WE WERE HERE
Why do we carve our names in stone? etch them into school desks? on picnic tables at parks? Why do we carve out letters on the trunks of trees? Is it for love? significance? Why are we always trying to leave behind a mark? I remember in my late twenties finding my Dad’s graffiti on the bathroom walls of dive bars in Lubbock. I thought to myself, ‘Shouldn’t this be the other way around?’ And how did I know it was his? Because he loved the Beatles. And he would draw the Apple Records logo on the walls with his initials, with the fresh felt tip of a Sharpie...And, because...nobody did that. I still laugh about it to this day.
When we visited Big Spring State Park today, I would think about all of these things. Carving names, and leaving marks. And why we shop for experiences. The ‘best’ places. Views. Best places to camp and to hike. I watch all of this shopping, and think, we put all of the burden on the ‘place’ for our experiences, but require nothing of ourselves. What are we bringing to the table? Does a tree that falls in the forest make a sound if no one’s around to hear it? Does a little state park in West Texas still teem with life, still knock us down with sky and panoramas, if no one has the eyes, or the time to stop by and see it?
I was humbled today by a ‘little’ park in Texas that certainly did. It knocked me down with vistas, and from just a 210 foot bluff, at that. The stories of pioneers and early settlers floated in the air around me like runaway balloons. I could envision all of them. The boys of the Conservation Corps sweating in the Texas sun here laying down stone and road for $30 a month during the Great Depression. And the well-to-do residents of Big Spring in the Roaring Twenties hiking up to the top in full suits and derby hats, chisels and hammers in hand.
I was also transfixed by the wind. The way it ran through everything. The simplest patches of white and yellow daisies, soaptree yucca, and Texas Holly. I saw the yellow flowers of prickly pear, too, beam from the ground for all creation to see, nestled deep in all of that sagebrush. After my visit today, I pledged to disabuse myself of snubbing any place over another. Ever. I’m leaving that behind. If anyone should be snubbed, it’s me. All of this is a gift. But, first, one has to know that it is.
We were returning to Austin from a graduation ceremony in Andrews, Texas, passing by all of the dug-up earth of the South Plains. Pink dirt, sand, and hot oil fields in mirages, with rows of torches blowing in the wind like flags of fire. Semi trucks shuddered as they passed by us doing 80, their mud flaps kicking up and down with the wind.
When we made it to Big Spring, Texas, we saw the sign, and I was ambivalent. I had seen a map of the park before, and it didn’t even show a trail map. So, no trails, right? All of the pictures looked like it was just a short, paved road for joggers and bicyclists. Nope. Not for me. I’m an Austin hiker. But that was the problem. We’re not in Austin, you ass. I was making assumptions. Just like an ass would. I know better, so I recorrected, and told my wife we should dive in. And I was glad that we did. My conscience, the bouncer, allowed me in, but with a stern warning not to be an ass.
This park is so pretty. Pretty picnic areas. Pretty cacti, shrubs, and flowers. And the views? As far as the eye can see. The clouds loomed like armadas of ships. Great ships sailing by with hulls of rain and storms. My wife stood on the edge as the wind playfully teased her long hair over and around her face. She became quiet and stood still as she took in all of the miles of sky before her.
I was surprised to see a playground at the top of Scenic Mountain. Old-time swing set, the GAMETIME brand. Best in the world. Long chains and hard black rubber seats. Guaranteed to fly high and stir up butterflies. We walked across and found another bluff and that’s where we first noticed the names carved in stone. The lettering reminded me of old shop signs. I saw a ‘J M Morgan’ and wondered how old it was. I saw others that looked like initials written with fingers in wet concrete. We walked back across the playground and had lunch in the shade of the park headquarters.
There was nowhere to hide from the wind. My son had to hold down the napkins and plates while my wife put together our lunch. She was holding one ingredient with an elbow, another with a knee, and had to stay focused as a lid flew across the table. Where was I? Taking pictures. And looking through the window at the great wind turbines on a mesa far in the distance, swinging round and round, slowly, like unplugged fans.
We decided to drive down to the entrance and begin our hike there. We stopped to read the historical marker about Comanches and their organized network of trails that led to Big Spring, the real hub of Texas at the time. The Springs here brought everyone through for refreshment, here in the 1800s. Pioneers on the way to California in the Gold Rush, and Comanches on their way to San Antonio and Mexico to make war and to frustrate white settlements. As I read in a sign later that day, many railroads and highways that we use here in Texas today, were laid on the same war trails made by bands of Comanches all those years ago.
We grabbed a map from the kiosk and walked around. I was pulled in by a magnificent plant waving in the wind like seagrasses in a coral reef. The 10 foot stems swayed like wild green boas with red flowers blooming on its ends. I was mesmerized by this octopus flower, the ‘ocotillo.’
There was a better map of trails in a large kiosk up the road and with a clearer picture of the park, we decided on our hike. Hike part of the Scenic Outer Mt. Loop and cut off-trail to the Nature Trail above. Shoot for two miles, but no more. We still had to drive to Austin.
Now, I didn’t know whether to gaze at the sky or all of the honey mesquite, shrub oak, and flowers blowing in the wind. Is this what it’s like for a sailor high on the mast? Keeping still? Studying the sky, waves, and looking for land? I was stopping to gaze time and time again, taking it all in, and hiking less. I wasn’t home anymore. I was in West Texas.
Now, West Texas had gotten some rain and it showed. The green here is just as vivid as anywhere, and just as lush, but the sky? The sky is the real scenery. Like standing under a floating Sistine Chapel. The clouds themselves pose, rising up in majesty, passing by with all that is colossal, all that is grand, a hundred miles away and right over your head. Here, the sky is its own ocean.
It was only 84 degrees, but I caught myself getting a little faint. I hike in this heat all the time, so I was confused. I knew I was in hiking shape, but something was off. When I realized the reason, I shared it with my wife. “Babe. There is no shade. We’re right under the sun. In Austin, the trees hang over us when we hike. They don’t here.” I hadn’t brought a cap, my son and wife hadn’t thought about sunscreen, and I knew we all were gonna pay. We slowed our pace a bit and targeted what shade we could find.
I also seemed to forget that dead cacti still have their thorns. I trampled some cacti and had a short, sharp thorn go inside of my shoe and prick me over and over again. I took off my shoe and it got me one more time on my finger before it was done on this Earth. And now there was blood on my shoe. One thorn can bring everything to a stop. Man.
We walked up the nature trail and enjoyed reading all of the signs in front of different species of trees native to the area. Little-leaf sumac, Soapweed Yucca, Ephedra, Prickly Ash, and Agarita, or what most of us call Texas Holly. It was fascinating to read how Indians put the leaves and berries of all these plants to use. Yucca for soap, sandals, and baskets. Holly berries for jelly and wine. Sumac leaves mixed with tobacco to relieve asthma when smoked. And Prickly Ash leaves chewed up to help with toothaches. I wanted to try some of this organic grub. But I really don’t see this stuff getting on the shelves of Walgreens soon. Maybe next pandemic.
A bare sun started to beat us down. We made it to the top and rested in the shade of the restrooms building and checked our water situation. Lacking. It was time to head back. We went off trail one more time just because, and scrambled over flat grey rocks and around prickly pear and sagebrush. The wind turbines rotated hypnotically like pendulums under the clouds on the mesa ahead, and I watched them, transfixed again, with my hand blocking the sun.
I didn’t mention this earlier, but before we started the hike, I checked on the park website for any maps of trails and found something far better instead. The TPWD had a PDF on the Historic Rock Carvings of Scenic Mountain. In it, was a map of all of the historic carvings on bluffs and rocks around the park. Some from the 1880s, and some from the early 1900s by workers of the CCC who built this place. At the time, it was a tradition to climb to the top of Scenic Mountain and carve your name into the rock. There were pictures of carvings. Some were ornate. Others crude...And I thought to myself, ‘You know, it doesn’t matter how far you go back. Be it on any school desk, picnic table at a park, or on the rocks here at Scenic Mountain, it’s all the same. We carve and chisel our names to leave a mark. WE WERE HERE. We do it to remember, and to be remembered. To leave a sign, and leave something behind. The souls of everyone who carved their names in the stone here were alive in my mind today, and that was better than any hike. If we hadn’t stopped, we wouldn’t have heard the tree drop. We wouldn’t have run our hands over the etch marks. So, I encourage you to stop. Don’t shop. Stop. And leave your own mark behind. The place you visit will do the same to you.