Suzy Banks, Stacy Hollister, and Charlie Llewellin discuss this month's cover story, "This Land Is Your Land."
texasmonthly.com: What was the process that led to a cover story on parks for the March issue? How did you get involved?
Charlie Llewellin: Our editor, Evan Smith, asked me to be involved a long time ago. It didn’t take much to persuade me—I love our state parks and I think Texas Parks and Wildlife does a great job with very little.
Suzy Banks: We started stewing on the parks piece back in April of 2002, thinking we might churn it out for the June issue of that year. Ha! With more than 120 state parks scattered across Texas, we realized that even with three writers working on it, we’d need a lot more time than that just to do the at-the-desk research to narrow down the field.
Stacy Hollister: One day, several months ago, I got pulled away from the copy machine and into the office of our editor, Evan Smith. He was holding court with senior editor Quita McMath and travel and outdoors gurus Suzy Banks and Charlie Llewellin, and the foursome was brainstorming ways to tackle a large service piece on state parks. Evan asked if I’d like to help Suzy and Charlie canvas the state in search of great adventures in the parks. No arm twisting was required.
texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with the final list of parks to include in the story? What was the criteria?
CL: Well, we wanted to find a good mix of activities. We e-mailed back and forth and came up with a list. Some parks, like Garner, did not make it because they are so popular anyway.
SB: We were looking not only for spectacular parks but also for places where a certain distinctive activity was a draw. For my part, I combed through lots of Web sites—not only those of the individual parks, but also those hosted by mountain-bike groups or Texas fishermen and the like. I studied guide books (in particular, Laurence Parent’s exhaustive Official Guide to Texas State Parks). I called avid birders and talked to a slew of park rangers. Then I just pinned a map to the wall and tossed some darts. (Just kidding.)
SH: First, we carved up the state—Panhandle, Big Bend, Hill Country, Prairies and Lakes, Gulf Coast, and the Piney Woods—and each of us committed to a couple of regions. And then we hit the books and the phones and the Web, learning all we could about the exciting things one could do at the state parks in our regions. We each made long lists of possibilities, and when the three of us reconvened, we shared our lists, bounced ideas off one another, and narrowed some of our options to avoid too much overlap. Then we hit the road.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research was involved with this story?
CL: I made sure the tires on my bike were pumped up. Oh, and I think I checked the oil in my truck. Once we picked the parks and the activities, I just went and did it!
texasmonthly.com: How many parks did you visit and how long did you stay at each one?
CL: I did thirteen parks in a week, and then one more a week or so later, last May. I drove to Van Horn, then the next morning did the Hueco Tanks tour, drove to El Paso and rode the Tramway, and headed off to Presidio, where I stayed the night. The next morning I drove out to Big Bend Ranch for that tour.
SB: Since I’d done so much prior research, I only had to visit the twelve parks I wrote about. My stays there varied from a few hours (Monument Hill) to all day (Matagorda Island).
SH: My slice of Texas consisted of the Panhandle and the Piney Woods, and in those two areas, I visited some eighteen parks. Depending on the type of adventure I sought, I spent half a day at some parks, a day and a half at others.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story and what kind of travel was involved?
CL: In one week I drove more than two thousand miles! But the story was postponed, so I didn’t write anything until December. I was half hoping to have an excuse to do it all again!
SB: I did most of my research last May and June, then since I figured the searing heat of summer might taint my impression of a place, I held off on traveling until October and November, which I think are hands down the best times to visit the parks. The weather is usually grand and the crowds are nonexistent.
SH: Luckily, we had several months in which to put our noses to the grindstone. I got started with a bang, taking a week-long road trip through the Panhandle, where I visited forts and great canyons. The rest of the travel I relegated to weekend trips—canoeing, hiking, riding trains.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging aspect of this story? Why?
CL: Well, the actual writing is the hardest part for me. The doing is fun, except that I really did think I might get injured or lost in Devils River State Natural Area. It was very wild.
SB: Leaving my dogs behind on my travels.
SH: Narrowing the list. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. Whether you’re a rugged adventurer or you dig Texas history, the state parks have a something-for-everyone quality.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
CL: I learned all kinds of facts and figures, and forgot a lot of them. The ranger who drove me around Big Bend Ranch was very knowledgeable, a youngish guy from Lubbock who seemed slightly surprised to find himself living so far away from civilization. But he told me a lot about the old ranching days out there.
SB: That a full grown alligator can exist for a week on a meal of one raccoon. Oh, and that alligators can run 30 miles per hour.
texasmonthly.com: Out of all the parks you wrote about, which was your favorite? Why?
CL: Oh, they are all great. I can’t pick a favorite.
SB: Probably Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites. It is a stunningly beautiful little spot filled with history, and the enthusiasm of Dale Martin, the historic site manager there, is contagious. This is a man who loves his job and it sure doesn’t have to do with the money he’s paid. I called him after the story was written to ask one question, Is the tomb above ground or buried? He wound up regaling me for an hour and a half about the Dawson Expedition and the drawing of the black beans and the intrigue and danger that revolved around the return of the Texians’s remains to Fayette County and the pageantry that accompanied the tomb’s dedication. I only wish I’d had a history teacher in high school with his passion; I might have learned something about our past.
But I also really liked the adrenaline rush of the airboat ride at Sea Rim and the mossy, otherworldly quality of Brazos Bend.
SH: Caddo Lake State Park was my favorite. The bald cypress, the Spanish moss, the glassy backwaters: It’s just a fantasy land.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have any advice for someone going camping?
CL: Get some of those stout Coleman tent pegs from Target. They’re great!
SB: Rent a cabin.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
CL: Buy one of those annual passes and support our state parks system.
SB: As such a die-hard skeptic and cynic, I was truly shocked at how wonderful some of the parks are. I think of all the funding problems and the too-many-people problems these parks face, and they still manage to remain almost magically above it all. Then again, I was at most of these places midweek in fall and early winter. I might sing a different tune had I visited on a summer weekend.