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Stopover at Big Spring

Destination: Big Spring

Travel time from:
Austin – 5 hours
Brownsville – 8.75 hours
Dallas – 4.25 hours
Houston – 7.25 hours
San Antonio – 4.75 hours
Lubbock – 2 hours
El Paso – 5 hours

This historic crossroads still offers a place for travelers to refresh themselves.

By Cynthia Walker Pickens

Big Spring has been a stopover on many journeys throughout the ages.

Ancient travelers were drawn here by the original big spring, a precious water source for both humans and animals (including bison and mustangs) on these semiarid plains. Both Comanche and Shawnee Indians visited the spring. In 1849, Capt. Randolph B. Marcy marked the spring as a campsite on the Overland Trail to California. It was also a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, which ran between Fort Smith, Ark., and El Paso.

Buffalo hunters settled around the spring in the 1870s, but after completion of the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks a few miles north, the community shifted in that direction.

Nowadays, travelers pass through Big Spring on highways, stopping at a convenience store for refreshment instead of at the spring, then moving on to destinations north and south, east and west. My daughter and I, however, have decided to make this historic crossroads our destination.

Big Spring

The evening lights of Big Spring spread out below the Big Spring State Park overlook.

As we explore Big Spring State Park’s scenic overlook on our first evening, toting our fast-food supper, we are amazed by how far we can see. We find a flat rock, check it for snakes (as directed by the sign at the entrance), pull out our sandwiches and savor the view. Big Spring spreads out below us, with its lights winking on. Far, far to the west, the sun is setting. This is definitely big sky country.

On Saturday, the Heritage Museum of Big Spring is first on our agenda. Administrative assistant Cheryl Joy directs us to a seasonally appropriate Halloween exhibit downstairs and to the permanent exhibits upstairs.

We ooh and aah as we enter the first exhibit room upstairs: it is full of dolls! My mother-in-law collects them, so we scurry around looking for any we recognize. One of the dolls has a very creepy stare, so we stay out of her line of sight. I show my daughter the contents of one pullout drawer: doll-making items, including loose eyeballs and a mold for a doll’s head.

A collection of longhorn horns adorns a back wall and features a 10½-foot-long pair, listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Next to this exhibit is a nook dedicated to Patricia McCormick, a beautiful female bullfighter from Big Spring who fought more than 300 bulls over a 10-year span in the ’50s and ’60s. An extensive collection of phonographs and gramophones fills one room, while other displays showcase Big Spring’s history, including its beginnings as a railroad town and the boom that followed the discovery of oil nearby in 1926.

Next, we tour the Potton House, operated by the museum and located a few blocks away. Joseph and Mary Potton built the Victorian house in 1901 for their retirement, utilizing reclaimed railroad materials obtained through Joseph’s work as master mechanic at the railyard. For instance, the porch posts are made of galvanized iron pipes. The docent tells us the house contained the first indoor bathroom in Big Spring. (Request Potton House tours at the museum.)

Earlier at the museum, I had asked Joy if she knew the whereabouts of a sandhill crane sanctuary in town. After rummaging in the museum’s closet, she found a card with directions to the refuge. We pull in to the first overlook at 4 p.m. By naked eye, we see no birds. But when I look through binoculars — bingo! Large grayish birds are wading in the shallow water on the far side of One Mile Lake. Sandhill cranes overwinter here, migrating far northward for their summer breeding season.

We decide to check out the other overlook. Driving away, I glance to our left and see a big field with two deer feeders — and 30 sandhill cranes milling about. I pull over for a closer look. My daughter retrieves my tripod, only to discover a crucial part missing. Ah, the trials of an amateur photographer.

Down a one-lane, one-way street, past houses fortified with window bars, we find the second overlook. It is indeed closer to the lake, but a little scary, and the cranes are still far away. My daughter clambers over rocks to the muddy edge of the lake, urging me to follow. She snaps some photos of what look like crane tracks. Then we spend quality time cleaning mud off our shoes.

Big Spring

An overlook at Comanche Trail Park allows visitors to view the lake and site of the original “big spring.”

Later that afternoon we trek to Comanche Trail Park and Lake. This city-owned 400-acre park provides myriad recreational options: 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, disc golf course, hike and bike trail, playground, fishing lake, picnic areas, water park and amphitheater. The park is also home to the big spring, our first stop. Although the original spring ran dry years ago, Comanche Trail Lake feeds the spring pool today. We explore and say hello to a few turtles, and then glance up and down the hike and bike trail that passes by — does that count as exercise?

Sure it does. By car, we strike out in search of the park’s amphitheater, where a music festival is under way. The 6,900-seat amphitheater is mostly empty but very impressive. From the stage, rock benches, row upon gently curving row, march upwards. Cut limestone covers the entire hill. West Fest features local performers, and we listen to a few, but soon realize our stomachs are rumbling; it’s time for dinner.

After fueling up, we are bound for the Big Spring Bowl-a-Rama! My daughter has bowled once in her life; I’ve not bowled in years. I’m enticed by the old-fashioned name and the promise of “cosmic bowling” starting at 9 p.m.

Bowlers of all ages fill the modern, bustling alley; we check out shoes, find a ball and join them. Two games later, my daughter has trounced me soundly (in my defense, she did have bumpers). We turn in our shoes, and my daughter races a video game car around its track, crashing into palm trees and other cars. At 9, black lights and spinning disco balls illuminate the lanes. It’s just as well that we’ve already finished; the flashing lights would have made my abysmal performance even worse.

Sunday finds us once again at the state park, hiking the nature trail on a beautiful fall morning. A large fenced enclosure lies next to the trailhead. I speculate this might be home to the park’s prairie dogs, but none show their heads to prove me right. Superintendent Ron Alton tells me later that prairie dogs have not inhabited the park in more than 10 years. However, they are abundant at the municipal airpark below. The short nature trail leads up the mountain, wandering past interesting plants and revealing lovely vistas.

Three ecological regions merge here in Howard County: the Edwards Plateau to the south, the western Rolling Plains to the north and east, and the southern High Plains (or Llano Estacado) to the north, so the area hosts a variety of plants and animals. We scare off any animals with our chatter, but do see lots of mesquite, redberry juniper, shin oak, prickly pear and small flowers.

After our hike, we cruise the scenic three-mile loop up to the park’s headquarters, closed today. Nearby, a CCC-built pavilion and large play area showcase a near 270-degree panoramic view. I see why early travelers stopped here. Not only was water nearby, the mountain provided an extremely good vantage point. Lookouts could have seen dust trails miles away.

It’s time to go home, and sadly, we must leave two things undone. The Hangar 25 Air Museum commemorates the Big Spring Army Air Force Bombardier School, operational here from 1942 to 1945, and Webb Air Force Base, activated in 1951 and decommissioned in 1977. Nearly 6,000 students graduated from the bombardier school.

Big Spring

The Hotel Settles reopened in December after being restored to its original grandeur.

Big Spring’s 1930s art-deco Hotel Settles has reopened after being closed for decades. The gorgeous renovation closely followed the hotel’s original blueprints while updating the building with modern conveniences.

On our way out of town, we stop to picnic at Comanche Trail Park, where a huge crowd of geese and ducks are paddling at the edge of the lake. When I step out to take a picture of this peaceful scene, the crowd (with lots of splashing, honking and wing flapping) rushes at me. I scurry back to the car. My daughter is not so timid. She spends the next 20 minutes alternating between eating her lunch and sharing it with the flock. They seem to be fond of wheat crackers and blackberries.

These moments — sitting by the lake on a lovely fall day, with ducks quacking and geese honking, sunlight sparkling off the water and a silhouetted fisherman across the way leisurely casting while wandering back and forth — are the perfect ending to our girls’ weekend.

As we head south, passing pump jacks playing hide-and-seek behind mesquite trees and white wind giants standing sentinel over the countryside, we agree that Big Spring is much more than just a stopover; it is a worthy destination.

Details:
• Big Spring State Park: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/bigspring
• Heritage Museum of Big Spring: www.heritagebigspring.com
• Comanche Trail Park: www.mybigspring.com/pages/Parks_And_Recreation
• Big Spring Bowl-a-Rama: www.bigspringbowlarama.com
• Hangar 25 Air Museum: www.hangar25airmuseum.com
• City of Big Spring: www.mybigspring.com/pages/local-attractions
• Hotel Settles: www.hotelsettles.com

 


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