It is as we are packing and tidying the bus ready for the off the following day that Loops announces he has a visit to take us on. I tell you, I am quite happy to drop my bottle of 409 and paper towels where I stand and pootle off to do something far more interesting than worry about dusting the bus.
We hop in The Beast and exactly 5 minutes later we hop out again. Our brief journey has taken us to another location on the Fort Sam Houston base – to the US Army Medical Museum.
I feel that during my time here in America I have learned there is certainly at least one thing that that this country does well, and that is recounting its fairly recent history. And there is surely nothing they enjoy here more in history recollection, than talking about the military in its many forms; whether that be the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, or the modern day US military.
I would say that to date we have had a pretty good look at historic sites and museums during our travels, almost to the point I could take a break from them, but I am glad we had the opportunity to see the medical museum.
For a start, I’m grateful for the access to it as it is not an opportunity open to everyone; the public cannot visit the museum, it is only available to those with access to the base – so that would be current or former military and their guests. I think that is a shame and feel other people would both benefit and enjoy seeing the exhibits in it.
Secondly, I enjoyed it as this museum doesn’t focus on the army per se, you know, fighting and conflict etc. Everything in this museum is about the Medical Corp, a non-combatant role. This museum solely focuses on what medical facilities, supplies and practices have been used throughout the history of the military. It even includes some information about the role and equipment used by the Veterinary Corp.
So overall, this is a highly educational, thought-provoking and fascinating experience, especially if you already have an interest in scientific endeavours.
The exhibits are laid out in a timeline starting out when things like bloodletting, herbalism and basic amputation where the only options for fighting disease and infection, moving on to modern day mobile operating theatres and pharmaceuticals now used. There are many moving stories of medics going above and beyond to ensure that army fighting personnel and civilians in war zones are cared for, despite the dangers to the medics themselves.
Once you have toured the inside of the museum, you can head outside to where they have a mobile train unit car set up and a number of different land and air vehicles used by medics – including a single person helicopter (pilot and medic all in one) where the patients were simply strapped on a stretcher attached to the outside of the helicopter, flying through the open air as the pilot got them back to safety and a medical facility. It’s both amazing and frightening to think that these were once the sort of things regularly used; the basic technology that worked and was successful at the time. I will never watch M.A.S.H. in the same way again.
I was so busy looking at things I didn’t take photos – sorry, but Loops did record some video footage of a few of the exhibits, so if you (or anyone you know) are interested in having a look, you can see it here:
We face yet another storm the night before we leave – having travelled for so long in rather decent weather (honestly I’ve seen more rain in England in one week than I have here in the past year), it is a bit of a shock to the system to have these massive Texas thunderstorms rage through.
The following day is yet another long drive for us, heading nearly 160 miles across the Texan landscape from San Antonio to Del Rio. Bearing in mind our normal travel days are around 60 miles, this is also another shock to the system. However, rather than being a monotonous long haul drive, the scenery is enough to keep us entertained for the day.
We leave the city landscape of skyscrapers, concrete and traffic and find ourselves moving through lush green pastured areas which slowly but surely begin to lose their colour the further we drive.
The surroundings are now coloured buff and sand. The grasses have been leached of some of their colour and are now are a dull and grubby green/brown shade. There is dust and stone covering the earth rather than thick, dark soil. There are clumps of small shrubs which are surprisingly green, but also a pale yellow; and we pass scattered patches of blue flowers on the side of the road. Cacti now appear – round prickly pear varieties.
The landscape overall is devoid of modern life, or really any type of habituation. It is mostly just flat, open and unoccupied. I can’t call it empty though.
For a place with so much plant life is not empty, blank or bare. There is bound to be plenty of wildlife out here, desert wildlife. Because that is exactly what our landscape has changed to in the course of the afternoon – we are now in the desert for sure.
We regularly pass random looking archways on the side of the road. They are basic, with two free-standing poles and a bar across the top. Some are simply that, other will have a small sign or brand, denoting that this is a ranch belonging to someone. Not that you would know it, because as far as the eye can see, the land has nothing sitting on it. No house, no barn, no building of any type. Occasionally you might spot a free-standing shooting stand, sitting and looking a little lonely and lost in the landscape.
When I think of the term ‘ranch’, I see in my mind verdant green hills covered by cattle and sheep. But here in Texas, these desert ranches are more likely to contain deer, hog and antelope – in fact we pass a number of deer and antelope on route standing next to the perimeter fences. I can only assume these are either hunting ranches, where people pay to shoot, or these animals are being raised and will be shot and sold for meat somewhere, coping slightly better with the landscape than general cattle.
Having said that, a little investigation shows me that the ranches out here in Texas can run a little on the large side – for instance a small ranch is considered to be around 2,000 acres with the larger ranches reaching up to 20,000 acres. So with that in mind, all of these places we pass could be housing tons of cattle in areas we can’t possibly see from the road and all the workings of a farm, just hidden from view.
From where I’m sitting though, I’m going to say you have to be one heck of a strong character to live out here in the middle of no-where, in the dry dust and heat and have a farm. I salute you Texan desert farmers!
Over time, another noticeable feature of the landscape becomes apparent; it somehow just gently slips into my eye line, though I can’t quite determine where it started. It’s a white chalk-like track that sits off to the side of the main road. It’s sometimes on the left, and sometimes on the right. It’s large enough to accommodate a full sized car. It isn’t until we are almost as far west as we plan to go for the day that its use becomes known.
We see a structure off in the distance and soon come across signs and lights indicating for us to slow down and move slowly over to the building.
Welcome to our first US Border Patrol Checkpoint.
We will become familiar with these throughout our Texas travels, they crop up here and there, some we have to stop and pull over at and some which you just drive straight past. Right now though, we have to stop and a nice chap talks to Loops through his driver window asking where we’ve come from and where we are headed.
There is another guy who has a young German Shephard cross whom he walks up and down one side of the bus, presumably looking for drugs, illegal immigrants or both. Despite there being slight suspicion in his voice when he asks twice if it’s just Loops and I in the bus (Loops’ has to explain this is our only fulltime home and that’s why it’s so big), he waves us through with no problems.
As we exit the checkpoint it’s then I see the dust cloud created in the distance to the side of the road, it’s a Border Patrol vehicle coming back to the building. It seems the chalk road is the personal highway of the patrollers and, again, as we continue our westward travels these vehicles will become a regular and familiar sight on the road. Driving up and down the chalk or sitting stationary on it, keeping their eyes peeled out across the desert, looking for people crossing the border and making a bid for freedom here in the US.
Personally, over the 3 weeks we end up travelling through this state, we spot no illegal people making a dash through the day or night for a new life this side of the Rio Grande. The only signs I see of people crossing over will come when we reach Big Bend later in the week.
We finally make it to Del Rio in the early evening and call the Walmart carpark there our home for the evening. It’s the largest town we will see for a while, but that doesn’t really mean much in the big scheme of things. The store we are parked in appears to be the largest thing in town.
Loops suggests rather than fiddling with fixing dinner we make our way across the car park and into Rudy’s BBQ for some grub.
You know what I’m going to say right? If you are passing through the Del Rio area and fancy some good food and excellent friendly staff to chat with, head over to Rudy’s. We walk in the door and immediately the young lady welcomes us and asks if we’ve ever dined there before. ‘We sure haven’t,’ we tell her.
She walks us over the BBQ meat counter and explains the menu options on the wall, and then calls over for the kitchen chap to slice us up some BBQ samples to try so we can decide what we want to eat. The meat is mouth wateringly delicious – I fully recommend the pulled pork, hands down. We have a little chinwag with the kitchen guys while they prepare our food, so chatty and open and they make me smile. We walk over to pay for our takeout food and the young lady asks us where we are from. When I explain our journey across the US she looks at me and says, rather sadly I feel, ‘I’ve never travelled anywhere.’
‘No-where?’ I ask her. She shakes her head, ‘I’ve never left Del Rio’.
She’s never left her home town. She must be in her mid to late 20’s, and she’s never left this town.
She has never seen the true deep green of deciduous or evergreen trees of the north or snow covered mountains, she’s never seen lush cow pastures or even a big city skyline with skyscrapers. Never flown in an airplane or even stood on soil that wasn’t dust and rock probably. These thoughts stick with me through the evening and the enormity of the fact weighs down on me. I’m just rather gobsmacked.
Could I ever imagine having never left Winchester in my whole life, my home town? What even if I’d never travelled out of the county of Hampshire?
What would I be like as a person?
How might I, or my life, be different? Surely that has got to have a huge impact on you as a person.
Having been the one to do the research on the area around here, it’s my plan we follow for the next few days, for I have insisted that we visit and stay at the local state park just half an hour down the road in order to go and see some petroglyphs drawn in the caves there.
Seminole Canyon State Park is the first Texas state park we have visited, and it is an excellent facility. That is if you like peace and solitude, birds and the desert landscape. Which it just so happens, we do.
We arrive at the headquarters to book in to our campsite and immediately I am ecstatic about the view from my window before I even open the door to get out. Sitting in the tree to my right is this chap…
He’s a Golden Oriole. Happily sitting right next to the bus in the bush singing his heart out, he remains there long enough for me to slide open my window and snap the photo of him, easy as pie.
With the window open I can smell the sweetness of the pollen of about a dozen different plants blowing on the breeze and along with the scent comes wave after wave of butterflies. Fluttering everywhere, small white butterflies, gently rising and falling just like the rolling waves the sea.
I love this place already.
A couple steps from the bus and I want to hug the park rangers here for this is what I find…
They have labelled specimens of the local plants, the ones I will continue to see all throughout the Texan desert. For the next three weeks I will annoy Loops no end with chatterings of ‘See this? This is a Sotol’ or ‘Isn’t that a beautiful Ocotillo over there?’
This may not make any sense to you, but I suddenly have an overwhelming feeling of belonging. For the first time since setting foot in America – I can now identify the landscape around me. This is no longer a strange land to me, for as long as I can recognise and name what I can see in the environment, it makes me feel linked and at home in this new place.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
We have arrived in time for the afternoon petroglyph walk, to join the ranger as she leads us down into the canyon and under the wall ledges to see the petroglyphs left here by people long gone from this area.
Loops and I quickly decamp, join the group of about 10 people and walk into the canyon itself.
It’s an emotive feeling being at the bottom of the canyon. From the top, it does not give a good impression of its depth or scale, it’s not until you are standing at the bottom looking up that you feel small, on a biological scale, just this little person in this huge natural formation.
We walk along the canyon floor for about 10 minutes and then are lead upwards to several overhangs where different petroglyphs have been drawn, most featuring animal or bird-like images or of people.
When you stand and quietly take in your surroundings it gives you a chance to consider what life must have been like thousands of years ago, to be a person here, making these markings on the wall; both at home, but also having to fight the natural environment, to survive in the desert. How people must have moved around and communities formed and strengthened. That to them basic life needs – a shelter, food, water, safety from animals – were at the forefront of their minds, things we mostly take for granted today. Just how far civilisation has come and changed.
We climb back up to the visitor centre and head over to Belle and spend the afternoon simply enjoying the peaceful environment. I grab my camera and am compelled to take hundreds of photos of the plants and flowers that surround us.
The birds, while I can hear and see them, are too far away and too unpredictable to catch on my camera, even with my slightly longer lens. This is the best photo I can manage.
The park at night is silent, dark with stars splashed across the sky. Perfect.
The next day I convince Loops to take the 6 mile round trip bike ride down to the nearest river to view Panther Cave; the cave so named for the 8 foot long, red, cat-shaped petroglyph drawn across the wall. The site itself is only accessible by boat, which we don’t have access to, however you can apparently view the drawings from across the river (where we are) through binoculars. I can confirm this is true.
We cycle along the slightly rocky path, keeping a keen eye out for rattlesnakes (at least I do), and enjoy the early morning coolness while it lasts. The sun out here is particularly aggressive and will burn you in the blink of an eye. We reach the overlook where you can just about glimpse the panther, but find that if you clamber further over the rock outcrop to the right, you get a much better view.
Loops is far braver than I over the rocks. My fear comes simply from snakes; I have constant visions of tramping through the grass strewn rocks and feeling two fangs sink into my foot or leg. Loops, however, obviously has no such worries and he pushes his way along the cliff, calling me when he’s reached the best spot and then watches me as I comically tip-toe slowly through the bushes.
I can’t get over how much delight and pleasure I feel at being here at the canyon. The environment just seems so easily accessible right here, like it literally surrounds you.
You don’t need to go searching for the wilderness, it’s right here in front of you, just open your eyes and ears.
I feel a million miles away from anywhere and that’s a good feeling to have.
I feel I could stay here forever, quiet, still, just absorbing everything around me. And that is both a good and yet unusual feeling for me to have.
But right now, I’m glad I’ve had the chance to experience it.