Learning and bonding on a father-daughter camping trip
By Dan Oko
We camped near a dry creek bed in Davis Mountains State Park, my daughter Ursula tucked into her junior-sized sleeping bag, pressed against my side for warmth in the cool night. Through the tent flap, I kept an eye on the spinning galaxies as she slept, listening to her sweet breath coming and going. Then, under those bright stars, a strange noise suddenly intruded, a snuffling near the picnic table. Good thing I put those rocks on the cooler, I thought, big suckers weighing five to six pounds apiece. Our food would be safe. Wrong.
The snuffling gave way to the sound of stone scraping plastic, followed by the resounding thump of my modest boulders hitting the ground. I heard the rattle of ice, paper, and plastic being shredded, and at last the noisy chewing of our precious provisions. Don’t let it be a black bear, I hoped, peeling myself free of my dreaming daughter, and searching out a pair of beady eyes with my flashlight.
It was not a bear.
It was a snorthead—which is what you might call a collared peccary, or javelina, if you were a five-year-old on an extended father-daughter camping trip. The original idea had been for Mom to join us on this post-daycare, pre-kindergarten adventure, a chance for the family to break from the big-city routine of our lives in Houston before school started. Regardless, I wanted Ursula to see some of the wonders of Texas, where she had been born, including iconic landscapes such as the Hill Country and the Chisos Mountains, and to share in my love of the great outdoors. But like all best laid plans, we hit a stumbling block, and work obligations for my wife meant that I was the lone parent. Now, on our first night in the Trans-Pecos, I found myself barefoot, throwing rocks at a pig-like peccary, wondering “What next?”
I wanted Ursula to see the natural wonders and iconic landscapes of Texas, and to share in my love of the great outdoors.
The following morning, we surveyed the damage. Bread, butter, tortillas, apples, and oranges—all gone. Score: Snorthead 5, Dad 0. But the main offense was that Ursula had not seen the beast. I had been careful to let her sleep, concerned that if she woke up, the strange surroundings and marauding critter might prompt a flood of midnight tears. Now, she insisted that we look for the thieving javelina.
The companionship of wild animals is one of the reasons I have long enjoyed camping and backpacking. The presence of animals large and small—including wild turkey, pronghorn, jackrabbits, mule deer, a lone packrat, and even an unfortunately squashed scorpion—provided constant entertainment as Ursula and I made our Lone Star circuit, covering nearly 1,500 miles over eight days. In addition to the Davis Mountains, we camped under the stars at Garner State Park, Big Bend National Park, and South Llano River State Park.
By midday we found ourselves hiking the Skyline Drive Trail, a steep climb up the flanks of the Davis Mountains. We sipped water frequently and took care to avoid thorny desert plants, Torrey yucca, and catclaw acacia. While we rested in the shade of a scraggly oak, I found a yucca known as Spanish dagger and showed Ursula how bands of Native Americans who once roamed the area, including the Apache and Comanche tribes, used the sharp-tipped, fibrous spines as natural needle and thread.
In the heat, we didn’t make the ridge, but the turnaround rewarded us with splendid interior views of the 2,710-acre park. At the heart of what’s sometimes called the Alps of Texas, we gazed upon the white adobe walls of Indian Lodge, a historic motel built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Its azure swimming pool beckoned, a Chihuahuan Desert oasis. (The day before, we had swum in the icy, spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park, less than an hour away by car.) After our hike, we made a side trip to the McDonald Observatory, wandering among the domed structures on top of Mount Locke, at 6,791 feet. But first there remained the matter of replenishing our larder in the town of Fort Davis. As we approached the park gate, a peccary, all bristles and twitching snout, crossed the road.
“Hey! Hey! Snorthead!” whooped Ursula. I could not have been happier.
Beyond wildlife watching, there were plenty of other things to do and see along the way. Activities, I quickly learned, were crucial if we were going to survive the week and have fun without the moderating influence of Mom. And though we packed enough toys and activities to survive a minor apocalypse—from matching fat-tire mountain bikes and fishing gear, to coloring books and stuffed animals—time and again it came down to making our own fun—stargazing, swimming in rivers, or simply wandering around camp.
“Are those the mountains?” Ursula had wanted to know as we arrived at Garner State Park, along the cypress-lined banks of the Frio River north of Uvalde. This was still the start of our adventure, prior to reaching far West Texas and more serious elevation, but we were 300 miles from home in frying-pan flat Houston, and Ursula’s confusion was understandable. I had not been to Garner in many moons, but with 1,775 scenic acres spread across deep canyons and limestone tabletops, the park has emerged since its 1930s founding as one of Texas’ most popular state parks, hosting 300,000 visitors each year.
Even so, we found a peaceful campsite atop Persimmon Hill in the “new” section of the park, added in the 1970s. The charms of the park, which hosts nightly dances in the summer as well as tractor-drawn tours, had been immediate. A roadrunner checked us out, and then we joined families frolicking in the Frio.
From Garner, we made our way out west. Now that we were in the actual mountains, I was in no hurry to leave. We charted a course from the Davis Mountains to Big Bend National Park, swinging through the big sky country, as unfettered as nomads. We stopped at the farmer’s market in Alpine and bought a jar of strawberry preserves, which we spread on grocery store bread and ate back in the car. As we passed between the dun-colored hills that form the gateway to the 800,000-acre national park, I pointed out the spindly ocotillo that seemed to be waving their arms, marveling at the beautiful views along one of the most scenic drives in Texas. I felt thankful that Ursula’s appetite for exploring seemed as ample as mine.
I don’t know if itchy feet are genetic, but as I ascended the Chisos Basin road with my daughter wriggling in the backseat, ready to stretch her legs, I was reminded of making the same drive with my father a few years ago. An avid birder, he had flown to Texas from the Northeast to join me in looking for the Colima warbler, a dusky, migratory species that can be found in the U.S. only in Big Bend. We found the warbler near the trail in Boot Canyon, where a crew from the Cornell Ornithology Lab was filming this rare species. I was already an adult when we made that trip, but throughout my childhood my father had made a point of taking my brother and me on the road to assorted campgrounds and parks from upstate New York, to Florida’s Everglades, and the redwoods of California.
I could not help thinking that in the eyes of a child, even the most ancient phenomenon looks new.
Whether learned or inherited, I was happy my daughter now shared in this legacy.
Ursula and I spent three days in Big Bend, mostly in the mountains to avoid the heat that had descended upon the desert floor. But we did take time to splash in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, and we might have even left a few footprints on the Mexican side of the river. Amid those towering cliffs, it was tough to know where one nation started and the other ended. (Months later, as the school year began, Ursula would still be talking about how she walked to Mexico.) We climbed past the giant cane, as well, to a stony overlook and marveled at the fossils in the rock. The cherty limestone cliffs contain imprints from a universe of undersea creatures.
I could not help thinking that in the eyes of a child, even the most ancient phenomenon looks new.
Our last day before heading east toward home—a drive that would take two more days, including a quick stop in Austin for ice cream and a sleepover with old friends—we broke camp and headed for Cattail Falls. The little-known spot is accessible from Ross Maxwell Drive, which circles the western boundary of the Chisos. Initially Ursula resisted, as kids are wont to do, but I knew that we had to get a move on before the heat intensified. So I did what all good parents do—I made up a story. I told Ursula that the falls were actually home to Foxilina, an imaginary fairy I had invented to distract her from the multitude of Disney princesses. The suggestion of one last desert hike may not have charmed her, but a visit to fairyland was enough to entice my daughter to beat feet.
That, in turn, was how we encountered the bear, perched in a trailside copse of trees, happily munching acorns 25 feet above the ground. This was the first black bear I had seen in Texas, and we probably would have missed it had it not been for the pair of hikers frantically snapping photos when we rounded the bend in the trail. As the photographers headed up the trail, we marveled at the bruin’s sleek black fur and unperturbed attitude. I’m not sure who was more intrigued—me, Ursula, or the bear—but I stood there for another 20 minutes with my child high on my shoulders.
“We are so lucky,” I told Ursula. She agreed, expertly noting that the apparently well-fed bear would likely leave our supplies alone. But, she admitted that she was worried the bear might be a threat to Foxilina. I reassured her that the bear and fairy were likely friends, and suggested we head up the trail to check out the falls. So, off we went putting one foot in front of the other—making more memories.
From the May 2013 issue.