Where something of the original Texas still survives.
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“In the beginning,” writes Texan historian T. R. Fehrenbach, “in the beginning, before any people, was the land: an immense region 265,000 square miles in area rising out of the warm muck of the green Gulf of Mexico, running for countless leagues of rich coastal prairies, forests, and savannahs; reaching out hugely 770 miles from boundary to boundary south to north and east to west, to enclose a series of magnificent, rising limestone plateaus, ending in the thin, hot air of blue-shadowed mountains.”
Newcomers we are, intruders on a wilderness with purposes of our own: varied purposes that have until quite lately not included the determination to preserve some islands of wildness among the workshops we have constructed to hammer out our dreams. Unique among the states, Texas chose and was permitted to keep its public lands upon admission to the union; 170 million acres were thus withheld from federal supervision and distributed indiscriminately for the balance of the century. Much of the modern history of Texas is the story of the fortunes that were built and broken through speculation in those lands. Less has been said about the consequences of their loss.
One consequence is that Texas is dismayingly poor in public recreational land and wilderness preserves. Federal lands in other states, especially in the West, have done much to fill the need for open space demanded by crowded city dwellers as outlets for their growing leisure. Except for two important but remote national parks in far West Texas, Padre Island National Seashore, and a few national forests in the East, the state is devoid of federal land that can now be used for this purpose. Most Texans must choose between private lands and scrawny state parks, and for all but a handful who have access to some property of their own, there is actually no choice at all. The need for wilderness and recreational land has become acute, even if it could not have been foreseen by the nineteenth-century politicians to whom the Texas earth surface seemed an inexhaustible resource.
Many significant natural sites still in private hands have never been adequately studied and classified; scientifically speaking, they remain unexplored territory. At the instigation of former State Senator Don Kennard—a canoeist, raconteur, and lover of the wilderness—the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin set about last year to rectify this situation. Establishing the Natural Areas Survey Project with Kennard himself as director, the School assembled a team of botanists, zoologists, geologists, and anthropolgists to examine four sites that ranged, quite literally, from the warm muck of the Gulf to several of the tallest blue-shadowed mountains in the state: Matagorda Island on the coast northeast of Corpus Christi, the Davis Mountains of West Texas, Victorio Canyon near Van Horn, and Capote Falls—a place so isolated that the nearest city (the remote settlement of Presidio) is nearly two hours’ drive away. Another team will consider five more sites this summer.
The four sites included in the first project are among the most memorable works of nature in the state. Each has long ago been disturbed to the point where it can no longer be called wilderness, but none has yet been blighted beyond recovery. They are wild places still.
In wildness, we are told, is the preservation of the world. To visit them is to know that is so.
One cold dawn in January 1881, Texas Rangers attacked a small Apache camp in the Sierra Diablo twenty miles northwest of Van Horn. The Rangers saw the camp as merely the most recent base for Indian raids by followers of the Mescalero military genius Victorio, whose depredations in the region had reached their greatest intensity in late summer and fall of the previous year. History records it instead as the site of the last Indian battle in Texas—a trivial episode in itself, but marking the fateful moment when the white man took unchallenged dominion over the Lone Star State’s contested western lands.
The Indian survivors fled southward with their wounded, pursued by a party of Rangers. Today the quiet arroyo conjures images of Rangers, washed and rested, waiting impatiently for their fellow officers to return, wandering away from the corpse-strewn field across the desolate Diablo Plain to a slight, rocky rise, there to stand in numbed astonishment at the spectacular scene suddenly spread out below: a canyon 2000 feet deep and five miles long. The majestic power of Victorio Canyon is heightened by the improbability that such a natural drama could be played out silently, without warning, in the midst of featureless desert that gives no hint of what lies beyond. The impact of seeing Victorio for the first time comes from realizing that one has failed to take a true measure of the land. There is an unsettling awareness that eyes can grow lazy with flatlands’ predictable dimensions and monotonous probabilities, leaving one unprepared for canyons sliced through multicolored rock and successions of windworked statuary looming on steep walls like faceless apostles around some weathered Royal Portal. If the Rangers did not see it, it is their loss: the land is worthy of the moment.
Though in area relatively small, Victorio Canyon and Peak are stunning examples of Basin and Range physiography. The rugged Sierra Diablo typifies the limestone bank reefs that ring the Delaware Basin. Its prominent kin is the towering El Capitan Reef in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the north. The mysterious narrow side canyons resulted from uplift, intense fracturing, and desert erosion. Eastward beyond the canyon mouth a bleached Salt Basin shimmers through turbulent air. An ever-present wind intensifies the immense solitude and grandeur.
Botanically the area contains climax grama and tobosagrasses with isolated stands of pinyon pine, juniper, and small-leaf oak. Eleven rare and endangered species of plants have been identified in the vicinity, and a shaded fork of Little Victorio Canyon narrows above 5000 feet to a moist, fertile oasis where ferns, oaks, fragrant ash, barberry, and bigtooth maples survive. Found throughout the Sierra Diablo are the native spines of giant yucca, agave, ocotillo, and cactus.
The lower canyon’s fauna is typical of the Chihuahuan Desert. Wildlife, after all, is unimpressed by scenery, and neither the vegetation nor the terrain differs sufficiently from surrounding areas for a unique habitat to have developed. Areas above the rim, however, constitute a transitional zone with some of the characteristics of the Guadalupe Mountains. The Sierra Diablo and Victorio Canyon have been insufficiently studied by biologists, but apparently the region has been an important route for the exchange of wildlife migrating north and south between the Navahonian Biotic Province and the Chihuahuan Biotic Province.
The most unusual features of the canyon’s wildlife are the bighorn sheep, recently restored to a corner of the state that witnessed their “last stand” two decades ago. As late as 1939 zoologists estimated that 300 bighorns survived in the Sierra Diablo and nearby mountains. By 1956 the estimate had fallen to five. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which last year released bighorns into the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area of southern Victorio Canyon, hopes eventually to reestablish them throughout the mountains.
Inhospitable climate and physical inaccessibility have rendered the Sierra Diablo an area of few archaeological sites. Spanish rule left no mark on Victorio. Traces of prehistoric man persist as burned rock middens and lithic debris scattered along small stream terraces above the canyon floor, but the absence of dependable water supplies evidently thwarted human habitation in the area for many centuries. A short distance from the rim, perhaps a half-mile from the precise spot where local legend says the Rangers surprised the last embattled Apaches, the homestead of J. V. McAdoo stands. Built in 1917 by the first white man ever to own the surrounding land, the two-room dwelling served until 1945 as the home for a family of six. Often they cooked and slept outside. The widowed matriarch now lives in a modern ranch house several miles away. Her vivid recollections are a sobering reminder that the white man’s presence in the Sierra Diablo has been so brief that its beginnings were witnessed by those still living.
The self-centered arrogance so characteristic of settled, civilized man is impossible at Victorio. He who lives in London or Cairo, Shanghai or Boston—even the man who lives in Houston, Fort Worth, or Alpine—can scarcely imagine the land without himself or his kind upon it, even though he knows intuitively that it once was empty of his people and will surely be empty again. Victorio permits no such illusions. Man’s presence—any man’s—is revealed for the superficial thing it is. Those who live in the Sierra Diablo reminisce with stories of men who vanished without a trace, sensing uneasily that those stories are symbolic of their own tenuous existence here.
Nothing lasts in this ruthless country. The well-tended McAdoo cemetery stands beside the crumbling homestead, but the hollyhocks are clipped and carried from the ranch house beyond the hills, and the sound of human voices is not heard. Braced against treacherous winds at the lip of the empty canyon, one knows that everything men have fashioned for this land will sooner or later be an archaeological site, a spot marked “ruins” on a map—and probably sooner. Men do not “develop” the Sierra Diablo: they cling to it.
A student of the past has observed that Texas history is a story of racial and cultural conflict. The blood shed at Victorio is a poignant reminder of his insight. But the empty horizon, the weathered homestead, and the dry canyon filled with silences give ironic witness that the land outlasts the men who occupy it.
Capote Falls, the highest waterfall in Texas, drops 150 feet from the volcanic rim of the Sierra Vieja 70 miles northwest of Presidio near the Rio Grande. Although its waters disappear into the desert sands before they reach the banks of that famous river, they form a brief dramatic oasis in the barren countryside.
The falls derive their name from a sloping capelike travertine deposit that backs the lower cascade. For countless years mineral-saturated spring water has plunged over the falls to evaporate in the intense summer heat and form this unusual geologic feature.
Sheer box canyon walls rise on three sides, appended with the brown, pot-bellied nests of hundreds of cliff swallows. Rich banks of maidenhair fern and columbine line the lower reaches, moistened by seeping springs and blowing mist. Sunlight rarely penetrates to these sheltered walls where deep shadows and the awesome vertical scale evoke the mystery of cathedrals.
Less than a hundred miles away, the ancient Spanish settlement of La Junta de los Rios (now Presidio-Ojinaga) was a remote way-station for travelers during centuries of colonial rule. Many expeditions passed within a few miles of the falls themselves, yet with the single exception of the wayward explorer Antonio de Espejo, there is not the slightest evidence that European eyes ever observed them. History swirled around Capote and left it untouched, its natural isolation reinforced by the unwitting neglect by men preoccupied with dreams of empire, until 1885 when Luke Brite and his cattle brought a new dispensation to the land.
The stream which convenes the life of this oasis is born and dies in the vast solitudes of the despoblado, a stark and angular region that summons to the mind’s eye an image of Texas as the world imagines it. Afternoon light cleaves across the broad, mostly dry Rio Grande Valley, drawing the eye beyond narrow stands of willow and salt cedar, shining like some furious beacon with promise of a greener land wet with winter snows where the thirsty river has its source.
Red weathered Old Mountains of faulted Tertiary stone address the massive Mexican escarpment rising west across the river like the breastworks of two gigantic baronial castles menacing each other across some fancied North American Rhine. In all directions angles lie upon angles, forming a steepness that shuts out civilization and divides mankind into the billions above and the dozens below the savage, sunlit rim.
Through this harsh landscape Capote Creek conveys life-giving water, tempering the desert with foxtails, ferns, and cottonwoods, abrading the rocks to smoothness, comforting the eye wearied by too much masculine country with the gentler ornaments of rills and arabesques. The creek and its feed-springs in the cienega above the falls form a unique biological island in an isolated corner of the state that fewer than one Texan in a thousand has ever seen. What would otherwise be a desert shrub canyon is instead the home of water-loving ash and hackberry growing over a carpet of green grass and goldenrod. Nine rare, endangered, or endemic species of plants still exist in the vicinity. Below the mouth of the last warm spring, willows and chloris appear; they accompany the gradually-diminishing stream through inhospitable country where afternoon summer temperatures average 110 degrees, to the point a short distance from the Rio Grande where it finally sinks below parched stones.
In a region of staggering distances where miles are meaningless, life or death is paradoxically determined by inches. A few steps away from the water’s edge, typical dry canyon vegetation appears: prickly pear, lotebush, catclaw, stickyleaf acacia, grama grass, cockroach plant, and paleface rosemallow. Father back, mesquite and creosote bush visibly confirm the inexorable transition from oasis to Chihuahuan Desert.
The canyon below the falls is a narrow passage through old volcanic tuff. This secluded shelter forms a protective environment for a variety of wildlife like the canyon-wren, whose clear descending stairstep song echoes distinctively within the walls. Seventy-five other bird species have been recorded in the canyon, among them the black vulture, which is rarely seen in other parts of Texas. Twenty-nine species of mammals are known to exist along the creek, of which the colony of rare mastiff bats is perhaps the most remarkable. Mountain lions range the area, and bobcats, mule deer, badgers, and porcupines inhabit the banks of this perennial stream. Unusual reptiles like the all-female whiptail lizards, who reproduce through the immaculate conception of parthenogenesis, and the ornate whipsnake, which may be a distinct subspecies unique to Capote Canyon, help make it a wild preserve of significant value.
Aquatic insects skate across the creek surface, while knotleaf rush and smooth flatsedge thrive in the streambed. Beneath the shallow, fast-flowing water an occasional brilliant glint betrays a fragment of opalescent moonstone, dislodged from the ignimbrite along the highest reaches of Capote Rim. Washed into the creek, the crystal faces of these gems catch the sun and reflect iridescent blue light to the astonished eye.
Despite the expectation that Capote Canyon must have been an irresistible magnet to Indian tribesmen, European explorers, and nineteenth-century westward travelers, its recent archaeology affords no indication that it was cherished as the oasis we now perceive. Capote Canyon’s interest to archaeologists comes from the fact that it lay on a border between desert-adapted Jumano huntsmen ranging beyond the Chisos Mountains, and river-adapted Jumano and Patarabuey Pueblo farmers in the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos valleys.
Military rifle shells dated 1915 and 1918 are silent reminders of Pancho Villa’s fellow bandits who raided across the Sierra Vieja rimrock to the Brite Ranch above the cienega little more than a half-century ago.
Today, accelerated erosion attributable to reckless overgrazing in the basin above the falls threatens destruction of the delicate cape. A massive section of the capote has broken away since 1964 and the plunge pool—fifteen feet deep in 1966—is now no more than a shallow, gravel-filled basin. Extensively exposed mesquite roots along the canyon are striking examples of the damage taking place. The combined impact of man and nature on this fragile oasis is alarming. To expect that it will be the same ten years from now is perhaps to make the same mistake made by visitors who admired the plunge pool and perfect cape in 1963. Although the past of Capote Falls is measured in centuries, its future may be measured in years.
To the casual traveler the mountains of West Texas are a pleasant scenic interlude in the long monotonous journey across hundreds of miles of arid plains; to the naturalist, however, they are rare remnants of an ancient environment that once sustained vast areas of plants and wildlife similar to those in the Rocky Mountains. Receding under the implacable pressure of a drying climate, that verdant past now survives on the higher elevations of the Chisos, Guadalupe, and Davis Mountains. These true biological islands preserve living fragments of an existence that has otherwise completely disappeared from Texas.
The only significant history of the Davis Mountains, especially of the unique central Sawtooth-Livermore area, is natural history. Their importance as a slowly vanishing remnant of Rocky Mountain environment far exceeds their importance as a stage for human endeavor. Their recorded history is so meager as to be disconcerting: despite Spanish title dating from the sixteenth century, not a single expedition penetrated these mountains until the 1850s. They served only as a haven for Comanches and Mescalero Apaches ranging across the plains. The savagery of both tribes made ranching impossible, regardless of how tempting the water and thick grass of this region might have seemed. Not until 1849, when Captain William Whiting opened the first trail through Limpia Canyon and Wild Rose Pass, skirting the mountains and linking San Antonio with El Paso, did the white man begin to make is presence felt. The founding of Fort Davis in 1854 helped secure the area against infuriated Indians, but this outpost was temporarily lost when the fort was abandoned during the Civil War. Only after the rampaging Victorio’s death in 1880 was the region safe for white men. “Ancient history” in Jeff Davis County carries dates like 1889, when the Bloy’s Camp Meeting ground was founded six miles south of Mount Livermore, and 1903, when the Reynolds ranch (which now owns Sawtooth Mountain) began its operations. The devotee of history must seek other diversions here.
The archaeological record appears even less rewarding. Only three sites are recorded within the Davis Mountains, compared to more than 11000 in adjacent Brewster County. Apart from a few cliff paintings, pictographs, and scattered projectile points, the only substantial archaeological discovery in the Sawtooth-Livermore area was made in 1895 when the Janes party unearthed a cache of 1200 highly distinctive arrowpoints in a pit at the very summit of Mount Livermore. No finds of even remotely similar extent have been made in the intervening years, reinforcing a popular supposition that the site had ceremonial significance to unknown prehistoric peoples.
For the naturalist and the seeker of wild beauty, these mountains hold infinitely greater rewards. Their ecological importance is undisputed, even if they are not protected by national park status as are the only two comparable areas, the Chisos and the Guadalupes. The fauna of the Sawtooth-Livermore area in particular is remarkable. Animals living above 5000 feet, isolated from other species on similar mountain ranges by the Plains Life Belt at lower elevations, include some of the most interesting wildlife to be found in Texas. Among the unusual species occurring here are Pinyon Jays, Stellar’s Jays, Clark’s Nutcrakcers, Cassin’s Finches, Golden Eagles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Grace’s Warblers, Trans-Pecos Rat Snakes, Baird’s Rat Snakes, Short-horned Lizards, and Pocket Gophers. The Harlequinn, or Mearn’s Quail, which once was widely distributed in Texas, is now confined to the Davis Mountains and hovers on the verge of extinction. The only known specimen of a unique species of grizzly bear, Ursus texensis, was killed at the head of Limpia Creek in 1890. Black bears are occasionally seen, although the last verified sighting occurred in 1965. Gray wolves once prowled these mountains but are now considered extinct, despite periodic reports of wolflike tracks. Roaming mountain lions have reappeared with increasing frequency in recent years.
The cool, moist northern slopes are covered by montane forests containing plant forms widely distributed in the Rocky Mountains. Madera Canyon shelters a thick stand of quaking aspen. The southern slopes are dominated by pinyon pine, gray oak, alligator juniper, Texas madrone, and mountain mahogany. Cholla, yucca, grass, and dry land herbs dominate the lower elevations of the foothills. Eleven rare and endangered species of plants have been identified along with six other species familiar to the western states but rare in Texas.
Scenically the Davis Mountains have no peer in Texas. Both the Chisos and the Guadalupes have situations of exhilarating splendor, but neither can match the spacious, sustained beauty of the Davis. The visitor who savors the magnificent panorama from McDonald Observatory on the summit of Mount Locke after a rain may be pardoned for disbelieving that such mellow and seductive country actually exists in Texas. The land appears richer than it is, as fertile as Denmark. From a distance the abundant grasses obscure its roughness, leaving only the jagged rim of Sawtooth and a few eroded volcanic cliffs to interrupt the deceptive velvet surface.
The special appeal of the Davis Mountains lies in such vistas as this. The wooded canyon and grassy hillsides have the feel of wilderness, but the unique quality of the region consists in the opportunity for a visitor to perceive himself in the midst of mountains, rather than simply upon a mountain. Unregulated development can destroy these perfect vistas. Even a smattering of development on a mere fraction of the total land surface can produce a checkerboard abomination that permanently disfigures an entire panorama. For one who wishes to comprehend the Davis Mountains, every resident becomes a neighbor.
At night lights are visible 40 miles away. Fortunately they still are few, a fact which helps to maintain the continued preeminence of astronomical research at McDonald Observatory. But even now, mercury vapor lamps from the Davis Mountain Resort, owned by the Global Land Development Corporation and situated in a sheltered area opposite Mount Livermore, adversely affect viewing from Mount Locke. Continued subdivision of ranch land into resort developments will not only mutilate the irreplaceable perspectives of the mountains; it will also eliminate, in a way unlikely ever to be undone, their exceptional advantages as a site for scientific inquiry.
If ever a case could be made for preservation of an entire region of Texas as a wild or primitive area, it is here. The form such preservation takes is less crucial than the fact that preservation takes is less crucial than the fact that preservation be assured; a stewardship program which left the care of this land in private hands while guaranteeing responsible public access might well be compatible with Texas customs. Continued governmental indifference to development of the Davis Mountains may, however, ensure that this beautiful land without a history will be consumed and destroyed by strangers seeking to make its future their own.
Texas is blessed not only with dramatic desert landscapes, prairie vistas, and dense forests, but also with the third longest coastline of any state. Unique in this 624-mile seashore is Matagorda Island—isolated, only brushed by history, curiously detached from the steady throb of mainland activity. With the single exception of adjacent St. Joseph Island, no other part of the coast has remained so nearly undisturbed by the destructive encroachments of man. Only the grazing of cows and the exploding of Air Force practice bombs threaten the island as a wilderness preserve and wildlife sanctuary.
Spanish explorers sailed around Matagorda and Spanish cartographers made note of its dimensions. In 1685 the long, grand rivalry of France and Spain first touched Matagorda when LaSalle’s well-stocked provision ship, the Aimable, ran aground on shoals along its northern tip, dooming French colonial hopes west of Louisiana. But not until 1793, seventeen years after American independence, did the Spaniards explore the island itself, and even then persistent mosquitoes and flies forced them into prompt retreat, hurling the epithet “purgatory” at the inhospitable place.
If any figure from the past haunts Matagorda, it is doubtless the swaggering shade of Jean Lafitte. Privateering and smuggling dominated the region in the late eighteenth century. While there is no concrete evidence that Lafitte actually used Matagorda as a base, he regularly plied the nearby waters, and his legends captured the imagination of settlers in the decades that followed. One privateer who did attempt to establish himself at Matagorda, only to meet with mysterious disaster, was Louis-Michel d’Aury. Annihilation of his island forces compromising thirteen ships and over a hundred men occurred in 1817 and has never been explained, although recent historical speculation suggests that Aury’s rival, Lafitte, may have cinched his domination of the area in one terrible and destructive blow.
A generation later, the clash of privateers had given way to the purposeful footsteps of European settlers like the Irishmen who arrived with their families aboard the Albion in 1829. The first immigrants merely landed at Matagorda on their way to mainland colonies of American empresarios, but by the 1850s settlements had been established on Matagorda and St. Joseph islands. Two-masted schooners provided regular transportation between villages, although the residents (mostly ranchers or shipping entrepreneurs) could, if they wished, travel on a thriving stage coach line operated by two sea captains.
Few traces remain today of these towns. One of them, Saluria, has fallen victim to a locally eroding coastline where almost nothing man-made has survived a century of hurricanes. Most of the site itself is now under water. The location of another, named Calhoun, can no longer be identified with precision. A Confederate installation called Fort Esperanza has vanished except for a line of zigzag trenches, overgrown with vegetation and detectable only from the air. There is something altogether transitory about the island, symbolized perhaps by the small United States Air Force Base whose personnel (except for a skeleton crew) return to the mainland shore at night. Matagorda seems destined to be exploited but not inhabited. It is a strong yet passive place, and those who have tried to force it to yield them a home and a living have for the most part left disappointed.
The land they have left is a migrating barrier island, cast up perhaps 5000 years ago and suitable for human habitation no sooner than 2000 years before Christ. In the few seconds of geologic time since it first formed, it has grown seaward nearly a mile, developing sandy beaches of exceptional width—as much as 2000 feet at some points. Thirty-eight miles long and two to four miles wide, Matagorda Island is one of the few areas along the Texas coast possessed of a long beach that is not actively eroding. So few are its visitors that shells and piles of rubbish brought in by tides lie largely undisturbed along the strand, jumbled relics of human civilization and the life of the sea.
Chains of old primary and younger secondary dunes separate the beach from the storm-built back island, where shell spits, ridges, and flood deltas probe into the shallow bays. The rich broth of marine life could not exist if deprived of these indispensable spawning grounds.
The island’s two sides afford a striking contrast of mood. Compared to the rich bayside vegetation around pools teeming with half-seen aquatic creatures, the beach itself seems monotonous and barren. Along the bay the wind is gentle, almost still, and the white birds proclaim their indignation at the visitor’s intrusion; there is a human scale to things. On the Gulf the unrelenting sea dwarfs everything, dominating each moment without the possibility of refuge or escape The beach at Matagorda is for those who are not intimidated by the sea; but the quiet bay is closer to the pulse of life.
The isolation of the island makes it ideal for the study of zoological geography. Restricted travel and the lack of a causeway to the mainland differentiate Matagorda from every other major barrier island on the Texas coast. Since it is not a geological remnant of the continent, it has no stranded faunal forms. It is populated only by animals capable of making passage across the bay. As a result its wildlife is limited but remarkable. Raccoons have adapted to an unaccustomed habitat by living in burrows dug into sand banks and eating a diet of insects and crabs. The rare and endangered red wolf hunts jack rabbits and rodents on grass-covered dunes. Alligators, fresh water pond turtles, terrapins, and diamondback rattlesnakes are established residents, and unique specimens of six-lined racerunners inhabit a shell island in Matagorda bay. Because conditions are ideal for all kinds of aquatic and semi-aquatic waterfowl, most North American species can be found on Matagorda in one season or another. Hawks, turkey vultures, and other nonaquatic birds live on the island year round. Endangered whooping cranes that winter at the nearby Aransas National Refuge doubtless stray to Matagorda. Bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, and a herd of whitetail deer are cultivated by Air Force personnel for sport shooting.
Vegetation on Matagorda is typical of the Texas Coast. Plants on the low-lying island are greatly influenced by slight differences in elevation and tidal inundation. Seabeach morning glory, beach primrose, and portulaca temporarily anchor the sand above high-tide. Sea oats and long grass ride the shifting dunes, while the back dune region is dominated by dense grasses, sedges, and forbs familiar to coastal prairies. The greatest diversity occurs on the barrier flats stretching across the width of the island between dune ridges and bayside marshes. Needlesharp leaves of gulf cord-grass often grow in the company of Indian blankets, pineleaf sundrops, silver leaf sunflowers, panic grass, frog-fruit, bluets, daisies, yuccae, prickly pear cacti, and corpus christi fleabane. Despite the near absence of trees, there is a wholly unexpected lushness to the island that invites close contemplation.
Owing to the geologically recent formation of the Gulf barrier islands, and to their demanding living conditions, archaeologists have found on them relatively few traces of early man. Matagorda is part of the region historically occupied by hunters and gatherers of the Karankawa Indian tribes. The nomadic Karankawa moved seasonally from the offshore islands to the bays, lagoons, and inland areas, taking advantage of the different resources offered by each.
The ultimate beauty of Matagorda rests not in any biological or historical uniqueness—for it resembles other islands along the Texas coast in many more ways than it differs from them—but in its isolation. The sensation of remoteness, of being set apart from the mainland Texas in time as well as distance, penetrates more deeply than other aesthetic pleasures the island has to offer. Should its inaccessibility be lost, Matagorda would be little more than another piece of coastal real estate. Causeways and settlements unmake an island, and it is the knowledge that one is truly upon an island that gives the visitor to Matagorda a special sort of emotional liberation.
It also fires his imagination. That detachment from the everyday world enables him to gaze across the Gulf at night, moonlight layering the breakers, and see the ghostly sails of long-sunk privateers or hear the low voices of Lafitte’s lieutenants contriving Aury’s doom. Bring the mainland over and the ghosts will leave.
IF YOU GO . . .
You probably can’t get in.
Capote Falls and the rim of Victorio Canyon are both private property. Access is possible only by explicit permission of the landowners, and permission is seldom granted. Trespass has always been taken seriously in West Texas, and with the adoption of the new Penal Code on January 1 of this year it has become a criminal offense.
Much of the Victorio Canyon floor is under the jurisdiction of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but public access is restricted by the surrounding private land.
Similar problems confront the visitor to Mount Livermore and Sawtooth Mountain. A good general view of the area can, however, be obtained along the Scenic Loop Highway (Texas 166 and Texas 118) from Fort Davis. The Davis Mountains State Park (1869 acres) is located on this route, and The University of Texas welcomes visitors at Mount Locke, the site of McDonald Observatory. Guided tours of the observatory are offered approximately every hour from nine a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays, and from one to 4:30 on Sunday afternoons.
Two-thirds of Matagorda Island is occupied by a United States Air Force base. Portions of the base are used as an active bombing range. Visitors other than Air Force personnel are rarely admitted. Those wishing to apply should write: Commander, 4004th Air Base Squadron; Matagorda Air Force Range; Port O’Connor, Texas 77982.
The rest of the island is private ranchland.