Be safe they say.
My time on a horse was short compared to some, and always with a group. Surrounded by the camaraderie of equestrians who knew more than me. A community willing to assist if needed, and they did. Many of my first rides took place within this safety net. Helping me learn horses, which in turn helped me learn myself.
My fellow riders were there when I took my first fall on an old asphalt road from the back of a borrowed mare. They helped when I took my first horse to Bandera, only 2 ½ years old, nosing him up against the back of a wagon so he couldn’t run from what were surely monsters at every turn. When I didn’t know how to slow my second horse down, they helped again, and we rode backwards through much of that trail ride. It seemed to fix the problem.
But in 2020, COVID reared its ugly head, and for a minute we were scared to be together, even in those wide-open spaces. State parks closed their doors, trail rides were canceled, businesses shut down. Many horses and trailers sat idle – all in an effort to be safe. But somewhere still, under all of this, is the sun, the wind, the sound of leaves rattling, and a horse breathing. If only we could step outside to hear it, find a place away from the noise and anxiety, just a moment to soak in and let the silence speak.
Fort Davis was my first touch of West Texas. A proud town where yes ma’am and sir still roll off the tongues of children as easily as adults, locals know each other’s trucks, and cowboy hats are normal attire not fashion. Fort Davis is a place where locals greet each other with the casual two-fingered wave of a draped hand over the steering wheel and a quick nod. As with most west Texas towns, guns are second nature here. Even the school exclaims proudly via signage that staff are armed and will act, a reminder to whoever needs it. This is a town with a long history of defending our frontier.
Once one of the largest posts in the west, Fort Davis boasted over 400 enlisted men between 1855-56 providing safety for travelers along the old San Antonio-El Paso Road. The fort served as a base of operations for the same camel tours championed by Jefferson Davis in Big Bend and Camp Verde outside of Bandera, and in 1859 became a stop on the same Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route that traces its way through many state and national parks, including: Ray Roberts, Jacksboro, Franklin Mountains, Guadalupe Mountains, and Barrell Spring near the famous Mt Livermore of Davis Mountains Preserve.
Davis Mountains State Park
The state park here is a beautiful thing born of a difficult time. Established in 1933 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the original 560 acres were mostly donated by local landowners – landowners who at the same time were fending off the Great Depression. At a time when the unemployment rate topped twenty-four percent, Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) providing a ray of hope for over three-thousand men across the country, including wages, education, and conservation of public areas, Davis Mountains State Park included.
A short five-minute drive from Fort Davis and cell service drops. At camp, the stars roll out of their hiding places and the Big Dipper shifts gently against a serenade of crickets, an unlikely desert mosquito, and the not-so-distant sound of my horse chewing. We sleep well at camp.
By 9:15AM the next morning, I’m already sweating from the exercise of saddling. The sound of cars along the highway echo across the canyon as we ride upward to the tallest point in the park. Crossing Limpia Creek, a reflection catches my eye – it’s me, highlighted in the crisp glass of the creek and framed by Cottonwood trees, a soft contrast to the harshness of this desert. Finally, a breeze kicks in as we climb and the sweat rolling down my back cools me, at least for a minute.
I’ve always thought at some point, working with a horse, they decide “okay, I’m done.” I see it in their ears, in the round pen – it’s the turn toward me without being asked, on the trail the sudden circle back to camp. Gently pushing through that moment, however, is magic. As in life, forward momentum flattens, a plateau if you will, and we have a choice. Move through or quit whether you see your way or not.
Hikers turn to watch our ascent as we meander upward. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you,” I say, “as long as you get out alive” – or rather I wished I’d said as they stood aside to let us pass, asking me how long it had taken us to ride the same distance they just walked.
You can see the McDonald Observatory from here, a stark white bubble against the desert cedars. The ground glistens in the sun as whispers of tall grass shift slightly with each gentle breath. A bird perches on a cedar branch and I can see my trailer below like a sparkling grain of sand in the ocean. An old ranch fence cuts across the mountain, owning it at one post at a time, put here by men with far more resolve than I.
At the top we break, and I dismount. My horse, Dex, stands looking to the west over what I think is the Davis Preserve, or maybe the Guadalupe’s, distance is a hard thing to gauge in the desert. He whinnies, calling out to some unseen horse in the valley below as waves of sunlight chase the velvet contour before us.
I like to think he enjoys the view.
Davis Mountains Preserve – Mt Livermore
Looking into the desert, I see waves. Cresting, one on top of the other. A land shaped by an ancient sea into an arid stretch of rolling hills and mountains fed by monsoon summers and dry winters.
And I row through this ocean of cactus and creosote to find an island. An oasis of green Ponderosa Pine, Live Oak, Pinon, and Madrones, surrounded by waist high grass dancing in the sunlight. An occasional Alligator Juniper adding texture to the otherwise soft fabric of this world.
Eighteen miles from the State Park along Highway 118 is the Davis Mountains Preserve, established and managed by The Nature Conservancy – a sky island standing tall and proud in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Parking at the Upper Madera Windmill on Canyon Road, we unloaded and tacked up the horses. Our goal today? To summit Mount Livermore.
The smell of pine mixes with sunlight and together they tease, caressing my shoulders and creeping into my soul. At 7200 feet we stop to let the horses breathe and wait for the hikers ahead to finish their climb, and then, carried by momentum we run up. It drives our determination.
Baldy Peak tops the trail at 8200 feet above sea level, I tie the horses and settle on a moss-covered rock – my recliner to the world – and with sightlines to the Guadalupe’s, relax and enjoy a celebratory beer. We made it to the top.
In September of 1895, as the Terlingua mining industry was taking off and just four short years after the abandonment of Fort Davis, two cowboys went hunting on Mount Livermore. We don’t know if they brought home sustenance, but we do know they brought home history, and Susan Janes saved it.
Today, if you’re lucky, you can see the Livermore arrowhead cache of over 1,700 specimens at Big Bend Museum in Alpine. Thought to be the first humans in the Big Bend to hunt deer, rabbits and other game with bow and arrow, the Livermore community flourished for six centuries and then disappeared. They left behind a ceremonial, and extensive, arrowhead cache on Mount Livermore – the tallest peak in the Davis Mountains.
Understandably, they don’t allow many people in this preserve – reservations are limited and required. Gates are typically locked. The animals feel safe here. I feel safe here.
Leaving I think about how important it is that we protect these special places. Those untarnished in the world around us. And I am reminded not to turn from this world. To hold on with arms wide open and lean in. Investing in myself, my peace of mind, and my surroundings. My world.
by Shannon King