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ISLAND OF SKIES



If you noticed a little grey car overcorrecting and swerving between the dotted and yellow lines on Hwy 290 last Thursday, it might have been us. My wife and I were headed to the Davis Mountains, trying to eat our breakfast tacos and drive, without dropping a bite. Eyes rolling back with every mouthful of hot potato, egg, and cheese, the rumble strips on the side of the road zapped us upright in our seats like an electric fence, only for us to bend down and open our mouths wide again for another bite. We were travelling from Austin to Far West Texas for some hiking, and a little exploring. I booked three nights at Davis Mountains State Park, the first night a campsite, and the remaining two at the Indian Lodge. We drove into Alpine via Hwy 90 and skirted around Sul Ross University en route for the fabled Texas road, Hwy 118.


I think we were still in Interstate B-line mode, so we got pulled over for speeding right by the airport. Fumbling for our masks, rolling down the windows, and trying to act normal is harder than it sounds. I had my mask upside down, and I was in the passenger seat. The officer strolled up to the side of the car. I could only see his ammo vest and thumb tucked into his belt. He politely asked us to explain our rate of speed this fine day, to which my wife stammered, “Campsite,” pointing towards Fort Davis, like she was an Army scout and English was a strange, distant language. After she handed over her license, and failed to locate her insurance, I thought I could make out the sound of ice crackling and breaking off, as she slowly thawed back to her goodie-two-shoes-self in the driver’s seat. The officer was quite generous and let us out-of-towners off with a warning, a gesture we honored with strict adherence to all speed limits, regardless of county, for the rest of our trip.


We continued our journey in the cool of the evening down 118. The highway splits mountains and takes you into the beginning of what they call the Sky Island, a biosphere of cooler temperatures, hazy sunsets, and rolling mountains, the Chihuahan desert a moat to the region. We let our windows down and marveled at the cool air on our skin.


When we approached Fort Davis, we noticed the prettiest picnic areas we’ve ever seen in Texas. Each one could be an Air BnB. They all had their own trees, stonework, and some were even tucked into the side of a rocky mountain. We stopped by a large cottonwood by a barbed wire fence overlooking a meadow just before sunset. Two fawns were standing in the grass, ears up, looking in our direction. Black butterflies with orange spots floated around the boughs of the tree, and I took off my cap. At this point, without a haircut since March, I looked like a shepherd in a pastoral scene, the unknown 13th Apostle.


My wife snapped me out of my trance and we made it to the ranger station at Davis Mountains State Park. We parked at the entrance, and right as we got out of the car, two park hosts in a green John Deere ATV pulled up on us from behind. The lady said, “Can we help you?” I turned around slowly, like a TV show drug dealer who knows the jig is up, my arms outspread. You got me. She looked at me with a squint. I squinted back. She told me to step up to the ATV. She showed me where our campsite was on the map. Said we could ‘square’ things up with the ranger tomorrow morning. Close one.


Because it was already 7 o’clock, and we still needed to set up camp, hiking was out of the question. We were going to stay put and enjoy the night sky with a few beverages. The campground was full, but at sundown, the darkness covered the valley and all was still. The quiet made the stars louder, and they shot out across the sky like they were competing for the longest streaks, like artillery blasts dashed across the drifting Milky Way.


Along with the lights in the night sky, we noticed the silver glow of eyes in the groves by our campsite and along the hills. Innumerable deer were out to feed, and you could hear their hooves cluck over the rocks and through the stalks of grass. We also spotted a racoon running down the road, and caught a skunk rummaging around our campsite. He could not get enough of the green Palmolive dishwashing soap we had in a plastic bag by our water spigot. Every half hour or so, he ran across our campsite, humped and fondled the plastic bag, and took off dissatisfied into the night.


I did not get more than thirty minutes of sleep that night and felt terrible the next morning. The pitch of the tent floor was off-kilter, my sleeping bag was too hot, and I think I was just out of camping practice. I felt like Goldilocks but I couldn’t find a sleeping position that was just right, and to top it all off, my wife was gracefully sleeping like an angel on a cloud.


Friday morning, since Jekyll was now Hyde, we decided to hold on hiking for the time being, so we drove the 75 mile scenic drive around the mountains outside of Fort Davis. I also wanted to see if we could find the Davis Mountains Preserve. We were on the Sky Island now, and the whole region looked like a video game map of the Legend of Zelda. From the chrome and white observatories on the tops of mountains, the stonework lining the highway like an ancient road, the short emory oaks dotting the smooth, sloping mountains, to the aoudads crowding each other, scuttling across the rocks, we were in unfamiliar territory.


We could not locate the entrance to the preserve, so we continued, and chose to finish the loop. We could see Baldy Peak and Mount Livermore shadowed in the distance, and both wondered how we could get there.


We headed back to our room at the Lodge for sandwiches and I slammed about 7 glasses of water. I suggested we drive to the top of the scenic overlook, and if I felt better, perhaps we could hike a little bit of the Skyline Trail. It seemed like everything about this place was centered around the sky.


Well, I caught a second wind and a little hike turned into a good little hike, so we hiked down the trail to the amphitheater and back. Because the trail had so many jagged rocks, I was also able to get some revenge on these trail runners that had given me blisters for two months until I broke them in. I punished the soles of these shoes on sharp stones like cigarette butts, pettily whispering to my Asics, “You like that? huh?” as we hiked down the trail.


We took a few breaks to enjoy the vistas and drink water. Because I am the waterboy, when my wife gets thirsty, I have to stand with my back to her while she greedily takes a drink. Hearing my wife drink out of my Camelbak is like breastfeeding a newborn, listening to the ravenous sounds of gulping followed by gasps for air.


When we made it back to the top we noticed a lovely group of people taking family pictures, smiling, hugging each other, the mother and father lifting up their young children as the setting sun made silhouettes of them and the men’s cowboy hats.


I wanted to find the King’s table, a picnic spot by the Old CCC trail, that I had seen online. We drove near the lookout and found similar picnic tables, but only after we hiked down the rock, did we come across the loveliest porch on a mountain I’ve ever seen. The boughs of an emory oak growing out of the rock hovered protectively over a long, stone table with benches by a curving stairway with a perfect view of the mountain range and the last blaze of sunset. We stayed there, holding each other, until the horizon received the sun and the sun released its colors in the sky like schools of orange fish across a coral reef.


When we arrived back at the Lodge, we decided to take a break and walk to the fountain area for Wi-fi and to check our messages. We stopped by the pool first and marveled at the bats fluttering and diving across the water under the light posts, just beginning their night flights for flying insects in the air. Some would fly by just a few inches above our heads.


The next day we hiked the Madera Canyon trail, in Lawrence Wood Park, a short lasso-loop trail, and finally located the entrance to the Davis Mountains Preserve. Unfortunately, this area was closed due to COVID, and will remain closed for the rest of the year, or so we’re told.


We visited Fort Davis and ended the day by making a 2 mile loop around the Skyline and the Old CCC Trail. We found a wooden bench around a bend under a crimson boulder yellowed with lichens, and took in the most perceptible quiet we’ve ever experienced. The distant mountain range turned lavender as sunrays ripped apart the evening clouds, and the old cottonwoods along Limpia Creek billowed in place into plumes of lime-green.




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