The Amistad National Recreational Area on the Mexican border is beautiful waterway, surrounded with blooming prickly pear cactus and wildflowers. And, apparently, monster snakes.
I was careful as I made my way down the rocky path towards the water’s edge to watch the sunset one evening last April. We had stopped earlier for a restroom break, where we learned about the Texas Rangers from the antique photos on the walls. Some of the photos had been of rangers holding nine-foot rattlesnakes, so I whistled to give such behemoths advance warning of my approach.
As we fell asleep, we looked up at the big dipper showing through the raised back door of the Vanagon. The stars were brighter since we’d crossed the Mississippi, the sky bigger. But the sky seemed a bit blurred by smoke and particulate matter from the explosion that had occurred at the refinery in San Antonio early that day. Tomorrow we would aim to put some miles between us and the noxious haze in our wake.
The next day we cruised towards Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the Lincoln National Forest, where we hoped the trees would be taller, the shade broader and the air cleaner. We drove long hours made longer still by increasingly steep grades and a 40-mile-per-hour headwind that the Vanagon struggled against. Slowed down to a snail’s pace at times, we watched the sun set behind the Guadalupe Mountains before we arrived at the campground.
With eighty miles of trails rising to 8,749 feet, hikers are provided a panoramic view from the “Top of Texas.” In the morning, we hiked the foothills and meadow trail to Frijole Ranch. From the heights, it was obvious that we were standing on what had once been an undersea reef.
Built by two brothers in 1876, the two-room, double-thick rock home stood only 40 feet from a cold, fresh mountain spring. Over the years, additional buildings were erected, including a little red schoolhouse. By the time the last owner sold the ranch to the National Park Service, it had grown from a 15-acre parcel to a 67,312-acre ranch consisting of grazing meadows for cattle, tillable, irrigated farmland and an orchard with apple, peach, apricot, plum, pear, fig and pecan trees, some of which still stand. It had supported a wide variety of agricultural and economic ventures – including wool production from a herd of 4,000 Angora goats.
But long before the adventurous brothers built their stone cabin on the mountain, the Mescalero Apaches and their ancestors had harvested the agave (or mescal), a staple food that they roasted and sun-dried like jerky. Mescal was also used for fiber. The Guadalupe Mountains has some of the best-preserved roasting pits among the Parks archaeological sites.