Unfolding the Map
An oasis, properly defined by Merriam-Webster, is a fertile or green region in a desert, or something that provides relief, refuge or a pleasant contrast. Balmorhea, in my experience, qualifies as an oasis even if William Least Heat-Moon doesn't recognize it as such as he drives through. Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Balmorhea is located, and enjoy our drive through West Texas while it lasts.
"The land rose steadily, then at Balmorhea the highland mesas became the eastern ridges of the Rocky Mountains. Interstate 10, the only way west, differed here from a two=lane simply by extra strips of concrete - there were almost no towns to bypass. And so, like the locomotive, Ghost Dancing lapped the miles across the Apache Mountains and Devil Ridge and onward. Bugs popping the windshield left only clear fluid instead of a yellow and green pollen-laden goo of woodland insects; it was as if they extracted their colorless essence from the desert wind itself."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 9
The things that one can find in West Texas are varied and surprising. Balmorhea is a case in point. I will again refer to a car trip my wife and I made to Big Bend National Park. We were there for probably a long weekend - maybe five days or so. The first trip we made there, we camped in the Chisos Mountains, but the second trip we couldn't get a campsite there so we stayed in a campsite down in the desert just north of the mountain range. While the Chisos, even though they are situated in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, surprisingly have some alpine elements in their higher elevations, the weather is cooler, and there are facilities there where one can shower and refresh, down in the desert the facilities are more rudimentary and the weather is hotter. We hiked in the desert quite a bit on that second trip, and the terrain and feel was very different from the mountains.
Long story short, on our way out we drove into Balmorhea. My wife remembers that we drove out of the Davis Mountains and into a kind of valley that looked like a hot dry dusty plain. And then, there was Balmorhea. We had heard about the state park and the San Solomon Springs, and we were hot, dusty and hadn't had a shower in five days.
I'm not sure I truly understood the meaning of the word oasis until I gazed upon the pool at San Solomon Springs. The water looked heavenly and after a quick shower that got the physical grime off of me, I jumped into the cold waters on a hot day and felt almost spiritually cleansed. A section of the spring fed pool, closed off to casual swimmers but available to divers, had a lot of underwater plant and fish life, and to see an aquatic ecosystem in the middle of an otherwise pretty barren desert was quite amazing. I think we spent a couple of hours there, before drying off, jumping into the car and heading off toward home in San Antonio.
But as I said, West Texas is full of surprises. Go out to Marfa, located about 50 miles to the southwest of Balmorhea, and there you will find an old air force training base converted to the headquarters of the Chinati Foundation, which houses the art works and collection of Donald Judd as well as other artists and which brings artists-in-residence from all over the world to teach and create. In Marfa, you'll also find the Marfa Lights, strange lights that appear near the mountains to the south of town and which nobody has been able to explain. Some say the lights are ghosts, some say they are caused by atmospheric effects, and some even say they are of extraterrestrial origin.
Or go into the Davis Mountains. In Fort Davis, about 30 miles southwest of Balmorhea, you can find WPA and CCC architecture and art, as well as some country that will really remind you of the old West of the movies. The McDonald Observatory hosts Star Parties, where you can go and learn about constellations, look through powerful telescopes for Jupiter, Saturn and other planets, all under a dark night sky unsullied by large city ground light.
It was in this region that one of my most magical and astounding wildlife sightings occurred. Driving around the Davis Mountains, my wife and I saw an eagle sitting on a fence post. As we slowed down to try to get a photo, the eagle dropped down to the ground, and then to our astonishment slowly took off with a large snake in its talons. It flew directly over our hood - I don't know what I would have done had the eagle dropped the snake on the hood or the windshield but the aftermath would have probably involved me having to change my pants. But the eagle soared about 5 feet above the car, across the road, and over a low line of scrub trees on the other side. My wife and I sat slack jawed for what seemed like five minutes, before we looked at each other saying "can you believe that!" and "I wish I had the camera ready."
Yes, West Texas seems barren if you fly over it, or look at it on a map or Google Earth, but if you go there, you will find amazing and magical things as well as some scenery that will remain with you the rest of your life. If you find yourself ever in El Paso, it is well worth a drive to Balmorhea for a swim or into the Davis Mountains to take a look around.
If you want to know more about Balmorhea
Next up: Eagle Flat, Texas