There are places that haunt us, for better or worse. Wild Rose Pass is like that for me.
I first saw it in 1986 while travelling with the man I would soon marry, and I was in love. Driving from Balmorhea to Fort Davis on Highway 17, we came around the bend through this furrow in the mountains and were astonished by the sight of a profusion of pink flowers waving in the wind. We stopped. We took pictures. We didn’t have the nerve to go through the fence, but we recognized them as roses – small, bright pink roses with five simple petals fluttering along thorny canes draping the hill- sides. We stood there for a while, rocked by the wind, our arms around each other, gazing upon this flourish of nature.
At least that’s how I remember it. I also remember that we wondered what the name of this magnificent place was until we came across the metal plaque mounted on its granite stand at the south end of the pass.
It said: In early days the Indian Trail through these mountains followed the gorge below known as Limpia Canyon. To avoid the floods travelers over the San Antonio – El Paso road, emigrants, U.S. troops and supply trains, and the mail chose this higher pass named for its wild roses.
At the top of the plaque, just below the embossed Texas star, were the words WILD ROSE PASS.
Some dozen years later, on a trip with our children, we returned to Fort Davis. Each of us had something special we wanted to do. For Sam, the youngest, it was a star party at the McDonald Observatory. For Miguel, the oldest, it was a day at the Fort Davis Historic Site.
And for Dee, it was getting up at dark-thirty on a frigid morning so that we could park our behinds on the bone-chilling trunk of our car to watch pronghorns through binoculars. But for me, a big part of this trip was about those roses.
It was early spring, so I didn’t think the roses in the pass would be in bloom yet, but I asked the irascible proprietor of our motel about them. “Ain’t been any roses in the pass for years,” he said, “Prob’ly never was.” We drove to the pass anyway, but from the highway, we could see no evidence of blooms or even of bare rose canes. Still, we told the boys about the time that we drove through the pass and saw the roses and how beautiful it was and how happy we were. They were not impressed. “Where do you think they went?” Sam asked. I was stumped for an answer.
In the years after that first sighting, I had become a bit of an aficionado of antique roses, filling our rock garden back in Austin with specimens of wild or naturalized roses started from cuttings I had rustled from road-sides and old cemeteries and at abandoned farm houses. I became adept at propagating wild roses from six-inch cuttings, nurturing them to fruition, making more cuttings, and sharing them. Still, I always wondered about that little pink rose I had once seen blooming in West Texas. What was its name? Might I be able to take cuttings and propagate that little rose? And I often thought, “If I ever get back to Wild Rose Pass …”
The spring of 2007, the year I moved to Alpine, was quite mild until Easter Sunday. That morning I awoke to a freeze and a strangely lifting fog. I had an idea. I called my mother and asked her to go with me to Wild Rose Pass. Knowing that the light was quite unusual and might be good for her photography, I tempted her. “Bring your camera, Mom. We can’t do anything else today. We may as well go for a drive and take pictures.”
Along the way, we saw odd sights: fog streaming down the steep slopes of Mitre Peak, and more fog flowing along the contours of the rolling waters in Limpia Creek. By the time we made it to the pass, we had just about ooohed and aaahed ourselves out. Once there, our light hearted mood suddenly shifted. The pass was enshrouded in that strange lifting fog, and the effect was spectacularly eerie.
Fingers of fog unrolled like flame tips into the bluish sky above, but we could not see the mountains on either side through the dense grayness. In a subdued mood, we turned the car around and headed quietly home.
On a drive down Highway 17 from a friend’s cabin at Lake Balmorhea a few years ago, two motorcyclists pulled around me coming into the pass. A minute later I saw one of them standing on the roadside next to his bike waving me down. His nephew had driven off the road and was lying twisted and broken in the ditch among the scattered parts of his wrecked bike. With no cell signal, I flagged down the next several vehicles looking for a doctor or anyone with a signal. Among the travelers were a nurse and an EMT who worked on the young man until help arrived. The ambulance came too late. He died. And I was struck with a sudden awareness that this place was indeed remote, and that remote can mean dangerous. I had that same feeling just after the Rock House Fire swept through the pass, and I saw the charred grassland and cottonwood trees along the creek still smoking from their bases. I felt a longing to see beauty in Wild Rose Pass again.
When I asked about the roses, many old-timers said they had never seen them blooming. My vision from 1986 began to take on a Brigadoon-like quality. I know that my mind is as capable of anyone’s of playing tricks, but I’m certain that it was not a mirage. An internet search yielded several stories on official Texas historic sites all saying pretty much the same thing: that the pass was named by a Lt. Whiting in 1849 for the Demaree rose growing there. I found nothing about a Demaree rose.
A friend searched through her botany books one morning over coffee. She suddenly turned one of the books around to me, tapping the page, and said, “There’s your rose!” According to Dr. A. Michael Powell, author of numerous books and articles on the flora of the Trans-Pecos region, the rose I was looking for was rosa woodsii, a native that is quite common throughout the western United States.
Okay, it’s common, but does it still bloom in Wild Rose Pass? I consulted Dr. Martin Terry, a botanist at Sul Ross State University. He found the tales of the internet search to be “some admixture of puzzling and sad.” But he confirmed my rose to be rosa woodsii, a small, pink wild rose, and he suggested that I consult the great Dr. Powell directly.
I also talked to Jeff Keeling, a botanist working on his master’s degree at Sul Ross, who had recently completed a botanical survey of over 4,000 plants found on Mount Livermore, one of which is rosa woodsii. He agreed to drive with me to Wild Rose Pass to search for it, but lacking access to the land, we found nothing to indicate that the rose still exists there. Jeff suggested that perhaps I had seen glandularia pubera, a plant with tiny clusters of flowers in shades of pink to mauve to fuchsia. He showed me one. Nope. Too low to the ground. Then he suggested that perhaps I had seen a plant called Apache Plume whose bloom is sometimes confused with the McCartney rose. That, too, was a big nope. Too white.
It was clearly time to consult the master, the famous Dr. Powell. I found him in the herbarium in the basement of the Warnock Building on the Sul Ross campus. When I told him my story, he walked to one of the tall gray metal cabinets that stand in rows in the herbarium and pulled out a book of pressings of specimens. There it was. This flattened sprig of a rose, the only rosa woodsii specimen in the collection documented as having actually been collected in the pass, was donated by Dr. Barton Warnock in 1956, but it was collected by Barry Scobee around 1935. Dr. Powell says that many botanists have looked for the rose in the pass, but there were always access problems. The famous Dr. Barton Warnock had access but never found it.
So there I was – looking over the shoulder of a brilliant botanist pondering a humble, desiccated rose specimen donated by the fellow for whom the very building in which we stood was named – a rose collected by the fellow for whom Scobee Mountain was named. I felt connected, if only for a moment, to these great men, past and present, through a little flower pressed between yellowing pages.
And I felt connected to Wild Rose Pass, this haunting, frustrating place where I have seen love and death, beauty and destruction, hope and disappointment. Did I see what I think I saw? Can a wild rose that hasn’t been documented in over 75 years still exist? Does it?
– by Phyllis Dunham, First Quarter 2013 issue