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Hiding from the Heat

Destination: Fort Davis

By Erica H. Brasseux

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 8 hours /
  • Dallas - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 10.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 7 hours

As we turn onto Texas 17, usually a scenic 30-mile stretch between Balmorhea and Fort Davis, clouds of dust funnel and disperse along the desolate rangeland.

Views of the distant mountains that cradle the area are lost in a hazy blanket of yellow. Like Dorothy and Toto, we emerge from the whirling winds into a surreal, Oz-like setting.

Tumbleweeds the size of bowling balls chase each other across the blacktop lane, and a cowboy with a rugged felt hat and a black handlebar mustache bids us "hidy" from his horse. Century-old rock and adobe structures, including a courthouse, bank and four-celled jail, are scattered throughout the town. Reminiscent of a quintessential Western frontier settlement, it's the highest town in Texas at an elevation of 5,050 feet and is one of the state's coolest summer retreats.

After checking into our room at the Old Texas Inn, we familiarize ourselves with the area's native flora and fauna at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, a few miles south of Fort Davis on Texas 118. With a 20-acre arboretum, wildflower identification station, hiking trail (great for birders!) and numerous other displays, it's a wonderful way to spend an hour or the entire afternoon.

We spend the latter part of the day at Fort Davis National Historic Site, located on the edge of town. Covering 474 acres, including several miles of hiking trails, the site is much larger than it appears from the highway, and today we will scout out almost every inch of it. Fort Davis was active from 1854 to 1891, except for the Civil War years, and Buffalo Soldiers served at the fort for almost two decades. Their primary role of safeguarding travelers heading west against the Comanches and Apaches continued until 1881, when the Indian Wars ended in West Texas. When Fort Davis had "outlived its usefulness" and was abandoned by the Army, it contained more than 60 major adobe or stone buildings, which were preserved by the National Park Service in 1961.

We first make our way to the squad room of the Enlisted Men's Barracks, furnished with iron bunks, footlockers and accoutrements of the some 30 soldiers who once occupied it. A park ranger, dressed in soldier attire, points to one of the beds and suggests that I lie down on the 2-inch thick, straw-filled mattress to see what it feels like. During spring break and summer, park staff and volunteers dress in period-type clothing and provide interpretations in many of the refurbished buildings.

At 4:30 p.m. a bugle call, one of many throughout the day, echoes over the parade grounds, giving the eerie feeling that the ghosts of the 10th U.S. Cavalry are still on post. This tattoo historically was played at around 9 p.m., signaling the men to prepare for bed and to secure the camp. We decide to grab an early dinner and do the same.

Avian Adventures

Like an oversized volleyball net made out of spider webs, the thin, opaque bird-catching nets billow and swell in the morning breeze. From frequent sparrows to occasional hawks, unsuspecting birds fly into and become trapped in the soft lattice, where they later will be rescued and banded by specially trained volunteers.

This catch-and-release process is part of a 10-year bird-banding project being conducted at Davis Mountains State Park, located right around the corner from the national park. In the past decade the volunteers at Fort Davis have banded more than 30,000 birds.

About 15 visitors and I follow the volunteers along a path to three different net sites. During the first "pickup" of the morning, we find two white-crowned sparrows and two Lincoln's sparrows attempting to flutter free. With careful precision, the volunteers free the birds and put them into individual white cloth bags to transport them.

Back at the banding station, we all circle around to watch as the volunteers adorn each bird's tiny leg with a new metal "ankle bracelet." The ID band, which helps researchers throughout the United States track the birds' migratory habits, will be recorded before each bird is released.

I am allowed to hold one of the tiny sparrows before setting it free. I carefully cup my hands over the top and bottom of the tiny brown bird, but in a burst of feathers it escapes. Downy fluff hovers in front of me as the sparrow flies to a nearby tree to recover from an eventful morning.

After the banding, picnic lunch in tow, we're off to explore the rest of this 2,708-acre state park. A two-mile, ascending hiking trail affords dramatic views of the rugged, mountainous landscape. For the non-hikers, Skyline Drive winds upward along a paved mountain slope, intersecting the hiking trail at a breathtaking scenic overlook. We look across to Indian Lodge, the park's own hotel, its adobe-style, stark white walls standing juxtaposed against the rugged West Texas landscape.

We push onward another 2.5 miles to the stone tower on the outskirts of the National Historic Site. The two parks are connected by this 4.5-mile trail, allowing a full day of hiking and sightseeing for the more adventuresome visitors. Perched near the ledge of a rocky cliff, we break for a late lunch. Through binoculars we spot a procession of eight horseback riders playing follow-the-leader along a distant trail. A few local outfitters, including Prude Ranch and Lajitas Stables, offer guided horseback trail rides through the mountains.

We retrace our steps on the path back down to park headquarters as the sun begins its descent into the western sky. A pinkish hue replaces the big, empty blue, and the whole world becomes a little softer around the edges.

Star Light, Star Bright

From the supernatural to the scientific, there's plenty of nightlife to be found in the Fort Davis area. At the nearby town of Marfa, where sightings of the mysterious Marfa Lights have been recorded for some 150 years, spectators converge each evening, anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the mystical light show. Are these colorful illuminations a result of static electricity, or perhaps caused by solar winds? While the speculations are many, the mystery remains unsolved.

But back in Fort Davis there are bigger and better light shows going on at the McDonald Observatory, which holds the title of being one of the world's major astronomical research facilities. Scientists from all over the world reserve time slots years in advance just to use the observatory's powerful telescopes for a week or two. Tonight, we, too, will partake of this celestial experience.

Attending one of the famous Star Parties at the McDonald Observatory, held on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, turns out to be the highlight of this three-day adventure. Tonight more than 300 people, heads tilted back toward the sky, huddle in silence as one of the astronomers points out Venus and Jupiter in the cloudless sky. Later, we'll be able to view these planets and other celestial objects through 10 or so telescopes set up around the property. Tourists who just this afternoon were sporting their short-sleeved T-shirts and hiking shorts are now bundled up in coats. Crisp and cold with no hint of wind, it's the perfect night for a star party.

"Look, Dad, there's more popping out over here," whispers a little girl standing next to us, as more and more stars become visible in the darkening sky. Narrating all the while, the astronomer uses a large flashlight to point out various constellations amid the ever-increasing blanket of glittering stars.

As he points out Orion's belt, a "falling star" shoots across the sky, followed by a breathy "Ahhhhhh" from the crowd. Next to me, the girl points where the star has just been. "Do it again, Daddy," she whispers.

For More Information

Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce
(800) 524-3015, www.fortdavis.com
Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute
(915) 364-2499, www.cdri.org
Davis Mountains State Park
(915) 426-3337, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/davis/
Fort Davis National Historic Site
(915) 426-3224, www.nps.gov/foda/
McDonald Observatory
(877) 984-STAR or (915) 426-3640, www.mcdonaldobservatory.org

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