Up the Hill

In the northwest corner of Brewster County, a six hundred acre terrestrial behemoth of the southern Davis Mountains rises some 500 feet up out of the aeons old semi-desert basin, creating a sentinel landmark for travelers, a place of hiking and botanical explorations, wildlife viewing, and scenic ogling.

From the peak of the hill, one can see to the edges of the basin and beyond to the Del Norte and Glass Mountains, the upper Davis Mountains, and the Twin Peaks and Mitre Peak.  One can also hear that lonesome sound of the freight or Amtrak train announcing its impending arrival as it exits Paisano Pass (5,074′) from the west, surrounded by obligatory dramatic scenery, or Altuda Pass from the east with its long and undulating grassy hills.  At times it seems like the iron horse continually spins its wheels – a brief optical illusion made possible by the great vastness of the the distance between mountain to mountain – and the famous desert mirages shimmer up and out of sun-baked basins while dust devils dance around in the aestival heat before orographic thunderstorms cool and wet things down every other afternoon.

Summer and early fall in Far West Texas are usually gifted (depending on nature’s cyclically climatic mood) with a monsoonal rainy pattern, complete with occasional violent hailstorms which render roads a short-lived icy coating and strips from plants their fruits and seeds.  The Trans-Pecos is the only place in the Lone Star State to experience the North American Monsoon with any regularity.  Not long after the autumnal equinox brings on later dawns and earlier sunsets, the dry season arrives almost overnight and the monsoonal rainy pattern begins to expire.  The hills and mountains are then drenched with a tawny blanket of various hues of yellow, orange, and gold.  The yucca and cacti hold their greens year round, providing color during the cold season in a world otherwise painted with just three: browns, grays, and blues, all softened by late-year sunlight.  The last flush of seed production is hurried by many plants, though some never cross the finish line and are struck down by the first freeze.

One of the many stately landmarks travelers see in this part of Texas is SR Hill, with the other major landmark being Twin Peaks.  Both can be seen from 40 miles out in the ubiquitous Creosotebush (Larrea tridentata) flats when driving from a northerly direction through the Stockton Plateau (a western extension of the Edwards Plateau), from west heading east and climbing up and off the Marfa Plateau, or while squeezing out of the southern end of Muzquiz Canyon in the Davis Mountains.  Creosotebush is a relatively recent addition to North American desert flora, having been introduced some 12,000 years ago by avian fauna; possibly the Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) from South America (Wells 1976).  This occurred not long after the pluvial climate that favored confierous woodlands began to trend towards a drier state, assembling much of the contemporary vegetation we see today.  Creosotebush population densities exponentially increased in the last 150 years within its current range largely due to severe overgrazing by livestock, along with fire suppression, and anthropogenic increases in atmospheric carbon.

Once in town, the adventurous can hike a moderately strenuous trail up the long and steep western slope of SR Hill, cresting a short ridge and walking the behemoth’s many saddles and minor peaks to a rocky outcrop near its eastern flanks, where a grove of short desert oaks  – one of more than 20 species of oak in the Trans-Pecos – hold their own on northeast slope in an increasingly drier world.  First time hikers are greeted, often surprisingly, by The Desk, which was hauled up the hill by two Sul Ross students and has been there since 1981.  Inside the main drawer is a visitor log, and reading the names and dates, this old desk could tell some stories.  It is weather-beaten and lonesome, marked with dents and graffiti, but it adds an odd sort of cheeriness and presents to us hominids the type of office space many of us can only dream of.

But for a little while, The Desk can be anyone’s office.

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