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Cacti and Critters

Peaceful Sanderson offers desert landscapes and more.


With stout boots, a large-brimmed hat and plenty of water, you’ll be set to see for yourself why Sanderson is the official Cactus Capital of Texas. That’s only one of many good reasons to stop along the Texas Pecos Trail (U.S. Highway 90) instead of whizzing by on your way to Alpine or Marfa.

Former Sanderson Economic and Tourism Development Director Terry “Tex” Toler led the legislative charge to secure the town’s cactus title in hopes of getting visitors like you to stay awhile.

“It just seemed like a no-brainer,” Tex recalls. “We were looking for ways to boost Sanderson’s visibility and economy. Cacti enthusiasts from all over the world visit Sanderson to see the incredible variety of species here.”

Some come to this remote town to enjoy gazing at the cacti in the rugged western landscape. Others come to conduct research, to photograph and to document. They may be rewarded with finding six different species of prickly pear, the state plant of Texas. 

I’m not a biologist, but I love being outdoors. My get-away-from-it-all trip west was designed to let me decompress in the quiet beauty of nature. I was looking forward to a deep dive into the desert, learning more about the plants and animals that live there from my buddy, Tex.

Tex takes us to 5 Mile Hill Road, on the outskirts of town, for a cacti reconnaissance. Along the way, we stop at a spot where we can spy Big Bend National Park and Mexico in the distance. The vista spreads across hills, flat-topped mesas, canyons speckled with cactus, rocks and sand, all canopied by the clearest, bluest sky. As an added perk, we get to enjoy this view with a soundtrack of whispering wind and occasional birdsong.

Learning the names of native plants among the cacti makes us wonder about the earliest people who lived here and found ingenious uses for roots and leaves and blooms.

Sotol provides a good example. A member of the beargrass or agave family, sotol has sawtooth leaves and a tall, straight stalk. Humans have found many uses for it, including fermenting a drink still enjoyed today. One sotol variety, Loco, is aptly named for a defect that makes the stalk wind into a serpentine shape.

After a rain, crimson blossoms burst from the branches on the ocotillo, or devil’s walking stick. Silvery cenizo (purple sage) also reacts to moisture — some say it foretells desert rain by blooming before precipitation.

Spanish dagger is found in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas; lechuguilla is similarly a spiky ground plant. Texas wild persimmon trees, a barkless cousin to the madrone, offer black, sticky fruits loved by wildlife. Guayacan, or soapbush, has violet flowers and pods that burst open to reveal scarlet seeds. Mesquite trees, which produce a hardwood preferred by many barbecue aficionados, are plentiful.

In the Cactus Capital, you can expect to encounter desert creatures — snakes, lizards and insects — in abundance as well.

PieJar

Sam Floyd’s the kind of guy who never met a bug he didn’t love. Sam meets us in the parking lot of the Outback Oasis Motel just before dawn, looking like he’s pulled an all-nighter. Indeed, he had been out all night searching along the “cuts” (a cut in the road typically between two bluffs) for insects and reptiles in the dark.

Sam holds a dried 14-foot sotol stalk in his hand; a few plastic pails and cloth bags hang over his arms. As I reach in to shake hands, one of the cloth bags starts moving.

“Whatcha got in the bag?” I ask, jumping backward.

Sam’s all-nighter proved fruitful. With that long stalk, a flashlight and a 12-inch pair of tweezers, he’d captured an angry giant desert blacktail centipede, a Texas tan tarantula, a beastly looking vinegaroon, a scorpion, a few spiders, a Trans-Pecos rat snake, a desert kingsnake and more.

Sam, who lives in Florida, is an avid collector and researcher for medical companies, zoos, museums and schools across the country. That’s why he comes to Sanderson. His nighttime hunting contributes invertebrates (no backbones, mostly insects) and arthropods (spiders, centipedes, scorpions, millipedes and vinegaroons) and reptiles to many worthwhile uses. 

You may find new respect for these creatures when you learn that the neurotoxic venom found in black widow and brown recluse spiders may have possible use in pain and heart medicine. Some specimens Sam collects go to new homes in zoos, museums and children’s nature programs.

Sam has discovered a few new species of millipedes; one was named after him, Floridobolus floydi.

“I felt honored; it was really cool,” he says, but adds some good advice to would-be bug wranglers. “Don’t break the laws. Get the required permit(s) and don’t collect on private land or at state parks.”

Sam says Texas laws are sensible, work well at protecting the species and offer reasonable bag limits.

I could wait no longer to ask my burning question.

“Have you ever been bitten?”

“Yes, but only by one venomous snake, who bit me three times,” he says, explaining he had put his hand into the cage of a pygmy rattlesnake to move a water bowl and didn’t see where the snake was sitting. Fortunately, the bites were “dry,” meaning no venom was released.

Sam says the worst bite came from a devil’s scorpion from Peru.

“The container got knocked over and I put my thumb too close to the scorpion,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, it felt like someone hammered a nail into my finger, causing my arm to go numb up to my shoulder. It lasted three or four days and felt like electricity shocking me all the time.”

I must have quit listening to that last bit, or perhaps I just have an urge for a good “bug story” of my own to tell. Impulsively, I ask Sam if I can hold the vinegaroon.

Sam places the oversized insect in my cupped hands, but the vinegaroon has other ideas and zooms up my right arm. Yikes! Sam gently returns it to my hands, but history repeats itself. I silently endure, as Sam has warned me that my 6-inch friend can spray vinegary acetic acid from a gland at the base of its whip-like tail, hence the name vinegaroon. That spray might make for some burning eyes, an uncomfortable ride home and perhaps a heart arrythmia, in my case.

Roy Engeldorf loves snakes the way Sam loves bugs. Roy’s passion runs so deep that he’s set up an education center at his Outback Oasis Motel to display his live specimens. He welcomes visitors from around the world to see Sanderson-area snakes such as the elusive gray-banded kingsnake, red racer, night snake, diamondback rattlesnake and copperhead.

“We’ve even had a group of nuns from Mexico who wanted to learn about snakes and hold them and have their picture taken,” he says.

He enjoys answering visitors’ questions about reptiles here.

“The more they learn about snakes, the less likely they are to be afraid of them,” he says.

If birding is your passion, Sanderson has plenty of opportunities to see a wide variety of species. Follow the Sanderson-Sheffield Loop of the Far West section of TPWD’s Great Texas Wildlife Trails. There are parks and trails and access to ranches (call ahead) where you can see red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, scaled quail, greater roadrunner, vermilion flycatcher, Chihuahuan raven, cactus wren, sage thrasher, canyon towhee, pyrrhuloxia and many other species year-round.

Want to do more than look at amazing desert wildlife? Sanderson has a fascinating history.

Before it became the Cactus Capital, Sanderson was known as “the town too mean for Bean.” The infamous Judge Roy Bean opened a saloon in Sanderson (then named Strobridge or Strawbridge), sparking a rivalry with local empresario Charlie Wilson, who, according to legend, spiked Bean’s whiskey barrels with kerosene. Bean lost customers and moved his Jersey Lilly Saloon 60 miles east to Langtry, where he set up his legendary “Law West of the Pecos.” His son, however, stayed behind and lived in Sanderson all of his life.

Two big events bring crowds of folks to Sanderson each year. On April 23 this year, the Big Bend Open Road Race, considered the “toughest open road race in the U.S.,” offers an opportunity to speed (one at a time) between Sanderson and Fort Stockton on U.S. 285. Drivers reach speeds of more than 200 mph. Visit www.bborr.com for more information on the race.

Snake Days, an annual summer festival, offers educational presentations, guided excursions into the cuts and fundraising efforts to raise money for conservation. This year’s event, June 24-26, will be virtual. Check snakedays.com for more information.

While Sanderson may look like another quiet West Texas town, the people who live there and those who choose to stay and explore find much to enjoy. When you crave wide-open spaces, cacti, critters and comfort, stop a while in Cactus Capital of Texas.

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