next morning seemed cooler. A hike in the other section of the park was on the docket.

It was actually quite a long way to the other park entrance, a matter of six or seven miles. The ranger at the north entrance was very excited that the Wiener Dog races were taking place in the park. Indeed, the parking lot was packed with vehicles and wiener dogs were everywhere. Given Dakota’s predilection to lose his mind barking at small dogs, we hustled him off to the trailhead.

It felt good to hike the trails in the north end of the park. It was much greener with trees, a creek and more bushes and vegetation. The trail signage was inscrutable and had nothing to do with the trail map the ranger had given us. Not only were the trails not where we expected them to be, there were trails which never appeared on the map. Despite those frustrations, we wandered up and down and all around. We had a picnic lunch sitting on a bench and left the north end of the park tired and satisfied.

Tired and dusty, we got back to the trailer and cleaned up. That afternoon we drove into San Angelo and poked around the downtown. San Angelo grew up next to Fort Concho in the 1870’s. San Angelo regards itself as the Wool Capital of the World which should have been enough to endear it to me forever, but I didn’t see any sheep. We had just missed the Rodeo in February which was probably quite an event. I am sure there are amazing things to be seen in San Angelo, but either we just weren’t into a cosmopolitan experience or it was lacking there. After a brief reconnaissance, we headed back to the park.

The evening skies were spectacular. Huge white clouds stretched thousands of feet up into the atmosphere. The wind was blowing fiercely. The storm was blowing in from the south and east. The wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand outside. It would wrench the door to the trailer from our hands every time we tried to go in or out.

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We watched the weather with rapt attention. The storms were severe. To the east of us hail and tornadoes were threatening and entire counties were on alert.

The storm actually hit after we were in bed and we lay listening to the thunder, rain and wind as it rocked the trailer. The lightning lit up the sky. Dakota hopped up on the bed for comfort. The storm lasted for hours. All I could think of was how much I wished we had a surge protector and vowed we would get one first chance.

We were spent and tired the next morning from a night of worry and suspense. All was well, however,  and we hitched up to head out with a sense of relief along with our fatigue.

 

 

The Permian Basin

The highways from Carlsbad to Monahans were packed with trucks moving products associated with or derived from the oil fields, potash mines and fracking. The arid desert fields were yielding all sorts of valuable products and every mile was devoted to the serious business of extraction. Well services, pumping specialists, welders and RV lots with workers quarters rounded out the offerings in the small towns we passed.

We crossed the state line from New Mexico to Texas and immediately lost an hour as we moved from mountain to central time. The state and time may have changed, but the landscape remained the same. We would have liked to travel into northern New Mexico, but we had passed the halfway point in terms of the time we had for our adventure. We would have plenty left to see for our next trip.

We turned off Interstate 20 into the Monahans Sandhills State Park and entered another world. This park is a strange oasis of sand dunes. It bills itself as a family getaway where kids can saucer down the dunes on plastic discs. The discs are rented at the ranger station.

Far from finding hordes of families with children clambering the dunes, we found a quiet, almost deserted campground. The campground loop boasted 24 sites, but fewer than ten were occupied. The landscape was beautiful. The mounded dunes rose and fell in undulating hills. Campsites were nestled between the dunes and neighbors were barely visible. It was warm in the sun. Close to 90 degrees, but in the shade under the shelter at our site there was a cooling breeze.

We set up camp happily all the while marveling at the unexpected beauty. We hadn’t broken out our mat and chairs in Carlsbad, but now we did a full camp set up. Dakota’s tether was set so he could sit under the shelter in the shade or on the mat next to us and the trailer. We relaxed looking up at the vast blue skies with brilliant white, fluffy clouds. Jim scampered around taking pictures. We were so happy to have two nights in this amazing place.

Far off to the west we noticed dark grey clouds roiling in the sky and the unmistakable trace of rain descending from the clouds. We watched with naïve enjoyment as the clouds drew closer and flashes of lightning sliced the sky in the distance. The storm was moving to the north and east and looked like it might miss us. It didn’t. Strong winds accompanied the driving rain as it hit us and we scattered to batten down chairs, the mat, put awnings away and shelter in the trailer from the driving storm. It was a big Texas storm.

We had reception for one English language television station and we watched the constant weather updates to monitor the progression of two separate fronts which were colliding to form these giant storms. Red flag alerts were issued and at least one tornado touched down closer to Midland which was east of us. The weather woman, who was quite accomplished, urged everyone to seek their safe places. This storm was serious business.

The storms were moving north and eastward and eventually we could see the cells had passed us. The skies had cleared and blue sky and fluffy clouds regained their hold on the horizon. “Hey, Jim, let’s take a walk around the campground loop and check out the bathhouse.”  We got Dakota on his leash and headed out for a perambulation. As we walked the asphalt path, off to the west the skies dimmed again. We were only somewhat aware of this turn in the weather. Just as we reached the point in the park furthest from our Airstream, the dust storm hit.

The sky turned an ugly olive green. The air was thick and dark. The winds almost blew us off our feet and the sand stung our skin and threatened our eyes as it struck us with tremendous force. We started running to get back to the trailer to secure it against the onslaught. Dakota was dragging on his leash. I grabbed him up to shield him from the sand and wind and struggled to keep running. Jim tried to offer shelter by turning and running backwards, but it only slowed us further. “Just run for it!”

We reached the trailer as the full fury of the winds struck and Jim was almost unable to swing the trailer door shut against the blasts. The trailer rocked with the force of the winds and the dunes were whipped with lashes of sand. The television reception pixilated with the atmospheric disturbance, but the weather woman reported wind gusts from 65 to 70 miles per hour. How heavy is this trailer again?

Reporting weather in a place like west Texas must be the epitome of professional satisfaction. The young and attractive woman reporting the weather on our sole television station was the center of attention and interest. She was clearly good at her job and she sure had a cornucopia of weather events to report: rain, winds, hail and tornadoes. She urged those east of us again to seek their safe place and move their cars. This was clearly a familiar drill.

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We quelled our nervousness watching the Spanish language broadcast of the Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico football match. Mexico won by a goal, one nil. Eventually the winds subsided. Jim broke out his ancient iPod and we listened to The Dixie Chicks and read until bedtime. The peaceful evening was a marked contrast to the maelstrom which preceded it. Wonder what tomorrow will bring?

The next morning heated up quickly. It was easily 90 degrees in mid-morning. The wind was still blowing strongly and periodically grey clouds would skid across the sky. We were still feeling a little undone by the previous night’s weather events.

We stopped by the ranger station to see their exhibit on the sand dunes and the nature trail and ended up in a long chat with the ranger on duty who explained a bit about the back story of this amazing stretch of sand dunes. Mr. T (Tavares) demurred he was not an interpretive ranger, but he had a pretty excellent way of explaining this remarkable landscape. He said that over 10,000 years ago, this approximately 30 mile wide swath of sand was created when sands from the exposed flood plains of the Pecos River were blown and deposited against the Caprock Escarpment.  The winds had formed a river of sand.

His example of the ecosystem of the dunes employed a sponge analogy. The water table in the sponge (dunes) was what held the sand pretty much in place. Sometimes the water table was higher and sometimes lower and when it was lower the sands would shift, but they would never completely blow away or disappear because the water table held them in place.

Also helping to hold the dunes in place is the vegetation. Because the water table varies, the scrubby trees which cover the dunes extend their roots up to 150 feet into the sand. Their roots anchor the dunes. Honey mesquite and havard shin oaks are found all over the park. The havard oaks actually look like bushes, but they are actually small trees.

Mr. T. said that before Katrina, the park had gone through a 15 year drought. The water table had dropped year after year. In the wake of Katrina over 50 inches of rain fell replenishing the water table. That fall the dunes were covered in brilliant carpets of wild flowers. It was magnificent and ironic since that same weather event had also caused such destruction and damage elsewhere. We really enjoyed our time with the ranger and left with a much better understanding of this remarkable environment.

Of course, our last morning dawned cool and sunny. It was just as delightful as that first afternoon had been when we had expectantly deployed our mat and chairs only to be assailed by Mother Nature. It was time to hitch up. Our mat was still buried in sand where the wind had tossed it against the trailer. The chairs were covered by sand as was Dakota’s tether. The Airstream was streaked and dirty from the lashing of the rain and sand.