Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


East Texas Ramble

Destination - Athens

By Dana Joseph

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 9 hours /
  • Austin - 24.5hours /
  • Brownsville - 11 hours /
  • Dallas - 1.5 hours /
  • El Paso - 11.5 hours /
  • Houston - 4 hours /
  • San Antonio - 5.5 hour

The look on my veterinarian’s face says he's seen one hairball too many this week. Then there's a look of diagnostic concern as he inspects the distended belly of a kitten I've recently rescued on a jaunt through East Texas. When he hears that this latest addition to the family came from the bushes near the bass fishing lake at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, his face transforms. I've seen this look before — and on that very East Texas trip. He looks like he's gone, well, fishing. He lights up when he says he moved to this part of Texas because of the great bass fishing. Although he's always wanted to go to the fisheries center — it's not even two hours from Dallas — he hasn't made the time. But the look of reverie on his face tells me he's going to make the time now. He's transported by a vision of himself finally bass fishing with his son, and I'm transported momentarily back on my East Texas adventure.

Near the old Camino Real in the great green expanse between Nacogdoches and Palestine, Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site appears to surprise its own landscape. Rising abruptly and incongruously out of the lush countryside are the three huge mounds — two ceremonial and one burial — that give the park its name and its mission of preservation. An aura of ancient mystery seems to hang in the air, an inexplicability that has persisted for centuries. Early travelers recognized these landmarks as an Indian settlement, but archaeologists have long scratched their heads about the particulars.

In the visitor center, my 8-year-old son, Noah, and I meet the park superintendent, Jim Herold, who explains what periodic excavations in the 20th century have revealed. Archaeologists think the mound-building Caddos established a permanent settlement here about A.D. 800. There was good sandy loam soil for farming, plenty of food in the surrounding forest, and water in the nearby Neches River — a great setup for the economically and politically sophisticated Caddos.

After watching an eight-minute-long video on Caddo life, we wander around displays of pottery, flint blades, engraved bone pins, copper-covered stone earspools, effigy pipes, and other artifacts excavated from the mounds and the surrounding village. Transfixed in front of a mural that depicts the everyday life of this peaceful and prosperous agricultural people, we marvel at two unnervingly realistic mannequins of liberally tattooed Caddoan women preparing food. For my son, it's a National Geographic moment: the bare-breasted mannequins are life casts of artists’ models. For me, it's an astonishing anthropological moment when I realize that at the Caddos' zenith around 900 years ago, these women would have been doing a lot more than cooking. They were traders with a network that reached as far away as the eastern Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes. Besides that, their leather skirts are pretty hip. A Spanish explorer described a dyed leather burnished in such a way that it draped like fine woolens. These Caddos had it going on.

Jim shows us a stunning pot that came from one of the mounds. "Those are thousand-year-old fingernail marks," he says. "There's such a sense of wonder that another one of us did that so long ago. It's not just Indians in a book, but human beings who took pride in making things, who loved their families. That's what I want the kids to get."

As the sun starts to set, we start out on the 3/4-mile, self-guided hike. Walking toward the tallest mound, we are captivated by the spell of the place. You can almost see it all happening: Here, life was dictated by an elite ruling class, who lived on or around the ceremonial temple mounds. They put the common people of the village and surrounding farming hamlets to work growing and harvesting food, and building the mounds and temples. In the process, the Caddos became the most highly developed prehistoric culture within the present state of Texas, flourishing until the 13th century.

From the top of the mound I can almost see the shadows of the thriving Caddos in the fading light — and the decline that inevitably came. When the working class became self-sufficient and outlying communities no longer depended on the ruling class for their religious and political needs, the elite abandoned the place, capping off the mounds with a final layer of soil and leaving them to pique the curiosity of generations to come.

As the sun sinks and a hazy pink hue envelops the ancient mounds, Jim walks us over to the "borrow pit," where the common class once excavated soil in 30- to 40-pound basket loads to build up the mounds. Walking on, Jim points out walnut trees and trumpet vines, and crushes a walnut leaf so we can inhale its distinctive smell for some Caddo-style aromatherapy. We pause where a reconstructed early Caddo grass dwelling used to stand. Jim wipes the dewberry droppings of mockingbirds from the interpretive sign so we can read. The dwelling, which was built as an archaeological experiment with the tools, materials and methods of the Early Caddos, burned not long ago, leaving tiny balls of silica in its smoldering aftermath. The discovery taught archaeologists — whose quarter-inch-square sifting grids didn't pick up the minuscule remnants — that a large burning grass structure reaches such high temperatures it turns traces of sand into glass beads.

Beyond the burial mound, Jim shows us disturbed dirt where feral hogs have been rooting for food and points just beyond the trees to Weeping Mary, a black community that dates back to the days of emancipation. In a sort of climax, he points at the third mound in the distance, and my son, who is now enthralled by Jim's storytelling, puts his Gameboy away for good. Although it's not within the confines of the park, the third mound is nonetheless on Jim's rounds. He periodically crosses the highway to check it for trash. "I find cigarettes there occasionally," he says, making me wonder what kind of miscreant desecrates an ancient Indian mound. But Jim quickly corrects me. "Sometimes the cigarettes are stripped and sometimes they aren't. The tobacco is an offering, left at the site by people making a pilgrimage."

Before he waves us off into the Caddoan sunset with an avuncular admonition to my son to "do nice things for others and be good to people," Jim tells us that Zebulon Pike was captured by Spanish soldiers and camped here in 1807. "Some people look out and ask, ‘Are these just piles of dirt?'" Jim makes a 360-degree observation, taking in all three of the strange, majestic mounds. "But other people smell the smoke, see the dancing, and hear the music. My job is to get the others to realize that these are far more than piles of dirt. I want them to smell the smoke, see the dancing, and hear the music," he says, his eyes shining with something even more magical than the reflected sunset.

As if flipping to another chapter in Texas history, the next day Noah and I find ourselves in an open-air car of a steam-powered train going from Palestine to Rusk. Operated by the Texas State Railroad State Park, the four-hour, 50-mile roundtrip takes you from one Victorian-style station to another, steaming through pineywoods, hardwood creek bottoms, and East Texas history. Built by state prisoners more than 100 years ago, the train's first purpose was to run from the state penitentiary in Rusk to the hardwood bottoms, where charcoal was made for firing the prison's iron-ore smelting furnaces.

But that's probably not on the minds of the passengers who tour the steam-engine cab, visit the engineer, and grab seats in turn-of-the-century train cars. Just as the train is about to pull out, a Western gunfight breaks out between bad guys trying to rob the train and lawmen determined to stop them. My son knows the guns are shooting blanks and actors are just playing costumed roles, but that's not what the look on his face says. Even the grownups are mesmerized and happy to be part of the play when a black-coated undertaker boards the train to measure onlookers just in case they are caught in the crossfire. It ends happily, however, but not for the outlaws. With them lying “dead” near the tracks, the engine blasting off steam, and 24 bridges beckoning, we pull away to clapping all around.

Midway in our run to Rusk, our eastbound train meets the westbound train. Although the rest of the scenic ride and picnic lunches and paddleboats on the other end will delight everyone, it's the passing of the two historic steam engines that makes for real magic. Just feet apart, the two trains’ passengers wave at each other's engineers in their striped denim caps and overalls and at the other passengers in their railway thralls and childhood smiles. We're not here at Christmas time, so I can only imagine what a sprinkling of holiday cheer does for the happy atmosphere.

On our way to Athens, my son and I buy sweets at downtown Palestine's historic Eilenberger bakery and nosh on them in a Zen-inspired enclave of the Tyler Rose Garden. Locals have recommended The Shed for lunch, where we indulge in a heavy plate of home cooking and an intense piece of pie. We walk it off at the peaceful plant-store-cum-garden-oasis called Blue Moon Gardens in Edom, finding as much contentment on the faces of the owners and customers as on the flowers and resident cats and dogs.

Our destination is the fisheries center in Athens, but before we fish, we flower some more at the East Texas Arboretum: the jewel of Athens, with acres of plantings, a historic home and a trail through the woods. A mile into our hike among the trees, we come across a construction crew building a suspension bridge (funded in part with a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant). When the engineer in charge describes how the bridge will be hoisted and inaugurated in a couple of months, he gets that look on his face that I've been seeing so often.

It's on the face of Barry St. Clair at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, too. We take the tram ride out to see the hatchery, where the center nurtures a quarter of the fish stocked in Texas lakes. We walk through the marvelously thought-out center, viewing through aquarium windows the cross-sections of six Texas marine ecosystems. In the huge window of the aquarium’s theater, we watch a diver hand-feeding fish, a daily ritual at the center. The diver, who is fitted with a microphone that allows him to talk to the audience, introduces us to a 14-pound largemouth bass called the Preston fish for the angler who caught her. While the gar, catfish and a 10-pound smallmouth buffalo named Lollypop will take dead smelt from the diver’s fingers, largemouth bass require live food; when the Preston fish approaches, the diver releases coy carp from a mesh bag for her to eat.

After the feeding, we explore the displays: trophy bass, antique lures, the ShareLunker program, the life of a bass from conception to maturity; there are even resident alligators. Even for a non-fisherwoman like me, it's a blast to walk around this amazing marine world.

But the real gas is the look on our guide's face when he sees that we realize what he's been dying to tell us all along: He's the bearded guy, a dozen years younger, in the video showing the record holder of the biggest bass catch in the state. Well, hello, Barry!

Later, Barry fixes my son up with some stink bait and teaches him a thing or two about casting at the bass lake outside the fishing camp house, which is exactly where we first hear the meows.

I see that look again when my son digs into the otherworldly key-lime cheesecake from the New York, Texas, Cheesecake Factory that we bought for our trip from Athens back to Dallas. And then again when I tell my son that we can keep the kitten. And now here it is on the face of my vet as he contemplates a long-awaited fishing trip to Athens.

Suddenly it dawns on me. I know what that shining look is. It's Christmas morning. It's playing with a brand-new kitten. It's the wonderment of childhood. And it's loving life and being right there in the middle of the moment.

For More Information

back to top ^

Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine 
Sign up for email updates
Sign up for email updates