Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Camper Coffee

Experiencing the community of state parks through caffeine-inspired conversations across Texas.

THERE IS THE NOTION that nature without humans is idyllic. But I think how we interact with the land and how it shapes us is an infinitely more interesting story. Texans enjoy 89 state parks spread across the state’s diverse ecoregions, and each has its own community of hardworking folks living on and caring for the land they inhabit. 

The first time I realized the value of community, I was in the second grade, and the Snyder Independent School District had just declared a snow day. That meant coffee with granddad and his cohorts. As each cup was filled from that retro-gold coffee pot, the stories flowed and the laughter rose like steam from the cups.

Watching them, a much younger me felt the warmth of human connection — and discovered that coffee is a great conversation catalyst.

Last year, Jerod Foster (my frequent storytelling partner for this magazine) and I rode motorcycles across Texas, camping at state parks along the way. Because time was always of the essence, our conversations with superintendents, park hosts and office staff were always too fleeting. They were all living their best lives and had such pride in their parks.

This year, to celebrate the Texas State Parks Centennial, Jerod and I decided to slow down, camp a few nights and really get to know a place and the people who make it special. We sat down and brewed coffee with many of the hardworking individuals behind those khaki shirts in four parks located in the far corners of this vast state.

We drove 3,861 miles, brewed 60 cups of coffee and talked for a combined 10 hours with superintendents, park hosts, interpreters and guides. Jerod and I walked away inspired, enlightened and downright moved by the places we saw and the people we met.

We broke the travel down to four separate trips, acquiring coffee from a local roaster en route to each locale. It was a true taste of Texas, in many ways.   

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Coffee: 7th and Park Bike and Coffee Shop, Brownsville – Columbian Bean

“Almost anytime you can expect something to fly across the border, or vice versa. It may be something you’ll never see anywhere else in Texas — or the world.” Bobby Rose, Resaca de la Palma park host

RESACA DE LA PALMA State Park, nestled at the very bottom of Texas on the outskirts of Brownsville, offers birds, butterflies, plants and trees that aren’t found anywhere else in the United States. As a result, birders with life lists travel from all over the world for a chance to see a common ground dove, a yellow-rumped warbler (also adorably called a “butter butt”), an Altamira oriole, a green jay or others.

We settled in for our last coffee at a corner of Texas. It was rainy and cold, rare weather for the sunny and temperate Rio Grande Valley. It wasn’t great bird-watching weather, but we were there for the people.

Our coffee companions were park hosts and avid birders Bobby and Laurie Rose and interpreter Margarita Guevara. Bobby and Laurie are from Rowlett. Semi-retired, they live full time in their RV. The park doesn’t have camping for the general public but provides spots for the park hosts, so they have the whole place to themselves when the park closes. With no campground bathrooms to clean (a rare perk for a park host), they can focus on helping birders from New Zealand, China, India and Poland check off birds from their life list.

Margarita, 31, came to Brownsville to go to school at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and fell in love with the area. After volunteering at the park, she worked in customer service and then transitioned into the interpreter position. Her passion extends beyond the park’s wildlife and really flourishes when she talks about the park’s plants.

After coffee, Margarita took us on the tram tour, which circumnavigates a 3-mile paved loop through the park. She stopped to show us her favorite place, the Kiskadee Trail, in the middle of an ebony forest. Ebony trees are rare, with only 1 percent of their original population remaining. We felt honored that Margarita shared such a magical place with us.

Yet another trip elevated to new heights by long, relaxed conversations over a cup of coffee. Sharing the passion of place with people adds so much more to the simple pleasures of nature.

“People bring a vitality to a site that you don’t have without them,” says Kelly Malkowski, Resaca de la Palma superintendent. “Sometimes we try to separate the humans from the landscape, for the sake of the land, but humans have been around for a long time. We’ve always interacted with the landscape. Having humans in this park enriches us.”   

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Coffee: Jo’s Downtown, Mount Pleasant – Roasted by New Flower Coffee 

“This is the best catfish you will ever eat.” Kayla Williams, Atlanta State Park administrative assistant

Yes, we have an Atlanta State Park in Texas, an emerald-green hidden gem in the northeast corner of the state. Towering shortleaf and loblolly pines fill the horizon, and the forest floor is carpeted with leaves, ferns and dense green undergrowth.

The trail system comes in at just under five miles, but it feels like so much more. Each trail has its own character; it takes only about 10 feet to be completely immersed in the forest canopy. Arrowhead Trail has a more open feel as it works its way through new forest growth down to the shores of Wright Patman Lake (where you’ll find those delicious catfish). The lake is fed by the Sulphur River and imparts a very special flavor to the catfish caught in its waters.

We sat down with Park Superintendent Steve Propes and administrative assistant Kayla Williams. It was raining outside, so Steve invited us into his office. Steve is a former English teacher and soccer coach, a bit of a romantic who travels extensively with his wife in a camper van. Favorite state park is, not counting Atlanta? Steve rattled off more places than I can list here, but his description of Enchanted Rock gave me chills.

“When you get up there and the wind blows, you can feel the heartbeat of Mother Earth.”

His East Texas accent was all business, which made the poetic imagery that much more sincere.

“Of all the parks I’ve visited,” Kayla tells us, with complete loyalty, “I still like ours best.”

She means it: Even though she works there, Kayla routinely spends her free time camping in the park at Knight’s Bluff.

“I love to walk down to the day use, and there are the most fabulous sunsets,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll see a bald eagle. I just love it.”

We ended our visit over a cup of coffee with park hosts Norman and Kathy Shumaker. Originally from Illinois, where Norman drove trucks and Kathy ran a beauty salon, they now live in their fifth-wheel travel trailer full time and act as unofficial park parents, in a way.

Kathy speaks like an approving mother, ever the optimist, while Norman chimes in with quips that are both lovable and gruff. One of the primary jobs for camp hosts is cleaning the bathrooms, a job they don’t seem to mind at all.

“Everybody has a home and has to clean the shower,” Kathy says. “It’s not like work — it’s like this is our home.”   

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Coffee: Monomyth Coffee, Lubbock – Ethiopian Bean 

“This is where you get the bigger sky, the big thunderstorms on the prairie. The red rock landscape is really beautiful, especially at sunset. Stewart Lefevre, Copper Breaks State Park interpreter

COPPER BREAKS is just south of Quanah, just below the corner where the east side of the Panhandle meets the Red River. The park is spectacularly rural and wild, with red-trimmed mesas and rugged trails that climb in and out of the breaks and serpentine through junipers and mesquites. Placid members of the Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd graze at home here; Copper Breaks’ designation as an International Dark Sky Park means night brings even more wonder.

Stewart, 26, is from Michigan and graduated from Lake Superior State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife management. Texas offered a full-time position with state parks, and Stewart fearlessly jumped at the opportunity. He joined us for coffee at an aluminum picnic table near the Big Pond Group Campground.

I was completely ignorant about park interpreters, and Stewart was the perfect person to ask.

“An interpreter is essentially an educator,” Stewart explains.

As we poured second and third cups of coffee, Stewart got deeper into his methodology, using the park’s longhorn herd to interpret the area’s history.

The key to meaningful interpretation, Stewart explains, is theme-building and storytelling.

“You want to connect intangible ideas to tangible concepts,” he says. “What’s the struggle of the Texas cowboy on a cattle drive up to Dodge City? Well, right there is a 1,500-pound steer with six feet of horn. It could kill him. You have that connection of a real-life object that hammers home that intangible point.”     

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Coffee: 2Ten Coffee Roasters, El Paso – Ethiopian Bean 

“The interpretation that we give here is focused on the indigenous communities. They’re living communities. This place is sacred. This place is important.” Nicole Roque, Hueco Tanks State Park interpreter.

Hueco Tanks, in far West Texas, just 30 minutes outside of El Paso, is like no place in Texas. Really, these mountains are like no other mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert. The igneous rock boulders that make up its three peaks create an order that speaks to that primal place between our heart, soul and brain — a gateway to the past. Thousands of pictographs, some very ornate and colorful, have been left behind by the inhabitants who cherished this place long before us.

The park has two interpreters, El Paso natives Nicole Roque, 32, and Elizabeth Parra, 30. We joined them for coffee in the old adobe ranch house that is now the park’s interpretive center. Both feel an intimate connection to this park. Working as an interpreter helped Nicole find her connection to this space in the outdoors.

“I want to give to other people, too, especially people from El Paso,” she says. “I want them to come out here and be able to find themselves in this land, feel comfortable and get excited about it.”

Nicole is exceptional at that kind of connecting. After coffee, Jerod and I joined her and a large group of Filipino nurses for a guided pictograph tour on East Mountain. It was a group of friends from all over the country: California, Pennsylvania, Florida. They chose this place for their annual friends’ trip.

Hueco is Spanish for hollow. The rocks here are covered in huecos, crater-like indentions that vary in size from a small bowl to a large hot tub. They hold water for months and also provide perfect holds for rock climbers, making this place an international climbing destination. We had coffee with two of the park’s climbing guides at our campsite.

Dave Head has been climbing here since the late 1970s, moving to El Paso from Austin in 1981 and watching the scene steadily grow.

“It was the early ’90s when it really took off,” Dave says. “It blew up and now it’s international.”

El Paso electrician Sid Roberts travels the world to climb in exotic locales.

“I was in South Africa hanging with these world-class climbers,” he says. “We’re coming to the end of the climbing season and they are like, ‘Where’s everybody headed?’”

They all started rattling off countries: China, France, Switzerland, Thailand. Then they got to Sid.

“I’m going to Hueco,” he told them. “They all stopped and said, ‘Wow, you are so lucky!’”

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