South Texas: a fierce and unexpected beauty

Yum! This week has afforded me yet another in a long—seemingly infinite, in fact—series of opportunities to eat crow. Heather and I returned yesterday from a visit to our friends Hugh and Sarah Fitzsimons’ Shape Ranch, outside Carrizo Springs.

As regular readers know, Hugh and Sarah have loomed large in our efforts to get Madroño Ranch off the ground. Hugh, the dueño of Thunder Heart Bison, is our guru in all things bison; in fact, we bought our original herd of twelve animals (which has now tripled in size) from him three years ago.

But our connections with Hugh and Sarah go back much farther than that. Heather had been buying their meat at the farmers’ market for several years before picking up one of the business cards Hugh happened to set out at his booth one day. When she saw his name, something clicked.

“Did your grandmother live on Argyle Avenue?” she asked him.

Startled, Hugh affirmed that she did, and within a very short time he and Heather had determined that their grandparents had lived across the street from each other in Alamo Heights; that Heather had enjoyed many a snack of milk and cookies in Hugh’s grandmother’s kitchen; and that Heather was “Uncle Henry’s” granddaughter (“uncle” in this case being a term of friendship rather than kinship). They hadn’t seen each other for about forty years, but that shared history was the basis of a new friendship.

Furthermore, Sarah‘s brother sings in the choir at our church in Austin, and, as if all that weren’t enough, we subsequently discovered that our daughter Elizabeth and Hugh and Sarah’s daughter Evelyn were not just cabin mates, but actually shared a bunk during a summer at Camp Mystic, many years ago.

The connections, in other words, are various and deep. But even though Heather had been down to Shape Ranch several times to observe Hugh’s bison operation, this week’s visit was my first. Heather had told me that the place was gorgeous, but Heather is after all a native Texan and therefore not to be trusted on such matters.

Now, you have to understand that Carrizo Springs is in South Texas. Flat, scrubby, harsh South Texas, of course, couldn’t be more different from the hilly, wooded, green Central Texas Hill Country which is home to Madroño Ranch. Never mind that most of my experience of them has been restricted to what you can see from a car at seventy miles an hour; as far as I’m concerned, flat places like the central California valleys, the Midwestern corn belt, and, yes, South Texas are to be avoided, or at least passed through as rapidly as possible en route to hillier, and ergo prettier and more interesting, places: the Bay Area, the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, and the Hill Country.

On Wednesday afternoon, the landscape grew steadily flatter as we made our way from Madroño down to Carrizo Springs via Medina, Utopia, Sabinal, Uvalde, La Pryor, and Crystal City, and all my old prejudices were kicking in, but I was prepared to be a good sport about it, for Hugh and Sarah’s sake.

We drove south out of Carrizo Springs on FM 186 and, a few miles after the pavement gave out, turned in at their front gate, and I began to taste that familiar corvine tang in my mouth. The land was not in fact perfectly flat, but softly undulating, yielding sudden and unexpected vistas. And it was undeniably scrubby, but the winter mesquite and sage and rust-colored seacoast bluestem and purple, pink, and yellow prickly pear were undeniably lovely.

And the birds! Heather is the birder in the family, but even I was amazed by the number and variety of the birds we saw: caracaras and pyrrhuloxias and cardinals and thrashers (both brown and curved-billed) and green jays and white-crowned sparrows and one big blue heron and assorted hawks and kestrels and… well, you get the idea.

After driving several more miles of labyrinthine dirt roads seemingly devoid of physical landmarks, other than the occasional oil pump jack, we somehow arrived at Hugh and Sarah’s house, which is shaded by Arizona ash trees (virtually the only real trees on the place). Hugh and Sarah suggested we dump our bags, grab some beverages, jump in the pickup, and drive up to a picnic table that is their favorite place to watch the sunset. We pulled up and found an amazing 360-degree panorama, with the sun sinking low in the western sky. Sarah told us that when the sun sank low enough, we’d be able to see the mountains of Mexico on the horizon.

Sure enough, as the sky turned tropical-drink orange and pink the mountains came into view. And then, a few minutes later, from the opposite direction, we saw the bright orange full moon rising behind the windmill. Then, to complete the jaw-dropping array of effects, the coyotes—at least two different packs—began serenading us. Clearly, the only thing to do was to return to the house and enjoy dinner and conversation, and still more red wine, around the fire that Hugh built on the back patio.

Yesterday a front blew in, cold and gray and misty, while we were on our morning walk with Hugh and Sarah; the sharp, wet wind made the brunch that followed, of scrambled eggs and sausage and sliced avocado and grapefruit and lots and lots of strong hot coffee, even more welcome. In some ways, with its unnerving, disorienting sameness and plentiful thorns and scarcity of water and shade, this is not a particularly gentle or hospitable land, but yesterday afternoon, when Heather and I finally left to begin the long drive over to I-35 and up to Austin, it felt, just a little, as though we had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. And, believe me, those are not words I ever imagined myself writing about South Texas.

Hey, could I get a side of fries with that order of crow, please?

What we’re reading
Jon Fasman, The Geographer’s Library
Martin: Suzannah Lessard, The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family

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One Response to South Texas: a fierce and unexpected beauty

  1. Anonymous says:

    You may be interested in the article on Bison in today's "New York Times", entitled, "Plains Giants Have Foothold on Tables".

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