The Lone Star State

WOWFWL Days 57-77: Texas

Greetings from Fernandina Beach, FL! We are nearing the end of our 95-day, 5,300-mile trek across this multifarious nation, with just 5 days and fewer than 500 miles remaining until we reach South Carolina. We hit the Atlantic Coast on Day 89, a huge milestone on our cross-country bike ride, and are looking forward to completing this last stretch to Columbia.

From where we left off in our last blog, we had just left the mountainous states of the west and entered Texas. Believing our days of climbing were over, we were surprised by the diverse topography of The Lone Star State: from the flat, empty deserts of the west, to the steep hills of Big Bend State Park and Big Bend National Park in the south, to the constant ups and downs of Hill Country just west of Austin, each of our 20 days in Texas was new and challenging.

Upon entering Texas, the group morale was a bit low. Folks were worried. This was the biggest state of the trip and we would be biking through it for the next 20 days. Not only was it the most miles spent in any one state, but also the state that occupied the longest time. Couple that with the, albeit, unfounded stereotypes we held about Texas, it was looking like it would be a long 3 weeks.

Right away our knees were thankful for the flats the Texas roads heralded, however quite quickly, our eyes grew weary staring at the same uninterrupted views mile after mile. Our eyes glazed over and our minds went numb with the lack of visual stimulus. So you can imagine our shock and excitement when we happened upon something that wasn’t an empty field. Out of the flat, barren expanses rose a Prada Store front complete with the complete 2005 fall/winter Prada collection, as a plaque informed us. This lone store front we learned is an art installment on highway 90 in what many would call “the middle of nowhere,” Texas. Part of the inspiration for the piece was the idea of erecting a place that represents the sophistication of our society and watch it slowly deteriorate as the earth reclaims it. We were floored to find such a peculiar thing alongside the highway where we hadn’t seen a town for 40 miles, and we began to realize that Texas might have more surprises in store for us than we realized.

One particular challenge we faced in regards to the WOWFWL mission was the state’s lack of public lands. Texas, the second-largest state in the US, counts less than 1.5 percent of its land as public federal lands, most of it in the form of Big Bend National Park, some National Forests, and military bases. All the rest of it is held in private ownership.

The reason for this has to do with the state’s annexation to the US, back in 1845. In that year, only 40,000 people lived in the Republic of Texas, and 225 million acres of land were still unsettled and owned by the Republic. In an attempt to subdue the concerns of Texans who opposed annexation, it was agreed upon in the Treaty of 1845 that Texas would retain all of its own public land, and none of it would be given up to the federal government–a situation markedly different from the annexation of many other western states.

This meant that distribution of these lands was left to the state, not the federal government. Texas hoped to give out this land to small-scale settlers, rather than large-scale land speculators, so it encouraged family settlements with land grants, cheap land costs, and very limited regulations. A half-century later, Texas had given away 96% of its remaining public acres, which were now in private ownership.

The effects of this are still seen today. Our days spent bicycling through Texas were considerably different from those spent in other western states: day after day we passed ranch after ranch after ranch. Fences lined the roads mile after mile. Campsites and parks were harder to come by, so we had to get creative about finding nightly accommodations (churches, fire departments, and calling the local sheriff).

Curiously enough, throughout all these private lands, there didn’t seem to be too much happening on them. Hannah questioned one day, “What does one even do with a ranch?”

One of many answers: hunting.

After only a short amount of time biking through Texas, we could tell that hunting was an important part of Texas culture and its economy. Katie and Peter grew up hunting in Minnesota so they are used to hunting being a big deal, but it seemed to be a totally different game in Texas. In Minnesota and the Dakotas, people hunt on both private land and public land, mostly managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In Texas, it seems that almost all of the hunting is done on private land, probably because 98% of Texas is private land.

Many of our days were spent biking over rolling hills on country roads with ten foot fences on either side of us along the road that continued on for miles. Our suspicions about the ranches with tall fences being used for hunting was later confirmed by one of our hosts in Montell, Texas. We learned that the fences are that high in order to keep the animals inside and that some of the ranches even import exotic animals like giraffes and rhinoceroses so that people can “big game hunt” in Texas. As we would bike by the hunting ranches, we could see hunting stands placed throughout the property and sometimes we would even spot some of the deer inside the fences. The deer we saw weren’t like any natural deer we had ever seen… these deer were clearly farmed and bred to have the biggest antlers as possible in order for as many deer on the ranch to be considered a “trophy buck.”

As hunters, one of the things we often pondered while biking was the legitimacy of killing a “trophy buck” on one of these game farms. First of all, these deer are not wild, nor did they seem very afraid of humans when we would bike by them. In our minds, this sort of guarantee of shooting something takes away most of the challenge of hunting, and the excitement and anticipation of not knowing. Another thing to consider is the reason that we hunt. Peter and Katie both consider hunting a way to accomplish two things. One reason they hunt is to obtain food in a simple and sustainable way, eliminating a lot of waste and allowing the animal to live a free life before it is killed. The other reason they hunt is to allow themselves those hours of quiet time in the woods to really watch, listen, identify, and understand nature and natural processes we often miss in our daily lives.

As we were biking by these private hunting ranches, we were wondering if the reasons we hunt and enjoy hunting were being overlooked because of the lack of public land in Texas. We can also only assume that the privatization of the hunting industry in Texas makes hunting more expensive and less accessible to all people. These problems further emphasize the need for public land, places where people can enjoy and have experiences in nature at an affordable price.

Our next big surprise came in a detour we made to see Big Bend National Park in the south of Texas. We plunged south for 50 miles reaching the Mexican border once again. We biked through Big Bend Ranch State Park and learned an important lesson: “no matter what you think and where you are, the climbing is never over.” All day people warned us about “the big hill,” however there was almost no distinction as every hill was terribly steep and every short descent was met with a longer and steeper climb. The knees that had blindly believed their days of climbing were through cried out in protest.

After a long, hot, and some might say miserable (not us of course) day we made our way onto the porch of the Starlight Theater in the Terlingua Ghost Town just outside Big Bend National Park. We had been lured there by the promise of cheap margaritas. We didn’t yet know that we were sitting on what is probably the world’s most famous porch or the historic birthplace of chili cook-offs around the world, but we would soon find out. For the moment, we were just 5 dazed, confused, and severely dehydrated cyclists in need of shade, a rest, and a place to stay. Within minutes of sitting down we had the whole porch a buzz and people were eagerly asking us where we were coming from and where we were headed. We informed people of our homelessness and within hardly anytime, a local guy told us, “my friend Ed loves having people over at his place, I’m sure he’d love to have you!” With that, he jumped in his car and sped off, returning 10 minutes later with the good news that we were welcome at Ed’s for the night.

Terlingua was a booming mining town in the 1880s into the early 1900s, boasting a population of around 3,000 people at one time. However, the mines dried up after the 1940s and the town’s population took a downward spiral. Many of the original buildings lay scattered around the town in different stages of decay, however Terlingua’s famous porch is an original fixture of the trading post that was the town’s centerpiece and still stands today.

After dinner and margs in the Starlight Theater, we met our host for the evening, a local Terlingua resident. It was immediately apparent that Ed was a total character. He told us within seconds that it was a good thing we were staying with him because he has the best and biggest shower in all of Terlingua. We followed him to his place and were greeted by all things Miller Light. Cases were stacked high, lining the walls. A miller light rug and blanket decorated the floor and sofa, posters celebrating his favorite drink filled the walls, and a disco ball hung from the ceiling sending colorful light dancing around the room. Ed, although eccentric, was an incredibly genuine man who through a love of new experiences and meeting new people came to call Terlingua his home and his favorite place on earth. He told us that one night was not nearly enough time to spend in the ghost town, and we wholeheartedly agreed. It was one of the most peculiar places any of us had been and I think we would have liked to answer the porch’s call to “sit a spell” for a little longer. That night, we fell asleep reading “Tales from the Porch,” learning about driving friendly, the Texas way; how Panther Junction got its name, Big Bend park headquarters; and a number of other quaint small town stories. In the morning, we got up and thanked Ed for sharing with us the spirit of Terlingua. His parting advice was “ride fast and take chances,” which was refreshing after the overwhelming number of “be careful”s we hear on a daily basis.

Big Bend National Park is one of two National Parks in Texas. It is located in the southwest park of Texas along the border with Mexico. The park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US, a desert region covering much of west Texas, parts of New Mexico and Arizona, and northern central Mexico. It contains the entirety of the Chisos Mountain Range.

Big Bend National Park contains more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals. The park is named after the large bend in the Rio Grande river that makes up the southwest border of Texas.

After our visit to Big Bend, we corresponded with the park’s Superintendent/Public Information Officer, Jennette Jurado. She believes that since Texas is somewhat lacking in public land, Big Bend holds enormous value to the state as it “is one of the few areas within a large region where visitors can come to experience wilderness and National Parks.” Along the lines of many of the same themes we’ve been hearing along our journey in regards to the importance of public lands, Ms. Jurado explained how “visitors from across Texas and the nation come [to Big Bend] specifically mentioning that they needed to disconnect, and get away from it all. With so many wide open acres here, this is an ideal location to come to get away from the noises and pace of a city and unwind.”

Ms. Jurado also noted a few threats facing Big Bend that park management and scientists have identified, including diminishing water resources in both aquifers that provide water for the park, and the consistently lower levels of the Rio Grande, which make recreational boating trips more difficult. Additionally, sulfite pollution, invasive plant species (especially buffelgrass, lehman lovegrass, tamarisk, river cane), exotic animal species (Aoudad in particular), and trespassing livestock. “Visitor misuse, including improper poop management, driving across the desert, and stealing rocks/artifacts/etc is also a problem,” Ms. Jurado says. “This park has some of the most incredible biodiversity in the National Park Service, having more species of birds, bats, butterflies, cacti, reptiles, and even Cretaceous dinosaur fossils than any other NPS area. In addition to this, we have the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states and incredible panoramic vistas. But this biodiversity in the desert is fragile!”

About a week after leaving Big Bend, we arrived in Austin, where we spent 3 days visiting family and catching up on sleep. We met with Scott Parker from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the same organization we had met with at the beginning of our trip in San Francisco.

Scott explained that, in a sense, Texas is its own entity and Texans are very proud of their land. Due to a mentality of independence, Texans are suspicious of conservationists and regulations imposed by the federal government. However, attitudes are slowly changing because of generational succession. Ranching and the old way of life does not interest the younger generation and is simply not economically viable anymore.

The goal of the TPL is to transform private land into public land. When private lands go on the market, the TPL works to purchase them for the public. The TPL tries to affect change where they can, and works behind the scenes to negotiate the transfer of lands from private entities. Currently, they are trying to buy a barrier island off the coast of Texas near Houston that is completely undeveloped. The barrier island has been sectioned off for permitting and building personal homes. However, every few years a hurricane comes through and wipes the island clean. The TPL believes the island would be better served as a barrier to the coast rather than a vacation spot.

The public outreach and messages used to persuade the people of Texas is different when it comes to conservation. The TPL uses economic arguments rather than ecological or environmental arguments. For example, in the case of the barrier island, the TPL emphasizes that it will shield the coast from the destruction of hurricanes and prevent damage to people’s homes, therefore reducing costs for reconstruction.

Scott works specifically with the city of San Marcos near Austin. San Marcos is one of the fastest growing cities in Texas. The TPL is trying to make sure parks and open spaces are included in its planning so the city doesn’t get lost in the wave of development. In addition, Scott is working to acquire more private land to add to the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, located northwest of Austin, an area originally made possible by the efforts of the TPL. This refuge was created in 1992 to protect the habitat of two endangered migratory songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. The refuge is located on the Edwards Plateau, which lies above a massive and intricate system of groundwater called the Edwards Aquifer. This aquifer supplies drinking water for 1 million people in Texas Hill Country and feeds many other springs and rivers in the area. It is crucial that this refuge and aquifer are kept clean and protected in order to preserve the quality of drinking water and endangered habitat for wildlife, especially in this area where cities are rapidly growing.

In Scott’s words, “It is time now to elevate the conversation and bring more visibility to land issues. Public lands are an American idea; they are part of our identity and heritage as a nation.”

One of our other favorite peculiar Texas experiences occurred in the absolutely minuscule town of Montell, the sort of place where you could sneeze and miss it while you’re driving through. We had plans to stay with a host named Alice. The only problem was that we had reached out to Alice a week before arriving and she had told us we were welcome. But leading up to our arrival, we never heard from her again. We had some vague notions of where she lived, though she informed us she had no real address and google maps would not be able to direct us to her home. She also told us it was possible she would not be home when we arrived at her place. Armed with little knowledge of our host, her whereabouts, the status of our night’s stay, and no cell service, we made our way to her house. A series of clues lead us to her front door where, luckily, Alice was home to greet us and lend us a bed for the night. It just so happened that the night spent with Alice was Veterans Day. Alice had been entertaining some veterans throughout the day who had come from out of town to hang out on a family ranch and do some hunting. The three veterans joined us as we were finishing up our dinner and invited us to crack a cold one with them. Eventually they got around to telling us about a local spring, the Blue Hole, on a nearby ranch and asked if we’d like to go check it out. We all piled in the pick up, 5 of us in the cab and 4 in the bed. We drove down a dirt road, rode up on bump gates, spotted deer, crossed deep creeks, culminating in a drive down the actual creek bed until we reached the Blue Hole. It was the dead of night, stars shone overhead, and all around water poured down a natural water slide to fill a clear, beautiful pool. At the edge of the water stood a 15 foot rock, a traditional spot for cliff jumping, our guides told us. Everyone stood around goding each other to jump until finally we all mustered up the courage and made the leap into the water below. It was euphoric and exhilarating to have this incredible experience that not one of us would have predicted earlier that day. Biking often leads us to places we would have never guessed or would have found ourselves if it wasn’t for this trip. We’ve learned to say yes to these experiences and go along for the ride, relinquishing control and appreciating the moment. On the ride back we were giddy. The guys had told us a couple of times already that evening, “Montell is the best town in Texas,” and though it’s so small it can hardly qualify as a town, we were starting to agree with them.

P.S. We very briefly had a sixth team member who we picked up outside of Austin. Contact Alex if you would like to hear the full story about Moop the cat, but end of story, Moop the once-homeless cat is now happily settled in Minnesota and is looking forward to living life in Montana with Alex.

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