WILD ON THE PRAIRIE
Burr Williams, Midland Reporter Telegram, April 2, 2003, © 2003
Deborah and I, as did my parents before us, keep journals of our travels. Recently I flipped through my parents' journal volumes - thirty years of weekend, vacation, and retirement wandering fill a thousand pages. I found more than a dozen entries about one roadside park in the Davis Mountains. Two of the earliest entries documented my mom's discovery of a previously unrecorded bird for the state of Texas.
In the first entry, she mentions finding the bird, and details some of its activities. The second entry, a few weeks later, records her efforts to lead other birders to further document the bird. As an aside, she mentioned that the roadside park had been a favorite place to visit for years, so I turned to the albums of their black and white photographs of the vacations of years even further back. Sure enough, the site was featured in several sets of photographs, from the two decades before the commencement of the journals.
My parents were fearless, or foolhardy. They often camped on the side of the road, if a roadside park could not be found. The roadside park in Madera Canyon, ten miles west of Mt. Locke and McDonald Observatory, is on the highest road in Texas. Ponderosa Pines fill the valley. At the head of the valley is Mt. Livermore, the highest peak in the range. I can remember camping with them in Madera Canyon at least a dozen times in my childhood. We would take long walks along the road, identifying plants, watching birds, enjoying the lively bounding of panicked deer when we accidentally startled small groups of does and fawns.
Few people travel the Davis Mountain Loop Road (FM 118) on weekdays of the off seasons of fall, winter, and spring. My dad often added an entry about the numbers of cars over the span of the stay. “Only three vehicles in fifteen hours - one highway patrolman, one highway department vehicle, and one ranch pickup.” Only once in the thousand pages, does he write of strangers approaching their cabover camper with anything other than an offer to provide help, if needed. That time, in the mountains north of the Ghost Ranch west of Taos, several young men woke them at three in the morning, seeking help. He lent them his emergency vehicle repair toolbox, and they came back after daybreak to return it.
One of the reasons for my mom's love of the Madera Canyon roadside park was that there she had a chance to hear or see species of owls that prefer mountain habitat. She never found one species, the pygmy owl, despite a hundred trips to its proper habitat to almost every U.S. mountain range west of the Mississippi River. In the effort to find it, she even went on a high-dollar guided trip in the mountains of southeast Arizona, hiking miles in the dark at age 70, up steep trails with uncertain footing. The trip produced ten species of owls, but not one pygmy owl.
I can remember one evening in Madera, during the early hours of a moonless night, following a hooting Flammulated Owl, the stars barely above the tips of the trees and easily lighting our way. It briefly sat motionless in the beam of a bright flashlight, then hooted and dived into a clump of alligator junipers and out of sight. We then turned out the light, and waited for its next vocalization. A second owl hooted, and after an hour of listening and carefully and quietly moving, we found the nest tree, and the female awaiting its mate to bring food.
Under the pines, junipers and oaks of the roadside park, is a population of a rare species of grass. I have looked for it, but never found it. Its exact location in the park has not been published, to my knowledge. I have walked the ten acres of the park several times, at several seasons, hoping to recognize it. I always visit a patch of silver pony-foot - a species of dichondra I believe might make a good groundcover for the shady landscape. I have never found a seed, so once, and only once, I dug up a tiny clump that grew where visitors often stepped on it. My skills as a horticulturist did not measure up, and it died in the pot, never regaining vigor.
To the south of the roadside park is the old McIvor ranch, now owned by the Nature Conservancy. Careful research by dozens of invited naturalists have revealed several more species of birds previously unrecorded in the state of Texas, as well as a new species of oak. Scientists from all over the nation have come at the Conservancy's request, methodically developing a database of its biodiversity.
I joined John Karges, regional biologist for the Conservancy, on the McIvor, for an Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count a few years ago. We climbed an old ranch road among trees laden with thick sheaths of ice, our skin raw from the cold wind, until we finally climbed off of the north facing slope and into a windless canyon. There, the ice glittered in the beauty that we try to reproduce at Yule. Thousands of trees sparkled gold and silver, and as the sun warmed the scene, the ice began to fall, slipping off of the needles, tinkling with the sound of a harp's upper register. And in the sunlight, dozens of birds gathered, wriggling in abandonment, absorbing the returning warmth.
Two wonderful experiences with people also occurred in the park. One evening, an old cowboy drove up, and after being offered some supper, repaid us with stories of the mountains. His grandfather had been one of Captain John Bullis' renown Seminole-Negro scouts, and his father and uncles had worked on every ranch within a hundred miles, as had he.
Another evening, three old school buses pulled in for the night. After their supper, the traveling bluegrass bandmembers brought out mandolin, banjo, harmonica, guitar, fiddle, mouthharp, jugs, and bucket fiddles and rehearsed their show. I can still hear, when I close my eyes, and get real comfortable, letting my mind go, the incredibly mournful wails of one fiddle song. Then, in my imagination, I see the tall pines reaching high into the sky, black against the Milky Way.
I love Madera Canyon, too.