Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

Normally our friend Bill Holston likes to hike in urban areas closer to home. This week, though, he hopped a plane to Sandhills State Park.

The Wisdom of Our Elders
By Bill Holston

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been hiking with my friend Scott for over 30 years. That makes me sound old. More accurately, it means I am old. Scott invited me to accompany him to Midland to visit his dad, whose health is declining. I was happy to accept. Scott’s parents, Bob and Sadie, are extraordinarily gracious people. When our kids were little, we always traveled through Midland on our way to Big Bend. They put us up, fed us, and even loaned us their car one year. We also spent lots of time at their family ranch in Hamilton County. I still remember a bone-in pork chop Bob grilled one time as we drove back through Midland. I have Sadie to thank for our tortilla soup recipe. It’s cleared my sinuses more than once.

Since I had a free Rapid Rewards ticket, I headed out to Midland to meet Scott. Our plan was to visit his mom and dad and pop down to the Davis Mountains for a hike and a swim at the icy cold spring-fed waters of Balmorhea on the way back. Well, that was the plan.

It seems to me that our culture doesn’t value our elders sufficiently. That’s increasingly significant in my thinking as I actually become one. Sadly, we shuttle them off to the side, ignoring the wisdom that only years can provide. Think of the stories we just let slip away without recording them. One of the real regrets in life is that I didn’t spend more time recording my maternal grandfather’s stories. Aire Carter was born in 1895 in Mississippi. His father died of scarlet fever, when Aire was 9. So he dropped out of school and worked in a sugar cane mill. Later he fought in World War I, in the Meuse Argonne Offensive. He was a journeyman electrician at Ingalls Shipyard, and once moved to Oregon to work in a bakery. He offered the most succinct advice I recall from my boyhood. He’d hand my brother and me a .410 shotgun, and as we headed into the pines he’d say, “Ya’ll be particular now, hear?” I wish I knew much more about him. So I’m determined to listen more to the older people in my life. I’ll get my chance, as my wonderful mother-in-law just moved down here from Kansas. She’s one of my real heroes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Bob and Sadie. Sadie grew up in a West Texas ranching family. I love listening to her stories of ranch life and her family’s experiences settling the Red River country of Clarksville, before moving down to the area around Junction. She still gets sad remembering having to kill cattle when cattle prices bottomed out. Bob’s health is declining, but he was happy to see us. He got up, greeted us, and we sat in the shade of a giant live oak in their courtyard. We watched hummingbirds darting overhead. The entire time we were there a mockingbird sat in the top of the tree, filling the area with its dramatic song. Bob talked about his times growing up in Iowa, fishing and hunting with his cousins. We talked about all of the fun memories I had of spending time with him and Sadie at their farm. I think both of us realized that time with his folks was a precious thing, so we opted to spend more time in Midland and have an abbreviated hike on Sunday morning. Time has a way for smoothing life in some ways. Like most men of my generation, Scott’s had conflicts over the years with his dad. Us baby boomers gave our hard-working Greatest Generation parents fits with our rock and/or roll music and hippie philosophies. But now all of that fades away. What is left is Scott’s love for his dad and, good man that he is, the desire to honor his father and to care for him.

Sunday, we got up before the sun and headed to Monahans Sandhills State Park. If you’ve ever driven on I-20 headed west, you’ve driven past this 3,000-acre park. This park is an unexpected delight in the somewhat featureless expanse of the Permian Basin. We drove in about 2 miles and parked our car at a picnic area. There are no trails, just miles of dunes. We decided to try to create a large loop by walking straight north, then east, then south and west, hopefully getting back to our car. We climbed to the top of one of the dunes. These are big dunes, some as high as 80 feet. There are seeps where water supports black willow trees, and creates an inviting environment for the coyotes, skunks, snakes, and birds that inhabit this austere country. Scott found the skeleton of a feral hog at the bottom of one of these seeps. Walking in sand is slow going and climbing up the sides of the dunes was somewhat strenuous.

Soon, we entered a grove of Shin Oaks (Quercus havardii). This is a great illustration of why we Naturalists try to use Latin names, as what we call Shin Oaks in North Texas are an entirely different tree. (Quercus sinuata var. breviloba) These oaks are small, and create large thickets. The trees are only about 3 or 4 feet tall. They cling to the sides of the dunes, and the roots provide stability to the dunes. There was hardly anything else growing on these dunes. We’d climb up on the top, and sand dunes stretched as far as we could see. It was easy to imagine David Lean’s wonderful film Lawrence of Arabia as we hiked up and over these dunes. These sands were immense, austere, beautiful and awful.

We began noticing all of the tracks which crossed the sand: beetles, lizards, and mice. The most beautiful thing to me, though, was the patterns in the sand from blowing grasses. The winds would blow the grass in circles, leaving beautiful tracks, which merged with shadows. I’ve always loved random patterns in nature. They remind me of abstract art, but the images are more symmetrical and seemingly ordered. We took a water break in the shade of one of those shin oaks, and the only sound was the wind. I could see how you could get lost here. There are few landmarks, although we did see a windmill, which marked one of the parking areas, so we knew we were headed in the right direction. The sun was wicked hot, evidenced by the weathered old water pipes we found baked and buried in the sand. We didn’t see a soul while we hiked. As we neared the parking area, we saw some kids sledding down the higher dunes, on plastic discs that they rent at the park. One New Year’s we stopped here during a snow, and sledded down these sandy hills covered with snow. It was really a beautiful and rare sight. I love this park. It apparently serves as the inspiration for my good friend Britton’s band, Monahans, who I saw play with Seryn last year.

After hiking for about two hours, we returned to the car. We stopped at the visitor center, which has a nice small museum. We learned that this area is surprisingly full of water. In one of the seeps, we dug down a few inches and the sand was damp. Native Americans camped in this area. The dunes are right on the Comanche Trail, and Comanches and Lipan Apaches would camp here, finding water in the low areas. People have found many signs of the people who inhabited these dunes, such as flint arrow heads, and burned rocks from ancient fire pits. The Ranger told us about how the abundant waters here attracted Native Americans. She also told us about the owls that she’d occasionally see here.

The park had set up feeders and water for the birds. We saw Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) flying around the garden. But my favorite bird is one I’d never seen, but always wanted to, the Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus). It’s a beautiful bird and I got to see it very close. We left the park and headed to Monahans to see if we could find some juevos y papas. The restaurants were all closed, but we found a serviceable burrito stand and had some pretty decent breakfast burritos.

I missed hiking in the Davis Mountains, but they will still be there for a while. We can’t know for sure how much time we have left to visit and hear the stories of our parents, though. So this weekend a short walk, and a long talk was just fine.