In Higher Country
By E. Dan Klepper
A little more than 100 years ago a team of naturalists wrote home about their tour of the Trans-Pecos region. Now a frequent contributor to the magazine, E. Dan Klepper, writes a letter to his late father, Dan Klepper, [see Legend, Lore and Legacy] about what has changed and what, for the time being, seems to have remained the same.
Dear ol’ Dad,
After recently completing a hopscotch trek across the Trans-Pecos, from the Chisos Mountains in the southern Big Bend all the way north to the Guadalupe Mountains, I thought I would take the opportunity to write and catch you up. Many things have changed since we last spoke, at least for most of the world and perhaps a bit for Texas as well. You will probably not be surprised to learn that Texans continue to embrace their outdoor pursuits with a growing interest in non-consumptive sports — a good thing for all wildlife as well as the game animals. Oh, and the battle to preserve our remaining natural world rages on. It continues to use much of the same artillery it has since the fight began (loss of species, loss of habitat, loss of clean air, land and water) and maintains a similar imbalance of power but perhaps with a few more soldiers added to conservation’s battalions. Some of the skirmishes have been lost along the way, the true victims being either the species gone extinct or us humans who are the poorer for their absences. I am never quite sure who suffers the greater tragedy. But some struggles have actually been championed in the intervening years, proving that the fight is worth our sacrifices. For instance, I don’t believe that in all the seasons we spent hunting the Texas brush together for quail and deer that we ever saw a single golden eagle. And now, 10 years after your passing, I have seen a dozen cross the mountains and basins of the Texas west just this year, free and born wild.
My Trans-Pecos journey was a pilgrimage, of sorts, to highlight the key places in my home range that had been visited over a century ago by an information-gathering expedition of scientists. It was part of the Biological Survey of Texas, which took place between 1889 and 1905 and encompassed all 10 ecological regions found in Texas. Reports were written, lists made, specimens collected, photographs taken, drawings and paintings created and then all of it was boiled down to provide future Texans with an understanding of just exactly what natural wonders lay at our doorstep.
The Trans-Pecos section of the survey was undertaken during 1901 by Vernon Bailey, chief field naturalist for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, ornithologist Harry Church Oberholser and wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. They spent 4 months traveling from the Pecos River to the Chisos Mountains and then north through the Davis Mountains and on to the Guadalupe range. It was a circuit that we, as a family, replicated many times with the same sort of minimal camping gear and maximum sense of adventure. You wrote about this country often and introduced its resources to me by placing a pair of binoculars or a gun or a camera in my hands — whichever seemed to fit the circumstance. It has remained compelling to me throughout the years, so much so that I have made it my home.
It should come as no surprise to you that Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the artist of the expedition, was someone with whom I soon shared affinities. And as I read through the letters that he wrote to his family during his time on the survey, I discovered my own voice in his words.
I am busting to get up to the Chisos, he wrote, as he prepared to leave his camp just south of Marathon, my hometown now, to get the fine high timber fauna there, and that will come now in a few days. Having the mountains always in sight … makes the desire for them ever run high.
My intention in taking this voyage was to review what has stayed the same in the last 100 years since the expedition, and my plan was to draw heavily on David J. Schmidly’s Texas Natural History - A Century of Change. This is an excellent publication that will tell you exactly what in the natural world has remained for Texans and, within its 534 pages, includes Vernon Bailey’s Biological Survey of Texas in its entirety. You were no doubt familiar with Schmidly, having utilized his Mammals of Texas and other superb publications in your own research as a Texas outdoor writer.
But as I made my personal trek with the hope of seeing these places through the eyes of the expedition, I discovered that nature is resistant to stasis and disdainful of our desire for all things to remain the same. She is in love with the transitory, demands evolution and is powered by an overriding ability to awe. I succumbed, instead, to watching the past fall away — the expedition’s, yours, mine — as she consistently succeeded in drawing me into her overwhelming present.
Yet as I sat in my Pine Canyon campsite among Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Mountains complex, my first stop, I read my own sense of place described precisely as I was feeling it, only in handwriting of a hundred years ago:
Well, this is all different and even more wonderful than I had tho’t it would be, Fuertes wrote from his own Pine Canyon camp less than a mile from mine. I wish I could describe so you could see it, this magnificent place. The deep lovely colors of the rocks, covered in places with a light green moss, but for the most part some tone of light gray, deep brown or rich cinnabar red, towering up out of the high banks of broken slide rock, the rich green of the forested parts, the lovely yellow stretch of grass grown “bottom” reaching down between the enclosing ridges to the mouth of the valley, which is blocked by a blue mountain, and beyond the broad hazy valley 15 or 20 miles the filmy outline of the Mexican Boquillas (Carmen range) Mountains - the color of the palest blue morning glory.
Memory, however unreliable, is a persistence of vision. I accept that the view from Pine Canyon is far inferior now after 100 years of industrial particles and combustion travel have diffused what was no doubt unspoiled for Fuertes. Too often these days, his blue of the Sierra del Carmens is blanched white or tinged a sullen brown. But in my Pine Canyon mind’s eye and the images it retains from each of my hikes through it, the essence at least, if not the view, always holds the same clarity that Fuertes described. And during those moments of clarity, the mountains’ pale blue is truly of a glorious origin.
…and at night, Fuertes continues, for me, when the big southern moon comes coolly up from behind her great mountain and floods the cañon and valley with soft light, and the owls and whippoorwills and other night-lovers come out and give it all a new and unsolved life, it makes me long to have some power to get your senses, at least, down here to help me hold it.
Fuertes gathered 58 species of birds in Pine Canyon, approximately a sixth of the total bird specimens he would collect for the survey. He skinned and stuffed them all, using some as models for his paintings. In my lazy two-day meandering through the canyon I spotted perhaps a dozen species and, by adding them to my list from previous birding forays into Pine, I could total perhaps twenty-four or so. But that is not to say that all of Fuertes’ 58 species don’t still inhabit the canyon at times throughout the year. It is to our history’s credit that less than 30 years after the survey ended, the U.S. government began the process of preserving Pine Canyon and its attendant wildlife for all mankind. Today, the combined area of Big Bend National Park, TPWD’s Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area represents more than 1,000,000 acres of the southern Trans-Pecos that we have managed to preserve so far. This wilderness corridor provides a haven for many of our remaining Trans-Pecos species, and, perhaps just as importantly, it hosts a platform of contemplation for our own place in the natural world.
Following in Fuertes’ tracks, I traveled north towards the Davis range. Halfway, I passed by Elephant Mountain, a chief icon in the desert profile of my external (and internal) geographies. After reading Fuertes’ own encounter with it I am somewhat confident that, due to efforts by the state’s Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area grass restoration plans, much of Fuertes’ view has begun to return.
That day we passed thro’ a lovely grassy country, Fuertes recounts, and up past the big Santiago Peak and Elephant Mesa, over immense old lakebeds, covered with dense grass, mostly dead and dried to a nearly blue-white which looked very like water, through half shut eyes.
I believe that Elephant is akin to its namesake more for memory than for shape. It doesn’t look much like an elephant, but it is, without a doubt, unforgettable. Just as Fuertes states, and perhaps as you, Dad, remember it also, the mountain’s visage casts a sense of calm over the viewer, appearing like an island above an ocean mirage and, at times, even becoming the sea itself.
Thanks to an aggressive partnership between TPWD and the Texas Bighorn Society, Elephant is also the home of a Texas bighorn sheep restoration program. The restoration is necessary today because, as expedition leader Vernon Bailey warned, our native sheep population declined steadily a scant few years after the survey ended.
It is with some hesitation that I make public these facts as to the abundance, distribution, and habits of mountain sheep in western Texas, Bailey recorded, and only in the hope that a full knowledge of the conditions and the importance of protective measures may result in the salvation instead of extermination of the species. It would not be difficult for a single persistent hunter to kill every mountain sheep in western Texas if unrestrained. Not only should the animals be protected by law, but the law should be made effective by an appreciation on the part of residents of the country of the importance of preserving for all time these splendid animals.
Texas bighorn sheep were all but extirpated within a short 50 years after living among the mountains of the Trans-Pecos for thousands. The decline occurred just as Bailey feared, leaving the responsibility to Texas biologists to restore some semblance of what Texans once had.
But you and I both know that efforts to create a future from the past are foiled as much by the things that must change as by the things that refuse to do so. The experiences had by Bailey, Fuertes and the rest of the expedition team created an hourglass of memory for them even as they tried to capture and preserve each one accurately. Perhaps they believed that by writing them down and sharing them with their loved ones back home that they would create, beyond collected specimens and maintained lists, more than just a record of their astonishing adventures. They could demarcate, as all original trailbusters do, each watermark event that would later enable them to sit down and understand just exactly what pathways brought them to their place in life. But they also seem to know that nature’s experiences are ultimately ephemeral, and that one can only do his or her best to capture them and then, in sharing them, keep them vivid somehow for just a bit longer. And also to lament, if only a little, that the opportunity to share life and its gifts never seems to come quite soon enough.
We have got so many things to tell and hear, all of us, Fuertes writes to his family, that had much better not wait any longer than necessary - in my own case, at least, my experiences drift so rapidly into their ranks as past events - and once there they are so reluctant to come out and show themselves in their true fullness, that I fear that unless I can see you soon the best will be lost.
Fuertes and “the outfit” (as he liked to call the expedition) spent their time in the Davis Mountains collecting a catalogue of specimens including panther and bear skulls. While hiking below Mount Livermore, the second highest peak in Texas, I made my own discovery of a panther skull. The bone apparently had remained in place for dozens of years; at least the soft green lichens spreading across the crown indicated as much. Like you, Dad, I have been fortunate enough to see the big cat alive and wild, if only for a fleeting moment in that heart-stopping way nature presents itself, and with enough frequency to fear for their extinction less than for those species I never see.
Camping a stone’s throw from what constitutes today’s Davis Mountains State Park, Fuertes appropriated four new bird records for Texas and seven new ones to add to his personal list. The Red-shafted flicker, a new tanager, a new bluebird, a new chic-a-dee, a new nuthatch and a new blue-jay were the most important ones, he reported. The Davis Mountains have remained that way - often proffering up a few new species to the diligent birder’s life list with each foray into their pristine cañons.
Fuertes moved north from the Davis complex to the Guadalupe Mountains, the limestone cliffs that provide perhaps the most dramatic profile of all the Texas mountain ranges. He skirted our state’s highest point, Guadalupe Peak, preferring, as I do, to explore Dog Canyon at the northern end of the range.
It is a long cañon — 20 miles or more — and we are now at the end of it, just across the Texas line, and in splendid country, Fuertes wrote. We are at 6,900 feet and can see down the cañon the whole length - towards the South the cañon forks into three and all head within a very few miles, and the tops of the ridge there, and the gulches at the head are heavily timbered with juniper, spruce, oak, and yellow pine. There are chipmunks there and robins, two jays, five woodpeckers, pigeons, and a lot of fine small birds including the rufous hummer that I got in Alaska. There are plenty of Mt. Sheep and black tale deer in the next cañon west, and we saw fresh antelope tracks crossing the road 10 miles north of here when we came in.
I doubt Fuertes would recognize the country leading up to Dog Canyon from the north with its plethora of gas wells and oil rigs and rarely a patch of grass remaining for the most arduous of livestock. Fuertes speculated that the canyon’s name came from the big prairie-dog towns all along the first part of it. The dogs have yet to shake their reputation as vermin with many Texas landowners, a perception that also prevailed in Fuertes’ time.
But once in the canyon proper, at the head of the canyon’s trident split and well within the protection of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Fuertes might recall much of his old haunt.
We have a bully camp here, 1 mile from the ‘head’, in a high pasture - or orchard like level overlooking the valley grown over rather openly with fine junipers and an occasional big yellow pine, Fuertes wrote. The grass is splendid …
Some of the health of our high Texas country is due to the embrace of a management tool that has come back into play after almost 100 years of villainy - fire. Dog Canyon harbors the blackened bark of heat-gnarled piñons and alligator juniper and the giant Ponderosa pine and all attest to the severity of a wildfire in full conflagration. But the health and abundance of new vegetation, not to mention the wealth of birds — including the once elusive golden eagle, a hunting kestrel and a rambunctious flock of indigo buntings — are no doubt happy with the results. I certainly was, as my Dog Canyon foray became the most restorative of my ventures. I discovered a renewed confidence in our efforts to preserve the remnants of our Texas nature. You may rib me for my optimism, Dad, as you were always the pragmatist, but I can only believe that the commitment of those dedicated to the fundamental preservation of our natural world will ultimately displace the apathy that continues to work against their efforts. To believe otherwise these days would only lead to despair. My trek left me with a hope and an invigoration of the kind that only nature, in its entire “bully splendor,” as Fuertes might say, can provide.
The survey continued on for 4 more years after Fuertes completed his Trans-Pecos journey. Field agents ultimately collected, identified and preserved more than five thousand specimens of mammals, birds and reptiles by survey’s end. Collateral material included travel journals, landowner correspondence, detailed observations of the biology and hundreds of black and white photographs of Texas landscapes. Today, this archive provides a clear and concise baseline from which all of Texas fauna can be measured. It is our past, and, drawing from its wealth of knowledge and its lessons, we can continue to direct our future.
Fuertes left Texas after completing his Trans-Pecos journey and returned happily to his family in Ithaca, New York. I returned home as well, to Marathon, and took up my usual routine of dawn jogs and dusk birding forays along the road to Iron Mountain, just a few miles behind the house. In a pleasant moment of serendipity, I discovered that I could have easily written the same words to you that Fuertes wrote to his own father from his Marathon camp 100 years ago. It seems, at least here, some things have not really changed much after all.
I am still well-supplied, and find the ground and the open air good incentives to a hard sleep and an early rise … There are some very sweet singers that keep going from dusk in the a.m. till dusk at night, and poorwills and horned owls are “doing”at night, so the place is always able to keep up its impression of newness and wildness. … There is a nice breeze nearly every day, which keeps it from being very hot, generally. I walked over to Iron Mountain the other day, though, (as I guess I told you) and it was terribly hot and dry coming home in the p.m., as it was heading up somewhere else for a thunderstorm, and we got the still, heavy bake of it.
Well, ol’ Dad, a “bully” thunderstorm has “headed up” near the house rather than somewhere else this afternoon, bringing a cooler breeze and sweeping away the “still, heavy bake.” The grasses will be all the richer for it and the birds along Iron Mountain Road should be “doing” their best by the time I take my dusk constitutional. Perhaps we can enjoy this walk together someday or at least in someplace like it where the birds are always plentiful, nature is unfettered by human folly and the memory of loved ones no longer wears so heavily on the heart.
Until then I remain your loving son,