I woke up to chilly air and clear blue skies, dressing warmly to walk both dogs, taking each dog around separate loops. While walking Bella around the loop across from ours, a family of deer came up around one of the campsites, standing less than 20 feet away from us. I was awed by our dog’s restraint and the calm demeanor of the wildlife willing to walk right into the campground. It reminded me the deer we had seen last summer while we were camping in Missouri, our daughter reaching out to ask for permission to pet the deer that walked into our campground. For the record, we didn’t let her.
Since we got into the park after the office closed the night before, I had to head up to the front desk to make sure we were all paid up. By the time I had paid for our campsite, checked to see if there were extra nights available (in case we wanted to make an adjustment to our Big Bend plans), and returned to the camper, the rest of my family was ready for a quick trip into town to fill up our nearly empty gas tank, get another hose for the dump tank (we had full hook-up at our site and with the potential for four nights at the same site, we needed to be able to empty our gray water), and figure out our plans for the day.
As soon as we got back, I dumped all of the ingredients for potato soup into the crockpot so that our dinner would be ready when we finally got back to our camper later in the evening, a camp dinner trick I learned several years ago when we got our first camper. It was something we had never considered during our tent camping days, but with kids and no possibility for a fire to cook over, this offered us a perfect dinner preparation alternative.
Ready to explore, we hopped back into the truck and Jeff drove to the overlook at the top of the Skyline Drive. When we got to the top and could see the mountaintops all around us, our son exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to see a mountain!” While he had never shared this seven-year long desire with us, it was clear that awe of the mountain peaks took some of the edge off of the forty-degree temps with an even colder windchill. Our daughter distracted herself by jumping from rock to rock, ignoring the drop off on all sides of the mountain peak and exclaiming her own love for the rugged terrain.
By the time one of the park rangers showed up for the 11:00 interpretive talk, “Sky Island Party,” I wasn’t sure the kids would want to endure the cold wind any longer, but Ranger Ty pulled out leis and the kids were game. We learned a long time ago to take advantage of the park ranger programs when we can. More often than not, it helps us learn things that we would no have otherwise learned had we just explored on our own. More importantly, it creates natural learning experiences for our kids, taking them outside of the classroom and showing them a practical application for everything that they have learned in school.
That absolutely proved true this time. We learned that the Davis Mountains is one of three “islands in the sky” in the state of Texas — Guadalupe Mountains and Chisos Basin in Big Bend being the other two. In Texas, these three mountain regions create centers of vegetation in the middle of desert, so if you were to look at the region from a bird’s eye view, you would see green surrounded by desert, hence the island in the sky. In addition, the ranger had our kids practice their math skills as they figured out the change in temperature per 1,000 feet and they learned about the animal life as elevation increases. Our ranger was awesome and informative and the kids enjoyed their journey across the mountaintop.
By the time we were done with our ranger-led nature experience, we were cold and hungry and instead of heading back for sandwiches at the camper, we went to the CCC-constructed Indian Lodge on the other side of the state park for lunch at their tiny restaurant. During our Indiana days, we enjoyed our occasional trips to Pokagon State Park and the accompanying lodge. I admit that I was expecting much of the same. But the Indian Lodge restaurant is significantly smaller and the food wasn’t nearly as good. However, it was nice to sit and warm up before heading back to our camper to check on the dogs and make hiking plans.
When we returned to our camper, the kids took off for the dry creek bed below the camp site so they could play with the rocks. With the winter temperatures, I had few concerns about snakes and scorpions hiding under the rocks, so I let them go crazy. They moved rocks, made sculptures, and found treasures galore while I diced the onions that I had forgotten to put in the soup before we left in the morning.
We leashed up the dogs, Jeff deciding it was the right time to try to dual leash and taking full responsibility for the dogs. I questioned the use of the dual leash, but Jeff argued that with J.T.’s history of pulling and Bella’s history of stopping to sniff everything along the way, they would balance each other out. In the end, he was right. We walked to the base of the Montezuma Quail Trail, a 0.9 mile hike (one way) that climbs up the mountain side over rocky trails, taking a 220 foot climb in elevation at the highest point. As we started our ascent, our son exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain,” another lifelong dream that we never knew he had. Jeff and I were thankful we had both put on our hiking shoes and I was thankful for the hiking boots that I had purchased for both kids during a Payless Shoes Black Friday online sale. The rocks made the moderate rated hike more challenging, and I was glad that Jeff had taken charge of both dogs, who pulled him up the mountain and way ahead of the rest of us. But even with the challenge of climbing over rocks as we worked our way uphill, the view was worth it.
We all managed to keep our footing, until we started our descent, at which time the kids and I took individual spills as our feet slipped on loose rocks, while Jeff managed to keep his footing, even with two dogs pulling him along down the decline. As we walked back to the campsite, we met up with another family with two little girls who had just completed the Indian Lodge Trail, almost convincing us that we could attempt another trail if their girls could do it. But we needed to head back and check on dinner if we were going to make it to the top of the Skyline Drive to catch the sunset. We took a quick walk to the interpretive center where the kids found puzzles and Jeff and I found a PBS documentary about the CCC playing on the big screen TV in the corner of the largest meeting room. But we couldn’t stay forever, needing to bundle up so that we could take in the last sights of the day.
The top of the overlook hadn’t gotten any warmer over the course of the day, the cold wind still cutting across the top of the peak, but the changing colors over the mountainous desert landscape was more breathtaking than the wind. We waited with the few other families who chose to brave the cold and watched as the sun slowly went over the mountain.
Before we headed down the mountain, we followed the signs to the CCC overlook, one of the many things built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. Davis Mountains State Park, like Pokagon State Park in Indiana (one of our favorites from our former home), is a CCC park, the 80-year-old remnants of the Depression Era program holding up to the wear and tear of time. Jeff has always been interested in the CCC, and I have to say that the lasting structures from the CCC continue to be impressive, offering another spectacular view of the mountains.
Our soup supper gave way to a game of Oregon Trail: Hunt for Food, which didn’t last nearly as long as the kids wanted it to. We got confused by the rules, realized that we were playing it wrong, and decided to use it as a learning game and give up for another night. Our daughter claimed we had gone back on our promise to play Oregon Trail. We had to remind her that busy days often mean that our best laid plans don’t always go exactly how we want them to.
The clear, cold night sky presented another perfect view of the stars and I could claim that the day had been nearly perfect. It may have been colder than we Houston transplants had become accustomed to, but the refreshing time outside in God’s creation had made it all worth it. Thankful for a heated camper, we snuggled into our beds to prepare for a trip down south the next day.